Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Drama and Gaming

When preparing to run a table-top role-playing game, I learned long ago that it's an exercise in futility to write out too many details.

Players are just impossible to predict. They do shit you never thought of. They do shit you really wish they hadn't thought of. They just do shit sometimes.

So I don't get into the details too much. I write myself up a nice outline. I prepare my list of non-player characters (NPCs) and then improvise.

I've described table-top role-playing as a sort of improv theater. I think the description has merit.

Sometimes I slip up and go nuts defining things. It's always tempting to go for some grand prophesy or achieve some Tolkien-esque level of epic.

Invariably, it's a bad idea. True drama needs to grow organically from the party.

Oh, you can drop all the hints, conspiracies, clues, and teasers in until SMOD comes to finish everything off in a fiery crash of doom, but the fact of the matter is that players hate being railroaded. They only appreciate drama if it comes from their choices and actions.


I've been running games for... well, let's just say a long time and leave it at that. Inevitably, there are times when player characters just run out of luck and get killed off.

Oddly enough, it's a fairly rare thing in my games. It's sort of a joke in my games that any NPC I have that has a full name and backstory has a life expectancy measured in minutes.

A cruel jibe, but not an incorrect one.

Anyway, I don't generally kill off people's characters, even if I don't like them. There's always a way to tweak even the most odorous of character concepts around to mesh in a campaign. If not, there's always subtle ways to encourage players to change characters. It's gauche and barbaric to up and kill them off.

It's too quick, too. I'm a sadist. I usually want them to twist a bit.

Why am I talking about this? Well, last Saturday was my group's monthly sit-down game.

And one of the PCs didn't survive the game.

In fairness, I didn't plan on things going the way they went.

I started the game by arriving in a foul mood. I'd been depressed and not really in a gaming mood. I had an outline that required the heroes to get rid of a BAD THING. I'd intended to get rid of an NPC who was a traveling monk who was with the party and leave some kind of lasting mark on those who were last with him. I was running a very dark game (even by my standards) and I had an idea in mind that would lead to something suitably horrible later.

I did say I was depressed.

Then along comes that whole Player Uncertainty Principle. One of the PCs, whom I'd recently messed with to make the character have more of a dramatic path, took a more heroic course than I'd intended.

Fascinated by the turn of events, I fell back into my habit of letting things run their course and I altered my plans.

By the end of the night's session, a character who had been something of a clownish joke was sacrificing his life to save people he'd never seen or met. If I'm not wrong, there were a few tears at the table as all this went down.

And I think a couple of players were pissed at me for letting things go the way they did.

I have to say, it was a beautiful moment. Bittersweet, heroic, and dramatic. Probably one of the best moments of drama I've ever had in a game, truth be told.

I wish we'd recorded it. Goddamn that was awesome.

1 comment:

Aaron Britton said...

Sounds like a good finish to me. Wish I would of been there. Miss gaming with you Bay area gamers.