Way back in 1895, French writer Georges Polti postulated that in drama there was only 36 possible situations, and every storyline stems from one of these situations. The accuracy of this statement has been debated back and forth by better men than you or I (well at least than I) over the years but it still remains an interesting piece of work. These 36 situations have been utilised over the years by students and critics categorising works (film, books, plays etc) and by writers looking for some inspiration. It is firmly in the second category that role-players and more specifically GMs come into the picture.
We've all been there at one time or another during our GMing careers (not that we make money from it, but it may as well be a second job at times, albeit a volunteer one.) You have a game coming up in a couple of days but you're fresh out of ideas. One tool in your arsenal is indeed these 36 dramatic situations. 36 is a nice number for gamers, and I'm sure many of you have already considered "hey I could just roll 2D6 to pick a situation and get my inspiration," and that is exactly the suggestion. Roll 2D6, the first one picking the table, and the second one the specific situation.
So without further ado, the 36 dramatic situations. (note that the text shown below has come from Wikipedia.) They are in the format of the title, the required persons or elements, and then a description of the situation. Just pick your game, roll and think how that could apply in your current campaign.
a Persecutor; a Suppliant; a Power in authority, whose decision is doubtful.
The Persecutor accuses the Suppliant of wrongdoing, and the Power makes a judgment against the Suppliant.
an Unfortunate; a Threatener; a Rescuer
The Unfortunate has caused a conflict, and the Threatener is to carry out justice, but the Rescuer saves the Unfortunate.
1-3 Crime pursued by vengeance
a Criminal; an Avenger
The Criminal commits a crime that will not see justice, so the Avenger seeks justice by punishing the Criminal.
1-4 Vengeance taken for kin upon kin
Guilty Kinsman; an Avenging Kinsman; remembrance of the Victim, a relative of both
Two entities, the Guilty and the Avenging Kinsmen, are put into conflict over wrongdoing to the Victim, who is allied to both.
Punishment; a Fugitive
The Fugitive flees Punishment for a misunderstood conflict.
a Vanquished Power; a Victorious Enemy or a Messenger
The Power falls from their place after being defeated by the Victorious Enemy or being informed of such a defeat by the Messenger.
2-1 Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune
an Unfortunate; a Master or a Misfortune
The Unfortunate suffers from Misfortune and/or at the hands of the Master.
a Tyrant; a Conspirator
The Tyrant, a cruel power, is plotted against by the Conspirator.
2-3 Daring enterprise
a Bold Leader; an Object; an Adversary
The Bold Leader takes the Object from the Adversary by overpowering the Adversary.
an Abductor; the Abducted; a Guardian
The Abductor takes the Abducted from the Guardian.
2-5 The enigma
a Problem; an Interrogator; a Seeker
The Interrogator poses a Problem to the Seeker and gives a Seeker better ability to reach the Seeker's goals.
(a Solicitor & an Adversary who is refusing) or (an Arbitrator & Opposing Parties)
The Solicitor is at odds with the Adversary who refuses to give the Solicitor what they Object in the possession of the Adversary, or an Arbitrator decides who gets the Object desired by Opposing Parties (the Solicitor and the Adversary).
3-1 Enmity of kin
a Malevolent Kinsman; a Hated or a reciprocally-hating Kinsman
The Malevolent Kinsman and the Hated or a second Malevolent Kinsman conspire together.
3-2 Rivalry of kin
the Preferred Kinsman; the Rejected Kinsman; the Object of Rivalry
The Object of Rivalry chooses the Preferred Kinsman over the Rejected Kinsman.
3-3 Murderous adultery
two Adulterers; a Betrayed Spouse
Two Adulterers conspire to kill the Betrayed Spouse.
a Madman; a Victim
The Madman goes insane and wrongs the Victim.
3-5 Fatal imprudence
the Imprudent; a Victim or an Object Lost
The Imprudent, by neglect or ignorance, loses the Object Lost or wrongs the Victim.
3-6 Involuntary crimes of love
a Lover; a Beloved; a Revealer
The Revealer betrays the trust of either the Lover or the Beloved.
4-1 Slaying of kin unrecognized
the Slayer; an Unrecognized Victim
The Slayer kills the Unrecognized Victim.
4-2 Self-sacrifice for an ideal
a Hero; an Ideal; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed
The Hero sacrifices the Person or Thing for their Ideal, which is then taken by the Creditor.
4-3 Self-sacrifice for kin
a Hero; a Kinsman; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed
The Hero sacrifices a Person or Thing for their Kinsman, which is then taken by the Creditor.
4-4 All sacrificed for passion
a Lover; an Object of fatal Passion; the Person/Thing sacrificed
A Lover sacrifices a Person or Thing for the Object of their Passion, which is then lost forever.
4-5 Necessity of sacrificing loved ones
a Hero; a Beloved Victim; the Necessity for the Sacrifice
The Hero wrongs the Beloved Victim because of the Necessity for their Sacrifice.
4-6 Rivalry of superior vs. inferior
a Superior Rival; an Inferior Rival; the Object of Rivalry
A Superior Rival bests an Inferior Rival and wins the Object of Rivalry.
two Adulterers; a Deceived Spouse
Two Adulterers conspire against the Deceived Spouse.
5-2 Crimes of love
a Lover; the Beloved
A Lover and the Beloved enter a conflict.
5-3 Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one
a Discoverer; the Guilty One
The Discoverer discovers the wrongdoing committed by the Guilty One.
5-4 Obstacles to love
two Lovers; an Obstacle
Two Lovers face an Obstacle together.
5-5 An enemy loved
a Lover; the Beloved Enemy; the Hater
The allied Lover and Hater have diametrically opposed attitudes towards the Beloved Enemy.
an Ambitious Person; a Thing Coveted; an Adversary
The Ambitious Person seeks the Thing Coveted and is opposed by the Adversary.
6-1 Conflict with a god
a Mortal; an Immortal
The Mortal and the Immortal enter a conflict.
6-2 Mistaken jealousy
a Jealous One; an Object of whose Possession He is Jealous; a Supposed Accomplice; a Cause or an Author of the Mistake
The Jealous One falls victim to the Cause or the Author of the Mistake and becomes jealous of the Object and becomes conflicted with the Supposed Accomplice.
6-3 Erroneous judgement
a Mistaken One; a Victim of the Mistake; a Cause or Author of the Mistake; the Guilty One
The Mistaken One falls victim to the Cause of the Author of the Mistake and passes judgment against the Victim of the Mistake when it should be passed against the Guilty One instead.
a Culprit; a Victim or the Sin; an Interrogator
The Culprit wrongs the Victim or commits the Sin, and is at odds with the Interrogator who seeks to understand the situation.
6-5 Recovery of a lost one
a Seeker; the One Found
The Seeker finds the One Found.
6-6 Loss of loved ones
a Kinsman Slain; a Kinsman Spectator; an Executioner
The killing of the Kinsman Slain by the Executioner is witnessed by the Kinsman Spectator.
I will revisit these in future posts on how they can be used in specific games, and I welcome comments from people telling us how they made use of the 36 dramatic situations to overcome that creative block in your own games.