Alright well here we are, 2021; we’ve made it out of the frying pan at least. I’m a sucker for the new year, and will take any excuse to recenter and recollect.
My aim is to look back at the past year and gather the fun moments and the new curiosities I want to carry forward. 2020 was a major year for me, and a lot of that journey did not make it to the blog space. In a way this is a chance for me to circle the wagons and capture the good parts.
As I write this however, it is a dark moment on a dark journey. I hope you’ll forgive me for trying to keep my own torch lit as, together, we search for the path ahead.
I had the opportunity to join a streamed campaign this year on Encounter Roleplay. It was my first time streaming and became an exciting way for me to leap into a new form among a supportive crew of gamers and storytellers. Getting to join the cast of The Wall was honestly one of my biggest wins of the year, and fills me with such joy and gratitude. This campaign was part of an ongoing shared universe between several A Song of Ice and Fire games, and while I play only a small part in that larger story, my running joke has been to claim that I am the Rachel McAdams to their MCU.
I returned to Encounter Roleplay later in the summer, for a second game, this time playing Star Trek Adventures from Modiphius. This was a sponsored campaign to showcase the new Klingon corebook of the 2d20 system. If it’s possible, I came into this game even more green than my first one, having very little points of reference for Star Trek. Luckily the rest of the players were rockstars and took the lead splendidly. Fun fact: this was also my first campaign that received fan art, so that’s an exciting little achievement unlocked.
Thanks to my GMs Charlie and Ravyn, and all my fellow players for making it so easy for me to jump into their sandboxes and start building.
This year also gave me the raw studio hours to put out some critical original work. On the gaming side, I put together a little hack, a frankenstein of Mutant Crawl Classics and Apocalypse World, strongly spurred by my Disney+ laced nostalgia for saturday morning cartoons. When the test campaign for that wound down, I launched “Playtest Tuesday” with friend and fool Mark Kennedy and now have first drafts for like six other back burner games, most of them exquisitely terrible ideas.
In performance, Iris and I put out a silly video that captures exactly the type of reckless goofball work we want to make. It took so much time and energy to finish, but gave back so much more once we knew we had made people laugh. We also taught our first workshop together outside of Philly and are now gearing up for a coast-to-coast caravan of clowning once the world reopens.
Thanks to the party of players: Ashley, Josh, Mark, Tenara, Tom, Mark again, and of course the crucial co-conspirator, Iris.
New Coping Strategies
Setting down the creator lens for a second, I also had a great year just to play. Like a lot of folks, I turned to games and rpgs during the pandemic. I was lucky that I was already part of a longtime online game in March, so as everything else had to shut down or move online it was a very specific comfort that this outlet of fellowship and escapism remained constant. I’ve mentioned in another post how enormously grounding my play-by-post game of Chasing the Ace turned out to be. It got me really excited about writing fiction again and gave me a new flavor of collaboration to play with. Most exciting to me is that it also inspired one of my co-author’s to create their own For the Queen game of modern monster hunters!
I have to give a plug for one more piece of timber in my 2020 liferaft. Every Sunday night at 9et Judge James and his daughter Judge Evie go live on Twitch for a fun little broadcast about their week in gaming. They answer audience questions, they do silly voices, they talk about goings on in their lives both fictional and all too real. All year they’ve been a delightfully random and earnest reminder that another week had gone by and somehow we were still in this thing. Their efforts to make a little space each week for the fun and frivolous has been so clutch and charming to me, and it’s still a highlight of most of my weeks.
Thanks to the whole 493rd: Brian, Greg, still Mark, and Riley with reinforcements from Zack, Evie and James
On a final, overly personal note to this overly personal post, my games and performance had more reach this year than ever before in my life. My folks watched me play a Klingon, and my sister mocked me in twitch chat. It was like a big deal for me. If you’re here now, and you were part of the play in 2020, thank you so much for helping make laughter and stories together. Looking forward to finding a new way out of darkness in the year ahead.
Even in the beginning, when we were told to go home for two weeks, I knew that the timeframe could be more like several months. I had no idea it would be as long as it continues to be, but I knew that we needed a long-term plan. Iris and I started going on mandatory walks around the neighborhood to put some structure in the day and commit to some healthy habit-building to combat the chaos. Our little video that we released this week is now a strange love letter to our neighborhood, and the things that gave us hope or made us laugh on those little walks. We went past these bike racks everyday for a month, each time adding a little bit more to the bit until...well...see for yourself:
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.