When we came up with the Circumstances system in Becoming Heroes, I’d thought we’d hit upon a really awesome mechanic that allows for fantastic moments of awesome. And I still do. But that observation has been tempered in a number of ways in the last year, and it deserves reconsideration.

Let me fill in some blank areas. I’m male, I’m white, I’m reasonably well educated, I have a good job. I am, sort of, the canonical example of privilege. I may have mentioned elsewhere that it occupies a lot of my mind. I bring this up because during last year’s Gen Con, and recently via Twitter, I have seen people in positions of less privilege identify loss of character authority as a sore spot.

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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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So we recently had a request from the brilliant @strasa for a post about meshing multiple arcs together when running Becoming Heroes. It was always our intention that it be done, as closely as possible, to give everyone an epic sense of destiny at work. Nothing is as iconic to fantasy as this particular story structure—that everyone arrives at the crossroads of destiny at once, at the same time, for one last final battle between good and evil.

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We’ve been talking a bit about games without GMs, particularly as we work up Lucid for the con. (Quick teaser: it’s an RPG about lucid dreaming. We think.) In so doing, it’s exposed an interesting point. The idea of what a “game master” is depends on the system you’re playing. Adversary? Guide? Prompt? All plausible roles. All different in how they play. The part that has me going is that this is a different distinction than who has control over which elements of the story. It’s not concerned with how, but why. Why has always been a more interesting question to me, if a bit troublesome.

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