I talk a lot about how creating tension is good for a game, but don’t really talk about what that means. Today I want to take the time to talk a bit about what tension is, when it’s a good thing, when it isn’t, and why it’s a valuable part of any gaming experience.
Tension in this context is the feeling of stress or strain people have when making a decision. Whether it’s opening a door, choosing their action in combat, or deciding whether to save the life of an NPC, this is the feeling you want them to have, this is what means they’re invested in the stakes. There are lots of ways to create tension, both thematically and mechanically, but at the at the end of the day, that’s your goal. What makes the game fun is interesting, meaningful tension. This is true for most games, even games like Monopoly. The tension in Monopoly centers around the dice. Hoping you’ll land on a good property or avoid the property of an opponent, and knowing that the dice, not you, are the ultimate arbiters of your fate.
Another game that uses mechanics to create tension is Dread, a great horror/suspense rpg that uses a Jenga tower instead of dice. Players’ hands will actually shake, knowing that the fate of their character and the story will depend on their dexterity and careful selection of pieces, with each pull getting successively more difficult.
I can take a guess at what you’re thinking. Stress is not good. We play games to avoid stress, after all. Well, no. We don’t. In his book The Grasshopper, philosopher Bernard Suits defines a game as “Voluntarily overcoming unnecessary obstacles”, and this is true of all games. In golf, he says, the goal is get the ball in the hole. We add obstacles by moving the hole far away, making you hit the ball with a club, and making the winner the person who does it in the least strokes. All of these rules add tension to the game, and players voluntarily accept these obstacles. Games aren’t about avoiding stress, they’re about overcoming stress. We want those tense moments, and moments to be tense, they have to be meaningful. Whether it’s a football game coming down to a single kick, or wondering if you can really survive another night in this dungeon, the feeling is essentially the same.
At the same time, there is such a thing as too much tension. Imagine going out for a friendly game of golf only to find out that if you don’t win a game against a pro, someone will shoot your grandma. There’s now a lot riding on every stroke, and that tension is going to start to wear on you. It doesn’t feel like a game anymore, and that’s the same with rpgs. If there’s too much tension, it can paralyze players, or make it hard for them to come back. Someone told me once, after their character had made a particularly difficult choice with a lot riding on it “Jim, your game is too stressful.” She felt guilty about the choice she’d made, even though she thought it was the right one. I was flattered by the kind of investment that takes, but also took the message to heart. If the stakes are constantly high, or there isn’t a period where the players can relax, then tension is going to tax them. Think about the seventh inning stretch, or better yet, halftime. There are points in the game where the pressure is off. They remind you of what’s coming next, but don’t require much.
Off and on, I’m going to talk about how we create tension, different kinds of tension that can be created, and some ways you can relieve tension in various games, but I thought it was important to get the idea out here first. What kinds of tense experiences have you had playing games?