Sunday, January 03, 2010

Application of Drama #1

There's a potential confusion ahead - let me make it absolutely clear that when I talk about Role-Playing Games I am not talking about anything to do with attempts to spice up my married life.

I am talking about a type of game invented in the late 70s: The original Dungeon & Dragons followed closely by a whole plethora of similar games.

Just in case you don't know here's a potted explanation: Take a group of, say, 6 people. One of them runs the game, essentially creating a whole universe (using one of the aforementioned games, or out of his head) and the others become characters within that universe. Unlike other games (and especially unlike the so-called computer "RPGs") in this type of game the players can essentially do anything.

Let's get a little more concrete: the players might be a group of unwilling Assassin Hedgehogs (the result of genetic modification) that have been co-opted into an organisation called Animal Spectrum (as in "Captain Scarlet" but with animals) and go on missions to protect society from zombie terrorists.

Okay, that's a little extreme but a genuine game. Or a bunch of Samurai from medieval Japan escorting their Daimyo to Kyoto, and staying at a village plagued by demons (the Teacher likes running Japanese games).

Or Superheroes in Manchester (I first ran that game over 10 years ago). Or Victorian adventurers in the Martian Wilderness. Or outlaws in Sherwood Forest in a Babylon 5/Robin of Sherwood mash-up. Or Time Lords who have forgotten who they are. Or fighting time-travelling Nazis. Or 1960s secret agents like Austin Powers. Or Immortals who discover their world is a computer-generated illusion in a Highlander/Matrix combo. Or in the Wild West with magic.

This is a sample of the games that our group have played over the last 25 years. We take turns at running games and go for as much variety as possible. Sometimes we've even been known to play straight D&D as light relief.

Role-playing games are interesting, the role-playing itself is improvisational acting. You get some people who can only play one type of character (regardless of game) - others who are versatile and create different personas.

The person running the game, for the purposes of this blog I'll call him/her the "Referee", is responsible for the game - responsible for creating the environment in which the players can role-play. A good referee can create an excellent experience - and a good referee can do this off the top of his/her head without planning. Planning is a good thing - or at least having a plan is a good thing - being able to respond to the actions of the players is an even more valuable skill.

You want the players to follow a clue that will take them to the next set-piece. But they don't, instead they decide to go down the pub, the Referee cannot force them to follow the clue (that negates the concept of the game) instead he must adapt.

A common misconception of RPGs of this sort is that the Referee "narrates" or "tells the story" to the players. That would be a very poor game, and certainly not one I'd want to be involved with. But there is a story and the players go through it.

This is all leading somewhere and I shall explain. Prior to getting my recent contract in Sheffield and being able to live at home I was working away for nearly two years. In that time I hadn't been playing (0bviously) but that is also the time period where I began scriptwriting.

The Sheffield contract started in the Summer. Come December we finished a game and it was my turn to run a game. I decided to go for Superheroes in Manchester again with completely new characters (since it had been over 10 years).

But it also occurred to me that there must be a similarity between scriptwriting and running an RPG. Players enjoy games when they are involved with the drama, so I wondered if applying what I knew about creating drama would work.

RPGs are a very different animal to scripts for one very important reason, mentioned above, the Referee cannot tell the players what to do. Scripts are ... well ... scripted. RPGs are free-form. So it's an interesting experiment.

In Part #2 I'll describe how I constructed the opening and went about using scriptwriting drama techniques to make the game work - and what I did wrong.

What's on the turntable? "Hide in Your Shell" by Supertramp from "Crime of the Century"


Eleanor said...


RPGs are great for discovering the underlying character of the players - what decision are they likely to make in a crisis situation (adapting for role play, stats, etc)
Do they defend the group or leg it at the first sign of the trouble getting too hot ... where is their line drawn/how far will they go ... how creative are they likely to be in their problem solving. etc. etc.

It's all good stuff.

Adaddinsane said...

Oh indeed it does. But if you think table-top is good for that - you should try live role-playing.

The Teacher and I had a business that ran live adventures for a few years. There was one arrogant guy who turned tail and fled when confronted by something nasty - never to be seen again (really).

Eleanor said...