Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Things Get Worse

Okay, I'm already three days behind on the July Vow, and that's assuming you count the post where I made the vow, as well as that one about bricks. I have a whole bunch of stuff to write worked out in my head, so all I have to do is write them out for my literally some of readers.

Today, I talk about Things Getting Worse.

This is a critical part of any story, and the easiest one to forget. Part way along, something happens and the problem set up in the initial hook isn't the most important problem any more. Or it is, but it's only part of the problem. The Sceptre of Oroborous you're after has been stolen from the Tomb of Shattered Nightmares and bugbear tracks lead into the Forest of Misery. The villain you're battling fires a slow-moving missile at your daughter's piano recital. The ambassador you're supposed to escort to a rendezvous with the Duchess of Montellico slipped away, then died. And so did the Duchess.

In improv theatre, they call this 'raising the stakes', as the central problem of the story has its importance to the characters increase. Junior High Language Arts class calls it the 'rising action'. For RPGin', I like to call it Things Get Worse, as the problems the GM poses to the players start to mount up (speaking strictly in the traditional, semi-adversarial RPG model here - if players give themselves problems - whether for the sake of dramatic tension or Cool Points, good on them). The twist adds tension, danger, drama, or ideally all three.

So why wouldn't a GM do this? There are a couple of reasons why a twist is easy to leave out in RPG plots. First, an adventure structure and a story structure aren't exactly the same. The end of an adventure might be right when Things Get Worse, and the story arc gets wrapped up one or more adventures down the line. Also, it used to be that 'threat of serious physical harm to the main characters' was sufficient Worseness to create tension. In most games out there, action is a given. No one thinks that recovering the Sceptre of Oroborous is not going to involve exterminating a small village of snakemen. You need something else, something plot- or character-driven to get the tension and excitement a proper Things Get Worse needs.

Things Get Worse is about messing with expectations. For that reason exactly, you can't as a GM do it every time. Or, at least not the same way every time. If every authority figure and quest-giver turns on the players once they bring back the Jewell of Mak Guef'n, it'll stop being a surprise and start being a bore. Not every Things Get Worse should aim to be a Usual Suspects-style mindscrew; just punch up the tension in the second act somehow.

In future posts, I'm going to write about stock plots, and how Things can Get Worse in them. I'll also review some games that as-written have features that encourage or discourage plotting like this. Probably on Wednesdays, as to have Things Get Worse Wednesdays. Weak alliteration's still cool, right?

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