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[TSOY] Mystery and Suspense?
Topic: [TSOY] Mystery and Suspense? (Read 1439 times)
Harald Wagener - Zurich, Switzerland
[TSOY] Mystery and Suspense?
May 24, 2007, 02:23:07 PM »
I was asked in another forum how mystery and suspense could ever work in a game where the stakes are set openly and there are no hidden checks whatsoever.
My gut reaction was to answer that you have to create mystery and suspense without abusing the system for the effect (there's no check where you don't know if it was good enough to disarm a trap, there's no 'spot' or 'sense motives' skill that the GM uses to discern information flow and which is easily misused in a game-stopping way).
I also said that in stakes I only govern
will happen in case of success or failure, but not necessarily
. Am I wrong with this?
Nonetheless, I would like to learn how you successfully did mystery style adventures or suspenseful scenes with TSOY (In other words: I would
actual play reports that have and build upon these elements):
 In fact, there may be using BDtP, because even in a trad game you'll know you succeeded eventually.The feeling may be quite different, but I can imagine it bearing an air of suspense and mystery (especially if, sticking to the trap example, you pit the trap builders complex craft against that of the one trying to disarm it, with the goal of the builder being 'kill anybody who tries to dismantle my creation'). Would that be a legitimate approach?
The Shadow of Yesterday - in german<
Solar System - in german
Acts of Evil Playtesters
Re: [TSOY] Mystery and Suspense?
Reply #1 on:
May 25, 2007, 12:55:13 AM »
Think about it this way: regardless of the game, surely a "suspenseful" scene will have a resolution sooner or later, right? Mysteries
actually be resolved at some point?
If that is the case, then how is such a suspenseful game different from one with stakes setting? In both cases you know after the resolution that the resolution came about. The dice are rolled exactly because you want some uncertainty and suspense in the recipe. How is a TSOY conflict resolution procedure
suspenseful, when you have high stakes and no idea what the dice will give you? Would it be more suspenseful if, I don't know... dice were omitted? Or what, what is the comparison standard? If TSOY is not suspenseful, then what is?
One angle for trying to understand the perceived lack of suspense is that the mere act of setting the stakes takes away from the mystery of the situation. That it is more exciting and mysterious to resolve when you don't know exactly what you are resolving. Sounds good to me, or at least something one might try. A stake of "the Elder Gods get their way in Broodsbury Street 11 tonight" is completely rules-legal and doesn't exactly reveal your surprise narration before it's time.
Also: as the above intimates, the stakes do not necessarily need to say anything particular about the resolution of the situation, they just need to give the players a strong sense of the immediate interests of the conflict participants. The players need to know what they are struggling against, but that "what" might just be a general sense of whether their opponent is hostile, perhaps, or having some ulterior motives of their own. For example, these are perfectly valid stakes:
- "The mysterious stranger wants to escape unrecognized."
- "Your brother wants to continue his mysterious plans uninterrupted."
- "The houseowner does not want you to see what is in his cellar."
All of the above are stock-material for mystery games, and perfectly doable with a stakes-full conflict resolution system.
Hmm... in the true technocrat fashion, a Secret somebody might want to try out:
Secret of Incomprehensible Motivations
The character is touched by inhuman forces, and often has undecipherable motivations or manners. With a successful
check the player may opt to not reveal his goal in a conflict to the other party, instead writing it down on a slip of paper. The SG creates the stakes normally according to this statement, but does not reveal the character's side of the stakes. Changing the stakes in BDTP reveals the new intent, unless the character activates the Secret again at that time.
Game Design is about Structure
Re: [TSOY] Mystery and Suspense?
Reply #2 on:
May 30, 2007, 07:09:28 AM »
Eero is bang-on about the way to do a lot of stake negotiation without revealing too much, and keeping things "mysterious" as part of a game. I think you're also right about revealing the "what" and not the "why" on stake setting. Some other elements which I've noticed can help:
1.) Use thugs and lesser minions in conflicts
One of the things some people running RPGs, particularly narrative ones, get worried about is the situation where "bad guy attacks good guy; good guy wins and subdues bad guy; good guy interrogates bad guy and gets all of the info he needs; mystery (and by extension, plot) over" is the order of the day. Lord knows I'm guilty of creating and then dreading this scenario on occasion. One of the best ways around this is to have minions be ill-informed about things they might be interrogated about: the captured assassin never spoke with his principal, they only worked through a middle-man (next step: find that middle-man, and the mystery continues), or the thugs have been given intentionally-bad information by their boss, leading anyone who interrogates them for useful tips into a trap (and thus the mystery continues as the bad guys escape). Enthralled minions might not know anything at all about why they committed a murder, and acting against them might carry its own punishments. Similarly, don't be afraid to use any of those scenes to send mysteries spiralling out further, as every question leads to further questions ("Okay, those ratkin who attacked us confessed to being from the Cult of the Weeping Eye. What the heck is that? And why do they think one of us is the Destroyer? And how come they don't know which one? And what's this Rain of Blood that they think we're going to bring all about?")
2.) Throw curve balls
Lots of people have reasons to keep secrets, and things they want hidden. Don't be afraid to put Storyguide characters on the stage who are tangential to the plot but acting just as suspicious; its certainly a classic mystery element to have two mysteries tangled together. Similarly, innocent parties might protect guilty ones out of love, desire, respect, debts owed, or simply seeing an opportunity for blackmail.
3.) Roll with the revelations
If it seems like the big mystery has been revealed, consider what lurks beneath it. Any scheme, even a jealous lover murdering the person their spouse was having an affair with, might hide something greater, someone manipulating the situation for their own ends. Use the revelations, when they come, to ask deeper questions. Plant evidence that someone else is using the situation to their advantage, or spying on the outcome to find out what happened. The blackmail situation above presents another opportunity to expand the mystery further. Just because one level has been peeled away, don't hesitate to use it to develop things out further. This keeps the plot moving, one way or another, which is key.
I'd suggest that there are some great tips in Robin Laws' "The Esoterrorists" RPG, as well, where there's a worthwhile discussion of where the RPG industry sometimes goes wrong in designing mysteries like dungeons, assuming that people shouldn't be moving forward without defeating the monster in the room, leading to lots of stall-out periods where people get frustrated as they go in circles looking for the way to the next step of the story. Narrative stake-setting gaming allows you to circumvent that-- the players can potentially set stakes that a witness crumbles, or even that a seemingly unimportant character is tied up in the plot and reveals what he or she knows.
-shadowcourt (aka josh)
Acts of Evil Playtesters
Re: [TSOY] Mystery and Suspense?
Reply #3 on:
May 30, 2007, 10:00:59 AM »
Of course, all this kinda misses the point behind using a conflict resolution system in the first place: the gamemaster in TSOY is hardly a custodian for the story, so having secrets in the interest of pacing and building up surprise is pretty far from the established portfolio of the game. Not that it can't be done, mind you; I think TSOY is a fine game for a touch traditional GM-led campaign as well, as long as the GM-leadership is something you adopt atop the actual game, not as an underpinning, if you know what I mean.
But that's all generic. While I'd be interested in dissecting the idea "mystery" a bit further to really understand whether this is just about GM insecurity or some real gaming need, I'll instead throw out a little vignette that demonstrates how I run TSOY to create and pace "plot". I
that this might be what your anonymous compatriots might mean by mystery and suspense: the ability to introduce backstory in a determined manner.
So, our Naruto campaign last year. The characters had gone through a particularly vicious social backbiting development in the interest of getting to choose who'd get to be on which team and with whom. Very soap-operaesque. Afterwards the sensei of the main team, composed of most of the player characters, took the team out to a large city out on the plains, away from the hidden shinobi village. The reason was backstory-related: most of the young ninja-trainees of the village had been kidnapped earlier in the year, and the master ninjas were keen to track the captors and resque their young friends, siblings and children. The sensei of the PC team had obtained some information that indicated that the feudal lord of the city in question might be an accomplice in the kidnapping. (Obviously enough, Orochimaru was the main culprit here.)
OK, so far rather traditional. I have characters with a mission related to several Keys: one was smitten by a ninja girl among the kidnapped teenagers, another wanted really hard to impress the sensei, while a third one was afraid that he wouldn't be a good leader for the team. How did I progress the plot and pace the story, considering the rules structure of TSOY? Here are some early scenes from when the PCs got to the city:
- After revealing rather publicly that he was a shinobi, one of the characters got accosted by a group of thugs he handily defeated. Most escaped, but the PC captured the leader and interrogated him, making him spill his story. Afterwards the PC killed his captive, resulting in consequences later on, but the main point was to establish the situation: the right-hand man of the local lord had given strict instructions to capture or eliminate any ninjas coming around to the city.
- One of the (teenaged) PCs ended up pretending to be an older, famous ninja from his village, attracting a NPC girl who asked his help with a boyfriend: it proved that the girl was involved with the aforementioned right-hand man, whose unwanted advances she wanted to avoid.
It is notable that all this was only one half of the actual equation of the game: not only I had two other characters haring off in completely different story-lines simultaneously, but also these same characters were involved in their internal relationships: the sensei of the team was increasingly afraid and suspicious of taking the children to battle when the extensive "anti-shinobi" preparations and techniques of the feudal lord were revealed to her. This wasn't helped by the at times brash and inconsiderate actions of the PCs. That particular development culminated in the sensei sending two of the three PCs back to the ninja village as a punishment after the third one got captured. She would save the children alone. (Not that the PCs went, mind you.)
The key point, however, is that the above procedure didn't actually do anything in regards to the plot and mysteries in the game. The real mystery of the scenario was totally perpendicular to the investigations of the characters: why was the feudal lord going against the traditional ninja village set-up of his country, arming forces with anti-shinobi weaponry and collaborating with Orochimaru, an international terrorist? What did he need the teenage ninjas he bought from Orochimaru for? Insofar as I as the GM wanted to keep this real mystery of the scenario secret, I could have continued to do so however long I wanted. Of course, the answers were all in the castle of the daimyo, and as soon as the characters collected their courage and decided to go against their sensei's direct orders to save their friends from the vile laboratory experiments therein, the actual story came clear pretty quickly.
Furthermore, the above questions about the motivations of the daimyo and whatnot weren't really even that important to the
actual game, as it was played
. They might have been key to my backstory preparations, but they had nill to do with the stories the characters wrought: in reality, the most memorable scenes of that story were wrought in the prison, where one of the PCs finally reunited with the girl he liked and got to go through desperation and victory in first utterly failing the rescue and then victoriously succeeding later, with the help of all of his friends. That was the actual story, and the angle where the suspense was: would this young ninja manage to save his sweetheart and friends?
Hmm... a bit confusing account, but the point stands: the whole question of mystery and suspense is so orthogonal to the typical play process of TSOY that it's difficult to even pinpoint how GM preparations relate to the suspense of play. We were all certainly on the edge of our seats when the stakes were "can I convince my friends to try to break out, despite the horrible punishments for trying", even if there was no hidden information involved at all; we were interested in the social stature of the character among his peers. On the other hand, the characters only got to find out why the daimyo did it all after the fact, and even then it didn't matter that much; the actual substance of the story was firmly about how one character finally got to confess his feelings to a girl, and how another proved his (un)suitability for leadership position by his willingness to disregard orders. The actual GM story background was completely secondary to that, only providing suitable constraint for the characters to act within.
So yeah, my call is that analyzing typical TSOY play as I've experienced in terms of GM-led mystery/suspense is a category error in the first place. It is trivial to pace the story in the traditional manner, like I did above with my henchmen and informant NPCs and a castle hiding secrets, but the real story will emerge regardless of all that.
Game Design is about Structure
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