It’s hard to make RPGs that build, maintain, and deliver on tension at the right points of a story. Systems that don’t allow for tense scenes or palpable stakes just don’t have grip. And yet, if a system engages too directly with tension and action, the outcomes it produces feel trite. At worst, an errant die roll can derail a campaign that took weeks or months to build. While I think there are a lot of different techniques for pacing a story, I’ve come to believe there are a few overarching modes a system might be aligned with.[1]

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  1. NB: As with all the times I’ve suggested deconstructing ideas, I don’t actually think these are the only ways RPGs influence the tension of their games. I also think that a single system might use any or all of these approaches in different ways at different times. I find it useful to separate them out and talk about them, though. []
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When you’re designing a game, it can be helpful to ask—and answer—”what do I want my players to describe?” It’s probably not the first question you want to answer, but when you need to ask it, you know you will. It’s not quite the same as “what happens in my game”[1] because, importantly, it’s about what details your players will dwell on, what will give the game its texture.

Once you have some answers to that question, the next thing to consider is how to get your players to actually spend some effort describing those things. This is part of what Vincent’s whole thing about “rightward pointing arrows” was about. They’re one possible technique for making the things described in the fiction meaningful and important enough that people don’t gloss over details, and thus describe what you want them to.

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  1. Look at the wonderful illustrations from Dylan Meconis for the Italian edition of Dogs in the Vineyard for a great expression of “what happens” in Dogs. []

While we’re generally all about Becoming Heroes, we’ve recently hit upon one part that is harder than it needs to be—character generation. Right up front, we ask you to decide eight traits, three circumstances, and three ties. We don’t give you a lot of guidance around selecting these traits and people get stuck around six traits in.

Now, I don’t think getting stuck is a fatal flaw—it usually clears up when you talk about it as a group—but we’re going to add trait suggestions to each arc in our next revision. For instance, the Lost King should probably have some trait relating to their nobility. The Dutybound should have a trait related to where their duty comes from. Lots of places can inspire traits; the system just doesn’t yet help you find them.

In designing Piece of Work, we’re addressing character generation directly. We’re using a Dread-esque questionnaire that walks you though building your character. It works phenomenally well. First, it breaks up tasks like “allocate your skill points” or “pick your gear” into a series of discrete steps. Because those are smaller decisions and those decisions have context, they’re much easier to make.

Second, it lets us gently reinforce the tropes and setting of the game. Instead of just picking a random piece of gear, you have an item you picked up when things started to go wrong. Instead of just knowing the person to your left, you’re childhood friends. This added context pushes characters to create conspiracies, attach nostalgic meaning to things, to have conversations with other characters fraught with historical subtext—all staples of the noir genre.

I’m now on the hunt for other systems that use smaller choices to reduce the strain of creating a character. Dread is obviously one. Spirit of the Century‘s phases works this way. And Leverage not only has bite-sized char-gen steps, but moves some of those choices out of char-gen and into actual play. What are some of your favorite char-gen systems, and how do they help create a character?

Last night was a fruitful night for Et in Arcadia Ego. We’ve been talking a lot about feminism, sexism, privilege, and judging the past by modern standards. All of this is, of course, of immense importance to any game trying to put itself in a period of immensely inequitable gendering and even worse class divides. But the key thing that I want to talk about right now is what this brought us to, in terms of game mechanics.

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