ZDL's blog

Another exploration of a dramatic situation from Polti's The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.  We're keeping on with the vengeance theme here, though this time it's "vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred".  While this may seem a little bit repetitive—how many different kinds of vengeance can there be, after all?—there is something different about this one in terms of its emotional context.  Thus it is that Polti thought it warranted its own heading.  (Polti considered each of his dramatic situations a separate emotion, after all.)

In this situation we have two kinsmen: the "avenging kinsman" and the "guilty kinsman", we have the more abstract element of "remembrance of the victim" and, for the emotional impact to have punch, a "relative of both".

Strap down, this is going to be an emotional roller coaster!


This situation has four necessary components.  I'll address the need of some of them after the list.  First and foremost there are the two obvious: Guilty Kinsman and Avenging Kinsman.  Less obvious than these two, however, though equally necessary, is Remembrance of the Victim and the Relative of Both.

This situation is fraught with raw anger, mixed, likely, in equal parts with sorrow.  Families traditionally have a tight code of conduct with trust being at the foundation of it all.  Breaches of that trust lead to extremes of emotion: both anger at the betrayal and sorrow at the need for revenge.

There is a lot of dramatic potential here, but it only works if the relationship of the two Kinsmen to the Victim is remembered explicitly.  It can't just be mentioned in passing.  It must be wallowed in for a while to hammer home just how important the relationship was.  Further, to amplify just how out of place this situation is, another family member related to both Kinsmen needs to be there to react and try to mitigate or mourn as appropriate.

It's a heady situation and it comes in a few flavours.

1. A parent's death avenged upon the other parent.
2. A child's death avenged upon the sibling.
3. A parent's death avenged upon a spouse.
4. A spouse's death avenged upon a parent.

Now personally I think all of them involving death is a bit much.  There are other situations that could invoke this kind of wrath.  But let's bear with it for now.  There are thirty-two more situations to go through after all and maybe what I'm looking for here is available in other situations!

In role-playing, this situation would be difficult to integrate.  Not impossible, but difficult.  The hardest part would be getting players invested enough in their families to actually have that aforementioned betrayal and sorrow to rise up.  If you can pull it off it will likely form sessions that become the "stories of lore" in gaming groups talked about years later in hushed tones.

There's another option, however.  It would be easier to integrate one or more PCs into the role of Relative of Both and still make the RP meaningful and connected.  Alternatively the PCs could be people outside of the family, but associated in some way with one or more of Victim, Other Kin, or the two Kinsmen.  These outsider views may not quite give the visceral grip that being one of the main elements would have, but they will, if played out with gusto, still form good, satisfying RP.

Continuing in The Thirty-Six, based on Georges Polti's The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, today's situation is "vengeance of a crime" in which an "avenger" wreaks vengeance upon a "criminal" for past crimes.


In this situation there are only two necessary components: an Avenger out to wreak revenge, and a Criminal upon whom vengeance shall be delivered.  This situation can almost be viewed as the reverse of DELIVERANCE or SUPPLICATION, in that the Avenger could be the Persecutor or Threatener while the Criminal could be viewed as the Suppliant or the Unfortunate.  The difference lies mostly in sympathies: in DELIVERANCE/SUPPLICATION the victim is sympathetic to the onlooker while in this one the victim is viewed negatively.  (Of course playing with viewpoints could have this be a parallel dramatic situation and the resolution could have the story start with VENGEANCE OF A CRIME only to have it, via a mid-plot reveal, turn into DELIVERANCE, say.)

There are three primary forms of this dramatic situation.

1. Vengeance for direct injury upon persons valued by the Avenger: kin and friends, for example.  The nature of the crime can one of violence (death or injury), one of honour (which would include seduction in most cultures) or other such personal injury.

2. Vengeance for more abstract injuries like crimes of property, deception, false accusation or other forms of calumny, or even vengeance for having been robbed of an opportunity for vengeance.  (The opening sentences of "The Cask of Amontillado" would be an example of this type: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I swore revenge.")

3. This one is an odd one out: professional pursuit of criminals.  Think cops and detectives here.  While it seems a little oddly out of place in this heading compared to the others, the same dramatic tensions exist.

Vengeance is a dramatic potboiler in RPGs!  In the first two types, it's going to practically spring up by itself in a normal campaign as the femme fatale steals the vital gem, as the orc tribe that massacres villagers the players had grown fond of finds it bit off more than it could chew plus a thousand more things.

That being said, however, that third odd duck out has serious potential for driving campaigns.  Picture the PCs as an investigatory team sent out by the powers that be, or self-motivated (for mercenary reasons, or others) to hunt down criminals.  An old west campaign, for example, (even if it's the weird west or such) could have the PCs be lawmen or bounty hunters quite easily, and such professions would exist almost anywhere.

Similarly, even in places like Ancient China or medieval Europe you often found magistrates who had personal investigation and enforcement arms (even if the methods were ... unscientific) who would solve crimes.  Moving this into an RP scenario would not be difficult.

So never underestimate the power of vengeance and crime to drive RP in games!

Continuing in the series I'm calling The Thirty-Six, based on Georges Polti's The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations (original version and a modernized take), today's situation is "deliverance" in which an "unfortunate" is rescued from a "threatener" by a "rescuer".


In contrast to SUPPLICATION, in which the victim of a threat seeks to find succour from someone in power, in deliverance the Unfortunate, while under threat by a Threatener is helped by a Rescuer without beseeching such.  The victim in this case is more passive, and the motivation of the Rescuer is motivated by something extrinsic to both of them, requiring no pleading to take action.

There are two main forms of this situation:

1. Rescue of the condemned.

2. Rescue of someone in dire straits by someone who is indebted or otherwise related to the victim.

What makes this situation ripe for RP purposes is the mystery of why the Rescuer is taking action on behalf of the Unfortunate.  Why is the outlaw gang rescuing the hanged man by shooting out the hanging rope (as is a common trope in western movies)?  (Maybe the outlaw is on a personal quest of vengeance against corrupt and vicious authority.)  What has prompted a group to return a deposed queen to her rightful throne?  (Perhaps it is the children of the queen who seek to restore her.)

And of course the PCs may have their own reasons for becoming Rescuers: anticipation of reward, say, or repayment for past good deeds received, or payment forward for the good deeds of others.

It's a bit trickier to have the PCs as the Unfortunate, however.  Played with a light hand, especially if backed by prior RP (like, say, they gave hospitality to a wounded knight and nursed him to health), it can be a powerful moment, but played clumsily, without a good reason established in advance to call back to, it can come across as stripping players of their agency in regard to the threat.  (A lot of the hatred of the dread GMPC stems from GMPCs being transparently used by the GM to show how awesome that character is by doing what the players can't.  Continually.)

Of course, taking a turn for the darker, the PCs can be the Threatener, hunting down someone (justly or not) only to have a third party intercede and interfere.  Will the interference be successful?  Will they justify the threat they present and make the Rescuer back off or even switch sides?  It could go any way with a good bite of tasty RP!

I recently thought again about Georges Polti's The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.  Having found both the original version and a modernized take online, it's led me to a new set of blog posts I'm going to call The Thirty-Six.

So what is a "dramatic situation"?  Often badly translated as "plot", strictly speaking a dramatic situation is what drives a plot.  The plot is the resolution of one or more dramatic situations.

A dramatic situation is what motivates characters to do things, the things they do furthering a narrative that leads to a conflict which leads to a resolution of some form.  Knowledge and application of these dramatic situations (and more: despite its claim to the contrary, Polti's book is not comprehensive—but it still has many more dramatic situations than all of the output of Hollywood put together makes use of!) can help liven up a story, give it verisimilitude, and make it compelling.  And even in a gaming context where no single person has the power to force things down specific tracks, using these dramatic situations and the choices they present characters can be strong motivators in a role-playing game.

Today's dramatic situation is "supplication" in which a "supplicant" is persecuted in some way by a "persecutor" and begs for help from a "power".


This situation needs three elements: a Persecutor, a Suppliant, and a Power.  An additional element may be present in some situations: an Intercessor.  Supplication comes in three main forms:

1. A direct appeal for assistance against active persecutors.  For example a piously religious man may appeal to the ducal court because his religiously required activity is being banned by his local lord.  Or people fleeing bandits who destroyed their village may appeal to their local lord for succour and vengeance.  The key to this form is that the Suppliant is under some form of threat (physical, spiritual, social, etc.) from a person or group that seeks to harm or hinder them in some way.

2. A direct appeal for assistance against more abstract/environmental persecution.  People shipwrecked appealing to a local tavern owner for room and board on a stormy night.  The seeking of pardon for a crime committed and already prosecuted with punishment in effect.  Even something as simple as begging for the right to die in a society that prohibits assisted suicides.  In this variant the Persecutor is not necessarily a person.  It is more circumstantial.

3. An indirect appeal like those above, but via an Intercessor.  For example the religiously required activity being banned has drawn the attention of the spiritual leader of said religion who intercedes on the Suppliant's behalf, asking the duchess to overrule her vassal.  Or in the case of the pardon, a prison reform group pointing to the Suppliant's dramatic change in jail which suggests that further punishment is meaningless and, perhaps, even counterproductive.

The role of PCs in this dramatic situation could be any of the principles: Power, Suppliant, Persecutor, or Intercessor.  Or they could work as agents each thereof.  For example in the case of the pardon, again, they could act as investigatory agents of the Power to establish if the Suppliant truly deserves a pardon or not.  Or they could act as enforcers for the state arguing on behalf of keeping the prisoner imprisoned or banished or whatnot.



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