Friday, March 23, 2012

RPG Theory: Parallels to Theater

Years ago, I encountered and tried to wrap my mind around the whole GNS (Gamist, Narrativist, and Simulationist) theory. I failed.

However, I did appreciate the attempt to understand RPGs in terms of different goals and priorities. It started me thinking along similar lines, though peppered with my own experiences with games, stories and storytelling, and simulating experiences.

What to call this series of ramblings? No idea, but I'll start on something that doesn't normally get discussed when talking about RPGs (well, okay -- I have not idea if it's discussed regularly in RPG theory): parallels to theater performances.

RPGs -- How are they like theater?

When I talk of theater, I speak inclusively about two types of theater performances -- scripted plays and improvisational theater. Because I'm not sure about my terminology, I'll define them.

Scripted plays for me refer to performances wherein a written play is interpreted and performed by a company of actors and a director.

Improvisational theater for me refers to performances wherein a situation is framed, characters are established, and a story is revealed and shared through the impromptu interplay of the actors and perhaps a moderator / director of some kind.

The parallel of the improvisational aspect is pretty clear -- except for the most railroady of games, there are questions as to which characters will perform significant activities to move the plot along, there is variance in terms of how successful the characters are, and certainly the words and interaction of PCs and NPCs are not scripted. All this is very much in line with improvisational theater, with a little bit to a lot of game mechanics and GM influence to adjudicate or guide the game's flow and progress.

There is, however an aspect of scripted plays. Certainly, railroaded plotlines may be seen as scripts. The classic modules where room descriptions were meant to be read out verbatim can be seen as scripts. Perhaps even the rules and game mechanics can be seen (if squinting and downing some alcohol) as script-ish in that it limits what a player's PC can do -- unlike most improvisational rulesets that encourage a "yes, but--" or "yes, and--" approach to things. Rules and Game Mechanics serve to negate or narrow elements of the performance that would otherwise be totally up to the performers to include or not.

RPGs -- Not Theater

And yet there are differences. In theater, the audience is really the, er, audience. The people watching are the targets of the performance, not the actors themselves.

The GM doesn't merely adjudicate or guide, he/she often plays the role(s) of other characters that the actors encounter.

Elements of the story aren't revealed as exposition from the PCs, unless the GM decides he must do the heavy lifting of a one-human Greek Chorus.

And, depending on the game chosen, there are rules that determine how successful physical, mental, emotional, psychic, and spiritual conflicts are resolved -- things that would be invisible to the audience (especially those who don't understand the game rules or setting). In plays and stories, deserving a success or failure is often up to story logic (good or bad), while in many RPGs, there are game mechanics to regulate said triumphs and tragedies.


Next RPG Theory post: Stories and Storytelling in RPGs

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