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.
These motors of play work best when they’re contained in a dramatic structure that allows the performer to pursue them relentlessly. This dramatic structure becomes the territory, and there’s an interplay between the dynamic drive of the performance and the structure of the writing. As creators we want to always be rediscovering the structures that support the motor. In melodrama, for example, the motor is performing grand emotions with overwhelming conviction. Through improv, we discover that this motor necessitates a world where characters are completely responsible for their actions; every bit of misfortune comes from a direct choice of one of the characters. There is no hand of fate to let anyone off the hook. We come away from this exploration with the sense that melodrama is defined by this structure of choice, but the reality is that the structure exists to serve the motor. If the structure needs to be adjusted or reinvented to better serve the motor then by all means tear it down and build a new one.
In theatre, “structure” only looks at dramatic constraints, but Sean’s observation is that in tabletop games, we also have the mechanical structure to contend with. While the character is dealing with the narrative demands the player is also dealing with the mechanical demands and the other players (as audience) are receiving some amalgam of those experiences. The player’s journey through the mechanical space can be just as theatrical as the character’s narrative journey.
Sean’s thread takes a look at different mechanical structures and compares them to dramatic structures, but I think it’s also interesting to ask which motors we want to emphasize in tabletop games?
A good place to start exploring motors in game design is to look at games with well developed classes or playbooks that all yield a distinct play experience. Strong games are going to have character options that allow you to pursue different goals in play, because that core drive is so key to performing the character. Additionally if that core drive is in place, and well supported by the mechanical structure, it gives players the freedom to have a lot of customization over the supporting details of their character. That brings us the rediscovery component that is so critical to exploring territories. That combo of highly personal characters with clear, well-supported drives is what gets people to keep coming back to those games. Look at Masks for an example of a game that absolutely nails this.
There’s another wrinkle that gets tricky, because in the theater, motors are keyed into the audience. We pursue emotion in melodrama so the audience is moved, we pursue failure in clown so the audience laughs. With a game, conventionally, the audience is just the other players at the table, and we don’t often pay close attention to their experience, we pay attention to their characters. A territory inspired design should ask how players experience the drive of their characters but also how they receive the characters of other players. That’s an exciting dramatic space to explore and tabletop gives us a unique stage to test it on.
For more on tabletop & territories be sure to check out Sean's thread on twitter: