Wednesday, September 23, 2009

We're All Going to Die Terribly

One of the important parts of planning and running a role-playing game is the same as plotting a novel or writing a script. It is about managing threat levels. Doing this has a cascade effect that impacts pacing, tension, horror--if that is your angle--and mood. Take the ever-popular zombie apocalypse. The threat level is high any time that the characters are out in the world rather than sitting in their safety zones. Even in the safety of their sanctuaries all of the dangers of the old world loom around every corner. A pall hangs over everything because the walking dead dominate the mental landscape as much as the external one. This makes for constant inescapable tension. The dark mood is always an instant away only to be forgotten briefly.

This general look at the threat level of the setting is just that, only an overview. Scaling down to the level of specific encounters the danger presented to the protagonists can only reach a certain pitch. The protagonists must be able to survive--at least until the end, since they can only be killed once. There must be some way out of every situation. Something natural or organic and not forced or contrived. By the same token it should not be a cakewalk either. A balance must be struck. In a game luck can be a factor that brings disastrous results with even the most balance encounter. An author or scriptwriter can bend luck to their will on the other hand, again only in a way that seems genuine. Either way there needs to be room for adjustment.

A threat level system became a part of AD&D recently--in terms of the game's long history--to the joy of some and derision of others. It is a quick and easy way to say this many player characters of this level of power should fight these, these or those. It can be rigid and by the nature of its existence can drain away some of the tension, especially if the players know the Game Master is sticking by it. The player will likely even be familiar enough that they can tell an encounter is safely balanced. This tension draining phenomena can happen even with fiction, and especially scripts for television. Certain characters just aren't going to die. There will be an out to almost any situation that seems hopeless. Some things just are not going to change or come to an end.

Mood: open.

Music: Too Much, Too Soon by Green Day and It ('s A Monster) by Extreme.

Green Day: American Idiot
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Extreme: Pornograffitti
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