7 Tips On Creating Moments Of High Drama
From Jonathan Hicks
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #245
- Making The Scene Work
- Mine PC Backgrounds
- Take Copious Notes
- Seek Out Crystalizing Moments
- Pick An Interesting Revelation Location
- Conspire With Your Players
- Important – The Golden Rule Is Don’t Embarrass Anyone
- BioWare Online Store A Success
- Catching Up
- Monster Geographica: Underground A Good Deal
- 2nd Campaign Starting
- Split Party Tips
- Great Character Sheet Resource
- Splitting The Party
- No More Flat Dungeons
It might sound like a bad thing to say, but let’s face it, a lot of roleplaying games are often 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 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 easy to see it as a big, dumb, action movie.
However, what about that scene 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 highest- octane scenes from 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 when you’re young.
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:
- Throw a shocking revelation into the works that forces the players to rethink the direction of the game.
- Give the players something to sink their roleplaying 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
The difficult thing is also 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. You knew Vader was Obi-Wan’s pupil from the talk they had in Episode IV, and you knew 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, and 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? Read on…
Mine PC Backgrounds
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 are 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 they have detailed friends and relatives they knew but don’t take much notice of.
Take the details of the NPC, flesh them out (without the player’s knowledge) and introduce him or her (or it) at a key moment. Alternatively, you could have them be 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?
Take Copious Notes
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. Let’s say the hired NPC was killed and the players escaped without him.Wouldn’t it make for a good story if the NPC wasn’t killed? Wouldn’t that NPC swear revenge on the PCs for leaving him for dead? In this way, the game crafts its own internal plot that, because the players were involved with it, makes it resonate more.
Seek Out Crystalizing Moments
Use the game itself as the driving force behind the drama. As the game builds and builds, and more and more NPCs 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.Alternatively, 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 happens that they’re fighting for the wrong side.
Pick An Interesting Revelation Location
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?).
Conspire With Your Players
In some cases, you can get together with a player to sort out a private agenda for the player’s character that he carries out. When the other PCs find out, it’s even more of a shock!Be very careful with this option: the other players who aren’t in on the secret might feel left out or even a little used and offended if they think the GM was favouring or singling out a player that was working against them or had a secret agenda.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 her father, a business man, who she ran away from because of his anti-adventure and miserly feelings. This explains her well-spoken manner, but also reveals the source of 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 she finds out that the man who is now running the company is her fathers’ brother 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 has 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.
Important – The Golden Rule Is Don’t Embarrass Anyone
You have to be sure that the emotionally charged scene you’re about to drop in isn’t going to make anyone at the gaming table uncomfortable.After all, some of them are there to just game and not get emotionally involved, and having one of the NPCs 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 that doesn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere. This 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.
- “I’m not your father”
- “I sold out your family/city/planet/race”
- It wasn’t me who killed him”
- I’m your mother”
- He’s been dead for years”
- She’s the commanding officer of the new garrison”
- I am here to take you back”
- You are not who you think you are”
- This is my home”
- (my personal favourite) ‘I’m your sister’s husband’s friend’s cousin’s flatmate’s former roommate”
Johnn: Thanks for the great advice Jonathan!
Here are some additional links related to twists:
RPT#75 – 7 Plot Twisting Tips, Part I
RPT#69 – Putting Together The Ultimate DM Binder
RPT#30 – Readers’ Response: 14 Great Villain Tips
RPT#120 – 5 Firewalling Tips For Game Masters
RPT#159 – 6/666 Tips For GMing An Evil Group
RPT#166 – Contest Results: Cool Conflict Scenes
RPT#176 – Role-Playing And Giant Robots
I highly encourage GMs to try their hand at plot twists. If your first attempt doesn’t work because the players end up guessing it ahead of time or you made a mistake, it’s not a big deal–keep trying.
Also, it’s key to avoid over-planning twists. If you over- plan, then you’ll try too hard to make a specific situation happen in a certain way at a certain time in your campaign. This will feel like railroading to your players and the effect will not be enjoyable because it will feel forced.
Your best bet is to think about your campaign as it currently is and look for loose ends, interesting NPCs already encountered, and PC backgrounds, like Jonathan mentioned, and mine them for potential twisting ideas.
Think in terms of “situations” rather than pre-scripted events. For example, if the PCs’ employer is a doppelganger, then that’s an ongoing situation. Instead of planning the encounter where the doppelganger gets revealed ahead of time, keep the situation in mind and look revealing opportunities as the game moves along.
A Brief Word From Johnn
BioWare Online Store A Success
The launch of our latest project at work was a lot of fun. We finished deployment about an hour after midnight and the virtual doors opened at 1:30 am. Three minutes later the first purchase was made and everything worked. Woohoo!
The launch was a bit crazy with tired people hopped up on caffeine running around wreaking havoc (hmmm, maybe that was just me). I learned one important, life-long lesson from a colleague that night too: never stick a paper bag with a smiley face drawn on it on your head and dare people to throw things at you. It ain’t pretty. No sir, it ain’t pretty at all.
Now that there’s a bit of a lull between zany work schedule and Christmas, I’m catching up on my To Do list. I still have emails from early October to reply to, much to my chagrin, but I’m catching up now.
Monster Geographica: Underground A Good Deal
One of this e-zine’s sponsors, Expeditious Retreat Press, is holding a two week sale on its D&D PDF book: “Monster Geographica: Underground.” I own this book and think it’s a great resource. It provides details on nearly 200 monsters. I like the fact that the monsters are sorted by challenge level, making it easy to build critter encounters based on difficulty level.
Anyway, I encourage you to check the book out and to support a Roleplaying Tips Weekly sponsor. You can find their ad at the end of this issue.
2nd Campaign Starting
I’m currently GMing a game set in the D&D Birthright world of Cerilia. It takes place two Tuesdays each month. Just last week, I agreed to GM another campaign two Thursdays each month. I’m pretty excited about gaming regularly again! The new campaign will take place in Greyhawk, probably in the Yeomanry. I’ll be re-purposing B2 Keep On The Borderlands to start, and then I’ll see what the PCs do before planning more.
I haven’t decided at what point on the Greyhawk timeline the campaign will start. I’m thinking pre-Wars so that I can use the detailed events from various Greyhawk products that lead up to the War as background stuff to flesh out my campaign with. Plus, the Canonfire site has a great timeline I can draw on as well.
I purchased City State of the Invincible Overlord this week. Upon first skim it looks great. The City State is a lawful evil city, and I’m thinking of placing it near the PCs’ keep to fuel adventures and hooks.
I think one of my favourite periods is during campaign formation. Anything is still possible, and considering all the game world, rules, adventure, and story options is so much fun.
Well, I guess having a little more time on my hands means I start to ramble, so I’ll wind this week’s “Brief” Word up. I’ll inflict upon you more details on my campaigns in upcoming issues–we’re trying a few minor experiments in each campaign, so I’ll let you know the results in the future.
Have a game-full week.
November Issue of D20 Filtered Now Available
The November issue of D20 Filtered was released at a reduced price of $3.95 at RPGNow.com. This issue of D20 Filtered is their most comprehensive issue to date. Along with their foundation of reviews, interviews, and exclusives, they’ve added more expertise and d20 industry insight. Michael Tresca and Rodney Thompson, freelancers in the d20 industry, contributed to the issue. This 64-page issue has 18 reviews and an interview with Sean K. Reynolds. Pick up a copy!
NEW Sci-Fi Gaming Terrain Available NOW!
*** Free 64 oz. Gamer Mug with purchase! ***
* ALSO, Message Boards, Photo Galleries and News
Readers’ Tips Of The Week
Split Party Tips
From Bill Collins Johnn,
Here are some split party strategies that have worked in the past.
- Identify chronic wanderers. Talk with them outside the game about how, when they go off and grandstand on their own, it doesn’t advance the game.
- If people wander for no good reason, especially if it’s not a crucial plot point, make sure NOTHING happens until the rest of the party catches up. People get the message when they aren’t rewarded for their behavior with an individually tailored encounter.
- For situations when it IS important for the party to split, don’t attack with overwhelming force, even if the situation calls for it. Otherwise you make players gunshy.
- During split situations, try to limit the amount of time for each split group to five minutes of real time. Switch back and forth every five minutes. That way nobody feels like there’s too much “dead air time.”
- Ignore time after a split situation ends. Nobody really cares if in real life it should have taken 20 minutes for Group A to conclude their business and Group B will be busy for two hours. Make it happen that they can get together again quickly without a random encounter.
Great Character Sheet Resource
From Troy van Dongen
I’m unsure if this site has been mentioned before, but “Ema” has some absolutely awesome character sheets. There are colour and b/w downloads available. They are in PDF format and must be printed out to use, but my players and I love them. They have full spell and feat lists from many (almost all) accessory books. And they’re free.
Character sheets available are:
d20 Character Sheets, 3.5E
D&D 3.5E Character Sheet
D&D 3.5E Sheet, Italian
Forgotten Realms 3.5E Sheet
Dragonlance Character Sheet
Oriental Adventures 3.5E Sheet
Ravenloft 3.5E Character Sheet
Eberron Character Sheet
d20 Character Sheets, 3E
D&D 3E Character Sheet
D&D 3E Epic Level Sheet
D&D 3E Character Sheet, Italian
Forgotten Realms 3E Sheet
Oriental Adventures 3E Sheet
Ravenloft 3E Character Sheet
d20 Character Sheets, Other
Star Wars d20 Character Sheet
Lone Wolf Character Sheet
Cybernet Character Sheet
Conan d20 Character Sheet
d20 Future Character Sheet
d20 Modern Character Sheet
Call of Cthulhu d20 Sheet
Deadlands d20 Sheet
Engel d20 Character Sheet
Rokugan Character Sheet
Melnibon? d20 Character Sheet
Non-d20 Character Sheets
Dark Sun 2E Character Sheets
AD&D 2E Character Sheets
Dark*Matter Character Sheet
Alternity Character Sheet
Rifts Character Sheet
Cyberpunk 188.8.131.52 Sheet
Star Wars d20 GM Screen
Call of Cthulhu d20 GM Screen
Deadlands d20 Marshal Screen
d20 Modern GM Screen
Splitting The Party
From Erik Lee
Hello Johnn. The folks I play with almost always seem to want to go off in different directions at once. Here are a couple of things I do to keep things interesting.
- Use cliffhangers. I like to switch between parties right before something suspenseful or interesting is about to happen and right before any combat is about to occur. This keeps everyone at the table interested in what’s happening, even if their characters aren’t present at the scene. Plus, the players also have time to discuss strategies, tactics, and plans, and to consult the rules on any questions they have before they enter the scene, which helps me keep things going at a good pace when it’s time for action.
- Switch often. The players are more likely to use their “off-camera” time wisely if they know they’ll soon be right back in the spotlight. It also keeps anyone from getting bored by being out for too long.
- Reuse items from the split. If one group of PCs meet an NPC they particularly like or dislike, bring back that NPC for the whole party to meet. Do the same thing with locations, vehicles, landmarks, etc. It’s also a good way to have the players impart info to the whole party in character, if they do it as they remember what happened when they split up.
No More Flat Dungeons
From Alessandro Bilosi
First of all, let me thank you for your good work with the e-zine. I’ve been following it for more than 2 years, and it is much useful to me and my players.
I would speak about dungeons, both commercial modules and self-made. I have noticed that dungeons are very flat. They are composed of a large number of rooms, corridors, halls, and secret passages, at the end of which you can find the stairs to the 2nd level, and so on.
Maybe the dungeons are well-designed, full of interesting rooms, traps, and encounters, but very often they add no opportunity for 3D strategy and tactics during exploration and fighting.
Now try to imagine: the door at the end of the corridor you are walking through opens over a footbridge with a parapet 9 meters above the floor of a large 24 meter x 24 meter hall. At the end of the footbridge, on the other side of the room, a portcullis closes the way. On the left wall, 6 meters above the floor, you can see an entry leading no-one knows where. On the main floor, you notice also a wooden-door on the right wall, with many scratches on it.
Just under the ceiling of the hall, 18 meters high, there is a cornice, 2 meters high x 2 meters wide, running around the four walls. (The players cannot see, but there is another door in the same position as the one they arrived from, but below them on the main floor).
How will the PCs act? Maybe someone will try to break the portcullis while someone else will try to climb down the wall to get to a door. A third PC might try to use a rope to get to the main floor.
Let them separate, and then… make the gargoyles (or whatever you want) fly out from the cornice and fight the PCs, wherever they are.
Try to imagine the poor cleric fighting with his mace while clinging to a rope with his other hand, 6 meters above the floor. To say nothing of the rogue, almost reaching the door on the left, attacked by 2 gargoyles (no one said gargoyles prefer fair play :). And what about the dwarf fighter, forced to fight on the edge of the footbridge, with a gargoyle flying in his face? What if the gargoyle tries to push the dwarf one step back? A 9 meter fall is very hard to survive…
As you can see, encounters in vertical dungeons can be very fascinating, and you can also use non-flying creatures with ranged weapons.
Just when you thought it was safe to adventure…
Check out Expeditious Retreat Press? Monster Geographica, a line of digest-sized books featuring monsters by terrain. Each book contains 200 monsters with a variety of challenge ratings. Compiled from over 20 books, we have updated many 3.0 monsters for 3.5 games. In anticipation of Monster Geographica: Marsh & Aquatic, the Monster Geographica: Underground PDF is on sale for $5 at RPGnow.com. Stop by and pick up this great monster resource!