Tensioners and Hooks

In which the Smaller GM from Beer With Teeth talks about a famous plot/story, and how she sees parallels with Sartar.

Here is a plot that you have almost certainly heard of, even if you have never seen it in full, along with my understanding of what each bit of the plot does.

Prologue to Romeo and Juliet
Two households, both alike in dignitybackground setting
In fair Verona where we lay our scenebackground setting
From ancient grudge break to new mutinyplot summary
Where civil blood makes civil hands uncleanmarketing blurb
From forth the fatal loins of these two foesplot summary
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their lifeplot summary
Whose misadventured, piteous overthrowsplot summary
Doeth with their death bury their parents’ strifetension-changer
The fearful passage of their death-marked lovemarketing blurb
And the continuance of their parents’ ragetension-changer
Which but their children’s end naught could removeplot summary
Are now the two hours’ passage of our stagemarketing blurb
The which if you with patient ears attendmarketing blurb
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mendmarketing blurb

Soooo….. I have been thinking recently about tension and plots.

Plot happens when there is a situation that requires resolution AND can be changed. The set-up of Sartar as a collection of intertwined feuding and related societies is ideal for providing plot, but in itself it isn’t plot. Sartarites can be any set of tragic people.

I’ve used a famous example above, but I’ll note here that I am much against breaking the fourth wall. I’ll never have a Romeo and Juliet analogue with similar names, for example, but I use this basic plot all the time. At its baldest, it is ‘there is a situation that can be changed; PCs act and change it’.

Romeo and Juliet is famous enough to have most people at least know about it. The short version is that Romeo is in love with Rosalind. Then he isn’t. And the point there is that Romeo doesn’t start off with a girlfriend called Juliet. He starts off bound into a situation instead. He starts off as a bachelor in a city with feuds in it. Bachelor on its own is a bit dull, although Jane Austen made a lot of it. So, to make it interesting in this position we add tension. Feuds. Fighting. Prince Escalus hath express forbid this bandying in Verona streets. Now we have a position that NEEDS dealing with, instead of one where Romeo dutifully finds a wife. We have a situation into which it is possible to bring higher stakes. We don’t do that yet, though. For a while, we potter along, but as soon as Romeo meets Juliet, the stakes come into play. These families are at war, and the war itself is not one that’s allowed. So, the party where they meet is a well-disguised plot hook. And from that point on, the tensioners work. They are at war, but they are also teenagers in love.

Along the way, we slowly ratchet up the tension. They find out they love each other. Juliet is told she is going to get married to someone else. Tybalt kills Mercutio, the comic relief, and after that there is not going to be a way back. They are committed by Romeo’s sense of honour and by some appalingly bad but internally logical decisions. Romeo kills Tybalt, and has to leave the city, and yada yada, sub-plot with a lot of death in it.

Plotting RPGs with this understanding

But, I hear you cry (tumbleweeds go past) what about Sartar and Plot?

Well, this is mostly about Tensioners and Hooks. Starting with a background that CAN provide tension means that at any point it MIGHT provide tension. As soon as the hooks are in, the tension can be slowly ratcheted up. So, let’s start with what our tensioners are.

It’s community. It’s always community. You’re a member of one or more communities that intersect; family, clan, city, tribe, kingdom, temple, herd, war-band… As a GM I strive to make these important to the plots, even if they are not a direct hook. They are important plot hooks in themselves, but they are also big and obvious. So to me, what they are at their best is background that provides a way to increase tension.

“You are a member of the Blue Tree Clan, a peaceful Clan on the edge of Colymar lands. Next to you are the Green Fish of the Malani Tribe… You live a day’s journey from Dangerford. The Green Fish Clan were given several of the hides that belonged to your chief, after Starbrow’s Rebellion.”

And then, not now, but later, when you’re already hooked in…

“You recognise that guy. He was given your chief’s hides.”

The hook can be anything, and it’s separate from the tensioner. The tensioner makes the stakes higher, but they should be different things.

“You don’t like that guy being attacked by trollkin.”
“You don’t like that guy being attacked by broo.”
“You don’t like that guy who just got exiled, but if he walks that way, the broo you saw may find him.”
“You don’t like that guy being attacked by trollkin, but you know him to be honourable.”
“That guy you don’t like? The one who got exiled? That’s who’s at your door.”

Each of these has a simple hook; someone in trouble. Several of them have the same immediate action – pile in violently on one side or another. They get more and more complicated as decisions, as there are more and more things pulling different ways.

Reminder: a plot is an arc which has a situation that can be altered, and the associated actions of the adventurers say how the plot will turn out.

So back to making a plot. Let’s have the Blue Tree and the Green Fish, and let’s have tension over the hides, and the tribal rivalry. But right now, that does nothing. It doesn’t do anything until the adventurers are involved, because otherwise that’s just a novel, not a game. So we have a low-grade tension, and then we have a hook or two, or maybe more, and then we have a situation where the tension level can be changed and the situation itself solved for good or ill.

A very loose plot

Situation: Someone from one of the Clans is found dead on the Tula of the other. Which? Up to you. Why does it matter? Well, if it’s one of Our People, then we need to demand justice. If it’s one of Their People… we need to decide what to do.
Plot hooks: The death is found out about, by one side or another. This leads to hook details; the adventurers are told to deal with it, or volunteer, or are related to the dead person or to the holder of the lands where the body was found, or or or…
There is already background tension, but now we focus on it. The adventurers will discover details that up the foreground tension. The original owner of the land was the one killed. Or the sister of the current owner, who married out of the Clan. We look back at our possible tensioners, and ouch – the Malani of the Green Fish are often Humakti, and great warriors, but some will insist on Truth and Honour. Others won’t. The Blue Tree Clan is peaceful, and has grain stores, and a short time after the body is found, news comes that the stores are on fire – the person who was killed has set the fire.
Then there is de-tensioning. This can happen suddenly and violently, with a battle that leads to a new balance of power, or it can happen by talk and negotiation, or it can happen by people learning to live with a new situation.
OR there is more tension. A battle happens, people are hurt, people are angry. A peace conference goes wrong, or someone commits violence there. The women of the village retreat to the Temple of Ernalda and refuse to come out until the men are more sensible. Someone more is hurt by accident, and the accident is used as a trigger for another cycle of up/down tension.
If the choice is between less and more tension, it should be adventurer action that decides it if possible. Otherwise, the situation should be headed towards more tension/bad things, so adventurer action can de-escalate. Note that this de-escalation can involve killing everyone who disagrees with you, and that is entirely valid. Adventurers should be able to choose to do things that affect a situation.

There may be several cycles of less/more tension, and I am a firm believer that you should not pre-write how many, just the results of them. If there is always a climax at a certain point, you lose tension out of character, which is an important part of the game experience when I play. If you prefer to be writing and running a game where you know the shape of it in advance, even if the outcome is in doubt, then ignore this paragraph.

… and we get to the end. This is a new, different level of tension. We have resolved something although we may not have solved it. Is everyone dead? Was the grain burned? Are we at war now? Did the dead woman save us from poisoned grain? Did someone get married and bring two fields together? Did the adventurers have to retreat?

So, that is my very generalised form of plot; background happens. There are hooks which the adventurers take. There is an upscaling of tension based on the background, and other factors. The adventurers get to resolve a situation, for better or worse.

Plots based on this understanding

background plot hook tensioner de-tensioner

A trader from nearby Dangerford brings a new sort of silk. A fathom of it goes missing. The merchant accuses a young woman of theft. The woman appeals to her brother, an adventurer, for help. In tracking the potential thieves, the adventurer is threatened with a beating by the friends of the real thief. The real thief appeals to his friends in his village for help with the accusation. The adventurers decide to have their Orlanthi speak in the moot, and make their accusation publicThe case is decided. Further actions may happen, but there is a new tension level.

The year of the Duck Hunt. The Blue Tree shelters ducks. A bit of driftwood comes down from upriver, where there is a Durulz settlement. It has a shivering duckling on it, and is swept past. Letting it get away would tell people where the Durulz are. The adventurers have the best horses. Gis, the Lawgiver, says the Ducks should be helped, but the farmers want to let the Durulz defend themselves. There are a few hours to decide what to do. Farmers offer friendship not to save the non-human. The adventurers decide whether to give chase and then return to deal with their decisions. A new level of tension becomes the baseline.

The Green Fish Clan send a raiding party to steal horses. This must be answered and the adventurers are told to attend on the chief and asked their opinions. Then they are told to put one of these opinions into action, so now it is they who are the chief movers for the village. They deal with the situation, which goes either well or badly.

A rider from the Green Fish Clan comes to the Blue Tree in a hurry. The adventurers are called for to meet and capture him outside the pallisade. Their chief has been wounded by a broo and requires the services of the Chalana Arroy Initiate who lives here. She agrees to go into danger but the Clans will get along better because of this. There is danger on the way back and the rider asks for an escort. Broo may be encountered and possibly defeated or they may triumph or escape. The Chief is healed and now the Clans have a chance at peace. There is a new level of tension and a new situation.

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