It was the Fall of 2000, “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” had been stuck in my head for at least three straight months, and I wanted more. I was about to celebrate my 13th birthday, and little did I know that my mom was about to give me one of the best gifts I’d ever receive, a valuable lesson that she would continue giving me well into my adult life. A lesson about how to give the perfect gift. At that age, I didn’t think that was a lesson to be taught. The perfect gift was obvious; I’d asked for an Eiffel 65 CD, so of course that was what my mom had picked up, right? Imagine my surprise when I opened this:
PAX Unplugged is mere days away so here’s a quick primer to capture my approach to the con as well as some of the events where you might run into me.
Last year, PAXU was my first full con experience and it was an overwhelming weekend. PAX Unplugged illuminates how massive and wide-ranging the tabletop hobby is. I went looking to play some fun indie RPGs like Masks and Monsterhearts 2, and realized that those offerings are a small slice of what’s available among the board games, card games, LARP, mainstream RPGs, panels, and products. It’s easy to get bowled over by the amount of options and not know where to find the games you seek.
I had great luck last year stumbling into games, and by the end of the third day I felt like the spiderweb was finally starting to make sense. Here’s what I learned:
In the last post we looked at Kingdom and Fiasco for some different approaches to world building. We moved away from geography to look at relationships and communities. I mentioned that during your creative process it might be valuable to establish some objective realities that the characters know about their world. Alternatively, it might be more valuable to get some specifically charged locations brewing to jump right into more dramatic themes.
Today we’re going back to the conversation I had with Mark Kennedy (@echolocated) to look at the mapmaking process that he used in a recent rehearsal for an upcoming original performance. We’ll see some carryover from the games that we’ve looked at but also elements that are entirely his design. Mark’s approach is exciting, and I’m grateful that he’s been kind enough to let me share some of it with you. His rehearsal shows us ways that theatrical devices can explode our worldbuilding, and ways that the process changes when we put people up on their feet.
Welcome back to my map series! Maps have been a huge part of the way I play games ever since my dad ran me through my first dungeon, but they’re rarely part of a theatrical process.
Part 1 talks about what maps can add to a rehearsal room, and Part 2 looks at The Perilous Wilds as a process for mapmaking with your ensemble. Today we’re looking at some other games for a different way to think about locations as seeds for drama.
The Perilous Wilds is securely cemented in the assumptions of fantasy and adventure. It allows us to create an expansive world with new, intriguing places to discover. But what if we’re making a piece that’s more interested in one location and how the different characters relate to that place? What about stories where we’re less interested in the physical geography and more interested in the community and relationships. For that we’re going to use Kingdom and Fiasco and explore locations without a physical map.
Kingdom is a game by Ben Robbins published by Lame Mage Productions. It explores the journey and machinations of a single community or organization. The Kingdom might be defined within a space: a town, a city, a store; but it might also just be defined by the people who are part of it. In this game, we play individuals whose relationships, encounters, and exchanges impact the fate of the entire Kingdom. Theatrically, that’s an exciting framework to create a story.
In Kingdom we’re following a community or an organization, understanding the decisions it faces (Kingdom calls these crossroads) and the threats at play. In The Perilous Wilds, you’ve probably already picked your characters before you make the map, but in Kingdom you define locations before building characters. This means you’re thinking of locations that are important to the community at large, places where people gather or places they avoid. Before we get into the who’s who, we think of the locations where things happen, where are decisions made? Where are minds changed? Where are secrets revealed? This doesn’t create a geographic map in the same way as The Perilous Wilds, instead you create a list of locations that are tied to the undercurrent of the themes and decisions of your community.In a theater of “everything matters,” this is a great starting place.
Once we move into creating characters for Kingdom, we’ll come back to the list of locations to choose two that our character might be found in. I enjoy the challenge of finding one location where the character is comfortable, and a second one where they might be caught off guard. We’ll also use the list of locations to determine where to set scenes. The rules allow you to make up new locations as necessary, but I love the creative restriction of trying to stay true to the original list.
For an even narrower use of locations we move to Fiasco by Jason Morningstar published by Bully Pulpit Games. Fiasco is certainly the most dramatic use of location. Locations in Fiasco are always connected to a central relationship between two characters. Mechanically, each Relationship in Fiasco has a single Detail, which can be a Location or an Object or Need. This means that form the beginning locations are sparse but highly leveraged. Hinging the location so tightly to the characters creates a chain between them which likely will create its own drama. This means that we don’t need to try and be clever or inventive at the beginning, we can open up our writing to be mundane and impulsive.
Fiasco gives some guidelines for a great Location:
Fiasco offers a great note for play too, “If you’re looking for a place to have a scene happen, scan around for existing Locations. If somebody cared enough to author the Chicken Hut out by the interstate, it ought to be a hub of in-game activity.” For me this echoes why a mapmaking process can be so useful in the rehearsal room. It gives us a way to make concrete proposals that start to give a flavor or theme or tone to our piece but still leave open tons of freedom to discover characters, plot, and themes. A town with a Chicken Hut out by the interstate is going to have a different feel from the one with Eyck’s Tack, Harness, and Stable across the tracks. They’re going to smell different, taste different, and have a different atmosphere. On the other hand, if you’re ensemble decides they really want to explore a one-horse town, that still gives you the freedom to bring a horse dealer to the table.
What’s really fun about Fiasco is it’s built to highlight one location, which is going to help us a lot once we put this on stage. It doesn’t mean that there’s only one location in the piece, or that other places aren’t important. It just gives a clue that something is definitely going to go down in this spot, there’s something that exists here or is going to happen here that probably can’t happen anywhere else.
We’ve gone a journey here from a game that define entire landscapes to a game where the pot boils over in one specific spot. As we shrink the map smaller and smaller down, at each step the locations become a bit more personal and connected to the characters. In your process I encourage you to think of the level of familiarity that’s most exciting for the theme or style of story that you’re looking to create.
This series provides some tools to think of your story through the lens of the map that it occupies. We’re cooking up new ideas about how to think of the space of an entire play, the scope that it occupies and how to use “where” to learn more about the characters or create creative inconveniences. How do your characters think about the world of the play, what details are important to them, and what true information is it useful to establish from the beginning.
Last time I talked about why mapmaking is an exciting tool to use in a devising room and what it can shift about the way that we normally make theatre. Today we’re going to look at how we do it. I thought this post was going to be the conclusion of the map series, but I have more games I want to talk about in future posts, so stay tuned.
My favorite mapmaking resource from tabletop is a gorgeous little book called The Perilous Wilds by Jason Lutes. It’s a supplement for Dungeon World that expands the scope of a dungeon-delving game to craft and explore a fantastical world. Dungeon World traditionally focuses on the characters and their relationships, building the rest of the game out from there, but The Perilous Wilds gives us an approach for making a whole world together. This book has a special place in my heart because it uses a lot of the methods that I was using in Skills & Scars to build a map with the audience.
A few weeks ago my friend Mark (@echolocated) reached out asking to pick my brain about mapmaking activities for a rehearsal plan built around creating space. He had played a couple different games with me where we made maps together, and he was curious about using those approaches to create a shared world with his ensemble. I was super excited about the prompt because games and theatre both define spaces and I thought there might be some cool interactions between the two. Today we’re going to look at developing maps and shared locations and get into why this is a great tool for devised theatre work.
I’ve only made it out to a small tiny slice of the shows offered in the Fringe this year, but thanks to my other life as a bartender I saw four performances of Gay Mis and it might be the best show of the fesitval. Gay Mis, if it isn’t obvious, is a queer, drag queen-infused parody of Les Miserables created, produced and performed by Eric Jaffe along with a stunning cast. It’s a follow up of sorts to Thweeney Todd: The Flaming Barber of Fleek Street. Gay Mis is a colossal offering and I haven’t stopped thinking about it all week.
Let me cut right to the cheese: this show is dumb. The jokes are wonderfully stupid, and at times fabulously obvious, a line that evokes explosive applause one night brings out a symphony of groans for the next. This show has the kind of jokes where you’re kicking yourself because you didn’t see them coming. I love it. If I wrote you a list of all the songs in Les Mis and you had to guess the names of the parody version, I’m sure you would get a few of them right. We’d probably all get One Day More right. But here’s the trick...they’re still doing the songs. All the hits are there: I Dreamed a Dream, On My Own, Bring Him Home, you know, powerhouse songs. The words are different and they’re stuffed with gags, but this cast still hits all of those notes.
It’s Fringe Season in Philadelphia! For the next three weekends the city will be drenched in culture and creativity. Performances take place all over the city and the best of them stretch the boundaries of what we think is possible in the theater. This guide is a list of shows that I’m excited about because they’re diving into the intersection between games and performance. Some of these pieces and their creators are very well known to me; others are complete mysteries. All of them catch some curiosity of mine around presenting theatre in new ways that create investment and agency for the audience.
Today’s post is something different. I have been writing fiction quite a bit recently, some for my D&D group, some just for myself. I’d like to share a short piece here as a little snapshot of my other creative work. I originally wrote this at the beginning of my current D&D campaign a couple years ago. This isn’t backstory exactly; it’s what happened the day before my character met the rest of the party. I present to you the first page in the tale of Rory, Gnomish Fighter:
Bella wasn't actually listening. She'd heard what she needed; it was enough to know that he'd be paying for his room and all of his meals in advance. That kind of commitment wasn't often found, even in Vestrim's market district. Besides, who had ever heard of a broke gnome?
In the post Introducing: Questo, I mentioned that I got my first taste of large-audience roleplaying at PAX Unplugged 2018. That was also my first full con experience. I got to game with some incredible heroes of mine and make some new friends. It was a pretty great weekend. So while the rest of the gaming world is in Indianapolis this week for that other con, I’m going to reminisce about PAX.
There were two events on the schedule that I took up for research purposes. I knew I wanted to see how folks from the gaming sphere took on the challenges of performing. I was also grateful to have the opportunity to see the show from the audience’s side. The two events were:
Today I’m going to focus on To Serve Her Wintry Hunger because it most directly impacted my work on Questo and gave me a bunch of takeaways for bringing a game to a large audience. I saw a specific approach to running a full room through a small storygame, and I also experienced first hand what is fun for an audience in that setup. It was a cool event and made me an instant fan of Stephen Dewey.