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)