See P. XX: How DramaSystem Characters are Like Island Finches

A Column about Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Early episodes of television series sometimes seem perfectly wrought in retrospect, ably setting up the themes and situations that the ending pays off. Others evolve from the original conceptions the writers set out for themselves in their pitch documents. “Parks and Recreation” gives us a textbook example. In the famously not-quite-right brief initial season, Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope character comes off as a female version of Michael Scott from “The Office” (US edition.) She’s more pathetic loser than the over-enthused powerhouse of positivity she becomes when the series hits its stride. Likewise Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer, meant to appear only for a short run, appears as a selfish dullard and not the lovable human puppy he evolves into.

This happens when outlines turn into stories and creators begin to see new, more satisfying or richer ideas emerge. There is no shame in this dynamic: it’s what you want to happen.

Likewise, some of the ideas you generate during DramaSystem character creation will fall by the wayside as you play out your episodes. Some will fade into the background, perhaps to be picked up later. Others will be eclipsed by the conflicts and contrasts that grow out of actual scenes.

With that in mind, let’s compare the poles, desires, and unmet needs created during the first session of my ongoing Alma Mater Magica series to what began to emerge during its early episodes.

It is especially fitting that relationships should shift quickly in this series, which is all about a group of people coming together again and confronting who they were and what they did when they were students, thirty years ago.

The relationship between Ann and Earl typifies the resumption of old patterns. Ann saw the misfit and childhood bullying target Earl as her improvement project. Earl’s player, Chris, specified that Earl wanted to get away from this. But in play, the need for each character to have at least one supportive confidant figure has pulled him back into their childhood pattern. At any point he could revert to his desire to distance himself from her help, but for now he needs it.

Likewise the idea that Earl fears Einar but Einar thought of him as a best friend didn’t make much of an appearance in the first four episodes. In part this was due to player attendance, which can exert a powerful shaping force on a DramaSystem game. You may set out a rich conflict but be unable to realize it because you miss a night or two. Once you return to the table the story may have moved on, leaving you looking for a way to hook into what has happened in your absence. This invites comparison to television shows who have to make up for the surprise unavailability of an actor. Although in roleplaying we don’t yet have contracts forcing players to show up to play every week…

In general we’ve seen more of Einar’s party-hearty side than his craving for domesticity and fear of death. With other players staking out darker notes for their character, Einar’s player, Justin, filled the vacant slot for an extroverted, lighter-hearted portrayal. Since then a big comic turn occurred, with a supposedly dead doppelganger (or is he?) of self-perceived leader Doc coming back to life. The real Doc/doppel-Doc double act, half of which is played by the GM imitating the player, filled the comic relief void. This may give Justin the tonal space to fill in the originally conceived darker shades for Einar.

The romantic subtext between Stephen and Ann has been muted so far. These sorts of storylines often fade, as players are uncomfortable playing this particular staple theme of serialized storytelling. Friendship dynamics come easier than love at the gaming table. In a theoretical sense this tendency is a shame, as it leaves out key swathes of dramatic subject matter. On the practical other hand, you’re never going to get good results by forcing or bribing people to play outside their comfort zones.

But I digress, which is a thing the GM must keep a watch on in DramaSystem.

Dynamics established during character creation that did play a major role in early play include the contrast between the stodgy Doc and the reckless Stephen. The latter’s messing with highly and illegal and dangerous unicorn blood has only been complicated by the fact that his supplier is Doc’s ex-wife. (Or not-so-ex, as we were to later discover.) This was followed by a reversal showing that Doc can be heedless himself, especially in his lack of attention to financial matters.

These sparks arose from scenes I chose to call as GM, whose job is to tighten the screws and thus heighten contrasts between characters. Even in DramaSystem players tend to protect their characters by making safe choices. Here it was my job to ensure that the theme of adult messiness was realized in the action, adding realistic tones of gray that would keep the characters from coming off as purely procedural wish fulfillment figures. Hence the introduction of Doc’s ex-wife and cash flow problems, and Stephen’s involvement in occult underworld activities.

Ann has slipped into a voice of reason role, allowing her to assert her Assertive dramatic pole while speaking up for the Doormat values of the person who wants only a comfortable life in the midst of incipient chaos. Chris, Earl’s player, found an addiction angle on his relationship with Doc’s ex, Imelda. The group’s focus on her has turned this supporting character into series’ main quasi-antagonist, at least in the early going. What a character thinks about Imelda has become as or more important to some of the threads they set up towards each other.

So, then, the answer to the question posed in the title is: they evolve quickly.

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