Posted by: Sean | March 18, 2009

Neccessity is the first cousin of invention (or; Dramatic Imperative vs. Realism.)

Terry Pratchett is a genius. Do you know him? If you do, your first thoughts were, “Of course, he writes the Discworld series!”, “Duh,” or perhaps, “What duck?” If you haven’t, then get yourself down to your local bookshop and purchase Guards! Guards! as quickly as your feet or fingers will allow. Either way, this is why he’s a genius.

Every writer, and this includes us role-players, arbitrate a battle between two forces every single time we pick up our pens and pixel producers. In the red corrrrrner, weighing in at a weight determined by a strict physical formula of gravity and mass, is realism – Our desire as storytellers to make things run according to their logical progressions. And in the blue corrrrrner, weighing in at exactly the weight he needs to be, is dramatic imperative – our urge to have the story follow the most surprising, meaningful and appropriate arc.

The genius of Terry Pratchet comes from his negotiating a permanent alliance between these two forces: Discworld runs on “narrative causality”; a term that sounds complex but basically means, “Discworld reality contorts to ensure that the most dramatically appropriate thing occurs.” One of the classic cases of this is the accepted truth that one in a million chances pan out nine times out of ten. If you can engineer circumstances so utterly unlikely to succeed that their odds are exactly one in a million, you’re therefore ninety percent likely to succeed… but if you’re one in nine-hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine, well, you’re screwed. Whoever said, “It’s a one in a nine-hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine shot, but it just might work”? Nobody, that’s who. For Pratchett, this means he never has to worry about the two conflicting desires – What is dramatic always wins out, and indeed, is the only realistic option1.

Sadly for those of us role-playing WoW, we’re set in Azeroth, where narrative causality doesn’t work. So how do we balance these two separate urges? For me, the answer has always been the standard writer’s diet: High in realism, low but judicious in dramatic imperative. Right now, Jess is smacking her gob, because she also knows I think realism is over-rated. This is true. Allow me to explain.

Realism is the high fibre diet of writing and role-playing. Without it, you can’t have a coherent universe – If anything goes, nothing fails to make sense. And in a fit of The Incredibles style counter-logic, if everything makes sense, nothing does. There needs to be some sense of the impossible to give the possible credibility. As such, I recommend studiously adhering to your realism urge. It’s not fancy, it’s not nearly as tasty as dramatic imperative, but it’s nutritious and creates a healthy story.

But, and here is why I think it’s over-rated, too many writers are story health nuts. C’mon, guys. Dramatic imperative is the chocolate covered peanut butter of story writing. It’s just plain tasty, and you have to indulge every now and then. While sometimes realism can create shocking, surprising results (sometimes the most logical story choice isn’t the most obvious one) but usually to create those kinds of twists requires a quick and expedient turn to the less than logical, the implausible, even the impossible. Dramatic imperative is fatty and sugary, but sometimes you need to throw a little lard into your dishes to get them tasting right. Since we’re delving into heavy metaphor territory here, an example is perhaps required.

Let’s say you’re in the middle of a plot between two role-playing guilds discussing an allegiance between them. The negotiations are going swimmingly. Everyone’s agreeing on everything because the allegiance is sensible and nobody loses out. Realism is in high gear as people act rationally and intelligently. It’s boring as hell. That’s why you have your scheming little rogue abduct the negotiator for the other guild.


On the face of it, this makes no sense. It’s a silly thing to do. It’s also way more entertaining. But why did you do it? That can be worked out later, if need be, but how’s this for a first attempt: Turns out your character had schemes in motion to take control of the leadership of your guild. These negotiations put his plans into jeopardy, and he wanted to stall them.

There, see? Now a boring plot has some sizzle. It’s still not high art, but it’s entertaining pulp, at least.

Some hints for successful use of dramatic imperative

  • Collaborate: Surprise is highly over-rated in role-playing. Collaborate OOCly with other members of your role-play circle. Conspire to create fun and interesting plots. Dovetail together player goals. You’ll still be surprising other members of your circle, and remember: Role-playing is performance.
  • Events can be constructed retroactively. Especially with NPCs. In the example above. maybe you’d hired assassins to take out your own guild leader. You can decide you did that months ago on the spot. Really. This isn’t against the rules.
  • Engineering does run on narrative causality. Seriously. Haven’t you noticed they always fail right when it’s worst and succeed at the last moment? Engineering is great big beautiful fat-free dramatic imperative. GOD I love engineering.


1. Actually, this isn’t really true. Terry Pratchett does a great job of balancing realism and dramatic necessity in his books, and narrative causality isn’t quite the cure-all I’ve suggested2.

2. Of course it’s a footnote.

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