Level One Wonk: Drama-Driven Games

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today we look at drama! Characters can be so much more than stat blocks when they have loves, loyalties, and maybe teenage hormones. Today I’m looking at driving stories with character drama through the lens of a particularly successful session of Masks, by Magpie Games.

From the very beginning what made RPGs different from their wargame forbears was taking on the role of a single character. The early “Braunstein” wargame scenarios that inspired Dave Arneson focused on the concept that individual actors had motivations more complicated than “win the battle”, and character-driven gaming evolved from there. Now, games have evolved to view a character in a broader range of lenses than ever before. Emotions of characters, once thought to be too messy and subjective for rules, are now the central part of some narrative games. Character motivations have gone from reductive schemas like D&D’s alignment to central parts of character creation. These new systems mean that it’s easier than ever before to run a game built on drama and emotional conflict.

My own experiences with drama-driven gaming have been fairly limited until recently. This past weekend, as part of our annual gaming marathon, our esteemed site founder Seamus ran a one-shot of Magpie Games’ Masks. Masks is a game where the characters are teenage superheroes, and much like Monsterhearts, the intensity of adolescent emotions is a significant part of the game. One mechanic that particularly stands out is a replacement of the typical Apocalypse World “clock” that most PbtA systems use for character health with five “conditions”, which are all emotional states. Instead of taking “harm”, characters mark off conditions like “angry”, “guilty”, or “hopeless”. While this seems like a flavor choice, it has a huge impact on the game. First, in addition to combat, conditions can be given or healed through pretty much any social scene. This successfully elevates the social scene to equal importance with the combat scene, no mean feat in RPG design. Additionally, the fact that your teammates are just as likely to give you conditions as your enemies both increases the drama level to adolescent-appropriate levels and provides motivation to have more social scenes.

Our Masks game strapped everyone to their seats as our characters navigated their angst as well as their super-abilities. Conditions flew, attempts to comfort went awry, and the relationships came out of the aether to make everyone seem that more real. It was one of the best play experiences I’ve had in some time, and Seamus was all but forced to turn his one-shot into a repeated experience. (What a terrible fate, oh woe is me. Muahahah. – Ed.) I think this is a style of play that everyone should try, but of course there are some things to consider.

Leave Strategy at the Door

The most important thing to do when introducing more dramatic play to seasoned gamers is to emphasize that the point is a little different. Different gamers have different reactions to the range of character play, and unfortunately the well has been poisoned a little when it comes to thinking about “what your character would do”, with there being many stories of players writing characters and using their “personalities” to cover for being, well, assholes. Good dramatic play arises when the GM and players can agree that the outcomes which are most interesting and best for the story are not necessarily best for the characters or their goals. One of the best scenes from our Masks one-shot involved a night on the town going awry, with two characters getting into trouble with the police and hurting their relationship in the process. Clearly those events weren’t good for the characters, but the players really enjoyed how much they learned about who their characters were as people and how they related to each other.

Social Contract

Like I mentioned in the Monsterhearts review, this style of play isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Although you probably shouldn’t surprise anyone at the table with what game you plan to run, switching out D&D for Shadowrun will ruffle fewer feathers than doing it for Monsterhearts. Make sure everyone’s on board, and also that everyone understands what the aim of the play experience is.

Even if everyone is raring to go and is ready for some teenage melodrama, it’s very important to emphasize player/character divide in these sorts of games. Your table will need to be a place where all players can investigate the emotions of their characters, and most of these games include rules that are only engaged when characters have extreme emotions aimed towards each other. On one hand, more closely aligned with typical games, make sure that when characters get mad at each other, their players aren’t getting mad at each other also. Let emotions climb if players are getting into their characters, but take breaks and let everyone cool down. Use meta mechanics to subtly remind players that it’s their characters feeling their emotions in-game; the conditions track is a great way to both encourage role-play but also to take opportunities to emphasize that the characters are the ones being angry or guilty. If emotions bleed over (and they probably will at some point), take a break.

On the other hand, these games almost all have elements of romance. Monsterhearts in particular is all about messy teenage romance, especially the kind that happens when teenagers begin to discover they’re attracted to different people than they think they should be. To be blunt, for these games to work all players must be comfortable with explorations of this at the table. In our Masks one-shot we already had some emotional attraction evolving between characters, and several players opted to play characters with different biological sex and gender than themselves. While sex and romance can be avoided in some genres, playing a really emotionally-driven game while ignoring one of the strongest emotional pulls a human has isn’t going to work. That said, it’s perfectly OK to tread lightly with PC/PC pairings. Any interactions between characters in-game require the same level of consent that that sort of interaction would require in the real world.

The X-Card

This is an important one, especially in a game that has to do with relationships and trying to tap into emotional states of characters. The X-card is a gaming tool developed by John Stavropoulos which is particularly useful in dramatic games. Any time subject matter comes up on the table that makes people uncomfortable, the x-card can be used to excise it from the scene, no questions asked. We did x-card one idea in character creation for Masks, for example, as it was a topic the GM didn’t want at the table. The X-card is not a replacement for a social contract, so do your best to make sure all participants know what themes are likely to come up and figure out what’s off-limits before someone has to X-card it in play.

Emotion-driven mechanics have been evolving in games, and the design space is getting continually larger and more interesting. The indie game space is leading the charge, but there are many games that are at least giving nods towards considering character emotions and motivations outside of a material space. Runequest has had the Passions system for some time, helping characters define what they most love or hate. Spellbound Kingdoms is a system that goes a little further, giving characters mechanical incentives to fight for the things they love. From my personal experience, though, a great way to investigate a game built on drama (melodrama, really, the characters are teenagers) is to pick up Masks. The game provides some great emotion mechanics to work with; both the condition track and the influence mechanics were fun to engage with and palpably changed how the game felt. I’m looking forward to returning to my Masks character and seeing where the story goes.

Masks is available on DriveThruRPG and Magpie Games.

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