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Writings > Dragavan's Den (closed) > 9: Should RPGs Have Drama Rules?
9: Should RPGs Have Drama Rules?
Published by Dragavan on 2007/9/12 (1188 reads)
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Dealing With The Dramatic

Should you Save the Drama for your Momma?

One of the things I was bouncing back and forth on for a long time with the Land of Karn FRPG was the handling of the dramatic scenes and conflicts that happen in good story heavy games. When two characters argue or have some other "dramatic" or intellectual confrontation (as opposed to physical ones), how do you handle it? Should there be rules to aid in the handling of them or even govern them (especially for situations where the players aren't able to or comfortable with doing it the way their characters would)?

I have been lucky in my life to have great players who act out these scenes in character without needing to go to any rules sets for aid, but that also means they get no in game "reward" or aid for them either. None of that bothered them, but every once and a while we'd have a new player who wasn't as comfortable with our style of play or with "acting" out their character actions (usually they didn't last long with us or came around to our way of play). When we played other people's games it really wasn't something to worry about, but when I started working on my own it eventually came to the forefront.

At first I just skipped over the thing and worked on several other areas of the game, world, and system I knew would be there (especially setting up the base mechanics that all things should run on top of). Soon enough I had a core system (slightly altered for specialty section, but mostly the same for everything), deep rules for spell creation, psionics, combat, an entire encyclopedia (not just creatures, but plants, minerals, and more), and more all finished and being tested and polished up. So it came time to deal with the idea of drama rules.

The first thing I did was come down to the idea that I only wanted rules to deal with times when there was actual conflict of some kind, not just dramatic moments. People should be free to just "be dramatic" whenever they think their character should. There shouldn't be rules for the sad farewell of an old friend or the angry commiserating of a group of captured criminals. But there should be something to handle the times when this drama is a contest, conflict, or argument between two or more people. So I decided to call these drama rules Social Conflicts.

Then came the creation of how these rules were meant to play out and be used in the system. But some people even question if such rules should be included at all. Before I go on about what I did, let me just discuss the subject (pro and con) in general a little. Allow me to explain the path my mind went as I thought about why I chose the way that I did.

There are countless great debates, discussions, arguments, and posts made on the subject of weather or not social interactions should have some kind of rules attached to them or not. People argue for both sides (some actually eloquently and refraining from name calling) and there are good reasons to go both ways. In the end it really depends on what you want to have in your game and what you don't, but I don't see how it should be an all or nothing thing.

Having to stop for rolls and rules can cause a good scene between good players to falter, losing momentum, if they let it. A lot of people don't like to stop the good interaction of two players acting as their characters to make some skill rolls that could completely change the flow of the scene. It is also true that this is what social interaction rules can do, but this is not just true of social scenes. This is exactly what combat rules do.

Most people accept the interruption of rules for combat, since it allows for the outcome of complex actions to be randomly generated based on the skills of those involved. When they use the outcomes to aid in designing the way the scene plays out it can actually enhance the combat description rather than detract from it. Like a sudden lucky critical that kills the superior foe suddenly becomes a scene where a sword finds purchase in the one weak spot of his armor and plunges through his shoulder and down into his heart.

Why not accept this type of interplay of scene and rules in other types of conflicts too? Wouldn't it be possible to have the same thing happen in a social conflict? Two characters are verbally sparing over which gets to hold the leadership position, using debate and other social skills. They make some rolls and the rare critical happens again. This could lead to some amazing unexpected ending to the conflict that none saw coming, but it makes for a great scene.

When a combat roll happens in an exciting and unexpected way it can lead the players involved to create an entire scene to explain how it happened. Descriptions of exciting action grow out of these rolls. When a social roll happens in an exciting and unexpected way it can lead the players involved to create an entire scene to explain how it happened. It doesn't require they just ignore the role-play and only use the rolls. The players get to play out the scene using these rolls as a guide to the outcome.

What having the rules in place for when they are needed does is help even the playing field between the players with strong personalities and quick wit and those who are a little shy or not comfortable acting. The rules set the outcomes based on the character's abilities and skills, not the players, but doesn't stop them being able to act them out and play the scene. Just as with combat and other types of physical conflicts.

In the end I went with the inclusion of many social skills that can be used for certain special situations (like trying to lie your way out of something or haggle over prices) and for direct conflicts with others through social conflicts. Battles of wills, debates, arguments, and more can all be handled with a simple selection of skills and actions that form the backbone of the scene, while player interactions create the surface scene based on the outcomes of these.

For us old-schoolers it takes a little getting used to. We aren't used to having skills or rolls for anything but hard and fast physical actions. I hope I achieved something that allows for a strong rule set wile still keeping things open to role-playing the scenes. This goes for combat, skill use, magic, psionics, and every other aspect of the game too.

The rules are there to form the framework and allow chance to make the game fun and exciting, but in the end what we want is a good story to tell together and remember later.

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