Monday, December 31, 2012

My Knee vs. Drama(System): A Guest Post


I fear drama.

I don't mean the extra-exclamation-points-to-make-my-life-seem-more-interesting-than-it-is drama that floods the social media landscape. That'd be like being afraid of professional wrestling or book clubs.

No, apparently I fear drama as a game concept, specifically as a game concept finally possessed of cohesive and workable mechanics thanks to Robin Laws and his DramaSystem. I can't get any more specific about this fear—I just know the fear is there because I keep trying to come up with reasons that the DramaSystem won't work at the table.

I know the signs of a knee-jerk reaction—the dismissal, the sneer, the desire to gather together the “everyone else” who must certainly agree, the ever-so-convenient definition of a “real” game that just happens to fit one's own safe place. And the number one sign that some part of me is panicking: I simply have an incredibly difficult time getting the nuances of how it works. I keep returning to the familiar models, trying to shove DramaSystem onto them and saying, “See? See?! It's not working.”

I'm smarter than that. I mean, clearly I'm not BRAVER than that—but I'm smarter than that. My brainy brains, however, are not half so good at pinning down why I vacillate between fight and flight as they keep me just aware enough of my knee-jerkiness to feel great shame.

This might not be a huge dilemma if I lived in uncontested territory.  I could ignore the scary idea that’s out there, cling to the familiar and, if so inclined, shout out passive-aggressively engineered insults to those who refuse to chain themselves to the same rock.  But the thing is, I’ve already tramped off into the lands of narrative gaming, ignoring the shouts echoing from the valleys and mountaintops “I’m only an expert on what I like, but that seems like gamism,” “Player control is coddling!,” “Real gamers love TPKs,” “I own guns and that’s not how they workkkkkkkkkkkkkk!”

I understand the shouts.  I was there once and sometimes I circle back.  Some days I’ll give credibility to the idea that what is familiar and habitual is ‘natural’—but I have learned and relearned that other systems and mechanics quickly become just as familiar and habitual.  I like dice and complex mechanics and randomness deciding the outcomes—it is fair, right?  But I’ve played with newbies and realized that my expertise gave me a huge advantage, and that the mechanics themselves shaped the type and pace of the game. And simulationist thinking….gods, it creeps back up on me all the freaking time.  My brain knows all of that is self-protective thinking—designed to maintain my sense of expertise and my comfort and to enforce the level of trust I feel inclined to offer.  I KNOW this. Still, my knee gets a word in edgewise on occasion.

At least self-protective thinking doesn’t slide by for long; I’m not alone in choosing my game path.  My husband is there too—and he’s thinking about games a lot harder than I am most of the time.  That’s good.  He’s one of my GMs.  I like brilliant GMs.  They can keep up with me and my brainy brains and my speedy knee of ultimate jerkitude.   And my husband, he is not about to let me count myself out of the fun.  I could pretend there’s some tough love routine that goes on– but actually, he can pull me along pretty easily just by dangling a game planning discussion in front of me.  

In fact, it was a brainstorming lunch that revealed to me the sheer bulk and dangerous nature of this invisible new foe called DramaSystem.  My husband was trying to come up with a playable idea for a Christmas-themed DramaSystem Series Pitch.  We met with the agenda of just tossing some ideas out there.  Brainstorming can be a difficult dance—it’s about generating ideas with the critic turned off, certainly, but there has to be at least a germ of a functional idea in there.  He started out with an ancient struggle to define the rituals that would shape modern Christmas—my eyes glazed over; I recognized it was a BIG idea but I couldn’t see the hook.  That’s standard with brainstorming—lots of themes with still-unarticulated handles for the PCs.  I’m cool with it. 

We went back and forth a while—he’d shake his head at my ideas: “Too procedural.  There needs to be drama between the player roles.”  What?  But I don’t get what’s going to happen in any of his.  They all sound concept-y but…not sure what you’d be doing.  Ok.  Ok.  Ummm.   How about there’s a time-travelling organization—but they can only insert themselves into a time-frame on Christmas Eve and have to return before the end of Christmas Day?  I like this one.  I’m expecting at least a nod.  And again, he says, "Too procedural.  The game would center on the goals of the time-travel, not on the drama between the players." 

“So a Christmas soap opera?”  I wince when I hear the tone of voice that comes out in.

“Yes.  No.  Each player has an agenda, things are happening—but the system is not focused on competencies for completing those activities, it’s about negotiating advantage from the outcome of those activities and negotiating which things are even undertaken. It’s…”

“So…the player is not doing …things?”  My brain reeled—and that’s when the knee was free to grow in power, in this instance like the Grinch’s heart expanding three sizes.

Now, the rest of the lunch I remember primarily as a struggle to smile and somehow keep the knee under control.  I remember my husband realizing where I’d missed the point and backtracking.  He carefully spelled out the difference between resolution systems (what I mistook DramaSystem for—just another narrative resolution system) and a campaign framework. Essentially, while DramaSystem could be bolted on to a procedural framework for the purposes of resolving negotiations, it actually was designed specifically to allow campaigns that were about power struggles and, well, drama—but character-driven drama as opposed to situational drama.  Instead of tension mounting as we fought wave after wave of goblins and we finally feared for our lives as the last hit points were reached, the tension would be about how we faced the goblins, what we chose to defend most diligently from the goblins and how we negotiated with the goblins if we couldn’t slaughter them -- all hard decisions made in order to preserve what was important to us.  It was Game of Thrones as opposed to a monster-of-the-week show.  And the resolution system within Drama System could be used for social dynamics AND the success of procedural actions as well.

My husband believes.  He really does.  He’s ready to get started.

And I find that I tell myself I want to preserve that procedural nature of the games.  But really, deep down, what I want to keep is my comfort level and my expertise and, most of all, the cherished notion that I can deliver a win-win solution to any problem presented in game if only I am clever enough.

With DramaSystem, I’d have to choose. 

Maybe that’s it. 

Or maybe it’s that, with DramaSystem, I’d have to give up the last vestiges of my Mary Sue leanings. 

Or maybe it’s that Drama like that is my enemy at work—that I work constantly to defuse the emotional responses and territorial behavior in order to define the actual project needs requirements.   Maybe Drama generated by what I perceive as selfishness just happens to be the Enemy in so many parts of my life.  I like this explanation—it sounds semi-heroic.
Maybe it’s that the game table is the one place where I can wrangle an illusion of consensus.

Maybe DramaSystem is a threat to those all these things that I hold dear. 

My knee thinks so. 

My husband disagrees.

My brain is not helpful.

I predict an epic battle.


  1. Seems to have a lot of....feelings and judgments and assumptions and jargon and baggage wrapped up in just having a taste about one playstyle or another.

  2. Arg. Edit to put back word I must have inadvertantly backspaced over -- it's underlined. Point was entirely about my own knee-jerkery and passive-agressiveness to myself -- not commentary on anyone or their play styles (which are my play styles in some games). Point is how much Drama I create for myself (wholly internally, I hope) in trying to grasp change and new ideas that I CHOOSE to engage.

  3. I was part of the playtest. Maybe this will help.

    Maybe you watched Firefly. If you did and your favorite part of Firefly was how they got into/out of trouble in each episode, then Drama System will probably only half work for you--the procedural bits, and maybe not those either because they're more about the rhythm of up-beats and down-beats in a plot than they are about characters being cool and competent.

    If your favorite part of Firefly was wondering whether Jane would finally betray the Tams or if Simon would give in and realize he was falling for Kaylee, and whether Wash and Zoe would ever agree to have that kid, and whether Book would reveal his past, etc., then Drama System is geared to play EXACTLY THAT GAME. It's all about what player characters want from each other.

    If your favorite part of X-Men is seeing them fight some anti-mutant menace, then probably not Drama System. If your favorite part of X-Men is the fact that Jean wants Scott AND Logan, but can't really give herself completely to either of them, or that Scott subconsciously resents the crap out of the professor for never letting him become his own man, etc., then Drama System.

    If Luke's daddy issues and the Luke/Leia/Han triangle are your real draw to the Star Wars franchise, Drama System is for you. If you're only in it for the lightsaber duels and space battles, maybe not.

    That's an approximation.

  4. You put it beautifully! I think the thing is that I am accustomed to the procedural parts of the story fully fleshed out and the relationships only suggested via the tabletop equivalent of cut-scenes (or handled strangely with standard social mechanics). Part of me is convinced there is a terrible price that will have to be paid -- or, perhaps, that I'll have to develop some serious acting chops to carry it off, maybe.

    But really, the thing that is making my reaction particularly strange to me is that I can't pinpoint it. So frustrating. But I will be trying it out soon, so that ought to put some of the possibilities to test.

  5. Hi! Well, that certainly helped me. I didn't quite have the same emotional reaction to Drama System. My problem was paradigm shifting out of more gamist mechanics -- I guess my reaction was emotional, but more internal (why can't I get it? I'm a reasonably smart guy!)

    Marvel Heroic and FATE already helped a bit, but Drama System is yet another struggle for me.

  6. Have you tried other story-focused rpgs (apocalypse engine based games etc.)?

    They’re different enough that I don’t think they necessarily appeal to the same people who enjoy Mutants and Masterminds or Pathfinder (two choose two great, but different, games at random). I’d even go so far as to say I find it hard to believe there are people sincerely enjoying both types of games.

    I'd just play what you enjoy, and avoid any epic battles that don't seem likely be that much fun.

  7. Good job with the whole post!
    Thank you so much.