Kabuki Stagecrew

Kabuki Stagecrew

That’s Latin for “the art is in concealing the art”. I’ve long held it dear as a motto, through work as a stagehand to work as a systems administrator. In both such jobs, the pinnacle of achievement is to do your job such that people not only don’t know you’re doing it, but forget that it’s even a job that needs to be done.

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Peter Brook’s excellent The Empty Space has been my reading of late. It’s a wonderful book on theater, but not wholly irrelevant to thinking about role-playing games, either. There are many parallels one can draw between gaming and other media—novels or short stories, plays, improv, movies, TV shows—and much to be gained from looking at media with longer critical traditions.

So, Brook has been talking about the problems with the various participants in an instance of theater. He has moved from the actors and directors through the audience and reached the writers. Audience and actors are clear enough roles in a role-playing game, and director is even relatively clear, but there’s an important sense in which there is no writer—or, to be more precise, no one author. Each participant takes on this role in some fashion at different times, even in the most GM-heavy game. So what does Brook have to say about group authorship?

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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.

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