Even Good Stress is Stress
A source of stress that’s common to every day life, but that rarely gets shown at the table in roleplaying, is eustress (good stress). Think about it: you’ve been studying for years, but only now you’ve gained the power to throw balls of force. Suddenly, all of your struggles to date have been mere preamble to the life that’s opened up before you. The quiet routine of study and the warmth of the master’s hall recedes, as destiny drives you into the world.
Imagine the humble caravan guard who has done good, solid, routine work for years, who decides that this is the day he’s going to delve the dungeon and bring back a year’s pay—or die trying. It’s a huge decision; it’s simple to nod and say “how liberating” or “my time has come”… but you know that as soon as the fetid goblin breath reaches him, he’s going to wish he was back at the wagons, being bored. Overcoming deadly challenges is stressful, especially once the rush wears off.
This conflict—that something good or even anticipated has happened, but doesn’t seem to make the beneficiary any happier—can lend a sense of realism to your NPCs. The cocky merchant who crows publicly about landing the contract to supply Amerthon-7 with exotic grains, who taunts his competitors in the bourse about his business acumen? Get a few drinks in him and he’ll admit that he’s under more stress than ever. Instead of worrying that his freighter will sit empty with no cargo to haul, he’s now responsible for hired crews and ships and vulnerable to every fluctuation in the grain futures markets. When you asked him six months ago what would made him happier than anything, he told you that he wanted nothing more than to land a big, guaranteed contract like this. Now that he has it… it turns out there’s even more stress from winning it.
“Good Stress” is a Bad Problem for PCs
In most games, while it’s great for characterization when an NPC finds that even good problems cause stress, the same discovery doesn’t work for PCs.
In old D&D modules and supplements (like the Shady Dragon Inn), a lot of barkeeps, blacksmiths, and local friars turn out to be former adventurers. As NPCs, this adds spice to the world… but if you’re expecting a long running game, a character retiring when they can finally afford that inn, or the bard deciding that adventuring is too dangerous, she’ll accept the offer to be court poet, can be stressful for the GM—and not in a good way.
If everyone understands that’s the goal, it can be great to see PCs achieve their dreams. But I’ve seen players feel duty bound to retire their characters because they’d talked about “wanting to move home and be a smith” for so long that they felt it’d be untrue to the character not to do so. That can be painful for that player (who sets aside the beloved character), the other players (who have to build relationships to the new PC, with life and death on the line, very quickly) and the GM (who has to introduce the new character in an acceptable fashion to everyone).
A related “good stuff problem” is the issue driven PC who achieves their goals. Once Inigo Montoya finishes off the six-fingered man, he’s adrift until Westley suggests a follow up career. The euphoria of defeating the big bad might get overwhelmed by the need to do right by the subjects who were abused for so long. You want the PCs to get to demonstrate their resolve, to show their charity and resolve to do right… without the next six months devolving into logistics as they arrange for the stripped bare province to be fed.
“Good Stress” in Your Games
This is an angle that’s only come to me; I’ve long played characters who burn to develop their next ability, or who fear what’s coming. Remembering to temper the good with challenge and stress should add depth to characters—particularly NPCs in long running games.
Have you included good stress in your games? Have you had PCs retire because they could accomplish their stated dreams… even if you weren’t really ready to set them aside? I’ve had characters feel a little hollow when they continued to adventure and risk because it made sense only as a player—because I didn’t want to retire them, even if they “wanted to”. I look forward to your comments!