Theatre of the Mind

A Dramaturgical Perspective on Tabletop Role-Playing Games

All over the world, people are logging onto Zoom to tell stories together—stories of community and strife originally meant to be experienced in person. We’re not talking about theatre, though. We’re talking about tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs). For the uninitiated, TTRPGs are games in which the players take on roles in an imagined world and collaborate to tell a story mediated through dice, cards, and/or rulebooks—and, since the rise of the internet, screens. The most famous and popular TTRPG is Dungeons & Dragons, with an estimated 13.7 million players in 2019.

We believe that theatre artists could learn something from the collaborative storytelling techniques employed in tabletop role-playing games. As professional dramaturgs and gamers ourselves, it’s easy to see that theatre and TTRPGs share obvious points of overlap. In both, people perform characters and work together as a group to tell a compelling dramatic narrative. The emotional highs and lows of a tabletop game can be just as compelling for the players as any play is for its audience—indeed, it can sometimes feel more so because players in a tabletop role-playing game are experiencing the story firsthand, taking on the roles of actors and audience simultaneously.

In fact, due to the popularity of “actual play” TTRPG livestreams and podcasts, like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone, many viewers are examining the differences between players performing for their immediate audience (themselves and their fellow players) and doing so for hundreds of thousands of online viewers. This tectonic shift in playing TTRPGs has led to game designers and scholars borrowing from theatrical philosophy, citing Boal and Aristotle, Brecht, and commedia dell’arte in their work. What, then, are the possible ways that flow can be reversed, and what ideas does the world of TTRPGs offer for theatrical production?

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Who Tells Your Story?

In TTRPGs, one of the players often takes on the role of the Game Master (GM), tasked with guiding the others through the story, playing all of the characters who aren’t controlled by the others, and adjudicating the rules of the game. This role is similar to that of a playwright and director rolled into one: a person who retains creative control but does their work in dialogue with the other collaborators at the table.

When Dungeons & Dragons was first created, the game established a rather antagonistic relationship between the GM and the players. But as the game has moved away from war simulation and towards collaborative storytelling, the GM’s role has evolved such that gameplay experiences can be more deeply collaborative. Some recent game designers have chosen not to have a GM at all, leaving control of the story equally distributed among the players. This evolution has made us, as theatre artists, reevaluate who has ownership of the stories we tell in the theatre. Does this responsibility belong to the playwright, the director, or the company?

Theatre can embrace the kind of variety tabletop game design fosters—reevaluating the structures behind the creation of the story or production so that they best suit the work being created.

Let’s take a look at perennial favorite Oklahoma!, produced regularly from sea to shining sea. Most productions will be almost exactly how Rodgers and Hammerstein envisioned the story, right down to the dream ballet. But recently, in 2018 with Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s queer and interracial Oklahoma! and in 2019 with Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! (often referred to as Sexy Oklahoma!), we were given startlingly new interpretations of this classic text. Neither significantly altered the original text, but one would be hard-pressed to say the same show took place in either venue. Do we need to wait until plays are canonized before we can shift narrative control away from the playwright and original producers? Or are there respectful ways to engage with a text‚ after it’s been published but before dozens of productions have made it a classic, that allow for new and imaginative narrative opportunities?

It’s noteworthy that one of those innovative productions (Queer Oklahoma!) is ascribed to the company, while the other (Sexy Oklahoma!) is ascribed to its director. Despite the assumed model of visionary director-led revivals, it’s clear that the same text can receive an equally innovative treatment in a company-led environment—and our experiences with TTRPGs suggest this idea of company leadership in a production could be fruitful for other, newer shows. The decentering of creative authority that’s happening in the TTRPG world is already similar to devised theatre processes, but it’s worth interrogating who has control over the narrative in all kinds of theatre work.

Theatre can embrace the kind of variety tabletop game design fosters—reevaluating the structures behind the creation of the story or production so that they best suit the work being created. One way to begin this work is to leave behind the one-size-fits-all approach to theatre production, which is particularly prevalent in regional theatres. While convenient from a production standpoint, the director-driven industrial model is sometimes an uneasy fit for less traditional plays and can make theatres hesitant to take on more experimental works. Are there theatrical stories that benefit from a director? Certainly. There are other stories, however, that may thrive best in a setting that builds the world and characters more collaboratively. As theatremakers, we should determine the goal of the story we’re telling and tailor our approach to best serve that.

The Role of the Audience

TTRPGs and theatre also share complicated—and evolving—relationships to the binary notions of “audience” and “performer.” During a game, TTRPG players are constantly performing for the other players and responding, in character, to their choices at the game table. In the theatre world, dramaturgs frequently serve as audience stand-ins during rehearsals, so, as dramaturgs ourselves, we are particularly interested in the way storytelling changes when participants are simultaneously performing and receiving the story in this way, whether those participants are professional theatre artists or not. And what happens when the audience of a theatrical performance gets to participate in its creation, as in participatory or interactive theatre? Does the audience invest more fully when they have a stake in the world being created?

We wonder how theatre artists could reimagine immersive and participatory theatre by conceiving of their audience not merely as viewers but as “spect-actors” and collaborators who actively participate in shaping the narrative, an idea that has roots in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. The explosion and popularity of immersive performances over the past fifteen years suggests that immersive performances, like games, can offer a satisfying combination of agency (or at least the appearance of such) and emotional investment for their audiences. Even relatively low-budget works, like those of the company Accomplice, which stages immersive theatre in the streets of New York City, can create the feeling of an engrossing artistic world by inviting their audience into the act of creating such a world and situating themselves inside of it.

As theatre artists experiment more and more with audience participation—like in 600 Highwaymen’s The Fever, a touring production that tells a story completely in collaboration with the audience—immersive theatre, and theatre that imposes game structures on its audience, the TTRPG community is evolving into one that emphasizes character arcs and satisfying plot progression as much as adherence to game rules. The recently (if vaguely) announced partnership between Punchdrunk, famous for their immersive Macbeth titled Sleep No More, and Niantic, the company that produces augmented reality games like Pokemon Go, suggests that the two worlds are coming closer together than ever before.

With the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Stranger Things, and good, old-fashioned Dungeons & Dragons, it seems silly to stick to the tried-and-true tropes of the living-room drama, which may push more people away from the theatre than they draw in.

Starting From Scratch

Form and content are areas where American theatre artists and (especially) producers could be more daring and robust. Many theatres produce a lot of realistic kitchen-sink dramas, told in real time, almost exclusively focusing on the whims of white, upper-middle-class families. TTRPGs on the other hand are not overly concerned with one type or genre of narrative. You want sword and sorcery? Play Dungeons & Dragons. Gritty eighties futurism? Cyberpunk 2020. Heists? Blades in the Dark. Teenage Superheroes? Masks: A New Generation. The list goes on and on and on, and each of these games works in a different system to elicit different responses from the player-audience. With the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Stranger Things, and good, old-fashioned Dungeons & Dragons, it seems silly to stick to the tried-and-true tropes of the living-room drama, which may push more people away from the theatre than they draw in.

One of the great advantages TTRPGs have in telling these many types of stories is that game designers are required to think about how form impacts content as they devise mechanics that explore the themes they want to bring to light. Roleplaying games are fundamentally imitative; the process of creating a game is one of finding the structural tools that provoke a particular aesthetic or emotional response in a player. Game designers must begin anew with each game they design, because a mechanic that induces a particular response may not be easily portable to a different game.

Theatre artists could benefit from approaching each project’s creative process from scratch in this way, as the best in our industry often do—asking not only what the work will be, but how it will be done, where it will be done, and what form the final product will take. If game designers must decide whether their game will be GMed or GM-less, heavy or light on rules for players to learn, what to create rules for (and, tacitly, what to leave up to the players), and whether to resolve conflict and plot twists through single die rolls, dice pools, decks of playing cards, a Jenga tower, or something else entirely, why should theatre artists not reevaluate their creative process for every project?

This is not to say that any particular aesthetic approach is more or less valuable than another. But just as some TTRPG players assume that all games involve twenty-sided dice and high fantasy settings, the American theatre too often assumes the same naturalistic world and industrial creative process. Perhaps a show would be best served through an aggressively “unnatural” aesthetic or through a director-less devising process. These need not be features of particular artists’ or companies’ work, though; rather, every artist could reevaluate the work and their function within it for each new project. There is room for experimentation in theatremaking, and TTRPGs might be one sibling art form in which we find new ways to play.

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I love the notion of challenging traditional structures of creative authority. In my somewhat limited experience it has often felt like actors traditionally have very little creative agency in their portrayals, and are sometimes pigeonholed into academized, western portrayals of classic characters. That slant has even felt present in more contemporary projects. As a GM, who has also dabbled in directing, GM'ing has often felt like the more satisfying creative challenge because the expectation is that I take into account the creative understanding of everyone at the table while running the game, preparing sessions, and worldbuilding. If I would really like to have a Paladin in my story, but the closest I get is a Warlock, my overall vision is not compromised by that, but I do have to adjust for it. That sort of dynamic would be really refreshing in a theatre environment. While I think the adaptation to more traditional theatre would be only able to take certain elements of TTRPGs, it would be fascinating to see a collective creation built entirely within that framework. Thanks for a great article!

As a professional Game Master, actor, and fight/intimacy director I wholeheartedly agree. The artistic experiences that most engage audiences under 40 often include collaboratively built narratives not centered around a director. I am amazed at the seeming unwillingness of regional theatres to explore new creation methods that cater to those who tune into Critical Role every Thursday or attend(ed) Escape Rooms. Your article is inspirational and many others I know have been having similar conversations , so here's hoping it brings change!

Fingers crossed! Spaces where players/artists are working completely in collaboration to tell stories together have been the most freeing and exciting to me as an artist and I'm really looking forward to this generation of theatre makers fostering more of them!