Journal Entry

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Tabletop as anti-Improv

Working on the rules for Shtetl World (longform tabletop RPG, "if Isaac Bashevis Singer instead of Tolkein was the ur-text of fantasy roleplaying") for the playtest I ran at Wiscon led me to also whip together a new version of Sing Your Heart Out (short freeform karaoke RPG in the spirit of Glee or High School Musical).

SYHO is a freeform game, which means it's sort of somewhere between a tabletop RPG and a LARP, and SYHO makes this division explicit by having a Table and a Stage. I've noticed when playing Fiasco that you sort of alternate between planning conversations where you are setting up Scenes, and full-on-improv mode where you are playing them; there are other games that I've read but not played (maybe it was Under My Skin?) that use a physical division of space to mark this. If you're in a scene, you literally get up from the Table and walk over to the part of the room designated as the Stage.

Googling up improv rules to guide on-Stage play, I noticed how different these modes are. The improv rules are designed to keep the flow unbroken, to avoid shattering the audience's illusion that this is really happening in realtime, as well as to afford the immediate, on-the-fly creation of setting.

But some of the best things that happen in tabletop RPGs are precisely reliant on breaking the flow, on discussing "what's about to happen" in a way that allows us to edit and revise it as we speak, instead of having it instantly become "already happened" as soon as it's uttered. (Indeed, tabletop RPG culture has long had the distinction of "on table" for things that happened in the game world and can't be "taken back"; a distinction that implies that the default is "off table", subject to revision).

One of the exciting GM techniques recently formalized in indie gaming circles (like most of the good stuff, it's something people always stumbled upon by accident) is leading questions asked of the player. "So you're passing by Gertrude's house. Why does she hate you again?" The 'again' is playful, because in the story so far, nothing has ever been said about any such Gertrude who hates the PC. It's a pure impromptu invention, a curveball by the GM which is an invitation to the player to co-create the world.

This is certainly improvisational, in the sense that no one planned it. It's also specifically what theatrical improv warns against -- an open-ended question that stops the flow of play dead. Because what a good player does in that moment is often, precisely, to mull it over.

Some of the best moments in the series of Shtetl World playtests I just ran were precisely such pauses. The GM throws a curveball at the player -- "why does she resent you?" Or the dice (or, here, dreidels) throw a curveball at the GM: what's the hard choice? What's the complication? And you stop and wait while that person thinks -- and comes up with something awesome. Or they toss up a possibility they're not fully satisfied with, and someone else riffs on it, and there's some back-and-forth until the idea solidifies, and play moves on.

In this kind of play, you don't "yes, and". You don't avoid open-ended questions. It's not the improv stage, it's a writer's room, riffing and debating and counterproposing until a vision emerges.

The rule in SYHO is "argue at the Table, agree on Stage". I'm hoping marking the distinction will lead to more powerful play. It does demand players who can get along in both styles (they also have to be willing to sing out loud; it's a demanding game, I guess). It does also cut down on the kind of fluid switching back between the two modes that tabletop players are used to. I'm interested to see how it'll play out.

Posted by benrosen at May 31, 2016 06:58 PM | Up to blog
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