The rock of dramatic potential

It is a fact that some roleplaying games get into the meat of the story faster than others. One way to do this is to have a clear mission which is the focus of play, like “raid this dungeon” or “investigate this murder”. But what about the more character/relationship driven side of play? What is the difference between a game that cuts straight to interesting, meaningful drama, compared to one that takes ages to get going, whose relationships are lifeless or where the drama is just sound and fury, signifying nothing?

This isn’t just a theoretical question. I’ve lost count of the number of games that have handed me (through character/ world building at the start of the game) a bunch of interesting characters and intriguing relationships, but where I and the other players were at a loss where to start with bringing them to a head. The result, too often, is unsatisfying early scenes where we skirt the drama, or charge headlong at it, emotionally flailing at each other, but without any real sense of meaning.

I think of interesting RPG drama as like a rock that you must get rolling. The rock must have the heft created by meaning, but it also must have momentum so that interesting scenes can happen. To get the rock moving, you must roll it up the hill of dramatic potential, before it can roll down that hill, generating interesting drama in its wake. Games vary wildly in how big a rock they give you, but also in how much work they do to roll the rock up the hill.

Metaphors are all very well, but what does this mean in practice? Let’s take an example of a potential PC romance. A classic game like D&D wouldn’t bother to give any help making such a romance happen; it’s entirely in the player’s hands to do that. They might decide to introduce some romantic interaction but it might feel forced, or require quite a bit of work to get it going or make it feel significant.

Indie games might more typically help set up some potential, by asking you relationship questions like “which other PC do you have a crush on” or even “which other PC are you in love with”. This, then, is the rock: pre-generated emotional weight. It means weaving into your character’s backstory (even if only implied backstory) a sense that they have been interested in this other character for a while. It gives them an automatic reason to pursue a romance, and makes any resulting scenes more significant for them.

But it’s still pretty boring, as it stands. Even having established that one character (let’s call them Romeo) is in love with another (let’s call them Juliet), we don’t have a particularly dramatic relationship. One person being attracted to another, even in love with them, does not make for drama. Romeo may ask Juliet to dance with him, or suchlike, and she is left to either respond positively or negatively. Perhaps they’ll even hop into bed straight away. Which is fine, but not terribly dramatic or meaningful, because we have no real sense of their emotional context beyond “he’s in love with her”.

It’s actually pretty hard to get started on a conversation with your crush, as Peter could tell you.

For drama, there must be this emotional texture and, ideally, interesting complications. Consider these alternative starting relationships: Romeo is in love with Juliet, and Juliet is in love with Romeo, but they belong to warring factions who will never accept their love. Or: Romeo is in love with Juliet, but Juliet cannot forgive Romeo for killing her best friend. Or: Romeo is still in love with Juliet, after their marriage ended in acrimony.

These wrinkles add colour and meaning to a bland relationship, and they set up interesting stuff to happen in play. The warring factions are going to get up in Romeo and Juliet’s face and force them to work to have their romance happen. Or, Romeo is going to have to work to get Juliet to even consider him, and whether she says yes or no it will be freighted with meaning for them both. Or, their every action will be loaded with the regret and longing of their broken relationship and the question of whether it can ever be revived.

Good stuff. This has made the rock heftier, because it’s made the relationship more interesting and dramatically meaningful. Anything that happens to that relationship in future will be more significant because of the work put in to define and complicate the relationship.

But it still takes work to roll the rock up the hill. Some of the above starting relationships have more dramatic potential than others. What this amounts to is, to what extent is the relationship in a stable equilibrium where there’s no real reason to expect interesting stuff to happen, and to what extent is the relationship close to an interesting turning point or crisis that will throw it into motion. If Juliet hates Romeo’s guts because he killed her best friend, that is very interesting but seems like a brick wall in Romeo’s path. It’s hard to know how he even gets started romancing her, because the obvious answer to any move he might make is “get lost, friend-killer”. The relationship is stagnant, immobile. One of the people playing these characters is going to have to work (probably a lot of work) to get their character into a position where that can change.

Did you just kill my best friend? Get lost, friend-killer!

In contrast, if Romeo and Juliet are already in love, and there’s already a war between their factions, then that is close to crisis point. You can immediately see the possibilities for scenes that will pit their love against political reality. All we need do is have their midnight tryst witnessed by a faction member, and we are straight into crisis. Or perhaps we can have a close faction ally of one character kill a close faction ally of the other, to throw the relationship into conflict and emotional confusion. Here, the rock has been rolled nearly to the top of the hill, and it takes only a little more work to push it into action.

We can get the rock even closer to the top of the hill, very easily. Put simply, we can decide at the start of play that a crisis or turning point-inducing event has already happened. So for a starting relationship: Romeo and Juliet are in love with each other, but Romeo just killed Juliet’s best friend. Our game will start with Romeo having to decide how to break this news to Juliet or perhaps to try and conceal it from her. That’s an instant scene starter and, no matter what Romeo does, a drama-generator. The rock has practically started to roll already.

We could have started from cold (as in the D&D example above) and got into the above very dramatic situation in play, and there is a good argument that getting into stuff in play is more interesting than just defining it up front. But doing so entails a lot of work, during which no drama to speak of is happening, and with the risk that we’ll never get there. After all, good authors sometimes struggle to create engaging, meaningful drama between characters. It isn’t actually easy. Instead of taking that risk, we can kickstart the drama, propelling us towards exciting in-game decisions that lead to more drama, if work has been done to put the characters at some kind of inflection point at the start of play.

We can do the same thing but with a slightly less immediate “must address this NOW” feel by putting the crisis-inducing event further into the past. Like this: Romeo and Juliet are in love with each other, but Juliet doesn’t know that Romeo was the one who killed her best friend. Which other character knows about it? This approach puts the rock of dramatic potential at the top of the hill, but stationary. It only takes a nudge to throw it into motion: the character who knows Romeo did the deed tells Juliet. But that nudge can be held back and delivered right at the most exciting moment, when it will cause maximum emotional chaos.

Creating dramatic potential and putting things close to (or preferably at) an inflection point is particularly important for one-shot play. If you want character relationships to be front and centre in a one-shot, they simply must be made complicated and pushed to an inflection point, so that meaningful drama can happen in the session. Campaigns also benefit from this because it gets things going right away and enables the relationship to further develop rather than struggling to get going in the first place.

So, whether you’re a game designer or a GM or player, you can help to get drama going in your games early by:

  • creating emotionally charged relationships at the start;
  • complicating them; and
  • putting them at or near an inflection point as play starts.

These simple steps will virtually guarantee exciting emotional drama right from the word go, and make you wonder why you ever settled for questions like “who do you have a crush on?”

How I run investigation games (part 1: prep)

A really juicy mystery, with the cool feeling of piecing together clues and coming to the correct conclusion, is one of my favourite things in roleplaying. It’s also something that I feel isn’t well delivered by existing RPG systems. Here I’m going to talk about my approach to building a mystery and enabling real investigation.

This isn’t the first time I’ve explored this terrain. Back in 2013 I talked about how mysteries are like stones falling into a pool, creating ripples. And I went on to talk about how investigation isn’t just about clue detection, but about deduction and reaching conclusions. But I stopped short of talking about how to construct a satisfying mystery, which is what I want to do now.

Just for the moment, let’s assume I have an ok system that will cover the business of discovering clues, and an ok premise that make sure the players want to investigate this mystery. I may come back to these later, but let’s imagine they’re solved problems for the purposes of this article. Let’s also assume I’m running something that has a substantial investigative focus, so there’s more than just one simple mystery to solve.

I then create my mystery in a number of fairly discrete steps:

  • Decide what the fundamental driver of the mystery is. Something like “There’s a cult trying to summon a demon through a series of ceremonial sacrifices”, or “House Rukh are planning to assassinate the governor and take over the planetary government”
  • Generate from this driver a series of events. These can be past events which the players are (presumably) going to be investigating, or future events which the players are (presumably) going to be trying to avert.
  • For each past event, I generate a footprint, that is, a set of clues which are out there waiting to be discovered by the players.
  • The footprint breaks down into physical clues and witnesses, which are obviously investigated in different ways. Each of these is amenable to assigning a location and/or time. I’m also thinking about the ways in which the players might discover the clues, though I’m leaving myself open to other ways as well.
  • For future events, I generate a timing and/or trigger, some consequences, and (in case the players don’t find out about it until after it happens) a footprint, exactly as for a past event.

For instance, let’s look at the cult example:

  • For events, I decide that the cult has already sacrificed two victims. One of them was pursued through a particular district in the city in the night, and then murdered in a junkyard. The other was killed previously and more quietly, in their apartment.
  • The pursuit generated some witnesses along the route it followed – people who heard screams for help and some who looked out of their windows to see a group of figures pursuing the victim.
  • Both the murders generate a corpse, some messy bloodstains, perhaps a footprint. They also include the identity of the corpse – for the junkyard murder that may not be obvious, while the apartment victim (if the players discover it) is in their apartment so probably can easily be ID’d.
  • The junkyard murder will be reported, which is the trigger for the players’ investigation. The apartment murder will likely lie fallow for a while, but might show up later.
  • I also create three future events: a near miss where someone is cornered by the cult and nearly killed, but escapes by jumping out of a window; and a murder that involves an initial kidnapping and the victim being brought to a specific site for the final sacrifice. Perhaps the near-miss will report in to the authorities and the players can find out about it that way. Perhaps the kidnapping will be reported, perhaps not.
  • At this stage I might also add in some kind of link between the various murders, be it geographical (the locations form a shape on the map, with the final sacrifice in the middle) or social (the victims are all highly religious people, say), or whatever.
  • If the final sacrifice is completed then the demon will be summoned and a whole new set of events will be generated after that (but I don’t bother thinking about that right now, because I’m expecting that the players will stop the sacrifice happening and/or kill the demon after it’s summoned.

Once I’ve planned all this out, I’ll review what I’ve got to make sure there’s enough there to give the players a fighting chance of cracking the mystery, but not so much that they’ll solve it in five seconds flat. I can add or remove witnesses and clues until I think I have got that right. Of course, my future events ensure that, no matter what happens, the players will have something to do. If time passes and they haven’t made progress, the next event happens.

I’ll then break the information down into a number of components I can use:

  • A timeline of events
  • A list of locations with clues that can be found there
  • A list of characters with motivations, information they might have and any key abilities

Once I’ve got all that in place, the game more-or-less runs itself. The players move from location to location as prompted by clues and/or a future event becoming a present event. Perhaps they discover clues which help them to get ahead of the timeline, perhaps the timeline runs ahead of them and they’re forced to confront a scary situation unprepared.

I’ll talk in a future article about how I use this prep in practice.

This article is supported through the Black Armada Patreon.

Become a Patron!

Game design: Torg

It’s my personal policy not to write reviews about games I haven’t played, and ideally multiple times. So this isn’t a review, because I’ve only read Torg. But it threw up some interesting game design ideas, so I thought I’d write an article off the back of it.

I picked Torg up second hand from Baz King’s big rpg sell-off some time back, along with bunch of other fairly old games that I’m slowly working my way through. The game was published in 1990, in a period when a lot of game designers seem to have been looking to go beyond the model of gaming exemplified by D&D, with innovative game mechanics becoming increasingly commonplace, but the overall paradigm of fairly mechanics-heavy, wargame-with-knobs-on style gaming remaining dominant even in these cutting edge games. You need to bear this in mind when reading about their mechanics, which (I believe!) were extremely innovative at the time, but now look fairly clunky and outdated.

The mechanics

Zero-based die rolling. Torg is the earliest example I’ve come across of a game where the average result on a die roll is zero. This is an important innovation, because it takes quite maths-intensive systems (roll 3d6 and add your skill, or whatnot) and simplifies them by saying “your expected result is equal to your character’s skill level”. By extension, an “easy” task is one which has a difficulty number lower than your skill level, while a “difficult” task is one which has a difficulty number higher than your skill level. Of course, Torg went and ruined it by requiring players to roll a d20 and compare the roll to a look-up table to find out what the actual result was, adding in exploding dice whenever a 10 or 20 was rolled for good measure. In other words, they took a great and simple idea, and made it complex and cumbersome. Only two years later, this model was simplified in FUDGE[*], which does the same thing but much more elegantly.

Cards. I have often commented that it is strange how board game designers avail themselves of a wide range of tools to make their games function well: dice, cards, tokens, and so on, while roleplaying game designers typically restrict themselves to one tool: polyhedral dice. Torg breaks with this trend. It makes use of cards which are said to be designed to inject drama into the game. The players use them to generate a hand of cards which provide one-shot bonuses and special effects usable in combat, enabling them to put extra “oomph” into a given action, or to get GM hints, or even to create sub-plots for their characters on the fly. The self-same cards, if flipped 180 degrees, have GM text which create special effects during conflict, always handing an advantage to the heroes or their opponents, and so creating an ebb and flow in combat. These effects even vary depending on whether you’re in a regular scene or a climactic scene. I won’t go into more detail here, but suffice to say that the cards do two further things. They really are jam-packed with game mechanical power. And, as with much else in Torg, this is their weakness. They go too far with a good idea, and what was an interesting and elegant mechanic becomes cumbersome and complex. Still, it’s interesting to observe that two decades on the idea of cards in games seems to be enjoying a mini-renaissance, with games like D&D 4th edition and the latest iteration of Gamma World allegedly (I have yet to sample these games) part of their mechanical set.

Possibilities. Torg uses a variant on what are typically called Fate or Drama points in other games, called “possibilities”. What’s interesting is that Fate points weren’t common in 1990 – indeed, as far as I know only Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying had made use of the Fate Point mechanic at that point. Possibilities in Torg are usable to reroll dice, survive danger or as experience points. They also have a formal role in the metaphysic, such that competing paradigms can be temporarily boosted by their use – so that, for example, my wizard could cast his spells in a world where magic doesn’t exist.

These mechanics are all ideas which, at their core, are very similar to concepts I’ve been toying with as a way of getting a crunchy, simulationist system that nevertheless supports drama and the ability of players to steer events a bit more than, say, D&D, without going the whole hog and turning into, say, Fiasco. It’s interesting to me that they all existed in 1990, albeit in a rather baroque form.

[*] I have no idea if the authors of FUDGE were trying to improve on Torg’s mechanics. I simply observe that the one came very shortly after the other.