A Nervous System: Points Of Drama

Posted: July 15, 2011 in A Nervous System, System Design
Tags: , , , ,

In the last post, I discovered that my inner roleplayer is a Narrativist – I want to find the hard questions that surround the human condition (premise) and address them through play. Now I need to think about how a system might help players do that. I also promised you mechanics. Well here they are.

I consider “addressing premise” to be “dramatic” – that is, the source of the drama portrayed in the game’s events. With that in mind, I wondered if it were possible (and if so, desirable) to use some score or other function to keep direct and explicit track of whether the system is doing its job – i.e. encouraging drama. If we can monitor it, then we can adjust the system to keep the levels high, right? From that were born Drama Points. The central idea is…

When dramatic events go against a character, that character gains Drama Points. When they go in the character’s favour, the character spends Drama Points.

Simple, I know – and I’ve read games with similar mechanics, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite as explicitly focussed on drama as a measurement. (That said, I’m sure there are some systems out there that do this – just not any I’ve seen.)

This opens up some interesting possibilities, though. For example, to gain drama points, players can define what the central dramas are for their characters – e.g. “I want to overcome my cowardice”; “I want to get revenge on my husband’s killer”; etc. These dramas can then be used to earn Drama Points every time they come up in play. If things go against those goals, the characters are rewarded with Drama Points, which they can later spend on making things go their way later on.

I still need to lay out the possibilities for spending those points. I envisage a mechanical system which is actually relatively harsh, but which is made survivable because the players can use drama to get out of difficult situations. For example, Drama Points could be spent to:

  • “just pass” a task attempt that would otherwise have failed – e.g. hanging on to a cliff by the very tips of the fingers;
  • survive an otherwise fatal blow, but have the conditions of survival be entirely at the GM’s discretion (e.g. Fate Points in WFRP and similar games)
  • be warned before a surprise attack kicks in – “my spidey sense is tingling”
  • buy time for discussion during combat, which might ordinarily be restricted because in-character discussion wouldn’t be possible – but this way the players can set up cool dramatic sequences for the combat, making it more interesting for all concerned.

Essentially, Drama Points could be used to power any and all “cool dramatic effects”.

There are a lot of questions still to be answered – for example, I need to define exactly how they’re spent and earned, and whether there’s any limit on how many points can be moved around in this way. Also some powers (especially e.g. in a superhero game) would probably want to be an innate part of the character’s capabilities rather than needing to be powered by Drama. But it’s a start.

In the next post I’ll expand further on this concept and see if I can flesh out some of these details. Meanwhile, if you know of any games that use something like this already, I’d be really grateful to know about them! That way I can steal their ideas study them for inspiration. Drop a comment in the box below :-)

  1. Kit says:

    Three things, two from Vincent Baker one from us at Transneptune:

    The Fruitful Void.

    Reliable vs. Unreliable Currency.

    “Traits are facts”—don’t undercut a player’s faith in their character by denying the truth of the traits they’ve defined about their character.

    Just to think about as you work on this. Consider me the devil’s advocate here.

  2. Blackrat says:

    Thanks Kit! I definitely need a devil’s advocate – this is all very new to me and there’s a lot to consider. I wish I had time to go through the whole backlog on lumpley.com :-)

    I think the Fruitful Void is a particularly interesting point – it’s quite possible that by bringing drama out this explicitly, it loses its power and depth. I’ll keep that in mind.

    I’m not quite sure I’ve understood your “traits are facts” point, I’m sorry. I think the principle is excellent but I’m not sure what traits you think I’m denying here. Do you mean that by allowing players to spend drama points to change their capabilities (in some ways), that those capabilities become less meaningful?

  3. Kit says:

    Two points:

    First, I think that the Fruitful Void is dangerous to think about too early in the design. You should make your game have rules about important things. But later in the design, you should look back and see if the rules ask a question or answer it. The former, I think, is the void, and is better.

    Second, I think it’s actually when people don’t (or more harmfully, can’t) spend drama points, that you risk denying traits-are-facts. For example, spending a point to be forewarned—great for some characters, but if a character is noteworthy for their uncanny zanshin, then requiring them to use a drama point for that effect makes that part of their character subject to availability of the currency.

  4. Blackrat says:

    First – yeah, that sounds sensible. Certainly I want to see where else this specific idea goes before I worry about the design as a whole. Early stages, and all that.

    Second – ah, yeah, I see what you mean. I guess either…

    There are traits, which are defined for your character and always available, but there are also “stunts” (say), which are available to all characters but rely on the currency.

    … or …

    Drama points are easy to acquire, so it’s rare that currency availability is a problem. Indeed, if they’re running low, PCs have an incentive to get into a tense situation so that they can build up some points.

    I’m not sure if that second one will work in practice. Hmm. I’m gonna need to think about this and come back to it in the next post :-)

  5. By the way – sorry I’m so late to the party – it looks like the example usages of Drama Points you’ve outlined are primarily focused on surviving combat. That may be a good focus, depending on the game, but there are other ways you can shape story: introducing characters, setting up a scene, or finding hope in a cruel world are all things that players might reasonably want to do with drama points. Perhaps not what you’re going for but food for thought?

  6. Blackrat says:

    Thanks John – that’s a very good point. I clearly had “action scenes yeah!” in my head that day… You’re quite right that there’s a very broad scope for what these points can do. (Another example inspired by a Twin Peaks episode I was watching – spend points to provoke confessions / get information from people who might not ordinarily trust you enough to talk.)

    Thus far I’m not really sure where this game is going, and it may even be that this is a mechanic that could be re-used in different settings / situations, with different spending options depending on context – so it’s good to keep options open.

    I like your suggestions a lot, actually. So far I’ve been keeping the GM and players quite separate in my mind (as that’s the way I think I prefer to play), and I’ve been sort of assuming the GM will provide characters, scenes and maybe even hope – but actually it’s potentially much cooler to get the players to buy in (almost literally, with points) to these and make them their own. Nice!

  7. Josh says:

    I don’t know any games that work exactly the way you’ve described, but Nobilis does have a nice rule whereby certain flaws (limitations, I think they’re called) that you select at character creation don’t provide you points up front, instead they only provide you with a benefit when you are inconvenienced by them. So e.g. if you take the limitation “coward” you get a point when you run away from something because of your cowardice, though it would have advantaged you to stay put. You can then use the points to do stuff (Nobilis is diceless so the whole system is based around points expenditure).

    Incidentally, Nobilis also has a mechanic you might like where you can select a quality to be a fundamental part of your character’s nature. e.g. you are fundamentally a coward. In that case, you become immune to any form of trickery or mind control that would cause you to disobey said quality – nobody can ever stop you taking the cowardly route out (though physical force would still prevent you from fleeing).

    I too wondered about the physical nature of your examples, by the way. What about something more poetically appropriate? Falling prey to your cowardice in one scene could buy you a point which would allow you to overcome your cowardice later on, or something like that. Or better yet, running away gets you a point, but you can’t spend it in a way that is fundamentally opposed to the cowardice that generated it – you can use it for trickery, diplomacy, hiding – but not for physical violence. That way you can only ever overcome your cowardice through the more direct route of plot resolution (as opposed to simply spending some points).

  8. Rabalias says:

    Further to the above, I see the latest edition of Nobilis has a system which seems kinda similar to the one you’re proposing:

  9. Blackrat says:

    “Nobilis does have a nice rule whereby certain flaws … don’t provide you points up front, instead they only provide you with a benefit when you are inconvenienced by them”

    Yes, that’s exactly how I envisage (part of) this system working. More on this in the next post, when I get round to it. Clearly Nobilis is a system I’d better check out – especially given the point in your second comment. Glad to see you’ve been checking out the blog I recommended :-)

    I like the suggestion in the last para. of your first comment. I prefer the second version, as you seem to. I think in practice, though, this would require quite a lot of faff to track what each point could and couldn’t be used for. I think I’d rather have a system that allows the players to define the drama hooks for their characters and then spend the points freely within that. Plus I already have an idea for overcoming the flaws like your cowardice example – see the next post, hopefully this week!

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