Day 16 of #RPGaDAY 2020. Today’s prompt is ‘Dramatic’.
Something is dramatic when it contains conflict and emotions. Any good RPG needs some kind of conflict (which does not necessarily mean combat!), but not every RPG experience has the emotional depth required to qualify as ‘dramatic’. In my experience, games with heavy tactical combat are not conducive to emotional depth, as there is a tendency to regard your character as a game piece on a board. Especially 3rd edition D&D and Pathfinder (a direct descendant) with their gridded combat required a lot of tactical decisions.
And tactical decisions are fine, but they leave hardly any room for spontaneous action. The first time I played Dungeon World with a group that was used to Pathfinder, their mind was blown. They could pull off stunts right in the first session that in Pathfinder would have required multiple Feats and thus multiple level advancement, as well as coordination between characters who would get which Feat. Well, I’ve written about the interaction between fiction and rules before.
But that’s combat — which is “high stakes” in a sense: your character could die, and you’d lose all of the time and effort you invested in the character, so there is a perceived need to make combat ‘objective’ — that way, if your character bites the dust, it was not the fault of anyone at the table, but rather unlucky dice rolls or overwhelming odds. (As an aside, I think this is also why character death has become less and less prevalent in later editions.)
And combat is only one of the three ‘pillars’ of generic fantasy RPGs: exploration and roleplay are the other two. As the stakes are lower there, there’s fewer rules to burden it down, and that gives more space for dramatic tension. You have to make the characters (if not the players) care about what happens. Give them NPCs to relate to, make them invested in the goals and situations of those NPCs, so as to increase the emotional content.
In one of my scenarios, the party finds a lost ten-year old boy in the woods, hungry and afraid. Most groups take him in and keep him safe (often at the expense of their combat capacity). When, at the end fight, the boss monster is about to kill his mother, the party will make do their very best to make sure she survives! That emotional connection to the NPC gives the exploration (they’re looking for his mother) and the roleplay (their interactions with the people who abducted her) and, yes, the combat an emotional depth.
It can be hard to pull off, depending on your group, but when it works, it’s really satisfying for everyone.