Up and Down beats

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.


We played session 7 of Burning Airships tonight, and I made a log of the session keeping track of all of the up and down beats. It was very instructive!

First of all, I’d say that analysis of role-playing is really, really different than analysis of fiction. When role-playing, the process of generating the fiction is at least as important as the fiction itself. I’d say that careful meting out of up and down beats for the characters is a necessary but not even remotely sufficient condition for player engagement, for several reasons.

  1. There are mechanical beats and spotlight beats. The process of fiction-making is heavy and intrusive. Having to stop and look up a rule had way, way more effect on player engagement than whether things were taking a good or a bad turn for the characters.

Sometimes, declaring the action and resolving it occur far enough apart that they feel like separate beats. “I leap over the railing!” Fucking awesome. By the time you’ve figured the ability, obstacle, FoRKs, Artha spend (in fact, the decision to use Deeds at one point felt like a momentous beat all to itself) it can easily be three minutes later, longer than many movie scenes, and it can be anticlimactic or epic completely independently.

An only moderately interesting Circles test that comes up all 1’s, or explodes out of control is delightful in and of itself. “Wow, rare! What does it mean?”

  1. Being out of the spotlight for a long time is disengaging too (for the affected player(s)). The worst seems to be when you’re out of the spotlight and the in-spotlight group is mired in mechanics. That is, unless you really dig interpreting rules, in which case you can re-involve yourself. This makes me wonder how much rules chatter from players on the sidelines is a result of spotlight choices that leave people disengaged, so they get involved by grabbing the rule books and weighing in.

Countercheck, playing Culhir, was out of the spotlight for a while - when his dry spell ended, he had the opportunity to invest in an interesting interaction, and he was totally delighted.

  1. Thanks to Countercheck for this one: many “bad” outcomes don’t inspire fear at all. The night before last I practically watched ‘An Education’ through my fingers - I was empathizing with the circumstances of the main character I could hardly stand the tension. (I have daughters.) And yet, when bad shit happens to my BW characters, I’m not at all afraid, I’m totally pumped, because it’s awesome. I’m not empathizing with him in the same way at all.

Good and bad outcomes don’t seem to generate hope and fear the same way as fiction. When something awesomely bad happens, we delight in it as authors of something clever and worthy. I suspect this could be very different in a game where I’m more aligned with the character - such as in OD&D games where my character has very little personality of its own, and, as a precarious vehicle through which to experience the story, I want to preserve it at all costs.

The long sequence of failures early in Ahimsa was demoralizing because (as prisoners repeatedly failing to escape) we progressively lost potential - for agency - not because it was ‘bad’ for our characters. It’s just that we weren’t curious what would happen next, since it started to look pretty obvious.

My current thinking is that it’s really all about suspense, in several forms:

A. Players are presented with a meaningful choice - what are they going to choose? We hang on their decision. (We Say Yes to skip the suspense-free trivia.)

B. We’ve engineered a meaningful die roll - what will happen? (Will Frodo catch up with Gollum? The whole campaign may turn on this Speed test.)

C. A fictive outcome opens up the possibility of the world changing in a big way. (The king takes a stray arrow, and suddenly it dawns on GM and players that there’s no heir.)

In conclusion:

Forget about up and down beats. Concentrate on opening up possibilities that generate suspense.


I practice the outcome of #2 and I encourage every BW player that I play with to do the same.

I think it can be really healthy - I really dig learning mechanics and I feel good when players are empowered to make good tactical choices later on.

Where it drags is when there’s different interest levels - our game has a fairly involved, high-fantasy departure from 14th century Europe, and I’ve noticed that the appetite for adapting RNC to skyships on the fly, or chewing over how gravity works in such-and-such a layer of the sky is not the same for everyone.

I’d modify #3 slightly. Bad outcomes don’t NECESSARILY result in player disengagement. I know players who are really risk averse and get very depressed if the dice don’t go their way. Me, I love it. I would argue that losing AGENCY is a problem. Bad results which feel like punishment for poor rolling, that shut off options, that prevent a character from engaging in the fiction, those suck. Being sent to jail is only a problem if you don’t get a chance to cheat the guards at poker.

Yes, I agree. Even in a wargame, even bad outcomes can be enjoyable as long as there’s still something meaningful for me to do next - make a choice, or get wrapped up in hoping that you fail your morale test from the damage I did inflict, etc.

But yes, there are some people who just hate losing!