Recurring Characters and Dramatic Poles

By Robin D Laws

In DramaSystem, the engine of our upcoming game Hillfolk, GM-run characters who appear on a regular basis are called recurring characters. This denotes their importance to the storyline and the main cast of player characters. The series protagonists care about them enough to seek emotional rewards from them, engaging them in dramatic scenes. When these resolve, the GM participates in the game’s drama token economy. She earns tokens when she has the recurring character give in to a difficult emotional request, or makes a request and is refused. She pays out tokens when the recurring character rebuffs an emotional entreaty, or is granted what he seeks.

Recurring characters are introduced into the storyline by either the GM or by players. After they’re established, any participant can cast them in any scene that seems to call for their presence.

They needn’t be constructed with dramatic poles, the internal contradictions that grant main cast characters depth and the ability to pivot from one position to its opposite while retaining internal consistency. In dramatic works, minor characters often exist to highlight one side or another of a main character’s dramatic struggle. The term for this in fiction is foil—they act as a one-sided reflection of a central figure.

In Hamlet, Horatio serves as a foil to one side of the main character, Hamlet. If Hamlet’s dramatic poles are “action vs. contemplation”, Horatio embodies the cool, rational observer. By example if not by argument, he pulls Hamlet toward his contemplation pole. The ghost, with his groaning demands for vengeance beyond the grave, contrastingly pulls Hamlet prince toward his action pole.

Rick Blaine of Casablanca exemplifies the classic dramatic poles of selfishness vs. altruism.  The empathetic Sam represents Rick Blaine’s lost empathy, and thus his altruism. The supremely cynical Captain Renault embodies selfishness, and pulls Rick toward that pole. When Rick’s story concludes, he brings his selfish foil along with him, flipping Renault to the side of altruism, and the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

DramaSystem recurring characters can be more fluid than straight-up foils might be. A recurring character can push a protagonist toward each of his poles at different times.

Recurring characters can also push protagonists toward one pole or the other by acting as antagonists—creating obstacles that activate their divided natures. They can represent monstrous versions of a dramatic pole gone awry—a future version of the character, if she takes it to an extreme. As in real life, we are often both attracted to, and repelled by, people who display qualities we see in ourselves.

You needn’t consciously conceive DramaSystem recurring characters as embodiments of a particular dramatic pole. This tends to arise organically, as the GM creates situations to push a player character toward an underused pole. That’s the whole essence of the DramaSystem dynamic—to create a framework that leads you to develop story elements spontaneously, with a minimum of preplanned intervention. Your notes regarding a recurring character can simply remind you of her name, role in the story, and any key events. If you can’t find much use for a recurring character, let her fade away, to be replaced by newly developed characters that do activate the story by pulling the main characters toward one pole or another. Or have them undergo a change to better exert pressure on the protagonists’ divided natures.

Because recurring characters reflect your main cast and your spontaneously created story, you should collectively create them yourselves during play, rather than reaching for an off-the-rack set of NPCs, as you would in other games. For this reason I hesitate a little to provide examples of recurring characters. But as long as you treat them as examples only, these might help you envision the process of inventing your own.

A list of recurring characters from the original in-house playtest of Hillfolk also requires a rundown of the main cast, to see how they fit into the series. Before continuing, pop over here for a refresher.

A loutish brute of a warrior, Treeclimber served as an early antagonist within the clan. His ambition and generally confrontational attitude at various times allowed him to push Redaxe toward his “man of war” pole, his eventual son-in-law Farhawk toward “destroying the Horseheads”, and Skull toward his unspoken “arrogance” pole.

His empathetic wife, Apple, acted as confidant to Twig. This generally meant nudging her toward her first-season conformity pole, and away from her second-season selfishness pole.

Her daughter Raging River, soon married off to Farhawk, pivoted from ingenue to steely behind-the-scenes adviser. Intent on her hotheaded and unpopular husband’s survival, she pushed him at times toward becoming a Horsehead and at other times toward undermining them.

In a series dominated by the clan’s relationship with the more advanced kingdom of the north, its king, Goldenthrone, began as a distant force, appearing onstage near the end of the second season. He represented both a model and an antagonist to Skull, who negotiated a vassalage deal with him, only to be deposed in favor of the more level-headed Thickneck. This action pushed the latter from his loyalty pole to his ambition pole.

The bandit leader Ghost first appeared as One-Eye, the chieftain of a neighboring tribe eventually destroyed by Northern forces. His animosity to the North sometimes proved useful and sometimes a hindrance to Skull’s triangulations. In a shocking late development, Skull murdered him when he was wounded and helpless, moving him toward his second-season pole of vengeance.

The Trident priestess Pierces-the-Sky, established in the backstory of formerly imprisoned warrior Flint as both his lover and torturer, appeared first in his dreams and then in the flesh. This fraught relationship pushed Flint toward each of his poles, loyalty and ambition, at different times.

As the series evolved, so too did the roles played by its key recurring characters. The weight they held in the storyline depended on their ability to continue to push and pull the main cast as their poles, agendas, and situations changed. Like so much else in DramaSystem, that’s something you can’t plan for, but that happens naturally as the group collectively deepens the ongoing narrative.

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