What would you do if someone had a gun on you? What would you do if someone was threatening your friends? Your family? Your loved ones? What would you do if someone took everything away from you, or if someone else gave you the opportunity to take it back or at least get revenge? When you think about these questions, most people will think of what they would do, but when confronted with the actual situation you never know what will happen. Luckily, not many of us will ever actually be confronted with these situations. However, that doesn't mean you can't come close at the gaming table.
I've spoken about choices and consequences on here before, and that is ultimately what I am talking about here again, but for this I want to talk about how you make these choices hurt. So how do you do that? Well, let's look at it in three simple steps.
Step 1 - The Set Up
So, the first part of your problem is you need to make the character and the player care about a connection. This works by throwing out strings and seeing which one the player latches onto. Which one they show interest in. This could be things that gives their character power, or advances, or just something random that comes across as meaningful. An IC relationship with a significant other, a business venture, or almost anything. So just throw out those strings, play up the relations, and look for your player to start nibbling. As soon as they do, give them feed back. If they give you an inch back, give them 6 inches on the return and see what happens. This can increase your prep time, but when your players see that things they follow up on gives them returns it will also help give your game a life of its own. It also hooks the players in, makes them invest, and investment brings care into the fold. Your player will care about whatever this is. When they care, and their player cares, you can then hurt them with it.
Step 2 - The Execution
So, your player cares, your character cares, so what do you do next? You threaten it. You don't threaten it in a small way either, you threaten it in a big way. Oh sure, you can do things like "The ninja overlord just kidnapped your girlfriend" if you want to start up an adventure with a personal threat to them. However, you know what works even better? "Choose, you come after me, or you save your girlfriend", or even better, "Which is more important to you? The wife/mother/brother/loved one, or the business enterprise you've spent all game setting up?"
Put the player in the position to choose between two things they care about, and watch what happens. Now, keep in mind you need to be careful with this. Don't be a predator, don't rake the player over the coals, and don't hurt them needlessly. Do it, but be careful about it. The idea is to ramp up the anxiety and the tension, not to ruin the fun.
Step 3 - The Follow-up
After the choice has been made, you need to follow it up. Don't just have it be the choice is done and boom, you need to keep gonig with it. The same way you did in the set up. The item must be relevant even after it is gone, or has been threatened, as it was before hand. You need to show the player why they cared, why it was worth what it was. If they sacrificed to keep it safe, then show them that that was worth it. But play it up, reward them and punish them with it. Don't do one or the other, do both. Reward them with what they gained, or kept. Punish them with what they lsot to keep it. Keep both in moderation, but show them that it mattered.
After that, you're done. I can't stress enough that you need to guage things to the player. Don't hurt the player's enjoyment of the game, and don't hound them constantly. Space it out, use it sparingly, but make it count when you do do it. Light taps leading to hard punches, light taps and then nothing, rest periods, these all need to be balanced out to keep things moving along. The most important thing though is to keep your player engaged and caring about what is going on. Leave leads, wait for the nibble, and then respond when they do nibble.
Anything I missed? Other thoughts? I'd love to hear them.