The Shield & Torch: designing for play (2)

I’ve already done a bit of reflecting on the play-testing for Shield & Torch and the lessons learnt – but this project contains so much that’s new (or at least not-quite-like things I’ve done before), there’s a lot I’m gaining from the play-test and it makes sense

Stop people falling down the gap between expectation and delivery

Play-tests are *great* for revealing how people will actually respond to what you’re saying and doing – how it’ll be interpreted and used by someone who doesn’t have all of the context that’s around your brain. An example from The Shield & Torch:

On the tavern noticeboard is a posting about an anti-guild meeting happening at a location in the tavern, at a specific time that evening.

Chloe’s thought: if multiple players follow this thread, they’ll show up at the ‘meeting’ [I know I don’t have a performer to actually be the person who made this posting…] and can interact over their character’s mutual anti-guild-ness. They could decide to just autonomously start working towards anti-guild action…

What happened, though, is that one person followed that thread, went to the location – and naturally didn’t find a person there. The sign implicitly promised a performer – or at the very least a person – when the evening didn’t actually deliver on that promise.

The solution? A reworked version of the sign that still has all that information, but is also ‘crossed out’ with a note mentioning that the person co-ordinating the meeting is currently barred from the tavern. So there’s clearly no promise of a person – but the content, and the space in which someone can pick up on the idea ‘oh, you can be anti-guild in this world…’ still exists.

You can only play as much as your least play-able element

So, this is a bit of a clunky sub-header, but I think it roughly captures the point. In The Shield & Torch‘s case, it’s our tech (which I will write more fully about elsewhere). We had such a cool idea for the end of the night – a communal event would end with anyone who was comfortable doing so holding hands – triggering the conducting synth in playing music, suggestive of the magic that this group was producing.

But conductive synths get a bit glitchy, and a phone’s in-built speakers are a bit insufficient, when the players have already fully bought into chanting and stamping along with some magical words recently introduced into the process. So no one hears the sound, and when it does play it swiftly cuts out – with some hand-holding getting disrupted by all the movement.

We don’t know the precise tone the end of the night will hit until a short while beforehand – it depends so heavily on the characters people make, what stories and activities really take off, and so on. And we don’t have the variety of resources and level of people-power to fully adjust things like the conductive synth to match the tone the players bring at the end. So (whilst it’ll still be in play elsewhere) – it has to go.

There is, of course, a general tone to The Shield & Torch. The number of people, the many people newer to this kind of event, and what we pre-determined about the world leans the tavern more towards a warm, bustling space that can mix somewhat comedic and dramatic stories, than (for instance) a quiet and tense grimdark venue that demands thoroughgoing angst. But there’s still a lot of scope for specifics to grow from people’s play – and we can’t be committing ourselves to elements that might undermine, clash with, or outright ignore those. And the play-test revealed where there were such elements.

Do maybe ask for at least *one* nice thought

My typical interests in play-test feedback are the following: I want to know when you’re bored, when you’re confused, and when you’re frustrated. My natural lean is towards knowing what needs fixing and what’s getting in the way of play – I find it easier to improve things by knowing that, rather than knowing only what people’s favourite x/y/z was and trying to design around that.

But even I can admit that reading some of the positive feedback on The Shield & Torch – players were invited to answer specific questions, contribute any other feedback of their own, and also (if they wanted to) share a couple of sentences about what they enjoyed – has been so helpful. In reminding me why I’m doing this. In giving me incentive on the days when focusing is really hard. In making it feel less shameless to be plugging tickets online. All those things. Use the play-testing process to your advantage – sometimes that’s information to then drive development and rewrites and rebalancing of a game, sometimes it’s reminders of why it’s worth pushing through with what can often be long and demanding creation processes…

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.

The Shield & Torch: why it feels like cheating (and why it isn’t)

So, last night was the playtest of The Shield & Torch – a mix of interactive theatre and role-playing game (that allows people to play out someone’s evening in a fantasy tavern) that I’ve wanted to try and make happen for a while. My brain’s still somewhat wired from the day of prep, the show itself, the post-midnight bus home still dressed in costume and carrying (amongst other things) a big larp sword slung over my shoulder.

I want to reflect on the playtest – though it’s still, to a degree, a blur. And the sheer nature of The Shield & Torch means I’m aware of maybe 2% of the experiences that were had across the night – there were so many stories and characters and interactions and baskets woven for ghosts and fantasy pyramid schemes and people looking for magical fixes to broken souls and so on…

So what I’m going to dig into a bit – because, ultimately, I think it says something about this particular kind of participatory work – is one of the instinctive thoughts I had on the bus home, after really lovely and heartening effusive feedback from a variety of playtesters.

“It feels like cheating to take credit for their good time. Because all that [the stories they created, interactions they had, characters they played, etc] came from them.’

Now – before those who know me jump on me for doing myself down: this is not a thought I held onto or let genuinely sit with me. It was more a curiosity – an instinctive feeling that made me wonder. Because yes, there’s something genuine in that knee-jerk response. When people tell you that they’ve had a brilliant night, they’d definitely want to do it again, that they had a load of fun – and a part of you thinks ‘all I did was give you a space to do that in’.

All I did was give you a space to do that in.

And here we get to why – even if a fleeting, instinctive thought expresses that it feels like cheating – it isn’t. The line above – it’s not expressing something that’s easy to do. It’s not simple or straightforward or without challenge.

If I was told 10 years ago, when I graduated and first started working professionally in theatre, that one of my big focuses and interests come 2022 would be the holding of space, I would’ve stared blankly with zero clue of what that meant or why it was important. (Who am I kidding – I would’ve tried to bluff that I understood, get through the conversation, and maybe google it later.)

But – in no small part to my work in tabletop role-playing games in recent years, and learning more about different types of communal storytelling such as larp – it is. One of the reasons I love communal storytelling (whether in the form of interactive theatre, or tabletop role-playing games, or larp, or other forms) is because of how people are treated as worthwhile storytellers. Their contribution is given value and weight. Their input is meaningful. It’s honoured and built upon and celebrated and explored and all those things.

But the world doesn’t do this as a default. So you have to create – and then hold – spaces that get past this initial hurdle. That reassure people their input is meaningful and valued and wanted; that remind them of the elements of communal storytelling that everyone’s largely familiar with (especially as children) but simply might not have practiced in a while; that puncture the assumption of certain images of ‘perfection’ or ‘right’; that demonstrate that struggling is met with help, not judgement; that there’s fun and value in the doing of the thing, not some further purpose it serves.

I’m worried this might all sound a bit grandiose (‘yeah, Chloe, your tavern simulator went well, you haven’t cracked the code for utopia’) – and I’m also not saying The Shield & Torch currently nails everything it wants to in terms of creating and holding space. But it’s easy to focus on what’s filling a space and forget what goes into creating that space in the first place. (Space-holding is something I also admire and constantly notice in others and don’t credit enough when I’m doing it, being frank and honest with myself.)

I think that fundamentally that’s going to be one of the most exciting things about The Shield & Torch (and most impactful in terms of what I make at very least): the ways in which it creates and holds space. How it carves out room for people to play – because, play is entirely the point of the evening (and joyful and brilliant and surprising and heartening and energising), it’s not possible without space for it to happen in.

The Shield & Torch: small traditions and back pockets

The Shield & Torch is a live event set in a fantasy tavern, combining elements from interactive theatre and role-playing games. Tickets are now on sale here.

I’ve never made something like The Shield & Torch before. I have not worked with the majority of the cast before. I have not had to try and describe something like this to collaborators, potential audiences/players and people outside my niche before.

(A lot of the above isn’t as scary as it sounds – for one thing, the cast are phenomenal and I’m going to write more about quite how good they are soon.)

What this all means is: a variety of shorthand is coming about through working on this project, with some of it basically being long-overdue articulations of ideas around interactive performance and play.

One of the most significant shorthands so far is ‘small traditions’ which essentially means: activities people can easily and quickly be introduced to that they can then spread – leading others in it, replicating it, embellishing it. Small traditions cement you as part of a group, or embedded in the culture and practices of a place to make it feel more like you belong. 

In-jokes are small traditions. Local toasts and idioms are small traditions. Specific styles of handshake or greeting are small traditions. Classic tall tales are small traditions. Superstitions are small traditions. Insider know-how about which chair is nicest, which streets are a traffic nightmare on Wednesdays, which Uno rule variant is adhered to in a pub – all small traditions.

This might not sound huge – but a personal bit of jargon I had before making The Shield & Torch was wanting people to be ‘residents’ rather than ‘visitors’ in imagined worlds – residents can affect meaningful change, have an inherent authority and agency and can lead action if they want. Visitors have to maintain a respectful inertness – they’re there by others’ permission, their impact dissipates after they leave, and they don’t have the kind of assumed authority to lead but instead can only really follow. Small traditions increase the sense of being a resident of a place.

They can also spread pretty organically – once you know a small tradition, you can pass it on. And sharing a small tradition with someone else only adds to that sense of being a resident.

Something I also talk about a lot is performers having things ‘in their back pocket’. When I’m performing in interactive shows I like to have a lot of stuff in my imaginary pockets – what this fundamentally is, is different interactions/games/content (whatever you call it – ultimately ‘things to do with people’) that can be pulled out whenever.

Really, the ‘back pocket’ approach is especially important with this show as it’s heavily freeform. For next week’s playtest, there is an event of sorts towards the end of the evening – that people can choose, during the night, whether they want to actively participate in or just bear witness to – but there’s no structured rounds, no mid-way recaps to loop everyone in, no timed or triggered events. It’s a night in a tavern, and what happens will be a result of the specific combo of people and the particular things they’re trying to do.

So we need to be more prepared for someone hovering, a little unsure of what to do (though I’ll write elsewhere about our attitude to in- and out-of-character chat and how that will relate to this too), and wanting some interaction or engagement. And the more you have in your back pocket, the less likely you’re left scrambling to think of something on the spot or having to tweak-and-rework something you’ve already done with someone else. Plus, it has a neat effect of giving your character rough and ready dimension (because they know this gambling game but are also doing this research into bats and their mum taught them this ritual but they’ve also observed how this is the most peaceful corner of the tavern to work through feelings in and so on…).

I’m going to try and write down and articulate a lot about The Shield & Torch – the use of tech, the process of developing things with the cast, the thinking behind the character creation, the fluidity of being in-character and out-of-character and more – partially because this project feels like it’s combining so many things I’ve been trying to figure out for a long time.

The playtest is 5 days away. So no doubt I’ll have loads more to write about soon. I should also probably get back to writing notes left by ghosts and encoded messages about magical languages…

The Shelf of Gifts

A gift from Blossomdrift to Lichencross, which once belonged to Beachbriar

The gift is a small glass jar filled with dried rose petals. As you unscrew the lid, the sweet pink frangrance touches your nose. The petals are small and crinkled, no longer soft and lush, but still carry something of a summer memory. The gift hopes to remind you of what can be saved and savoured even after time has moved on from it.

A gift from Holyviolet to Blossomdrift, which once belonged to Candlehum

A small clay pot of campanula, with starry purple flowers against the greenery. For a keeper who also blossoms, and who commemorates.

Bristletap’s shelf (entrusted to Applecap)

An item that once belonged to Applecap:

A carved penguin made of coal.
It was a gift from my Grandmother.
I lost it.
It was found.

Five other items on the shelf:

A carved wooden duck made of burnt wood.
A feather from the Complicated Owl.
A drawing of a ghost.
A hat from the wedding where the bride never appeared.
A tin of cough drops.

Candlehum’s shelf (entrusted to Holyviolet)

An item that once belonged to Holyviolet

There’s a white paper bag with a familiar orange, pink and brown logo in fat letters on the front. It’s a surprise to see it on his shelf, as last I’d seen the bag, Socrates was very carefully fastening it to his belt, so he could enjoy the rest of the donut holes I’d brought him from my world later on when he was hungry again. The bag is still fairly crisp, tho now empty except for traces of sugar and crumbs inside, and the faint sweet smell of baked goods. I know it’s mine because I’d doodled a grape cluster on the back to differentiate it from the bags I’d kept for home consumption. Perhaps Socrates shared the rest of the donut holes with Candlehum at some point, or gave him the rest in the bag in exchange for something? I shall have to ask Socrates, and perhaps we can do something together to commemorate and celebrate Candlehum’s shelf and life.

Five other items on the shelf

There’s the buzzing of a fly, zooming in close then just as quickly moving away. It sounds like a hot summer day near the Beacon, like a messenger darting in and out of the Portal with important news.

There’s a pot of campanula, purple flowers starry against the green. Candlehum worked at the historic Greenhouse, and probably brought this plant home to nurture or for company or perhaps a little bit of both.

There’s an eyeglass cloth, with the name of an optician from the City Center printed on the soft blue fabric. The merchants set up there with wondrous things from the length and breadth of Alongame. At some point someone must have learned about optics and glass grinding, perhaps even a scholar from the College. I wonder if Candlehum wore glasses, whether this was a free cloth that came with his first pair, or a remembrance from someone else. I wonder if he rubbed the fuzzy cloth between his fingers and thought fondly of the giver, or if he just liked the color and thought the size too impractical for his work or household use.

There’s an illuminated map of the City Of Splendors, along with parts of the neighboring areas. He must have gotten this from the College, which hands them out fairly freely, tho this one is particularly pretty, with colors and whimsical drawings.

There’s the scent of coconut and pineapple, scents I’d never encountered before in Alongame. It reminds me of sitting in the shade on a tropical beach, with the lapping crystal blue of the ocean dazzling the eye while the golden sands absorb and release the sun’s heat. I wonder where he got this from, whether he’s been through the Portal as well and took a well-deserved vacation, sipping pina coladas somewhere and relaxing.

Cornerchime’s shelf

A map, with a note attached

People travel through here, only some of them stay. This is a liminal space for many. If you decide not to stay, please leave something behind. The hills like to remember.

Notes on a development on Conebird‘s map

The hedge has grown. It hasn’t done so in years. 

It tracks a path due south, following the river in another world. Its leaves look strangely out of place. 

A watchtower is built for humans to track its growth.

A long dozen poem

Wind and Cold.
Sunshine reflecting diamonds in the snow.
Cheeks are red, heart is warm. In this silence there is calm.

A cairn, telling this story

A home.

It is perfectly tidy, but empty. How did the people who lived here choose what they left behind? The beds are made. The kitchen has full sets of crockery, but the pantry is empty. There is no decay, only dust and stillness. Like the house is waiting. 

The house has many rooms. Some are even unfinished, the windowframes unpainted, the skirting unglued. 

Ivy climbs up the side of the house facing the garden. The siding hints at the fact this was intentional. The garden is too overgrown to tell whether it was tended or left to nature’s will.

There is one shared space in the house. It is spartan. There are many shelves. A single book has been left on each one. 

Somehow, even when the temperature drops outside, the inside of the house is always a few degrees warmer, and it is never truly dark. 

The plants outside are drawn to this. The ivy is creeping in. A tree is growing through the cracks in the floor. This house was waiting for someone, it was left to wait for others. Nature has answered that call.

Bookfold’s shelf

A map with this note attached

If you’re hungry while traveling, the Open Garden next to the village is open to all; help yourself, but it’s poor manners to be too greedy. The only caution is to beware the Forgotten Road. Nobody knows where it leads or what’s on it, and the few who’ve been there all tell different stories, none of them good. If someone tells you they found treasure there and you should go too, don’t believe them.

Notes on an acquaintance

I met the Owlkeeper in the Silent Woods. At least, that’s what he called himself. He was a bit strange: dressed in dapper clothes, sitting in a tree, hands twitchy. He’s one of those people who talks a lot but says nothing; it was all small talk and evasive non-sequitors, like he was dropping riddles that might or might not have an answer. He said he was close friends with Tilleryard, and that they game weekly; but I suspect he’s also the kind of person who says he’s friends with everyone but nobody really knows him? I mean, he sits in a tree in woods that have a reputation for weird fae activity.

A long dozen poem

Open hands
The garden overflows with their bounty:
A gift from one life on this world to another life

Mushroom poems inspired by this long dozen sit on Vaseridge and Applecap‘s shelves

A cairn, telling this story

The cairn at the top of Grannytop Hill stood in the middle of the ring of standing stones, and told the story of “Granny” Applewood, who led the construction of the stones. She was skilled in astronomy and charted the heavens, and the path of sun and moon. The stones were to be a calendar to be used to mark planting & harvest times. 

However, the project was not without opposition. Halfway through construction, the mayor at the time abruptly pulled support, and did nothing to stop nasty rumors that the fae were somehow involved. Either that Granny was aided by them, or that the construction would draw their wrath. But Granny persisted, and later generations recognized the ring’s value. To this day, they are still used as an agricultural calendar.

However, the story of Granny herself was lost. Most people simply think that “Grannytop” refers to the fact that some of the stones look like old, hunched figures.