Thursday, June 26, 2008

Tension Pool Mechanics

A few posts ago, I mentioned tension pool mechanics. The idea is to strip away any rules even vaguely related to the task at hand so you can use rules for dramatic situations instead. This encourages players to use tactics that aren't directly combat related - for example, a valid "move" for a player could be that a random blind passerby stumbles into the fight and the warriors have to fight around him as he ambles randomly through the street. It has nothing to do with what the player's character can actually do during the fight: it's just cool.

Tension pool mechanics are a simple system I've used in several games, now. I find they work best in duel situations: while they could theoretically rebalance to allow for three or more players in the situation, I have not had to do so. Instead, I find that duels proceed so quickly (and entertainingly) that the sideline players are not bored, and the headlining player is encouraged by their attention to be ever more hilarious and interesting. Plus, if it's PvP, the players can fight each other without needing a big team or a GM.

The idea of a tension pool is that you can't really win a fight right off the bat. In a normal game of, say, D&D, you're doing damage right from the first round. To keep the combats long enough to be entertaining, this requires that everything have eight billion HP. It doesn't make any sense - and isn't very dramatic - that you have to hit a wolf four times with a sword in order to kill it, and it never really reacts to the damage in any kind of meaningful way.

Instead, an encounter with a wolf using tension pool mechanics would probably start with the wolf leaping for your throat. There would be some back-and-forth: the wolf springs around, you land glancing blows, but he gets inside your arc and is biting at your neck...

But all of this isn't done by rolling a d20, checking his AC, then looking to see how much damage your sword does. Instead, these moves are played and narrated, and tension is added (or, rarely, removed) from the pool. As more tension is added to the pool, moves have more effect.

If the wolf comes inside your reach right at the beginning, the turn would end with you battering him away, maybe with a few claw scratches. However, if you've been fighting for a while and the tension pool is high when the wolf comes in, that wolf might bite your wrist, disarming and wounding you. Such an action would reduce the tension pool.

To look at it from another example: two Jedi fight. The tension pool gets high. One Jedi uses a disarm card. Early in the fight, it would be a spinny, splashy piece of swordfighting. However, there's enough tension in there to spend it and actually disarm him: his saber goes spinning away. (Cutting off his hand is usually considered ending the duel, which is a bit more expensive.)

Now, however, the tension pool is much reduced! This means that the attacker cannot simply stab you and kill you, because there isn't enough tension. Instead, there will be desperate, flashy dodging and hand to hand as our disarmed hero tries to get enough breathing room to pull the saber back to his grip.

Obviously, bringing fingernails to a light saber fight is a losing proposition, and it is a rather desperate situation. But the point is that he is not simply slain. He has time to react, time to be interesting, maybe even time to get rescued or turn dark-side.

Even if he is outmaneuvered in terms of combat, he may still play cards that give him noncombat effects. He can, as mentioned, try to turn to the dark side. If he's clever, he'll play that blind guy walking through at this point. There are other options and resources he might think about using... it can be as deep or shallow as you please.


Tension pool can be used either with multi-purpose cards (does THIS and, at high tension, THIS, and THAT, if you can afford it) or it can be used with stepped cards (this can only be done at five or more tension).

It's possible to use multiple tension pools (one for each player, say), but I find this to be a bit pointless unless you're really looking to extend individual duels to more than twenty minutes of real time. For the vast majority of games, duels shouldn't take more than five minutes each.

Of course, tension pools are all about creating a level of drama rather than any kind of realism. Therefore, tension pools don't have to be about combat at all.

Imagine that we use the same rules, but apply them to a narrative. Instead of the GM coming up with all the narrative, the players and the GM "duel" over bits of the narrative using cards.

Here's a thought example:


The players are all from Assward Village, population 412. An evil wizard named Jim-Bob has set up shop near by. Jim-Bob the Thaumaturge has begun to poison the land and capture some of the villagers, so the players set out to take him down.

They play an "approach" card - they walk on over to Jim-Bob's Wizard's Tower Vertical Mobile Home and knock on the door. A token is added to the tension pool. If there had been a lot of tokens in the pool, they could have spent some to actually get inside the tower (entering a new phase of the story).

The GM plays a "monsters!" card. Because there's not much tension here, the monsters aren't really all that cool. A bunch of zombie ferns attack the players. If the game has combat details, there can be combat. Otherwise, you narrate the player's victory. Two tokens are added to the tension pool.

The players agree to play a "scale the walls!" card, which lets them get over various obstacles. There are no obstacles for them to get over. They played it just because it allows them to move forward a story phase by spending three tension.

So they scale the wall, climbing into Jim-Bob's Vertical Mobile Home. Phase two begins, the GM switches decks...


How complex this could get is arbitrary. While Jim-Bob is a rather simple threat, it is also quite possible to make the end boss ridiculously overpowered, and allow players to deal with lesser threats first, each of which reduces the end boss' power a bit. There are a lot of other, more story-fiat options.

Also, a good option would be to have a series of tiers: the gross tier ("approach the boss", "monsters attack") and one or more finer tiers (the actual fight, the journey through a now-dangerous forest). Every large-scale action involves dueling on smaller scales in order to actually get it done... and maybe build up some resources for later use.

The available options are limited only by cards and rules. How interesting it will be to play is largely a matter of how good you are at creating interesting card games.

A big factor here is longevity.

In most games, longevity is achieved through gaining levels, equipment, and so forth. In tension pool rules on combat, the same method can be used. However, with tension pool rules on story, you have to be a bit more clever.

The same basic mechanics will serve: the player needs to be able to change his deck, get new cards, and occasionally even gain a fundamental new power. This will give him enough to focus on so that he can have fun with the real fun part of the game: interacting with other players and the GM from various angles.

The iffy part is how to link that up emotionally, in the player's mind.

One way to do it is to make the player only partly his player character, and also partly something else. A concept. A god. A family. An ancestral spirit. A government. The sky is the limit, but you need to be careful to make sure it is emotionally involving.


Do you see what I'm talking about?


Christopher Weeks said...

I started this trying to organize my thoughts into a cohesive model, but it's not really working out for me, so I'm just going to fire off some related notions.

Whenever you write about the growing tension, moving toward resolution, it's clear that tension is a figure that is rising. And that makes sense. But whenever I think of implementing it, I keep coming up with a number that counts down and when it hit's zero, the conflict is resolved. A count-down seems more viscerally dramatic. But it also introduces the need to have a resolution at a certain point. The drama then dictates when the conflict ends, rather than just mucking about with the effects of the players' actions. I'm not sure how that works out in play.

If you do that, one way you could resolve the conflict when the drama peaks is to have a "tide" track with a counter that moves back and forth between the duel participants. But with every gimick like this, it's more overhead. Still, it *is* generic and you suggested that tracking three desired currencies was reasonable. Keeping the tide in your favor is one of those currencies.

I'm assuming that these cards/actions that are played have some formula behind them (but maybe not). So there is a relationship between taking a hit in one currency in order for gain in another. If that's the case, you could design the game so that maybe there are set cards people play or maybe not. Some or all of the available actions could be developed on the fly -- moving tokens around on a cardboard plaque (kind of a spreadsheet) to indicate the costs and benefits involved and then the narration of in-game events just has to match the noted effects. But this is really (I think) increasing the handling time of the action. (I mean, not like a D&D battle, but y'know, longer than five minutes might be a risk.)

And I'm *really* intrigued by the "series of tiers" idea you introduced. I'm actually imagining a sort of fractal drill-down where you don't have to specify what the tiers are, but instead just build a system that allows the players to "zoom in" on an interesting facet of the current conflict -- giving it closer attention. I like the idea that the scale and scope of all the currencies shrinks with each drill-down, but I'm not sure that's actually preferable and I'm also not coming up with any way to pull it off. As the bottom tier is resolved (what ever that means), focus returns to the tier above where that conflict continues. Etc. This allows the entire game to be framed as a single conflict -- though whether that's actually fun or not, I don't know -- but it's a neat idea...

GM: "OK, so you're the good guys and we want to defeat Jim-Bob. Our DramaCountdown is at ten. Go!"

Al: "I rally a lynch-m^h^h^h^h^h^h^h posse and we go bring that city-slicker to justice. <leer>" [triggers a drill-down to leading the mob away?]

Bea: "Wait, no one wants to go with you because of the fiasco last time." [triggers a drill-down to Al convincing the guys at the Elk's Club that this time it's different.]

GM: "Right, I'll start slow and play Hesitation -- the barflies are more interested in dollar taps. Drama doesn't change, the Tide moves one toward me..."


Regarding currencies that actions could affect, I'm imagining: Drama, Tide, Narrative Fiat, XP +/-, Initiative. What else?

Also, I like when the loser of a contest describes their loss.

Craig Perko said...

Originally, I did use a countdown model. However, I realized it worked better as a count-up model for these reasons:

1) You can spend it if you count up.

2) The match isn't intended to end at a specific moment. It's just intended to get higher and higher stakes until you're biting your nails: will he end it this turn? Next?

In practice, counting down makes it feel more like a race and less like a fight, so I avoid it these days...


In regards to other kinds of pools: I've run a variety of games, some with as many as four pools per player. Generally, I find that you only need one pool: additional pools add complexity but not depth and are difficult to balance.

However, I have used pools to track different kinds of resources - this pool is balance, that pool is carnage, that pool is magic, etc. It makes for a much more intricate game, and I think that is the secret to making it multiplayer rather than duels...

But when I talk about resources and currency, I don't necessarily mean more combat pools. For example, you might spend a turn gaining XP, or earning light side points, or some other thing that's not directly combat related at all!

While there should be a formula for creating balanced moves, in the interest of keeping the duels quick, I insist on "front-loading": you can make your own cards, but it has to be done on your own time, outside of combat. When you get in combat, what you have is what you have.

Keeps things moving.

Your "drill down" system is pretty much what I've been trying to do, but I haven't managed to create a game worth playing with it, yet.

The closest I got is that in any given situation, the player could choose to split the situation into three (approach, skirmish, finale) in order to break it into manageable chunks: each new situation would have only half the difficulty of the original.

The difficulties lie in making it fun... it's just TOO loose, TOO disorganized...

Christopher Weeks said...

I'm also really jazzed about multi-player combos using a system like what you're describing. I could play the Impending Doom action (maybe narrating the rising level of the lava-flow around the corner) in order to ratchet up the tension. Maybe I get a little xp bonus but nothing immediately tangible - but my real goal was to facilitate your killer-move that only works once tension is above six.

Similarly, I guess you have to decide as the designer -- if there is a system whereby the players and milk a conflict for bonuses by modulating the Drama, is that a flaw that needs to be corrected or something OK? On the one hand, I like clever abuse, on the other, modulating drama sounds pretty unfullfilling.

Craig Perko said...

Well, the whole point is that the players' tendency to powergame can be used for good instead of evil. It works especially well in my Bastard Jedi games...

You have to be careful, but if you do it right, when they "game the system" they end up making things way more interesting!

Ryan said...

This sounds like a really neat idea.

However, I just thought of something that might break the system: Dragon Ball Z. I haven't actually watched it myself, but I hear that entire episodes are dedicated to showing the guys get a little bit angrier and glowier. It seems like something like this might be easier to fall into.

"What's the tension level?"
"Over 9000!"
(Wow, that felt dirty.)

Craig Perko said...

Noooo! That's what the system is built to avoid!

This is all actual fighting - or actual things interfering with the fighting - so it's basically all ACTION, and it's all INTERESTING.

Of course, it could go DBZ, but... I haven't ever seen that happen...