50 Games in 50 Weeks: The Play’s The Thing

Apr 23 2012

'Shakespeare' by mariateresaadalid on Flickr

'Shakespeare' by mariateresaadalid on Flickr

If you can imagine a Shakespearean role-playing game that’s riotously fun even for those not steeped in Shakespeare, you’d be imagining The Play’s The Thing.

The players take on the roles of small-time Shakespearean actors in a play that changes underneath their feet. That, indeed, is the fun: not only can the director interrupt and tell you to do the rest of the scene in Japanese accents, but all the other players can bid to have their own suggestions implemented, using Story Points that act much like Fate Points in FATE.

Each player has two main things to keep track of: his actor and his character. There are several different archetypes of actors available, from the Ham to the Ingenue. And, of course, each actor is playing one of the characters in the Shakespeare play.

As part of setup, each player chooses an actor archetype, then there’s a round-robin mechanism wherein each player is offered the option to either choose a character, or to add some plot point to that character and pass to another player. So, the GM might offer you the role of Macbeth; you can accept or decide that Macbeth, say, has a secret with three witches, and pass to the next player.

Actual gameplay is split into five acts, each of which is introduced by the GM. This is why the game works for those unfamiliar with Shakespeare: the GM tells you what’s supposed to happen before you start the act. The plot changes drastically anyway, so you don’t need to even have seen or read the original play to play the game.

Oddly, given the subject matter, The Play’s The Thing quickly turns into a beer-and-pretzels game. Players stumble through scenes as others suggest changes serious and silly. You don’t even have to improv, but you are working to incorporate some really fun material.

Moreover, there’s a built-in incentive to keep the story on track: you have to play your own character, too, and the sillier the plot, the harder that is.

I had a blast with The Play’s The Thing. The players quickly got over their Shakespeare jitters (most of us barely remembered the vaguest outline of the plot) and just dove into our story: Macbeth. We soon had Jewish Witches, the world’s shortest soliloquy (“Och!”), and a plot so focused on Macduff that we renamed the play after him.

The system’s still a little rough around the edges. Players get Story Points to influence the story, but it wasn’t clear when we could or couldn’t use them. However, the problems were minor, and never kept us from enjoying ourselves. It helped that we had a fantastic GM, Tom Cadorette, who knew exactly when to go deeper and when to move on.

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