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?”

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

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