• Design Diary: A Tragedy in Five Acts, pt. 1

    by  • April 25, 2013 • Design & Art • 1 Comment

    So I wrote a game called A Tragedy in Five Acts, which is finally done and available at DriveThruRPG.net in PDF, with hardcopy going out to Kickstarter backers (thank you!) in the next week or so as the printer ships it, and then up on the site for sale. Tragedy is an indie, one-night, Shakespearean tragedy emulation game — a far cry from the sort of design work I’ve done in the past. As such, I thought it might be worth ATI5A_09-10-12discussing here in sort of a postmortem: why I did it, how I did it, and how feminism figures into the whole thing.

    What Is A Tragedy in Five Acts?

    A Tragedy in Five Acts is a game that sets out to emulate Shakespearean tragedy in a quick and dirty sort of way. Fives are important in this game; there are five players, five Roles, five acts (with three scenes each), and five Fatal Flaws. It’s cooperative in the sense that there’s no GM and everyone’s working toward the same end goal — a tragic play that feels like Shakespeare without having to know Shakespeare very well (although I think it adds significantly to the game if you do). It’s competitive in that you’re all trying to get narrative control to make the story go the way you want and gain Tragedy Points. The player with the most Tragedy Points at the end wins the game and gets to name the play. The setting for the game is generated at each session by the players, so it’s different every time.

    Each player has a Role: Daughter, Lover, Foil, Parent, or Authority. These roles each have something that they do or stand for in the text that you can include to the extent you want, but the focus is on these roles in terms of society and interconnectedness. They each do something for and with and to the others, and how that gets negotiated is what shapes the plot. Shakespeare was big on social quandaries and the struggle between duty and individual choice, and that’s easy to play out here. Each role also has an act they’re responsible for, particularly in trying to keep the type of change and narrative place in the story appropriate to that act. That role’s player acts as director for that act and determines scene beginning and end, who’s participating in a scene, and what if any secondary characters are in the scene.

    Each character also has a Fatal Flaw, something that will drive their behavior (often to unhappy ends). Fatal Flaws start out as secret, but you can reveal them over the course of the play for varying rewards. Once a Flaw is revealed, it must be adhered to; a secret Flaw doesn’t have to affect anything. Flaws are chosen randomly.

    The beginning of each scene sees a narrative auction, wherein players describe what they’d like to see happen and other players bid on which ideas they like best. You only get ten bidding tokens per act, though, so you have to ration them appropriately. You can choose to abdicate and have your character die early if you wish, which allows you to continue interacting with the narrative through influence, direction, and playing secondary characters while getting the glory of an early death when it’ll be most shocking. At the end of the play, final fates are assigned: exiled, forsworn, and dead; everyone gets at least one of these, and multiples aren’t out of the question.

    Why I Did It

    I did it because of the 2011 Game Chef AND because I’m an English lit grad student AND because I’m a gamer and why not? More specifically, though, I did it because of the possible required components, “Daughter” was one of them — and it was one that was rarely chosen, from the entries I saw. When it was chosen, the daughter was more often a goal or a prize than a character option. There was no agency there, no integration, and honestly… it annoyed me and made me sad. I didn’t finish my game in time to enter, so I didn’t get to submit. I did get to publish, though, so I’ll take that and be happy with it.

    The other reason I did it, or at least the reason I continued on with it, is more academic in nature: I believe that Shakespeare had a method in his madness. Shakespeare is noticeably different from both his contemporaries and other playwrights since. We can recognize a Shakespearean play even when it’s almost entirely divorced from its original language and context. There is a feeling to it that sticks around despite how it gets repurposed. While we could argue about how much Shakespeare is defined by historical efforts to canonize and lionize him in the name of British Supremacy or high culture or what have you (and there are interesting arguments to be had there, don’t get me wrong), I think that even apart from his place in culture or how he got there, he was a clever sort of chap and his plays have a certain something to them that is worth returning to. There is a method, and that method gets us that Shakespeare experience, and I believe it is replicable, especially within a game — and I’m always interested in the areas where gaming and education overlap, so there we go. My path was set.

    How I Did It

    I did it with a lot of playtesting, for one. The core mechanic is, frankly, dirt simple. It’s simple enough that I honestly wasn’t sure it qualified as a game. There aren’t any stats to speak of, there’s no resolution roles, there’s no combat mechanic, there’s no social stuff. There’s telling a story and scoring points, and that’s pretty much it. If it weren’t for Fiasco and Our Last Best Hope and similar games, I don’t know that I would have pressed on with it, but even they have more of a structured rules base than Tragedy does. Here’s the thing, though — that’s what makes this accessible. It makes it work. People tell stories and take turns and make up dialog and, even for people who don’t generally like or feel successful at improv-style games, it works. Everybody gets betting. Everybody gets auctions. And even for people who don’t feel like they come up with stuff off-hand, the winning of the game is not really necessary in order to enjoy the game and feel fulfilled at the end of it. The hiccups in dialog or character presentation or setting get glossed over through play and the good parts are what stand out — and I have to say, for a game that deals with tragedy, I’ve never had a session that wasn’t heavily punctuated with laughter all the way through. So that kept me going.

    There were a lot of refinements along the way, of course: how and when can people spend Tragedy Points, how many do you get and when, etc. But those were tweaks to the system, not changes. Once we’d run it enough times and felt like we had a handle on it, we started the process of writing the draft and commissioning art and whatnot. The benefit of having done game publishing for a while (and this being our second book) is that we knew what we were getting into and had a decent handle on what went with it. We were able to publish and pay everyone 20% above what we contracted them for with the roughly 5k we made on the Kickstarter, plus getting custom dice and tokens and even some shirts (I love the shirts). We didn’t make thousands and thousands of dollars, but it was never that kind of game and the stretch goals showed it. I am pondering going back and trying to make a version that focuses on pedagogy, as well as one that focuses on comedy, but these will be their own projects and, given where I am at in grad school, are not something I’ll be able to get to right away regardless.

    To Be Continued

    Next time I’ll talk more about the role of daughters in the game, how feminism comes into it and more, as well as showing off some of the art and praising my freelancers to high heaven. If you’d like a review copy of Tragedy, please email me at growlingdoorgames AT gmail.com.

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    About

    I'm Michelle Lyons-McFarland. I'm currently a PhD student in the English Department at Case Western Reserve University, and I'm also a writer and editor in the RPG industry and have been since 2000. My husband Matthew McFarland and I have a game company together called Growling Door Games. I not only write and edit (and even some design) but I play too, everything from tabletop to console to card to board to occasional minis games (the cost keeps me from jumping straight in). I have a vested interest in gaming as a woman on both the macro and micro scale, from moderating on RPGnet to attending cons to finding work in the field.

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