February 09, 2012

Scene Study: Luck

With DramaSystem now out for playtest and wending its way toward crowdfunding, I’m kicking off a new occasional feature. In Scene Study, we look at dramatic scenes from other narrative forms, see how they tick, and look for lessons we can apply when playing Hillfolk, or roleplaying games in general.

The new David Milch / Michael Mann HBO series Luck follows an ensemble cast of race track habitues, from trainers to jockeys to owners to degenerate gamblers in pursuit of diverse agendas, all of which depend on the titular quality.

In episode two, freshly paroled gangland figure Chester Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and his right-hand man Gus (Dennis Farina), recap events of the recent past while on a car ride. Gus drives, with Chester in the back. In Hamlet's Hit Points terms, the scene acts as a reveal. It tells us what both men already know about the events that led Chester to prison, and which motivate the revenge he’s now plotting against Mike, the confederate who let him take the rap for him.

On paper, you’re never supposed to write a scene in which two characters reveal information they already know. On screen, this plays as a transcendent acting duet, with the music of Milch’s stylized dialogue perfectly executed by two great actors.

It’s also a dramatic scene, in which Gus, the petitioner, seeks for something other than the facts. They are the pretext for something deeper. He’s drawing out the account of why Chester let himself take the fall to answer a question for himself. What he really wants from Chester is reassurance, a staple dramatic goal that often arises in Hillfolk games. He wants to know that they’re doing the right thing, that he shouldn't have killed the other guy, as Gus was willing to do.

Chester grants Gus his petition. By conceding that Mike would never have done the same for him if their positions were reversed, Chester shows Gus that he understands the situation. Reassured, Gus accepts the matter as closed. In a DramaSystem game, Chester’s player would earn a game currency called a drama token as reward for having satisfied the petitioner’s emotional need.

The scene shows that low-key interactions can be just as memorable as the higher-stakes confrontations that appear around them. No great heat passes between the two men. They remain cordial throughout, and Chester winds up giving Gus what he wants. The moment affirms the tightness of their friendship. A compelling scene needn’t turn on heated conflict. Here the answering of an audience question supplies all the interest we need to care about their exchange, to enjoy hearing these two guys talk.