The genesis of this essay was an unexpected connection between two roleplaying podcasts I listened to in quick succession last week. Both discussed narrative rhythm and the way the GM can subtly influence the mood at the table. We all know how a good story is composed of a sequence of successes and failures. These need not alternate, but both should be present in the story.
My default understanding of this pass/fail sequence saw the two-stage represented by the Heroes passing or failing a dice roll. It is all too easy to fall into this mechanics-focused vision of the concept. These two podcasts, however, made me see a more subtle way for the GM to model the pass/fail rhythm without relying upon the dice to cooperate with an alternating narrative structure.
Tale of Two Podcasts
For a more detailed look at some of the ideas in this essay, I suggest you listen to the two podcasts in question:
- DM’s Deep Dive #9 – Mike Shea, aka Sly Flourish, chats with game designer and Ennie winning Podcaster Robin D. Laws about story beats in RPGs.
- Misdirected Mark #281: Setting Stakes – Phil Vecchione, Chris Sniezak and Bob Everson talk about setting stakes in games.
- See more recommended podcasts as part of my Top 40 Sites list
Hamlet’s Hit Points
This superb book by Robin D. Laws explores the rhythm of narrative and the way the story is paced. Robin divides this rhythm into beats, noting procedural, dramatic and information beats as the most common. These beats may be positive, offering hope to the audience, or negative, evoking fear. These emotions revolve around the safety, desires and progress of the story’s protagonist. It is this hope/fear pattern which is central to the narrative rhythm, rather than any mechanical pass or failure.
This book has a strong link back to gaming, as the principles of narrative rhythm are applied within the rules of my beloved HeroQuest. Furthermore, the DramaSystem rules, at the heart of Hillfolk, grew directly from the theories outlined in Hamlet’s Hit Points.
- Hamlet’s Hit Points is available through DriveThruRPG [affiliate link]
- See my recent Updated essay Film as RPG Research for more Laws wisdom
Adding Variety to the Narrative
The cycle of hope and fear in Hamlet’s Hit Points is more useful to the GM than the traditional pass/fail one. Firstly, the rhythm of hope/fear is experienced by the Players. While the GM wants to challenge the Heroes in the game, the true audience is the Players. The most memorable gaming sessions are those where the Players were engaged with the story. A pattern of hope/fear for the safety and progress of the Heroes provides an emotionally satisfying experience for the Players.
Secondly, the hope/fear cycle operates on a much shorter time frame. In roleplaying terms, the traditional pass/fail cycle is a time-consuming process. It often takes many minutes to set up and resolve a skill check. If we frame the pass/fail cycle at the encounter level, then the time required to achieve even a single pass or fail could be anything up to an hour or more.
Combat and similar skill challenges feel like a faster pass/fail cycle, as each round evokes this process. Yet combat sequences progress the story very slowly. Indeed, part of the widespread enjoyment of combat in gaming may arise from the intense emotional roller coaster of the contest. Every roll of the dice is laden with hope/fear, even the damage rolls.
This final point illustrates the speed inherent in the hope/fear cycle. Pass/fail generally takes a long time to work through and thus the rhythm moves slowly. In contrast, hope/fear resolves with every dice roll. A clever GM can even modulate between hope and fear with consecutive sentences. Thus, adopting the hope/fear model enables GMs to craft a more varied narrative for the Players.
Hope/Fear at the Table
The podcasts listed above highlighted two ways in which the GM can influence the hope/fear cycle. Specifically, they offered suggestions for triggering the fear response in the Players. My default style of play is tell a story of heroic deeds. This assumes the Heroes will triumph in the end. On this basis, the game is full of hope for the Players. Aside from their basic assumption that the Heroes will win, the Players feel a jolt of hope whenever the Heroes succeed. When running a game in this way, there is little need for the GM to input hope into the story.
Thus, the GM’s main tool for altering the rhythm of the session is to add fear into the cycle. As outlined by Robin in the DM’s Deep Dive podcast, this fear does not equate to a Player’s fear for the life of their Hero. The model of fear from Hamlet’s Hit Points is much broader. The GM merely needs to throw obstacles or potential peril at the Hero to evoke a sense of fear in the Player. Prompted by the podcasts cited above, I see two easy methods for adding fear to the narrative:
- GM bumps
- Potential consequences
My experience running HeroQuest is that the Players succeed at most of their rolls. While this is probably a combination of clever play and a dash of luck, it limits the amount of fear added to the narrative. The DM’s Deep Dive podcast suggested using bumps or similar mechanical boosts to the GM’s rolls to evoke fear. This is the GM’s equivalent to the bennies or similar tokens which allow Players to improve the outcome of a roll.
At the Table: The best way for the GM to evoke fear with a mechanical bump is to announce this boost prior to the roll. While this is not the best tactical move, the early announcement gives Players time to feel the fear. The Players now have time to imagine the dire consequences of the GM’s bumped roll.
The magnificent Misdirected Mark podcast presented another way to add a dash of fear to the narrative. Episode 281 discussed how the GM must set appropriate stakes for a contest and thereby avoid plot derailment such as by a locked door. The classic presentation of the roll to pick the lock has a binary outcome. On a pass, the door is opened and the story continues. On a fail, the door remains locked and the story grinds to a halt.
To avoid this binary outcome, the Misdirected Mark team suggested framing the stakes of the contest differently. Now the challenge is to open the door before the guards arrive. On a fail, the door is still unlocked, but the guards arrive and the Heroes face a new challenge. The aim of the discussion was to avoid those contests where the fail option leads to shutting down the story.
At the Table: In the context of story beats, the framing of a contest offers the GM another way to inject fear into the narrative. If the GM ramps up the potential consequences for failure, then the Players will feel a moment of fear before the roll. In the example above, then maybe it is a patrol of ogres who might arrive. Or there could be a needle trap on the lock for the Hero to avoid.
In both the options outlined above, hope is likely to return once the Players succeed at their roll and avoid the perilous consequences. Yet, fear has been added to the story and the game feels more emotionally satisfying as a result of the narrative variation. Even if your Heroes enjoy an endless string of successful outcomes, the two techniques above lead to a more varied story. Plus, every once in a while, one of the enhanced outcomes will arise and take the game somewhere unexpected.
How do you evoke moments of fear in your Players? How else could I trigger this fear? Have you tried either of the methods above? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
- Do you need more Tales?
If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:
- Something for the Weekend last week: Top Five Abilities Sheet
- Something for the Weekend next week: November Blog Carnival, Betrayal Revisited