Yesterday saw the first full session of my Dramasystem miniseries “To End All Wars”. Set during The Great War, a cabal of magi fight a secret war of their own, which may shape the outcome and the face of Europe.
DramaSystem really benefits from an entire session devoted to character creation. We sat down to do that a few weeks ago, and the outcome was both quite instructive and a lot of fun for both the players and me as the GM. For one thing, the players quickly took us veering away from one of the main ideas of the campaign premise. In the write-up for “To End All Wars” the idea is that characters are a unit of magical beings fighting on the side of the Entente powers in a secret, magical war against the Central Powers. This premise went out the window pretty quickly, and what we wound up with was a cabal of sorcerers (many of whom were in uniform, but not as part of a unit of magical beings) who are plotting the fall of France in order to achieve a greater good!
There was a point during character creation when I almost blurted out “But… but… but you are SUPPOSED TO BE A UNIT OF MAGICAL BEINGS FIGHTING A SECRET WAR ON THE SIDE OF THE ENTENTE POWERS!!! Didn’t you read the setting stuff?????”
I am SO GLAD I DIDN’T!
By letting the process work through the players, we wound up with a wonderful setting, one worthy of a quality television or book series, with compelling characters that the players were interested in, and plotlines galore which the players were already invested in. Forcing them to conform to some pre-designed idea would have wrecked that, and the game would have suffered. DramaSystem lets you protagonize the player-characters before the game even begins, giving them buy-in for a world that they create, with plots that they develop themselves. It is well worth a session to watch this process work.
Here’s what we got –
Marie-Isis Derigny – recently returned to the family estates in Brittany from a childhood spent in Algiers followed by considerable travel and exploration, Mlle Derigny harbors a dangerous secret. Mortally wounded in the Middle East, she was possessed by an Efreet, which now keeps her alive in exchange for occupation of her body.
Dramatic poles: thirst for risk vs self-preservation.
Chaplain Gordon Lake – an Episcopal minister from Canada, Rev. Lake has the ability to heal by touch. But is this an ability that comes from God, from within himself, or from some other power? Rev. Lake is torn between a desire for selfless obedience to God and a Messianic hunger that he struggles to contain. He finds the war, and the goals of the Sinclairs and the Order to be heartbreaking, but goes along reluctantly because he has sworn to do so.
Dramatic poles: humility vs. despair
Luutenantti Janus Nygard – a Finnish Lieutenant and hypnomancer, Lt. Nygard was severely wounded in action, and has been convalescing under the care of Rev. Lake. A dedicated Finnish patriot seeking to free his country from the yoke of Russian domination, Nygard at times questions the commitment and sacrifice necessary for the struggle, and longs for personal freedom. He seeks both power and the vision with which to use it well, either in his homeland’s cause or his own.
Dramatic poles: Freedom for Finland vs Freedom for self
Captain Christopher Sinclair – a Captain in the British Expeditionary Force and heir to the mysteries of the Sinclairs of Scotland, it is Capt. Sinclair’s sworn duty to put into effect the plans of the mysterious Order. A mage of an old and venerable line of magi, Capt. Sinclair draws the power for his magic from the life force of his former schoolmates – he grows in power as they die on the fields of France. Sometimes stiffled by the restrictions placed upon him by his powerful family, he is slowly being crushed by the weight and cost of his responsibility and power.
Dramatic poles: obedient son vs. individuality
Alaina de Trevaigne – a Breton witch and guardian of the standing stones, Mlle de Travaigne seeks to protect the area, it’s people, and its magic, from the ravages of war and the prying eyes of outsiders. Though currently supportive of the Order’s plans, there is some question as to how far she will allow things to go. Cousin of Marie-Isis she hopes to enlist her aid, or the aid of her Ifrit.
Dramatic poles: protector vs. vengeful destroyer
I don’t think I need to lead anyone too far in seeing all the potential train wrecks inherent in the interaction between these characters so far.
DRAMASYSTEM FOR THE GM
One of the things I find most interesting about DramaSystem is the difference between GMing it, and GMing more traditional roleplaying games. In DramaSystem, once I guide players through the rules a bit, and set their feet on the path for the setting, there isn’t much traditional GMing left for me to do. DramaSystem is all about shared narration, and pitting the needs and wants of each character against what the character is and isn’t willing to do to get them. I get my turn like everyone else, but I have no more narrative authority than any other player – somewhat less actually because I don’t have a character in the mix, and so am not connected to the web of interactions in the same way as the other players are. It is easy to envision DramaSystem being run with no GM whatsoever.
Nevertheless, I think the game runs better with a GM. A GM is important in the game to bring the happenings of the rest of the world into play, to provide external threats, and to keep play from becoming completely internally focused. Because I don’t have the same level of narrative authority that exists in many games, however, there’s no real need for me to go overboard with threats. So for example, I wanted to introduce something into the game that suggested that there were other magical players in the area, so I had the local graveyard looted. Some of the graves were dug up, and apparently some corpses dug their way out. Now, here’s the beautiful thing about this – I DON’T HAVE TO EXPLAIN IT! I don’t need to know the level of the necromancer (if there is one), the number of the zombies (if there are any) or saving throws or hit dice or any of that. The graveyard has been looted – BAM! Done. It’s now a plot element, and players can pick it up or leave it alone as they please. They can decide that its ghouls, zombies, alchemists looking for ingredients – they can decide that the whole thing is just a weird geological phenomena if they want.
What I do as GM in this game is to functionally stand outside the narrative (which takes place between protagonists and is emotionally driven) and throw wrenches into the machinery to prevent things from going too smoothly. How the players go about incorporating these things (or not) into the narrative is, in my mind, less important than the fact that I am adding elements to the mix that they didn’t think of themselves. This adds an additional layer of richness to the narrative, like seasoning for soup. Another example – towards the end of yesterday’s game on my turn I announced that the unit to which many of the characters belong would be sent to the front in 14 days. But I really don’t have any interest in seeing them sent to the front so much as I have an interest in seeing how this issue affects the narrative. Its up to the players to decide how they deal with this – do they go to the front, expend some effort to be reassigned, go AWOL? It will be interesting to see.