Dramatic irony in RPGs

Mesdames et messieurs, seigneurs et cher cousins:

In drama (e.g. Greek dramatisations of Greek myths) and literature (e.g. novelisations of Arthuriana) audiences tolerate knowing in advance what’s going to happen. Perhaps it gives them a gratifying sense of superiority over the characters. Perhaps it allows the authors a cheap way of getting the audience or readers to simultaneously (a) feel the protagonist’s motivation and sympathy for his actions, and (b) a strong revulsive “no! don’t go down into the cellar!”. A lot of people seem to dig that paradoxical response.

I most play RPGs to find out what happens, and I think the strain between pity and terror is over-treated anyway. So it was a surprise to me when I played a Pendragon game with a group whose idea was to act out while the tragedy of Arthur was steaming unswervingly to its fore-ordained disaster. It was like rail-roading, but everyone was doing it. I was bewildered. I think I spoiled their evening.

I don’t like deliberately doing stuff I know is dumb, or know is doomed to fail — it drags me out of character, prevents me from feeling my character’s motives and the forces that the situation exerts on him.

What’s your position on dramatic irony in RPGs? Threat or menace?

Bon chance!

Do you think that “knowing what’s going to happen” is the issue? I mean, I can read Pride and Prejudice with enjoyment, or Kim, or Gaudy Night, or The Lord of the Rings, or Atlas Shrugged, or Courtship Rite, or The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, despite having read each of them previously more than once and knowing how the story goes. There doesn’t seem to be a “find out what happens” after three or four readings. Yet it seems to me that you do read novels that you like more than once.

I do feel that in RPGs, player characters have, and ought to have, agency. And a predecided plot makes that unattainable and the game no fun. But I don’t know if the problem is one of knowing; it seems to me that something else may be the issue.

I certainly think the cases differ between literature and drama on one hand and RPGs on the other. And though I re-read Wodehouse and Heyer, Renault and Kipling, Vance and Zelazny partly because the use of language itself is marvellous, that is not so much the case with, say, C.S. Forester or Niven & Pournelle — whose works I sometimes re-read. In any case I have only very rarely experienced a passage of RP that was marvellously well-put, and those survive (I think) better in being quoted than in being re-played.

There is certainly something in the experience of literature and drama that admits of enjoying it, even of entering into the excitement and trepidation, the longings and horror, of the central characters even though you know which fears will be realised, which hopes dashed and which gratified. Dramatic irony works in the passive forms, as is shown not only by re-readings and re-watchings of known works but also by retellings of known stories. My question is as to whether that success is also possible in RPG.

On occasions I have successfully and enjoyably re-run certain adventures, as for example when I have run the same adventure for two playtests, then for six groups seriatam at a con, and then sometimes pulled it out of archives to run at short notice for a scratch group. But in each such case there has been great uncertainty about what will happen this time: not only are the players meeting the material fresh, but as GM I may see them do things differently from anyone before, and come to a quite different ending. Though I was running “the same adventure” again and again, those were not cases in which the players, or even I, knew what was going to happen.

Things were rather different in the game session in which my approach clashed as described in the OP with that of a group whose expectation in playing through the catastrophe of Lancelot’s liaison with Guenevere. They expected to appreciate the pressures that the situation imposed on their characters, but not to exercise the agency on behalf of their characters. As I’ve said I’m used to and can enjoy that sort of thing in reading and watching, even re-reading and re-watching, books and drama — but i’m not used to it and so far never have enjoyed it in RPG. I suppose that in theory there could be a situation in which my character was subject to such a collection and arrangement of motives and pressures that he or she would naturally, necessarily, and satisfyingly tread the path foreknown, evoking the tragic response. But that was not the case in this Arthurian tragic game I am reporting. There I startled the other players and (I fear) spoiled their game by acting as I felt my character would feel impelled to act; to do as they expected I would have had to enter into all his feelings except his feeling that he was free to act.

I don’t think this is a matter of having no real choices. Having a single path forwards become clear in a crisis can work very well: it can feel like having agency resolutely to take the only remaining option (especially if others shrink or hesitate).

Is there anyone here who does enjoy playing out a part in a known story in RP? Anyone who shares my dislike of it and who can put their finger on why it fails to satisfy?

I certainly share your dislike, but I can’t pin down why. That’s why I was asking the question I did.

That’s a very special case as far as I’m concerned – and it’s not exactly duplicating the original material either. I’d argue that Malory at least doesn’t use dramatic foreshadowing; he simply says “this happened”. Any sense of tragedy is brought by the reader, and by later writers.

But if you as PCs have Guinevere’s mother give her a stern talking-to, or get Lancelot drunk and laid every night so that he can never take a run at the Queen, are you really playing an Arthurian game any more? At the very least you don’t get to use a chunk of the material in the campaign book.

And yet people do care about “spoilers”, though I don’t know how negatively correlated that is with a tendency to re-read.

(And since I started blog-reviewing I barely re-read at all any more.)

My thesis (which I’ve mentioned on the podcast a few times, apologies for repetition) is that RPGs as a narrative form are significantly distinct from all types of what I’ll call linear fiction, and the key distinction is not the multiple authorship – after all stories have been written by collaborating authors, and sometimes their favourite characters are painfully obvious – but the lack of editing. Once something’s happened in an RPG, it has happened and can’t be altered, while on the other hand you cannot say for certain at a given point what will happen at any future point.

(I know @MichaelCule doesn’t entirely agree with me on this – he’s mentioned sessions where everyone feels that something went in a non-fun direction and it would be better to rewind. I’ve had sessions like that; there’s a Whartson Hall recording that will probably never be published because by the end of the session none of us was happy with what was happening. But we haven’t re-wound; instead we’ve put that game on hold. Eventually we may revisit that campaign but, I think, only once we’ve forgotten enough of the direction it was going in.)

But in any case, any medium has story forms that are well suited to it and others that aren’t, and this is where I think Hamlet’s Hit Points leads one astray. For the GM to stack the deck and lead things in a series of up and down beats to a triumphant conclusion, in the manner of linear fiction where the author can make sure that stuff seems natural, is like a slavish adaptation of short story into film: it loses the virtues that were specific to the old medium while not gaining any from the new one.

Another important distinction, though it’s not unique to RPGs, is that their primary goal is the enjoyment of the people involved. In musical terms, it’s a jam session rather than an album recording. So for example it’s not necessary to follow the pattern of “quick planning montage, then the actual operation where things go wrong but unseen planning turns out to have saved the day”; if the players and the GM enjoy a painstaking planning session followed by an operation that is largely flawless in execution, that’s absolutely fine even if it doesn’t hit the “right” dramatic beats.

My feeling is “generally not”. To me Paranoia is only technically an RPG; as played, it doesn’t have the thing I like most, the development of a complex alternate self. But one could argue that it does have dramatic tragedy: most characters will come to a bad end, and with a good GM they will come to a bad end at least in part because of the stuff that’s written on their character sheets.

Where I’d say this could work is when the characters are external to a story. This isn’t a game I’ve run, but I could very much see a scenario in which the PCs’ job is to act as the forces of destiny: the prince has to marry the woodcutter’s daughter or Bad Things will happen, but at scenario start they’re both more interested in other people, and the players have to make “the story” happen. Though I think one would have to play it at least in part for laughs; my first thought is that the PCs are cute forest creatures.

I think it shouldn’t be contentious to say that most RPG players aren’t as good at writing as their favourite authors, especially when they have to do it at something like reading speed (as well as having no chance to edit). At its best an RPG is still a dictated first draft. What fun one gets out of it is not from adhering to a form but from direct involvement in shaping the narrative and defining the characters. Take that away, and there’s not much left.


I agree that that could happen. But when I ran Fixers, my “consulting criminals” campaign, and the first scenario or two went like that, all but one of the players felt that it was so unspeakably dull that they were ready to bring the campaign to an end rather than play another session. We ended up with a quite different format much more like the one you describe first, and a greatly revised “planner” character with more emphasis on his secondary skills.

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I think that sentence hinges on the “if”. A corollary about the RPG as jam-session rather than as album is that it doesn’t have to have mass appeal; what’s important is that that group of players enjoys it.

(Writing for publication is another matter, and I’ll note that I’ve never written an adventure for publication – it’s all been background material and some scenario/campaign ideas.)

Well, it might be said that that’s the fault of the campaign book for presenting an overly linear, deterministic plot. It’s not just that the campaign has a single point of failure; it’s that every event in the campaign is a single point of failure. Have any single event turn out otherwise than the book says, and you’re off the rails. My own bias would be to avoid using any such book in the first place.

It’s one thing if a fated series of events is taking place somewhere far away from the PCs, and they experience its impact, but it’s not what the campaign is about. Yes, Lancelot and Guenevere are having an affair, and the kingdom is falling, but our concern is to be aspiring knights at Camelot going out on secondary quests, or to manage our estate somewhere out in the country and not have it ruined by Mordred’s war with Arthur.

But if the PCs are actually involved in the main struggle, I don’t think it’s reasonable for them to have contrived motives for making sure that events progress to a pre-ordained conclusion. That’s an RPG version of “idiot plot.” Conceivably you might have a campaign where they strive to do things that disrupt the tragedy, and the GM contrives to show how all that leads up to the very thing they’re trying to avoid, as in “Appointment in Samarra.” But you can also say that when the GM allowed PCs to get into the middle of things, they were giving approval to the disruption of the original tragic ending, and the campaign plan has to provide for that if it’s going to be any good.

But in any case I would call all of those “Arthurian.” I don’t think an Arthurian campaign can ONLY be one where the same events play out.

As presented in The Great Pendragon Campaign, while there’s a lot of scope for PCs to do stuff, Lancelot and later Galahad will always be the greatest knights, Arthur will have no heir, etc.

And I can see two approaches to that. One is, as Brett mentioned, to fight against it; the other is to accept that overarching structure and tell the best story you can tell while knowing at a player level that there are certain things you won’t be able to alter. (Arguably this is a difference of quantity rather than quality from a Traveller campaign in which the players know they aren’t going to overthrow the Imperium.)

Since one of my favourite pieces of Arthurian fiction is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I must argue that the second approach is a viable one; tales of Gawain can tell you what a great hero he is, even if he isn’t the king or the king’s right-hand man. But the closer the axioms get to treading on things PCs might reasonably expect to do, the more you need player buy-in, and my inclination is to make that explicit.

Well, yes. But on the other hand, conceivably I could run a Traveller campaign where the PCs were in a position to overthrow the Imperium—either to seize power and make one of their number emperor, or to transform the whole system so that there was no emperor any more, changing to a republic or an anarchy or a theocracy or something. Of course, the character creation process would have to be different, most basically by granted the PCs enhanced social standing or other capabilities. But I think this would still be “a Traveller campaign,” in the first place. And I think, in the second place, that if I allowed players to create characters at that power level, and they chose to use that power to overthrow the Imperium, that would be as legitimate a choice as any other.* If I don’t want that to be an option, I shouldn’t allow player characters to be at that level of capability—and, in fact, standard Traveller seems not to have allowed that.

*Unless the players have signed off on a mission statement that says, oh, “you will use your power to sustain the Imperium and the current Emperor.” That’s analogous to players in a supers campaign agreeing that they will use their powers to uphold the current law and government, not to commit crimes or overthrow and replace the government; it’s a campaign premise that they may choose to adopt. Though I do have to say “we will play knights who support Arthur’s reign while it comes to its tragic and inescapable end” is an unusual mission statement—and if Agemegos had been offered it explicitly at the outset perhaps he might not have signed up as a player.

This really splits role players in my experience.
Personally I am happy to play in a canonical setting and know that my PC will weave in, out or around the known threads.
However I also am happy to play in a canonical setting and for the table to agree that for this campaign, the future is not written, fate lies in our hands.
It’s very very important Session Zero conversation to have in any canonical setting, and that does include a few RPG settings like Glorantha, Traveller Known Space, Faerun… and so on.

I think the closest I’ve come to this is my WWII campaign. There’s been magic from day one (that’s what the PCs do) so it’s clearly alternate history; as tine has progressed the visible deviation from known history has increased (and not only because of the PCs’ actions).

Agreed. In the long-running Pendragon campaign I played, we did get involved in the main struggle, to some degree. We were never in a position to prevent Lancelot and Guenevere’s affair, but we did a lot of other things, and from them, our GM constructed an outcome where Arthur and Guenevere did have an heir, and she married someone who was a credible replacement king. The days of the great knights ended, but Logres continued as a kingdom that was mostly peaceful and just.

That seemed like a positive ending that doesn’t spoil the Arthurian cycle’s character. There were a few good exchanges near the end:

GM: “The enchanted wood slowly changes back to being mundane over the next few miles. When you find its edge, you’re looking down into London. Morgan le Fay rides out of the wood behind you and says ‘Could I ask you to escort me down into London? These are dangerous times for a lady by herself.’”
Players: “Of course …”

GM: “I’m not going to let you kill Mordred today. You can wound him, but if you kill him the story falls apart.”
Players: “OK.”

And we defended the Tower of London and Guenevere from Mordred, who wanted to marry her, Arthur being dead, to boost his claim to the throne. Oddly enough, the gatehouse of the Tower is quite a good defensive position. Guenevere became a nun afterwards.

GM: “At this point, a young woman dressed as a herald rides in, stands up in her stirrups and declaims ‘I declare, of my own sure knowledge, that Lady X ((John has forgotten the name)) is the true and legitimate heir of King Arthur and Queen Guenevere’”
Players: " … … … ((and are unable to form words for several minutes)) All right, we believe you. But how?"

It turned out to be due to a situation some years earlier where the underlying magics of Logres had got well out of control, and time had been wound forwards and backwards a few years. We had been fairly sure the young woman in question was a relative of Arthur’s for some time, but not known who she was.

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It’s nice to have that confirmed.