Telling Stories: Keeping it tense with zero stakes

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.I will freely admit that I have seen a decided minority of Doctor Who, but I’m always fascinated by the lengths that the show goes to in order to justify its plots.  And kind of with good cause.  The Doctor’s TARDIS is basically a get-out-of-plot-free card, able to travel through time and space with an ease usually reserved for making instant popcorn.  Many of the conflicts in the show could be solved simply by going back in time to before the antagonist had a certain idea and then throwing him into a locked vault.

I am aware that the Doctor has a rule against killing; that is also a mechanism to avoid having him solve every single problem with infanticide.

Of course, every single story ending like this would make for a terrible series anyway, so I’m not begrudging the existence of these contrivances.  The alternative is awful.  But it raises an important question about roleplaying, wherein you have no such artificial narrative blocks.  You can leave at any time, and you have absolute veto power over what happens to your character.  And that’s for good reason, obviously, but it also creates an environment wherein you can always, always leave.

Which it sort of has to.

Trying to pretend that the real world doesn’t take priority isn’t going to work well when it does take priority repeatedly.

This is, I will note, not just idle speculation.  Just yesterday (relative to the time I write this) I was in the middle of roleplaying with someone when something came up and I had to say “sorry, peace out, smell you later.”  I was enjoying the interaction, but a grease fire in your kitchen or a cougar yowling for blood or an earthquake don’t really give you a lot of options about putting them off until later.  Or, you know, more mundane concerns like a crying child or fixing dinner or answering a work phone call, if that’s how you roll.

And that’s assuming that you’re having fun.  Sometimes you aren’t, which is a legitimate reason to walk away.  Sometimes you don’t want something to happen to your character.  Sometimes the story is making you uncomfortable.  Sometimes you realize that the whole thing is a series of railroading moments leading to a foregone conclusion in which no one can have any long-term effect on the outcome and you have no personal character stakes.

People will have to leave partway through.  People will not respect the setup that you have laid down.  And you have to maintain tension in this situation.  It’s like a Mexican standoff with Nerf guns; you can threaten to do your worst, but your worst isn’t very bad.

How do you deal with this?  Not by taking a hardline stance, definitely, which is what I’ve seen some people try to do.  I was in a group once that had hard rules on how many roleplaying events you had to attend on a monthly basis and that any and all RP was completely binding and organic.  The intent, of course, was to ensure that you couldn’t threaten someone in-character and then just brush it off without concern out-of-character, but the net effect was that the former never happened chiefly because most of the roleplaying never happened.  Because who in the world would want to roleplay in that environment?

No, if you want to maintain tension, you have to start by accepting that these situations are real and common.  People will need to leave mid-stream, people have veto power over what happens to their characters, and you have to find a way to keep people invested and interested despite that.  Part of which comes from making characters that other people like interacting with and putting them in danger rather than putting other people in danger.

My bad!

I suppose I really got myself into this situation anyway. That was all me.

Steve, Joan, and Mike all have the power to veto what happens to their characters.  But they don’t have any such power over your character.  Putting yourself in danger not only alleviates the problem of no one feeling as if the threat is real, it also allows you to do more to build the stakes.  It doesn’t have to be mortal danger, either, as creating a scenario wherein people who like you are helping you deal with another personal crisis can be just as riveting.  The danger doesn’t get dulled.

It’s also a good time to learn that you need to leave players and characters exit paths if they need or want to stop being involved.  Think of them as escape hatches – they might never be used, but they’re there in case you do need to use them.  Reasons why people might no longer be involved, reasons they might not have noticed something happen, and so forth.

One of the strengths of roleplaying is the fact that everything is organic.  It’s possible for something to happen while other people aren’t aware of it at all, and that can lead to extra drama right there.  Even if they are aware of it, they might have more pressing matters to deal with.  Sure, your character would love to help Mike’s character deal with his father… but your character has a business that’s falling apart, and she just can’t take time off from fighting for that at the moment.  Priorities have to be, well, prioritized.

The key is making it clear that there are always consequences rather than trying to leash people in without allowing them to leave.  Things will happen one way or the other, and if nothing is done, those consequences will be worse.  Yes, there’s always the option to walk away, so you can’t create a locked room wherein everyone is in imminent danger.  But you can start events cascading toward a certain conclusion, and doing nothing will be unpleasant for many reasons.  People can walk away, but they’ve got reason to stick it out.

It has to be handled with a deft and somewhat gentle hand, but tension can be maintained.  You just have to accept that some forms of it cannot be fit into the game.

Next time around, I want to talk about how characters make their money and how that can tie into character drama.  After that, I’d like to go a little bit more meta and talk about things that must be accepted moving from a tabletop roleplaying experience to an online one.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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