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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Diegesis in TTRPGs, (OR why I don’t oppose meta-gaming or table-talk – any more!)

Between the various Facebook groups and gaming forums I engage with, the topics of meta-gaming and table talk come up almost weekly and are often initiated by relatively new GMs looking for suggestions of how to control or even ‘punish’ players who engage in these practices. I understand how they feel, because once I was in that position, but over the years I have ultimately have come to the understanding that not only are such strategies in contradiction to the nature and spirit of roleplaying games, but that the very opposition to metagaming and table-talk is an opposition to essential elements of the game experience.

The primary reason for complaint by GMs about players engaging in meta-gaming or table-talk is that it ruins any suspense, surprise or tension that the GM is trying to create by withholding information from the players, which they do in order to allow for a dramatic reveal or an unexpected occurrence at some point in the game. I believe that while the intent of the GMs in this instance is positive, they are reaching for the wrong tools in order to create the desired tension, suspense or drama, and that a primary reason they are reaching for the wrong tools is due to the way they view the gaming experience.

By exploring the concept of Diegesis in RPGs I aim to explain why table-talk and meta-gaming are not actually the problems many people feel them to be, and in fact, should be embraced as essential parts of the gaming experience that can make the whole thing more enjoyable for everyone involved.

First, some quick definitions:

  • Table-talk – when players talk about things that are not specific contributions to the in-game/in-character events taking place at that moment.
  • Meta-gaming – when a player uses knowledge of the game/rules/setting that their character would not know as the basis of in-character decisions and actions.

The phrase table-talk has it’s origins in card games, particularly Bridge, where non-game related talk might be used to send signals to your partner about the cards in your hand; this effectively constitutes cheating in a competitive game.  In discussions about RPGs, table-talk is often similarly framed as a form of cheating. I disagree with the idea that it’s cheating, but insist rather that it’s an essential element of playing an RPG.

Meta-gaming is similarly derided by many as a form of cheating. It needs to be noted here that the term metagaming is used to describe a whole range of behaviours that all hang upon the common element of ‘players using game knowledge the character shouldn’t have’, but varying in extremity based, again, on how GM and player view the nature of the gaming experience. Later in this article I’ll explain how metagaming can be viewed as either an intrinsic necessity of the game or as the result of a person actually refusing to play the role playing game, depending on whether or not they engage with the diegesis of the game.

Before expanding on those points further, I need to outline some key points:

  1. The inevitability of collaborative plot and narrative.

All RPGS, from the most board-game-like dungeon-hack to the systemless LARP, contain the basic elements of a story; one or more characters (characters), doing stuff (action), in one or more places (setting). And every such story is comprised of two elements, Plot and Narrative.

‘Plot’ means the relevant events of the story in the order that they happened, and ‘Narrative’ broadly refers to the way the events are presented.

In an RPG, everything that a GM and player do is a contribution to a collaborative plot and narrative and it is this process of collaboration that ultimately defines the experience of playing an RPG.

When a player says that their character chooses to open the door on the right, followed by the GM  telling them that the sound of the door opening wakes the sleeping ogre on the other side, they are jointly constructing the plot of their collaborative story.

When the player details their character action in any way they are creating narrative, from the simple “I/my character opens the door on the right” to the more elaborate “creeping through the dancing shadows cast by flickering torchlight, stout Grunthold approaches the rightmost door and, after placing the torch in the rusty holder mounted on the wall, grips the handle of his warhammer in one hand and with the other pushes hard to open the door…”

My proposition is that for the vast majority of RPG groups and games out there, the co-creation of a collaborative story is an unavoidable, and in fact defining, aspect of the way the game is played . What tends to vary instead is the degree to which participants in each game think of their game experience in this way.

While some have likened this to the classic trope of Olympian gods seated around a table playing a divine chess game with mortals, I feel that image invites too many expectations of competition, between the players and their characters.

Rather, I prefer to think of an RPG in a similar fashion to the production team of a movie, TV show or theatrical production – the players are the collaborative producers of the story being played, but are simultaneously the audience for whose entertainment the story is being produced.

Once you view your RPG as a being inherently an exercise in collaborative storytelling, then you also are engaging in two other intrinsic elements of such an experience…

  1. Diegetic and Nondiegetic gameplay

Diegesis refers to anything told by a narrator in a story, usually comprising character actions and thoughts. The term was first detailed by Plato, however in more contemporary parlance, particularly inspired by filmmaking, a Diegetic story element is one which exists within the world of the story, while Non-Diegetic elements are those that exist outside the world of the story but that are included for the sake of the audience.

A common example is that of music. If the character in a film is listening to the radio, then the music they can hear would be diegetic music. But if the audience can hear music that the character cannot (which describes the majority of music in movies) then that is non-diegetic music.

When it comes to RPGs, the act of playing the game also has diegetic and nondiegetic elements, and both are intrinsic parts of the game that are, ultimately, inseparable from each other.

First of all, a player’s knowledge and application of the rules, the act of rolling dice, moving miniatures on a map, questioning or clarifying rules, or otherwise discussing elements of the game are all examples of non-diegetic gameplay. The act of creating a character is a non-diegetic part of playing the game, establishing and adhering to rules is non-diegetic gameplay, and, essentially, any conversation between participants that is not specifically part of the game being played out in a given moment is non-diegetic gameplay.

These elements of non-diegetic gameplay all exist to inform the diegetic gameplay, which is the construction of the collaborative story taking place within the fictional world of your game. Without having created a character or knowing the rules that govern their possible actions, a player cannot effectively decide upon their character’s actions without some knowledge of the rules, or opportunity to clarify their understanding as it relates to the game.

The way in which you play your game may sit anywhere on a sliding scale between the diegetic and nondiegetic elements of gameplay, preferencing one over the other, or trying to strike a balance somewhere in the middle. There’s no right or wrong amount of focus to put on each element except as suits the preferences of the participants of a particular game – but both are, intrinsically, unavoidably, present in your game to some degree.

  1. Separation of Player from Character

It should seem a fairly obvious statement at this point that while the character is primarily a diegetic element of the game, the player and their engagement with the game constitute non-diegetic gameplay actions.

It is utterly impossible for a player to be part of the diegetic gameplay. Even the most committed of LARPers are still players depicting fictional events constrained by rules of play that are not present inside the fiction (e.g. using boffers or safe combat rules to govern play). So while the barrier between diegetic and nondiegetic gameplay may vary, it is always there to some degree.

The important thing for all GMs and players to be clear on is the delineation of diegetic  and nondiegetic elements in their game. 

As stated previously, all player activity ultimately manifests in the diegetic frame of the game; characters take certain actions, and succeed or fail in their efforts based on the non-diegetic gameplay actions of the players as they contribute to the collective story.

While the challenges that exist within those stories are primarily diegetic challenges for the characters, that does not preclude the GM from incorporating non-diegetic challenges that are intended for the player to engage with and solve.

Common examples include logic or language puzzles that characters encounter, but the players have a chance  to solve as part of the nondiegetic gameplay. They will then either succeed or not, at which point the player might use their character’s stats and related game mechanics to achieve a diegetic solution to the puzzle. 

What’s important to remember is that regardless of whether the challenges of a game are approached as part of the diegetic or nondiegetic, the final result is ultimately part of the diegetic game, contributing towards the construction of the collaborative plot and narrative. 

Table-talk, therefore, should be viewed as part of non-diegetic gameplay, and an intrinsic part of the game.

In order for characters to take the most appropriate diegetic action, a player may need to clarify their understanding of a situation, or specific rules, etc.

By embracing non-diegetic conversation – even in the middle of combat actions – you’re giving the players a chance to make their diegetic actions richer and more relevant to the story. Managing time and the pace of play is something that needs to be considered, but again, this is an element of non-diegetic gameplay to be worked out within the group, rather than enforced by the GM.

I also find that this conversation is an essential part of helping people who are new to the group, game or even the hobby itself feel supported in their involvement.

(Note – table-talk is a bit different than ‘off-topic conversation’. If you’re trying to run/play a game and someone at the table won’t shut up about last night’s sportsball game, or brings out their craft kit to make costumes for their cats, that’s not non-diegetic action, that’s a different issue altogether.)

Metagaming – the scale between nondiegetic play, and not playing the game.

The definition of metagaming is problematic, but, at least from the GMs perspective, when you view the RPG experience as engaging in nondiegetic gameplay in order to create the diegetic plot and narrative, and prepare game challenges appropriately, most forms of metagaming instead become part of the nondiegetic gameplay and can quickly cease to be a problem.

Ultimately, when the GM and players view playing an RPG as a collaborative exercise in co-constructing plot and narrative within the confines of a specific game, setting or system, player knowledge is not something that risks interfering with the GMs plans, but instead has the potential to enhance the story that grows out of the collaboration.

When the player knows something important about the game world that their character does not, that could inform the players decision to direct their character to take actions that might result in them learning that information, and that search – the player’s contribution to both the plot and narrative of the game – gives the GM a stimulus from which to build new sub-plots and story arcs.

At the more extreme end of the metagaming scale, however, you can encounter problematic behaviours such as players who ignore the diegetic scenario almost entirely, and either set off to pursue their own goals regardless of the collective story, or they insist on using purely nondiegetic solutions to diegetic challenges. Such individuals seem to often have a competitive view of what it means to play a game, and they’re playing to win according to their own definition of what that means.

I argue that such individuals are not actually playing the game. If the game consists of the rules, setting and specific fiction of any given session, then refusing to appropriately engage with all elements is to be, at best, engaging in a close approximation of the game. It’s like having someone turning up to a hockey field with a pink flamingo lawn ornament instead of a hockey stick, while still expecting to be taken seriously.

In such circumstances, the issue is likely to be one of social dynamics and personal relationships, and is not specifically about the game itself, and in the long run, such individuals either need to be brought around to a more collaborative understanding of the activity they are participating in, or in the worst cases, excluded.

So what’s a GM to do?

So if you’re using previously unknown information to create a ‘twist’ in your story, or as a way to introduce drama and tension into a game, then what can a GM do to make the game an interesting experience for the players?

For most games, the random outcomes of dice rolls provide much of the tension, provided that the mechanics of encounters and challenges are at an appropriate level to that of the player characters – the challenge is to treat the outcome of dice rolls not just as ‘wins’ or ‘losses’ but as the prompts for the next action in the plot, or the style of the next piece of the narrative.

The GM can provide additional challenge to the players by incorporating nondiegetic challenges for them to solve, but in RPGs the final outcome of any challenge must be played out diegetically, because if you as a GM make the success or failure dependent purely on the knowledge and skills of the players without at least allowing an option for utilising the rules that govern the diegetic world, then like the Pink Flamingo Player, you’re possibly not playing the same game as your group, either.

However as a GM what you can do is define what is at stake, depending on the characters’ actions. Every campaign, session, story or even action can have clear stakes that give the player and character a reason for the things they do in game.

In combat the stakes are already clearly defined. Win, and your character survives and usually obtain new things. Lose, and they’ll likely die or suffer some other set back.

But why are they fighting in the first place? What is at stake on a broader level if they win, lose or draw?

When you view RPGs as a collaborative experience, these questions quickly provide vehicles for drama, tension, and unexpected outcomes that cannot be duplicated in any other way.

But that’s a topic for a future post.

 

 

NOTE: This post has been heavily revised after a number of discussions with other gamers on Reddit and the Onyx Path Forums. Thanks to everyone who challenged some of the initial ideas and helped provide clarity.

Night brings the sun (a tale of heroic sacrifice)

[Image: ‘Night brings the sun’ by Jen]

I’ve been running an Exalted 2E game for about 2 years, in which time we’ve managed 14 sessions.

A recent session included the culmination of several plot lines and resulted in a large battle between the PCs, who were leading a militia of a few hundred hastily trained refugees, and a force of spider-like beastmen created by a sorcerous second-circle demon. The beastment were led by terrestrial exalted who were bound to love and serve the demon by mind-bending sorcery. However, the beastmen were only distraction from the army of war ghosts marching up from a nearby shadowland to overrun the refugee township the PCs were defending.

The fight with the beastmen took a hard toll on the PCs, with most of them drained of essence and suffering a few injuries, but one PC (a night caste martial artist) was crippled in the fight. As they were assessing the outcome of their narrow victory over the beastmen, the PCs became aware of the army of ghosts marching from another direction.

As the army of ghosts approached, the PCs – having recently gained access to a salt mine – tried to build a salt line around the village, but realised they wouldn’t have enough to do so, so instead they built a defensive salt line between the village and the army, planning to use some of their various travel charms and magic to encircle the army of ghosts with salt once they drew closer, and then just wait for the sun to rise.

They didn’t consider that the demon would be leading the ghostly army, and one casting of Magma Kraken (a powerful spell that summons tentacles of molten rock from the ground to fight) was able to disrupt their defensive salt line and gave the PCs the problem of dealing with the tentacles before they did any real damage.

This was when the crippled night caste decided to act.

Previously, the night caste had been having troubled dreams, which had led to learning the first few charms of the Quicksilver Hand of Dreaming martial arts style.

For those unfamiliar, the first couple of charms of this style include the ability to give people specific visions or dreams, and then another charm lets you pull those dreams out of people’s heads and manifest them in the real world. The night caste had not, up to this point, really explored the possibilities of this combo.

Realising the likelihood of defeat at the hand of the ghosts, which would mean a terrible end for the village and its 5000 occupants, the Night Caste PC gave a stirring speech in which he called for a volunteer willing to give their life in defence of their home and family.

Then, using an ancient artifact (Wings of the Raptor… a magic cloak turns into giant wings), the night caste flew high into the midnight sky, and with their last remaining essence used a combo of Martial Arts charms charms to give the person a waking dream of the rising sun that burns away the undead.

Then, knowing full well what it would mean to touch the surface of the sun, he plucked out that dream, letting the sun shine brightly for a fraction of a second before it incinerated both the character and his volunteer, but also destroying the entire army of ghosts in a blinding flash.

Between the player first proposing the idea and the final execution, we had a bit of discussion about the implications of the action and the ultimate finality of attempting to hold the sun in the palm of your hand. After considering some alternatives, the player decided to commit to it and we played out the final moment which brought a quick end end to the character and the battle. To background this event, we used the soundtrack from Sunshine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_b6C0PHXkQ

The final serendipity of the moment was the fact that the group had only just recently learned of the fate of the character’s first age incarnation, who had similarly died when a solar circle spell he had been casting to slay a horde of demons had been disrupted, and he similarly exploded, taking many of the demons with him, but ultimately killing himself and a circle-mate.

Heroic sacrifices are rare moments in roleplaying games – and need to be rare moments in order to maintain the weight and impact of the decision by the character/player – but when they come up in an appropriate moment it can be a real highlight to a game session, and even a whole campaign.

This moment was a great example of the collaborative storytelling of roleplaying, and one of many examples of why I love this hobby.