Tuesday, March 30, 2010


The focus of this post is upon Western drama, which is quite different from Eastern drama, and is produced for different reasons. Except at this time, I don’t plan on making any distinction between west and east – the gentle reader may assume I am speaking only of the west.

Drama, the depiction of dialogue as presented on a stage to an audience, arose from what was a unique political system that had evolved in Greece in the first millennium BCE. That system, called ‘democracy,’ took as its means of governing the dialectic, in which individuals of differing ideas present their arguments with the intention of persuading one another. As a political system, it was remarkably practical – we still use it.

It was not, however, many years before it became clear to the debaters of ancient Greece that there were particular issues which did not have, as it were, self-evident solutions. In short, the same arguments arose again and again, and in the process the very best arguments on both sides became very well known – studied, in fact, in order that future debaters might learn from their forefather’s example of butting their heads against walls.

At some point it occurred to a rather talented group of individuals that these arguments might meaningfully be presented by means of persons acting out either side – with pre-written words that they would speak, presenting the argument in its fullness and without the inevitable weakness of passion to tear the argument down into a fistfight – which was apt to occur when such insolvable issues were presented. An audience might then, versed in the argument or not, hear both sides and thus formulate a conclusion of their own.

As it happened, it would naturally occur that the creator of this presentation would himself have one opinion or the other about what was right or what was wrong – and that he would tend to present both arguments in such a manner so as to end with the one that most appealed to his personal philosophy. A slightly less upstanding writer of presentation might ‘tweak’ the less appreciated argument, leaving out particular points or emphasizing those points which were markedly weak ... while at the same time presenting the desired argument in its fullness. It might even descend to the point that a presentation might be given where only one argument might be made, from beginning to end. We are familiar with this, of course. We call it propaganda.

All such presentations, regardless of their philosophical leanings, were called ‘plays.’ If we might return to the reasonably balanced presentation, we can see that these plays were the most likely to survive the passage of time. Propaganda rarely lasts more than a few generations. The earliest complete text of a play which we have was probably written by Aeschylus (525-456 BCE); there is some dispute as to which play of the seven that have survived – but any of them will do as an example. The Agamemnon, which features the murder of a husband by his wife, still allows the wife to make her point – a chilling and yet persuasive justification for why she takes the actions she does. The argument is followed forward in two other plays by Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides, the three-part series referred to as The Oresteia.

Through the examination of arguments and counter-arguments, drama proved that it was able to offer more than mere ‘discourse’ ... the tension/relief of tension aspects of storytelling were not entirely lost on the early playwrights. Various individuals were instrumental in pulling forth the comedic elements behind the philosophical discourse, which was a natural progression. The Romans took the Greek framework and ran with it.

But I don’t want to get bogged down in a historical study of drama. Let’s just say that we are quite familiar with the eventual devolution of ‘philosophical presentation’ into – virtually every sort of drama existing at present concentrates on either tension or comedic elements in story. Even in those so-called ‘think’ pieces, the presentation of the dialectic (both sides) is hacked to pieces on one side or the other. A recent example, that of Milk, makes no effort to present in full any argument against homosexuality except squawking puppets whom the audience is expected to despise. Not that I have any particular problem with that ... only that dramatically we don’t follow very closely in the footsteps of the Greeks. We have a point to make, but it is our point.

So where the hell am I going with this, huh? Where are the D&D references, Alexis?

Drama has always been an opportunity for a culture – and for the enemies of that culture - to framework arguments for the purpose of either establishing or deconstructing doctrines of behaviour. Don’t murder your husband; feel sympathy towards homosexuals; hate the squawking heads; punish murderers ... the subject matter may become more subjective with the eons, but the principal remains the same. Create a character intended to shill for a particular philosophy, put words into the character’s mouth, and present the play.

When the DM creates an NPC, a character which offers the DM the opportunity to speak his mind regarding how the players should act, he walks a fine line between either stifling the progress of the drama or facilitating it.

Where the NPCs drive the “story,” either through its inordinate combat ability or its influence on its surroundings, you have a ‘story-driven’ campaign. The DM has created a character for the sake of the DM’s propaganda, speaking out on what the DM thinks the players ought to do (get the five artefacts of Mary sue), or about what the characters are supposed to care (you shall be wealthy beyond your wildest dreams and be given lands of your own) – the players are meant to ‘move along’ as the story unfolds. Players who buck the story are quickly moved into the role of antagonist by the protagonist NPCs – who will draw swords or send armies out against the player if need be, to demonstrate the error of the player in ever attempting to think for themselves. If only the player had done what was expected, so the story goes, they would have been well off and respected ... but now they’ve snubbed the king or the wizard, and they must pay the price.

This is sometimes presented as a sandbox, since the characters WERE free to snub the king, after all. A true railroading campaign, we are told, wouldn’t have allowed that. But there is more to railroading that the DM playing the player character. When the only alternative to following the story involves penalty and threat, the DM is according to his own NPCs an importance that supersedes the importance of the players. No NPC should ever depend upon a player character’s compliance to the point where they would punish for failing to obtain that compliance. It is that formula that establishes a railroaded game – where no argument suffices except that of the DM.

Drama, as it is presented on a stage, provides no limits at to acceptable behaviour. A dramatic presentation is conceived of by a playwright, who has his or her particular bend on what is true and what is not ... even where both sides might be presented. But D&D is not a play. It is not a ‘story’ in any sense that a story is usually conceived. A campaign may move along without a purpose, without an argument to make, without an agenda. But the nature of drama is so pervasive in our beings – having fed upon it every day since our consciousness – it naturally applies itself to every condition over which we have power. A DM quickly recognizes the power available to shift the campaign towards this goal, or away from that one ... and in doing so satisfies a personal belief system, even to the point of having real people carry out those beliefs in dramatic form. Done brilliantly, the real people themselves might never guess that they’ve participated as actors. They might even argue, upon reflection that none of the principle decisions were their own, that the ‘ride’ was completely satisfactory, free will or no.

After all, we participate quite commonly in things over which we have no control. We are programmed to watch the film, or the sports event, to be led by it ... and never feel cheated simply because we had no measurable effect on the outcome. Our influence is not so important as our appreciation. That is one of the technological effects of Drama ... to provide a large population with entertainment, so as to pacify them and dissuade them from thinking about anything more important (but I am saving this argument for when I speak of Philosophy).

The sandbox game provides for an alternative option – free will. It presupposes that a party might walk away from any situation, at any given moment, and potentially suffer no consequence whatsoever. It also presupposes that the party might wish to walk towards a particular situation, whichever situation presented by the DM, or conceived of by themselves, which appeals to their fancy. Activity without moral constraint – where a party might play a group of rapists, or sacrifice babies to gods, or systematically execute thousands of petty criminals for the good of the state, or devote themselves to the peaceful contemplation of a glade or mountain top. Activity without judgment.

It is virtually impossible to find. The vast majority of DMs instinctively feel that ‘something’ ought to be off-limits ... if only because they don’t particularly want to spend their Saturday nights running a party of baby-stabbing rapists of pickpockets who spend their off-hours talking about the number of leaves on twigs. And no doubt, more than one sandbox-promoting DM has been forced to plead with his or her party to “cut the crap” and move forward to something that might be, well, interesting. I’ve done it myself. I don’t have much issue with the whole immoral behaviour angle, but I just can’t run one more offline session with the party sitting around repeating, “I don’t know, what do you want to do.”

So ‘activity without judgment’ has its limitations, and isn’t a particularly good meme for running a sandbox campaign (try it ... you’ll soon have monsters riding into town, a la Bonanza, just to keep things interesting). Sandbox or no, D&D does demand the sort of drama that will pack players into the chairs ... er, hem, audiences into the seats. It can’t be boring.

So as I say, a fine line. NPCs that keep the action moving, without dictating that action. That’s the key. It’s tough, and the DM who says they haven’t slid one way or the other off that line is lying. Through their teeth.


Zak S said...

Why can't freedom-with-consequences (fairly predictable real-world-modeled consequences) be the premise of a sandbox?

There is--in many situations--the option of making the world dangerous-by-default. That is, the cost of inaction is always great, but not always great -due to the same source--.

Don't do something and you'll starve, do something to survive and you'll attract the law, avoid the law in way X and inevitable conflict Y occurs.

I ask largely because your descriptions of your own campaign seems to suggest this model.

In a dense enough pinball machine, all action and all inaction moves the tiny ball towards some new bumper.

Alexis said...


It is not that I disagree with you in the least, and my own campaign does follow exactly that principle. It is only that human nature being what it is, a DM is far too often prone to deciding that those 'consequences' ought to service the DM's personal petty desires, and not the world's blind interests.

I have written here about the need for blind justice, and that follows just what you say. But I find little reassurance where it comes to DMs acting blind to thier own prejudices.

So in context, where in the above post I say 'consequences,' I refer only to those that come from crossing the DM's wishes ... NOT those that should come deservedly, as you explain.

Zak S said...

I think it's fair, in that case, to judge along the Rule of Interesting.

If a PC does something, and this provokes consequences, and these consequences strike all the players as interesting, then no foul. If these consequences serve only to remind the player they shouldn't have "gotten out of the boat" and that they have committed the crime of straying toto far form what other people consider interesting, then that's trouble.

Anonymous said...

In the whole post there's a single sentence that stuck me way more than the rest:

"I just can’t run one more offline session with the party sitting around repeating, “I don’t know, what do you want to do.”

Well, players need to be motivated. There's need for tension, as in "things are going to change", and you can either have a kickass rogue sandbox as Zak described in January (Zak, please, use more diverse tags in your blog), where tension is born of players wanting to change things for a variety of endogenous motivations (chip on the shoulder, fanatism, greed) or if players don't start click you need to nudge with some exogenous motivation (need to get money to pay orphanage morgage, a player picks up the Hand of Vecna, Doomgrinder/Hobgoblin Empire is going to destroy Greyhawk, the portal to Mythic Norway they forgot to explore is gushing out frost giants).

As I said, tension. A campaign doesn't need to have umpteen movers, but sure as heck with many of them you get the chance of having emergent behaviour (as in unintended consequences). Usually I run the second kind (exogenous motivations) till, due to massive improvisation (also called foolish lack of preparation) there are so many things going around that all of us around the table start forgetting about people and places (yes, I keep notes) and the players start doing grandiose things I'd never dreamt of. Sure, I have a lot of "goodwill/fun capital" to spend with them, and I know what motivates them.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the "activity without judgment" not being good for D&D, I had campaigns like that. Some didn't last long, but players don't need a point driven in order to enjoy cutting heads or massacring moms'n'babies: the current party mowed through the gnoll nursery in Keep on the Borderlands without thinking twice about it, and usually behave as, well, a band of ruthless and dangerous murderers. Because parties are bands of dangerous murderers. Other slaughtered lots of innocent people in "my" city-state (starting from the whorehouse in front of the Admiralty) and fled to avoid the law and go "adventure" somewhere else, tracked as enemies of the state.

Sure, my campaigns are based on the premise that there are plenty of consequences for both their actions and inaction, and I totally don't care about morals. I run games because of the fun, I don't need an anvilicious icing on it.

Also, personally I think that morals are mainly just mores (might be obvious for you, but both English is not my first language and I'm speaking from the perspective of a probably much different culture from yours). A few decades ago the zeitgeist was so different and what was deemed acceptable is in many parts totally alien to us. Going back centuries it's obviously even worse: power abuse, rape, mugging, violence, death, famine, disease were endemic to the middle ages culture, and what people resorted to was what we see now in war-torn countries or disaster areas, but back then it went on for years, or decades. Even listening to my mom's tales about what happened in the countryside where she grew, going back just 1 generation, makes my hair stand on end, and fifty years + fifty miles is nothing compared to 1000 years + another planet/dimension away.

This, of course, unless the in-game space is seen/used as some kind of political tool to express a delegitimization of our real-life social spaces, of which it represents an abstracted and simplified version. Because that's what drama is. But then, it's the DM's choosing.

Sorry for the rambling.

Word verification: thydra. tide hydra? any better idea? :)

Anonymous said...

As somehting of an aside, I've played in and run groups where the action sort of bent itself toward murder, rape and pillage of a location other than a dungeon (where those things are perfectly acceptable...except maybe the rape). But in almost every case the behavior was a result of player furstration over something. For example, the party burnt the inn to the ground because they couldn't figure out how to get the inn keeper to give them something they felt they needed to move whatever agenda they were pursuing forward. Maybe the DM made it impossibly hard, maybe the group or a player were acitng out against a railroading, maybe there was nohting to find out anyway. But I can't recall a time when any of us sat down at the table, rubbing our hands together in anticipation of burning a vilage of 0-level peasants to the ground. One time we played with a guy that liked his character to do weird things to the remains of enemies. We tossed him because he was insuffereably boring. How many nut-sack coin pouches does one misanthropic elf need? And why do I have to sit here listening to it for ten minutes at a shot? Adios.

Getting around to my point, do you guys find your parties often want to burn the village of 0-level peasants down for reasons other than frustration? Are these so-called "amoral" actions part of a broader agenda (i.e. become a ruthless warlord through violence and intimidation) or do they just have a thing for rape and pilage in an of itself?

Anonymous said...

Andrej, in 20 years I had no village burnt down by PCs because of players' frustration. When they torch stuff they have other reasons, sometimes sane :)

Potentially offtopic: once my m-u blasted away half the tavern he was in because the city "autocrat" (another PC) kept on mocking him and challenged him to cast a fireball. Yes, we all have been teenagers. Do this kind of "player drama" happened to you?

Anonymous said...

I gotta say tsojcanth that even as teenagers, and once spells like fireball were available, my group didn't go in for that sort of direct goading. The worst shenanigans ever gotten into usually involved a player playing their "evil" character "in character" and subtly undoing whatever carefully laid plan there was of the party's, just to watch it unravel. Obviously I'm not saying that we weren't petty or in for screwing one another over... just that it generally didn't involve pyrotechnic bar fights.