DramaSystem: To End All Wars

German Advance

We recently started a DramaSystem campaign set in Kevin Allen Jr.’s “To End All Wars.” DramaSystem is system which Robin D. Laws created for his role-playing game Hillfolk last year, with a Kickstarter funding campaign that took off madly and generated dozens of alternate settings or “campaign pitches.” I wrote some thoughts on the books a while ago, but I excluded discussion of the system as such because I wanted more play experience with it first.

Everyone’s been so busy, it took a long time to set up a campaign, but we finally got one going. One of the first challenges was to pick a setting, with an embarrassment of riches to pick from. First we narrowed it down to history and alternate history, because several players were in that mood; thn we cut the short list down to five titles, and finally voted for “To End All Wars,” in which a small group of magically gifted individuals fight the secret battles of the Great War.

With five players and one Game Master, we had our character creation session a couple of weeks ago and tacked on one round of dramatic scenes for introduction; but Saturday was our first full episode and it went swimmingly. It’s very satisfying when a role-playing game has a great start, because it gives you the momentum to get over all the logistic hurdles that multiple busy schedules place in our path.

We set the game in the fall of 1916, at the end of the Somme Offensive, in a British unit currently recovering in Brittany. Character creation started with Janus Nygard (played by Bryant), a Finnish officer with Swedish ancestry now dedicated to freeing Finland from Russian dominion. With the poles (no pun intended) Freedom for Finland/Freedom for myself, he’s sacrificed his ability to sleep and his moral high ground to the Order for the promise of help against Russia. Janus controls sleep and dreams.

Next was Gordon Lake (played by Susan), a Canadian Anglican chaplain with healing powers and high ideals. His poles are Hope/Despair, hinging on the question “Have I received a Divine Gift or is this my own power?” He tries to be the moral conscience for the group.

Then came Alaina de Trevaigne (played by Maureen), a Breton witch whose mission is to protect the ancient standing stones; her poles are Benevolent protector/Vengeful guardian. She’s not attached to the unit nor officially part of the Order, but bargaining her help for the promise that the sacred sites will be left untouched.

The official leader of the group is Captain Christopher Sinclair (played by Steve), an officer in the British Army from Scotland. He is the one with the most training in sorcery; what everybody else refers to as “the Order” he thinks of as “my family.” His poles are Dutiful son/Individual identity, and joined the army along with his entire graduating class from boarding school. He is saddled with a dark burden: he is magically protected by the deaths of his classmates.

Then came my turn to make a character. With five players, our relationship map de facto looked like a pentagram, and we had talked about some correspondences with the Arthurian myth. But when adding the last character I realized that we had one from the center, one from the north, one from the west and one from the (north)east, so I had to be from the south. Then Susan pointed out that Gordon was linked with water, Alaina with earth, Janus with air. Steve declared that Christopher was aether; so I made a character linked with fire:

The ambulance driver Marie-Isis Dérigny (played by Sophie), from a Breton family settled in the Algerian colonial holding. Before the war she had been an explorer (I modelled her in part on Isabelle Eberhardt) but with the conflict, had come back to the home she had never known to do her part and reconnect with her roots (she is Alaina’s cousin). However, Marie-Isis actually died in Algeria and was possessed by a fire ifrit, the only reason she still lives.

After character creation we had a few dramatic scenes pitting Christopher and Gordon in conflict over lives to be sacrificed, Alaina and Marie-Isis studying one another, and Janus, Alaina, and Christopher trying to establish a balance of influence.We learned the terrible secret: the Order was actually trying to keep the war going longer because although it wanted the ultimate defeat of the Central Powers, it had been prophesied that unless France fell after terrible suffering before the final victory, another even greater evil would follow… This was the mission Christopher had been given and to which he was trying to rally the others.

DramaSystem uses two types of scenes: dramatic scenes, in which one character tries to obtain something from another (this works best if there is tension and disagreement), and procedural scenes, in which characters try to resolve an external, practical matter. Each player, including the GM, takes a turn at setting scenes.

Through play, participants earn drama tokens and bennies which let them influence the outcome of conflicts. In addition to this token economy, procedural scenes use playing cards as a resolution mechanic. Because the token economy and the dramatic issues both take a while to fully establish, the game takes a few episodes to come into its own.

In our second meeting and first full episode, we went around the table twice for a total of twelve scenes, ten dramatic ones and two procedural ones. To be honest, I’m far from convinced that I will come to like the resolution system as a mechanical rules set; however, so far it seems to produce excellent results.

Yesterday’s episode, “The Cost of Power,” produced delicious drama. The high point was a confrontation between Gordon and Christopher. Earlier, Gordon had saved the life of one of Christopher’s former classmates, to Christopher’s displeasure. Christopher had gone to Alaina and obtained a foxglove brew from her, but was told to use it himself for she didn’t want to be blamed for an “accident.” While Gordon was officiating at the service on All Hallows’ Eve, Christopher had come into the infirmary with a flask of poisoned brandy. Alas, Marie-Isis had insistently wanted to talk to him moments earlier and had delayed him just long enough that Gordon arrived in time to see Christopher, wiping tears from his eyes, about to give his old friend a drink. Gordon confronted Christopher who, against  his better judgement, poured out the brandy onto the floor. It was a really great dramatic scene!

Later that night on the other side of midnight we also had dream-walking to Scotland, bodies missing from graves, the ifrit suddenly leaving Marie-Isis to die, and Gordon using up his strength to keep her alive. We also received news that the unit was being sent to the front. The procedural scenes were the two castings, one to allow Christopher to dream-walk to Scotland to meet with “the family” and one to summon the ifrit back and save Marie-Isis. Christopher negotiated everyone’s cooperation to the dire plan, though not without reservations.

We ended with so many hanging plot threads: what had caused the dead to rise, and where were they? Where had the ifrit gone for a time? Whose attention had the summoning of the ifrit caught? Could Christopher steal the ifrit to prolong the life of his dying mother? Was there anything of Divine Grace in Gordon’s healing powers, or was he just a sorcerer? What did the ifrit want?

And who would betray whom first?

Edit: Edmund’s GM notes on the game.

4 thoughts on “DramaSystem: To End All Wars

  1. From my lofty position in the GM chair it was fascinating to watch. DramaSystem is a game that is all about your characters relationship to the other characters – the campaign is largely internalized to the circle of the protagonists, with the events of the outside setting largely secondary. Everything is about what your character wants, and what that character is willing to give in order to get it.

    This first adventure saw the players largely probing their own character concepts as well as those of the other players. Everyone needs to learn about the others, and there are plenty of surprises. One thing that happened several times during the game was players trying to set up petitions that they thought would not be granted, only to find that their petition was instead granted quickly and easily. I suspect that as boundaries are tested and limits are discovered, we’ll see the tension rise in future episodes, while the ratio of granted to ungranted petitions falls.

    My job as GM is different in DramaSystem than in most games. I don’t need to come up with scenarios or stat up monsters or villains. Mostly I am there to provide a CUTUP effect – to come up with ideas different than the ones that the players come up with, to provide an extra brain in the mix, and to throw in monkey wrenches. I don’t have to solve problems or come up with dramatic and lively back stories. If I want some graves to get opened up, then that’s what happens – I don’t even have to come up with a reason (as long as it is an interesting event) – I can just throw the matter out to the group and they can do with it as they will.

    It takes a bit of getting used to, both for me and for the players I think, to come to an understanding that I don’t have any more authority than the players do. So for example in Christopher’s dream sending to Scotland, he dreamed that his mother was dead. I threw that into the mix, but I was careful to tell the players that this was a dream – if they wanted it to be literally true it could be, but it did’t have to be. Understanding that narrative authority rests with the group and not with the GM is crucial in this system to getting the plot to soar.

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