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The Lesser Players Tale: Postmortem

Celia Pearce
Aug 19 · 10 min read

by Lizzie Stark & Jason Morningstar

In the live roleplaying scenario The Lesser Players’ Tale (LPT), a shabby group of Renaissance actors perform an awful play called “The Lusty Queen” in front of whatever audience fate throws their way. The actors adapt their play to each raucous — and occasionally dangerous — audience. In the final challenge, they must come together as a troupe, performing for their very lives. Designed for seven to eight participants (including up to two facilitators/impromptu audience members) over about four hours, LPT’s tone is light and a little bawdy, but it has the potential for both deep emotional resonance and utterly stupid hijinx.

Performance is the core of The Lesser Player’s Tale: you prepare, you perform, you recover, then you do it all again. The joy of participation comes from slowly mastering a single, badly-written ten-minute play through stressful repetition with wildly varying parameters. Each time the troupe performs, the players’ confidence increases — just in time to submit to some absurd new requirement. By the final performance, whether they know it or not, they are ready for a subtle, grounded presentation dripping with pathos and filled with meaning for the players and the characters.

We knew we wanted to make performance the scenario’s core mechanic (1). To make this work within our constraints, we knew we needed the right script and the right scaffolding for both facilitator and participants.

We began by summarizing a dozen scripts from early modern plays like The Witch of Edmonton, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and The Woman’s Prize before settling on Racine’s version of Phaedra. Phèdre had every attribute we sought — a small cast, trenchant drama, a simple framework, and flexibility in staging and execution. We rewrote it into a dirt-simple five page script — one act per page, two minutes per act — and rendered it in French scenes (2). The rest was up to the players.

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We wrote LPT specifically for the Danish scenario competition Fastaval (3), which informed many of our design choices. We knew it had to be easily runnable by a variety of people, many of them not native English speakers, in a fixed four-hour window. We also knew that Fastaval attendees love both sexy farce and an opportunity to weep real tears, and that since the games are judged, Fastaval players want to play the scenario as the designers intend; in other words, the scenario’s framework had to make participants feel secure in what we wanted them to do. We specifically set out to provide all this. Any time we bumped up against one of these constraints, we threw out or retooled any conflicting elements. At Fastaval, a game is normally run multiple times by the designers and others, and judges might play but will definitely have an opportunity to debrief players. Thus, in a normal year, the judging is informed by actual play. In the Summer of 2020, of course, this went out the window due to the pandemic, and the judges were forced to rely on the materials alone, as well as a series of detailed questions presented to the designers.

Battle-testing a scenario is one cornerstone of good design. We playtested LPT ten times, and made substantial revisions after almost every encounter. Some tests went well, and some went poorly, but each gave us huge insights into the design, and no playtests felt unnecessary.

Given the compressed playtime, we quickly decided that learning the play would have to happen during the pre-game workshop. The advantage of this approach was that we could allow the facilitator to calibrate the group’s level of readiness and begin the game just before they felt confident — a dirty trick that helped us drill down into the core experience we wanted to deliver to participants. The essence of LPT is the joy of nailing a performance by the seat of one’s pants.

Fitting the large cognitive task teaching the play to participants into our onboarding workshop meant we needed each element to serve multiple purposes. We addressed the natural confusion that comes from multiple levels of roleplaying (4) through focused language and expectation-setting. We minimized tedious explanations by making lots of information about the play and its characters diegetic (within the game world). The actors learned about each other and deepened relationships as they learned and rehearsed the play. As our playtests honed the experience, we cut back on onboarding and shifted some of that function to the game itself. What remains is focused and efficient. It includes expectations, safety, comfort as participants sharing an experience, simple pre-written characters, and learning the goddamned play as fast as possible. The facilitators in LPT have very active roles as both “show-runners” managing the overall shape of the experience, but also taking on multiple roles within the fiction. They each play a sleazy director or manager who finds the troupe gigs, and during performances they play the audience, whether it is a rowdy crowd of brothel regulars or a king and queen.

Here is a brief account of what we tested for, and how the scenario evolved.

Tests 1–3: Do the big engines of play work?

In LPT’s first iterations, we split play time equally between performances and roleplaying sessions where the actors engaged with one another. To our surprise, the actor sessions turned into the least popular parts of the game — they became scenes that participants suffered through just to get to the next performance. Once they got a taste for the stage, participants could scarcely think of anything else, and the strange performance conditions we threw them into seemed to delight them. How do we adapt this script before a petulant monarch who loves dogs? How do we take out all the sex in a play about sex when performing before disapproving nuns? There was a really interesting social dynamic at work, as the group of participants bonded over their shared task and precarious mutual interdependency. We also noticed that some participants struggled with the cognitive task of learning this complicated play quickly.

Interestingly, all early groups chose to make up a completely different play for the final performance, which takes place on the gallows. Sometimes the results were poignant, other times it produced an anticlimax, as performing a newly-made-up second play went about as well as you’d expect. At first, we made the participants play a fourth performance after the gallows, but they pushed back — in every way, the gallows performance is the scenario’s highlight.

As a result of early playtests we dramatically shortened the workshop, eliminating many exercises designed to build actor relationships no one cared about. We wrote character sheets with embedded relationships. We also reformatted materials related to the script, to make them more functionally useful. Three performances became the standard length for the scenario, and we banned making up a new play. We also cut most of the actor time. The script of The Lusty Queen, while firm in its general beats, was constantly being tweaked to make it clearer and easier to perform. The big takeaway, though, is that we’d made a (mostly) lighthearted game about mastering performance. Now that we knew what the experience was, we cut out any element that didn’t actively contribute.

Tests 4–7: Figuring Out How to Teach the Play

Participants were better at grasping the revised play, but some folks — particularly neuro-diverse participants — struggled. At the same time, the rehearsal scenes dragged. While we’d made improvements, we knew we could do better — we wanted the play to be even easier to grasp and more fun to rehearse. When given a choice of who to perform for, all groups chose the same audiences, which suggested our alternatives were not sufficiently juicy. Some of our bio breaks were oddly timed.

As a result, we changed the workshop to include some out-of-game exercises designed to help support participants in learning the play. That allowed us to cut down rehearsal scenes a bit. Based on participant feedback, we tweaked our Lusty Queen materials to make them even easier to understand and more functional during play. For example, we formatted the actual script of the play-within-a-play as five acts across five pages, so performers could reference an act per page. We added call sheets that clearly laid out who was in which scene, and these ended up taped to walls for easy reference. Individual character information was designed and redesigned so that it could be compact, easy to absorb, and simple to refer to when necessary. We also added language managing expectations. We made it clear that confusion, particularly at the beginning of the scenario is normal, and that we expect participants to master the play by the end of the scenario, not by the end of rehearsal, and explicitly discouraged “good” acting. We re-wrote some scene options to make them juicier. We had been testing with simple costume elements, like hats and scarves, and the value of these items became clear, so around this iteration we began including costuming instructions in the text.

Tests 8–10: Minor Adjustments to Get It “Just Right”

The later tests told us that we were almost there. Some encouraging signs: participants chose a variety of performance options and sometimes wept during their gallows performance. We realized that the closing denouement scene we’d inserted on the fly provided a necessary emotional buffer. Participants were generally delighted, but their most common critique was, hilariously to us, wanting more time as their actors. We let the scene structure ride — better to leave them wanting more than suffering through scenes that drag, as in earlier iterations. We did optimize the timing of some of the breaks and included a few more notes to facilitators in the script.

After all these playtests and design decisions, we are proud of how The Lesser Players’ Tale turned out. Unfortunately, COVID robbed us of the chance to watch our participants bark like dogs in person at Fastaval. However, we were thrilled that Fastaval’s Otto judges awarded us their Best Scenario prize. We are the first non-Danes in the convention’s 30+-year history to have won it. For us, the design lesson of LPT is “test, test, test.” Those playtests helped us discover what experience we had actually built; and knowing that allowed us to ruthlessly edit and iterate.

End Notes

(1) In this context, “Scenario” refers to the entire game, packaged for presentation and play. It is the term that Fastaval uses, and we employ it here accordingly. You can find the free scenario script here.

(2) French scenes divide a work by character entrances and exits, which is an extremely useful way of organizing a theatrical script or, in our case, live action game.

(3) Fastaval is an annual convention that occurs around Easter in Denmark. The scenario competition at its core is both prestigious and influential. https://www.fastaval.dk

(4) In LPT you are a participant (a real person) who is also a player (a Renaissance actor) who is playing a character (a role in the play-within-a-play, The Lusty Queen).

Editor’s Response

by Celia Pearce, Co-Editor, Playable Theatre Blog

There were a handful of reasons that I asked Lizzie and Jason to submit a postmortem of The Lesser Players’ Tale as the first guest submission for the Playable Theatre Blog. I am a fan of both of their work individually, and was thrilled to learn they were collaborating, anticipating something magical would happen as a result. And while A Lesser Players’ Tale certainly stands on its own as a work of playable theatre, I wanted to just say a few words about the ways in which it brings together their individual design aesthetics and experience, as well as its core conceit of using theatre itself as a context for participation.

For Jason, the starting point is of course Fiasco, his beloved award-winning tabletop game, which uses failure as its central mechanic and interaction aesthetic. Fiasco is an experiment in proceduralizing a particular story genre, the classic “caper gone wrong” dark comedy exemplified by the films of the Coen Brothers. It elegantly and effectively guides players through an improvised experience that invariably results in hilarious hijinks and unexpected yet satisfying outcomes. In other words, it is a vehicle for emergent narrative. I actually cut myself opening my first copy, foreshadowing my first playthrough, in which my character died from an accidentally self-inflicted gun wound. I once ran the game at a faculty retreat and set my story at the actual venue where the retreat was taking place — a New England resort. Being able to craft a structure that builds in the ingredients of a narrative genre while giving the game moderator a great deal of creative control and letting the players do the rest is precisely the kind of agency that the playable theatre initiative concerns itself with. When you’ve finished a session of Fiasco, you know that particular story could only have happened with your active participation.

For Lizzie, the work of hers that seems to most closely prefigure Lesser Players’ is the Romeo and Juliet Edu-Larp she designed for the Kennedy Center with Bjarke Pederson, which I’ve also had the pleasure of playing. Like The Lesser Player’s Tale, the core mechanic of this larp revolves around repetition — playing the same scene multiple times. In it, you act out the party scene wherein our ill-fated eponymous lovers first meet. Rather than working from a script, you are given some broad prompts as to what is happening in the scene, and then play it out a few times just to get a feel for characters, motives and dynamics. Then, new variations are introduced incrementally through replays. The two I recall most clearly were “everyone at the party is trying to keep Romeo and Juliet from meeting,” and “this is a matriarchal culture in which the elder women have all the power and influence.” I remember thinking at the time that this conceptual framework of repetition was a brilliant way to marry traditional theatre and live action roleplaying. Unlike Fiasco, which requires players to fully improvise, it provides a narrative scaffold within which to experiment to effect different outcomes.

The Lesser Players’ Tale brings together aspects of both of these designs, merging the repetition-with-variant mechanic of the Romeo and Juliet Edu-Larp, with darkly comedic failure aesthetic of Fiasco. My personal experience with LPT was in the role of “impromptu audience” member at a 2019 playtest. This was actually a fun role because it turns out to be quite consequential for the game. It also reminded me that there are interesting and satisfying ways to integrate an “audience” into a playable theatre experience. Nearly a year later, I was delighted but unsurprised to hear that the game had won the Best Scenario Award at Fastaval. It is a brilliant piece of work well-deserving an award.

Games Referenced
Fiasco
Romeo and Juliet: A Larp

Playable Theater

Designers review and discuss the mechanics and interactions…

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