Telling Stories: Playception

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.

I do not know why it is that people like the idea of putting on a play in-character.  Seriously, couldn’t tell you.  It’s kind of ridiculous, you’re already in the midst of a play in the first place.  You’re doing the same thing, only another layer down.  I suspect that eventually you’d wind up with players roleplaying their characters who are also roleplaying characters who themselves start roleplaying, going four or five levels deep before you start asking what the heck is going on and what series of life choices brought you to this point.

However, I also know that I love the idea, because I totally want to see my characters on stage and hamming it up.  Nonsensical?  Sure.  Also fun as hell.

Of course, if you didn’t already know (and you probably did), putting on an actual play is an activity fraught with pitfalls and problems.  Putting on an in-character play is even more problematic.  So let’s take a look at what you can use to make it go… well, not smoothly, it’s not going to go smoothly, but at least less poorly.

Or players, same deal.

This does not necessarily apply to characters who are themselves theatrical and spend hours in the rain just to look cool.

Keep it short and punchy

Final Fantasy VI has one of the best in-game depictions of a stage production ever.  It lasts for… about three scenes.  Just enough time to get to the highlights of the production, bypassing all of the other useful bits of the storyline, side characters, and so forth.  It is compressed.  Were you to put it on as an actual play, you would basically need to write an entire real-world play around a handful of plot points.

However, when you’re putting on a production in-character, that’s honestly the level of depth that you want.  Going into grand detail is just going to accomplish two things – it’s going to make a single roleplaying session drag on forever, and it’s going to make watching the performance interminable.  Much less actually participating in it.  Before you put on any sort of stage production in-game, you need to trim it down to the bare essentials and make sure that it’s easy as hell to understand at a glance; willing suspension of disbelief will fill in the rest.

To use an obvious example that you can read for free online, if you’re putting on a setting-appropriate adaptation of Hamlet?  Get rid of basically everyone.  Your cast consists of Claudius, Hamlet, Horatio, Ophelia, and Laertes.  Condense scenes so that you establish what’s going on, focusing on Hamlet figuring out Claudius killed his dad, Ophelia committing suicide, ad the final duel where everyone dies.  You can blow through it in a couple of scenes.  You get the idea.

Make the production about the staff

By definition, roleplaying about a play is meta-roleplaying.  You’re putting on a play about putting on a play.  That means that first and foremost, the people involved need to be sources of drama and interest for everyone taking part.

Much like a film about the making of a film or a play, the real interest for the audience (i.e. the other players) is what’s going on behind the scenes.  Conflicts between the actors.  disagreements.  How the whole thing ties in separate character motivations.  Rehearsals aren’t really about memorizing lines, but about how Hamlet’s actor isn’t remembering her lines, the actress playing Ophelia pining after the actor of Horatio whilst he’s in relationship with Laertes’ actor… you get the idea.  People playing off one another behind the scenes.

Since you’ve got a small cast, if you have more people who want to take part, this is where support staff can be invaluable.  There’s plenty of space for the prop manager to get into shouting matches with people, or for the director and the wardrobe folks to play out little side-dramas.  For people involved, the most interesting part should be what’s going on behind the scenes.

We don't want funny ha-ha, we want funny uh-oh.

“Mmm… no. Your attacks are technically proficient, but they’re boring to watch. You’re too busy trying to kill me, I want you to try and stage-kill me. Okay? Great.”

Remember, it’s a performance

In a roleplaying setting, every character is as good an actor as the player.  By definition.  If you’re a good roleplayer, your character is a convincing actor.  Which means that what you desperately need to do is ensure that you’re not roleplaying your role, but roleplaying your character playing the role.

Maybe your character is a terrible actor.  Maybe she’s good, but she’s acting in the wrong role – i.e. a really funny actress who’s trying to be dramatic, and trying too hard to be taken seriously.  Perhaps your normally taciturn warrior turns out to have a very gentle and artistic side.  You get the idea.  There’s another layer of separation between you and the role, and keeping that layer in place is crucial insofar as you need to make this about more than just another form of roleplaying.

To tie into the last point, it’s also another good source of drama.  Sure, you the player have no reason to forget your lines.  But your character might, and that might tie into your feud with the director… and, well, I don’t need to write all of your conflicts.  Point is, keep it dramatic.

When the performance starts, divorce yourselves

It’s no good to put on a play without people coming to see it.  I recognize having a couple of performances, both so more people can attend and to simulate in microcosm the feeling of being on the stage.  But the important thing is that once you get up on stage, you should not be directly interacting with the audience.

In games like Final Fantasy XIV, you can make a linkshell specifically for the performance, while conversations can carry on in /say channels.  Games that don’t allow you to temporarily join guilds or the like can often use custom chat channels.  Ideally, you want to have no one speaking in the “performance” channel but the performers; if you can put controls in place to ensure that, so much the better.  Otherwise, you will have to rely on the honor system, although most players who take the time to sit in on an in-character play are probably willing to be respectful.

Yes, maybe your character on stage is nervous because of who’s in the audience – use that for your performance.  But maybe the audience doesn’t intersect with you at all.  Perhaps you’re putting on a play and characters are coming in, playing out their own private little dramas, and then stepping out.  You’re just there to entertain.

Difficult?  Oh, yes.  But the show must go on.

Feedback, like always, is welcome however you choose to communicate it, from comments to email to messages.  Next week, I want to take a look at some big roleplaying events that stick in my memory and why.  The week after that, it’s time to talk about what kind of world your character’s living in, which allows for a lot of variation even within the game’s setting.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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