Recently read ‘Hamlet’s Hit Points’. Overall it was disappointing - it’s mostly an illustration of a method of analyzing stories, and has only a sprinkling of advice for RPGs. The key thing I take from it, however, is to measure up beats and down beats. Some recent experiences suggest that this might be a good idea.
An ‘up beat’ is an element of the story that offers hope. It can be a player success, an offer of support from an NPC, a positive turn of events (e.g. sunrise, in undead-heavy campaign), or perhaps even a bit of color.
A ‘down beat’ is an element of the story that evoke fear - failure, NPC condemnation or threats, news of enemies massing, some foreboding color (even as simple as, ‘You feel like you’re being watched. After a while, the sensation goes away.’)
The basic idea is to mix downbeats and upbeats. Downbeats inspire fear or anxiety, the sense that we need to act to prevent a bad outcome. Too many in a row, however, players sense that the situation is spiraling downward regardless of what they do, and disengage. Upbeats offer hope, that a good outcome might be within reach - but too many of those and the players can relax. The world is safe and good whether they act or not.
In BW, the ‘up’ or ‘down’ nature of many beats is determined by the dice - so applying the idea from HHP, you’d keep track of these (even informally) and deliberately break up any patterns.
So, after a session of Grunweld that seemed awesome on one level, but left one player feeling demoralized because of a reputation-jeopardizing string of failures. Chatting about it afterwards, I noticed that it’s very possible for there to be a player-GM disconnect in terms of engagement, which arises from a different perception of the hopefulness of the situation.
I’ve experienced this from both sides; early in Burning Ahimsa there was a couple of sessions where we seemed to fail at everything, watching our options close down to nothingness (beaten, captives, failing to escape, and dragged to the enemy stronghold). It was very demoralizing. In Grunweld last night, Bauer got very demoralized after a couple of high-profile Persuasion failures threatened to undermine his status as unofficial champion of Keroon.
In both situations, the GM was thinking, “Hey cool, I wonder where this is going to go next?!” meanwhile the players are thinking, “Man, this blows, why do I even try?”
So… my current thinking is that a sprinkling of upbeats (to offset the string of failures) could be really useful in these situations. Our captors see some tracks that appear to worry them, and we break camp early. On his way out of being shouted at by the harbormaster, a guard takes Siggar aside and tells him that the men still look up to him. That sort of thing.
In this situation, an upbeat is an in-game communication from GM to player that says:
[li]I notice things are bad (or good) lately[/li][li]Your actions are still relevant (the next test might change everything), and therefore[/li][li]The direction of the game is still in your hands - you can keep pushing for a breakthrough, or change directions[/li][/ul]
So, I think the mix of up and downbeats is about communicating that the situation is full of potential, both bad and good, and that the players’ efforts could easily turn the tide one way or the other.