RPGaDay2020 Day 16: Dramatic

RPGaDay2020 graphic
The original RPGaDay2020 prompts graphic by @WillBrooks1989

Yesterday in RPGaDay2020 I looked at how the GM’s descriptions frame the experience for the players.

Today the theme is Dramatic. This seems to me to be related.

As a GM, how do you make the adventure dramatic? Hint: it’s not by making everything a life-and-death battle.

Drama requires a few ingredients.

It requires colourful descriptions which emphasise the drama. Consider the difference between the following:

  • You walk into the room. There’s a troll.
  • As the door creaks open, a disgusting smell hits you and you see a green-skinned monster hunched in a corner, picking at a bone with its long claws and then crunching the bits it extracts. It whirls to face you with a low growl.

Or how about:

  • You walk up the steps, across a short antechamber, and go into the temple
  • You climb the steps, pass the imposing columns and cross the antechamber, your boots ringing on the hard stone. Pulling open the burnished bronze doors, you see a space of light. The floor is of pale stone polished to a sheen, and the white walls rise fifty feet to the arch of the ceiling which is painted a deep blue, constellations picked out in gold standing out in relief upon it. The afternoon sun streams through the colourful stained glass lighting up the dust motes in the air and leaving patterns on the floor. There is a faint scent of candle wax and incense, and a feeling of light and immense calm.

I hope you’d agree the second description is far more dramatic in both cases. The additional detail and framing turns it from the next square of a board game to a real description which the players could imagine themselves in.

Things to think about:

  • A description is more than just a list of items – give the players some details and colour to help their imagination
  • Remember people have multiple senses. It’s easy to fall into the trap of describing what things look like and forgetting the other senses (particularly for someone as visual as me). What can they smell? What does it feel like to climb the stairs. What do they feel under the fingers? What sound does the monster make? What does the potion feel and taste like?
  • Appeal to the characters’ sense of atmosphere – is it calm, foreboding, tense, raucous, joyful?

But remember to keep it succinct. Everything should be there for a reason. Too much irrelevant detail can lose the players as much as too little.

As I said yesterday, this is one reason I like boxed texts, and why I like to write my own for settings I’ve created. I can take the time to work out what is important and how best to present it, and I can go back and review it a few times to cut down the verbiage and keep it succinct but directed.

Drama also requires contrast. It requires light and shade. If everything is a life-and-death slugfest, a life-and-death slugfest loses its drama. I had a battle which ran for two sessions; by the end it was definitely no longer dramatic (although PCs were getting very close to dying), it had turned into a slog.

Vary the situation – a battle, a shopping scene, a chase, some role-play trying to obtain information.

Even within a battle, vary the monsters, vary the ground, vary the tactics so that the battles don’t all merge into one. Even if you’re limiting yourself to a small palette of monsters (which would make sense in a lair), the rooms would be different, the monsters may have different weapons, or may have different cover – can they hit from a distance?

Come back tomorrow for Day 17, and we’ll look at Comfort Zones.

One thought on “RPGaDay2020 Day 16: Dramatic

Leave a Reply