“Don’t you see?! We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!”
—”The Player”, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard
I think I have been making a very silly mistake for a while. For the past year and a half or so I’ve been obsessed with paradigms and systems for organizing narrative. Particularly, I’ve been trying to use the Color Wheel from Magic the Gathering and the Aspects from Homestuck to guide and structure my game writing and design.
These systems are very useful for designing coherent stories and helping keep a narrative on track. And a recent experiment showed some promise, but through it all things still were not quite ‘clicking’.
After some thought, I believe I have located the space in which the solution lies.
Stepping through the Fourth Wall
When I was young, I did quite a bit of acting. For the most part, this involved stage acting at my local university’s theater and then at a new children’s theater. There’s nothing quite like falling into a role and when a scene is going well and everyone onstage is fully committed the result is spectacular.
As I grew older, I began to notice a distinction (particularly at the children’s theater, which often saw some young thespians in their first roles) between actors who could make the leap into their character and those who could not.
Many kids could learn their lines pretty well, follow the blocking, and speak clearly. Yet when they were on stage everything about their performance screamed ‘amateur’. They would try to act out their parts but the only thing that would come across was the trying.
Getting into character is a skill on its own, one that takes time to develop. It comes more easily for some than others, but most figured it out eventually.
Konstantin Stanislavski found the world of Russian theater in a sorry state (probably, the source with all the best descriptions seems to be unattributed notes from a lecture and I was able to corroborate some but not all of these details by Googling; luckily I am not concerned here with accuracy, just a good story)
The acting style itself was almost anarchic. Actors would strut on stage as they saw fit and deliver the lines downstage to the audience, without any regard to addressing fellow actors.
The script meant less than nothing. Sometimes the cast did not even bother to learn their lines. Leading actors would simply plant themselves downstage centre, by the prompter’s box, wait to be fed the lines then deliver them straight at the audience in a ringing voice, giving a fine display of passion and “temperament.” Everyone, in fact, spoke their lines out front. Direct communication with the other actors was minimal. Furniture was so arranged as to allow the actors to face front. (Benedetti, 1989)
Most actors received no formal training and would, at best, be instructed to copy more experienced actors as exactly as they could. This worked passably for melodrama or farce but the brilliance of Shakespeare and Moliere and other great playwrights was lost almost entirely in such conditions.
Stanislavski’s first major hurdle as a director was simply to get his actors to arrive for rehearsals on time, sober, and with lines memorized.
With these technical obstacles cleared, though, he began developing and perfecting a system that would be called ‘Stanislavski’s System’ and in America morphed into ‘The Method‘.
A Method for Games
Reading through the descriptions of pre-Stanislavski Russian theater struck me as an interesting parallel to the games I run. Particularly in that, while comedic moments can come through easily and often, other emotional expression tends to be much more difficult. There is a level of depth we are barely scraping.
So, I have examined the the key features of the System and recorded my thoughts for how they might translate to tabletop RPGs.
In a play, the given circumstances are everything we factually and canonically know about a character and the setting. The lines in the script, the backstory of a character, everything down to the time of day in a scene and the clothes a character is wearing.
Additionally, the given circumstances can include specific interpretations by the director or the actor (particularly when the script itself does not specify something that could be important for a performance).
In a game, my interpretation is that this refers also to game mechanics. Players do not have ‘lines’ in an RPG that dictate their words, nor blocking to direct their action. But games do have rules that constrain what can happen.
Stanislavski “didn’t consider feelings within the play until he had mastered the facts” (those notes again) and I think this extends quite well to RPGs. Before you can play your character you must understand all of the game rules that affect your play, all of the details in your character’s backstory, and everything else of relevance in making your character who they are.
Of course, in a modern RPG this is often unfeasible. Most editions of D&D have three core rulebooks plus dozens of optional supplementary rules and memorizing this in its entirety is too strict a constraint on players.
A weaker version I believe to be sufficient and more manageable is that players ought to have memorized: their character sheet (including equipment and spells!), their backstory, the relevant lore about their race and class, and all of the rules involved in the core game loop (for D&D this mostly means the combat rules plus a few skills relevant to the adventure) before being able to inhabit their character fully.
The flip side to this is that if a GM is designing a game for players to inhabit their characters then they must minimize the details for players to keep track of as much as possible. A high-level Wizard with access to hundreds of spells and dozens of magic items will be very difficult to memorize in this way. Perhaps some strict requirement like ‘character sheets must fit one one piece of paper’ will be useful, but I am unsure.
Considering this further, I think that any in-game discussion of mechanics risks breaking character. Here, D&D becomes fully unworkable: the spell names, while descriptive, are utilitarian and boring and gameplay consists almost necessarily of the DM saying things like ‘you lose 3 hit points’ or ‘make a reflex save’.
Campaigns which emphasize character should use a relatively simple mechanical system which can be operated with minimal direct mechanical exposure. (This is where having the computer keep track of stuff comes in handy, but that’s a whole other post.)
Stanislavski also emphasizes the importance of keeping in mind a character’s objective in a given action, in a scene, and over the course of the play. This is in many ways much more natural for RPGs where players are already very attentive to the objectives their characters have.
One detail that is often overlooked, though, is that characters may have objectives or desires they are not consciously aware of. Indeed, a great deal of drama can come from characters who do not fully understand themselves and their own intentions.
So in addition to remaining aware of macro goals even in the micro environment (which is strategically useful in addition to being good for character development) and having well-defined and character specific goals, players ought to be consciously aware of some things about their character that the characters do not know about themselves.
Alternatively, players might seek to have a ‘lie their character believes’; some mistaken belief that shapes how their character interacts with the world and limits them in some way.
As a game develops, both players and GM will see the themes and ideas of the story emerge. While a GM may have their own impressions of what the theme of a game will be when designing it, often play highlights unexpected elements.
Stanislavski calls the ultimate aim of a character the ‘super-objective’ and I believe in a game this ought to be distinct from the character’s goals. We might say the goals are what the character wants but the objective is what they need (we might say this, but I am hesitant to because there are stories that do not quite fall in line with this pattern, I think to a first approximation this is still sufficient).
My view is that players should have some ideas about what their super-objective will be at the start of the game but should also be open to changing if a stronger story emerges. Much of this falls into my thoughts about character arcs in games, which is its own post I think.
This is the feature of the System that almost seems intentionally geared towards RPGs. Put very simply, the magic ‘if’ asks the actor “what you you do if you were in this situation?”, a question which from a certain perspective is the fundamental unifying principle of RPGs.
Yet there is also valuable insight here that I think can be lost. Stanislavski himself wrote,
When I give a genuine answer to the if, then I do something, I am living my own personal life. At moments like that there is no character. Only me. All that remains of the character and the play are the situation, the life circumstances, all the rest is mine, my own concerns, as a role in all its creative moments depends on a living person, i.e., the actor, and not the dead abstraction of a person, i.e., the role.
Characters in a stage-play are bound to the script and their actors do not have the freedoms granted to players in an RPG. Some of these characters are not good people, some are vile and horrible villains meant to impart moral lessons.
But for the actor playing such a character, they must do more than understand why the character does what they do. The actor must see how they themselves could be what their character is. To do this fully is often an unpleasant thing. It requires embracing an uglier side of our humanity than we typically do.
Stanislavski is said to have worried, towards the end of his career, that identifying too strongly with a character could cause psychological harm to the actor and weaken the boundaries between fiction and reality. This is a concern that extends even more strongly to the final technique.
Truth on the stage is whatever we can believe in sincerely.
Emotion is a very physiological phenomenon. The mental components are merely one part of the felt experience of an emotion and not necessarily the largest. Heart rate, body tension, posture, micro-expressions, and hundreds of other tiny shifts contribute to the whole.
If a performance is to be fully compelling, the actor must be able to effect an emotional state appropriate to the character in the moment. One technique Stanislavski devised to accomplish this is emotional memory.
Emotional memory asks the actor to recall personal experiences to help generate the sought-after affect. This often involves highly emotionally charged memories but for some it can also be done through experiences with fiction.
When I first raised the idea of using acting techniques in games with the rest of AWDE, reactions were mixed. While I will not mention every objection raised, one of them particularly stuck in my mind and is worth exploring here.
People play the games I run for many reasons but one of them is to have fun. Life is hard and stressful and RPGs provide an escape, they provide a light environment to relax with friends. In many was, what I’m talking about here is the opposite of that.
It comes as little surprise to anyone who knows me that I lean on the ‘high-effort’ side of leisure. I like video games that make me use spreadsheets, I like books that hide their plots or webnovels with multi-ASOIAF word counts, I like music that ‘sounds like getting lost inside an Escher etching’. So of course, when I run games, I try to find was to make as much work for myself (and sometimes my players) as possible.
But there’s more to it than that, I think. I’ve always felt like there were vast unexplored territories in the intersection between tabletop games, video games, and more traditional narratives. It’s like we’ve just barely gotten up to our ankles in the vast ocean the possibilities.
Running games with AWDE for the past few years has made me realize that I really want to explore that ocean. I want to go beyond ‘fun’ and see what happens when we push the limits of social play. I want to break things and make mistakes and regret everything as the fires climb around me and the ill-conceived animatronic dragons lay waste to the city around me.
Maybe that ocean of possibilities has sharks, maybe it has poison octopi, maybe there Cthulhu lies dreaming, but it’s there. Not exploring it was never an option.