Tips on creating moments of high drama in an RPG

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drama_queen1[1]By Jonathan Hicks

It might sound like a bad thing to say but let’s face it; a lot of roleplaying games are really two-dimensional. You have sword fights, defeat the monsters and bad guys, solve mysteries and blast about in high-spec ships popping bolts of light at the enemy. There’s magic and explosions and lasers and bombs and monsters and…. that’s pretty much it.

It’s very easy to look at roleplaying as a pretty black-and-white thing and in many respects it is. When you first see classic good-versus-evil movies, like the original Star Wars, you want to cheer the good guys and throw popcorn at the bad guys. It’s very easy to see it as a big dumb action movie.

But what about that scene in that movie when Luke Skywalker went racing back to his uncle’s farmstead to find the bodies of his guardians torched, the home burning? Highly dramatic music coupled with heart-wrenching visuals. It pretty much hit home with everyone and made for an emotional scene. Or how about when Gandalf fell from the bridge in Moria? Who wasn’t moved? Or Luke finding out that Darth Vader was his father? Or when the Colonial marines are first attacked in Aliens?

Take a long hard look at these kinds of films and you’ll see scenes far beyond black and white. I’m a bit guilty myself; for a long time I craved adventure in the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars settings and I simply re-created the high from the highest-octane scenes in the books and movies. I didn’t see the drama behind the narrative or the special effects, which was not wholly my fault considering the tension scenes are what you take away from things like that, and after a while my games and creations started to suffer from it. Unoriginal games gambolling over into the next one, each one the same as the last but with different locations and names.

So, what am I talking about here? Well, what if you could insert these emotionally dramatic moments into a scenario or campaign and make the players do two things:

1. Throw a shocking revelation into the works that forces the players to rethink the direction of the game.

2. Give the players something to sink their teeth into instead of the next puzzle or threat. The emotional shock of a sudden revelation or an unexpected incident during a campaign can heighten emotion and make quite an impression on the players.

Making The Scene Work
Important – The Golden Rule is: Don’t Embarrass Anyone!

The difficult thing is the most important thing, unfortunately – how are you going to insert a scene that makes sense to the story and is an emotional shock to the players?

Let’s use Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back as an example. The scene with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader is a classic and is down as one of the most dramatic moments in cinema history. The revelation of the father and son relationship is well placed and totally unexpected yet subtly clever. You knew that Obi-Wan Kenobi and Vader knew each other, knew that Vader was Obi-Wan’s pupil from the talk they had in Episode IV, knew that Vader was supposed to be responsible for Luke’s father’s death. The only thing you didn’t count on was Obi-Wan keeping it all a secret but when the truth does come out you can understand why. It all slots in nicely and makes a lot of sense, but the crunch comes when Vader reveals to Luke that he’s his father; not in a roundabout kind of way, mind you. He waited until he’d beat the snot out of him, cut his hand off and had him hanging off a vane over a shaft before he told him – now that’s drama!

So how can you set up such a thing in a game and make it work?

1. The first thing you can do is take a long hard look at the character backgrounds the players have created for their alter egos. There is always little snippets of information in there you could use and more times than not the players have created things about the past and haven’t really taken much notice of it, or have detailed friends and relatives they knew but don’t take much notice of. You could take the details of the person, flesh it out (without the player’s knowledge) and introduce him or her (or it) as an NPC at a key moment, or have them a long-term NPC whose identity isn’t revealed until later. Wouldn’t it be cool if the players spent game after game trying to figure out who the bad guy is and it turned out it was one of their brothers? Or a friend they bullied at school? Or a relative they thought dead?

2. If you keep notes during a game then so much the better. Even the smallest plot point from a previous game might come back to haunt the players. Perhaps, in a game a long time ago, the players hired some help and they all went on an adventure. Lets say the hired NPC was killed and the players escaped without them. But, wouldn’t it make for a good story if the NPC wasn’t killed? Wouldn’t that NPC swear revenge on the PC’s for leaving them for dead? In this way, the game makes it’s own internal plot that, because the players were involved with it, makes it resonate more.

3. Use the game itself as the driving force behind the drama. As the game builds and builds and more and more characters are thrown into the mix, perhaps the plot can seem disjointed for a while until a huge dramatic event brings the seemingly unconnected events together. Or, the actions of the players are having an effect they have not noticed or did not count upon – the people they thought they were saving are turning against them, or maybe it turns out their fighting for the wrong side…

4. Pick a location where the dramatic revelation can take place. This will have to be a place that will be detailed to the players so that the importance of the dramatic event has a visual representation. This could be anything – the top of the highest tower in a thunderstorm; a deep, lava-filled cavern; the top of a collapsing starship hull; the thin bridge over a deep rocky gorge (Indiana Jones, anyone?).

5. In some extreme cases it can even be a situation designed by the GM and a player, with them getting together to sort out a private agenda for the player he carries out, and when the other PC’s find out it’s even more of a shock! You have to be very careful with this option – the other players who aren’t in on the secret may feel a little left out, even a little used and offended, if they think the GM was favouring or singling out a player that was working against them or secretly being favoured.

For example, let’s say that a character called Jevin Dayy has had her background fleshed out in a sci-fi game by the player. Just to make the character more interesting the player has entered details about a father she had, who was a business man who she ran away from because of his anti-adventure and miserly feelings, which explains her well-spoken manner but also her dislike of safety-conscious people and money-hoarders. She loves her father but can’t condone what he is doing. A nice little detail she added just for effect.

Jevin has been used for quite a few games and is very good at what she does (a technician with the group) but the GM decides that one day on-planet she works on a vessel she recognises – one of her father’s business vessels. What will she do? Carry on as if nothing has happened? Run for it? She’s quite capable of doing these things but then finds out that the man who is now running the company is her fathers’ brother, her uncle, who has basically murdered his predecessor to take over the business. This is revealed during a moment of high drama to increase the emotional charge of the event. Let’s say that her uncle knows she is trying to find out about how her father died and sent men after her. She assumes it’s her father’s murderers trying to get her but, whilst she’s crawling to safety over an old rickety steam pipe over a shipyard, her uncle catches up to her.

“Jevin!” he cries.

“Get away from here, uncle! It’s dangerous!” The pipe creaks and she hangs on for her life.

“Jevin, come back, it’s dangerous out there!” he holds out a helping hand.

“It’s the men who killed my father! We have to get away before they get you, too!” She despairs for her uncle’s safety and grabs hold of his offered hand to pull herself to safety.

“No, Jevin, I came out here myself. These men are my employees.” He tightens his grip.

“You’re lying!”

I’m not lying, Jevin. I killed him.”

“Nooooo!” she screams.

See how that works? It doesn’t need to be a character that was created for the PC background; it can be a long-running NPC that the players know from previous scenarios or campaigns.

You also have to be sure that the emotionally charged scene your about to put in isn’t going to make anyone sat around the gaming table uncomfortable. After all, some of them are there to just game and not get emotionally involved and having one of the NPC’s suddenly leaping forward shouting ‘I love you!” or something or other can be a bit of a shock, especially when most of the game has centred on action and adventure. Remember, also, that the scene you’re going to introduce has to be a shock that’s not out of context and just suddenly appears out of nowhere. That can be embarrassing for the GM as well as the player.

Here are a few lines you could use as a basis to charge the scene, just for a bit of fun. Try to see if you can insert these NPC phrases into a game and get the emotional response needed – it’s a laugh.

1 – ‘I’m not your father’

2 – ‘I’m your mother’

3 – ‘I sold out your family/city/planet/race’

4 – ‘It wasn’t me who killed him’

5 – ‘He’s been dead for years’

6 – ‘She’s the commanding officer of the new garrison’

7 – ‘I am here to take you back’

8 – ‘You are not who you think you are’

9 – ‘This is my home’

10 – (my personal favourite) ‘I’m your sister’s husband’s friend’s cousin’s flatmate’s former room-mate’


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