Creating drama in RPGs with choice and stakes

In my last post I responded to the idea that “there are no rules for the GM”, and explained why I disagreed with that premise. In the few discussions I have had and observed on that topic, one of the most common reasons given for a GM to ‘break the rules’ is to create drama or suspense in their games.

While that is certainly one way to achieve such an effect, it is a strategy that primarily targets the player while ignoring the fictional world of the character and is, in effect, only ‘half the game’ of playing an RPG.

In this post, I discuss the ideas of choice and stakes, two key elements of storytelling that can create drama and suspense for the player via the medium of the character and the fictional reality of the game.

In my experience, drama that revolves around these elements is much more satisfying for both player and GM than purely mechanical approaches.

RPGs as Diegesis

Previously, I have outlined the concept of diegetic and non-diegetic gameplay, and argued that to play any TTRPG required acknowledgement of the inextricable relationship between the two.

As a quick summary:

Diegesis – the fictional world of the game where character actions and their consequences occur. Diegesis is the narrative and plot of an RPG

Diegetic gameplay – actions that contribute to the construction of the game’s diegesis, such as describing or enacting character or NPC actions, in-character dialogue, setting descriptions, etc.

Non-diegetic gameplay – any ‘out of character’ action that ultimately informs and supports the creation of the game’s diegesis. For example, dice rolls and discussions of game mechanics, character creation, and moving miniatures around a map.

As a game session progresses, gameplay will necessarily alternate between diegetic and non-diegetic modes. This will often happen within a single moment, where the roll of a dice and discussion of target numbers and results is followed by the narration of action determined by the outcome of the dice roll.

Choices and roleplaying

Like the matrix, the success roleplaying ultimately revolves around the participants making, and having the opportunity to make, choices. Playing a role is the act of making choices that you believe the character would make in whatever circumstances the game places them in. Speaking in different voices, or maintaining characterisations are all elements of playacting that can be an enhancement of roleplaying, but ultimately the choices a player makes for their character are at the core of what it means to play a role.

Having choices, and more importantly, having choices that matter, is an essential part of having a sense of agency within the game. Without being able to make choices that matter a player risks becoming the passive receiver of the GMs game and story rather than an active participant in the collective gaming experience.

For the GM, this also means giving characters and players choices to make. When a character has to make a choice, ultimately it is the player making the choice in a unification of the diegetic and non-diegetic aspects of the game.

While player choice and character choice are still separate, however it is one of the actions taken in playing an RPG in which the diegetic and non-diegetic elements of the game are most closely related. A character in an RPG is utterly incapable of making a choice that is not limited by the knowledge and imagination of the player, and it is because of this concept of a character being entirely contained within the mind of the player that the act of making choices crosses, and indeed starts to break down, the diegetic line.

In short, choices presented to characters in an RPG are elements of the game that simultaneously engage player and character, and thus create more significant moments of drama than strategies that are directed more toward the diegetic character or non-diegetic player.

Creating Drama through high-stakes choices

One way that choices can be used to create tension and drama in a game session is when a choice has high stakes; when there are significant consequences for whichever option the character chooses.

If conflict is the essence of drama, then choices between two conflicting ideas are inherently dramatic. For the choice to be dramatic, however, the character has to have some awareness of the choice being presented to them, and of the consequences of that choice.

For example: The choice between two different swords with which to attack an approaching enemy may result in a slight mechanical advantage that affects the outcome of the fight, but the act of choosing the sword itself is not likely to create much drama.

However, choosing between two swords when the character knows that one of them is a relic of no special power but of great symbolic value that will legitimise the heir to a downtrodden nation but the other would grant the wielder particular power in combat just as a guardian monster is barrelling down the corridor… that’s a choice with high stakes and potentially long lasting consequences.

Drama is created in the moment when a player or character has to make a meaningful choice, a difficult choice, or a choice that has significant consequences for the character, their allies and even the setting of the game.

Suspense – the tension of not knowing – is also created in the moment of choice, and when someone makes a choice that has potentially high consequences, suspense can be felt in the time between the choice being and the final confirmation of the outcome that follows.

The character who chooses the heirloom sword out of a sense of duty to the family it belongs to, but then has to fight off some guarding fell-beast without the benefit of the magic weapon is going to have a more suspenseful fight, as it is assumed that their choice may well cost them their life.

However, while such choices might make for key moments of drama in the climax of a story, not all choices presented to a character need to be so character or world defining in scale in order to effectively create drama within your game.

Choice, consequences and scale

The choices a GM presents to their players can be varying in scale and consequence. By presenting choices of different scale and stakes throughout a story, with consequences that converge at a climactic point in the session, or even at the end of a longer running campaign, you can create a sense of thematic connectedness that makes stories and games feel more unified and satisfying.

Such experiences are also inherently more ‘dramatic’ in the sense of inviting players to be more emotionally invested because the players will to some degree realise that their own actions have brought some of the circumstances they face at the moment of highest conflict.

Continuing the example of choosing between swords that is described above, having players face the threat of a new warlord’s growing power and who decides that the players are enemies to be exterminated can create an interesting story and series of challenges for the characters to resolve. Discovering later that the warlord gained their power by forcefully taking control of a downtrodden kingdom after a legitimate heir could not be found might bring a greater sense of personal engagement to the player or players who are happily wielding the sword they found in a seemingly unrelated adventure several sessions ago.

On a smaller scale, choices that shape the dramatic climax of a story may be littered throughout one or more gaming sessions.

Classic-bordering-on-cliche’d examples include: do the PCs choose to intervene when local guards are being overly rough with the townsfolk; the PCs find a precious object and later encounter someone looking for that lost item, claiming it has some great personal value. Do the players return it to it’s (claimed) owner, or keep it for their own benefit?; a natural disaster/monster/warband is destroying a generally peaceful town, do the PCs intervene? Or flee and protect themselves?

Each of these choices may inform a scene of social interaction or combat, but ultimately the path of action hinges on a choice that the characters and their players make.

As a GM I personally enjoy the tactic of introducing the characters into a moment of conflict and simply letting them try to figure out what is the appropriate course of action. Whether they pick a side, or choose to remain separate, is a choice that carries consequences.

How to build a dramatic story around choices

So as GM who wants to create more dramatic stories that engage players on an emotional level, how do you factor this into your session planning?

The first thing is to recognise that by valuing drama as a goal, you’re elevating the narrative aspect of your RPG, and so narrative structures will play an important part in the construction of your session or campaign. From there, you are most likely going to take one ow two approaches to introducing choices into your gaming session…

Convergent choices

… in which each choice the players make has some influence upon a predetermined end point.

One strategy that is offered as advice by many authors is to start with the ending and work your way backwards.

Imagine the climactic conflict at the end of your session, story or campaign and ask yourself what moment of choice might exist with that conflict. What are the conflicting ideals the PCs may have to choose between?

The type of story you’re trying to tell will often influence the kind of choice that frames your story. In heroic adventures, often the choice will be between some variation of selfishness or selflessness, or between doing what is right vs what is easy (which is a variation on selfless/selfish). In more political stories the choice might be between two conflicting ideologies that inform opposing sides of a conflict, or about the struggle to expose truth in a timely fashion. Romance often revolves around the choice between love and other priorities (family, wealth, status, or even life itself).

Regardless of what the choice is – consider how it manifests in your story? What are the avatars of the different options that players will interact with as they play the game?

Once you figure that out, work backwards to consider the choices that lead to the characters being involved in and how each choice may ultimately influence that final climax. If they had a chance to win over an NPC early in the game (or even just a choice to treat them well or not) then that NPC could end up as an ally, or may even end up on the opposing side.

Was there a key artifact or resource or piece of information that might affect the final outcome that the characters had the choice to obtain along the way? Then that too will build towards the shape of the final, climactic conflict.

Each choice the PCs face can either lead to a different scene in the path of the story OR it can influence an element of the next scene or of the final conflict. Either way, all choices ultimately converge on the final, dramatic climax.

Divergent choices

The other option, in a much more sand-box oriented game, it to let the choices the characters make be the deciding factor of where the story goes.

The GM may introduce persistent NPCs or locations to which the story keeps returning, but the nature of the PCs engagement with, and return to these people and places will be largely determined by the choices they make along the way.

For the GM, this approach requires a bit more detailed record keeping in order to identify choices whose outcomes and consequences might influence later scenes or conflicts. If you’re willing to allow PC choices to create divergent storylines, then for the purpose of creating drama the moments of choice in a game are often best presented as meaningful scenes or self-contained vignettes. While you may use the consequences of such choices to build towards a climactic moment over time, it’s going to be less direct or or guaranteed than if you plan for choices to converge on a predetermined moment of drama.

Introducing Uncertainty

Uncertainty is the enemy of choice. Any individual’s ability to confidently make a choice is undermined by how certain they are of either the principles or information on which their choice is based, or their certainty of the outcome that follows any choice they have made.

A GM can make any moment of choice that little bit more dramatic by simply introducing an element of uncertainty into the scenario. Rumours, half-truths, red-herrings and other plot points are a great way to make even the most innocuous moment more suspenseful and interesting.

Sure, the PCs could easily wade through that unit of guardsmen – but earlier they found evidence suggesting the presence of a werewolf in the region, and it may be that one of the guards is a deadly lycanthrope capable of tearing them apart… but they still need to get inside that castle before midnight! So what are they going to do?

The role of game mechanics in choice driven games

 

While choices may be a mechanism for creating drama, neither choice nor drama are a guarantee of the character’s success along their chosen path. Game mechanics still have a crucial role to play in determining the outcomes of a PCs choices – especially when such choices lead to combat.

The uncertainty of dice rolls allows you to to draw out the suspense of a moment or, better yet, a meaningful choice made by the PC gives greater weight to the dice roll and creates suspense around the outcome that wasn’t likely to be there before.

I just keep reminding myself that in order to keep the story alive, dramatic and interesting, the mechanics exist to serve the game’s diegesis, rather than try to replace it as a non-diegetic source of drama.

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