Role-playing games traditionally don’t have an audience. Not as such, anyway. Rather, all the participants are audience and auteur. Many indie games (Polaris, Shock:, perhaps even In a Wicked Age) play with the idea of rotating narrative authority, such that at any given time, some of the participants will be audience. Some of these games give different (mechanical) roles to the audience, but I want to talk about something slightly different, more general.

Playing a role-playing game can be exhausting. It takes focus, creativity, willingness to put forth ideas without fear of judgment, and more. It can be very useful to take some time as the audience to recuperate from a turn in the spotlight. Some people will have more energy for the spotlight roles, and those that don’t, shouldn’t be ashamed. But the most important thing about this, I think, is that while the audience role may be receptive, it is not passive.

I’ve begun reading Peter Brook’s The Empty Space and was inspired by this passage about the role of the audience in making good theater:

After this had gone on for some time, I proposed an experiment. The amateur actor was to read the speech again, stopping for a moment after each name: the audience was to endeavour silently in the pause to recall and put together its impressions of Auschwitz and Agincourt, to try to find a way of believing that these names were once individuals, as vividly as if the butchery had occurred in living memory. The amateur began to read again and the audience worked hard, playing its part. As he spoke the first name, the half silence became a dense one. Its tension caught the reader, there was an emotion in it, shared between him and them and it turned all his attention away from himself on to the subject matter he was speaking. Now the audience’s concentration began to guide him: his inflexions were simple, his rhythms true: this in turn increased the audience’s interest and so the two-way current began to flow.

It is a matter of yīn and yáng, really. Both sides must participate, but the nature of that participation is different.

However, I don’t want to be misinterpreted: the audience isn’t the one who should do all the work. The audience should remember that they are there at the table to take part in the performance*, but the actor/writers should engage their audience, and play to them. I think having some of the group at any given time functioning as audience can, if people understand and engage in their roles, improve the quality of play.

Expect more from Brook as I read more. A shout-out to Griffin again, for turning me on to this book.


* There’s a lot of talk about games-as-narrative, as story, but little that I have seen about games-as-performance. As a linguist interested in orality, I find myself intrigued at the heavily literate, text-oriented approach many people take to role-playing games. Any folklorist will tell you that performance is very important to oral traditions!


Edited to add: in GMly games, it’s often the case that the GM will be in an audience role when there are intra-party dynamics going on. But I’ve never seen the GM space out during that time. Why might this be? My best guess is that the GM has an intrinsic investment in the events, that a player might not feel towards some other player’s scene.

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  • Chris

    It’s ridiculous how many different things can and do go into the TRPG experience. Performance, sure, and more obviously strategy, story-telling, and relationship-building (ultimately it does amount to time spent with friends), but also psychology, art therapy, and politics (ideally democracy, but the benevolent dictator DM has his uses too). I think this is due to the unique manner in which the medium handles creativity, narrative authority, and as you say: receptivity.

    I think there’s also a much more common parlance way to talk about the two-way flow you reference, Kit. Attention. Think of the difference between DMing a scene in which all the players are held in rapt attention vs. one in which there are side-conversations, people are going through rules books, doodling, texting, what-have-you. I think a similar phenomenon exists with group size. For some reason, playing with fewer than 3 players feels less “legitimate”, almost “small-time”. I think this is a function of attention, or of the importance of an audience. And I agree that this is something that is not often talked about in gaming circles, at least not the ones I frequent, though I cannot speak to ‘the literature’.

    • Attention! Of course. That is a good way to put it. But attention, as it’s usually talked about, is something that you are given if you earn it, not something that you consciously give to improve people’s performance. I want to emphasize both directions.

      Group size is an interesting issue; two of the top five gaming experiences I’ve ever had have been with very small groups, one with a player and a GM, one with two players (and a third at the very end) and a GM. The attention was very tightly focused in those games—no one was ever zoning out, because everything that happened pertained to their character. I’ll have to think more on this. I think it’s also tied to my thoughts on the right number of sessions for a game. Many people prefer both more people (to a limit) and longer ongoing games (to no apparent limit), neither of which I’m quite keen on. I’ll think about this.

  • Personally, I get the most enjoyment as a GM when I reach that moment when the game runs itself. To wit, when the players are all concentrating on themselves, I get the much needed break from having to run things and get the enjoyment of watching the plot unfold without having to create it myself.

    This is even more true in those indie, story-based games we so love. Because so much of the game is story based, the GM role is heavy on creation and light on adjudication. It’s harder. So being able to kick back and watch the players do the heavy lifting is a joy.

    • Creation vs. Adjudication, interesting. I think that creation intrinsically requires a certain amount of adjudication, so it’s strictly more to do.

      But yes, I love that point, but a large part of why I GM is for the pleasure of getting people to that point.