October 29, 2018

This week I focused on a big open question for THE ZONE: pacing & escalation.

My Big Bad Con playtests were the first where I simply facilitated instead of participating, and made me realize that I needed to amplify the escalation mechanics so the game would unlock its potential even without a strong facilitator. Crucial for a GM-less game.

To start, I did a thoroughly incomplete and unscientific survey of some of my favorite storytelling games, and an interesting framework popped out:

Escalation via:

  1. Individual moves
  2. Group moves
  3. Looming pressure
  4. Triggers
  5. Role changes
  6. Schedules
  7. Reflection & Clarification
  8. Collision courses
  9. Staging
  10. Jenga

Here are some examples of each:

1. Individual moves

Things each individual player can choose to do to escalate the game—”pulling the slot machine” for new content or questions.

They can be completely self-paced content (like putting the mask on in Old Friends, or pressing the button in Juggernaut), “moves” (like “Shiver with fear” in Bluebeard’s Bride), or part of the turn structure itself.

Perhaps my favorite is the gruesome escalation of Beastfucker, which happens entirely through individual players choosing to leave the room to “fuck the beast”. This happens offscreen, and is represented by two prompt questions they must return with answers to. Because of the subject matter, the move itself is an escalation, and the answers just make it so, much, WORSE.

2. Group moves

Moves whole or part of the group can choose to perform to raise the stakes.

An example of this is Welcome Guests, where the hosts—a family of cannibals—can decide at any time to eat one of the guests, but only if two of them agree.

Turns out eating a person does indeed raise the stakes. Check!

Another way to define the stakes is to better define how characters feel about the stakes. Randy Lubin has a lovely way of doing this in his hilarious “Behind The Magic”—interludes where all the characters answer questions in a Big Brother style “confessional” chair.

This is very similar to the practice in long form of improv of “group games”. In the venerable Harold, improvisers start with a freeform group game that expands poetically on the audience suggestion, generating tons of tiny ideas that stimulate later scenes, and a thematic bed that subtly knits them together.

3. Looming pressure a.k.a. “Sword of Damocles”

The top down pressure of a decision weighing ever more heavily on the players as the game goes on. The squirming avoidance is a tension machine; knowing that the decision must be made creates a driving force.

The decision to eat a guest in Welcome Guests is also a perfect example of this. You know it’s coming, which forces each player to come to terms with how they feel about it, and act.

4. Triggers

Specific actions players MUST take in response to a certain situation.

I encountered a brilliant example of this playtesting Luke Crane’s “The Gift” at Big Bad Con. It’s a LARP of stuck up elves and kleptomaniac dwarves, and each side has trigger cards that must be played:

  • For the elves: breaking their moral code or seeing another elf threatened
  • For the dwarves: whenever they see a shiny thing

In our game, a grief stricken elf drew his ancient golden blade—a true, jewelled marvel—which triggered a dwarf’s MUST HAVE IT “Greed” card, making him a droolingly, drunkenly leap over the table John Woo style to try to take it at all costs, triggering another elf’s “Grief” card when he drew blood in the ensuing tussle… It. Was. A. Bloodbath.

As you can imagine, these triggers can cause wild chain reactions that players cannot stop easily—use with care—but can be a lot of fun!

5. Role changes

Unlocking new abilities, or completely changing a player’s abilities based on circumstances in the game. This category inherently pairs with other escalations, as it needs some kind of triggering condition.

Examples include:

  • In Welcome Guests, eaten players return as ghosts. They cannot speak, but they can interact through freezing touch and eye contact
  • In Bluebeard’s Bride, an aspect of the Bride can become “Shattered”, removing her ability to control herself with that aspect
  • In the Battlestar Galactica board game, several players discover halfway through that they are Cylons

I haven’t seen a storytelling game do this, but something like the Shadow of Mordor Nemesis system could be a very interesting way to do this based on history and rivalries in the game.

6. Schedule

A fixed pacing forced on the players, perhaps literally (as in the fixed length of The Climb), or by having a fixed structure of scenes.

One example from boardgames is in Betrayal at House on the Hill, which begins with group exploration (and creation) of the map, followed by a dramatic midpoint twist where everything becomes horrible and a randomly selected player is revealed as the antagonist.

7. Reflection & Clarification

[Added this section Feb 18, 2019]

In Downfall, every round has an explicit “Reflection”, where the hero “describes the current state of the world” and whether it is ready to collapse, which naturally forces the cracks open by making them clearer.

In Lovecraftesque, every round ends with each player individually theorizing about the true nature of the horror in a mechanic called “Leaping to conclusions”. Making their own interpretation more concrete amplifies their ability to escalate the story in that direction.

8. Collision courses

This is all about initial setup. Two characters want the same thing, need something from each other, hate each other but must work together, or want different things but are in each other’s way.

This is somewhat table stakes for a good character based LARP or storytelling game, but I’ll call out Honor Bound, which explores toxic masculinity through the lens of a duel nobody wants but which is made inevitable by the interpersonal dynamics that the game explicitly sets up.

9. Staging

This final category is fuzzy but incredibly awesome. Certain ways of delivering mechanics are inherently emotional or can make people do crazy things.

  • In Old Friends, players summon the dead by putting a mask on and embodying a spirit described on a prompt card. You could easily play the game with just the prompt, but the mask changes things. People do weird things with masks.
  • In 10 Candles, you get to burn character sheets! (oh, and the whole game is played by candlelight). In Reflections, the losing samurai, whose body is bisected by their opponents’ blade, tears their character sheet in half at the same time. So cool!
  • The loud 30 seconds of electro-mechanical clacking that plays when you press the button to reveal another of Juggernaut’s predictions

10. Jenga

Nuff, said. 🤣

Where did I land?

This is a very rough and incomplete framework, but I found it helpful to go through the mechanics I have in THE ZONE category by category and see if there were opportunities to amp things up. There were indeed!

Individual moves: THE ZONE uses the “Not so easy” mechanic from Archipelago, and explicit scene cards that the spotlight player pulls at the start of their turn.

I added in two more explicit moves that I’m so excited to playtest:

  • “Something’s not right here” any players can say this, and the group pauses and each person adds a sensory detail (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) or character feeling to better define the horror
  • “Don’t go in there!”—inspired by “Shiver with fear” in Bluebeard’s Bride: if a player is dilly dallying, anyone else can say “Don’t go in there!”. They must say what they’re afraid of, and then MUST go in there. What’s inside is much worse…

Group moves: THE ZONE explicitly has players add sensory details, which is working realy well.

Looming pressures: This is something I’d like to think more about. Better defining the “Center” might help.

Triggers: Each character has a Phobia & Temptation. These were mostly character development, but I’ve now changed them to be explicit triggers: when a character encounters either of them, they MUST immediately act on them.

Role changes: Yes! When a player dies they become one with THE ZONE. I’ve redesigned the character sheet so you flip it inside out to more dramatically represent that change.

Schedules: Going to try predetermining player’s deaths in more detail

Collision courses: I’ve explicitly dialed this one down after realizing that this game is less about interpersonal conflict than it is about world building.

Staging: I talked about this in the previous blog post. so important!

Jenga: hmmmmmm… HMMMMMMMMM…

Final thoughts

Perhaps the biggest insight for me was that it’s not just about raising the stakes: simply defining the stakes with more specificity can increase their emotional weight and give players more ideas for what to do (this episode of Writing Excuses on “Raising The Stakes” is a great resource here).

I’m left with interesting questions:

  • What are the consequences for characters (die, gain or lose abilities, change role, become nemeses?)
  • How prescriptive (sequentially scripted content) or open ended (just questions)?
  • Divergent (generating new content) or convergent (defining things)?
  • Raise the stakes, or simply make them more tangible?
  • Escalate the world, or in your characters’ feelings about the world?
  • How might an escalation make the stakes more personal to your character?

…and of course: when do I do the Jenga version of THE ZONE?