Tabletop Review: The Play’s The Thing
by Justin Jeffers on July 4, 2012

The Play’s The Thing
Publisher: Magpie Games
Authors: Mark Truman
Page Count: 124
Release Date: 03/02/2012
Cost: $9.99 on sale, $19.99 standard (PDF)
Get it here: DrivethruRPG.com (PDF)

This game, as you might have guessed, is about putting on a play. One person is the Playwright (the GM), and everyone else is going to play one or more roles in whatever production the Playwright chooses. During the course of the game, players will choose actor types and roles, and then act out the play. Some gamers may know the name of the guy who edited the core book for this game: John Wick, known for Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea. So, I guess that’s cool.

Overview

Players start out by assigning six points to three attributes: Logos, or skill with words; Pathos, emotional depth and manipulation; and Ethos, understanding of time and place. Each of these attributes will be used by the player whenever they try to accomplish something that isn’t trivial. Together, the three attributes are referred to as Acting Chops. Next, players will choose a type of actor to be: The Lead, The Villain, etc. each with an onstage ability and an offstage ability. The Playwright will then cast the play through a sort of bidding mechanism where players will take a role or add bonuses to the role like props; which, I suppose, is some sort of bidding. I’m not entirely convinced.

The game uses (or at least borrows heavily from) the FATE system. In the game, each role has an “Invoke” and a “Compel”, the first being an effect that they can trigger, the latter being an effect triggered by others. Each of these meta-game actions costs Story Points, which are the currency people use to declare Invokes and Compels. Players can resist these extra influences, but it will cost them Story Points as well. Characters also have “Plots”, which are storyline-based reasons for changing the direction of the scene. Each character will be given some lines that they will get Story Points for using in the play, especially if they perform the line in keeping with the style of the play. In most plays there are props, and likewise in The Play’s The Thing, actors can use props which can appear in the play when needed, and add a bonus die for various activities like hiding or persuading.

A play is broken up into five acts according to the rules, although I’m sure this could be modified without hurting the game any. Each act takes place on a set, which will likely change with each act. The set itself is broken down into places, various areas “on stage” where the actors can be. Anyone familiar with being in plays or the theatre in general will know exactly what this is like. Actors can use places to give them bonuses, provided that it is appropriate.

Alright, so after you have established all of the facts about the characters and the play, you are ready to begin the first act. The Playwright sets the scene by narrating the set, adding at least two characters, and giving a synopsis of the act. As the act goes on, it may change from what the Playwright indicated by players using the aforementioned Compels and Invokes, edits, or just plain not doing what the Playwright said they would.

Once the show starts, players will have the opportunity to do all kinds of crazy things. First of all, you are basically just making up lines as you go (except if you’re using one the Playwright gave you) and deciding on the fly when you want to change something. Changes are referred to as “edits” in this game. When a player wants something to be different, they make an edit. Depending on how big the edit is that someone is trying to make (and whether the Playwright accepts the edit or not), they will try to roll above a fixed target number on all of the d6 that they can muster for that roll. If the edit is successful, it is resolved and the play goes on as though whatever the edit was is now fact.

That’s basically it! The rest of the book has a section on Playwrighting (and indeed play writing), as well a good 30 or so pages about scripts including several condensed versions of popular Shakespeare plays ready to be used for the game. The last section adds some new roles, a new script, and some other new stuff for a sort of advanced version of the game, which is attempting to emulate Shakespearean Romances.

What Do I Think?

I really like the concept of this game and the simplicity with which the mechanisms work. I am very glad to see it when role-playing games go in new directions instead of the same old Fantasy tropes, or Sci-fi, or Dystopia, or whatever. Plus, the game actually seems pretty darn fun. The only problem I see with this game is with people who really hate role-playing, or who just generally aren’t good at it. If you have a gaming group that loves to interact, laugh, act, make other people do what they want, and other such things, then I don’t see how this game could fail.

The Story Point system is a simple way to balance the power and control between the players and the playwright, and it lends a definite game aspect to this… well… game. It makes me wish more games had more game-like elements in them than the rolling of dice.

My only other problems just stem from some confusion while reading the book. For instance, characters have offstage skills, but I did not find a whole lot of information or examples about what players can do with their characters offstage. The descriptions seem to indicate that offstage abilities are just things you can do when you are not onstage acting. The actor types vs. the character roles in the play are also kind of confusing. If I’m a Villain, can I play Othello or is it just going to make the entire play kind of meaningless?

The book layout is well done, and there is fun and whimsical art throughout. While not an exhaustive set of rules, it gives enough structure for a Playwright to run the game confidently as long as everyone is willing to fly by the seat of their pants (which is a big part of the game!). I think it would be great with theatre people (theatre people know what I mean by this), and it might just be a hit with gamers who love social games and messing with things like Shakespeare’s plays. It’s a novel effort, a genuine game, and presented well. Not worth buying if you’re going to let it sit on the shelf, but definitely worth it even for only one night of entertainment with friends.



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Justin Jeffers

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