Psychodrama on the battlemat

Reviewing DramaSystem and analyzing how it handles inner character conflict got me thinking of how I’ve handled this in my 4e campaign. The fact of the matter is, 4e and D&D in general offer little to no support for creating drama. They provide rules for actions, but how character motivations inform those actions, and how in turn completion of those actions affects motivations is left entirely to the players. So, given an abundance of action rules, in particular combat rules, is there a way to express motivations and dramatic conflict through them? Of course there is. This is in many ways a corollary to the post I wrote on providing encounters with purpose: once you decide you want to use a combat encounter to highlight some dramatic moment, you can use these techniques.

Powerful emotions

The easiest and most applicable method is to assign traits or powers to creatures which illustrate their passions. A spiteful king who gets a cumulative bonus to attack and damage against the target each time it misses it (spite tokens!); a youth who can charge anyone attacking his lover as an immediate reaction; a dragon that loses hit points when PCs break items in its prized collection, but recharges its big attack.

While these powers and traits could just as easily be left to simply roleplaying, picking “suboptimal” combat actions for your creatures based on the story (and you may still want to do that every now and then), that’s precisely what’s cool about powers in 4e. They don’t have to be confined to just sword swinging or fireball throwing. Instead, they can be used to tell the story. Remember, a monster stat block is not how it lives its everyday life. It is merely how it lives the 5 or so rounds of its fight with the PCs. And should a particular NPC survive the confrontation, and meet the PCs some later day, it could have a different stat block to reflect how its personality has changed.

Let it all out

A less subtle, yet common in the fantasy genre method: externalize passions of a key character, be they PC or NPC. This can range from demons of rage manifesting in the real world, to visiting their dreamscape, to having a twisted reality be constructed around the party by an insane god. The purpose of such an encounter or whole adventure can be simply illustrating a story point (“he sure is angry”), but it could also be actually resolving the dramatic tension. After all, once all the demons of rage are gone, the character can stop being so damn angry. Or, if the demons succeed in overcoming the one whose rage they symbolize (by reducing their originator to negative hit points, say), he or she would be consumed by that emotion.

Live by the sword

Embrace the fact that problems get solved with violence in D&D. That’s what the game is about, what it offers to its players. So use it! When appropriate, of course. Some drama doesn’t need rules, just roleplaying. But if you do find you need rules, you have them. Detailed, unambiguous rules for dramatic conflict, in which every character can meaningfully participate, and all resolved by stabbing things in the face.

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