No two bands play the same way, but knowing how we do it when we get together for a jam session might give some useful context to our scenarios. If nothing else, it helps us explain in which environment they worked best.
Of course, sometimes the Blues Brothers get their hands on a gig at Bob’s Country Bunker and after some initial setbacks the concert goes swimmingly (more or less).
These, however, are the little secrets to our groove.
We’re no actors. Coming up with witty banter or asserting our stage presence might have a great impact, but it’s not the point of the game. What makes a difference to our general enjoyment is keeping all players involved, letting everybody have their own space and helping whoever’s struggling with their part. That’s why we like scenarios where everyone’s a protagonist and there are no extras.
We’re no directors. Playing does not mean fighting over who gets to bring their vision to light. Filming a movie inside our heads before beginning will limit the infinite possibilities of improvisation, and generate frustration when things inevitably turn out different. That’s why we like to only read the character sheets minutes before playing: No plan survives contact with other players.
We’re no spectators. There is no audience in a live-action roleplaying game, nor is there a single point of view that would allow someone to enjoy the action from the outside. As integral parts of the story, we all need to remember that it won’t go on by itself, prodded on by the author’s prompting. Watching is not enough. The success of the game is our responsibility: In fact, the more responsibilities we take on, the more we can impact the story. That’s why we like to fill silence with ideas and intuitions, instead of useless complaints.
We’re no screenwriters. Our games are made of words, but everything that stays on paper without making it into the scene might as well not exist. This goes for players, who shouldn’t ignore the input they get, and for authors, who shouldn’t ask too much of them. That’s why we like to discuss a scenario once we’re done playing, but we find posthumous explanations of what we wanted the story to be nothing short of frustrating. The only thing that matters is what it actually was.
We’re no scenographers. Being able to play in a place that fits the setting of a scenario is wonderful, having the appropriate costumes on hand is fantastic. But ideal conditions are not that easy to come by, while imagination is always there for us. What really makes a difference are the little things, anyways: Sometimes, a minimalist stage play can be more fascinating than a blockbuster movie epic. That’s why we like working on the details, by distancing ourselves at least a little from our usual patterns of dress, movement and speech. It’s a vital part of identification.
We’re no stuntmen. If roleplaying means pretending to be somebody else, we might as well leave our own skills and personal traits in the closet. We see no added value in assigning roles based on the players’ strengths: We’d rather all be free to experiment, even in spite of verisimilitude. That’s why we like losing, knowing it doesn’t depend on our abilities and that it can even be more fun than winning. After all, the only thing that matters is playing.
We’re no mimes. There are situations that simply cannot be reproduced, like violence or extreme physical intimacy. Everyone has their limits and it’s hard to know what they are in advance. On the other hand, our games don’t rely on dice or numbers, and mimicking an action in a believable way is an art that should never be improvised. That’s why we like to think with symbols and moderate physical contact: Grabbing someone by their collar is just as aggressive a gesture as a punch or push, but it’s far more easy to control. A hug can stand for a kiss, an insult for a contemptuous spit in the face.
We’re no Censorship board. It’s right to present a game with precision and to warn players about sensitive subjects, but not even the most honest of trailers is a guarantee that we’ll like the movie. To play means to take some risks. Let’s never establish taboo words, nor substitute actions with out-of-game statements: We don’t see the appeal of a politically correct scenario about racism, and saying: «I hit you» doesn’t feel any better than poorly mimicking a punch. That’s why we like being comfortable, but we also like being challenged by the games and discovering our boundaries through trial and error.
We’re no Stanislavski. When a roleplayer has a terrible idea, they often hide behind the excuse that their mistake was “what the character would have done”. Which is somewhat like blaming the hammer when you slam it on your own finger. Characters are tools for the enjoyment of players, and identifying with one does not authorise us to lose sight of the mechanics of the game, someone else’s obvious discomfort, or the laws of the State. Playing means being simultaneously both inside and outside of the story we’re pretending to live through, and thinking not only within the narrative, but also in service to it. That’s why we don’t like taking out other players by shooting their characters in the head after five minutes, just because nobody told us not to.
We’re the ones who say «Yes, and…». The one true rule of improvisation is to appreciate every prompt you get, to use them as starting points and develop them your own way. This is true of the author’s words: Secrets must come to light, choices must be made. It’s also true of the other characters’ suggestions: Their inventions become reality and their actions have consequences. That’s why we like to play along even when our character gets shot, knowing it’s up to us to establish how serious the wound is. Spending an entire game agonising is a great way to die of enjoyment.
What we mean by all this is that comparing a roleplay game to a movie or theatre play might help give the idea of a group of people portraying characters, maybe in costume, but it also makes the concept vulnerable to a long list of misunderstandings.
That’s why we’d rather pretend to be an orchestra instead of a crew or a troupe, that’s why we want to hear what our sheet music sounds like when you play it.
Oscar & the Italian Chamber Orchestra