TO BE / NOT TO BE / TO PLAY
Here are our unwritten rules, the essential sheet music to our Orchestra, the melody that comes out of what we like to call the four magic ɪs: Imagination, Interpretation, Improvisation… In action. In other words, our groove.
No two bands play the same way, but knowing how the Italian Chamber Orchestra plays 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): It’s always worth it to experiment and we won’t be the ones to stop you. On the contrary, we would love to hear how it goes.
These, however, are the little secrets to our groove.
We are not 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 engaged, letting everybody have their own space and helping whoever’s struggling with their part. That’s why we like scenarios where everyone is a protagonist and there are no extras.
We are not directors. Playing does not mean fighting over who gets to bring their inner vision to light. Filming a movie inside our heads before beginning would just limit the infinite possibilities of improvisation, and generate frustration when things inevitably turn out different. That’s why we like to read our character sheets only minutes before playing: No plan survives contact with other players.
We are not 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 game’s success 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 are not 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 it, 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 are not scenographers. Being able to play in a location that fits the setting of a scenario is wonderful, having the appropriate costumes on hand is fantastic. But ideal conditions aren’t 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 small 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 are not 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 that 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 are not mimes. There are situations that simply can’t be reproduced, like violence or extreme physical intimacy. Everyone has their limits and it can be hard to know what they are in advance. On the other hand, our games don’t rely on dice or numbers, and pantomime is an art that should never be improvised. That’s why we like to think in 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 easier to control. A hug can stand in for a kiss, an insult for a contemptuous spit in the face.
We are not a censorship board. It’s right to accurately portray a game and warn players about sensitive subjects, but not even the most honest trailer is a guarantee that we’re going to enjoy the movie. To play means to take risks. We 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» feels no better than poorly miming a punch. That’s why we like feeling at ease when we play pretend. But we also like being challenged by our games and finding our boundaries through trial and error.
We are not 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 finger. Characters are tools for the enjoyment of players, and playing 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 cutting other players out of the fun by shooting their characters in the head after five minutes, just because nobody told us not to.
We’re just people who say «Yes, and…». The one true rule of improvisation is to appreciate every prompt you get, to use it as a starting point and develop it in your own special way. This is true of the author’s words: Secrets must come to light, choices must be made. It’s also true of 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, possibly in extravagant costumes, 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