01 June, 2015

Momentum, Acceleration and Tension

Ideas always come at the strangest times. Today, inspiration hit while I was mowing the lawn. I don't know if it's a good idea, or a bad idea...at this stage it's just a seed crystal, waiting to be thrown into the saturated solution of my mind, maybe to crystallize into something beautiful, maybe a glorious train wreck.

The idea links into things that people have been saying in various places regarding a Mad Max Fury Road RPG, and filling in one of the main holes that keeps cropping up when I playtest my game Walkabout. The same issue occurs in my game FUBAR, but the rolling of dice masks the issue somewhat, drawing tokens from a bag (or rusty can) makes the issue more prominent.

Basically, the issue comes with game pacing.

To get a good "Fury Road" feel, it was suggested that a game should have a momentum mechanism in effect. When things are going slowly, the risks are low, but so is the payout. When things get faster, there is more power in the actions, risks are more dangerous, but the payout can be spectacular. This momentum should build up in every action of a scene. It doesn't have to refer to literal speed, not every scene in Walkabout (or FUBAR) is a chase scene. It can play out in almost any way. Almost like the escalation of dice in Dogs in the Vineyard.

The car chase is the obvious use of this mechanism. The faster the vehicles go, the more chance they have of doing real damage when something goes wrong (for either side). Turning into a narrow canyon or alleyway increases the risk too.

We can look at physical combat. Things start with each side eyeing one another off, then the tension mounts as weapons are drawn. Mounts still further once swipes are taken or shots fired.

Arguments do the same thing, with potential loss of face and honour, instead of blood (though these might escalate to physical conflict).

Mystical rituals require a build up of energy that has lower inherent potential (for good or bad) at the early stages of the ritual, but as the power accumulates, the energy becomes more volatile and capable of great things (for the good or the bad).

I think this mechanism should be simply referred to as "Tension", things can be loose, they can be tight, they can be at breaking point, or they can have already snapped.

Walkabout and FUBAR have this issue where traits are gained or lost by characters as actions are resolved. A single point bonus is small, but it increases the chances of a success (or ablates a failure) next turn, conversely a single point penalty is small, but is reduces the chances of success or slightly magnifies the impact of a failure. A trait lasts until the end of the scene unless it is enhanced somehow, but most scenes don't see more than two or three rounds of actions. More often than not, the traits get lost at the end of the scene before they have any real impact on future action resolutions. There's just not point gaining or losing them.

That slows the game down, or more accurately it prevents the game from accelerating. Acceleration and building up to a climax is a key aspect of the fiction, things get to a point where everyone either has to back down (and sometimes that's hard), or someone's getting seriously hurt.

FUBAR (and by default, Wallkabout) currently has a structure where a minimum of 3 dice are rolled (or three tokens drawn), and if you have skill in the action you're attempting, you get to add an extra one or two to this...then you pick the best results and distribute them between "Success", "Sacrifice" and "Story".

There's three degrees to each. Low (dice 1-2, or a white token), Medium (dice 3-4, or a coloured token) and High (dice 5-6, or a black token). Allocate them as you see fit.

Low Success = No effect, Fail, you may not try again.
Medium Success = Almost there, You can try again.
High Success = Success. Gain a bonus (or apply a penalty to an opponent), improve an existing bonus (or increase the penalty on an opponent), or progress the story in your desired manner. (In complicated tasks, you may need to succeed in one thing before you may attempt a second part of the task)

Low Sacrifice = Major sacrifice. Lose a bonus (x2), gain a penalty (x2), opponent gains a bonus (x2), or opponent loses a penalty (x2).
Medium Sacrifice = Minor sacrifice.Lose a bonus, gain a penalty, opponent gains a bonus, or opponent loses a penalty.
High Sacrifice = Nothing lost in the attempt.

Low Story = GM decides what bonuses/penalties are lost/gained by each side in the conflict.
Medium Story = GM decides the bonuses/penalties applied to one side of the conflict, player decides the other.
High Story = Player decides what bonuses/penalties are lost/gained by everyone in the conflict.

There's always been an issue about what happens when characters (PCs or NPCs) have extra traits that might manipulate the outcome.

FUBAR cancels out positive and negative traits. If there are more positives, then the difference is rolled as possible bonus successes (every 5-6 counts as an extra success). If there are more negatives, then the difference is rolled as possible additional sacrifices (every 1-2 counts as an extra sacrifice).

Walkabout (in its current form) also cancels out positive and negative traits. If there is a surplus of either, the player draws tokens from communal pool (if there were more positives, any black tokens drawn count as successes...if there were more negatives, any white tokens drawn count as sacrifices). The make-up of the communal pool shifts according to the various actions taken by characters during the course of the story. It's fun, but it's a bit fiddly and gets in the way.

In both cases the modifiers are slow to accumulate, and tend to disappear before they actually make an impact on play.

If I'm going to apply a "tension" mechanism, I can do it in a few ways.

First, I could simply apply a multiplier effect. Loose tension plays normally. Tight tension applies double the modifiers with each success, and double the modifiers with each sacrifice. Breaking point triples everything. Snapped means the scene is over as a result of the action just taken.

Second, I could modify the trait test after the basic result is determined. In FUBAR, a loose tension would see 5-6s grant extra successes or 1-2s grant extra sacrifices (as normal); a tight tension might see extra successes on 4-6 or extra sacrifices on 1-3; and breaking point might see extra successes on 3-6 or extra sacrifices on 1-4. In Walkabout it's a bit harder, it might be simpler to say that extra tokens drawn from the communal pool count for double and triple.

I had a third option, but I can't remember it now as I'm typing.

The general gist is that pressure makes diamonds, or crushes those made of lesser stuff. When the tension rises, more permanent effects manifest in the story. Players will want the tension raised for the potential good, but won't want it raised too fast in case it brings epic badness. Seeing more powerful traits appear more often should make the game more dramatic.

I've still got more to think about on this one, but it feels like it's moving in a good direction.
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