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.
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.
This week’s topic comes courtesy of Sean DMR (@flying_grizzly and www.flyinggrizzly.net) who tagged me into an interesting thread on twitter looking at role-playing game frameworks through the lens of Lecoq territories. My graduate training at Pig Iron School was rooted in Lecoq, so I’m familiar with the territories through both an academic and a creative lens, but I hadn’t considered applying them to tabletop games. I’m delighted that Sean put this idea on my desk.
Alright, so what’s a territory? Simply put, the territories are different dramatic categories of theatre; the main ones we explore at Pig Iron are melodrama, commedia, bouffon, tragic chorus, and clown. As Sean points out, they are not the same as genre and you could make a commedia piece that is sci-fi just as easily as a western, for example. They’re also not the same as style. The territories may lead us towards specific style choices like slapstick or archetype, but the core identity of a territory comes from a dynamic drive that is amplified by the relationship between the characters and the world of the play.
Beyond styles or genres, we seek to discover the motors of play which are at work in each territory, so that it might inspire creative work. And this creative work must always be of our time….......Our method is to approach the ‘territories of drama’ as if theatre were still to be invented.
I’m happy to report that our pilot episode of Questo was a success! We took our audience of about a dozen people on a fun little adventure game and received some very helpful feedback on their experience. I’d like to start with a quick thanks to the wonderful folks who came out; it was such a treat to present this new game for you and to see the inventive solutions you came up with during the story.
The audience wants more!
Our players responded well to the item cards as props and took to the basic mechanic of turning one in with a description of how they would use it. I was surprised to learn that people have just as much fun hearing the solutions of the other teams as they do coming up with their own. The structure proved to be accessible for people and allowed them to learn the game as they played it. At the end of the evening, folks wanted to know when we’ll be doing the next one.
What did we learn?
Questo is a great machine for lateral, out-of-the-box thinking. Over the course of the game, players identify the goal to create the best story and learn that Jeff and I are rewarding big, risky, creative choices. At the same time, their toolkit is getting smaller, so they’re nudged to use things they wouldn’t reach for at first. We witnessed teams getting playfully inventive, not only in the way they used the items, but in expressing their characters and taking advantage of the opportunity to tell a story. By the end of the adventure, tables were combining their efforts, putting their heads and their inventories together to figure out the best way to get past the encounters.
We got good feedback on the characters that we added to the world, and people enjoyed having them performed. This isn’t a surprise, but it’s a fun invitation to get deeper into the characters we're creating. I noticed the parts the players enjoy aren’t always what they find important. Several folks said that they enjoyed seeing us play characters in the world, but when given the opportunity to interact with them in the game, each team chose to do a clever stunt instead.
Based on this one test, it seems players prioritize participating in the story we invite rather than taking control of the narrative. In encounters where we’d give a direct option or an alternative to change the scenario, teams chose the direct option most of the time. Even in the final moments, when we told them that the direct option would most certainly end in tragic death, the entire room decided to fall on the sword. They don’t mind that we’ve already written the story as long as they get to tell their version of it.
What questions do we have?
The main decision we need to make is how much Questo is a competition between the teams and how much is it a collaborative story game? In the feedback, we heard support for both. Some players wanted more clarity about the results of their decisions and who was ahead. Other players loved collaborating between tables and wanted more of that sooner. During the pilot, collaboration was working and driving the action in the room. Either we need to improve on the clarity of the competitive elements or we should cut it out altogether. An interesting lesson to observe is that the competitive part of the game, which was the most objective part for Jeff and I had the biggest sense of being arbitrary to the players.
I’m also very curious to explore what it means to make the game a recurring, serial story. We have questions to answer around scaling the narrative and making sure the core game is fun to replay. I wonder whether it can support players returning with the same characters or having an opportunity to carry over something from the previous episode.
Honestly, the response from the pilot tells me that the piece is more ready than I expected. We have some work ahead of us to get it to its final form but I’m looking forward to running this again. This fall we’ll dive deeper into the performance and set up a run of a few games in a row to look at how it behaves over multiple episodes. If you’d like to find out when the next iteration is going to happen, there’s a google form at the end of this post. Following Matt Colville’s example, I will email you only once the next game of Questo is open.
Kicking off Questo development we were excited about creating a role-playing game experience that had a different feel than other projects we had worked on. We were thinking about the reasons that folks don’t play RPGs, or don’t play them as often as they’d like and we came up with three:
We wanted to make a game where these obstacles were laughable. It needed to be simple and social, and flexible enough that players could come and go as they please.
We began our process by making a “minimum viable product” (MVP). This is a Silicon Valley term that came into my lexicon from the Stop, Hack and Roll Podcast. The idea is that you make the simplest possible version of the game first so you can start testing and iterating as soon as possible.
We gave ourselves one afternoon to make the MVP, which meant we would need to make a lot of quick decisions. The first major design question was what is the role of the audience, both as individuals and as teams. We opted to cast each team as a single character on an adventure with the characters from the other tables. During the Quizzo-style breaks, the team members will huddle up to discuss/debate/derail their choice as the character they’re all playing together. Once back in the adventure the characters will be working together to overcome different encounters.
The game also needed a competitive angle to create tension between the tables and put some pressure on the decision making. The problem we were running into was how could we create dramatic risk for the characters without undermining the gameplay? If each character represented an entire table of people, we couldn’t risk having the characters get eliminated or separated without a plan for what we would do with that team for the rest of the game. We landed on a paradigm where the characters would succeed and advance between the encounters at the same time, but the question is how much does it cost them to do it, and who has the better story at the end?
The last major question for the MVP was what would our role be as performers and gamerunners? How would we frame our interaction with the audience? Here, instead of taking a swing at the best answer, we’re going into the pilot with a couple different modes in mind that we’ll test in different encounters. Sometimes we’ll operate as neutral gamerunners, other times we’ll play characters. I’m most excited to test out the version where we play gamerunner-as-character, rooting on the characters and pitting the teams against each other. We’ll see which mode seems the most fun during the pilot.
Another thing we’re testing in the pilot is how we can use the note cards that teams will turn in to capture their decisions. We realized we could have some fun by making them into kits of gear, to flesh out the characters and inspire the players’ creativity. At the beginning of the game, each table will receive a cache of items that their character has with them on the adventure ahead. The teams won’t know exactly what gear they’re selecting, they’ll simply have to choose one of the available monikers like “The One Who Rushes In” or “The One With the Keen Eyes” but for a little preview, I’d like to show you what one of the caches looks like. The team that picks the [redacted] moniker will get to take these fine items with them out into the wild world:
If you’re in Philly and you’re interested in coming to the Questo pilot, shoot me a line and I’ll get you the details.
images from https://game-icons.net/