Dramatic vs Procedural

This is an RPG focused rant, that may not have a central point and may get a bit obscure. So if you’re not into Role Playing game Theory and shit like that, might not be for you. Especially as I’m not sure there’s any real organization to these thoughts.

So I’ve been thinking alot about the differences between Procedural and Dramatic play styles. If you are unfamiliar with these terms, you can think of Procedural as the PC trying to accomplish an external goal and Dramatic as the PC trying to get emotional fulfillment, as a quick and dirty guide.* I’ve been noticing that Procedural play tends towards a group metagame, less in character interaction, and a lack of tolerance for deliberate failure. Dramatic games however get weighed down in meaningless conversations, flounder in a lack of direction, and have trouble raising the players emotional bar without damn near perfect play(everyone making consistent character decisions, a lack of hesitation to think out character actions and words, and choices that drive towards a building conflict but don’t push the issue till the tension has built). There is usually some mix between the two but getting that mix right I think is what really separates a great game from the rest.

Alot of traditional play is done as procedural. A quest giver, possibly an old man with a dingy cloak sitting alone in a shadowed alcove of the tavern, tells you about a macguffin, maybe a sweet innocent missing daughter who never returned to the farm from her visit to town, and some obstacles in the way to the macguffin, like a tribe of goblins that have been seen harassing travels on the road. Play is then simply the act of trying to retrieve the macguffin and overcome any obstacles that show up in the way. That is also the majority of the plot/story, while any characterization/character growth occurs as a secondary effect though things like in character discussion of how to defeat an enemy or solve a puzzle. Dramatic play is where players consider their emotional state and emotional goals and actively move to pursue them. Its player driven, but not just an open sandbox where players decide what quests to do. Founding a kingdom is a procedural goal. Getting respect from my father is an emotional one. A player may want to found a kingdom to get the respect of his father, but the scenes we would focus on are him brooding and stressing on making it and the final confrontation with dad to see if it worked or not, as opposed to scenes of battle and puzzles of how to feed his starving population.

Today I was listening to Clash of Kings and the scene where The Hound came into Sansa’s room after refusing to charge into the fire came on. I was thinking how that would never happen in a procedural playstyle game. Sandor came in, got drunk, demanded a song, and left. There was no procedural goal, maybe to get Sansa to leave with him, but he barely tries to make that happen. Done Procedurally, he wouldn’t have messed around with asking for the song, wouldn’t have cried, wouldn’t have exposed his weakness and need, while struggling so hard to not expose it. He simply would come in and gruffly ask her to leave with him. That scene would be dry boring and lack all it’s power. It doesn’t further the plot and serves no purpose but flavor. It likely wouldn’t make it in a Procedural game.

As a dramatic scene however, where Sandor Cleagne is full of inner turmoil, that scene is brilliant and touching. You can see exactly how it would come about in a game where the players aren’t focused on their procedural goal. The PC fails his fear check and is forced to leave the battle. Embracing this, the player decides his character goes and gets good and drunk in shame. After all, he was shown up by a half man. No better way to deal with fear and sorrow. Once he’s good and sloshed the Player decides he’ll do the medieval equivalent of drunk texting his ex. Having no phone and no Ex, only a girl he has crush on, he’ll go sit on her bed creepily. Maybe smell some of her things. One she comes in, he wants to offer to take her away with him. He’s realized he has to leave, there’s nothing for him here. But he also has the warring needs to seem dangerous and emotionless to her. The player has given Sandor a need to be feared by all but he now also has a desire to be loved by this girl. So the PC acts aggressive, but ties to open up. In the end, his penalties to appealing to her love are too high because he decides his need to be feared is greater. However she also has a need, both dramatic and procedural. She needs to not die, but also needs him to be see how he hurts and scares her. She needs him to feel empathy. And her roll is good, leading to a tearful exit.

That’s not something that will show up in a traditional game. While I’m sure dramatic games have been occurring since people first put dice to table to adjudicate individual combat, it’s mostly been a focus of the past couple decades, particularly in game design. Even then, the early attempts at making it an integral part of the game were poorly done. White Wolf’s Vampire is the classic example of this: a game designed to explore the personal horror of a monster losing its humanity that was player more often as a Supers/Capes game with an urban horror window dressing. Still there were plenty of people who played the game as it was intended and more games began to actively use Dramatic mechanics, where it’s something more related to your emotional state or your emotional connections. Examples are Dogs in the Vineyard and Monsterhearts, where your mechanical power is actually linked to your characters relationships or how dramatically relevant a scene is. Even more popular games, perhaps even mainstream if that term can be applied to our niche hobby, such as Fate and Cortex Plus played with mechanics that gave players greater mechanical weight or control over a scene, based on their character’s internal struggles.

We also got games entirely focused on characters interactions. A slew of deep indie games meant specifically to explore very specific relationships(often romantic ones) as well as some slightly more popular and general games such as Hillfolk(which is explicitly designed to be the foil to procedural games) and Fiasco. This change in focus is encouraging to me, the type who loves truly emergent narrative(completely unplanned or unforeseen, where any outcome is acceptable). Yet I still see most games as 80% procedural 20% Dramatic based on reading forums, talking with nerds, playing my own games, and listening to a variety of actual plays. We examine our characters emotions, but it seems rarely to be the focus scenes and almost never the focus of the story.

This of course makes sense in both a story and game sense. There is a reason comic book or Bond movies outsell Oscar Bait or Clerks style movies. Those stories are easier to follow and even when there’s a misstep in dialogue or a poorly acted scene, the plot and action can still hold up the experience. Less true when the focus is entirely on how characters feel. Even more than stories though, games need a clearly defined goal. When explaining how to play a game to someone, the win condition is almost always the first thing brought up and even when not, it is still given huge importance. While RPG’s usually do not have a win condition, having clearly defined objectives make the playing easier and generally more fun. Emotions like love, respect, anger, are all extremely vague and how to get them is even vaguer. The death of fun in an RPG is when the PC’s can’t figure out what to do to and emotional goals make that far far more likely.

Still games focused on the procedural goal run into the danger of being not leaving room to explore that emotion. Beyond a lack of mechanical support in 90% of games on the market today there is also a social pressure to pursue the quest that comes with this. Obviously there is some amount of this that is desirable. You don’t want a guy playing a tavern owner that never wants to leave his business if you are playing a game about delivering the One Ring to Mordor. However you don’t want to rush the scenes where Gollum and Sam fight for Frodo’s affection. Rushing over those scenes without probing the emotions of the three travels makes Gollum’s betrayal almost completely empty of impact and probably doesn’t result in Sam leaving.

That may not be the goal of most gaming groups, which is fine. Dramatic Play Style games are really for the people interested in Story. Most people play RPG’s for the story, but not necessarily for the platonic ideal of Story. They want to tell a specific type of story, that fits specific genre conventions, and are interest in the cool action that happens in it. They may not care for dramatic irony, Symbolism and foreshadowing, Theme, or Archetype and archetype reversal, and other literary conceits, so long as they get the specific type of escape they are looking for, whether realism or the lack thereof. I am not of that type though. I always want to chase the story to its more dramatic moments. I’ll gladly fail a roll or make a poor choice if it bring extra conflict into the game. Hopefully we can use that to turn a regular scene into a beautiful poetic moment. I don’t know where the story is necessarily going to go and I want to see how it’s going to affect and change the characters we have. What choices will it force them to make and what people will they become.

*I’m using these terms loosely in the tradition of Robin D. Laws, who goes into much more detail in Hamlet’s Hit Points(A book teaching GM’s how to read dramatic beats) and Hillfolk(An RPG dedicated to telling dramatic stories) though as I don’t keep up with Story games or any of the G+ communities dedicated to RPG theory, it’s very possible they have taken on more nuanced meanings.


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