Category Archives: Theatre

Laban Movement Types

Brand and I do a lot of description in our RPG’s – not surprising as we both are writers and we play emotion centric games in which we often want to have things illustrated, but not verbalized in play. We use description cues in an NPC’s movement to give them characterization and depth. This is especially true of the two games we’ve been playing recently. One is a pseudo historical swashbuckling bodice-ripper done in a quasi-novella style and the other is our home brew So You Think You Can Dance game, in which- as you can imagine – character movement is particularly important thing to describe.

One of the tools we use to get at characterization through movement is a methodology of analysis I learned back in my theatre days so long, long ago. A dance dude by the name of Rudolf von Laban provided a system of language to describe and understand movement by breaking it down into a set of Basic Effort Actions made up of component binaries based on weight, space and time. According to him, movement was some degree of heavy or light, direct or flexible, sudden or sustained. In all combinations, this produces eight basic effort actions descriptively called Float, Thrust, Glide, Slash, Dab, Wring, Flick, and Press.

These terms are used to describe individual actions in Laban Movement Analysis, but they have been adopted by acting methodology to shorthand emotion through movement in theatre. Brand and I use them in RPG’s to shorthand the emotional state of a character, but we also use the ideas in them to shorthand their personalities as well. I thought one or two of you might find the model useful in your own games, so here’s a list:

Press (direct, sustained, heavy) is my favorite effort action, and I always start here when describing them. It’s heavy, so the movement has weight and bearing. It’s direct so it goes at a goal, and it’s sustained, so it is not as much quick or sharp as grinding ever forward. Press is a presence-y commanding push, a slow, relentless dominance of action, a grinding down under forward progress. Press is a bulldozer, press is a marching army, press is a dominant seduction. In our games, press people are great people – An emperor, a general, a calm, intense, ambitious person who is unafraid of grinding anything in his path to dust to get at what he wants.

Thrust (direct, sudden, heavy) is an easy one to describe. It has at it’s goal with speed, efficiency, control and deadly intent. It’s the final blow of a driving blade. A bullet to the brain. A knockout punch. In our games. Thrust characters are intense people. When they are good guys they’re often proud and capable and exceedingly restrained.

Slash (flexible, sudden, heavy) is a neighbour of Thrust. It’s heavy and fast, but where Thrust is controlled, Slash is wild. Slash is a back alley knife fight. Slash is a swashbuckling, bottle smashing, drunken brawl. In our games, Slashers are arrogant, audacious, sexy rakes with big reputations.

Wring (flexible, sustained, heavy) is the last of the heavy actions. It’s sustained like press, but it’s not direct. It’s flexible and twisting, like wringing a wet towel out. Wring is an inward churning individual. Wring could be a twisted malcontent. Wring is an strategic herder. In our games, wrings are often scheming villains, twisted and evil.

Glide (direct, sustained, light) is light, graceful, and directed. Gliding is a ballroom dancer. Gliding is an ice skater. Gliding is a courtesan on a gondola. Gliders in our games are socially adept, dangerous people who get you to do things you didn’t intend to do and yet somehow have you respecting them for it.

Float (flexible, sustained, light) is like Gliding without direction, Wring without Weight. Float is lazy cumulus clouds. Float is puppy love. Float is collateral damage waiting to happen. Floaters in our games are benevolent friends, hapless tarot fools skipping off cliffs, and sometimes the maddening few that can not be encumbered by you.

Flick (flexible, sudden, light) is like Float, but without the ease of sustained action, or Slash without the threat. Flick is lick of fire. Flick is toss of hair. Flick is an always distraction. Flickers in our games are most often maddening, mercurial creatures who must be cajoled, convinced or connived into commitment, or loyal, but somewhat inconsequential allies.

Dab (direct, sudden, light) is like Thrust without deadly intent. Dab is a bon mot. Dab is cutting remark. Dab is a Lady Macbeth. Dabbers in our games are devastating social creatures. They’re political powerhouses, and deft manipulators.

Let me know if you find this useful, or if you’re using anything like this in your own play or discussion around play. If you’re one of the folks (Jim, Emily, Jason, I’m looking at you) that has a late interest in theatre or improv that grew out of RPG’s I’d recommend you spend some time physically playing with the eight Basic Effort Actions. It’s a great movement exercise, and an enlightening emotional technique.

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.

Immersion Goals Borrowed from Literary Theory

Borrowed from the literary tradition, I’d like to put forward some new words for your perusal that might help explore the differences of goals that exist under the catch-all word immersion. There may be others that would help too, but I think these three are important.

Catharis: Yes, I know you know this word, but do you know what means in the context of literary theory? Catharsis (which was introduced by Aristotle in The Poetics and means either “purgation” or “purification” in Greek) is the emotional effect a tragic drama has on its audience. The audience of a tragic drama would experience an overwhelming feeling of exaltation or relief following the drama because either they formed a vicarious identification with the hero which cleansed the emotions as if they have themselves had undergone the trauma of the story, or because the audience becomes so engrossed in the emotions for the hero that they are removed from the context of their own lives and return refreshed and renewed back to themselves following the drama.

Kairosis: is associated with the epic novel (association with the Greek meaning “the right time”, and represents the feeling of integration experienced by the audience with the protagonist. It is associated specifically with the moments of moral and psychologicical transitioning of the character in important, dramatically impacting moments. It is interesting to note that Kairosis is often achieved by challenging unique dynamic characters with typical, everyman dilemmas and emotionally engaging in the moments of change.

Kenosis: is associated with lyric poetry, and represents the audience’s abandonment of the ego manifestation in favour of the immediate emotional body and sensory manipulation of the poetic. It comes from the Greek word for “emptiness” and is used to achieve a feeling of timelessness or transcendence.

(If you don’t care about the words in their application in literary theory, you can skip this indented part.

***ETA: There’s more discussion after the indented part. Pick up the post again in the paragraph starting with: “So, what the heck am I talking about?”**

When I look at these terms, I make some adjustments on them to compensate for the differences in the method and process of the act of roleplaying:

Where we in a widely literate, educated and media saturated environment have specified, culturally driven, inherited understandings of drama, and in a world where the lines between the novel the drama and lyric poetry have been distorted, deconstructed and blurred, it seems to me that goals may not cleanly align by the form but can still maintain similar extant resonance to the emotional outreach of the audience.

Where we, as roleplayers, serve as both the authors and audiences of our own characters, inside a dynamic, living drama rather than a static text, we can elect to chase the fulfillment of multiple goals at once.)

So, what the heck am I talking about? Well, I know for a long time I have been describing my particular brand of character immersion as an intense, cathartic connection with the character in which I feel the character’s emotional state acutely, understand the mental process of the character acutely and objectively (rather than the character understands it: subjectively) and feel a vicarious emotional response of my own towards the character.

When I look at this in relation to the terms, I know Catharsis to be my primary goal: It is the place that the intense connection to the character is formed, in which I feel, simultaneously, the character’s emotional state, my own emotional state, my character’s inner workings, my own inner workings and my empathy for the character. Catharsis will make me physically weep when my character’s lover dies in her arms even if she does not shed a tear, because while I feel her emotional state as acutely as she does, I am feeling it vicariously. I am immersed in who she is, but I am not her. The feeling of exaltation or relief is something I can validate. An intense, cathartic immersion experience can leave me feeling a little high in an emotionally-induced endorphin way. This goal, IMHO, is all about feeling (For you following the MBTI stuff, it is an immersive F gamer’s playground).

I also know, although it is not part of my description above, that Kairosis is a frequent goal for me. It here that I go to for the moments of resounding transition; the moments that feel as if the soundtrack on the drama has picked up and the character’s life and the story will never again be the same. The “right moment” of Kairosis is the one where the character and the story interact and change each other, powerfully and irreversibly. This one is both about thinking and about feeling. In order to do this reliably and intentionally it requires a thinking setup, but transitions to feeling mode in the actualization of the moment’s resonance. I suppose it is possible to be setup and actualized both in T mode, but I’m not sure if it would lead to the immersive integration that the goal is looking for. This kind of immersion could serve story socket players as or even more effectively than character socket players. It is also, I believe functionally incompatible with Kenosis.

Kenosis is not a goal of mine, but one that is associated with the term immersion quite frequently in discussion, especially in association with larpers over the pond. Also called “Deep IC” or “altered state flow” or that I have been calling “submersion”, the goal here is to feel completely like the character and to feel as little like yourself as possible. The feeling of timelessness or transcendence is something that a lot of these folks talk about, even sometimes going so far as to compare it to a religious experience. Again, this is also about Feeling, I think (MBTI note: and I would think that it is commonly a goal of “SF” immersive gamer types, who would require strong myth to make a full transition from self to character). Note: This kind of immersion goal would also work as well for a setting socket player as a character socket player: the goal would be to get out of the player’s world and into the world of the player’s character.

I also think it’s interesting to note that when looked at this way, it’s unsurprising that there is so much debate about the compatibility of the goals of nar games and the goals of immersion. A goal like Kairosis requires intentional dramatic framing and intention to achieve the synthesis of character transitioning in the right moment and as such would be perfectly compatible, whereas a goal like Kenosis may repel such deliberate constraint, or force the player back into his own head, making the styles incompatible.

Also, it gives some good groundwork for why immersive players are at odds as to what kinds of game processes or mechanics are counterintuitive to their immersion activity. A Kairotic Immersives might not have trouble discussing stakes or out of game strategy to optimize the “right moment”, Cathartic Immersives might have no trouble authoring to intensify drama but could have real trouble any time the game required transition from a Feeling to Thinking mode, such as crunchy calculation or resource management. Kenotic Immersives might find any out of game negotiation that draws them out of character unappealing.