Safety vs Tension
If you are not reading Jeff Tidball & Will Hindmarch’s fantastic blog, Gameplaywright, there is a small hole in your life that needs filling.
Will and Jeff routinely offer, as they say in the old country, thought-provoking shit. Today’s post by Jeff inspired by The Hurt Locker is no exception. He muses about the power of drama and tension to be had when we take the safety off of our characters’ lives.
I’ve been working here and there on this Terminator resistance war-inspired story game (riffing off of a Grey Ranks hack) for a bit now, and now I feel like I understand what’s been missing. The characters weren’t enough enough immediate peril, so there was less tension. And I was pulling back from the “characters can easily, and quickly, die” punch because, well, I don’t know. Maybe because I felt like that would make for a shit story? (Though I don’t entirely buy that now, just trying to guess my past reasoning.)
In any case, “safety” and “tension” cannot co-exist. Sometimes it’s worth being reminded of this simple but often overlooked idea. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every moment has to be about characters living or dying. There are smaller stakes, and there are fates worse than death. But if our characters surely aren’t going to die, aren’t going to fail, aren’t going to pay a heavy price so that others may live, then any tension we describe is false. Heroism exists precisely when there is action in spite of no safety.
And it’s totally okay for my game to have sudden player-character death, since that sells the tension of a world inhabited by roaming killer robots. Of course, now I have to think about the design implications of this decision.
 “Take the safety off of…” has, over the last few months, grown into a favorite phrase of mine.
 No, it’s not something that’s pre-empting Mythender or anything like that. I just like to tinker with ideas. I can’t not.