Conflict creates drama. Drama comes from the uncertainty of an outcome. We, as role players, use drama , hence conflict, to create adventures. In this post, I am going to discuss a notable difference in the way I play epic and episodic. What you and your table expect from a game is often defined by how much and what type of drama you are looking for.
Before getting into anything else, lets talk drama and conflict. Conflict occurs in game when two or more people, in this case PCs and NPCs, desire a specific outcome and not all parties want or expect the same, or even similar outcomes. Drama is created when an outcome of an event is uncertain. Therefore, when Player Characters are at odds with Non-player Character, other PCs, or even the environment, we engage the game mechanics to determine the outcome of the event. The most obvious is out-right combat. This is the sort of conflict that most people think of first when thinking of RPG conflict. It is also the most detailed system in almost all RPG mechanics. But, Lets say a PC needs to get documents out of the safe of an NPC. The NPC is personally unreachable or undefeatable by said PC. We now have a conflict, that can’t be directly solved with combat. While it is possible that the PC may hire a group of mercenaries/thugs/bravos/etc to beat the combo, or even the actual document from this NPC, that combat is probably “off screen,” and said PC may or may not have solved the problem, but will not know until the hirelings report back. So the drama here is not the combat, but the outcome which is unknown for a period of time. But what if the PC wants to break into the place where the safe is, crack the safe and thereby obtain the document. Here, the conflict is with the environment; how obvious does the PC want to be? How tough is the safe, either physically or the combination? The drama here comes from the stealth of the PC, the chance of getting caught, what do they know about the safe, can they successfully crack the safe either by manipulation or brute force? Can they get away without being tied to the act, or does it matter? Game mechanics here are skill resolution types. While some games make any failed roll the only outcome, others allow re-attempts, either with penalties to skill or time. (I usually allow re-rolls, with the penalty increasing each time. To me this reflects that you have already worked to the best of your skill, and are now hoping for a bit of luck, that becomes more frustrating the more times it is tried.) Finally, what if they want to con, or sweet talk the NPC out of the documents? Now we face a social conflict. Some games, particularly the more modern of them, have a social mechanic that can make the give and take of wordplay as exciting as the cut and thrust of sword and axe. All of these are ways to resolve conflict, and the drama comes from not knowing the outcome. Some systems may resolve some or all of these on a simple dice roll, while others may take a great deal of real time to resolve.
Having defined conflict and drama, let me talk about Epic vs Episodic (and my own Epic-sodic). In general, Episodic games are divided into scenes, or acts that each have a major conflict that needs resolved. Once the conflict for that part of the arc is dealt with, often the minutia of getting to the next conflict, such as travel, or information gathering (Which can be a conflict on its own), or even simple resupply is pretty much handled by a few moments of discussion and hand -waving.
For Instance: “OK. You have beaten these henchmen and discovered where the lair is. As you don’t want to give Dr. Q any warning, you head pretty much directly to the lair. Since you need to go across town, you can run a few simple errands. Does anybody need to buy anything or restock? OK. Now, you are arriving at the lair of the Villainous Dr. Q…”
In Epic games, I often play out even the non-dramatic events, such as day to day life. The idea here is that the player , and therefore the character, becomes familiar with the mundane life as well as the exciting parts. While this makes story arcs last much longer, it does tend to make it easier for the players and their characters to relate to the disruption caused by the adventures, and/or care more for the people placed in harms way. This is where i use the the idea of “Random Encounters” or “Wandering Monsters.” It is not just to add conflict where none needs to be, but to make it seem like everyday life and travel could be interrupted by these horrible dangers at any time. The attack by orcs may not be related to the rampaging ogres that you are tracking…but perhaps it is?!?!?! In Epic style like this, the story arc is not the only thing. The idea is to highlight the dramatic by contrasting it to the more mundane.
In my Epic-sodic, most dangerous conflict, that could kill a PC or leave them in a significantly worse way, are part of the story arcs. Random combat encounters almost never occur. If they do, they are they to advance the plot, usually by providing a clue. This allows a bit of the mundane to be contrasted well with the primary dramatic, story advancing, scenes.
Conflict is not the only way to introduce drama, but it is often the easiest. Other parts of a game can be presented dramatically as well. For instance, resource management can provide a dramatic element; Will i have enough bullets to deal with these zombies? What about the very core of the game; You are down to the last three cans of food, one of which has lost its paper wrapper, and has a slight bulge in it’s side. Sounds like time for some foraging! And in a game with a lot of good role play, drama can come just from character or NPC interaction scenes.
(What about the dreaded “Notice/Search/Perception/Awareness check?” (Although, this is the core of an upcoming post) This can lead to drama. What did I see…or worse…What did I FAIL to see? This can definitely lead to a dramatic moment if you believe that you may have missed a poison trap and your character is about to die! But what if it was to notice the man in the rumpled coat? Is he there because you should take note of him? Have you seen him before? Or is he there just for game color? This bit of drama can be fun, but note that this is fun for the PLAYER, not necessarily the CHARACTER. The character doesn’t know they just failed a perception check. But what if they are searching for a clue in a murder case? If they fail the roll, does the killer get away, game over…)
When considering drama in your game, consider conflict in all of its many guises. Consider the tone of your game. Consider what your players like and how your table plays. Drama does not always equal Conflict. Conflict does not always mean Hack and Slash. But, conflict is dramatic! Be aware of the impact it has on your game, and where you are going, and look at drama as a something to happen at every game, even if no one slaps leather!
((Sorry for the long delay…Again, my hope is to have one about every month! Fingers crossed!))