The Dramatic Question: Here We Go With the Literary Bulls#&$ Again
Once you’ve planted the seed, you need to fertilize it. And bulls#*$ makes the best fertilizer. You can’t run an encounter without dramatic question and you can’t build one without it either. Fortunately, the dramatic question is pretty easy to come up with. It might even be your seed. If not, you need to ask yourself what the PCs are trying to accomplish in the encounter. Why should they care? What do they get out of the encounter?
Remember though that freedom is everything in an RPG, right? So, you don’t want the dramatic question assume anything about what how the PCs are going to resolve the question. Remember in the last article we talked about the difference between “can the PCs continue their journey” and “can the PCs survive the spider attack” and “can the PCs kill the spiders?” Well, I’m talking about it again, but only to remind you that we talked about it. Go read the last article if you have to.
The only caveat is that it is okay for the dramatic question to assume things about how the PCs are going to resolve the question if you want to limit the PCs. Wow. Big caveat, huh? “Remember how important it is not to impose limitations unless you really really want to.” Why bother saying “don’t,” then?
The truth is that it is perfectly okay for some of your encounters to limit the approaches the PCs can take as long as it is a conscious choice. Sometimes, the hallway only goes in two directions. Sometimes, the orcs really are just going to try to kill the PCs because orcs hate civilized humanoids and want to kill them and eat them and take their stuff. It is fine. I know someone is already scrolling down to the comment section to scream about railroading, but those people are idiots and I will ignore them. Because there are many different ways to give the PCs freedom and as long as the PCs are mostly free most of the time in a variety of ways, the game can handle the occasional bottleneck through a single approach. I am not going to get into the philosophy here, but trust me. You never complain, in real life, that you don’t have free will just because sometimes your choices are limited by your circumstances and surroundings.
Figure out what the dramatic question is. Write it big at the top of your encounter building page. Read it over once or twice and ask yourself if it assumes anything about how the PCs will resolve the scene. If you realize it does, ask yourself if that is okay. If it is, keep it. If not, rewrite the damned thing until it is vague enough to pass muster.
Ongoing Example: The Chase
The dramatic question here is pretty easy: can the heroes catch the assassin before he escapes. Now, reading that over, notice that I have made two assumptions. First, I have assumed (by using the word ‘catch’) that the heroes will be chasing him down and they probably won’t try to kill him. Second (a little more subtly), notice that I have made an assumption about how the scene is going to end. Either the heroes catch the assassin OR the assassin escapes and the heroes have limited time to catch the assassin. I’m going to talk a little later about why these things are important, but understand that I could have just as easily have said “can the heroes catch the assassin?” That works just as well, but I am trying to show you how easy it is to sneak assumptions into your words without even noticing it. They WILL shape your thoughts and designs, even if you don’t recognize they are there. So get used to asking yourself why you chose every single word. If even one word is unnecessary, drop it! It could get in your way later.