Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Play it Out: Design Chat 1

So, I recently got it into my thick skull that I should try to take some of the ideas floating around in my mind and write a game. People were very supportive of the idea, because I hang out with people who are supportive like that. So after much hand-wringing, I think the first (HA! listen to me! like I'm gonna write all these and more!) game I try my hand at will be Play it Out. So, I volunteered my friend Jeff to help me. Since he is a professional actor who does a LOT of improv experience, I'm clearly the weak link in this conversation. But, here it is. Raw. Unspellchecked. I'm excited about the idea. this is mostly here for my reference, but maybe you're having a slow day and want to drop a comment or suggestion.

me:So, your first task in helping me (attempt to) design the improv-play game is to list fortune mechanisms that can happen in scene for the players to know how the scene is supposed to go.
-coin toss
-dice roll
-playing card shown
- one player hides an object, another tries to guess the hand
- the audience provides an object that indicates the direction
- darts
- guessing the fingers on a hand ( or not)

Jeff: Huh. Thus making it more a game and less an improvised scene?
Or, less a free-form improvisation?

me: yes, the latter
you map the scenes ahead of time : scene 1: what's at stake is... who wins in the initial conflict, the capulets or the montagues...

Jeff: Hrm. My first thought is that it's best to make the mechanic suit the world of the game, such as the playing cards in Deadlands. My second thought is that something ...right, right, I remember the tree...

me: scene 5: does she climb out the window to meet him?
so the determination happens on stage, near the beginning (or as late as the climax) of a scene

Jeff: Clarify this: Do theye discuss the possible scene-results (1 or 2) at each juncture, or is it all coursed out befopre play? If the latter...could perhaps the final scene be undecided, no options, just what plays in the moment?

me: my instinct is to have it go
// \ /\ \/ /

Jeff: And back to the machanic, it also would appeal to ahve either something inherently on-hand and human (like the fingers guessing) or something VERY interruptive and theatrical, like stopping everything to ask an audience member whetehr they prefered rock or rap.

me: but thats probably way lesss satisfying than what you're saying

Jeff: Hrm. Lemme think. That's more abunch of bananas than a per se tree...

me: true. or a pear, really
Jeff: In that scheme, it goes from one choice to many, but back to one or two? Is that because the possibilities narrow back down, or because the story is ultimately about this one thing? It seems a bit inevitable, which I would think would be a bit dull compared to 37 possible resolutions. Or infinite as an imagination.
But I may not be grasping the right part of the elephant here.

me: youre right. at least 2 possible endings.
because, particularly if it isn't necessarily comedy and you're approaching a characters issue or a "which is more important, duty or honor" type sitch, you want to resolve binarily on that in the end, no?

Jeff: You know what this reminds me of? Somewhat tangential, sorry. I recently found out that DC comics completely revised their character histories, almost across the boards, back in the late sixties. In retrospect, to justify this in terms of mythology, they said that at some point Superman got tranferred to an alterante Earth, Earth 2, and that that was what the early sixties were about. Then we got back to Earth 1. Now they're spinning wild plots off of this, essentially metaphysical, superglu plot device, in stories like Infinite Crisis. I love it. Fiction utterly unbounded.
But your points: I agree. Binary is what works best for high stakes, at least in terms of individual characters. But how much of this game works that way? Does each character have their own tree, or do they serve a kind of plot tree?
When I suggested no predetrmined "branches" for the top of the tree (or "roots" for the bottom, whatever metaphor) I was thinking of it as a plot tree. And you never answered when they determine the options: in the scene before, or before the whole game?
Type faster. ;)

me: initially i envisioned one or two reall protagonists, whose tree it is. players beyond the two will be taking on multiple supporting roles to make that premise tree work. I think in order for the perfomance to flow, you have to determine all ahead of time

Jeff: Okay.

me: and use a big easel with the page you r'e on to keep track during perofrmance
see what happens when i type fast?

Jeff: Ah, very McNally.
I can take it.

me: that means nothing to me, but i take it as support

Jeff: As it was meant.

me: right. so there's a funly-set-up brainstorming session where all the possible scenes are mapped out with awesome "I can't decide if its cooler to win or lose" stakes are set down, and then you make a page on your big pad for each decision point (scene)

Jeff: Gotcha. http://www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/clsc72.html

me: and the director (or players if you don't have enough to have a set director/prop hand keeps track of what is happening and changes the page to where it should be for the next scene

Jeff: This is great tehatre, even without the actors.

me: ... not seeing how this relates to mcnally , so it must be something he does not mentioned there
and so maybe for each scene in the beginning you do:
-scene pointers (outcomes that point to new scenes)
- fortune mechanism (how will we know when the time comes)
i'd like it to vary somewhat from scene to scene so its not a distraction to the audience all the time (some of the time is fine)

Jeff: See, I think part of the fun of this is the exposure of the machanics. The audience will get so wrapped up in a scene, and then chance eneters, and it's REALLY CHANCE. Not prefabricated outcome, or well-rehearsed vaudeville schtick. In that case, each time it happens, it will mean more and more to them, and you'll have them
1. On the edge of their seats about how the die rolls
2. THEN even more absorbed in how the scene they know is coming will play out.
For example:
me: you think so?
do you show them the easel?

Jeff: Si!
Jonah and Ryan have a scene about who's going to go into the next room to kill Dorah, the lunatic who knows too much. They both want to, and can;t understand why they have to fight each otehr to do it. During the scene it is revealed they both have reasons for wanting to be the one: Jonah knows Dorah wants to expose him as her rapist, and Ryan loves Dorah, and can;t trust Jonah to do it with kindness. At the height of their positioning and arguing, it comes down to who gets the gun when it falls out of one of their bags.

The action STOPS.

Flip the coin. Choose an audience member to pick a closed fist. Whatever.

The next scene happens, and builds to a similar moment, except this time maybe it's whetehr opr not Dorah is killed.

Ilove this, but maybe I'm turning it more tehatre than game. Not sure of your intentions and hopes.

me: no, you're precisely on target and delivering the goods
because taht method wouldnt hve come to me naturally and it totally rocks nine ways to Babylon

Jeff: Nine ways? Wow.

me: because at that point in the game its supposed to be completley the ater
yes YES !YESS!!
GM/Moderator/Narrator as ncecessary/ prop hand/ page turner
who hands one of these http://paizo.com/store/toys/plushes/dice to an audience member in some scenes.

Jeff: Curious to think about what the actors should do at these moments. I'm inclined to think they should be involved, not just shut down or silent, maybe even championing their character. In character? Not sure.
NICE. I like the "dangler." Doubles as a bolo.

me: but then, the variation of fortune mechanisms is lost. Your way is definitely cooler, but I still have this vision of one character being like "is THIS your card?" and then they both realize OH CRAP now we have to make the scene do THIS. but its a vaudeville routine, you're right. but maybe, counterpoint,that's easier for those of us without advanced improv training
I like the "frozen while diving for the gun but watching the audience"
like "Hey, you're in this too, buddy"

Jeff: The beauty of the oversized dice is the embrace of one of the traditions we're borrowing from. It's a good gimmick to keep in mind for when we tour with this form of improv. ;)

me: we meaning you and yours i hope. i'll roll the die from the audience

Jeff: Yeah, maybe it should be determined by scene, or the GM (whistle for freeze, call for active characters, clap for actors arguing FOR their characters).

me: hrm. TBD later i think. that seems like a minor decision

Jeff: True.

me: So now i just need crackling fun mechanics for the brainstorm session, and to be able to teach improv when i'm terrible at it myself.
but this seems like a natural stopping point for picking your brain for now. much to think about


Anonymous said...

Dave, what you are describing adds a level of abstraction to interactions that are highly refined in improv already. Using a randomizer to decide how a scene plays out isn't really necessary.

I'm interested in who comprises your audience - other players, an actual audience?

--Jason M

dave said...


Thanks for taking the time to look this over! I see your point, but what I'm trying to do is find a pleasing midpoint between natural improv and a game. Fortune seemed a natural addition - without it, this isn't much different than vanilla improv. So, while I agree that improv has its own ways of scene resolution, my hope is that adding a fortune mechanism will add enjoyment for both the audience (who, thanks to Jeff's suggestions, becomes more involved through it) and the players who have to be prepared to deal with a change in the scene's direction from an outside force. If you still think it's a detriment rather than a possible benefit, can you explain why a little more in depth?

As for the audience, it's my hope that players will do the initial brainstorm portion on game night, have a couple of days to think about the potential scenes on their own, then make arrangements to do the performance aspect in front of family and friends (and, ideally, some of those audience members might want to try it the next time around).

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of a social "game" with a performance goal. I play one every so often; it's called improv.

A core tenet of successful improv is "Don't deny your fellow players' input - any choice is the best choice". Some people disagree with this, and in roleplaying we have the luxury of stopping the action, taking a break, and re-thinking a scene. I'm of the opinion that doing so is frequently counterproductive, however. Playing as though the group is under the same pressure as a group of improv performers on stage has some tangible benefits.

Players want to create situations that have relevance for their audience. People love to recognize situations that are a part of their lives, enacted and heightened. There's a lot of power in truth. Humor as an intention, like absurdity as an intention, isn't very interesting.

Adding a fortune mechanism yanks the interplay and agreement out of the players hands and interrupts the flow of scenes. I honestly don't think it will add enjoyment - quite the reverse.

dave said...

Ok, that's all fair. Here's what I'm hearing:

"I like my improv the way it is and don't need a new way to do it."

Which is totally fine. Unfortunately for you, I recognize that makes you extremely valuable as a sounding board, if I can get you to a point where there's value in it for you. So I'm not willing to leave it at that, yet.

You said:"in roleplaying we have the luxury of stopping the action, taking a break, and re-thinking a scene. I'm of the opinion that doing so is frequently counterproductive, however." - Note that what I'm not doing is allowing the players time to kibbutz, or re-do anything. But I grant you that flow is interrupted if the fortune mechanism requires that. My initial notion (as you'll see in the chat) was to have in-flow fortune that would act on the players without interruption, using a different subtle mechanism in every scene. I'm still open to that, but Jeff's ideas are very appealing to me on this subject.

But your objection seems only partially rooted in the flow - the rest is in the idea that your character choices will be constrained by that outcome. You said "Adding a fortune mechanism yanks the interplay and agreement out of the players hands".

Frankly, I don't believe you. It's like you're saying that your character's integrity is threatened by whether or not you win the stakes in a scene. You've played enough games with fortune to know that's not the case. That begins to sound like an attack, and I want it to be clear that's not my intention, but I want you to think about whether adding fortune to characterization (ignoring the flow question) really does anything detrimental. Does it in PTA, for example?

Jeff said...

Part of the intention, as I understand it, is to not break the scenes into microcosms of theatre. We don't roll dice, or flip a card, or whatever, every time a decision has to be made. In fact, as with commedia dell'arte, the graphing out of scenes gives the actors some very specific tasks to accomplish clearly before the scene can be interrupted in any way. In this way, a scene can go on for some time, riding the particular priorities and instincts of the actors, so long as they accomplish their given scenario. Then, and only then, can the scene be interrupted for a game mechanic. In fact, I envision the mechanic only entering the scene if there's an element of chance involved in the story, though my opinion on that may change with more discussion.

And though it was left out of our initial brainstorming, this is not a new convention. Brecht produced shows in which the entire show would halt in order to survey the audience on their opinions of the characters and their actions. And did this make them less invested in the outcome? No. In spite of the way it shattered verisimilitude (or perhaps because of it, in some cases) this "pause that refreshes" actually incites audiences to become more and more personally involved in the story.

And finally, by McNally, I was refering to Terrence, the playwright, and his brilliant uses of "letting the wires show" in some of his plays. It was in reference to the easel being on stage.

-Jeff (other half of brainstorming)

Anonymous said...

OK, we're good, no attacks perceived. My point is that there are thirty years or more of refinement in offers, agreement, and heightening that work very well. There's already a random element in every scene - your partner.

I'm imagining a situation where two players are getting along quite well and building a scene, then stopping to resolve some randomizer to decide where to go next. In improv you already know where to go next - where your partner takes you. So it isn't an issue of agency, but rather of interruption and distraction, which wasn't clear. I have a hard time imagining a circumstance in which interrupting a cooking scene to force some choice ont he participants would be better than watching it evolve organically. You do this in some improv games, but they last three minutes.

Anonymous said...

Oh, thanks Jeff. I can see fleshing out the way ahead at intra-scene break points. Maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree.

I figured you were referencing Terence McNally, but I'm not very familiar with him. I had a friend who studied under him at Penn State and raved.

Jeff said...

We keep returning to trees in this discussion. Maybe the game should be called "Trees."

Believe me, I wasn't as convinced this "game theatre" could work until I started discussing it. In fact, I'm still a little thoughtful that it might work better as a rehearsal techinique for a choose-your-own-adventure-styl;e scripted piece, rather than improvisation. However, it's intriguing to me, and if someone was going to work out a game mechanic that can work seamlessly with theatre, I would put most of the chips on Dave.

Here's a question for the improvisation enthusiasts in the room: What CAN'T we do in improvisation that a game environment might allow?

dave said...

"There's already a random element in every scene - your partner."

You're right. And you're right, it often works well. Freeform RPGs work well much of the time. DM-fiat games work well much of the time for their participants. Both of those use that same "other-person-as-random" element. I guess I'm just not seeing where adding a different fortune mechanism breaks the equation (outside of the flow question) any more than it would in RPGs as a whole.

As to Jeff's question, I shall have to think on the matter

Mike Sugarbaker said...

Isn't it canonical for improv that you simply don't get to object to the input of other players - that you must accept it and work with it? It seems to me that that's the major thing games can allow that improv can't: making conflict another tool in the toolbox.

Anonymous said...

Conflict is part of improv. Agreement is about recognizing and honoring the intent of your partner, not just stupidly agreeing with them no matter what. The key thing here is that conflict is controlled and escalated gradually - you never begin a scene with a screaming argument, because that's boring and can't be heightened. You might end that way, though, although you'll edit the scene before you resolve anything. --JMstar

Anonymous said...

What can't you do in improvisation that you can do in an RPG?

You can't plan, you can't have a plot, you can't pre-determine anything. This isn't 100% true, because you could be given offers telling you where, or when, or how a scene goes down, but even these are spontaneous.

You can't take a third person view.

dave said...

I think another important point was touched on by Jason before the question was even asked - in a game environment we can go back a little and revise (even though this was mentioned in the context of sometimes being undesirable).

Further, I think its important to note the way authority is dealt with in an RPG versus a stage and an audience. While an audience comes in ready to take part in believing what is being done onstage, I think a table of players is usually even more ready to accept the story being thrown at them. Whereas if the actors can't appear to be in a particular situation, it's more difficult for the audience to accept that they're in it. It's the question of exactly how Imagined a Shared Imagined Space really is. In theatre, there's an expectation that something about it, even if its only the reactions of the players, will not have to be imagined. But in fully imagined spaces in games, comparitively little of that has to be acted out in order for everyone to accept the authority of what's happening.

Jeff said...

Lots of interesting ideas here.

Conflict in improvisation is inevitable, even with two players completely focused on "agreeing" with one another using the "Yes, and..." rule. In short-form improvisation (the most widely recognized as a "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" style) the conflict often arises from an exterior challenge, rather than between characters, or as a stylized conflict, such as one person trying to guess why all the others are acting so nutty. In long-form improv, more popular in the Chicago theatre scene, particularly via Second Stage, it is easier to discover character conflict because one has more time to allow a character to develop, become rounded, and thereby more opinionated. In this way, even two characters who ostensibly want the same thing can have a fierce conflict (see example from before w/ crazy Dorah).

An RPG incorporating improvisational theatre lends itself to the long-form style, or at least, that's what we're trying to build, methinks. Similarly, there is commedia dell'arte, in which the conflicts are inherent in the stock characters and augmented by a preconstructed lattice of scenes. In this style, it is in fact possible and necessary to plan events. Events, however, do not strictly dictate action. All you have to do is reveal you are in fact Pantalone's son in the scene. HOW and WHEN you do this has at least a thousand possibilities. So yes, we can plan, and yes, it will still be improvised. This leads into the possibility of a completely improvised ending again, howevere. Can it play this way? All scenes have a couple of different scenes they can go to, or turn into, until the penultimate scene, from which the players them selves must find a resolution with no chart to guide them?

Revising scenes I think should be determined by audience reaction. I like the idea. And I'm going to go ahead and contradict you here, Dave, and say the imagined spaces of theatre are just as versatile as table-top RPGs. Even without elaborate backdrops or helicopters descending from the ceiling, an audience will see what we are able to make them want to see. Truly:

But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

dave said...


dave said...

I guess my answer to Henry V's Chorus would be that yes, it can do those things, but you'll have to work for it way more than in an RPG where somebody with story authority - lets call him the GM - says:

"Okay, so you're in France, it's the hundred years war. You're Henry, king of England, you're the Duke of Glouchester, you're the Duke of Clarence, and you're the Earl of Warwick. Henry, you're after the crown of France..."

do you agree?

Jeff said...


HOWEVER, I'm seeing this as an advantage to our proposed game, oui? That we can just say things, and they are so (much as in classic short-form improv, btw), and even the audience goes along with it. Because it seems to me that the real interest in these improvisations, games, etc. is the relationships between characters and how those change. And that don't need no million-fold soldiers.

Jeff said...

Forgot to say:
Intrigued by possibilities of taking a third-person view. In the game there could be opportunities for someone to play a narrator in the story, rather than the GM having that responsibility. Also, the GM could put a hold on the scene to ask a character what they think about what's going on, sharing it only with the audience. This is also a consideration in having the actors break character regularly to discuss what they think about their and others' character.