Monday, 27 October 2014

D&D as street performance, or how to be the world's worst detective

(Update: the previous version of this post misidentified the university where Jennifer studies. My bad!)

The other day, I was walking through the Grafton Centre on my way to buy some shoes, when I met a young woman who handed me this:

So I asked her what it was, and she explained that she's a performing arts student from the University of Falmouth and that she was staging a performance the next day -- one indebted to D&D. I happened not to have a lot going on, so I decided to swing by while out running some errands. 

So, as you can see, her name is Jennifer Herron and the piece is called "Assassination! " It's a "scratch performance," which is to say a piece that isn't yet finished. Basically, it is a little mini-scenario that she runs for whoever happens by.

Character sheets! I played Krivoc, the half orc warrior, following in my traditional belief that the easiest way to encounter a new situation is playing a derpy face-kicker. Each character has an ability that gets activated by dinging a bell on the table, as you can see, together with a couple of sort of narrative personality traits. Sadly, in my enthusiasm to smite a fool I forgot to ding the bell myself.

And there's a map!

You can't go wrong with a map. 
After my own playthrough (found the culprit in the assassination but decided to side with her, framed someone I didn't like for the crime -- turns out a half-bright half-orc is not the person you want solving your crimes) I asked Jennifer why she had decided to use D&D for her project. She told me that she's an avid fan (and a LARPer) and that she thought of D&D as a form of interactive theatre -- her programme is apparently big on interactivity. 

The old "are RPGs art" debate is usually presented as a conflict between traditional D&D types and Storygamers or WoD enthusiasts. I think it is very interesting to see that it isn't like that for at least one D&D fan.

Someone -- possibly Gary Alan Fine? -- said that it was very interesting how gamers were able to switch between different modes of interaction (what would be called "stances" in Big Model Theory) without any warning, and how everyone at the table was able to understand that. For instance, I can go from speaking in character ("you son of a bitch, you sold us out!") to describing my character's actions ("and then I punch him in the chops") to talking about game mechanics ("six damage!") to talking about unrelated stuff ("pass the crisps?"). And although these are four very different kinds of communication, we can flip between them in a way that everyone at the table understands. 

I was thinking about this when Jennifer mentioned the kinds of intense emotional experiences that can happen in gaming. And I absolutely agree that those experiences are important -- but at the same time, I think that if you were to look at my D&D group swapping jokes or trying to puzzle their way through a dungeon room, you wouldn't think that you were looking at people engaging in a form of theatre. And yet, it's undeniable that those moments, when they do happen, do have a theatrical quality to them. So perhaps one of the interesting things about gaming is the way in which it can switch between those moments and other activities without (necessarily, anyway) disrupting any of them (although breaking immersion in live games can be a big problem, I suppose).

I asked Jennifer what the response of passersby had been, and she told me it had been variable -- some people had been responsive, but others had been a little reluctant. I think that getting people to be creative on cue -- even with the kind of prompts and constraints that a game provides -- is pretty challenging, and certainly I would never be able to set out my shingle and just run a little game for people in public. But then that's why I am not going into the performing arts, I suppose. (You may say that teaching is a performance, and it is, but it's not the same at all.)

Apparently the final performance might even involve drafting in other students as NPCs, which I think is a pretty interesting idea -- it would present a very different experience, but a lot of the structure would remain the same. In fact, you could run it for a "party" of audience members.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting take on the D&D experience -- and interesting in particular how closely a D&D art project resembles, well, a game of D&D. Although I think you might not be getting the full experience without a party of characters with differing agendas.

You can learn more about the development of the project by checking out Jennifer's YouTube channel here

I don't want to spam people with promotional links, but I will just mention that my little Lovecraft-y, Viking-y, horribly-depressing-y novella "The Barest Branch" is now on sale for a mere £1.25 at Drivethru as part of their Halloween sale. Sale ends October 31st, at which point it goes up to about £2, so ... still pretty cheap.

Next up, I'm going to talk about using "horror" monsters as D&D monsters, and why I think it works even though it absolutely shouldn't. 

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