Introducing DramaSystem

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

It’s about time I expanded the boundaries of roleplaying again. (This sentence is a trial project of the Commonwealth Anti-Effacement Alliance. This non-governmental organization assists Canadian game designers and British publishers in their attempts to self-promote themselves with all the zest and vigor the present age demands.)

For the past few months I’ve been doing in-house testing on DramaSystem, a rules set that does just that, as manifested by its first iteration, Hillfolk: the Roleplaying Game of Iron Age Drama.

I’ll be talking a lot about DramaSystem, here and elsewhere, as Pelgrane launches a crowdfunded campaign to support its publication. Beginnings always being good places to begin, let’s start with a look at the game’s genesis and primary design goals.

If you’ve been following this column, my blog, or my book of narrative analysis, Hamlet’s Hit Points, you are already well-versed in the distinction between procedural and dramatic scenes in storytelling can safely skip the next paragraph.

If not, here’s the recap: the major building blocks of any conventional story show characters confronting obstacles, which they then either overcome or are thwarted by. Scenes in which the characters face external, practical problems are procedural scenes.

  • Sherlock Holmes assembles disparate facts to arrive at an astounding deduction.
  • Spider-Man entraps Doctor Octopus in his webbing.
  • The school-age filmmakers of Super 8 flee the flying wreckage of a destroyed train.

Scenes in which the characters seek to change their emotional condition are dramatic scenes, requiring them to interact with the people they most care about, navigating what are often fraught relationships.

  • Sookie wants Bill to understand how betrayed she feels.
  • Hamlet tries to bully his mother into begging for his forgiveness.
  • Nucky wants to show Jimmy who’s really in charge.

Roleplaying games have traditionally focused all of their energy on resolving procedural scenes. Whether you favor the seriously crunchy or the light and abstract, there’s a rule engine to show you what happens when the player characters bust down a door, battle enemies, or search an area headquarters for clues and loot. This focus will doubtless continue, as the procedural is the home territory of the escapist power fantasy. Until relatively recently, this meant that roleplaying covered at best half of the narrative spectrum.

Certain games of the indie movement do focus on the emotional and dramatic over the procedural and external. Emily Care Boss’ pioneering relationship games come immediately to mind, as do many other ground-breaking designs that explore similar subject matter. They tend to guide you through  a very specific, calibrated experience, often within the confines of a single killer session.

DramaSystem sets out to create a substantially unguided experience, creating a very simple framework for extended dramatic storytelling. It doesn’t take you in a specific direction. Rather, it fosters a group dynamic allowing the participants to explore a surprising emotional narrative. The resulting story acquires a definite shape, but that comes from its use of dramatic storytelling techniques rather than a push in any particular direction, either by the rules system or the GM.

Its rules structures arise from a study of dramatic scenes as they play out in drama and fiction. The process of finding these structures started with the analysis of Hamlet that began on my blog and wound up as the core of Hamlet’s Hit Points. If that book is the theory, DramaSystem is the practice.

Dramatic scenes tend to break down as follows: one character is the petitioner, who seeks emotional gratification of some kind from a second character, the granter. The petitioner may want (among other possibilities) respect, forgiveness, love, submission, or simply to hurt the other person. The interaction can often be measured by a shift in power between the participants. Through an emotional negotiation, presented through dialogue, the granter either supplies the desired gratification, or denies it.

Although this is not necessarily a positive habit to pick up, you can also look at most emotional exchanges in your real life as a series of petitions, which are either accepted or rebuffed. That’s why this structure underlies so much fiction: it accurately portrays, in a condensed manner, real human interaction.

Dramatic exchanges sometimes arise spontaneously in the course of a traditional roleplaying game, often between player characters. What usually happens, assuming any resistance whatsoever on the part of the granter, is that the granter digs in. Both parties reiterate their positions, stalemate ensues, and the entire lengthy interaction fails to move the story in a new direction.

This happens because, unlike dramatic stories or real life, the granter has no incentive to ever give in. We have trained ourselves to think of good roleplaying as remaining true to a particular, quite fixed conception of our characters. Unexamined oral tradition tells us that it is laudable to remain static, uncompromising, even generally oppositional. Further, we have no incentive to give in. We  play our characters without the emotional ties and obligations that cause us to reluctantly grant petitions in life.

DramaSystem builds these emotional ties into the group as the most essential part of character creation.

It acknowledges that no dramatic character is static, but is torn between two internal tensions. Real behavior, as reflected in drama, is inconsistent. We act differently, and pursue various competing goals, depending on the pressures put on us, and the reactions of the people we care about. Multidimensional fictional characters struggle to resolve incompatible impulses. When you create a DramaSystem character, these internal contradictions stand at its heart.

In play, a simple currency system rewards you for giving in (as a granter) or being rebuffed (as a petitioner.) This encourages you to act like a dramatic character, or real person, sometimes giving in and sometimes standing your ground. If you accumulate enough drama tokens, you can spend them to require a granter to make a significant emotional concession.

During in-house playtests, players who used to dig in during any exchange now carefully pick their emotional battles. The simple process of asking themselves if they might want to grant leads them to frequently do so. They’re now playing more fully rounded and sympathetic characters—and moving the story forward.

That is the main problem DramaSystem sets out to solve. Just as with GUMSHOE, addressing that one moment of rolegaming dysfunction cascades into a very different play style, with implications way beyond that initial thought. Which is where we’ll pick up the next time we talk about this exciting work in progress.

21 Responses to “Introducing DramaSystem”

  1. Dramatic scenes tend to break down as follows: one character is the petitioner, who seeks emotional gratification of some kind from a second character, the granter.

    What about multiples. There is a scene in Richard III where the King seems to want to do this to a bunch of characters at once…

    • Robin Laws says:

      Yes, sometimes a petitioner seeks a collective grant from a group. This happens sometimes in our Hillfolk game when one of the clan leaders seeks approval from the people.

      There are other more complex variations — quid pro quo, when each character both petitions and is petitioned, group scenes where parallel petitions occur at once…

    • Nadia says:

      I’ll say now that I’m happy my burning hands-out-the-butt was not caretpud in video form. I somehow survived sitting between Dave and Phil, I spent most of this video looking at my character sheet wondering exactly how much of that information I wanted to use vs. how ridiculous I wanted my character to really be.

  2. […] D. Laws from Pelgrane Press has posted a delve into his upcoming RPG system DramaSystem. It’s about time I expanded the boundaries of […]

  3. Rev Rosey says:

    I cannot begin to say how much I want to playtest this. Speaking as a drama teacher and gamer, this hits so many spots for me.

  4. Carl says:

    Out of curiosity, how does this system handle character development?

    I keep picturing in my head a sheet of Victories and Scars, detailing personal goals achieved (and how they are symbolized/expressed by the character) and goals not achieved, sometimes in spectacularly painful ways.

    • Robin Laws says:

      Characters definitely evolve over the course of time, but in an organic way without the sort of tracking you describe. Though of course any individual player is free to take whatever notes, in whatever form, she desires.

  5. Sherman says:

    I’m excited by this as well. Any chance you have a rough release date? Or need more play-testers?

    • Robin Laws says:

      Release date TBD. We have yet to call for outside playtesters, so watch the Pelgrane blog (or my own blog) for announcements.

  6. Carl says:

    My wife heard your interview earlier, and thought it was a brilliant idea, and also thought that it would make a marvelous supplement to a traditional RPG.

    I agree, but I must assume that this is a standalone game. This excites me, because I can see that this game will really shine in two areas where most games fall flat: regular people (film noir, traditional drama, etc.) and at more “cosmic” levels of power, where the vulgar display of power is very easy, but almost never the ideal response.

    In particular, I think this would be an excellent engine for an actual Gods game, where the deities in question never actually fight each other, but debate, make relationships, break relationships, outsmart and con each other, and by so doing the events of the world below are shaped.

    Also, I could see this being used for a more serious-minded version of Rhialto the Marvellous stories, where sorcerers must daily debate with inscrutable creatures of power to get things done. This includes kings and courtiers, as well as divine or infernal beings.

    And yet a third option, this might work wonderfully for fairy tales, where dealing with the Fae and similar creatures involves trickery, discussion, and negotiation rather than fighting.

    Am I right in these assessments? And out of curiosity, can I assume that your system has a method for dealing with lies, manipulation, and such? Because I’m looking for a system that can do that, like Skullduggery but without the comic bent.

    • Robin Laws says:

      Not sure what you mean by standalone game. The first book, Hillfolk, will include a premise and setting, and the core DramaSystem rules.

      It would be easy to adapt to any of the settings you mention. It creates emotional bonds between the characters; there can be schemes and betrayals, but they have a personal dimension.

      The very simple system gives rise to lies and manipulation (among other interactions) organically, without the need for dedicated rules to bring them about.

      Horror-wise, you could certainly do True Blood with DramaSystem.

      • Carl says:

        “Standalone game”= complete system in and of itself, capable of handling both the drama and the procedural aspects of the setting.

        So it can handle lies and manipulation, because the characters bring them in…but can it handle putting the onus on the character manipulated or lied to, to act accordingly? I’m assuming the answer is “yes”, since due to some other reading I see that there are mechanics in place to handle procedural elements. Hope those are going well.

        As far as horror was concerned, I was thinking more along the lines of “cosmic”/surreal horror, where it seems as though reality itself was turning against the characters, like in the old Twilight Zone shows, or Thomas Ligotti, H. P. Lovecraft and House of Blue Leaves, etc.

  7. Carl says:

    Also: this game may do well in the horror genre, where other games tend to be limited towards the gory side of things. I’d really be interested in seeing how DramaSystem would handle House of Blue Leaves.

  8. mike says:

    Excellent news and a fascinating system idea. Glad to see this being explored, it reminds me somewhat of the Smallville RPG, at least in terms of relationship elements being at the forefront.

  9. steve says:

    Whoah, late to the party, but I am intrigued to say the least.

    Robin, a question: do the tokens represent a fictional in-game thing (like a change of relationship between the character involved) or is it strictly a meta-game thing? Particularly, if it is supposed to be more than metat-game only, what do the tokens represent when the petitioner is rebuffed?

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  11. Greg C says:

    Interesting stuff. Do you think the DramaSystem mechanics would somehow account for proactive/unsolicited grants? For example, A is in a position to do something nice for B, like give a gift or help him study. You mentioned the petitioner may want simply to hurt the other person, but what if he simply wants to help the other person? Would you call that a petition for recognition/thank you? Or would you turn it around and call it a grant?

    In “real life” some relationships are transactional, where you do something for someone and that person then reciprocates. But, some of the better relationships (more rewarding, long-lasting, etc) are more like a joint account where both parties make many small deposits over time.

    Is there any disincentive to keep everyone from agreeing/granting every time?

  12. […]  “Introducing DramaSystem” by Robin Laws, from the Pelgrane Press website […]

  13. […] Lines, & Limits is a tool developed from Aspects from Fate, beliefs from Burning Wheel, the Drama System, and things I’ve seen in a few other games. All those places are good spots for further […]

  14. […] Occupying Force (free PDF) is a series pitch for Robin D. Laws’ DramaSystem. […]

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