Monday, 7 September 2020

RPG Theory: Moments for Taking the New Ball

I'm now going to do something I rarely if ever do: give technical advice, rooted in theory, for making your campaign better.

A long time ago I wrote this, about Ben Bova's advice to novelists: every time your protagonist solves one problem, give him or her two more. This not only ratchets up the tension; it also gives the plot a drive and momentum all of its own. 

Often (usually) this happens organically. Indeed, as play goes on it will often be unavoidable. Through the very process of solving one problem, PCs will tend to generate opportunities to create others. Nonetheless, there are certain times during a campaign which you can think of as prime targets for the "two problems for every solution" technique. I have recently been thinking of them as opportunities to 'take the new ball'. 

In a test match in cricket, the fielding side gets the opportunity, after 80 overs have been bowled, to change the old ball (soft and relatively slow) for a new one (polished, very fast, and very hard). This is always the moment to look forward to in the rhythms of a test match (which takes 5 days to play), because it has a way of suddenly expediting things in unpredictable ways. It makes it easier for the bowling side to get the batsmen out, but it also makes it easier for the batsmen to score (because the hard ball moves more quickly off the bat as well as out of the bowler's hand). If it's two skilled batsmen who have been batting for a long time and have hence got their eye in, the new ball can dislodge them - or it can allow them to suddenly accelerate the rate of scoring. So taking the new ball can go either way. It can suddenly swing the match in a new direction, out of its established pattern.

There are moments in an RPG campaign like this. These are the moments when new problems can be introduced and the established pattern can be broken. Let's list some:

Back to town: Particularly when the PCs have brought back treasure. This is a natural time for new problems to assert themselves. For instance: the PCs become targets of thieves, or they have to search for somebody to whom to sell a specialist or magical item, or they let slip where they have been and are followed by NPC adventurers who want in on the action, or they sell something to a powerful magician and he binds them to get more for him with a geas, or many other things that will spring to mind, or - better - more than one of these things happens.

Between sessions: This is the DM's thinking time, and he should use it so that, when the next session begins, it has momentum. Maybe when the next session starts, the DM informs the PCs they have all seen the same dream. Maybe at the beginning of the next session they're visited by an old ally who needs their help. Maybe it's when longstanding enemies choose their moment to strike. Whatever: this is a natural break in which the DM can give himself a half-time team talk and come out in the next session with all guns blazing.

Long distance travel: When the PCs are moving across the hexmap, other pieces should be moving elsewhere too. These could be big, seismic campaign-setting level shifts (an earthquake, a volcano, a plague, an invasion, a dragon attack). Or they could be moves by known NPCs (spies, rivals, villains, allies). When the PCs arrive where they are going, or return from a journey, they find out there have been changes while they've been away. They always should.

Night time: Surprisingly effective when the PCs are staying, for instance, at an inn or tavern. In the morning, the barmaid informs them somebody came asking questions about them last night. Or there was a murder in another room. Or, during the night, there's a fire - or enemies come calling.

Think about the maxim: two problems for every solution. (These should be natural consequences of what the PCs have done previously, of course, and there is a fine art to this; whatever happens should seem like the organic consequence of player choice, except for the really unusual event like an earthquake.) Then, think about moments for putting this into effect - the new ball opportunities which inevitable arise during a campaign.


  1. I wonder if this is a method for a dark middle act like the mentioned Empire Strikes Back, or brief pulp adventures which do their best to seem like they’re gonna kill their protagonist while leaving him right as rain in the end, or if it can be extended generally to other genres.
    Just having a multitude of problems to solve has uncertain would seem to have clear story advantages and disadvantages in a way that it’s not obviously superior or inferior; though the more problems that can be resolved creatively in the climax, the greater the final rush of relief is. And if problems are not left hanging In the background but are faced in short order, that obviously works.
    It could also be a good method for competence-thrillers like Mission Impossible where the joy is seeing the hero relentlessly overcome problems by a hair’s breadth; maybe the only place it wouldn’t work would be dealing with everymen? It could get darkly comic pretty quick

    I think that as long as you don’t deny the party expected rewards, and they are still encountering new and interesting things, you can probably ramp up tension through problem-revelation as much as you want up until the point that they lose the plot. I agree that this tends to happen in sandbox campaigns; there can be adventure hooks absolutely anywhere

    Here’s another one for the list: Doing a jaunt in another dimension. If it’s got a proper scale, it often makes the players forget about whatever was happening in the mortal realm; seems like small peanuts when you’re looking up an infinite ice wall from the “midpoint”. You can also have variable passage of time if you want, though that’s something that could easily feel like deus ex machina. In any case, if the players end up in a new world afterwards, well, it’s a lot like being washed of their previous lives, honestly
    This probably also goes for being in the gut of a giant sea creature, being imprisoned for some time, and perhaps after astral projection/psychedelic heroquest

    1. Yes, the Empire Strikes Back is the classic case of Ben Bova's advice writ large. See also: every volume of A Song of Ice and Fire.

      I think your observation is correct - the reason why this works is because it ratchets up tension but also because there is a final 'eucatastrophe' (or whatever the posh word is) in which all the problems get resolved in one final shebang. The end of Return of the Jedi, basically.