Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Embracing Dramatic Irony

One of the things I've been experimenting with in my Star Wars game is the use of dramatic irony. I use it to play up the tension in certain situations, and that also frees me up to just give some OOC knowledge to the players to make the game feel more cinematic and like a story consumed from the normal mediums you get your Star Wars fix through. Today I want to talk about how it works, and - if you're interested - what you need to do it in your own games.

Dramatic Irony?
To the best of my recollection from school, and research, Dramatic Irony is the term used when the characters in a work of fiction (play, show, book, etc) that the audience is that is relevant to a scene or conversation going on. It was used a lot by Shakespeare, and one of the classic examples is that we all know Romeo and Juliet are going to die from the beginning of the play, but the characters themselves don't and so the audience has a greater understanding of several key scenes where that plays out.

Now, in a RPG this is a bit trickier. Why? Because the PCs are the characters, but the players themselves are the audience. Oh wait, did I say trickier? I meant it's really easy.

The Character/Player Knowledge Divide
The trick to using Dramatic Irony is the trick to doing a lot of the more advanced narrative tricks blogs like this advise. You, and your players, have to be able to be trusted with keeping what they know and what their character knows separate. I mean, it does no good to tell a player that his brother is going to betray him if his character is suddenly going to glean that information or act out of character to provoke the information to come to them in character as well.

You need to trust your players to want the dramatic moment, and the fun that brings, more than they want to keep their character safe. If you can't do that - and there is nothing wrong with that style of game - then playing with dramatic irony isn't for you.

Hints, Foreshadowing, and Tip Offs
You have players you can trust, so what do you do? Give them a hint about what's coming up. Don't just tell them though, show them. Let them know that what you're about to tell/show them is not knowledge their character to know, but for them. Then, give them something. Show them a conversation of people conspiring against them. Let them hear a dialogue of enemies being dispatched. They don't have to know how it ties in yet, and it doesn't have to be long, they just have to know.

In my Star Wars game I did this by showing the players pictures of three characters. One of the three was Darth Vader. I then gave them a transcript for a conversation for the three characters. The end result is the players knew that an Inquisitor had been dispatched to hunt them down. They just didn't know when and where it would show up.

Set It Up
Once you've given the players a hint about what is going on, you can play with it. Think of Romeo and Juliet. We know they're going to die, so now the question is how. Do they die together? Do they die separately? Whenever one of them (usually Romeo) gets into a dangerous situation you have that question in the back of your mind wondering if this is the time he dies. Whenever they make moves to escape their family you know that in the end it is doomed to failure.

You can do this same thing with your PCs. If the player knows someone is after them, and they think someone is following them, you immediately have that tension ramp up. You don't want to play with them too long though. Don't tease them, but let the tension build. Then, when the time comes you can have an awesome moment when the character walks into something, but the player knows what it is and is also playing for the dramatic pay off.

In The End...
In the end, it's not going to work for every group, or every game. However, it is an awesome feeling when a player knows they're walking into a big dramatic moment and can help you set it up. The loss you may expect from not surprising the player is more than made up for by the pay off in character.

Give it a try sometime. Your group may like it. You may love it.

1 comment:

  1. Also known as: The game, The Metagame and The GM's evil mind tricks. Oh, did I mention I have a tendency to do this too? XD I approach it slightly differently though, as I've never heard of dramatic irony (or I did and I forgot) before. Metagaming is impossible to stop and since I had two players who were constantly metagaming and two who weren't, the two who were always had an edge over the players who didn't. So I added the metagaming to the game itself. Now it is still necessary to keep track of what the characters know and what the players know, but the players are aware that: 1) their metagame information might be incorrect or incomplete, 2) I'm expecting them to reach certain conclusion out of game, and 3) I'm really, really good at adding twists that upends EVERYTHING at the last moment. Sometimes, my players hate me, but they love the game.