TTRPGs as tools for theatre-makers

I’ve had a lot of discussions with theatre-makers (in general, but especially lately) who are curious about TTRPGs as means of storytelling, and combining elements of them with their theatre practice, how they devise shows, and suchlike. I often end up recommending the same systems or mechanics to look at, is I thought it was about time to just write them down!

I’m only going to go into general details here as a) in some cases I can’t go into full-blown detail without basically just quoting the game wholesale and b) I want to encourage people to go play and try out these games and mechanics, rather than replace any need for doing so.

Star Trek Adventures’ lifepaths and values.

This game has a neat system for creating a life-long context for your character (incorporating the kind of culture they were born into, the kind of environment they grew up, who their parents were, and so on) which can give you a rough sketch of someone’s life and defining career moments within minutes. Your characters ‘values’ (to pull some I had in a game: ‘you can only rely upon yourself’, ‘everything I need to know I’ve already learned’ and suchlike) have genuine mechanical value and can be invoked or changed during play to help you achieve goals, which helps them to drive choices and story and feel like more than just colour that might be played upon.

Ten Candles’ vices, virtues, hopes and moments.

This was the first game I played where players created each others’ characters, all contributing elements of each and building them collaboratively. Ten Candles’ prompts for generating a character are so evocative – thinking of what someone is capable of at their worst, for instance, gives such a strong sense of them in one sentence. As with Star Trek Adventures, it also gives mechanical weight to these so that they can be used to impact the story.

Dread’s front-loaded questions.

To be honest, most games of Dread that I’ve played have done away with the character questionnaire element, or done it very informally. However, having a list of heavily front-loaded questions (‘why do you blame yourself for your friend failing to get into college?’, ‘what gift from your older brother do you always have on you?’, ‘why have you always found the ocean terrifying?’) helps immensely with generating a quick, distinctive sense of character you’ve put your stamp on. As with so many of these mechanics or features, it’s all about giving valuable prompts.

Microscope‘s whole deal.

For any theatre-makers looking for games or mechanics to help create worlds and histories, rather than just characters, Microscope is a good game to check out. The game is solely focused on building up the history of a place – and those terms (‘history/place’) are deliberately general. It’s made to span small or immense stretches of time, covering discrete or vast locations. What it does well is build a sense of connected events and an organic history, with its defining moments laid out clearly.

Lady Blackbird’s 4 Cs.

[Okay, in a sense this is ‘John Harper’s 4 Cs’ but when I saw them he was tweeting about how he used them specifically in Lady Blackbird’s design, and it keeps the list’s format consistent, etc etc.] These are basically things to think about in terms of how a character relates to the world, which I’m paraphrasing to an extent here: connected (what positive and negative relationships does the character have with others in the world?) capable (how can they affect change in the world, how can they impact it?), committed (what do they care about that drives them to action or keeps them involved in situations?) and conflicted (what about their beliefs or goals is in tension?). If you play Lady Blackbird, how these ideas are baked into the pre-made characters is really evident.

The Life of Mermaids’ introductory workshop.

Okay, we’re moving into LARP here, but there’s still plenty that’s valuable for (and may be more familiar/in the wheelhouse of) theatre-makers. As is so common, one of the reasons this LARP’s techniques have struck me is because it’s one of the first chamber LARP scripts I read. I’m especially a fan of line up and attitudes, because they’re both very clear, streamlined techniques for establishing power dynamics and relationships between characters – both between individuals and in a wider group context.

Those are all the ones I’ll share for now (as it’s plenty to get your teeth into!) but I’ll try to add some more soon, especially ones from smaller-scale creators as there’s always phenomenally creative and engaging forms of storytelling in indie spaces like itch.io – the above are just the ones that are immediately coming to my mind this afternoon.

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