Soaps vs RPGs

Over on LJ, Jim Henley was talking about improv and its proximity to RPG’s and ended up asking me some questions about the improv soaps I used to do a lifetime ago. It made for an interesting brain dump, so I thought I’d post it over here in case y’all found it interesting (edited for format, readability and atrocious grammar).

Jim: It occurs to me that I need to know everything about your soaps. I know you’ve referred to them before, but they seem like a whole extra level of ambition beyond the creation of a play at a time, which is a level of ambition above “let’s make up a skit from scratch.” Some nosey questions that come to mind: Am I correct in inferring continuing characters across episodes?

Mo: Yup, constant characters. The soap would generally run for about 12-16 episodes. Sometimes they were like daytime soaps, sometimes Sci Fi, sometimes horror. When Vampire and Mage came out, we used their source material as a base… before they made them in to LARPS!

Jim: Were these performed for an audience or just within the troupe?

Mo: A faithful, if exceedingly rowdy and badly behaved audience. They would pay every week to see the next installment. Typically shows were late at night following another play (often other plays that some/all of the cast was in!), and had to be flexible enough to work off of whatever set and audience was in the theatre space at the time – which made for some fun challenges. Usually they were on Friday or Sunday nights, but one of them went nightly over the course of the week. In some of the soaps, the audience would shout out instruction or direction that the actors would feel free to take or ignore.

Jim: You had a set scene list to go through in performance? Would that mean that Scene X had to come out a certain way to justify Scene Y, but the actual beats of Scenes X and Y were still improvised? Did plans for scenes ever gang agley? What then?

Mo: We’d come in 1.5 – 2.5 hours prior to the performance, and do a quick physical warm up, then the director would post the scene list. The scene list would be skeletal, kinda like: “SCENE FIVE: X character encounters Y character in Z location. X tells Y this bit of critical information and leaves. Alone on stage, Y determines to do this thing about it.” Yes, often there would be subsequent scenes in the same episode that would directly depend on the outcome of your scene, but sometimes the scene was just for colour too, or set up something for next episode.

Usually scenes were between 1-3 people, thought sometimes we would have larger groups or the whole cast involved. Sometimes it would start with a couple, and one person would leave and another would come in. Each scene would take anywhere between 3 and 10 minutes, give or take, occasionally longer for very complex scenes.

After the director posted the scenes, everyone would crowd around and find out what they were doing that night, figure out which scenes they were in with whom and about what and have a few scarce minutes to talk about the scene, or block it out, if it were very physical.

I remember one particularly memorable scene where my character killed another character in a beat down drag out fight, complete with squibs and pre-scored costumes and props and stuff. We blocked it on an unfamiliar set in 10 minutes and never had time for a test run of course – crazyiness! For that scene, of course, because one character would be removed from play, it had been decided at the rehearsal three days before, so we had time to gather props and such. We didn’t know how the death would go down, just that it would. (edited: Of course, also when any scene where big props or big special effects were needed would have to known it was coming at least partly in advance. Once: homemade pyrotechnics!)

So we’d talk, brainstorm, block, then go get into costume and makeup, and then have five minutes of a voice warm up, often backstage as the audience was coming in.

Scenes occasionally went very wrong indeed, though much less than you might think. Someone once, because they were a late comer to the scene, missed entirely that he was supposed to be in that scene, and so the two people on stage ended up stranded. The funniest part about that one was that there was no backstage area in the theatre that episode, so all of the actors were sitting on a long bench in a darker nook but in full view of the audience. When it became obvious that something had gone awry, the other actors pointed him to the stage him, he got up, went to the post, read the scene made a “Well, here goes nothing” face and then jumped in… to gales of laughter from the audience, who always loved it when we’d fuck up.

If something went wrong, well, we’d just have to get it back on track, which demanded some quick thinking at times. Usually though, especially when there was a backstage, people would review their scene objectives just before going onstage, so when things went wrong they didn’t affect continuity of the whole show.

Jim: Let’s talk Socket Theory! Or maybe MB&G. Did you “attach” to the soaps differently than you attach to roleplaying games? Would you say your MB profile within the soaps was the same as your RPG profile, your real-life profile, or was it a third profile?

Mo: (What’s MB&G? Myers Briggs?) Hard to compare them, because at the time I did them, I wasn’t gaming. I came back to gaming (had played D&D as a kid) just at the tail end of them. Because the last few we did used games as source material, I ended up meeting a number of local gamers and started to play again. However, I would say my relationship to game grows directly out my time in the theatre in general, and out of the soaps in particular – especially my socket.

To prepare for the soaps, well before you’d hit stage, we’d have a couple of rehearsals that fleshed out the idea of the soap, the themes, the setting, the basic locations, the kinds of characters that would be needed. We’d play handfuls of characters in endless freeze games, and then pull characters we really liked, or were particularly effective (funny, scary, poignant, melodramatic, etc) out and make a cast of them, sometimes creating new characters to fill in the gaps.

Then there would be a whole bunch of rehearsals where we’d have character interviews. You’d literally go up on a hotseat, on stage, under a spot, and the rest of the cast and crew would rapid fire questions at you. In an hour they’d have dragged all this character history out of you and under pressure, you’d often find your character voice developing. There were also some funny, and always repeated questions like: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party?” or “So why do you want to join the secret service?” You were supposed to stay in character for the whole time and react to the questions as if they were really being asked. Some of the character history would be retained, some discarded.

Then there’d be a series of rehearsals where we worked on movement and voice, getting down the physicality of the character, the voice of the character, the idiosyncrasies and twitches. Then we’d have improv as your character in the world scenes that didn’t have to connect to one another – real sandbox stuff. Usually there’d be 1-2 months of ramp up before the soap, depending on the commitment of the director. By the time you got to the actual performances, you knew your character’s inner workings, and could slip in and out at a moment’s notice. Ideally, by the time it came to opening night you’d have done this so well you couldn’t really be caught off guard because you’d really immersed in the personage of the character. – So yeah my socket to character and my immersive tendencies both grew directly out of this world.

However, these days gaming is a deeply personal thing for me. The catharsis that I dig for is something very different than I used to have back then. The payoff of the soaps was performative, while the payoff of my games today is experiential. There’s more intimacy and nuance than ever would have been possible in front of an audience, even when that audience was very well behaved.

Jim: Hiding behind all the above questions is the ur-question of how the soaps were NOT essentially RPGs of some sort.

Mo: Really, I’d say that the biggest way in which I’d delineate RPGs and the soaps would be the expectation of a quality, finished and coherent product (that was worth purchasing). This idea includes the idea that you’d spend ten times the preparation time investing on the fiction than you’d ever spend inside the fiction itself. It also includes the “draft”ing of the fiction, or the willingness to input things that will never be incorporated, or will be edited and distilled down to a story that makes it something that’s not just worth doing (important!) but worth both having other people find it worth watching (the point) and worth paying to come and see (the way we keep afloat doing what we’re doing).

We look at RPGs in the rosy hindsight of post-interpreted narrative where we selectively remember the elements of play that make most sense to keep based on their retroactive meaning and importance in relation to the story that won out in the end. The soaps had to hit the ground running with a linear, developed narrative (for that episode) in place from the get go, no real room for (critical) error, and no second chances. (As a side note, it’s worth noting that a couple of times our soaps were then further distilled down into plays and re-performed like a traditional, scripted play after the season had ended.)

Also important to this difference is the collectivist approach to the process. There was no need to mitigate authority or have mechanical intervention to gateway events because our collective goal was the performance, and whatever you had to give up to achieve that goal, be it character autonomy, narrative input, spotlight time, whatever, the goal came first. RPGs, in my more general and current experience, have too much individualist practice/inclination to work the same way that the soaps did then.

That said, within the intimacy of my playgroups, be it solo with Brand or the small, cultivated playgroups I play in most and enjoy best, that collectivist impulse is still, mostly, beating it’s hummingbird’s heart.

12 thoughts on “Soaps vs RPGs”

  1. One of these ran at Oberlin College while I was there. It was ongoing and they did a new season every year. It was in year 6 or something by the time I heard of it. Oberlin’s was set in this Catholic school but some characters had died and were in hell or heaven and they had scenes there and stuff. It was like a daytime soap + Whedon with a structure somewhere between sketch and improv (which, like you mention, has a real-time performance element that a lot of roleplaying lacks). And there was a audience of students that attended fairly religiously. I wish I could remember what it was called.

  2. To prepare for the soaps, well before you’d hit stage, we’d have a couple of rehearsals that fleshed out the idea of the soap, the themes, the setting, the basic locations, the kinds of characters that would be needed. We’d play handfuls of characters in endless freeze games, and then pull characters we really liked, or were particularly effective (funny, scary, poignant, melodramatic, etc) out and make a cast of them, sometimes creating new characters to fill in the gaps.

    This is really lovely, I wish more games did something like this — and the other stuff you mentioned, really, but I was thinking about something very much like this the other day as my group did our prep session for a Sorcerer game. As usual I had any number of character concepts floating around in my head and it was frustrating having to choose between them without really being able to do any ‘test driving’ at all (outside of my head.) I love the idea of a low-pressure environment (obviously there is still a pressure to perform the scene well, in accordance with the exercise, but) to drill through dozens of character concepts and try out different things and see what ‘sticks.’ Especially since all of that work will get incorporated into the story/game, in terms of texture & overall possibility of the world.

    The balance between prep & play is an interesting issue too. I can happily spend multiple sessions ‘prepping’ certain kinds of play (Sorcerer, Shock:, any focused WoD game, etc.) but I know a lot of other people find this frustrating. It would certainly be more fun if the prep involved more planned activities, or games-in-themselves — but the focus these days seems to be very low-prep.

  3. D,

    Interestingly, the “scripting” in Crime and Punishment plays with those kinds of ideas. It makes prep part of the play by making a different part of the game other than just the “acting the fiction” part. Of course, it does it in a very story, rather than character, focused way.

    But yea — I’m very interested in ways of making Prep a form of group play, rather than lonely fun or just group prep. If prep can be made into a fun activity of its own, a subgame of the game, then so much wow is to be had….

    1. P.S. I am still waiting to hear more about this So You Think You Can Dance game you so casually mentioned over at Story Games.

        1. We played the tryouts game last weekend, and are playing the first episode this weekend or next. After that, perhaps I will be ready to share something semi-publicly.

  4. Yes, I think there is some balance to be found between making prep “more fun” (for those who do not currently find it fun) and also “more useful” — for those, like me, who find it incredibly fun to the point that they are prone to spending too much time in prep, or even engaging in destructive prep-related behaviours (like pre-play of characters, etc.) because they run out of constructive things to do in that space.

    For me what I like about the idea of the (for lack of better terms) ‘casting games’ that Mo described is that they fill a constructive role in terms of extracting/revealing the ‘best’ possibilities of the setting/situation/character space. The fact that they are also fun games in of themselves is also appealing, of course, but mostly it is appealing because I think ‘aha now I can get all my fellow gamers to join in on this activity that I already like, and in fact already do — without feeling like I am holding things up.’ And of course because I like guided, structured imaginative activities (hey no way) and I think they can produce better results in terms of actual preparation.

  5. I remember seeing a few of these the first time I moved to PTBO! I liked it so much I eventually organized one myself with Lauren, Chad, John, Sabrina, Chris K. and a bunch of other folks. We did one structure and improv run before each go.

  6. Hey Susan! I thank you also for offering this. I shall write somhneitg in the formats requested. But what do we do with them? Email them to you, or is there a site to post them on?Your knowledge of the subject matter is solid and impressive but I must confess to being hugely disappointed in your affirmation of the process. It seems to all hinge on character arcs which are no more than a character (or group of characters) going from one crisis to another with a few sweet moments thrown in toward the end. That is so boring to me. Maybe its my age or just my innate desire to see things done in a new way. My biggest frustration with ATWT (and OLTL) was that they never had enough sweet moments. I think these moments define characters and allow viewers to relish them and even savor them by either loving to love them or loving to hate them. Clearly I’m in the minority as sweet moments don’t seem valued by our society anymore. Snarky, rude, and irreverant behavior are idolized. Kindness and civility are shunned. I find this sad. Anyway, that has nothing to do with your class, so pardon my rant. I understand the process you explained is the deeply engrained industry expectation so that is what I will do. I can say now with 100% certainty I will never work in this industry I just don’t like that kind of storytelling, but hopefully I can master it.

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