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Designer Roleplaying, Part II

by Altin Gavranovic

In which the author explains how to bring it all together


In the last issue, we outlined the various components of an Adventure (or Episode, or Story, or Scenario, depending on what game you're playing) and what they do. This issue we look more closely at how these components arrange themselves in an overall plot structure. Firstly, I'll consider the plot as a logical, step-by-step structure and its relationship to the in-game action. Then I'll move on to the meta-game elements: the relationship between the plot and the drama it creates for both players and characters. These two ideas will be discussed in terms of two organisational structures: the Action Flowchart and the Tension Arcs.

The first part of this series featured in our last issue

The structure of an adventure bears a resemblance to those of traditional literature and drama. The difference is that roleplaying has the advantage of being interactive. The traditionally static audience can actively participate in and change the story. Roleplaying also tends to be more plot-oriented than is common in modern literature and theatre. This is a result of the temporal nature of the character in a roleplaying game. That is: characters are not usually pre-defined by the 'creator' of the story to specifically further and suit the plot, but are rather created independently. Despite these differences, we can still use many ideas from static art forms, we just must approach them in terms of producing an interactive, plot-focussed structure, which allows for independent characters acting unpredictably.

There are, as I mentioned above, two structures into which a plot can be organised. I like to call these two organisational structures the Tension Arc and the Action Flowchart. The two usually co-exist but don't necessarily do so. The flowchart presents the practical relationships of the action at hand (ie. the sequential development of a plot). The tension arc concentrates on the abstract relationships of the elements within a plot. By abstract, I mean those elements of a game not immediately tangible within the sequence of events; dramatic elements created by the interaction of plot and players. These are primarily pace, tone and, most importantly, tension.

The Action Flowchart

The flowchart is composed by the chronological placement of the events in your game. Certain events happen at certain times or in certain sequences, and the characters can alter or stop these events and sequences with their actions. Therefore the flowchart, is, in reality, two flowcharts - one reflecting the player's intervention and the other being the events unaltered by players.

The tension arc simply demands that events happen in appropriate dramatic order. When exactly the players trigger event A is unimportant as long as it contributes appropriately to the progression of the game's dramatic feel. The flowchart, however, demands that event A is preceded by B and followed by C. While a terribly inflexible structure because of this, a flowchart provides a nice overview of what happens without player intervention (or with unsuccessful/inappropriate intervention) at each step of the adventure. Which, in itself, is very useful information to have, especially when tracking complex NPC actions. But the flowchart does more than just this.

In the last issue, I talked about the various paths an adventure can take in the process of players interacting with it. The flowchart is a structure which can help the designer re-asses the potential outcomes of the various events in the context of the effect they have in the overall plot. An example of a flowchart might take the form:

         Original Situation
              Action 1
             Outcome 1
            New Situation

          Original Situation
              Action 1
             Outcome 2
          Alternate Situation

           Original Situation
              Action 2
             Outcome 3
         Alternate Situation

To use a concrete example: Assume original situation was "the PCs' house is getting demolished". Action 1 might be "stop the demolition-men", Action 2 may be "rescue valuables before demolition starts". Outcome 1 and 2 are simply "PCs successful" or "PCs unsuccessful", Outcome 3 is "PCs get some items out".

The New Situation is perhaps "PCs are verbally assaulted by the Mayor", whereas the Alternate Situation is, "PCs need a new house". However, despite arriving at the same situation, Action 2 has had a different outcome to the unsuccessful Action 1 (ie. the players have the items they rescued). Now, supposing there is something inside the house the players need to progress with the plot, the second flowchart is flawed, since the house, and presumably the item, has been forever lost.

Thus, by flowcharting, we get some idea of where various predicted actions will leave the PCs. However, in real life, it's impossible to actually predict player actions and attempting to do so all the time is likely to create an inflexible game. What we need to do then is say what the situation is, how it resolves without PC intervention, or with unsuccessful intervention, and how the PCs can alter it. Hence, a better example is this flowchart:

    Situation                          Situation
     |                                  |
Unaltered Outcome                  New Outcome
     |                                  |
   New Situation                   Alternate Situation

The first chart is the original sequence of events, without successful player intervention. In the above example, "House and item are demolished", is the unaltered outcome. "The object is not buried beneath the house" is the new outcome (which is the one preferred by the adventure), regardless of how the players accomplished it - whether by stopping the demolition, saving the item beforehand, or some other completely new idea you had never considered. The flowchart on the left could then lead to a way to progress the plot without the item, or the New Situation can simply be modified so that the item is still available (albeit only with some serious digging).

Using this model, you can clearly identify the event which are out of player control and the ones which can be altered. For example, the demolition people always show up, no matter how much the players protest to the local council. This is good in that it allows us to spot areas where PCs may have too little (or too much, even) control over the events.

Furthermore, we can identify the aftershock of the player's failures to accomplish certain events, solve the puzzle or make the skill check. In the above example, if an item within the house is needed and the house is demolished before then, there is an obvious discrepancy which could derail the entire adventure. Usually, this is easily remedied, but with a flowchart, it is far easier to spot these kinds of details and deal with them. It also encourages designing adventures where there are far fewer of these bottle-necks, and far more options for the PCs to pursue. If the adventure can proceed differently but equally entertainingly with or without the item, players will have more freedom to shape the story themselves.

Of course, the above example sounds obvious because I have used such an inane example, but with more complex plots and event structures, it quickly becomes vital to arrange everything in the order within which it occurs to make sense of the situation. Especially when the game you're writing stars NPCs who are operating independently of the PCs (important antagonists, for example). What such characters are up to at various stages of the game is easily discerned from a flowchart and also gives the GM some idea as to when bring the effects of those actions into play. It also allows you to see how much their plans depend on being changed by the PCs, and how much their plans could cause the PCs to change direction.

The flowchart's primary power is that it simplifies. It makes very plain the events that happen both with and without player intervention. It shows clearly in what order things should ideally happen and thereby highlights difficulties that might be created by this order (and the player's divergence from it). It puts the entire game into perspective, showing which events are influenceable by players and which aren't, as well as where there are gaps in game or story logic - where A doesn't logically or won't likely flow to B. It also allows you to determine when exactly 'out scenes', such as NPC actions occur, or track the PCs along a time-line when timing becomes important. Best of all, the graphical nature of the chart means this information is much easier and quicker to grasp.

The Tension Arc

With the plot progressing logically, the other consideration is the progression of the drama, which is the domain of the Tension Arc. The concept of a Tension Arc is one taken from the theatre in particular, although it occurs to a lesser degree in literature as well. It is simply the idea that tension rises and falls as a play, or adventure, proceeds. The murder scenes of a serial killer get progressively more bizarre and shocking; the diary entries found discarded on the drifting space hulk get more and more desperate and confused; the ever-increasing ferocity and number of monsters in hack and slash games as the adventurers get closer to their goal, these are all examples of the tension arc at work, albeit in a very simple form.

The tension arc is necessary to consider because tension is the lifeblood of story, especially an interactive one like roleplaying. It is the tension within a story that makes it a gripping tale to observe or in which to participate. Or rather, it is how well the tension is conveyed - how much of it gets through to the observer or participant. The same way a good storyteller can make you feel as if you were there and a good play can get people to share the feelings of the characters on stage, a good adventure design should give the GM the power to make his players feel like they're really part of the action. The key to doing this is to be aware of the tension in your projected storyline, and to mould it so it corresponds to what you're trying to do.

Tension is also at the core of the principle of dramatic expectation. Dramatic expectation is why the adventurers decide to face down the demon whose summoning they failed to prevent, rather than running for their lives like any sensible person would. The more tension there is in a story, the more need is there for events to go forward to their natural conclusion. Essentially, the amount of tension towards the climax of a tale is why its characters don't walk out halfway. And getting events to flow to their natural conclusion is what game design is all about.

You've also got to keep changing the level of tension to keep things interesting. The slow transformation from everyday scene to a life and death roller coaster ride is the stuff that good drama (and roleplaying) is built from. It's also important to know when and how to lower tension. Keeping the characters (and the players, for that matter) in a highly tense state by throwing them into increasingly more intense situations has the side- effect of making them used to such situations and decreasing their effectiveness. After all, when you've seen one eldritch, tentacled horror from rise from it's watery grave, you've seen them all.

As you may be picking up by now, tension, by my definitions, works to two different ends, and operates on two different levels. On one hand, it is the immediate pace and tone of the action at hand, a quality which changes quite rapidly to keep things interesting and varied. On the other hand, it is a slowly accumulating quality which builds as an adventure approaches its climax. I'll refer to these two levels as short and long-term tension from now on.

Long-term tension dictates that - while the immediate tension in a scene fluctuates to keep things interesting - the overall tension is slowly building throughout, in order to have an effective climax near the end. In the theatrical setting, this overall tension is experienced consciously only by the audience (as the characters aren't aware that they're part of a storyline). Since the players are effectively the audience in a roleplaying game, long term tension translates to them and then filters through to their characters. While Joe the Character is intent on killing his arch-nemesis to avenge his family, Joe the Player is really doing it because killing the arch-nemesis is a plot point which has placed him in increasingly tense situations and he wants some catharsis. Joe the Player only cares about Joe the Character's vengeance up to a point. He's probably not going to risk Joe the Character's 10 levels of experience to fulfill this goal. However, the promise of a release of tension is much more directly relevant to the player and so a more attractive goal.

Short-term tension, on the other hand, is simply the level of tension at which the current events are transpiring. It is created out of the above idea that the relative level of tension must change, and change often, so that it does not become flat or lose its effect. It is depicted only to reflect necessary change in mood and tone. While the circumstances in which Joe the character finds himself in need to become progressively more tense, the immediate tension experienced by Joe the player needs to be kept at a manageable and variable level, so that he doesn't burn out or lose interest. Short-term tension therefore exists for the benefit of Joe the player (like long-term tension) but is aimed primarily at Joe the character (unlike long-term tension).

The levels of these two types of tension are controlled by slightly different things during a game. By making the situation and circumstances the characters and players are in more intense, we're raising long-term tension. By taking away some of the tension in the scene (usually by having a climax), we're reducing this type of tension and letting players relax. By timing events within a scene so that each is more tense than the last, we're lifting short-term tension levels. On the other hand, by placing more relaxed events between ones loaded with tension, we can lower the short-term tension so we don't overdo it and lose the effect.

Therefore, long-term tension reflects the circumstances and 'feel' of any given part of a game, whereas short-term tension is indicative of the step-by-step mounting and releasing of tension. Of course, keeping a track of both of these levels of tension, as well as relating them to each other and the events, scenes and climaxes of your adventure can get rather complicated.

This is where the tension arc comes in. It is a device for monitoring, and controlling, both levels of tension. A tension arc is usually purely abstract and not often visually represented; it is more of a concept to keep in mind as you design. But it's possible - and quite useful - to assign rough numeric values to the track the tension levels of the events you want to happen. Let's create, for the purposes of exemplifying this, a scale from 1 to 10, (1 being least tense and 10 most tense) for short-term tension:

  1. Eating breakfast, doing paperwork, chatting with friends, ect. (Routine everyday activity)
  2. Receiving/finding an unusual item, hearing a strange sound
  3. Having an argument, having something stolen
  4. Finding the dead body of a stranger, being in a non-lethal combat, having your apartment trashed
  5. Meeting/seeing extraordinary creatures/events (extraordinary for the setting, that is)
  6. Having a lethal fight, finding the dead body of a friend/the mutilated body of a stranger
  7. Interacting with a disturbing event/creature (can be a combat), springing a lethal trap
  8. Facing a major obstacle, performing do-or-die actions, escaping lethal situations
  9. (ditto 8; most Mini-climaxes hit 8 or 9)
  10. Attempting to: destroy the Death Star; defeat the Dragon/Alien/Cthulhu; Insert Appropriate Major Climax

You'll notice I've given higher scores for situations which are potentially dangerous, higher yet for situations which are immediately threatening and where the odds seem insurmountable. Events high on the scale are also more unusual/abnormal than their lower counterparts. Towards the higher end of the scale, the system falters as events become relative to specific circumstances. It becomes difficult and classify to describe such events as they lose significance when taken out of their context.

Since there is two levels of tension to monitor, we need two scales. The above reflects relatively short triggers or events which can immediately change the tension at hand. Long-term tension revolves around progressively more tense situations, however. Hence, that scale might look more like this:

  1. A quiet Sunday morning in suburbia
  2. A busy street during rush hour
  3. As 2, but late for a meeting
  4. As 2 but trying to avoid someone, possibly dangerous
  5. Near an Aztec temple, at night, chanting in background
  6. In the middle of a warzone, during a brief cease-fire
  7. Being in a room with a sleeping, very bad monster (perhaps a dragon, or an Elder God)
  8. In the middle of a warzone, during a fierce engagement
  9. In a pitch black cave, with the roof falling down around you
  10. Being trapped in the same room with an awake, very bad monster

In this case, circumstances such as the dark and threatening noise scored higher than similar situations in less threatening environments; such environments play on the imagination and expectation, and this is the very meat of long-term tension. Situations which present personal threats also scored higher than more impersonal dangers, on the basis that the danger is less abstract and thus less tangible.

For the purposes of simplicity, I've mainly used the danger to set the levels, as to give you an idea how various numbers translate into a game. Obviously, danger is not the only source of tension but it is the source of tension which most readily translates into a scale. Some other sources of tension are conflict (as in conflict of interests between PCS and NPCs - common in political or Machiavellian games), limited time (PCS are working against the clock - tension rises as time grows short), consequences of failure (destruction of humanity as we know it, deaths of untold millions - a big one in Sci-fi arena), sudden restrictions (being locked up, having one's credit cards cancelled - particularly useful in conspiracy type games), overwhelming odds (don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes - a classic in fantasy and military campaigns).

As you can see, there are a myriad of ways tension is created. When deciding how to evoke tension in a particular game, and when trying to decide how effective any given device will be, it is important to bear in mind things like the tone and genre of an adventure, the mindset of the players and experiences of characters. For example, a gun-happy group in a hack-n-slash campaign wouldn't flinch at most combat situations, while a group of solider characters would be similarly de-sensitised to violence. All of this means that the lists above are useless in being applied with any sort of generality; every GM and every game will require its own list.

And this does not even take into account the inevitable capriciousness of players' perceptions. While it is unavoidable that some events are going to be misinterpreted by players and produce different effects to what is desired, developing a tension arc is still very useful. It helps you crystallise in your mind what you're trying to do with each individual event and each sequence of events. Thus, when actually writing that event, you can identify what you are trying to accomplish in the given section and create events suitable to that purpose. In this way, you can do everything possible to evoke the right sort of tension, and thus keep the off-key moments to a minimum.

For example: When we're building tension within a scene, any event has to have the same or greater level of short-term tension than the one before it. This is our goal going into the scene - to build tension. So, say we've had the players find a corpse in a house they were exploring (short-term tension is about 4, long- term tension has probably hitched up to around 4 as well). We now want to rapidly build tension into a climax. So, we have the lights go out (Short-term jumps up to 5), and the players start hearing loud noises within the house (long-term goes to 5 as it is now dark and something is out there, possibly the killer). The blind noise-hunt goes on while the long-term tension builds up and then, one of the players sees it (Short-term tension quickly leaps to 6 in the resulting combat and, if someone dies, 7, although long-term probably would stay around five). The beast is finally defeated, a mini-climax has been reached. Short-term tension quickly drops back to 3-4 as the players examine the two bodies (actions less tense than the combat they just survived). Long-term can fall slightly (perhaps to 4) but still stays high because the overall situation is still fairly tense.

As you can see, during the build-up of tension, the two tension levels stay more or less the same, with the long-term lagging more and more as we speed to the climax. Conversely, during the reduction, the long-term tension never falls as far as the short- term (thus reflecting the overall climb of the long-term tension arc). Widely speaking, the long-term scale is only really low (1- 3, in the everyday event range) at the start of a game and after very important climaxes. Because it reflects the overall tension in the game, it should never be allowed to drop down completely. Since the separation between player and character awareness is not as distinct as in other forms of storytelling, the two levels do tend to hover near each other towards either end of the spectrum - tense players generally play tense characters.

For a more detailed discussion of climaxes and mini- climaxes, see the previous article in this series

Just as the events within a scene must progressively get more tense, so must every climax within adventure be greater than the one before it. The high points of action must always be escalating, as to not become dull and anti-climatic. This is why many mini-climaxes start of on low scores, almost just as portents of things to come. To re-use the example, our mini- climax was the fight with the beast. This sets a precedent of climaxes as victories over these things, whatever they are. And the next one, has to be more tense than this one. Perhaps the players are assaulted by a mob of them later in the evening and have to make their getaway. Their eventual escape to a safe location would act as a mini-climax. The overwhelming numbers involved in this assault, as well as its unexpectedness, should assure that the panicked escape will be a more tense experience than the killing of a lone beast. Note that, because of the role of the climax as the high point of long-term tension, it always causes a drop in tension of both kinds once it is resolved.

Indeed, the higher our numbers get and the tenser our scenes become, the more need there is for this release to happen. While tension, especially in the short term, mounts quite quickly, its descent is usually equally as rapid. This drop can be achieved by climaxes or a move to less tense events, or a combination, as above. Long-term tension is predicably slower to rise but (ideally) only falls after mini-climaxes, such as above, or during long lulls in the action.

This natural rise and fall is the key idea behind the application of the tensions arc in design: be aware where you are, where you need to be and where to stop as far as tension is concerned, and the rest will come naturally.

The tension arc is a tool for you, the designer, to use while considering the effect of your game components on your players and their characters. It's an excellent way to plan the pace and tone of your game and modify the order and intensity of the events that occur within in to suit the tension levels you want to establish.

And all-together now...

The Flowchart and Tension arc work best when used together. Ideally, the arc helps you identify and monitor the levels of tension which drives an adventure, thereby allowing you to manipulate the components of your game to the greatest tonal effect. The flowchart keeps things in perspective, by arranging the events in your game so that they make sense and work together, creating a balanced plot. Conversely, the tension arc can be used to provide direction and drive to the flowchart where it is too general or vague. For example, increasing tension levels for structurally important events will make players more aware of them, and putting more pressure on the group during an open-ended section will prevent a game from bogging down. Finally, the two structures can be played off one another to create situations which, while perhaps unexpected, can greatly lift your game.

In the above example, we were creating a series of events with a tension arc in mind. We ended up with what could be a gripping tale, but little consideration was given to the logic and consequences of the actions. For instance, after the fight, when the tension level drops, the players would probably be anxious to leave, as the noise of the fight could attract the law and make them look very bad. Thus, any plot devices in the house would ideally be found before the combat event is triggered. But, if they're not, the flowchart will inform us that the players will need to go back. If we can provide sufficient incentive for them to do so, we can create another scene revolving around the players' return to the house - a reprisal of the horror which raises long-term tension significantly. Our original design, which was simply one scene created to give the players a first look at the bad guys, has spawned a tension-packed scene which not only fits thematically into the game and creates great drama, but also plugs a hole in the plot.

In the future, we may feature a third article in this series, wherein Altin puts all of his advice to work in a much more detailed example. Stay tuned.

You can see how we're combining the two structures to make an effective, and yet coherent sequence out of the events. Tension Arcs and Flowcharts can both be applied to adventures as a whole in order to identify problems or inappropriate (either dramatically or logically) event chains which don't make themselves apparent when an adventure is viewed piece by piece. Finally, the combination of the two structures can result in spontaneous scenes and events which were never planed for in the original design.

In Concluding

Roleplaying has often been described as something of a hybrid of play-acting. This analogy generally casts the players as the 'actors' and the GM as the 'director' of the work - which is an adequate metaphor. However, many roleplayers tend to forget that there is a third party involved in the theatre business: the playwright, who's work joins the actors and the director together into producing the same core product. I've tried to address the principles of what I see as the 'playwrighting' of roleplaying - adventure design. Just as actors and directors cam improvise without a script, so a roleplaying group can play without an adventure at hand. However, I believe the greatest work, in both fields, is only achieved when the playwright is at their best.

In my (admittedly biased) interpretation of the nature of game design, I've discussed this art of "playwriting" in terms of creating a plot. In the first article, we looked at the base components of a plot - the hook, climax and body. The idea was to ask questions of the work we were creating. Does it serve a purpose? Can it do so more effectively? This article, I've looked more closely at how there components relate. By creating the Action Flowchart and Tension Arc, we've created further questions to ask of our game: does this make sense? Is it evoking the right amount of tension? Does it relate appropriately to other components? Or to put it more simply: we first ask ourselves how best to make each part sing, and then we ask ourselves how to best put those harmonies in sequence to make the best song overall.

But adventure design isn't really about asking these questions. It's not even about answering them. It's about acting on those answers. It's about taking the answers, and your ideas, putting pen to paper and producing something which people can play. More importantly, it's about taking that design and actually playing it. Like a play, a script is nothing without a performance. Adventure design is about creating something to be played, and then playing it, and enjoying it, and creating something special, something about which you can tell anecdotes years later. It's about creating a memorable experience for all involved. Hopefully, this article has gone some way to help or motivate you to do just that.


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