One of the rules in narratives, and one of the tricks you'll see a lot of storytellers reference, is that whenever you're stuck think of the worst possible thing that could happen, and then make it happen. The idea is that whenever your characters are starting to rest on their laurels, you spur them to action with something bad happening. Rebels escape from capture and now hanging around a small town? Have the King's bounty hunters show up in force looking for them. Gambler just lose his whole roll on a bad turn of the c ards? One of the people he owes money to shows up looking to get paid because now she needs the money, and right now. It's good advice, but when it comes to RPGs and longer narratives there's only one problem: if the characters never feel like they got a win - no matter how small - you're going to break them, or worse, you're going to break their players.
Today, I want to talk about this.
A few years ago I wanted to run a game where the PCs became hunters. Something akin to Supernatural or Hunter: The Vigil, but in my own world. I decided it would be best, and fun, to introduce the players to this worl with the re-introduction of the supernatural and undead to the world. As such, the PCs ended up in a "Left 4 Dead" situation where they were in a city struggling to survive against all manner of beasties and creatures.
The game was fun, but it never lived past being a mini-campaign. The reason? Emotional burn out. I hit the PCs hard with that first scenario. They were always on the run. Always moving. They found safe houses, but the safe houses didn't last long before something was able to get in. After a few sessions the characters had changed from the experiences. They weren't the kind of people who the players could play in a long term game. They were survivors born and forged in the crucible of the situation I'd put them in.
We wrapped up the city and their escape from it, and universally agreed to move on to something else.
I mention it in there, but effectively I never provided a real tension break. The PCs would survive a fight just for the next fight to show up. They would find safety only for the safety to be taken away. They would make allies, but the allies would die or turn on them. They never had a real lasting victory or just moment to stop and breathe. Even the safe houses, that in character, were moments to breathe somewhat didn't count because that was when they could finally break out the medicine and start patching up wounds and what not.
But The Advice Says...
I know what the advice says, and the advice isn't even wrong....for some stories. For a movie you can keep having things get worse and worse, because a movie is only going to be a couple hours and then the story ends. The show 24 also worked in this way because the entire season was just a day, and they could provide tension breaks by jumping to different characters going through different struggles.
In longer shows? In books where the story takes place over more than a couple days? In your RPG campaign where you meet over weeks and months? It doesn't work as well.
Simply put you're more confined with an RPG. You can't really jump to other characters. Tension is palpable at the table, and everyone is going through it. So you have a prolonged narrative with extreme focus on 4-6 characters and they go through high tension scenarios. If you wind that wire too tight it will break.
What Do You Do?
Simple: you provide tension breaks. Give the PCs time to breathe. Give the players sessions to slow down. Give them a chance to celebrate victories, mourn defeats, and otherwise digest what has been going on. It doesn't have to be a long tension break, but it needs to be a real one.
Do this right and you'll get a lot more out of your PCs too. Anyone can slam the pedal to the floor and red line the engine, but getting the best performance out of a car - and the fastest time on the track - means knowing when to let off the gas, or even hit the breaks, to handle the twists and turns in the road ahead.
Let them breathe. Let them have quiet moments between storms. It makes the storms so much more meaningful.