Roleplaying Games and Story Territories

About a month ago I sort of went off on Twitter about how different RPG dice systems lend themselves to different story territories, and then got into a real good conversation about it with Devin Preston. Devin is I think the only other person I know of involved in the TRPG scene with a background in Lecoq theatre (which is where the term ‘territory’ comes from). I’ve been thinking about this since, and I wanted to expand and refine the idea some more. Let’s go!

Table of contents

Where this started…

Devin’s already written a fantastic post about this. He really nails a couple of things that I’ve been trying to formulate more clearly in it:

  • territory is the core movement of a particular kind of story, and all the trappings that we associate with a territory like tragedy or melodrama are there exclusively so that the actors can play harder, better, and faster with that movement
  • when we play games, we are both the actors and the audience, and game design should acknowledge and anticipate this

You should absolutely go read his post.

But now, on with mine! Here’s the original twitter thread:

… and conversation thread with Devin:

Because I don’t want folks to have to click through to the definition of ‘territory’ in the thread, let’s do it again (and refine it!):


Is a taxonomy of stories, kind of like genre, but actually running in parallel to genre. You can have a sci-fi melodrama, which will be distinct from a sci-fi tragedy.

Territory is concerned with… the degree and focus of the characters’ agency. It’s sort of the ‘feel’ of the human aspects of a story. Questions like whether heroism is possible at all, and if so, whether it can ever succeed and what its bounds are are the kinds of things that territory deals with. It doesn’t have to be about heroism either. Sometimes the human agency within a story is just about fulfilling basic needs, and the hijinx (or other consequences) that ensue.

Some examples of territory:

  • Melodrama is a territory where protagonists find themselves caught in a web of their own weaving. This can be on the scale of the person, or of the community. This is one of the easiest territories to explain, since your average soap opera is a prime example. These are stories where the protagonists (not necessarily heroes) are constantly faced with excruciating choices (thanks Devin for the excellent description!). There’s always real choice with real outcomes, but the options are almost always painful.
  • Tragedy is easiest to explain in contrast to a melo. Where in a melo the characters have real choice, in a tragedy the heroes may choose their own actions, but the cards are stacked so much against them that they are almost always doomed to failure. The Greek traditions of tragedy and epics are full of this: Oedipus has no way of knowing that the man he kills is his father, so his actions, while correct from his own perspective, still bring the Furies down on him. In the Trojan War, at the end of the day it’s the gods meddling that makes the war inevitable. The humans on the ground are doomed to play out the roles set to them by fate. In tragedy, where success is possible for a hero, it’s usually at a massive cost.
  • Commedia dell’Arte is both a style and territory. When it diverges from the specifics of Italian half-mask physical comedy it’s sometimes called Human Comedy. In this territory, the focus is tightly on the basic survival instincts and venal impulses of its characters. Food, sex, avarice… this territory is about how far the characters are willing to go to pursue these. It’s a vicious territory, but generally played for laughs. Characters are always hoodwinking each other in order to get what they want. It depends on a zero-sum game too. If you want something, you have to take it from someone who already has it. Wile E. Coyote is very much a modern evolution of the Zanni’s (or Harlequin’s) deep hunger, and Elmer Fudd having the hots for Bugs dressed as a woman is also an example here.

Not just Elmer Fudd it seems

This is certainly not an exhaustive list of territories, but just meant to be illustrative. I’m mostly going to be talking about melo and tragedy in this post.

Territory and roleplaying games

Originally I was focusing this on how different dice mechanics nudge games into particular territories. Which, tbh, is still the focus, but I’m going to try and open it up to different RPG mechanics in general. I should also note that territory in a lot of ways is a matter of perspective. From a certain point of view, a tragedy could actually be a melodrama, or a melodrama could actually be human comedy.

There will also be spoilers for episode 36 of Friends at the Table’s Spring in Hieron, so be warned.

The scene where the dice created tragedy

At the end of the episode, Andi Clare’s character Ephrim, confronts an angry and dangerous god who is actively destroying their home. There’s a little bit of context necessary here: the last few rolls that Andi has made for Ephrim have gone, at best, roughly, if not downright bad. At the end of the previous episode, Ephrim opened up the sky and broke part of the world while trying to fend off some Stars (yes, literal stars) that were destroying everything in their path trying to find the god. Before that, Andi had talked about how Ephrim felt… bitter that he had not been really involved in the slaying of a dangerous dragon, but was putting forward joy and happiness for his friends who had delivered the killing blows. They talked about how Ephrim felt cheated.

Each of these failures on Ephrim’s part were due to Andi rolling 6s or lower. In Dungeon World, that’s a hard miss on your roll, and at best means things fizzle (not really hitting the dragon), and at worst invites the GM to dish out the punishment (breaking the sky).

So now, confronting this god, Ephrim tries to do something about again. And as Andi rolls the dice, you can feel the tension in the audio–they want this to go well, but having been bitten by the dice so often recently, there’s real apprehension about what will happen.

And… the dice come up a hard miss. Austin, the GM, appropriately delivers some harsh consequences (“don’t miss when you’re dealing with a god”), and Ephrim permanently loses a third of his vitality, as the god rewrites some of the truth and core of the character.

As I was listening to this it felt… inevitable. Andi had done a fantastic job of playing Ephrim, and demonstrating his unyielding determination to prove himself. And yet… once the dice were rolled, you could hear it in every voice at their table: resignation, Ephrim had never had a chance.

Where that tragedy came from

So, like I said, territory can be a matter of perspective. In a different game, this might have been a minor setback, not a major blow. But the point is, that because they chose to end their episode on this, it gained a lot of weight. And because of a pattern of bad dice rolls leading directly up to this terrible roll, it gained a lot of weight. And because Andi had actually been playing their character in a way that burned a lot of resources away permanently, this moment that capped that trend gained a lot of weight. The moment felt heavy, and almost final.

There are other things that go into making this moment heavy too. Austin’s reaction (the GM) of resigned obligation to respond with force to the missed roll certainly added gravitas too.

But at the end of the day, I was left thinking about the roll. The 6 left no room for doubt. There was no way to save it. And it felt like there never had been a way for it to succeed. It felt like a hero doomed to failure, like a tragic hero.

Tragedy and Melodrama in missed rolls

I think it’s interesting and useful for my own design to consider what territory the game mechanics invoke at different points. Missed rolls, because they often indicate misfortune, tend to lend themselves to the territories of melodrama and tragedy.

A hard miss roll is likely to feel like tragedy because there is no bargaining with it. A ‘softer’ miss… maybe that feels like melo.

I compare this missed roll of Andi’s to missed rolls in a game like Blades in the Dark, where even if you don’t succeed, players have the tools to nope out of consequences they don’t like at least a few times in a game.

When a player chooses to resist a consequence in Blades, even when it seems incredibly likely that this resistance is going to end up causing them to take some kind of trauma or scar, the player is able to create for themselves a choice: permanently lose some of the character’s vitality, or risk becoming cold and emotionally disconnected from the world. An excruciating choice, to use Devin’s phrase, but it is still a choice.

It’s not just a jump between systems that can shift territory though. If Andi had rolled a 7-9, a partial success in Dungeon World and most Powered by the Apocalypse games, they would have been presented with choices. DW’s Defy Danger move, for example, explicitly calls for the GM to “…offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice” (DW p. 62). And when you Defend, on a 7-9 you must choose one of the following (and by omission accept the likelihood or loss of the others):

  • Redirect an attack from the thing you defend to yourself
  • Halve the attack’s effect or damage
  • Open up the attacker to an ally giving that ally +1 forward against the attacker
  • Deal damage to the attacker equal to your level

On these partial successes, the player and character still have a way to get what they want, but they have to make the hard bargain to get it.

Surprises vs the Sword of Damocles

One thing that’s common between the Blades choice, and the PbtA partial success choice and missed doom, is that they all occur by surprise. The happen at the mercy of the dice. I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing, but sometimes I wonder if we rely on dice as a mechanic a little too much in gaming. By their nature, they obfuscate the future. And sometimes that’s exactly what’s required. But other times… maybe it would be better to see exactly what’s coming for you, so that we can squirm in delicious dread and anticipation.

Y’see, for me, that’s one of my favorite things about both tragedy and melo: the anticipation. And I think it’s an important part of these territories as an audience member–seeing the consequences build up, stretching the characters, and waiting… waiting for that elastic to finally snap1.

Wait for it…

Mapping game mechanics to story territories (an attempt)

In Andi’s case, the dice told a consistent story because the rolls kept betraying them. It’s honestly one of the most awesome series of rolls out there. But there are other ways to make that happen more consistently with different mechanics.

Inevitable tragedy in Dogs in the Vineyard

Dogs in the Vineyard is an (out of print, both physically and digitally) roleplaying game by D. Vincent Baker (same lovely man who wrote Apocalypse World, whose system Dungeon World and all other PbtA games build on). He’s removed it from distribution because it fails Mendez’s giant robot of offense test I think, but in the right hands it’s a lovely game. (One Shot did a wonderful couple of episodes of it that are beautiful and thoughtful: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

The place that Dogs really shines though is its conflict system: when a conflict is approached, each involved party rolls up a pool of dice. If it’s a verbal conflict, roll Acuity and Heart. Physical altercation, but not yet a fight? roll Body and Heart. Once it’s fists, roll Body and Will. And if you have to draw your gun… roll Acuity and Will2. Whenever they’re applicable, you can add the dice from any of your belongings in your pool (guns for a gunfight, but the locket you keep hidden with a portrait of your lover can give you an edge when confronting their parents too).

Once you’ve got your pool… that’s it. That’s what determines the outcome of the conflict. That pitted against your opponent’s (or opponents’) pool. And, allowing for some escalations, you can do the math before the conflict has even begun. You can know, before the first word is said, or the first punch thrown, who will win.

Which means that as we play the conflict out as actors following the script written by the dice, we as audience can enjoy the disaster we see coming long before the characters do3.

Dogs respects the dual role of a player (actor and audience) by allowing us to see where the road we’re on leads, by allowing us to watch as our characters throw themselves on the rocks.

On reviewing what I had written so far, Devin pointed out to me that the other pillar of tragedy is the rhetorical question asked of the hero: ‘would anyone else have done any different?’ And in Dogs, we get to ask that question even as we play the drama out, because we can see where it’s going. The dice make very clear what fate has in store, even before the first word is spoken or the first punch thrown.

If you compare this to the variability of the outcomes of rolls in other games, even in games with ‘nice probability curves’ like PbtA games, there’s a massive difference. Dogs is invested in how we go on the journey even when we know where it ends.

Self-inflicted melodramatic choice in Monsterhearts

If Dogs gives us tragedy by letting us see our fates before they come to pass, Monsterhearts is a fantastic vehicle for melodrama by asking us to give the other characters power over ourselves.

Monsterhearts, by Avery Alder, “…lets you and your friends create stories about sexy monsters, teenage angst, personal horror, and secret love triangles. When you play, you explore the terror and confusion of having a body that is changing without your permission.”

A lot of the drama and entanglements are driven by strings, bonds that are formed between characters almost every time they interact. Holding a string on someone gives you power over them–you can push them to do something you want, or make it harder to do things you don’t want… it’s messy and rough, and because any action you take has a likelihood of giving more people more strings on you, characters rapidly end up caught in webs of their own creation.

Which inevitably lands them in the very melodramatic position of having created a prison of impulsive choices with no way out but further in.

Commedia-esque pulls on the player in the stat economy in Honey Heist

Commedia in a lot of ways is melodrama sped up. In other ways, where melodrama is about people causing the walls to close in on themselves, so that the tension comes from watching them choose which impossible choice to make, commedia is about a character being stretched in between their drives and cravings. If melodrama a character cannot choose what course of action to take because they’ve trapped themselves with bad choices, in commedia a character might not be able to choose what to do because they are simultaneously pulled in all directions by their most basic desires.

The plots can look largely the same, but the feelings are very different.

In Honey Heist, by Grant Howitt, you work to carry off the greatest honey heist the world has ever seen, with two problems: 1. you have a complex plan that requires precise timing, and 2. you are a goddamn bear.

Each bear has two stats–bear, and criminal. For anything a bear would normally do, you roll bear. For anything not directly related to being a bear, you roll criminal.

The game catches its would-be bearglars in a trap–the better you are at being a bear, the worse you are at being a criminal, and vice-versa. And anything crime goes your way… you get more criminal. The catch is that if you ever go full-bear or full-crime, you abandon your compatriots for a life of dissolution or scaring hikers.

Honey Heist catches its players in a delicious bind–you want to be good at one of the two stats so you can get that high from rolling well. But… if you’re too good you might lose control. This small tug of war makes the game very fun, and can lead to players finding ridiculous ways of committing crime in the most ursine manner possible (or of being an incredibly criminal normal bear). It’s part of what nudges players into the hijinks that make the game so fun.

Transgressing the player/character relationship

Look, I don’t want to get too far into performance studies realms here, but as I’ve been writing this and thinking about Devin’s points about design taking into account a player’s dual role as actor and audience, one thing has kept occurring to me.

When we play roleplaying games, and when those games push us towards the core movement of a particular territory with their mechanics, then as often as not it’s the player experiencing the push and pull of that territory’s movement, not the character.

Looking specifically at Honey Heist’s tug-of-war between the bear and criminal stats, this is a conflict experienced not so much by the character, but by the player. Diegetically, the character just does what the character was going to do: a bear thing, or a crime thing, as dictated by the fiction. The bear isn’t thinking to themselves “oh… maybe I should do more bear stuff because that’s my better stat”4. It’s the player that’s caught in the push-pull of wanting to lean on the stronger stat, but maybe not leaning too hard to avoid a fall into total criminality or ursinity.

As other players at the table, and even as the player caught in this push-pull, the fact that it’s the player that’s caught in this tension in no way diminishes the joy of witnessing it. Frequently I find this tension even more compelling than in-fiction tensions (though only because the real-world actors at the table are more fully-fledged people to me, especially in one-shot situations when I haven’t had as much time to get to know the characters).

In performance studies, ‘transgression’ happens when the usual rules of theatrical performance are broken. It often happens when there is confusion as to whether the actor or their character is the subject of some particular event or experience. It assumes (based on historical conventions in theatre) that audiences expect only characters to be the subjects, and not the actor.

In Theatre, Sacrifice, Ritual: Exploring Forms of Political Theatre, Erika Fischer-Lichte talks about a particularly ‘transgressive’ performance of Electra in 1903

… [Gertrud Eysoldt, the actor playing Electra] both enchanted and shocked audiences and critics alike by an intense display of corporeality which seemed to express and create something which had never been expressed or created on stage before, something which had evaded any kind of language, or conventional, standardized, formalized movements, gestures, postures or attitudes until then. (p. 1)

Given that this is 1903, it’s worth noting that most performance followed somewhat prescribed patterns, and that someone breaking out of these and putting their self and body on the line could easily have been shocking and enthralling to the audience.

All of which is to say… some game mechanics create drama for the character, and others create drama for the player. Both are good. I watch Ian McKellen as Richard III because he makes the character sing. I watch The Rock movies because his characters are always The Rock. At the end of the day, I think what’s important is that we create games that are intentional in the experiences they encourage, or the territories they evoke, both through the experiences of character and player.

  1. Lecoq training also includes a lot of work with materials as ways to inform the different territories. If you’ve ever heard the joke about the theatre teacher who asked everyone to get on the ground and fry like an egg… that’s actually a really useful exercise. (Though I prefer other materials, like sugar dissolving in water, or rubber stretching, or chopsticks holding rigid until they snap.) If you think of those movements and they way those state changes happen as the way a character responds to stress, or the way a story snaps and turns, they add a very dynamic sense and tool to your storytelling apparatus. 

  2. There’s a lovely incentive to start by talking, and not escalate to violence here, because you don’t get to reroll attributes you’ve already tapped. If you go from words to guns, your Acuity only gets rolled once. But by escalating, you can draw your gun and roll its dice, and maybe stay in the fight. The Farrier’s Bellows has a good episode where they explain this more

  3. I can’t take full credit for this formulation–credit for this 100% goes to Devin. I was starting to think along these lines, but he really nails the idea that games need to cater to players as both actors responsible for creating the story, and as audience members who we bring along for the ride. 

  4. In theory I guess they might if the bear realized that every time they tried to do crime it failed, so they might start to shy away from it, but Honey Heist is a one-shot game, and this feels more like the kind of phenomenon that would present in longer-term play.