I wanted to revisit the topic from earlier in the month. Not that I don't think I said what I needed to say there, or that there wasn't some good discussion on what constitutes making or breaking tension, but there is more around the topic that I want to discuss. Now, I've talked about what I'm going to talk about here before, so maybe you want to read that before going on. I may reference it a few times, or put a new spin to points made about a year ago.
Now, before we begin I want to say three things.
1) I'm sorry for some of that riding in the old blog post. I think my blog writing has come a long way since then, and there are some parts of that post that are just horrible.
2) Like I mentioned in the end of that post, what we are discussing should only be used if the player wants what they're doing to be more tense/dramatic, or if it is the main focus of the session/campaign in much the same way combat usually is.
3) The assumption here is that your group, like me, feels that reducing things to a single dice roll removes the tension/significance of the act. Thus, this is designed to increase die rolls needed, much as if we were using another conflict resolution method.
Rereading that post however, I think I had the right idea when it came to climbing. The best way to add in tension to a situation - assuming you're not building a system specifically around it - is to treat it like combat. This isn't a particularly original idea of mine. Sufficiently Advanced (full disclosure: Creator is a friend/acquaintance of mine) has rules for social, mental, and physical combat. The penalties for being 'killed' (reduced to 0 'wounds') in social and mental can be quite severe too, with things such as being made suicidal, or completely brainwashed being up for grabs. The game even has a system for handling which resolves first, as if you try to cut me with an insult, but I'm trying to hit you at the same time, odds are my punch resolves first.
The beauty of this is though, is that it can open up the door to all sorts of fun things that are no longer arbitrary. With a mature group, you now have a process to handle things like a PC trying to seduce someone, complete with the target having ways out (losing the social fight? bring it to mental, or physical). It also added a tension to certain dialogues when you could see your "social hit points" going down, and knowing that if you hit a certain level the person could really hinder your ability to function for a while. Was it perfect? No. Did it work? From what I saw when I played, yes it did. My only regret was that when I played, I hadn't really woken up to how fun certain types of gaming could be. Not the way I do now.
However, Sufficiently Advanced is a system designed around doing this, and I specifically mentioned not building one. So, how do you do it then? Well, honestly, hit points are still the answer. Now, this works best in systems where your HP don't give wound penalties, and are instead supposed to represent your character "getting out of the way, but just barely", or otherwise measure their energy level. Like how they work in D&D, and in most other D20 games. Why does it work best here? Well, because if they represent the characters ability to narrowly avoid damage, or their energy level, and don't represent actual wounds present - like it says they don't - then you can totally give hit point hits for failed rolls on physical exertion.
With that, the mountain in a climbing scenario can, literally, hit back mechanically. The player goes to climb, and they manage to lop off a good 20-30 feet of mountain in that round. The mountain then makes a check for difficulty, rolling against the player's climbing skill. It hits, and suddenly our adventurer finds that his handhold wasn't as sturdy as it looks. He starts to fall, but manages to catch himself - wrenching his shoulder for 7 hit points of damage. Perhaps the adventurer has the option to instead 'heal' the mountain those 7 points instead of taking them, or do a half and half, but the point is that the mountain has just struck back.
Where this idea would fail to work is in systems like World of Darkness. Perhaps someone more familiar with the system than I could make it work, but the lower hit boxes, types of damage, and all of that fun stuff I think would add other levels of complications. The problem with wound penalties also comes in, in that it can make the climbs impossible to finish as the person gets more wounded. Though, at the same time, that could simply be the case of becoming exhausted while climbing the mountain too.
For other things, I'd need to give this more thought. But as a beginning, I think I like it. Like I said at the beginning, you'd need to keep it to times when either the player wanted to focus on it ("Hey, I want climbing this mountain to be bad ass"), or when it is going to be the big focus for a major part of the game ("This mountain is this sessions encounter. Good luck")
I'll probably test something like this out soon in one of my games. I'll let you know how it works if I can pull it off. For now though, what are your thoughts on the subject? Neat idea? Bad idea? Have you tried something like it before?