Dramaturgy and the Tabletop Role-Playing Game
The task of adapting a given text to the stage is often put into hands of a playwright, sometimes with the guiding overview of the dramaturge. Between the two, treatments are decided on how best to translate the text for staging.
The challenge of adapting a text for new narratives is often defined by the audience’s familiarity with the original source material. If the old saying is “Familiarity breeds contempt,” then for the task of adaptation it is safer to say that “Familiarity breeds expectations.” Navigating those expectations and meeting them, while maintaining artistic integrity and originality, is the tightrope that playwrights and dramaturges have to balance themselves on.
I’ve mentioned before that my training as a dramaturge has been a somewhat haphazard process of figuring it out, stumbled upon by the other course work I managed to do as an undergraduate in theatre arts. Luckily, the presence of academic texts specifically for dramaturgy aren’t in short supply. With enough guidance from fellow practitioners, determination and research, theory can be picked up.
However, opportunities for the practice of “performed” dramaturgy, as it were, are few and far between. The skill of telling or crafting a narrative even as one adapts it from an established piece of work is already a challenge in and of itself. However, feedback is often delayed because the work needs to be completed (at least partially) before it can be shared with an audience.
Where then can one get the source of quick feedback? What activity makes you reflect on your storytelling on the seat of your pants? Why, role-playing games (RPGs).
The Shadows of Esteren is a French RPG developed and designed by the team of Nelyhann, Frédéric “Tchernopuss'” Hubleur, Aldo “Pénombre” Pappacoda, Joëlle “Iris” Deschamp, Ludovic “Elenyl” Monnier-Ragaigne, Joëlle “Iris” Deschamp, and Laurent “Nico du dème de Naxos” Duquesne. Published by Agate Éditions and Forgesonges, the game has won a slew of industry awards and luckily for me, has been translated into English.
The main volume of the game, Book 1 (Universe), is divided into two parts: first, a travelogue/epistolary look at the game’s setting, the fictional continent of Tri-Kazel, where three kingdoms wrestle with the hegemonic meeting of their individual competing ideologies. The temple of the new faith, the old ways, and technological advancement (Magience) hold sway in their respective lands even as the three kingdoms subtly (and sometimes overtly) work to undermine each other.
Underneath it all are the creatures that go bump in the night, the Feondas—monsters that aren’t so much as described as they are felt as an oppressive what-might-be-out-there. With an inspired Gothic influence, The Shadows of Esteren makes it a point to not identify the monstrosity of the world, and instead focuses on the worst monster of all: human beings.
The second part are the game’s mechanics. The ratio of world building and shared narrative versus game mechanics is 2:1.
I bring up The Shadows of Esteren as it follows the shared world model of many games. Other examples include Dungeons & Dragons’ famous mythic lands such as Ansalon for their Dragonlance setting, as well as Faerun where it sets its Forgotten Realms. The shared world model, otherwise, is what is to the game master, (the narrative leader of the game) what an established text is to the dramaturge. The challenges are the same; once again, familiarity breeds expectations.
The main question, I have discovered, is to discover what audiences would most likely be familiar with. Educational psychology informs us that current levels understanding (and therefore, what underpins expectations) needs to be ascertained before introducing new concepts to the uninitiated. This is a problem many playwrights and dramaturges face—it’s not like the average playwright has market research or anthropological studies in front of him—so the process of figuring out that understanding is critical. It is this skill that marks the best playwrights and dramaturges, as they have a have a very good sense of what drives and informs human nature.
It’s the ambiguity behind that sense that makes it hard to translate as a skill. Popular writing advice tells aspiring writers to go out and experience the world as richly as they can. This is a good thing. What’s often forgotten, however, is to remember that their experience is precisely that: their own. Even if one were to listen and relate to all the people one meets, no matter how different, there is still the task of translating those interactions onto a narrative that resonates with its audience.
So how to hone that skill?
I have two gaming groups. One is more traditional; we meet, we play, we have fun. The other one is experimental. The players in the second group understand that when I act as a game master, I am trying to figure out a dramaturgical skill.
We played The Shadows of Esteren over the course of two days during the APEC holiday. I had five players, two of whom were very familiar with the setting. The other three hadn’t experienced it yet, though they had a sense of what Esteren is about. This served my purposes well, as it meant that I had in front of me a fairly diverse yet representative audience.
As part of our preparation for the game, we all had a document that explained where in Tri-Kazel we were, as well as any inspirations I might put into our storytelling session. This also helps with establishing a baseline of understanding—which means we also effectively had a baseline for expectations.
I found this to be very helpful to work on my writing skills. Because I already put myself out of myself, that is, to meaningfully share context rather than occupy my own—because the table was our context, rather than owned by an individual—I now had a basis for storytelling for experiences that I was aware of, and could relate to, but weren’t necessarily my own. For this model (admittedly, a rather idiosyncratic one) just the start of formally role-playing liberates writers from occupying the space that only exists in their heads.
This brings me to the second part of the process: asking questions, and saying yes to the answers. As Tina Fey says in Bossypants: “Start with a yes, and see where that takes you.” (2:40.) The rules of improvisation are a very helpful place to jumpstart the writing and dramaturgical process. Again, this stems from being able to accept context outside of one’s self , even as one is operating with the agreement that you are creating something together. Furthermore, it opens the discussion for narrative that dramaturges need to investigate when looking at adaptation: how is what the text says, and what I want to say, resonant to whoever hears it? And will I hear differently when I acknowledge that I am also treading on someone else’s understanding and context? The act of gaming through roleplay, and opening up the narrative to questioning, is a way to hone one’s sense of what drives human nature.
Finally, this brings us to the third part: Play itself. Role-playing is precisely that. Having established expectations and context, we now improvise the story. As game master, I must craft story even as I shouldn’t force it from my players, as they also have stories to tell. Conflict will arise of course (it’s hard to not have any wherever human interactions happen), but this is the conflict of the communal narrative, rather than an oppressive one of one individual’s story over others’. It is negotiated, as a group, to the end of their logical consequences.
What facilitates this beautifully are the rules of the game. I chose to highlight Esteren because of its elegant system of resolution. Unlike many games that require several stats (the hard numbers of probability that determine if a player succeeds at a given task or not), the game has reduced it to the roll of a simple die modified by what the player has predetermined her character is good or poor at. This reduces breaks in narrative that are a slog of computation. (I kid you not—there are games which require calculators to accurately add up the sums of modifiers to dice rolls.)
Furthermore, the game also has a dark ambience hanging over its setting. It makes a point of looking at characters as hardened survivors in a harsh area, where supernatural threats may or may not lurk outside the safety of civilisation. The game makes a point to record character trauma, and encourages players to predetermine their characters’ inclinations should events erode their characters’ psyches. This system of play, combined with the improvisational nature of roleplaying itself, means that players are, perhaps without meaning to, applying theories of acting: Meisner, which asks that “performers live truthfully in imaginary circumstances”, and Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater, which reminds us that scenes work if you find the game that scene is playing. In the case of roleplaying games, this game is laid ostensibly before us. For the dramaturge and playwright, it also means one is able to see the underpinning action that motivates character when context is shared.
Our group had two sessions, each of which lasted 8-9 hours. In that time, we managed to concoct a story of supernatural mystery and murder. I had five characters who had alternating turns investigating their neighbours, making Faustian deals, and questioning their standing in their faith. Other characters felt elation at succeeding at the hunt. We had town councils, classroom scenes, and saving others from the brink of death.
Each step required the characters and the game master interacting, raising questions and answering them in play. As we got to hone in on those answers, the narrative took care of itself.
Nine hours of pure storytelling. How’s that for productive? How’s that for practice? Outside of rehearsals, how often is this available to the playwright or the dramaturge?
The last step in this process is feedback. After the game, my group asks each other what we liked, what worked for the story. It’s almost like having a focus group of actors and playwrights in the same room because they contributed creatively to the story as well. I value these conversations as they contribute directly to my improvement; I want to handle stories better.
Let me end by saying that this method might not be for everyone. It’s expected: like I admitted earlier, it’s idiosyncratic. That said, I do think we shouldn’t be afraid to try to play with theatricality in our homes with the roleplaying game. Hobbyists might also find more options in their gaming with a little theatre theory mixed into their own play.
Curious readers in Manila might want to try the Gamers & GMs page, where a community of players and game masters congregate to experiment with and share roleplaying games to veteran and new players alike. They have a monthly event (on break for this December, however) with talks and open tables which lets people discover and experiment with a hobby, that for me at least, enriches participants both personally and professionally.
Happy gaming! Or maybe it’s better to say, happy making theatre!