A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
As mentioned last time, implementation of DramaSystem’s core goal—fostering emotional character interactions that play out as they do in drama and fiction—leads, as a series of follow-on effects, to a highly distinctive play experience.
Procedural narratives, in which the heroes pursue a practical goal (identifying a killer, rescuing a hostage, investigating a conspiracy) strongly link their scenes together. To borrow a term from opera, I call this a through-composed narrative. Success or failure when dealing with one obstacle leads to the next obstacle. Success or failure in dispatching that obstacle leads to another, and another, and another. In a complex through-composed work, you might cut back and forth between different actors whose pursuit of their individual procedural goals will eventually dovetail. X-Men: First Class works this way, for example.
Like most creative choices, through-composed plotting brings with it both strengths and drawbacks. When we watch or read a work of non-interactive fiction, a through-composed structure keeps us engaged and oriented, with its steady question-answer-question-answer plotting. Its lack of breathing room generates suspense at the expense of emotional exploration and character development.
Dramatic narratives unfold without pulling the characters along a trail of practical obstacles. One scene might develop from the emotional shift established in the one previous, or might cut to another interaction entirely. Jumps between scenes might follow a theme, move back and forth from plot to sub-plot, or serve the emotional stories of an ensemble cast. Let’s call this tapestry construction (because naturally when one mentions opera, talk of textiles is never far behind.)
In roleplaying, we are accustomed to through-composed construction. It goes hand in hand with the procedural mode most of our games concern themselves with. We learn about the dungeon from a guy with a hat in a tavern; we trek to the dungeon; we open a door and go in; we fight the monsters and take their stuff. The classic dungeon bash is a loosey-goosey through-composed plot, with room for random monsters and wandering about. But in play it is linear: a series of decisions (and thus scenes) arising from previous decisions-slash-scences.
Mystery games like GUMSHOE are through-composed in a way that leads to a tighter-seeming narrative. You take the contract from the guy with the helmet in the space bar, fly to the planet, interview a witness, who points you to a strange phenomenon, where you analyze the ionosphere anomaly, until eventually the central problem is cracked.
Through-composed structures serve these procedural narratives well. They’re brittle, though: if players can’t see a way forward or agree on which option to pursue, the game bogs down. You can work to remove obvious block points, as GUMSHOE does with by dispensing with rolls for information. But when through-composed games lose momentum, it’s hard to regain.
DramaSystem emulates tapestry narrative by treating scenes as discrete units. The participants (players and GM) take turns laying out the parameters that open each scene. A scene’s caller specifies, explicitly or implicitly, which characters are present, where the scene takes place, how much time has passed since the last scene, and what’s going on as it opens. Players usually cast their own characters in the scene, as it costs to call a scene you’re not in. The scene’s driving conflict either becomes apparent organically through play, or is specified from the top by the caller. A caller can use a scene to introduce characters and situations. Players unhappy with the parameters can challenge them through a rules mechanism; more often the group negotiates its way through such sticking points through quick, informal consensus.
The resulting structure leads to a tapestry narrative emulating that of a serialized ensemble drama, like “The Sopranos”, “Six Feet Under”, or “Shameless.” Imagine a serialized show set in an alternate history iron age, and you’ve got Hillfolk, the first DramaSystem game.
(Not all serialized shows are primarily dramatic in the structural sense, by the way. “Game of Thrones”, with its emphasis on scheming and conspiring, breaks down as mostly procedural, with a complex through-composed structure. Oddly, “True Blood”, based on a series of procedural novels, eventually establishes itself as predominantly dramatic/tapestry, with a side-order of procedural.)
DramaSystem gives considerable narrative control to the players, whose characters’ emotional goals and internal tensions must drive the narrative. There is a GM, whose power is constrained and defined in a way that many of us old hands will find delightfully challenging. The GM retains responsibility for pacing and rules judgment, while functioning as the desire of the otherwise nonexistent passive audience. She also gets to play all of the recurring and minor characters. Perhaps most temptingly, the game requires no homework for the GM. So if you’re always expected to run but don’t have time to stat up characters or think up storylines in advance, DramaSystem is for you.
Here are some scenes from the current in-house Hillfolk playtest. The lead characters are the key figures in a clan of raiders living in a hardscrabble upland zone. At the end of the last episode, their chieftain allied himself with a neighboring king, promising to become his vassal.
Scene one is called by Justin, who as first caller for the session is also asked to name the episode’s theme. He chooses “Corruption”, portending dire developments ahead. He calls a scene in which his character, the shepherd Thickneck, goes to his hotheaded warrior brother Redaxe seeking assurance that he will not disrupt the new political reality. As the scene unfolds, an additional emotional subtext arises: Redaxe recently lost his girlfriend (Twig, another PC), to Thickneck. The scene ends with Redaxe beginning to forgive Thickneck, granting him the assurance he seeks.
Scene two is called by Chris, who chooses one of several possible non-dramatic scene types, in this case a group discussion of the clan’s current situation.
Christoph calls scene three, in which his chieftain, Skull, confronts the rebellious clan shaman, Roll-the-Bones, who tries to stir up a rebellion when she learns of the deal with the north. She’s a recurring character played by the GM. Roll-the-Bones refuses his petition.
In a scene called by me, as GM, the cheerfully arrogant northern warrior Shieldheart (another recurring character), pitches woo to the winsome Twig, winning her subtle encouragement.
Lisa, Twig’s player, calls a scene in which her character seeks aid from a confidant, Apple (yet another recurring character), regarding the crisis stirred up by Roll-the-Bones.
The session goes on from there…
As you can see, some of these scenes revolve around a core crisis: the clan’s appalled reaction to the northern deal, as personified by Roll-the-Bones. But they are tapestry-composed: none arises directly from an obstacle established by the previous scene. They make room for dramatic interaction, relegating the practical problems faced by the characters to a secondary role.