Dramatic Theory Applied to DQ
This page is to explore how Dramatic Theory could be applied to running a game of DQ. It may be impractical, cumbersome, or irrelevant, or it may provide useful ideas and tools to help run games.
If you have ideas and opinions, please share.
If you think it's a load of bollocks, please refrain from sharing and just move on.
This is a field of study which I am not an expert in, so I'm going to summarise, simplify, and cherry-pick the bits I think are relevant...
A story is composed of a linked series of episodes.
An episode usually goes through phases of scene-setting, build-up, climax and decision. This is followed by denouement, which is the action that sets up the next episode.
Phases of an Episode
- Describe the environment, characters, and conflicts
- Characters exchange ideas and opinions in some form or another and try to advocate their preferred position -- the game outcome that they are hoping to see realised.
- Climax and decision
- When it is common knowledge among the characters that positions and stated intentions are seen by their presenters as 'final', the build-up ends and the parties reach a moment of truth. Here they usually face dilemmas arising from the fact that their threats or promises are incredible or inadequate. Different dilemmas are possible depending on whether or not there is an agreement.
- Consequences, new information, new positions or intentions, or new characters that potentially lead to a new episode.
Plot should be more convoluted ("complex"), so audience can learn about what is possible in a world; when plot is not "very" convoluted, it should have at least interesting characters or thoughts (so audience is not "bored").
- In case you're interested, the above is extracted from interpretations of translations of Aristotle's Poetics.
Applied to DQ
A story can vary in size and scope. There are many stories and levels of stories that make up our DQ campaign and complex stories also include multiple smaller stories.
- An adventure run by a GM is a story.
- A series of linked adventures is a complex story.
- A player character story is the series of adventures that they go on and the the things they do in between.
To keep things relatively simple and relevant, I'm going to consider a story to be an adventure run by a GM.
While a story is defined as a linked series of episodes, the whole story should also have the phases of an episode. An adventure should have phases of scene-setting, build-up, climax and decision followed by denouement.
- Episode (or Story Arc)
- For us an episode generally represents a playing night (sometimes overflowing to a couple of nights).
- Everyone and everything involved in the episode is potentially considered a character. The world is a wealth of characters but to keep the story and the episode focussed and interesting, limit it to the characters that have a stake (interest/motivation) in the current episode. The Characters involved in an episode will be some or all of:
- Player Characters - the party
- Non Player Characters - a rat with intent to steal your cheese, an urchin just trying to survive, a bandit with designs on your wealth, a deity feeling bored and stirring up trouble.
- External forces - the characters that don't leave much room for negotiation or fall-back positions. The flood is sweeping towards town, the plague is spreading and killing, the cave is collapsing.
For a playing night, this is the quick recap of where you're up to, it's the additional detail for the teaser from last time, or description of the new environment and characters.
For an adventure, this is night one where the players introduce their characters, the GM introduces the employer and their mission. Potentially it is the first couple of nights as the player characters unearth the full story and background beyond what the employer has fronted up with.
This phase should be primarily player driven. This is where they interact with each other, seek out NPCs, investigate the environment and the external forces.
Ideally the end of this phase should also be player driven, at some point the party needs to decide that they have discussed and learned enough and it is time to act.
But the GM also needs to be ready to end this phase, if the NPCs see no further room for discussion or negotiation then they should act, or the external forces (which by definition don't negotiate) will come crashing in on their own schedule regardless of whether the players are ready. This is important!! This is part of what creates the tension, the knowledge that you don't have all the time in the world and if you don't act on your schedule then you lose control as someone else acts on theirs.
Climax and Decision
The PCs and other characters cannot find or do not have common ground, their aims or ideologies conflict and only one side can have their way.
The simple and easy climax is a combat. The episode is resolved on the hex grid.
The climax need not be a combat, it is often the execution of a plan. The party raises walls to divert the flood, the water hits the walls and...
Or a climax may be the achievement of consensus, the party convinces the witch-sniffing church knights that they are not the evil they seek.
There should be some form of resolution and this won't always be in the players favour.
The aftermath, the mop-up, and the lead-in to the next episode. Without a lead-in the story drifts and tension and narrative flow are lost.
A self-driven party will often create their own lead-ins, their plan/aims for the adventure will lead them on to the next episode. But the GM always needs to be ready to step in and provide a lead to the next episode.
Writing with a Team
One of the key differences for us as GMs of a game compared with a playwright or author, is that we are not writing alone.
Every player is both a member of the audience, a sub-author, and an actor. GMs are the lead writer, actor for most of the parts, and audience to the writing and performance of the players.
All of us need to remember that we should all be contributing to the story as writer-actors, but we also need ensure that sometimes we let others write and act to their script, and sometimes we are simply audience to the performance of others.
If as GM we do not let the players influence the story then we might as well be writing plays or books. The strength of RPGs and interest comes from the contributions by a team of creative minds.
GMing with Dramatic Theory
A bunch of ideas and theories is all very nice but how can we actually make use of it to run a game in DQ.
Planning an Adventure
Try to re-examine your adventure idea in DT terms.
- Who are the main characters and what are their aims/motivations?
- What are the central conflicts that will need to be resolved?
- Is this a simple (single story) plot that will need especially interesting characters and environments to maintain interest?
- How does each story fit with the DT Phases?
- What are the key episodes within each of these phases?
- Do you have optional episodes that could be inserted to carry the story between key episodes?
- Is there variety in the episodes?
- Tragedy has greater emotional impact when it is contrasted by comedy.
Planning a Night
- What was the lead-in from the last session?
- Who are the main characters, what are their aims/motivations wrt this episode?
- At what point will the external forces and NPCs act to bring the episode to its climax?
- If the players do not find/create their own lead-in, do I have lead-ins ready to insert?
- Managing the timing
- The Denouement and lead-in help create anticipation for the next night and give you a focus for preparations for next night.
- Work your timing back from the end of the evening, when do you need to start the Denouement how much time will it need?
- That then sets the limit on the climax, how long will it take to resolve?
- For example, If you want to finish by 11pm, want 30 minutes for the denouement, and estimate the preceding climactic combat to be 2 hours, then one of the external forces for the GM to apply is that the combat needs to start by 8:30.
- If the timing is such that the episode cannot be resolved in one night, can it be split into two sub-episodes? If not where are the good spots to break it at?