The Trouble With Drama Mechanics

Role-playing games are all about characters, otherwise they wouldn’t be role-playing games. And what really gets someone invested in a fictional character, whether they’re playing the character or watching or reading the character, is the character’s personal journey. We love to see it in books and movies and we love to see it in RPGs, but in RPGs we typically aren’t given additional rules to support these sorts of stories. This is in part because these stories haven’t been the focus of most RPGs, well, ever, but it’s also in part due to the belief of designers that characters’ inner lives should be governed by the people who play them, not by rules.

The issue with this is that mechanics are what provide richness for games. We want PbtA games to have a palette of different moves, and we want each playbook to feel different. We want a military simulation to differentiate between all its guns and vehicles. So why would we not want rules that help us look at and play out character drama? When I looked at Hillfolk a few weeks back, one thing I thought it did very well was stake out three necessary drivers of dramatic conflict: character desire, character internal conflict (the ‘dramatic poles’), and character external conflict (‘fraught relationships’). What was missing was the next step, which was to provide structure and guidance to build and play with those drivers.

I do think that there are good examples of mechanics out there for all of these drivers. I also think that the tendency which even occurred in Hillfolk, to avoid directly engaging with dramatic conflict itself, comes from a reading of ‘rules’ which is a bit too narrow. The vast majority of mechanics in traditional games are built around one of two things: conflict between characters (i.e. combat) and conflict with the environment (i.e. skill checks). RPG commentators point out that, barring specific exceptions (convincing crowds through a debate, negotiating with salespeople), these conflict rules are really poor for dramatic conflict. Dramatic conflict isn’t about convincing the other side of anything or ‘winning’, and while it can be defined as ‘getting what you want’ like in Hillfolk, when what you want is ‘approval’ or ‘respect’ then combat modeling simply will not cut it. I think everyone is right to point out that most RPG mechanics don’t work for these situations; I also think ‘drama shouldn’t have rules’ is the wrong conclusion to make.

So let’s look at some rules that do exist for character desires, internal conflicts, and external conflicts. All of these elements have been modeled in RPGs before, to varying degrees of success. By examining what exists in disparate games, it then becomes easier to have a conversation around what can or can’t be modeled, and where a game can really enhance a player’s feel for their character.

Desire

Characters wanting things is the element of drama that traditional RPGs at least try, though even the most sparse of mechanics are still uncommon. When there are mechanics, they’re often forcing functions; Electric Bastionland is a great example of this with its Debt mechanics. Having the whole group share a debt means that all the characters have at least one core desire in common, but the need for money to pay someone back isn’t exactly dramatic.

Characters having their own wants and desires is fundamental for any amount of drama, but is easily forgotten in favor of player wants and desires, which tend to be gameplay-focused and often overlap with premise mechanics like the Debt, or like Obligation in Edge of the Empire. One basic form of desire mechanic is simply inducing a character to have something they want at all. Free League includes some version of this in most of their Year Zero Engine games, and in Twilight:2000 it’s the ‘Big Dream’. As Twilight:2000 is a survival game, it’s really easy to focus on immediate goals as they’re likely the same to the character and the player. The Big Dream reminds the player that there’s a direction the character wants to go, but that’s really all it does.

Burning Wheel comes closer to having actual desire mechanics through Beliefs. While Beliefs are only one step removed from just being a reward system, they work as well as they do because they force the player to consider and reconsider what their character wants fairly often, as frequently as once a session. The mechanical bit of Beliefs isn’t that different than, say, Drives in Masks or Milestones in Cortex Prime (when x happens, gain y experience points), except that it represents a constant cycle and frequent re-examination of what a character wants and what they’re doing. Even if the mechanic isn’t complicated, it is inducing the player to understand the character more and develop them further.

The problem with leaving what the character wants up to the player is that having some sort of goal or desire is a prerequisite for really fomenting any further dramatic conflict. A character that doesn’t want something isn’t going to really fight for something…and when a player wants something, generally the player is going to fight for it, which isn’t what you want at the table. A character needs to want something, anything at all, but then the game needs to give space to let those conflicts occur, even when they aren’t as clearly or easily resolved as a gunfight.

Internal Conflict

In Hillfolk, each character is written with a set of dramatic poles, a dichotomy like ‘freedom or security’ or ‘power or wisdom’. The character is stuck between two opposed goals or paths, and choosing between them is creating internal strife. It’s simple, and it’s not easy to write a good set of poles…but it is still more than most games give you for a character’s inner life. In general, games point you heavily towards external conflicts, as that’s where the rules (wargame rules, remember) can actually do some work. But for drama, characters need to be unsure of themselves.

The best example of this I know of that’s actually in game mechanics is Masks. Masks has stats that, numerically, work like any other PbtA game, but there are many circumstances where these stats, called ‘Labels’, can be shifted up and down. The Labels, like ‘Freak’, ‘Savior’ , and ‘Mundane’, are intended to gauge how the character thinks of themselves. In a game with teenage characters, sense of self is everything, and this constant flux of labels is what emulates internal conflict within Masks’ mechanics. What’s really great about this is that Masks fits perfectly with a design principle introduced by Luke Crane in Burning Wheel, the idea that a good game should align mechanical optimization with good in-character play. In other words, the best result, mechanically, for the player should also be the best way to get the character what they want in the fiction. Engaging the label-shifting mechanics directly requires engaging with who the character is and how they see themselves, so you both get your labels to where you want to boost your best moves but also send your character through an internally consistent journey of self-discovery.

I’m not exactly sure what we learn from Masks, or Hillfolk for that matter, in game design terms. Comparing the two gets us to ‘specific beats general’, which I do agree with in this particular case. But designing mechanics around character internal conflict seems to key into one or maybe a subset of specific conflicts. Ultimately, this is why games like Masks, and Monsterhearts, and then Super Destiny High School Rumble and Tears of a Machine SC keep coming out. If you want a single internal conflict that’s highly relatable and easily backed up by a whole range of tropes, teenage coming of age is the one. You do see other games that push players towards thinking about internal conflict, though not so much mechanically. Wanderhome is all about internal conflict but it approaches it in the same way Burning Wheel approaches desires; Wanderhome makes internal conflict a centerpiece of its conversation by making you ask where is my home every session. And while I will be cast out as a heretic for making a Burning Wheel/Wanderhome comparison, I do honestly believe that the two games make their drama mechanisms work the same way, which is repetition.

Internal conflict is just hard to do, and the reason that I want to see more mechanics for it is because it’s still hard if you leave it up to the players, to the point that sometimes it just won’t happen. External conflict is too easy, though, and dramatic conflict between characters is something which is poorly served by the mechanics which are typically assigned to it.

External Conflict

While it does at some level make sense that you can use the same dice math for outwitting a car salesman that you can for impaling someone, the fact is that treating conflicts as violence, with sides, doesn’t work for real social conflict. When I have a fundamental disagreement with someone, there are no stress points; I could write an entire article on fundamental philosophical tenets I would die for, and I’m some dude who wrangles spreadsheets for a living. The point is, though, there’s no persuasion check, and games do a really bad job at acknowledging that pretty much every human has a range of things they will never be persuaded over.

This is one thing Hillfolk identified which I really appreciated, which is the need to ground fraught relationships in what the parties want from each other. We aren’t a persuasion check away from changing our minds but humans will bend to get what they want.

Once again, though…there aren’t really mechanics for this? Even Hillfolk is pretty much just adding forcing spends of tokens for balance, not really thinking about what a character forcing their way would look like diegetically. A lot of PbtA games generate their character/character conflicts by listing them out specifically, which works really well a lot of the time (I’m thinking the Driver in Apocalypse World and the Bull in Masks for two solid examples) but gets us back to the same problem we have in all sorts of dramatic conflict: none of this is generalizable.


The trouble with drama mechanics is, indeed, that none of this is generalizable, that even through literary review and frameworks like Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations we really only ever get a starting point, from which the dramas must be written ourselves. Whether the ‘ourselves’ in that sentence is the player or the game designer kind of depends on the game.

There are some best practices, though. Games like Wanderhome and Burning Wheel use procedures and repetition to ensure that character conflicts help drive the game. Neither Beliefs nor Questions are revolutionary mechanics, but both do a good job of centering what the game is about, and ensuring conflict is part of that. Beyond that, designers can write to specific conflicts they want to explore. Adolescence is either popular or easy (maybe both), but there’s no reason that’s the only set of tropes available. Games from Under Hollow Hills to Good Society use a range of literary tropes, and there are plenty of others as well. Finally, especially when you’re operating within a traditional RPG paradigm, tying conflicts to mechanics is your friend. Masks may be a gold standard here, but plenty of lighter mechanics, like ‘Big Dream’ from Twilight:2000 or even Aspects from Fate, can serve as a springboard for the GM and players to work a conversation about their character conflicts into play.

Hillfolk did not solve the Drama Mechanics issue, and no game has. As RPGs come from wargames, there’s a big blind spot around things that aren’t war, and shifting the aim of the game to, well, ‘role-playing’ made this blind spot most egregious when it came to character development. Even though RPGs might not “need” drama mechanics, and even though many players are perfectly capable at creating drama with no mechanical help, we as gamers are still compelled to investigate what the rules space in and around drama can get us. While drama mechanics are way more primitive than the highly refined violence engines that drive most trad games today, we can still use examples like Masks, Wanderhome, and Burning Wheel to at least show that mechanics are capable of enhancing our play experience. 

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4 thoughts on “The Trouble With Drama Mechanics”

  1. I guess I have trouble with a lot of Drama mechanics because, at my core, I just don’t enjoy games butting their heads into what I just cannot help is something that should be up to the players. I think the best you can get are prompts: desires, questions at character creation, that sot of thing. You can tie a rewards system in like you mentioned, but it is just hard to have drama that is mechanically enforced without taking something away from the player’s agency over their characters.

    Saying that, maybe that is exactly what needs to happen. Story game it out. The players become directors and their characters can get messed with by the other directors and the game basically tells the players that they don’t really have fundamental ownership of their character and other players can mess with their internal lives. That could be fun, albeit maybe not my cup of tea. It just seems like if we are fundamentally building off the D&D conception of player characters controlled by the player that created them, then it is hard to have meaningful drama mechanics.

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  2. I don’t even start to understand what you call drama. Sometimes I read dramatic action, sometimes dialogues, and sometimes explosive relationships. Each notion is different and has different tools, rules *and* mechanics available. It seems so simple to me that I probably failed to understand what you are looking for.

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  3. Avatar Legends has something for internal conflict, with their Balance being pulled between two stats… I could see it being generalised to any pair of principles or dramatic poles! Beyond that, maybe progress clocks are a good starting point for “there isn’t a rule for that aort of drama, but i want it to be mechanised in play”. ARC has relationships reflected as three 4-tick clocks, with additional rules about how to fill them, what they mean when filled, etc., and that’s pretty cool.

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