Thursday, May 15, 2014

Tales from the Table - Building Tension, part II

  This time I want to discuss building tension long before you meet the monster.
  From a campaign I played in in the early '80's:
  The party was doing well for itself; Elencu was a 5th level archer-ranger [If you don't know about the archer-ranger, for shame! It was in the January '81 issue of Dragon, #45, and it rocked!] [[For Christmas in 1980 my parents got me a subscription to Dragon - that was the first issue I received and I still have it]],Bartollio was a 5th level cleric, Finan was a 3/3 fighter/magic-user half elf, Owen was a 6th level thief, Shelby was a 5th level illusionist, Lohr was a 5th level fighter, and I played Tamarind, a 5th level paladin.
  The DM enforced the rules on paying and training to level up and our various mentors and trainers were important NPCs. Finan and Lohr studied under the same swordmaster, a man considered the best with a blade in the southern realms; Elencu trained with his own uncle, an influential man among the hill people; Owen was a member of the local guild; Shelby was visited by the mysterious and powerful Faceless One, I was trained by the Marshall of the Temple, and Bartollio now was trained by the bishop himself! We received all sorts of adventures, etc. from our various mentors.
  [when you run 1e you use the rules on times, costs, etc. of leveling up, right?]
  Anyway, in between adventures we heard that a famous band from the city-state was in the area. While our home base was a large and prosperous frontier city the city-state was famous as THE place to be.
  [The DM ran another party in and from the City-State of the Invincible Overlord, a map and setting I have personally never seen or played for a number or reasons]
  Eager to meet these famous voyagers, we were stunned to find out that although good aligned, they were underwhelmed with us and a bit rude. We were yokels to them with outdated fashions, a funny accent, and poor skills. Between adventures we learned they had 'taken over' our favorite inn, bought up the rare books Shelby had been saving to purchase, and dealt a serious blow to the local thieves guild. Then their fighter beat Finan and Lohr's instructor rather easily and complained that 'if he was the best in the South the people of the South mustn't be very good'.
  But we pressed on and even went on an adventure where the bishop assigned one job to them, another to us, each towards a mutual goal. They were all higher level than we, and had more and better spells, weapons, and items. Despite the differences in power we were actually able to save them from an ambush. Their magic-user thanked us by giving the book on illusions to Shelby and their chief fighter made noises about taking over the training of Lohr and Finan. It looked like we had role played our way into new mentors!
  Not too long after that the NPC party said they were investigating rumors of 'something in the mountains' and we did a little anti-pirate adventure for 2-3 days of game time. When we got back, though, the bishop immediately sent us to a distant village that was said to be under some sort of threat. We hitched up and headed out.
  We found the village empty and burned, the fires being at least a week prior. Elencu found more recent tracks of horses, which  we followed into the mountains. Then we found a horse in a clearing. It was the horse of the cleric from the NPC party. It was cropping grass quietly but was still saddled and it looked like it had pulled free of a hitch. With an hour or so of searching we found 2 more of the NPC paty's horses, likewise seemingly abandoned. With darkness approaching we camped. A cold camp.
  The next day we continued to follow the primary tracks. They led to a hidden valley with a narrow entrance screened by trees. About a mile distant was a stone fortress with towers and walls of gray rock. There was no movement or light anywhere in or on the fortress so we approached. We found the bodies of the NPC party in or near a small copse of young trees just 200 yards from the fortress entrance. All had weapons or wands out, none showed marks of violence. Their faces held expressions of surprise or fear. But the fighter was the worst. No, he had no visible signs of injury, either, it was just obvious from his position, how he lay, his distance from the others, and the look of fright frozen on his face he had died while running in terror.
  We gathered their bodies and gear, threw them over mounts, and fled that valley. We force marched until sunset and force marched back to the city thereafter.
  We never returned to the area around the valley and the group broke up a month or so later as the DM went to college. I met with the old party (but not the DM) a few years ago. Yes, they all remembered it. Yes, they wondered. No, they wouldn't send a character unless they had to.

  One of the best ways to build tension is through the settings and locations and how you describe them. Think of two movies that are very good in their use of settings; The Thing and Brazil. The Thing is an obvious choice, really. In both John Carpenter's version and the original the location is almost a character. The 1950's version uses the vast emptiness of the Arctic to emphasize that the protagonists are alone - no help is coming. But John Carpenter's version ratchets it up another notch - not only are they alone the very place they are is trying to kill them. It is stressed again and again that simply going outside in the Antarctic in Winter might kill you all by itself. Not only is help not coming, you can't even run away.
  Brazil might not be so obvious, but it (like the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers) uses a bustling urban environment to induce dread not because you are isolated but because you are surrounded by people and anyone of them might hate you and want to attack you. In this case you can't run away not because the weather is dangerous, you can't run away because there are potential enemies wherever you go.

    {Personal anecdote about the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie. I was a scifi and horror movie buff from way back and loved the original. When the remake came to my mid-sized city of a hometown I convinced my parents to let me take the bus downtown on a Thursday afternoon (Summer) to see it at a holdover viewing. I accidentally got off a stop too early and decided to walk the last 5 blocks. as I was walking along I saw a theater marquee with the movie on it, figured I had gotten there faster than I thought, went in, bought a ticket, a coke, and a popcorn, and watched the movie. I was the only one in the theater, which wasn't a surprise at 3 pm on a Thursday for a holdover. I liked the movie, walked the the bus stop I had meant to use and saw, wow! THAT was the theater my parents sent me to, I wonder which theater I just went to?
  So I went home on the bus, told mom all about liking the movie, having a good time downtown, etc. Friday, though, I was talking to her and my father and told them how I went to the wrong theater but loved the show. They were confused and said that since the Orpheum had been closed years before the only other movie theater downtown was 12-15 blocks in the other direction. I told them no, I just went to a theater near the one they sent me to and I think it was the Orpheum. My dad thought I was pulling his leg, my mom thought I was just confused, but I insisted what i said happened happened.
  Saturday my folks tossed me in the car and said they would settle it. Dad drove to the bus stop I really used and had me walk them to where I saw the movie. I was sure I would prove them wrong and rushed along. But when I got there there was no theater, no marquee - just an empty lot. A lot that had been empty for some time. My dad laughed and said the theater had been closed before I was born and torn down 6-7 years previously. He asked me to admit I was kidding around.
  I had been hoping that if I proved them wrong downtown I might get them to take me to the local gaming store so I had kept my other proof hidden. So I told my dad that I could prove I had been to a movie at the Orpheum on Thursday.
  I showed him the ticket stub I had kept. It said 'Orpheum, admit one'}

  Another way to build tension is unexplained events. The secret is to make unexplained events as ambiguous as possible.Yes, really know what and how they happened. No, don't make it glaringly obvious. You want your players to be able to assume almost anything so that their imagination takes over and fuels their emotional involvement. Remember, the key to getting players very involved is emotional connections. But if the only emotional investment you create in your game is negative (fear, hatred, anger) people will leave; you must have as much, or more, positive emotional investment (pride, triumph, care) so that rewards and losses both matter in their minds.
  Or, more bluntly, if your characters have no concern or care for NPCs and their own PCs they won't care that much when bad things happen. Even worse, they won't care as much when good things happen, either. To build real tension you must first involve your players in the game world in a positive way. The best way, as I mention here and have mentioned in the past, is through NPC interactions. I said 'best', not 'easiest'. One of the best things you can do for your long-term campaign growth, in my opinion, is have the majority of your PC with NPC interactions be positive.

  Now, in the above example we see another way to build tension, a way that takes a lot of time and care. That is building tension through the dramatic defeat or death of an NPC or monster the party sees as tougher than the party itself.This is one of the most effective elements from the sequence I illustrated at the beginning of this piece. This is called the Worf Effect and can lead to a bit of cliched repetitiveness, so try not to use it very often.