Saturday, 16 May 2015


High Trust, High Drama play can be rewarding, but it’s not without its problems. One of these is that drama requires, by its nature, characters that are motivated – they have to want something, badly. Drama is all about situations where not everyone can get what they want, as the Rolling Stones would have it. The problem is that although player characters often have a goal of some kind, players sometimes come into a scene without a particular thing in mind. They’re not sure what they want right now, and that means long, aimless scenes that might go nowhere at all. This is not interesting for other players to watch, and it puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the other players in a scene – if one player is just casting around waiting for something to happen, then they have to bring the energy and the drive to the scene. 

This is bad form.

The worst part about this particular problem is that, to the player, the long, flaccid scene can feel just great. It’s entirely possible for a player (or an actor on stage) to feel like a scene was full of emotion and interest, without any of that coming across to anyone else at the table. It takes some skill to separate the emotional content of a scene from the actual events as they unfold; you can be “in the moment” and communicate none of that to your audience. And players need to remember that the analogy here is to theatre – usually, in a tabletop game, the other players are not privy to the internal life of a character via devices like monologues. Unless they are showing us through their actions what they want and how they feel, a scene just plain doesn’t work.

To some players, this is about realism – they might have the idea that there is some value to a scene just because they’re “living” their character. Unfortunately, in HTHD play, there’s no real analogy to the sandbox play of other kinds of roleplaying games. If you wander around without an agenda for drama, it won’t happen. You could play many, many hours of a game like that without anything happening at all. That might be fun for some tables, I suppose, but it’s not drama. One of the first pieces of writing advice I was given is “Life ain’t art,” and that’s true at the table too. Realism doesn’t make for interesting play all by itself. Drama is a constant push forward, and most games have a limited amount of time to play out. You need to create the conditions for engaging drama, picking scenes that are focused on important moments, and that is where the “craft” part of this particular art comes into play.

To create drama, you have to be prepared to push.

Robin Laws’s DramaSystem helps to stop this problem by making explicit character conflicts part of character creation. You know exactly what your character wants from the other characters involved in the story, and they know exactly why they can’t give it to you. The latest edition of PRIMETIME ADVENTURES makes thinking about what you want out of a scene the first part of the process – players must call for a scene to be either a Plot or Character scene, with different stakes for each. Motivation and agenda are the central part of my design for LOST PINES, my Twin Peaks soap opera game, in which players must decide what they want in a scene at the beginning, choosing from one of the four defined types of action represented by the suits in a deck of playing cards. Some games – like APOCALYPSE WORLD and its many derivatives – create push mechanically, asserting that when players attempt a set of defined actions they have to roll, and may have to accept the consequences of a miss.

I was thinking idly about this yesterday, and wondering about the possibilities of a system that works like PTA, but instead of having the action shaped by narrative (that is, the character’s Traits define how much influence they have over a conflict), characters in a conflict would draw cards based on how much they are pushing. Like PTA, you’d have a motivating factor – an Agenda that is defined at character creation, something concrete (not vague). It might also be useful to have shorter-term Agendas that are focused on a particular episode, just to keep the idea of motivation at the top of the player’s mind.

When the conflict in a scene comes to a boil, the GM would deal out cards to interested parties based on a rubric something like this:

Is the character pursuing their Agenda?
Is the character risking something?
Is the character willing to trample over another (player) character to get what they want?
Are the consequences of this action serious?
Is there no coming back from this?

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