The Role of the Audience

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.