Tension or suspense during internal conflicts

edited December 2013 in Play Advice
Just thinking out loud. One of the reasons people love combat in RPG is the sense of tension during an ongoing fight. Each time you roll, you don’t know whether you’ll hit or not; you don’t know how much damage you’ll make, or how much damage you’ll take. Etc, etc. Part of the fun too is that there seem to be so many tactical options on what you can do.

It seems that a few game systems attempt to do something similar with social conflict. Second hand descriptions of Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits come to mind, as well as as descriptions of how the Monkey (The-Storytelling-Game-of-the-Journey-to-the-West) handles “soft” conflicts via three strikes (much less tactical than combat, though).

I’ve been wondering if there might there be a way to represent the struggle of the internal conflict in a like manner, somehow staging it moment by moment as you would in combat.

I’ve considered converting internal neuroses or flaws into metaphorical monsters with stats, including hit points? If they defeat you, you succumb to your flaw. If you defeat them, you don’t succumb to them at least at that juncture (that also leads me to the other question of when can a character completely overcome them forever, but I haven’t thought that through either).

To me, a metaphorical monster sounds interesting on paper, but I have a feeling it might make the struggle feel like less like an internal struggle, even if you know it’s just a metaphor. Maybe each time your PC gets ‘hit’, something happens outside to represent that. If your PC has a heroin addiction, and is being tempted by a friend, maybe getting ‘hit’ means that he starts counting how much money he has on, getting hit again means he starts walking with his friend towards the dope dealer’s place. Hitting the monster, maybe means that he stops and starts rationalizing why maybe he shouldn’t, etc. When you defeat the monster, it means you’ve overcome it (if only for the time being); when it defeats you, it means you succumb to your flaw or problem this time.

Might there be other/better ways of representing internal conflicts so as to create tension the way that combat does?

Comments

  • The "metaphysical monster" angle seems a bit overwrought, and doesn't seem to do much for the gameplay. You have to model something much more solidly with mechanics. What Monsterhearts does with strings and conditions is one good example of how you might reflect this with social standing--it turns them into resources to be used.

    If you want to reflect interior conflict, maybe have players put points into various things (such as values, compulsions, relationships), GUMSHOE-style. You can spend a point in one thing to shift those points to another thing that's more tactically viable at the moment.

    Actually...are you familiar with A Dirty World? It does this, come to think of it. Your character is rated on multiple Qualities, and they're constantly sliding back and forth to reflect your character's state. Things like Innocence vs. Corruption, Defiance vs. Wrath.
  • edited December 2013
    Each time you roll, you don’t know whether you’ll hit or not; you don’t know how much damage you’ll make, or how much damage you’ll take. Etc, etc.
    Uncertainty.
    ...or how much damage you’ll take. Etc, etc.
    Investment. (Your character's life)
    Part of the fun too is that there seem to be so many tactical options on what you can do.
    Decision and Effort.
    Might there be other/better ways of representing internal conflicts so as to create tension the way that combat does?
    You need something that includes uncertainty, investment, decision and effort. Dilemma is one thing that can include all of them. What you can do is to think about as many uncertainties you can, combine them with any kind of decisions, efforts and investments.

    What happens for example if one player has a character and the others plays it's psychoses? Uncertainty may come from the other players' ideas, decision from suggestions made by the other players to trying to bribe the one player into doing stuff or could be to have several goals (as either player) but have to prioritize a few of them as you go along, investment can be to put something to risk in the gain of getting something else, and effort in trying to play out a social struggle within the group.
  • edited December 2013
    The "metaphysical monster" angle seems a bit overwrought, and doesn't seem to do much for the gameplay. You have to model something much more solidly with mechanics. What Monsterhearts does with strings and conditions is one good example of how you might reflect this with social standing--it turns them into resources to be used.

    If you want to reflect interior conflict, maybe have players put points into various things (such as values, compulsions, relationships), GUMSHOE-style. You can spend a point in one thing to shift those points to another thing that's more tactically viable at the moment.

    Actually...are you familiar with A Dirty World? It does this, come to think of it. Your character is rated on multiple Qualities, and they're constantly sliding back and forth to reflect your character's state. Things like Innocence vs. Corruption, Defiance vs. Wrath.

    Yeah, I agree. I like the idea of the metaphor as a concept, but mechanically not sure. I have not had a chance to look into Monsterhearts, but have looked into reviews of A Dirty World before and have been very intrigued by the sliding point mechanic. That only gives me a partial look, though.

    How would, for example, an internal conflict look in this game where a character is battling the temptation to stick a needle in himself?

    What I’m wondering is if extended suspense and tension can be somehow inserted into playing out that kind of internal struggle, which in my mind seems to require that a conflict be broken up into more than one roll (or resolution). Like, it would still be interesting to resolve that internal conflict in one roll, but that kind of makes the suspense short lived.

    You need something that includes uncertainty, investment, decision and effort. Dilemma is one thing that can include all of them. What you can do is to think about as many uncertainties you can, combine them with any kind of decisions, efforts and investments.

    What happens for example if one player has a character and the others plays it's psychoses? Uncertainty may come from the other players' ideas, decision from suggestions made by the other players to trying to bribe the one player into doing stuff or could be to have several goals (as either player) but have to prioritize a few of them as you go along, investment can be to put something to risk in the gain of getting something else, and effort in trying to play out a social struggle within the group.
    Nice. I think that as long as that process took some time via jockeying or something, it would kind of maintain tension/suspense or sort of build up to it before it’s released.


  • What happens for example if one player has a character and the others plays it's psychoses?
    That's more or less the case in Wraith 1st Edition with each player having a "shadow" played by one of the other players.

  • According to the Czege principle, which is never wrong*, you need to have different people on each side of the conflict, or at least some rule mechanism for adjudicating said conflict, or else it's just watching the player dither, which is something we get enough of as it is. I think there's some risk involved in externalizing the moral conflicts of the player character, in that they'll become disconnected from the emotional aspect of roleplaying, but it's an interesting idea.

    An interesting game using the same "A Dirty World" mechanics is "Better Angels", where you play a human who is empowered by a demon, the human's goal is to use the demon's power without being too corrupted or harming too many people, while the demon, controlled by the GM, wants just the opposite. It would be interesting to compare and contrast this with the similarly themed Sorcerer, which explicitly doesn't use rules to model internal conflicts, except for the Humanity rating which is more a marker of what that character has done.

    *for some values of wrong
  • edited December 2013
    The "metaphysical monster" angle seems a bit overwrought, and doesn't seem to do much for the gameplay. You have to model something much more solidly with mechanics. What Monsterhearts does with strings and conditions is one good example of how you might reflect this with social standing--it turns them into resources to be used.

    If you want to reflect interior conflict, maybe have players put points into various things (such as values, compulsions, relationships), GUMSHOE-style. You can spend a point in one thing to shift those points to another thing that's more tactically viable at the moment.

    Actually...are you familiar with A Dirty World? It does this, come to think of it. Your character is rated on multiple Qualities, and they're constantly sliding back and forth to reflect your character's state. Things like Innocence vs. Corruption, Defiance vs. Wrath.

    Yeah, I agree. I like the idea of the metaphor as a concept, but mechanically not sure. I have not had a chance to look into Monsterhearts, but have looked into reviews of A Dirty World before and have been very intrigued by the sliding point mechanic. That only gives me a partial look, though.

    How would, for example, an internal conflict look in this game where a character is battling the temptation to stick a needle in himself?

    What I’m wondering is if extended suspense and tension can be somehow inserted into playing out that kind of internal struggle, which in my mind seems to require that a conflict be broken up into more than one roll (or resolution). Like, it would still be interesting to resolve that internal conflict in one roll, but that kind of makes the suspense short lived.
    I think that would mostly depend on how you frame the scene. This works far better in, say, a one-on-one game (ooh! ADW would be great for a one-on-one game!) than in a group game. But here's how I'd do it...

    I would look at the surrounding circumstances, and see the Qualities as either weak points where the character might cave or bastions of strength that they can draw on. We'd alternate actions, and my actions would describe a thought or mentality that attacks one of the character's Qualities, putting it down. e.g., "Your thoughts turn to the wretched state that you've been reduced to by your murky actions. I'm rolling 6 dice to attack your Purity." or "This one's for you, and nobody else. It's about time you did something for you. I'm rolling 6 dice to attack your Generosity." (Actually, I might be tempted to use the player's own stats as the GM roll. So it'd be something like "I'm rolling your Persuasive Corruption to attack your Purity." Dang, with quality sliding, that'd be awesome!)

    The player would oppose my roll with a roll of their own, such as "Part of me wants to do it, but I know that once I start, I can't turn back. I'm rolling Understanding Honesty to defend." Then, after the roll, they'd flip it around and go on the offensive, trying to knock down a generic "Temptation" number. Come to think of it, the GM's pool is probably Temptation + the most appropriate character stat.

    Okay, that could be seriously cool, actually. My interest in this game (which I had previously shelved) has perked up.

    By the way, Greg Stolze has put out a cheat sheet PDF that explains the Qualities. Neat reference.

    EDIT: I want to make this a subsystem for ADW now; I can even see how it fits together and gets triggered.
  • @CarpeGuitarrem

    That does sound like a pretty awesome application of the mechanic, and I think it's pretty much what I am looking for.

    Thanks for the link by the way. I will ask Santa to put ADW on my stocking this Xmas.

    If you get around to building this subsystem, please share!
  • A Dirty World is really good because it presents a psychological mechanism for character change in the mechanics: you must become brutal in order to do brutal things effectively. You become more brutal by doing brutal things (even if you're not initially effective at them). It externalizes your ethical situation just like a noir character's ethical situation should be externalized.
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