Last Fleet is a roleplaying game about a rag-tag fleet of ships, fleeing across space from an implacable inhuman foe. You play the brave pilots, officers, engineers, politicians and journalists who battle to keep the fleet – and themselves – in one piece. The theme of the game is pressure, and in this article I’m going to talk about how you can create a sense of pressure in an RPG.
We’ve all felt it. That moment where you pick up the dice and you know that the result is going to make or break the current situation. Then the dice fall and – poof – the tension is gone. You got what you wanted, or you didn’t. What I wanted was to drive a more pervasive sense of tension.
There’s some great games out there that explore this theme, and in particular I want to mention Dread and Star Crossed, which use a Jenga tower to reinforce a sense that at any moment the tension may shatter with exciting consequences. But Jenga towers are not for every game, of course.
A common trick for managing emerging threats in roleplaying games is to use a tracker or clock. Whenever the players miss a die roll, or use up a bit of time, or hit some particular trigger, you fill in part of your tracker, and when it fills up, something bad happens. These are used in many Powered By The Apocalypse and Forged In The Dark games, essentially as a tracking tool for the GM. What I’ve done differently in Last Fleet is to make them public-facing.
Last Fleet has a number of trackers. Each character has a personal pressure tracker that acts like a combination hit point track and reserve pool of dice bonuses. When it fills up, your character hits breaking point and does something stupid, dangerous or outrageous. The fleet itself has an attrition tracker that does a similar thing, only the consequences are explosions and riots instead of personal angst. And at various times the GM creates Doom Clocks, one-off trackers that tell you something bad will happen soon.
The key thing is, the players get to see all these trackers. They know how close they are to failure. And they see the GM checking boxes off whenever they waste time. So every little decision to focus on one thing rather than another, or to spend pressure on one thing rather than another, is consequential. It comes with a cost in time lost, time in which things are spinning out of control.
Honestly, this is a technique I’d recommend for any game. The mere act of saying “I’m starting a clock and when all 4 segments are full the bomber will strike again” inspires anxiety and focus in equal measure. You don’t even have to say what the clock relates to! Just quietly draw one and put it in the middle of the table. The unknown is even more worrying.
Of course Last Fleet also reinforces the theme of pressure through the setting and situation. The mere fact of being on the run, opposed by an enemy who outnumbers and outguns you, and who could appear at any time, creates pressure. Last Fleet also comes with a theme around infiltration: there are spies and saboteurs lurking in the fleet, waiting to strike. And the game’s setting comes with rival factions whose objectives cut across those of the fleet, leading to fractiousness and in-fighting. Together with resource shortages these factors make for a siege mentality where every victory feels significant.
Of course, pressure is only meaningful if you can see there are consequences when you screw up or act too slowly. Death and injury are one way that you can reinforce this. Last Fleet advises you, though, to build interesting relationships with NPCs. Spend time making them feel real and engaging. Make them nice. You’ll get a lot of fun roleplaying just by doing this, but it pays off all the more later on, when you kill those beloved NPCs. See, a player character can only die once, but you can kill beloved NPCs over and over again.
But constant pressure is its own enemy. If you never let up, your players will begin to experience the torrent of crises and threats as almost meaningless. That’s why Last Fleet’s principles tell the GM to give the players space to breathe. After every flurry of chaos and crisis comes a period where the GM consciously eases their foot off the gas. One of the main crisis-generators is the Momentum Move, which randomly spits out a tense situation every session or so, but it only activates after a prolonged period in which things have been quiet.
Quiet period aren’t boring. The game comes with a bunch of moves to make these quieter periods interesting by incentivising interesting conversations and social drama. Instead of putting their lives on the line the players will be putting their hearts on the line. But it’s a lesson you can take for any game, whether it has such moves or not: give the players space to breathe and they’ll often do something interesting with it.