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Old Wisdom From Vincent Baker

Somehow, I managed to miss this gem from Vincent until some one pointed me at it recently:
I have no criticism cred to back this up. Just amateur observations. So kick my butt if you gotta.

Suspense doesn't come from uncertain outcomes.

I have no doubt, not one shred of measly doubt, that Babe the pig is going to wow the sheepdog trial audience. Neither do you. But we're on the edge of our seats! What's up with that?

Suspense comes from putting off the inevitable.

What's up with that is, we know that Babe is going to win, but we don't know what it will cost.

Everybody with me still? If you're not, give it a try: watch a movie. Notice how the movie builds suspense: by putting complications between the protagonist and what we all know is coming. The protagonist has to buy victory, it's as straightforward as that. That's why the payoff at the end of the suspense is satisfying, after all, too: we're like ah, finally.

What about RPGs?

Yes, it can be suspenseful to not know whether your character will succeed or fail. I'm not going to dispute that. But what I absolutely do dispute is that that's the only or best way to get suspense in your gaming. In fact, and check this out, when GMs fudge die rolls in order to preserve or create suspense, it shows that suspense and uncertain outcomes are, in those circumstances, incompatible.

So here's a better way to get suspense in gaming: put off the inevitable.

Acknowledge up front that the PCs are going to win, and never sweat it. Then use the dice to escalate, escalate, escalate. We all know the PCs are going to win. What will it cost them?

Yeah, that's pretty much how I used to run my old convention games. Ryan Macklin and I have been talking about trying to recapture that spirit, something we've been calling Project Cowbell. I think this idea of Vincent's may figure pretty strongly in the meta-level mechanics.

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