Introducing DramaSystem

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

It’s about time I expanded the boundaries of roleplaying again. (This sentence is a trial project of the Commonwealth Anti-Effacement Alliance. This non-governmental organization assists Canadian game designers and British publishers in their attempts to self-promote themselves with all the zest and vigor the present age demands.)

For the past few months I’ve been doing in-house testing on DramaSystem, a rules set that does just that, as manifested by its first iteration, Hillfolk: the Roleplaying Game of Iron Age Drama.

I’ll be talking a lot about DramaSystem, here and elsewhere, as Pelgrane launches a crowdfunded campaign to support its publication. Beginnings always being good places to begin, let’s start with a look at the game’s genesis and primary design goals.

If you’ve been following this column, my blog, or my book of narrative analysis, Hamlet’s Hit Points, you are already well-versed in the distinction between procedural and dramatic scenes in storytelling can safely skip the next paragraph.

If not, here’s the recap: the major building blocks of any conventional story show characters confronting obstacles, which they then either overcome or are thwarted by. Scenes in which the characters face external, practical problems are procedural scenes.

  • Sherlock Holmes assembles disparate facts to arrive at an astounding deduction.
  • Spider-Man entraps Doctor Octopus in his webbing.
  • The school-age filmmakers of Super 8 flee the flying wreckage of a destroyed train.

Scenes in which the characters seek to change their emotional condition are dramatic scenes, requiring them to interact with the people they most care about, navigating what are often fraught relationships.

  • Sookie wants Bill to understand how betrayed she feels.
  • Hamlet tries to bully his mother into begging for his forgiveness.
  • Nucky wants to show Jimmy who’s really in charge.

Roleplaying games have traditionally focused all of their energy on resolving procedural scenes. Whether you favor the seriously crunchy or the light and abstract, there’s a rule engine to show you what happens when the player characters bust down a door, battle enemies, or search an area headquarters for clues and loot. This focus will doubtless continue, as the procedural is the home territory of the escapist power fantasy. Until relatively recently, this meant that roleplaying covered at best half of the narrative spectrum.

Certain games of the indie movement do focus on the emotional and dramatic over the procedural and external. Emily Care Boss’ pioneering relationship games come immediately to mind, as do many other ground-breaking designs that explore similar subject matter. They tend to guide you through  a very specific, calibrated experience, often within the confines of a single killer session.

DramaSystem sets out to create a substantially unguided experience, creating a very simple framework for extended dramatic storytelling. It doesn’t take you in a specific direction. Rather, it fosters a group dynamic allowing the participants to explore a surprising emotional narrative. The resulting story acquires a definite shape, but that comes from its use of dramatic storytelling techniques rather than a push in any particular direction, either by the rules system or the GM.

Its rules structures arise from a study of dramatic scenes as they play out in drama and fiction. The process of finding these structures started with the analysis of Hamlet that began on my blog and wound up as the core of Hamlet’s Hit Points. If that book is the theory, DramaSystem is the practice.

Dramatic scenes tend to break down as follows: one character is the petitioner, who seeks emotional gratification of some kind from a second character, the granter. The petitioner may want (among other possibilities) respect, forgiveness, love, submission, or simply to hurt the other person. The interaction can often be measured by a shift in power between the participants. Through an emotional negotiation, presented through dialogue, the granter either supplies the desired gratification, or denies it.

Although this is not necessarily a positive habit to pick up, you can also look at most emotional exchanges in your real life as a series of petitions, which are either accepted or rebuffed. That’s why this structure underlies so much fiction: it accurately portrays, in a condensed manner, real human interaction.

Dramatic exchanges sometimes arise spontaneously in the course of a traditional roleplaying game, often between player characters. What usually happens, assuming any resistance whatsoever on the part of the granter, is that the granter digs in. Both parties reiterate their positions, stalemate ensues, and the entire lengthy interaction fails to move the story in a new direction.

This happens because, unlike dramatic stories or real life, the granter has no incentive to ever give in. We have trained ourselves to think of good roleplaying as remaining true to a particular, quite fixed conception of our characters. Unexamined oral tradition tells us that it is laudable to remain static, uncompromising, even generally oppositional. Further, we have no incentive to give in. We  play our characters without the emotional ties and obligations that cause us to reluctantly grant petitions in life.

DramaSystem builds these emotional ties into the group as the most essential part of character creation.

It acknowledges that no dramatic character is static, but is torn between two internal tensions. Real behavior, as reflected in drama, is inconsistent. We act differently, and pursue various competing goals, depending on the pressures put on us, and the reactions of the people we care about. Multidimensional fictional characters struggle to resolve incompatible impulses. When you create a DramaSystem character, these internal contradictions stand at its heart.

In play, a simple currency system rewards you for giving in (as a granter) or being rebuffed (as a petitioner.) This encourages you to act like a dramatic character, or real person, sometimes giving in and sometimes standing your ground. If you accumulate enough drama tokens, you can spend them to require a granter to make a significant emotional concession.

During in-house playtests, players who used to dig in during any exchange now carefully pick their emotional battles. The simple process of asking themselves if they might want to grant leads them to frequently do so. They’re now playing more fully rounded and sympathetic characters—and moving the story forward.

That is the main problem DramaSystem sets out to solve. Just as with GUMSHOE, addressing that one moment of rolegaming dysfunction cascades into a very different play style, with implications way beyond that initial thought. Which is where we’ll pick up the next time we talk about this exciting work in progress.

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