Several years ago, a letter from the great playwright (and screenwriter, in recent years) David Mamet to the team of writers working for him on the TV show The Unit surfaced on the internet. Clearly, the show was going through some problems at the time (and has since been cancelled, despite the presence of the great Dennis Haysbert in the cast) and Mamet, as executive producer, was trying to light a fire under his writing team to get them to return to the core principles of drama. You can read the letter in its entirety here: Check it out.
Since our house style of play is all about the drama, when a guy like David Mamet (who knows a few things about drama besides the fact that people like to cuss) says "these are the core principles", we should sit up and pay attention.
Drama, says Mamet, is the main character's struggle to overcome the things preventing her from getting what she wants -- a specific, acute goal.
What we need to emphasize there is that drama has two elements: characters with a goal that they want more than anything, and significant obstacles that stop them from achieving that goal.
When I ran my Firefly game a couple of years ago, I told my players that although they were welcome to play characters who were mercenaries, there needed to be something that each of them cared enough about that they could not walk away from that one thing. (The problem being that characters who only care about money can always choose not to get involved with anything that causes them headaches -- a surefire recipe for zero drama.) I approached it from the angle of values rather than a goal, but the principle is the same. There needs to be something that is really, really important to the characters. So important they'd do practically anything to get it. In fact, a good deal of drama comes from that question: What would the character do, or sacrifice, or compromise, to get what they want?
Mamet goes on to caution against writing scenes where the primary point is to deliver exposition, and poses three questions that the writers can ask of every scene as a litmus test of whether it is dramatic:
1) Who wants what?
2) What happens if they don't get it?
3) Why now?
So again, you have an emphasis on goals -- Who wants what? Each important character in a scene should have one.
Then, consequences -- What happens if they don't get it? The second most important thing in drama is the fallout that action by the main characters generates. Their choices (and failures to choose) should mean something. This is particularly important for roleplaying games. Player choices should matter more than anything else in the game.
And third, urgency -- Why now? There is a reason why particularly dramatic television shows or plays are often described as a "pressure cooker" or "powder keg" situation. The stakes are high, and should be high enough that they're just about to boil over or explode at any moment. That kind of high tension environment, where characters are pushed to make hard choices, is a great backdrop for drama. Scenes should not just begin "in media res", they should begin just as things are reaching a crisis point.
More Mamet: EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST
HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO
SHOW UP IN THE SCENE. THIS NEED IS WHY THEY CAME. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET THIS NEED MET WILL LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE,TO FAILURE - THIS IS HOW THE SCENE IS OVER. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THE NEXT SCENE. ALL THESE ATTEMPTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, WILL, OVER THE COURSE OF THE EPISODE, CONSTITUTE THE PLOT.
This is something that is antithetical to the structure of most roleplaying games. Most games are not about player character failure, they are about a string of small successes (and sometimes small failures) leading to a glorious destiny. Character progress is onward and upward, and usually involves more and better powers and magic geegaws and heaps of gold coins. For a lot of players, the HTHD style -- which demands that there are significant struggles and setbacks and situations where a crisis is aimed directly at the player characters' heads -- would be frustrating and perhaps terrifying.
More: START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. IT MUST START BECAUSE THE HERO HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE
WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT
ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.
Mamet closes with this: LOOK AT THE SCENE AND ASK YOURSELF "IS IT DRAMATIC? IS IT ESSENTIAL? DOES IT ADVANCE THE PLOT?"
The man knows his drama. Class dismissed!