Interesting Tension

Part 1 of ? In the Cultivating A Storytelling Mindset series

Last month, guest writer Paul Mitchener talked about how to use history in fruitful, productive and most importantly non-harmful ways in your roleplaying. One thing that jumped out at me from that piece is that I’m definitely more interested in exploring interesting, difficult tension in my games. History is a great source of inspiration for interesting tension because humans are messy and capable of twisting ourselves into moral pretzels. It also clarified for me that without the context leading to that interesting tension, we’re left with aesthetics and mood boards.

Interesting Tension

It’s true tho. One of the reasons many storygames fixate on negative emotions!

What I mean by interesting tension is a set of contexts that complicate otherwise easy decisions. Off the top of my head, here are some examples of what I think of interesting tensions:

  • The overlapping demands and constraints of class and gender that conspire to keep lovers apart in Regency era games like Good Society. Rich and poor alike face an uphill battle when they love outside their classes. Men are expected to be the instigator in romance, and resort to violence (perhaps physical but maybe also social) in competition for a woman’s hand; women are expected to seek financial security for their extended family, but are also – in the rules of the genre – prone to pursuing true love and happiness. Internal tensions, external tensions, it’s great stuff. I love, love Regency romance fiction. I love it because it’s so fraught. 

Another example: 

  • Your nation is competing with other states to colonize and exploit lands they’ve recently discovered. Back home, those nations are in varying states of internal unrest or outright war, so the colonization is a proxy for all that. It’s one kind of game if you’re just going to play out a string of battles against, dunno, the primitive hordes that threaten all the colonists. It’s another game entirely when you stop treating them like faceless obstacles and start treating them like conflicted, complex communities. Now you’re facing an insurgency, working out delicate temporary alliances, recruiting collaborators, falling in love with your alleged enemies, questioning conflicting and contradictory orders from remote masters. That one where you go beat on the primitives, ehhh and yikes. That second one is full of interesting tension with tons of context. I love decolonized frontier games because they’re so fraught. The fraught-ness is the point.
Hint: it wasn’t awesome because of the giant gun and crazy cars.

What tensions do you find interesting? Look at the fiction you like to consume: I’ll bet it’s not a string of interesting fight scenes, right? I know I get bored out of my tears when a movie or show features contextless violence (off the top of my head: Into the Badlands did this to me — it might’ve gotten more interesting later but the first episodes chased me off). But raise the stakes and now the story is so much more interesting. 

Identify Internal and External Contexts

While the specific tension points are where we want to end up, let’s start by thinking through the context that causes that tension. This is good to do if you’re starting with an established setting, premise or historical context.

Internal context is limited to the character’s makeup. That might be deeply held religious values, internalized cultural constraints, needs, wants, vows, loyalty, past history.

External context arises from setting materials. That might be class, race, culture, externally enforced religious or cultural values, or external time pressures (impending natural disasters, ecological collapse, arrival of an enemy force). Personally? I prefer making the external context internal. Don’t let the characters just be cutouts for larger sociopolitical factors.

Once you’ve thought through your internal and external contexts, you can start poking at pairings and see where you say “Oh, that’d be interesting to explore.” So from the short lists above, we could poke at:

  • Principled faith values, versus a classes that treats faith as frivolous or dumb.
  • Indoctrination into a warrior caste that simply cannot ignore insults, versus a tradition of tribes that exchange insults as a way of testing one another’s mettle.
  • Two races that believe the other is an implacable enemy, versus your character’s love for a member of the other race.
  • The coming meteor that’s going to cause unspeakable destruction, versus a character’s vow to his family to carry a parent’s ashes to a distant traditional burial site.
  • My membership in a wizard’s covenant, versus your membership in the church that’s committed to snuffing out wizardry. And we’re siblings.

Some folks may read these as no-win situations, but that’s thinking about play with a win/lose mindset. In a storytelling mindset, this is the good stuff. This is where everyone gets to make a statement about their character’s values. The point isn’t to win, it’s to ask interesting questions and produce interesting answers.

The goal here is exploration. You absolutely, positively cannot answer these questions for the players! And players cannot ask the GM what the “right answer” is. Whatever answer they provide, it has to mean something. It has to change the game in an irrevocable way.

Another red flag: If you find the players trying to Batman their way through situations (i.e. both save the bus full of civilians about the plunge off the bridge and keep the bank from exploding, whatever), they’re trying to win the situation. Totally coming from the wrong place. I can’t even say “make it literally impossible,” because that won’t address the player’s understanding of the point of play at this particular table. Batmanning might be totally suitable in some games, and it’s a creative tactical challenge. I’ve had this happen at tables and the only way I’ve ever been able to address it is to the player: make an assertive, irrevocable statement, and I promise I’ll honor your statement and show how it’s changed the world.

Reverse Engineering

You can reverse-engineer this process as well: think about the interesting questions, then take it a step back and ask why a question is interesting. 

Here’s what I mean by reverse-engineering. Let’s say I want to explore loyalty as a theme. I start by asking stuff about loyalty: Who’s worthy of your loyalty? What would it take to become disloyal? What benefits are there to loyalty, even in the face of uncertainty? Lots of places to go. 

I’d start by thinking through context that would lead to these questions being asked in an organic way. What’s great about the nation/caste/society/guild/whatever to which a player might pledge or feel loyalty? And then, what’s terrible about them? What other groups might compete for your loyalty? And what’s great and terrible about them? Internally, what values might a character have that were already in conflict with loyalty to an external body? Is there a faith in conflict with a nation’s goals? Are there family ties that can be fruitfully threatened by conflicting needs? 

The questions aren’t nearly as interesting as the context in which they’ll be asked. Work on the context, and you’ll also find new questions getting asked you never even thought about. 

Avoid Easy Answers (Except When You Need One)

Oscar knew the score.

If your impulse, either as a GM or player, is to look for easy answers, to avoid fraught, interesting tension, my advice is to push back on that to start. Or lean all the way into it, but do it in an intentional way. Tell the GM: “Okay, my commander just blindly hates the orcs. Can’t abide them, won’t negotiate, scorched earth. Let God sort ‘em out.” Now that commander has herself become a new source of interesting tension. How does an implacable personality get along in this world?

My personal aesthetic is to caution against GMs ever letting the game get away with easy answers. There are no unbreakable social rules, there are simply rules that nobody has yet broken. There are no faceless hordes that are just fine to murder off, there are societies with their own interests and internal conflicts. There can even be potentially lethal consequences – that’s the highest stakes, right? The punishment for treason might very well be death. Is it still worth it to question your orders, or your faith? 

But also: not every game needs to address every potentially fraught tension. Not all tensions are interesting to everyone, and this is where intentionality on the players’ side is a skill worth cultivating — both for the players to develop, but for the GM to recognize. I may find class, society and gender all super interesting in a Regency game, but I’ve also played Good Society at a hardcore-queer table where the gender stuff was just off the table. Not even a thing. It worked okay, and we leaned harder into social tensions to make up for it: tension between circles of friends, family and religious groups. It wasn’t the ideal experience for me in that moment, but good grief, everything is negotiable. 

Each easy answer turns down or off a whole set of potentially interesting tensions. That’s the cost. The cost might very well be worth paying, particularly if a topic is behind a line or veil, or has been X-carded, or is, for whatever reason, just not where folks want to go. Sometimes discomfort is okay too. I’m not smart or arrogant enough to tell you when to push through discomfort in the hopes of finding something interesting on the other side. 

Coping Strategies

One neat strategy is to dress up difficult context, to provide some distance from the subject matter. You don’t want to hit the men/women gender line so hard but you still like the idea of conflicting interpersonal constraints. Maybe it’s caste, or age, or profession that separates folks, and keeps the players from seeking easy answers. It’s an interesting critical thinking challenge, isn’t it? What are gender roles? Is it really all just performative tradition? And so on.

Moving an historical game into a fantasy or sci-fi setting is another go-to, but it’s also easy to trip over or edit out the parts that made the history problematic. Moving your Old West game into a space frontier, Firefly style, is great for recontextualizing North/South antebellum tensions, and doing interesting things with culture and community. But if you’ve simply removed the Native American component, well…you’ve just re-colonized your Old West game and given it blasters. Firefly was iffy on this point because the Reavers were a mindless, faceless, implacably violent enemy (yikes), later revealed in Serenity to be victims of science gone wrong (total erasure, double yikes). Is erasure better than othering? That’s a game of racism bingo I really don’t want to play.

Move Past Aesthetic Boards

Having worked in the past on aesthetics-intensive properties (Mutant Chronicles 2nd edition, Deadlands, others), I’m intensely, acutely aware of the costs of reducing setting and character to aesthetic boards. This is also why I squirm when I read the phrase “rule of cool.” Slapping together decontextualized cool shit means asking nothing but easy questions and demanding nothing more than easy answers. Make your setting easy enough, and your game is reduced to high-fives about each other’s coolness. Which, whatever, do what you want at your table, I’m not your dad. And under many circumstances, I like celebrating each other’s aesthetic contributions. Cool moments are awesome.

I guess coolness, for me, is more than cool imagery. It’s discovering surprising, satisfying answers to difficult questions…and seeing what new questions get asked as a result. The point of tension is to release it, to complete the pattern, and create new unresolved tensions waiting to reveal undiscovered patterns.

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