Wednesday, 15 July 2015


Every once in a while, it's important to go back to the formative ideas that shaped your thinking, just to keep them fresh and vital in your mind. I realized it had been a while since I'd talked about the ideas that bubble under the surface of our play style, and that maybe it was time to return to that well for a bit. If you haven't read some of my earlier stuff on the High Trust, High Drama style, this will tell you how we got there.

I grew up playing first edition Dungeons & Dragons, or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, as we called it back in the day, and over the course of the next twenty years played a lot of traditional roleplaying games. In my thirties, I began to feel like the old style games weren't giving me the same thrill any more. I wanted more than I was getting from the likes of D&D 3rd Edition (and the many d20 games that budded off from it). As an adult gamer, my time was limited. I needed to make sure that our play time was as rewarding as possible.

I started to think about what it was that I liked and did not like about roleplaying games then, and what I could do to change the games we played.
  • Combat, I decided, was often dull and time-consuming stuff that added little to actual excitement and engagement at the table. On the contrary, it seemed like a distraction from the really interesting stuff.
  • The most interesting parts of gaming were character-focused; the roll of a die was often not interesting, because it was arbitrary, but giving the player characters the opportunity to make a big decision and then deal with the fallout from that decision certainly was.
  • The most interesting decisions follow from things the player characters care about, so play required characters who had complex motivations, were invested in things, and had relationships that were important to them.
The games I began to picture in my head from there more closely resembled the sort of thing you see in television and film, episodic character dramas. I had the good fortune at this point in my game mastering career to encounter the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and ANGEL roleplaying games, which were an easy sell (because I and especially my wife were fans of the television show), and emphasized injecting as many elements of television drama into your game as possible. I began to write framing scenes in screenplay format, as a way of easing players into the idea of adventures that had more focus on drama and story than traditional exploring and character development by-the-numbers.

A few years later, I ran a game that pushed this style forward further than what we'd done before. The game was called AMERICAN NIGHTMARE, again powered by ANGEL, and it pushed character development and dramatic scenes to the fore. That turned out to be a big hit, which led us to play more and more games that explored drama in gaming.

Here are some of the most important things we learned:
  • In a game that focuses on drama, it's often as interesting for your character's circumstances to be made more difficult than for them to straight-out succeed. This has the "knock on" effect of pushing players to make decisions that are not optimal for their characters, in effect digging them into deeper trouble to make the drama more powerful or the story more interesting.
  • For players to be comfortable with doing so, they need to have a high level of trust with the GM. They need to know that they are collaborators in creating the story, and that no one will be punished for making a choice that places their character in danger. Under no circumstances will the GM de-protagonize the player character.
  • Players should have increased narrative authority and increased responsibilities at the table, as collaborators. Moreover, it's fun to do so. Players can enjoy sharing the business of increasing pressure on their own characters.
  • Collaboration requires openness at the table. No secrets are allowed between players! There is no need for secret notes to be passed, or for adopting an adversarial stance between players and the GM. Everyone is working toward the same goal. The GM is also a player.
  • In creating dramatic scenes, the primary unit of play is the two-person scene. This requires players to take the part of both actor and audience, sometimes playing the scenes and other times watching them play out - but not passively. Players are paying attention, finding places they can help apply pressure to move the story forward and make it as dramatic as possible.
  • The most interesting kind of drama is when the stakes are high. This kind of play requires players to have open and frank discussions about content, in order to know that players are comfortable with the story that is about to unfold. This increases trust among players.
  • To keep the stakes high, player characters need to be actively pursuing their motivations. They need to have an agenda, a drive. Drama does not just "happen" by wandering into a scene, it happens by design and through conflict. Scenes without conflict are dead weight.
  • Romance, which traditional roleplaying games largely avoid as icky poo, distracting from the serious business of killing monsters and taking their stuff, is totally awesome in dramatic play. It's an essential part of the human experience, and something that has motivated the human race for thousands of years. Love is a great motivator, and a great generator of conflicts.
  • Lastly, the GM enjoys a unique position in this style of play. She is the only player at the table that doesn't have a protagonist player character, able to see the game as a whole from a different perspective. Not neutral, not at all -- a good GM in this style of play is (I think this is Avery Alder's phrase, from MONSTERHEARTS) a fan of the player characters. They want to see their story play out in the most interesting way possible. They want them to struggle, and they're in a unique position to increase pressure on the characters, but ultimately they want them to succeed. Whatever "success" means to a particular player.
So there you have it. A few of the underlying motivations that pushed me toward dramatic play, and some of the lessons we've taken away from years of developing this style. We're still learning, of course, and finding best practices to help make our play as satisfying as possible. 

What lessons have you taken away from the table?

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