The Shield & Torch: Designing for Play (1?)

Now, despite the incredibly broad title for this – I’m just going to focus on a few things that have come up so far in debriefs with the cast of The Shield & Torch, following last week’s playtest. I’m just covering a few points and might do a bit more of this thinking next week, hence the ‘1?’ in the title.

A quick overview of the playtest, from my perspective:

Fuck this tech takes longer to set up than I thought and shit these batteries run out quickly ah okay I see it’s quite hard to time this bit of onboarding but that’s nice they’re playing cards and okay my guild is quite small but that’s fine JESUS everyone moved quick once I said ‘tavern’s open’ and fuck this tech still isn’t working and damn I should’ve been a better role-play partner in that moment and what the hell is that the time already SHIT I don’t have a programmed tune for the end and oh this is nice I’m working in some of my backstory and AHA A SPILL I can finally be a janitor and wow this wake is quite fun and aw that was a lovely poem and woah everyone’s really going for it and yeah we did it and right there’s a lot to pack away but seems like everyone had a nice time ahh this is good oh yeah I didn’t eat dinner did I yeah I’ll stay back till I’ve got stuff packed up ah I’ve not been on a nightbus with props in a long time

That’s roughly it, you know. And, due to how The Shield & Torch works, lots happened that I didn’t know about and I’ve been reflecting on things with the cast, and a few good observations about design have come out of those chats.

What assumptions will you need to dispel (or work with)?

The Shield & Torch doesn’t really have an A Plot – the closest thing it has to one is the fact that every night rounds off with some kind of communal event (such as a wake for a ghost). But the night isn’t solely about planning and preparing for that event, always thinking ahead to it.

However, it’s really easy – especially if you go to a lot to interactive theatre – to expect an A Plot, go looking for it, fail to do so, and conclude not that there simply isn’t one, but that you just haven’t found it and are missing out.

Thankfully, we have space to be blunt about things where we need to, given that The Shield & Torch explicitly allows people to shift in- and out-of-character as needed. It’s still up in the air precisely how we’ll work with this assumption – whether building in some more personal story prompts explicitly around the night’s communal event, to give a way into things for those who gravitate towards it as an A Plot, or more strongly communicating the absence of such a plot, or something else altogether. Right now, the point is staying aware of things like this.

‘Yes and’ with the emphasis on ‘and’

We had an amazing group of play-testers – the play-test wasn’t on the ‘let’s stress test every corner of this concept’ side of things, more on the ‘if something doesn’t work with this group, we know it’s fundamentally screwed’ side. So they were all great with yes-and-ing the bits of information and suchlike they got about the world and each other.

But we’re keeping certain things in mind, given that we can’t expect any future group to play like the play-testers did. And one of those things is that, for a lot of people, the ‘yes’ is fairly easy – it’s the ‘and’ that’s difficult. And The Shield & Torch is huge on the ‘and’ – it leaves so much scope and power and input up to those who’ve come on the night, so that ‘and’ gets to do a lot. And some people will need help getting comfortable with the ‘and’ part of things.

The illusion isn’t valuable, the play is

This is kind of a note for me. During the playtest, one person was making baskets for the ghost that was passing on that night – and, since we’d established a convention that the ghost communicates with people in the tavern via written notes left around, I wrote a thank-you note from the ghost and pinned it to the noticeboard (since I’d seen that person use it recently and it seemed like the best shot at them chancing across it).

I tried, in-character, to subtly nudge them towards the noticeboard, mentioning its usefulness to a task they were undertaking. I was doing something I wouldn’t done in many other similar shows – trying to create a little magical moment for someone.

But they never saw the note. Fair enough – as with the times I’ve done similar things in other shows, it’s not possible for everything you put down to be picked up.

Except here it is. Within the conventions of play at The Shield & Torch, I could have just gone ‘out of character – there’s a note on the noticeboard for you’ and they would have found it. Explicit information, given out-of-character, still leading to a nice moment (I showed them the note when the show ended so also have a sense of things from their perspective). But the old habits of trying to create magic in a world whilst unable to step outside of it die hard.

These barely graze the surface of the notes, conversations, thoughts, to-dos and suchlike following the play-tests. But they’re the kind of things that are easy to forget, important to remember, and can make all the difference to people’s experience when playing as part of something like this.

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