Okay, I promised an explanation of the blog's title in yesterday's inaugural entry. So what is "High Trust, High Drama"?
HTHD is a shorthand I came up with for a style of RPG play that we've been developing at my table for the last few years. I was trying to push roleplaying to resemble more closely the kind of storytelling found in the best TV shows, films, and novels. I'm sure somewhere there is an Angry Young Nerd puffing up his chest to bellow at me I should go write TV shows, films, and novels if that's what I really want, and stop inappropriately touching his beloved hobby. Yes, this is a playstyle that is not for everyone, but for those who enjoy a big scoop of deep character play in their gaming, drizzled with the hot chocolatey sauce of story, this is something that provides very rewarding games. It's given me the best games of my life over the last few years.
A number of years ago, I started writing short scripted cut-scenes for my RPG adventures. They started out strictly as a framing device, something that could get a session started in medias res and deliver the appropriate exposition to the players through their own mouths -- as they would take the parts of the characters in the scene. I didn't invent this technique, I stole it from Blood Brothers 2, a collection of "B-Movie style" non-Mythos adventures for Call of Cthulhu. Frankly, I didn't think it was used well in that collection, and I didn't think it would work well for me -- I fully expected my players to reject it. But the scripted scenes were embraced by my players (it helped that a few of them were theatre geeks like myself) and I continued to use and develop them.
Soon, I was using the scripts to include player characters in scenes with greater dramatic "heft". The scripts were a "safe place" where players could participate in scenes that might feel awkward in some games, giving the characters an opportunity to develop a depth not usually seen in RPGs. The werewolf private eye in the group took on a note of pathos when we learned that he was forever separated from his parents, who believed he had died or abandoned them. I started to wonder if you could do stuff like that in play. Sure, this is something that some players might take for granted, but where I come from roleplaying is mostly done for shits and giggles. Most sessions I had run or played in to that point were heavy on low comedy and combat, and I enjoyed them, but I wanted more.
A move to a new city to pursue my wife Megan's academic career connected us with a whole new group of gamers, and when I got an opportunity to run a game I planned to push the drama angle as far as I could take it. I was fortunate enough to have a small group -- three players -- which gave me the ability to give players lots of "spotlight time". I began to talk to the players, encouraging them to think about their characters in a different light. Character backgrounds would be included in the game as much as possible, used as material for stories. Character Drawbacks (in my experience, they're used to get some easy extra points for a character build and then mostly forgotten in play) would be used to generate conflict. I encouraged the players to trust me as GM (and their fellow players, by extension) enough to accept a certain level of vulnerability for their player characters -- these needed to be people who wanted things, struggled against things. Conflict and desire are the foundations of good story.
As an illustration, my wife Megan was reprising a character (Rosa) who had participated in an earlier game back in our home town. This character, in her words, was a "bad ass demon hunter" -- the kind of super-capable, unflappable hero that shows up in a lot of adventure fiction and roleplaying games in particular. I wanted to find a way to give Rosa a little depth, and I picked a Drawback on her sheet that said she had trouble committing to relationships. The way Megan had played it up to that point, that meant that Rosa slept with whoever she liked and never gave it a second thought -- like a demon hunting Latina James Bond. That is cool, but it's not exactly a Drawback; just another layer of awesome on the character. Emotional armour. I suggested to Megan that maybe we could take a more interesting tack -- that the Drawback was only meaningful if she met someone that she was interested in forming a relationship with.
Megan was initially resistant to this idea, as I expected that she would be. Roleplayers in general want their characters to be awesome and capable, and they shrink away from the idea of vulnerability. Why would she want to dilute her character's power and take on a subplot that was -- horror of horrors, in most RPGs -- romance?! It is a mark of my wife's courage and trust in me that she agreed to this idea, with some gentle encouragement.
And in the scripted cut scene that opened the very first episode of the game, Rosa was killed.
To be continued...