The GM’s Secret Mood-Weapon: Gamebuzz

Overwhelming emotion is the hallmark of the good storyteller, regardless of medium. Catch up the audience in the moment, throw them around a bit, and immerse them completely in the emotion, and the payback will be worth the effort. Most people seem to prefer the negative emotions—fear, rage, maybe sorrow, you get the idea—since they’re easier to bring forth than the positive ones, and the responses are more hardwired into us. And yeah, that works. But there’s one emotion that the GM has in her toolkit that can, at least for many of the players, beat out even the strongest of these, one that the role-playing medium seems almost designed to take advantage of.

I’m not quite sure of the technical term for this particular emotion: to me, it’s best summarized as “The wild exultation of looking back at the last few minutes and going ‘holy cow, I just did that?!” For concision’s sake, and because the place where I first got used to finding it was my weekly roleplaying game, I refer to it as gamebuzz, or just buzz.

From what I can see, it stems mostly from the difference between expectation and result. I recently found an example of it due to a singing program in my county—essentially, this thing boils down to pick-up choir performances. Show up, whatever your skill level, rent a score, find a seat in your section, sing. I’ve done two this year, both really juicy classical pieces; came out of the first one with a level of buzz I hadn’t had for a while even in a game, came out of the second mildly excited but nowhere near as hyper. I looked at these, and a few other gamebuzz incidents, and realized what the difference was: on the first one, I’d expected to be in far over my head but managed to (mostly) keep up with the group anyway, while on the second, I knew my own skills, so my expectations were higher, and while I exceeded said expectations, it wasn’t by quite as much.

Why’s it so useful in a game? Because of the interactive and audience-participatory nature of role-playing games, a player doesn’t have to filter it through a character (or at least, not entirely). After all, it’s her sense of reasonable and not reasonable that’s telling her whether to keep going or to back off, her wits that are putting the tactics together or pulling out the one-liners, her mechanical skills (where applicable) that put the character in the situation where she’s succeeding beyond all expectation. And as a result, when the character does something that really shouldn’t (by the player’s assessment of the situation, anyway) be possible, particularly if the GM is sitting there muttering something about the unexpected, it’s not just the character’s victory. It’s also the player’s.

Where do we get these situations? There’s usually a mechanical element, sure, but you can’t depend on that one. Yeah, one can put the group up against an opponent whose numbers say it should eat their lunches and have room left over for the replacement party, and see what happens, but if it’s counting entirely on good dice rolls, it’s harder to get reliably and for many people not the same thing. It’s not usually in the character’s (or the player’s, for that matter) area of expertise (or at least, not in the way it’s currently used); they know perfectly well they’re good at that, so it’s expected they’ll succeed. No, what really makes these work is the expectation of failure; maybe the GM knows the character can handle it, but the player doesn’t (or neither does, really), or maybe the player herself is having to use a skill she doesn’t consider herself much good at. The important part is that someone’s doing something she doesn’t think she can succeed at, because that’s when success has the greatest impact.

One shortcut I’ve found, or at least a reliable source for me, is the actions of creatures established as out of the character’s league in response to things the character does. Character can’t think of anything better to do than yell something in the oncoming threat’s general direction, and the threat responds? Yep. A noncombatant (or at least, not combat-spec) character manages to scare the living daylights out of something she has no business fighting through doing something else entirely? Definitely. Recognition from one of the setting or storyline’s Big Names, that sounds like it actually means something? You bet. If it’s reasonable, if it follows logically from what happened, and most importantly if it leaves the player just looking at her sheet or her dice or the computer screen and saying, “Wait a minute, I just did that?” There’s the jackpot right there.

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  1. Facilitating Gamebuzz | Exchange of Realities

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