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Play as performance

A topic by Caro Asercion created Mar 16, 2019 Views: 1,044 Replies: 16
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I'm really interested in exploring how the notion of performance informs and shapes gameplay in the tabletop space. There's the extremely literal idea of play as performance in the form of Actual Play podcasts/VODs/streams, but I think there are some really interesting questions to be explored, in play-by-post games in online spaces (where performativity is already such a pervasive facet of the medium) or in playing singleplayer games for an audience of one.

For people who have participated in or run Actual Play games—how do the principles of play change when you're running a game solely for yourself, versus for a closed group of friends, versus for an external audience? To what degree do elements of "traditional" performance (directing/acting/improv/etc) make their way into your games? For people who are running those games, or for those who just watch/follow them—how does your notion of play change or morph when your audience is following the game live, versus engaging with it after-the-fact?


There is certainly a difference, at least in my experience, between recording APs and more traditional play - players tend to streamline, cut down on the cross talk and highlight a certain amount of "entertainment" compared to a 'normal' session - APs tend to be more bombastic, the prep tends to be a little more intense, and the arcs we make generally try to be more focused in an attempt to make it easier to follow for any given listener. A normal campaign for my groups at least will often amble this way and that, explaining random details or NPCs or points on a map in a kind of ramshackle route to the ultimate goals of the campaign, while a AP campaign will be much more focused, and where deviation occurs it's obviously different in its approach.

There is a certain degree of traditional performance stuff creeping in for sure, but most of my players haven't done any other kind of performance so I can't speak to that - I know personally I look at a game much more from a cinematic point of view than I do with my home games.


I'm currently playing in a streamed campaign of Ryuutama, and have played in streamed games in the past. There is definitely a difference compared to my regular, non-streamed games.

I'd say the main difference is one of... pressure? If I show up to a regular game-night with my friends, it's okay if I'm a bit sleepy, or lose track of my dice at some point, or we chatter about our days for a bit while someone looks up a rule, etc. It's okay if I have an "off" day. When I play on stream, I have to be "on". I have to be focused on the game, I have to be engaged 100% the whole time, and might need to keep one eye on chat just in case a question comes up, and so on. I cut down on general chatter and even have a different posture when I know I'm "on camera", as it were.

In terms of the flow of the game itself.... in home-games, it's fine if we spend an entire session in which not very much progress is made (we recently had a session of our 7th Sea campaign where one player talked to a shopkeeper about gardening for half an hour, and another went to a bookstore for 45 minutes) - but in streamed games, there's a greater urgency for forward momentum as far as plot and action are concerned.

I don't know which is the chicken or the egg here, but the more cinematic approach to scenes and playing my character is, for me personally, pretty much the same for both streamed games and home-games. I'll think in cuts and dramatic angles and visual framing, etc., whether I'm on stream or off.

could i get a link to any VODs of this?

Here is the Youtube playlist of the sessions we've played so far!

The campaign is heavily influenced by classic SNES-era JRPGs, leaning into the tropes of that. The first season wraps up in April, and then we're going on a break.


I think for me, the key difference is kind of an abhorrence of silence. In an Actual Play setting (I do a podcast and streamed games), there's a sense that there can't be silence, that we have to always be "on." That can lead to some good things, though, where there's more pressure to talk things out quickly and go with our guts--we've had some fantastic "yes, and" moments in our podcast because of this, for instance. But sometimes it's nice to be able to be quiet for extended periods.

There's also a lot of pressure to serve an over-arching narrative. It has to be narratively satisfying for the audience, which means some paths may be closed off (like Anna Landin mentions above, where things can have a slower, more organic pace). I don't think that's BAD necessarily, but it's a major difference.

Echoing a lot of what has been said here already, I'm always a little more "on" for an Actual Play game, for better or for worse. If I'm off-the-mic, so to speak, I can retreat inward, think about my next move, snack on chips, or just be a silly bits monster if I want to be. That audience awareness is a powerful motivator in terms of how I approach a game or a character, and I think it's something that can be stifling, or it can be really empowering if a game, or a player, or a session, really makes the most of it.


coming to roleplaying from a drama background, i find both my actual play and personal play feel like performances to me. The main difference being the size and composition of the audience. When i’m playing a personal game it tends to feel lower stakes a bit more like a rehearsal, i’m still performing for myself and my friends, but it feels like there is more room to try things out and take chances. In actual play there is the added pressure for me, not present in drama performances, of feeling like my choices and the things i say represent me in some way. Even though i’m playing a character it’s a character i created and whoes views, even if they don’t line up with mine, how i frame them says something about how i seen the world.

If I may ask—do you find a significant amount of carryover from your drama background into your tabletop experiences? Speaking as someone who also comes from a theatre background, a lot of my friends lean really heavily into the embodiment of their characters during emotional moments, not just in the overt ways (character voices, body language/gesticulating) but also trying to grapple with the interiority of their character—trying to perform both for their fellow players but also for them to understand the character as best they can.

I know some of my theatre-adjacent coplayers place themselves heavily in the method acting sphere of trying to stay in-character as often as they can, whereas others are a lot more directorial and inclined to break out of the character's headspace in order to think about it from a narrative-driven perspective (e.g., "what needs to happen in this scene in order for the plot to advance"). Obviously neither of those is the end-all-be-all, and it's not like this is a binary system, but I'm curious about the degree to which the performativity of a game tends to skew it one way or another.


i personally find while i draw from my drama skill set often, and they feel similar to me, i don’t draw from it as much as some of my other drama friends who play too do. for me they are pretty different experiences due to the nature of improvising a character, thogh i’ve never really done improve so i can’t say if that would be a similar experience, and due to the ability to play in a space outside of just what your character says and does. It’s something i really find vauluable in roleplaying because it’s not something i find in a lot of other places.


Performance has always been a big part of my experience at the table (I have a theatre background too!), to the point where I notice how often other folks prefer to keep it light or avoid it entirely. It's interesting to see which games "get out of the way" to facilitate performance. Like, D&D as a rules system doesn't provide any structure for roleplay, but because of that it can be a capable facilitator for freeform RP. One reason why I think shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone are so popular is because the players can just riff with each other without worrying about picking up the dice.

Contrast that with games like Monsterhearts, which are all about social interaction and has a lot of rules to facilitate it. But introducing those dice in the midst of roleplay "performances" is a disruption that D&D can more easily avoid.  Or for a really egregious example, look at Blades in the Dark: every action roll in the game is the result of a conversation that goes back and forth between player and GM several times.  "Performance roleplay" is possible in both these systems but both present unique challenges too.


The games that I enjoy to watch, play in and run myself are focused on the players first, the game second and then the audience some distant third.
The fun about streamed games is the aspect of sharing and learning from each other. That doesn't take an audience of many.

I've found everyone is a little more 'on' when it is a streamed game, on average, and that is a thing I do like, as well. We get together for 2-3h of a focused activity. That doesn't mean it can't be chill or that it has to be all about the extroverted acting performance towards an audience. My current streamed game of Monsterhearts 2 is like that and the game is a brilliant experience.

And personally, I don't care much for over-emoting/riffing for an audience while over-emoting because you are muted on cam and you are cheering your fellow player on is just so much fun (to watch)! It's a big difference and the game being played factors hugely into this.


I've noticed that we roll dice far more often in our "casual" non-recorded games than we do when recording our AP. And I think that plays heavily into the concept of Play As Performance. When recording we stay in character for longer periods of time and are more likely to move the plot along narratively. We're more concerned with character interactions and having a coherent plot. Rolling dice can interrupt that dialogue and we often find ourselves skipping it in favor of role playing it out. 

In our non-recorded games we're more likely to go off on whatever weird side adventure catches our fancy or spend 45 minutes taking to the possible villian about Hot Potckets. There's still the performance aspect, but it's a performance for ourselves, without having to worry if an audience cares or could follow along. We feel like we can roll dice and "interrupt" the story/performance more frequently. 

My experience has led me to needing to chill lot more in public games and just focus on the other players because otherwise the pressure makes my mind start to drift.

I think I find more pressure to perform when I'm running a game? Probably due to still not internalizing that everyone at the table shares responsibility for making the game fun/engaging.


My anxiety is so powerful that there isn't really a difference for me between playing at home and running Halcyon Station.

I've played a lot in play by post games, and it was w very performative experience, especially since when I started I was an eighteen year old just after her first publication, so writing was more important for me than ever before. Pbp's were both my writing polygon and the way of seeking validation, so yes, I always had the audience in mind, and my posts were probably more flashy than they would otherwise.

I also played one-on-one sessions on google docs, and they were different, but not as much as I thought they would be - I still had a high need for beautiful language for example, and could polish the posts forever, but also I made narrative choices that I wouldn't do if I knew that anybody on the forum can read this.

On the other hand, when I got other source of validation, I started to come to pbp games with more loose attitude - I focus less on making the posts attractive and interesting to my co-players, more on getting what I want from the game (usually the feels ;) ).

There's a lot of improv stuff in both the games I write and how I play. I certainly agree with previous posters that the difference between podcast play and a regular session is that there's less table-talk, less going off-topic, which can be a bit of a shame as that audience-awareness can sometimes cause people to try be entertaining at the cost of playing the game, however I find it can also yield more collaborative play. I also find myself not enjoying play as I'm too busy worrying about the time, the amount of over-talk, that [REDACTED]'s phone just went off and I'll need to edit that, which I didn't find when I've played live on stage without the possibility of editing. I wonder if that comes across...

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