Facilitating Gamebuzz

Yesterday, I talked about the creation of a feeling of intense achievement beyond expectation (or “gamebuzz”), and why and how its effect on the players in an RPG can be utilized. But what sorts of factors aid or hinder gamebuzz?

In my opinion, the most important factor is an apparent absence of pre-planning. That doesn’t mean you can’t have choreographed the entire scene months in advance (though if you did, I rather pity your players), but it does mean that the players can’t be aware that the scene in general, and the event in particular, was in any way, shape or form planned. After all, if it’s all according to the plan, it’s not something they earned themselves, and thus the buzz doesn’t really eventuate. (There might be exceptions if they manage to succeed in a way you weren’t planning, but don’t count on them.)

If you want to do it with the recognition of an NPC, there are two things the NPC needs to have. First is the ability to actually carry the narrative role of Powerful Thing (or Unreasonable Thing, or whatever mostly insurmountable obstacle it’s supposed to represent). If it can’t do that, it’s not near as impressive to get a reaction out of it. Second is verisimilitude in their reaction, even if that reaction is just “getting beaten up now”: making it seem like something that naturally flows out of what happened, rather than “The plot told me I’m doing this now.” The more out of character the reaction is, the less satisfying it is; the more the player can understand where the reaction came from, the more satisfaction, and thus the more buzz.

When figuring out what sorts of skills to play to, play to the ones that the character/group hasn’t built up or doesn’t realize is all that impressive. It’s not that impressive when a designed diplomancer talks someone improbable around; it’s more so when a desperate intimidation attempt even the player recognizes is probably futile gets a temporary reaction. The combat-spec saving the group in a one-on-one fight in which he’s vastly outmatched is typical; when it’s one of the less combatant members of the group, it’s awesome. And taking advantage of a character practically built to fight the primary antagonist is a whole lot more fun when you had no idea whatsoever that that spell plus that set of stats plus that dice roll equals that antagonist’s Achilles heel.

So how does one go about setting these things up? It’s actually better not to do so, or at least not to do so explicitly. You can’t plan a scene for gamebuzz, not without being a master manipulator; otherwise, people start being able to tell that they were meant to succeed there, and once they notice that, the expectations rise and the buzz falls. You can make a scene buzz-prone, by playing up the nature of the opposition and leaving the outcome clearly in doubt; you can trust to the players, to your dice, to the personalities of the characters that serve as an obstacle (if applicable) and to improvised Dramatic Necessity. Encourage risk-taking, leave just enough safety net to keep people from avoiding it entirely. Know what it might take to surmount whatever obstacles you throw in, and be open to new ideas. Avoid deus ex machina if at all possible (and even if it’s not possible, try to avoid it anyway.) And above all, keep control in the hands of the players. Gamebuzz comes as much from their actions as from yours.

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