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]

The first and most prevalent mode is the old stand-by, “rule 0”; the GM has the ability to change or break the rules to keep the game on track. In this strategy, the GM is like an Iron Chef, mixing their own ideas for how the story is supposed to go with the secret ingredient of their players actions. It can work well—and plenty of modern indie games (Dread, Technoir, 3:16) pace stories this way. But it requires a great GM with strong ideas and decent familiarity with the game. For most games, this is a luxury. Doubly so for most indie games, which may be the GM‘s first experience with that system.

An alternative is to heavily structure play so that the need for a central authority is reduced. In this model, a GM is less iron chef and more trail guide—if there’s a GM at all. Games like Fiasco, My Life with Master, or The Shab al-Hiri Roach end up in this camp. They’re just as fun as less-structured games and do a better job of capturing a tone or flavor. But they often don’t leave too many surprises in how the story goes. One plays more to find out the path they’ll take than the ending to the story.

Another option is to provide a looser structure with substantial creative inputs from the players to shape the story. I feel like our own game Becoming Heroes falls in this camp, as do Leverage and Mouse Guard. (I must assume Burning Wheel does as well, but not having played it, I can’t speak to that.) GMs in these games are like a concierge—there to help tell the story the players are trying to tell. Games like this require the GM to really get the feel of what the game is trying to do.

There are technical aspects to consider, of course—specific techniques like in medias res which help establish fixed points in the story, or more general strategies for carrying tension from the fiction of a scene, out into a die roll and (hopefully) back into the scene. These are all worth delving into. But there’s a question of context. Inconsistency between the game’s overall approach and the technicals of the game break immersion, and there’s nothing more disruptive to pacing than that.

  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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