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.