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Emergent Techniques: The Suspense is Killing Me

Started by Le Joueur, September 16, 2002, 10:51:02 PM

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Le Joueur

Well, let's try and make this a biweekly thing, shall we?


It's what die rolling is for.  Heck, I could go so far as to say it's the whole point to gaming with other people.  Whenever dice come out, there's an element of suspense until they land (and are interpreted).  The reason for a Technique here has to do with how often this can, or more importantly should, happen.

The most important thing that suspense does is it engages the group.  Provided the players are at least interested in each other's Persona (always a good idea), suspense for one Persona is good enough.  The point is that if there is no suspense, what is the reason to pay attention?  I'm convinced this is one of the most basic problems with 'wandering eye' syndrome around 'the table.'  In games where I have gone to extra lengths to offer 'edge of your seat' suspense, I've had no complaints about that.

Suspense should be well-practiced in gaming, but usually it's just ignored as a concept.  Suspense isn't just presentation, but interaction.  If you aren't paying attention to the rest of the group you are trying to create suspense for, you aren't doing it right.  Likewise, suspense isn't just an 'on or off' thing, it has varying degrees and this is crucial to 'doing it right.'  Too much and you create a feeling of chaos and lack of direction, too little and you lose your audience (arguably the others in the group).  The tough part is hitting the group with the right kind that doesn't turn into too much for some or not enough for others.  Fortunately, you can depend to some degree on how intrigued the players are with each other's Persona.

Pacing is one thing that has an almost symbiotic relationship with the use of suspense, but there are a lot of other things suspense can affect too.  All manner of goals are given value by how much suspense they create.  ('Will it work,' 'will I have that chance,' or 'can we get there' are all examples of goal-based suspense.)  Pacing can often be 'corrected' by altering the suspense level; this leads to more consistent interest from the group.  That is the goal isn't it?

Didn't This Come Up Before?

I mentioned suspense in passing in the Mystiques Technique, but I felt it needed broader treatment.  How the die resolution Mechanix create suspense is almost as important, if not more so, than how Mystiques create intrigue and engagement.  I wanted to clear up a few things in the relationships between players, gamemasters, and suspense.

Suspense is the purpose of a Mystique.  A Mystique that does not create intrigue and suspense is just 'color.'  Forget about any Mystiques that don't create any suspense, you've got better things to do.  For players, suspense not only about your own Persona¹ (like a Mystique in their past), but also what will happen to them.  Ultimately, isn't that what you're playing for?  To see how it'll turn out and how it 'gets there?'

Even the Joueur Approach benefits from this; who wants to play a game where you always know you'll win?  I always felt the Amber: Diceless Role-Playing Game used this to good effect.  Since the result of almost every battle or mechanical engagement was known 'going into it,' play had to center on something else to derive suspense.  So it suppressed 'fights' and accentuated the suspense created by character unpredictability.  The problem was it did this too well, nobody around here wanted to play it.  It was ideal for courtly intrigues and family squabbles and bad for waging war (intentionally); what it didn't do (I can't say this for sure, I haven't read the rules) was lay out how to explicitly create suspense in the absence of the random factor.

What's in It for Me?

Another important thing to remember is that suspense is for the participants, not the Personae¹.  Something that intrigues a Persona¹ without engaging the player will create a dichotomy that can ultimately drives a wedge between the two.  Since the Persona is the player's contact point with the game, this runs the risk of alienating them.  Target suspenseful situations at the other players, even if you're the gamemaster.

An important time to create suspense is with a Persona's¹ Precipitating Event².  Unlike an Origin² that can create suspense, the Precipitating Event² must.  If you offer a Precipitating Event that doesn't create suspense of some kind, try again.  Remember that it ought to create suspense for the group relative to your Persona; if you're the only one interested, it may become difficult to get the rest of the group to 'go along with you' as you pursue it.  This is one of the principal reasons that at least the last part of Scattershot Persona Development must involve the whole group.

One of the most familiar ways to create suspense for the gamemaster is having them 'Let the Dice Choose What Happens' (gamemaster engagement is important too).  In Scattershot games, you almost never follow tightly created arch-Sequences¹ unless you are very clear on where the alternative suspense comes from.  Not knowing 'how it will turn out' is another common form of suspense for the gamemaster, but it doesn't have to be the only one.

As I indicated in the Mystiques Technique, the gamemaster is not the sole vendor of Mystiques in Scattershot; the same is true for suspense.  One common mistake is expecting the gamemaster to 'do all the work' here.  If the players never do anything that creates suspense for the gamemaster, then isn't the only remaining curiosity whether the gamemaster can 'make them do what he wants?'  If a player can have a 'secret' from the gamemaster, doesn't that make it interesting for the gamemaster too?  (Other than the standard 'how will it all turn out' suspense.)

The 'Cut to the Chase' and 'Always Leave Them Wanting More' scene-cutting techniques stand almost exclusively on creating and sustaining suspense and intrigue.  Part of the art of 'Cutting to the Chase' is know what point the Personae's actions will create (or are in) the most suspense (there isn't much point in starting before this point; the lack of suspense - the predictability - is how you know 'what you can skip').  The main point in 'Always Leave Them Wanting More' is having gotten the scene to do 'something' and cutting it to leave suspense pending for further scenes (this is what 'keeps them coming back for more').  Never tie up everything in a single scene; leave a few suspenseful 'threads' out there.

When playing in an 'escalating tension level' game, maintaining suspense is crucial.  To keep up the tension, you'll need to add or deflect suspense pretty carefully.  Too much and the game will feel like the 'climax draws near,' too little and 'anti-climax sets in.'  This is complicated by how 'together' the group is in terms of its individual needs for engagement.  The best advice we've come up with is, 'If All Else Fails Run an Action Scene.'

What About in Scattershot?

Scattershot has a number of components that you deal with directly when making use of suspense.  Whether suggested by Sequences¹, arising from Circumstance¹, or exploding out of the Relationships¹, there are many ways to manipulate or create suspense.  The important part is becoming aware of them without letting them 'take over the game.'  It's good for a game to have suspense; it's bad if that's all everyone thinks about (rather than what causes that suspense).

Using the Sequences¹ from a Genre Expectation should not result in a loss of suspense; the instant the ending is set, all suspense is lost; that's a quick trip to anti-climax regardless of how 'life or death' it is for the Personae.  This is the common 'just the chasm' mistake; the die roll to 'make it or die' is supposed to create suspense, but the complication introduced as the alternative ends the game.  (Avoid game-ending complications.)  Sequences¹ are meant as an offering of familiar possibilities and as a 'beacon' to steer the game by.  I need to stress again that the gamemaster should not be the only 'steersman;' since any player can take the narrative 'for a walk,' they can just as easily steer by the Sequences.¹

The most common form of suspense comes from the Circumstances¹ surrounding the play.  If the players don't become interested in them, it comes down to using plot devices and deus ex machina to 'force them.'  Not always bad, but why not try to build suspense as a group rather than having it forced on them?  This is one of the chief reasons to use the Circumstances¹ brought up by the Genre Expectations ; the group will already be expecting to 'go looking for' them and that's automatic engagement (this avoids the 'such a big world, where do we start' problem).

Another familiar form of tension and unpredictability arises from a game's Relationships¹.  As I pointed out about Amber: Diceless, the actions of characters, both Personae and otherwise, is always the source of much suspense.  A character that behaves in every predictable fashion in its Relationships¹ is more a part of the Background¹ than the narrative (however, a sudden shift away from that creates a huge amount of suspense).  This is also a good 'subconscious' way for the group to know who's 'worth playing with' in a game; predictability equals a lack of suspense equals nothing to be interested in.

Ultimately, 'practicing' suspense should be about as important to knowing the rules of a game.  In order to get the full benefit of using Scattershot's Genre Expectations , you need to become sensitive enough to suspense that you'll know when it becomes the problem.

If things feel too chaotic or unpredictable, a drop in suspense is probably in order; reveal a Mystique, have the challenges 'take a break,' or put down the dice, anything that moves play towards General play and maybe into the hands of whoever feels it the most.  If things are getting too predictable or 'flat,' spice things up, bring something in 'out of left field,' " an action scene," or break out the dice.  Looking at the Sequences¹, Circumstances¹, or Relationships¹ can certainly give you grounds to not dump something irrelevant into the game.  (Heck a good Dynamic Background can even give you something.)

I know this sounds pretty routine to a lot of you out there, but I'll be darned if I've ever read this anywhere.  Using Scattershot's Genre Expectations almost requires an eye on suspense, so I put this out as a Technique.  I look forward to any feedback you can offer, I'm still working out the various parts and need the help.

Fang Langford

¹ (I don't know if I've put this elsewhere.)  The standard components of a Scattershot game are Personae, Relationships, Sequences, Circumstances, Backgrounds, Props, and Mechanix.
      These are the characters played by the players.  This includes how they're important, relevant, and interesting (not just to their player, but to the group and game in general).[/list:u]
      These are what make the other characters interesting (because without Relationships, other characters don't mean anything, there is no listing of 'other characters').[/list:u]
      Call 'em arch-plots, subplots, or plot fragments, these are the one-thing-after-another series-of-events descriptions that
    Genre Expectations 'live on.'  They don't tell you what to do; if anything they tell you what 'has been done' in similar situations to offer you directions to consider (when you can't think of one of your own).[/list:u]
      This is the 'what is going on' component of games.  In a Victorian Consulting Detective game, this is the murder mystery.  In a Romance novel, this is the 'problem' faced by the soon-to-be couple.  It's the orchestration of all the Props, Relationships, Personae, and Background that is the relevant 'playing field' for the game.'s what you 'play with.'[/list:u]
      In many ways the 'setting' of the game, this includes history and characters who have no relevant Relationships (the 'extras'); these are divided into active and passive elements.  Active Background does stuff, like the weather and characters with no relationships.  Passive Background simply waits for something active to do something with it.[/list:u]
      These are the game-relevant subjects that offer characters increased performance within different venues.  Very often these can almost take on character of their own (think
    The Maltese Falcon role-playing game).[/list:u]
      Anything in 'da rules' that delineates what can be done in the specific game objectively.[/list:u][/list:u]² A Persona has one or more of both Origins and Precipitating Events.  An Origin rationalizes who a character is and how they came to be able to do what they can.  A Precipitating Event is like an Origin, except it bears directly on the start of the game.  It is the Precipitating Event the gets the Persona involved in the current play.  Precipitating Events are often based on a Persona's Relationships, but not always.  Their primary function is to connect the Persona to the Circumstances of the game in a way that intrigues the player.

      A 'blank' Precipitating Event is one that hasn't involved any negotiation with the gamemaster and is intended as a springboard for ideas that they may have involving the Circumstance-driven
    Mystiques they're planning.  'My boyfriend was shot' or 'a stranger on the bus gave me this package' are examples of this.  The most important feature is that the player finds this, or any, Precipitating Event highly intriguing.
    Fang Langford is the creator of Scattershot presents: Universe 6 - The World of the Modern Fantastic.  Please stop by and help!