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The Last Dark Art

Five: Pressure Points: Constructing the Event

by Dan Layman-Kennedy
Mar 19,2003

 

The Last Dark Art: Exploring the Gaming Aesthetic

Five: Pressure Points: Constructing the Event

by Dan Layman-Kennedy

I'm addicted to stress, that's the way that I get things done
If I'm not under pressure then I sleep too long
And I hang around like a bum
And I think I'm going nowhere and that makes me nervous
Everybody's out to get me but I feel alright
Everybody's out to get me but I feel alright
Everybody's out to get me but I feel alright
Everybody's thinking 'bout me.

-- Jim's Big Ego, "Stress"

Pressure (to borrow a favorite metaphor of disciplinarians) is the factor that separates a lump of coal from a precious gem. It's also the factor that separates a dramatic story from a lifeless one; pressure is the thing that makes things happen, the hook whereby nearly all great tales hang. Way back in the first installment of this column, I suggested that making characters interesting is possibly the most important consideration when making initial choices. Pressure, then, is the other side of that equation, the thing that truly makes stories interesting by holding the attention of both audience and characters -- and as we've seen, in RPGs, "audience" and "character" occupy closer space to one another than in other narrative media, making the potential import of pressure significant indeed.

(And by now, I imagine there are a great many students of literary criticism out there already taking issue with my statements, prepared to advise me that the word I'm looking for is conflict. In some ways, it's a fine distinction, and I'm using "pressure" to mean almost the same thing -- except that "conflict" loads on some connotations I'm not quite comfortable with. I'd say that conflict is one source of pressure, but not the only one; pressure implies a range of possibilities beyond two opponents with mutually exclusive aims.)

But more than simply being a means to sustain interest, pressure is the basic machine by which plots are constructed, because pressure is the catalyst for the creation of the smallest unit of plot -- the event.

An event occurs when pressure is placed on a situation in sufficient quantity to force an action to be taken to relieve it. (It's that simple -- deceptively so.) Hopefully, at least from a dramatic standpoint, the resolution of the first pressure creates a new one, forcing a new event, and so on until you've built a plot -- a series of events which lead to a resolution of one variety or another. It's an instinctive progression, and in some ways brain-dead easy; we can recognize the pattern in any of the great stories. Frodo discovers he has the One Ring, and that if it stays where it is the Shire will be taken apart (pressure), and so decides to leave his home (an event). Only now he and his friends are alone in the wilderness being hunted by Ringwraiths (new pressure, directly resulting from the resolution of the first one) and have to get safely to Bree to meet Gandalf (new event) ^ and so on to the slopes of Mount Doom. But without the initial pressure to force him to do something, Frodo stays where he is and grows old in the safety of Bag End. No pressure, no event, no story.

Fortunately, due partially to the inherent structure of RPGs and partially to the inherent sadism of the kind of people who tend to become GMs, most gamers have at least an instinctive grasp of what a pressured situation looks like. ("Okay, your weapons are gone, your spells are used up, you're all down to a few hit points, and the tunnel has collapsed behind you. The Legions of Asmodeus, in burning armor, astride hell-steeds with fangs of steel and glowing eyes, their black swords drawn, are advancing on you, a thousand strong. What do you do? What do you do?") Unfortunately, it's all too easy to use pressure clumsily, or as a means of railroading a plot, or without a real understanding of the consequences of events. Remember that RPGs are an improvisational form; the GM who uses pressure to force the players to do exactly what he wants them to do might as well be writing a script for them (and would probably be happier doing so). Most players, even in hack-and-slash games, don't want to feel as though they're being made to jump through hoops -- that's antithetical in many ways to the spirit of roleplaying. Creating a pressured situation that's dramatically interesting isn't the same thing as pressuring the players to dance to your tune.

At this point, it should be clear that the GM's job is not to write a "plot" for the players. The GM's job is to introduce pressure, in sufficient quantity that the characters will be encouraged to act to resolve it. When they take this first action, the first event of the story has taken place, and the GM's job becomes to evaluate the new situation and decide what new pressures are now at work. In this way, the plot is simply something that happens of its own accord, and the shape of the events themselves may come as a surprise to all. This is why it's such a good thing to be open, as a GM, to all possibilities, to any choice the players may make. The key to keeping the story moving is to have a firm understanding of the game-world and the consequences of whatever action is taken. If the characters, confronted with the pressures of that first scene (or any scene), do something completely outrageous and unexpected -- well, let them. And then let them deal with whatever logically follows. A good GM will do this without malice or vindictiveness; the point is not that the plot is a competition between players and referee, but, as I've said elsewhere, a story that's being told collectively. A player who isn't on a power-trip of his own is going to find that dealing with the consequences of events he helped to create is very rewarding.

Indeed, the input of the players can be a key factor in introducing pressures that have the right kind of dramatically engaging effect on the game. A good player builds a character with a number of plot-hooks ready-made for a GM to apply stresses to and make the scenario personal - which is always much more interesting than an adventure which feels like any old heroes could have been dropped into it. Obvious plot-hooks can come in the form of the Disadvantages or Flaws most point-based systems use in character creation (though intriguing Advantages or Merits or whatever can also serve the same purpose), but even in systems without such options, a well-fleshed-out backstory can give a GM with the properly diabolical mindset a place to apply a personalized sort of pressure. (And this is also a good reason for a GM to consider carefully before vetoing an especially outre character concept -- the odds are it's got an angle to explore from the standpoint of creating pressured situations.) Good characters in the narrative sense -- characters who hold our interest -- are people with something at stake, usually the more the better. Once the GM has a finger on the pulse of what that is, and can create a situation that threatens to shake its foundations, half the work's been done, and the events will probably unfold like anything with just a little shove in the right direction.

Once again: the two real keys to making this work in practice (from the perspective of the players as well as the GM) are flexibility and an understanding of consequences. These go very much hand-in-hand. Flexibility is vital in making sure the events are truly in the players' hands and not following some prearranged design of the GM's; understanding consequences keeps the ball in the air and provides a constant supply of new pressures directly resulting from the resolution of each event. A GM who keeps these two things in mind is much less likely to try and talk players out of whatever outrageous scheme they come up with, assuming she's keeping enough cards up her sleeve to keep them interested once they inevitably short-circuit the outline she prepared. But, conversely, once players really have to deal with the outcome of what they do, they're less likely to act like munchkins and more likely to make considered, in-character decisions genuinely based on the pressures they're facing.

It's the little things that get you
It's the little things that get you
It's the little things that get you
when you weren't paying attention.

-- Jim's Big Ego, "Stress"

One other thing to keep in mind when considering what pressures to introduce in a game, both as GM and player: While it's tempting (and often good) to keep turning up the volume on pressure by piling on increasingly outrageous stresses of situation, remember that a very small thing can become a very high stake, provided only that someone wants it badly enough. Newspapers and history books (and, while we're at it, novels and plays and all sorts of other fictions) are filled with accounts of people doing extreme, inexplicable things for reasons that seem completely trivial given the distance of an outside perspective. But trivial is a terribly subjective matter; just think of any stupid argument you've had just for the sake of the stubborn need to be right, and crank that up to a life-or-death ideology. And importance is often a matter of context as well -- the trivialities of one time and place can easily be the world-shakers of another. (In the nightmarish dark-ages world of Clive Barker's play Crazyface, the secret of chocolate is the Maguffin that drives the plot and inspires people to kill or die for its sake.) Don't underestimate the potential of very small things to become matters of great importance, and thus sources of pressure with which to make the lives of the PCs difficult.

And don't think, either, that life-threatening situations are the only source of truly diabolical pressure. The pressure in Waiting for Godot is the result of characters with everything to lose being forced to stay in a situation where "nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful." See if the same thing works in your game; after all, nothing pisses off most player characters like lack of information, so arrange things so that their only hope of reaching their goal involves being both isolated and in the dark, and see what kind of trouble they can get themselves into. Even if nothing immediately bad happens to them (at least, nothing that can be pinned on the GM), the waiting's going to start killing them soon enough -- and the pressure will be on.

Next month: Make a big bonfire out of your rulebooks! Well, not really. And not for the reasons your religious uncle wants you to, either. Come back and find out.


(Author's note: For the major idea behind this column, I am immeasurably indebted to Professor Frank Gagliano, who has been teaching playwrighting at West Virginia University since time out of mind and in whose classroom I first had my eyes opened to what really makes stories work. Any student at Frank's knee quickly learns why "pressure" -- rendered, in his artistic-genteel New York accent, as "preshuh" -- is a holy word in the crafting of stories. "Put the preshuh on your characters," says he. "Put 'em in the preshuh-cookuh." So may we all; thanks, Frank.)

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