The weekend before restaurants closed in Philadelphia, I had skipped the subway and was walking to work, thinking about how things were going to be pretty weird for the next few... well weeks I thought. It was a rare moment in my life when I genuinely knew that what I needed was more distraction. I reached out to my DnD friends, looking to set up a play-by-post game for a steady drip of roleplaying in the coming chaos. It’d be too dramatic to say that it was a life-saver, but I’m in the mood to be too dramatic. We decided on a For the Queen game, and I was excited to give Z. W. Garth’s mecha melodrama Chasing the Ace a try. In two months of self-prescribed escapism, my friends and I collaborated on a 40,000 word story that still fills me with pride and gratitude to my wingmates. Today I want to share a small excerpt from the story we made together:
♥2 What was the moment you swore to follow the Ace?
Finding myself between shifting schedules, but still looking for games to play, and I thought some of you folks might be able to relate. With that in mind, today I want to pitch you my absolute favorite one-shot role-playing game, Mission: Accomplished! Mission: Accomplished! by Jeff Stormer is an RPG of super-spies and office meetings inspired by shows like Archer, The Venture Brothers, and Better Off Ted. It’s a rules-light, player-driven game of collaborative storytelling with an outlandish backdrop of top-secret espionage and overbearing office policies. Sessions run about 2 hours (including coffee break), require little to no preparation, and are perfect for new players or new GMs. Honestly, if you’ve never run a fiction-forward game, or never felt comfortable running something like Blades in the Dark or Dungeon World, I sincerely recommend giving Mission: Accomplished a shot.
What to Expect
In Mission: Accomplished, players take on the role of international super-spies returning back to HQ after completing their mission. The job wasn’t done well, but fortunately the job was well, done. Mission Control (played by the GM) wants to get to the bottom of what went wrong, but more importantly who they’re going to pin the blame on. The action of the game plays out in unreliable retellings of what each of the characters witnessed or can attest to, all while racking up Commendations and Citations from Mission Control.
Character creation is swift and lighthearted, and the scenario is built collaboratively so each player knows what sort of stakes are at play for the story that’s about to unfold. The joy of the game comes from a back-and-forth of throwing folks under the bus and covering your own ass, with just enough frivolous hypocrisy to keep it all in good fun.
Why I Love this Game
Disclaimer: games are art, and the only difference between art and craft is whether someone can spend far too much time analyzing it, so that is exactly what I intend to do.
I often describe Mission: Accomplished as anti-cynical, and it’s the game’s best quality. Let me highlight some of Jeff Stormer’s text to demonstrate what I’m talking about. One of the things you define when you make your character is your Specialty:
I love the phrase “spectacularly competent.” It almost sounds like an oxymoron, but trust me, there’s something to it. There’s a certain “disaster OC” style in role-playing games that is in vogue right now, probably because it’s unquestionably fun as hell. There’s nothing better than getting together a rag-tag group of fictional friends who are totally in over their heads and can’t action economy their way out of a paper bag, and believe me there is plenty of room for that kind of play in Mission: Accomplished! This game gets it. It also gets that sometimes, that style of play is a way to wallow in our own fears and failures, to mock them, sure, but ultimately cling to them as the only story we allow ourselves to tell. Not today villains. This game demands that you embrace your success as well. In Mission: Accomplished! you’ve already won the game, the objectives were met. It’s not about the GM making it harder for you to succeed. This isn’t a game of struggle, this is a game of stunning victory, and inside of that it mocks how much our modern world is trying to stop us from shining. This game believes that you can be the best there is at what you do, and that you are always valuable to the team. Some of the best sessions involve taking a character with a very mundane contribution and discovering how they are ultimately the star that we needed to get the job done.
Running the Game
This game, simple as it is, asks you to cultivate a path of curiosity that will help you when you go to run more complex, intricate games. The players give you everything that happens, so you have to develop the skill of following their leads, and that sort of GM listening is going to be a great tool to deploy in other systems. The rules are simple, but the story is complicated, and learning how to get the players to untangle that together is a great path to better collaboration in other games..
What I Recommend
The best time to play this game is as a break or a pallet cleanser for a long-running group. I’ve also ran it as a convention game, and find that there’s enough heart and joy subtly built in to make this a fine game to get a bit of inter-party conflict among a less-familiar table as well.
The game plays well online, and if it’s not too real or too soon, I’m sure you have plenty of virtual meeting horror stories to reenact. As fun as it is to take jabs at the digital delirium we’re dealing with, I think this game most wants to be played in person with absolutely too many loose leaf sheets of office expectations and mission details. That sort of tactile chaos seems like a fun expression of so much of what this game does well.
One last thing before you get back to gaming, as part of the Itch Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, Mission: Accomplished might be the best game you didn’t know you already own!
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.
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.
Questo is my current project in development with Jeffrey Evans. Jeff is a long-time collaborator who I worked with on Skills & Scars in last years Philadelphia Fringe Festival as well as the Science After Hours events at the Franklin Institute. Questo is our latest exploration bringing gaming into our performance work, and our goal is to create a game that an entire audience can play together in a casual setting like a pub or cafe. Eventually we’d like this to be a recurring event with a serialized narrative. We’re running a pilot episode at the end of this month as our first playtest to see how an audience responds to it.
The concept for Questo originally came during one of our green hat brainstorming sessions for Skills & Scars. When thinking about all the different ways we could implement or tinker with a role-playing game for a live audience we wondered what it looks like to have a large audience all playing the game with us. It was a natural response to the work that we were making at the time. Skills & Scars was small and intimate; it was a piece about feeling comfortable and welcome and taken care of in a friendly atmosphere. Questo came out of the question of “what if we did the opposite?” What if instead of being small, safe, and comfortable it was big, public, and raucous. Would that be a good time? We wondered about a hybrid between Quizzo and a tabletop game.
I had a few different experiences of large audience role-playing at PAX Unplugged last year which I’ll dive into in a future post, but one of the immediate takeaways from seeing other people’s attempts was that a lot of work should go into delivering the game to the audience and providing clear structures for their involvement.
When game designers talk about role-playing games at their most basic level, they often describe them as a conversation. In Blades in the Dark, John Harper uses this breakdown:
The GM* presents the fictional situation in which the player characters find themselves. The players determine the actions of their characters in response to the situation. The GM and the players together judge how the game systems are engaged. The outcomes of the mechanics then change the situation, leading into a new phase of the conversation—new situations, new actions, new judgments, new rolls—creating an ongoing fiction and building “the story” of the game, organically, from a series of discrete moments.
*GM stands for Game Master, the player who is running the game for the other player characters
Zooming in on those first two sentences, there are two key channels of communication that need to be established: describing the fictional scenario and determining the character’s actions. At a table with a handful of players, this is simple to manage conversationally, but with a whole room of players it begins to get unwieldy. At the structural level, this made me think of Quizzo as a possible framework.
In Quizzo, the two channels are very distinct. The hosts use a microphone to give the audience the rules and prompts for the game and the teams turn in index cards to capture their input. Could we use this format to run a roleplaying game? Structurally it makes sense, but there’s also a question of rhythm. Tabletop gaming thrives on impulse. During a game, we expect the gamerunner to put us under pressure to make quick decisions. This creates immersion and stakes. Your character doesn’t have time to find the perfect choice so just leap into the action! This is also for dramatic pacing and tension. A skilled player is going to make their decision quickly so that everyone else stays engaged and the game can keep moving. Contrast this with Quizzo where the breaks between questions do have a certain time limit, but that limit is intentionally long enough to allow people to order another drink, chat with their friends, second guess their responses one too many times, etc. If we bring that rhythm to tabletop, how does that change the experience? If people don’t need to be on their toes thinking and responding, are there other things that can arrive?
These are some of the questions and curiosities that we had at the launch of our Questo development. Next time I’ll talk a bit about our process and implementation and preview some of the things we’re building for the pilot episode.
Hi, I’m Devin again. I’m going to talk a bit about what I’m up to here
I’m making my own space to explore theatre and games. I’m a theatre maker who’s interested in building games and bringing ideas from gaming into my performance. This blog is a place to explore some of the big questions and ideas that arise when combining these two forms. There is an excellent community of thoughtful makers in the gaming community, especially around tabletop roleplaying games, and I want to bring my own perspective of theatricality and playful performance to the conversation.
Beyond that, I’m making a public record of my work. I have found myself walking the life of an artist, and I am still trying to figure out what that looks like. Most of my recent work has been engaged in combining these two languages; melding theatre and live performance with games and game design. I began creating a few projects and calling them “experiments” but here’s a little secret:
I hate calling art experiments!
Look, I went to college; I have a science degree. I know what experiments are, okay, they have hypotheses. Right? They have methods. They have evidence. They have results. They have reports. If you’re going to call your project an “experiment” than you’d better have the records to prove it. So far, for my work, the records aren’t great, and I’d like to change that here by writing a bit about what I’m curious about and what I’m pursuing. Hopefully there will be some results to share, but all in good time.
An excellent teacher of mine once gave me the very simple-seeming advice of “notice what you notice”. In doing that I’ll mostly look at tabletop games and live theatre, but there might be interesting things to notice from video games or video theatre too.
When I look at the way people design and engage with role-playing games, I’m excited by the way they create shared narratives, authorship, and consequence. I think these things are rad, and they belong in the theater. People are incredibly passionate about the stories they create in games, partly because games allow people to test their ideas about story and discover what moves them. What can the theater’s magic add to games? What happens when we playtest our performances, when we ask what makes them fun?
I come to these forms as a player first. The lights of the stage and the seat at the table are completely different animals but I want to work with both of them. They create different states, have different rules and I’m curious about that. Is being in front of an audience when the curtain comes up actually different than when it’s your turn in initiative order? Should it be? I’m not sure, but those are the type of questions I’ll be investigating.
Oh! I should definitely clarify something about the type of theatre that I make. I’m a clown. I mean I’m also an actor, but clown and physical theatre are my loves. I make work that is devised, which for my money mostly means that it’s adaptable. So I make work that is adaptable, that uses the body, and usually tries to make you laugh at something. As an artist, I’m interested in joy, hope and reason. More on that later, we’ll have plenty of time to meet each other. I just didn’t want you walking away from here thinking I was one of those actors whose not a clown. Because I’m definitely not.
Hi, I’m Devin, and I play a game of Dungeons & Dragons with a gang of new-found friends over the internet every week. At some point, a couple years ago now, a college buddy put a brief post on Facebook asking if anyone would be interested in trying out D&D. I said I would be, and a few weeks later I was whisked away to a fantasy world featuring an all-star cast of people that I had never met before. At the time that this game started, I was midway upon the journey of grad school, deeply entrenched in a full-time performance training program focusing on physical comedy and clown. Every Friday of my grad program I had a required performance, some piece of original theatre that most often had been assigned the Friday before. It was a gauntlet. You might not be able to imagine how valuable a silly little game of Dungeons and Dragons was at this point in my life. Some might see it as a waste of my very limited time, but having a weekly obligation to something other than making an audience laugh was a critical strategy of success for me during my training. So with all of that laid out, let me summarize it this way. I am a performer who had been in the practice of presenting live theatre every week while at the same time, on a different channel as it were, playing a game of D&D with some strangers-turned-squadron online.
A funny thing happened a during one session several months ago. It was around Halloween time, and I had just performed in a Halloween cabaret, but on this night I was just playing some D&D with my friends. We were doing our version of the weekly announcements*, and I told them that I had done a cabaret performance a few days earlier. I said.
“it went pretty well, I performed Invisible Touch by Genesis except with [proprietary blend of herbs, spices, and my shenanigans].”
Tom Hiddleston, who plays the rogue in our party laughed and said,
“that sounds amazing, I can totally see it, I’m going to hear the song that way every time from now on”
and I laughed and thought to myself, “That’s weird, these people haven’t actually seen me onstage before...they don’t have any idea what I’m like as a performer.”
It was such a bizarre moment in hindsight. Seeing the joy from my party as they heard me tell a brief tale of an onstage victory made me feel an intense amount of support. They were all acting like they had been there! It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that of course realize I’ve been performing for them as much as any other audience in the past two and half years. It should have been obvious, but it wasn’t, and I think that is part of what made it such a gift.
These folks mean the world to me. I feel so fortunate to have this game as an open stage. It’s a place where I can show up every week and try to discover a character and a story with them. It’s a place where we don’t always have to know what our characters are doing or thinking, and we can pursue what is fun and exciting. In my creative work, I have begun exploring the relationship between role-playing games and theatrical performance, because I want to bring that sense of curiosity and open play from my gaming life on to the stage.
As long as I’ve been playing this game, I’ve been on a journey, trying to discover and reinvent myself as a performer. Trying to take ownership of the kind of work I want to make and the impact that I want to have on the world. It wouldn’t have turned out the way it did if I didn’t have these friends playing this game alongside me. I am so very grateful for these heroes, showing up every week to cultivate a space where we can be bold, take risks, make mistakes, and discover what matters together.
*(I haven’t told any of them this, but the weekly announcements are one of my favorite parts of the whole adventure, pretending we too are that jetsetting troupe of roleplayers bringing our particular brand of courage and carousing to the rest of the world)