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Dungeons 'n Dragons 'n Dogs

There's one thing we love at Team BearDog (apart from theatre, improv and puppetry) and that's table-top games.

You won't find any Monopoly in our house... Maybe a box of Jenga ...(but only to use in conjunction with the role-playing game Dread but we'll get onto that)

We have a treasure trove of a particular type of game - some board based, some on cards, some that require dice - that use a little strategy, some quick thinking and sometimes some reflexes. The kind that geeks, of which we define ourselves as, dedicate whole weekends for. 

Even while writing this, we've already picked up two new games and we're anxiously watching an eBay listing for another (Which hopefully, will feature soon, if we're lucky enough. It's research, honest!)

But there was one element that sticks out and that's the imagine that these games not only encourage but often depend upon.

This is great for me. I love games with a strong narrative thread through them. I love detailing what my character is thinking, their relationships to the other characters etc. I even will pick up my characters counter and move them about, performing the actions as I go, but what else do you expect from a puppeteer.

Then again, it's not just me who will get seriously into these games. A lot of my friends, some who aren't the most of performative of people, will delight in putting on a voice, telling jokes about their characters and get very conflicted on the actions they need to take, especially if it screws over their friends (Or that is just part of the fun). We all get into it and it makes for a better game. The stakes are higher, the plot more interesting, the characters more alive.  

Some of the most memorable moments (and the most to be retold) with a large part of my social network, are the shared, collaborative stories we make together through a board game. 

Now this may sound a bit lame, but at the same time, when you're working in theatre and/or improv, nothing beats that moment when the story flows, the characters click and the humour lands.  

So it's just as awesome when you're playing as a giant cyborg gorilla that has just destroyed an alien bunny, only to be knocked out by a mechanical dinosaur in a game of King of Tokyo. I wasn't even annoyed, even as my victory was snatched away from me, because the story we created between us was just too good to spoil. In front of us, my friend had merely rolled more dice that had landed the claw icon then the number I had by a heart graphic on my character's card. In our imaginations, however, we spun a story of how the triumphant the King (my character) step backwards and tripped over a crouching Giga Zaur, a la a primary school bully, crashed to the ground and died, after exhausting himself during battle. We weren't really there, but everyone present during that game can remember it.   

All of this is determined by a simple roll of the dice and pure dumb luck. 

This spontaneous story making and collective imagination is my favourite part of table-top games. The ease that one can slip into the role of story-teller, the truly unexpected twists and turns and the subsequent mental deducing to still come up on top is pretty special and something I've only experienced with these sort of games. And it's just the kind of story driven mechanics that we would love to utilise in our new show Guide Dogs for the DeathIt also helps that our new associate artist Thomas Jancis is the Grand Duke of the Geeks

From the very start of our process with Guide Dogs we knew we wanted to try something improvisational (and because its me, we just had to have some puppetry in it). Whenever myself and Thomas waffled on about projects we wanted to try, we kept finding ourselves drawn to the idea of having some sort of improvised element. I think we both love the unfolding of a show and feeling the liveness of performance. I knew straight away we needed Calum Anderson, with his extensive experience in improv and teaching. It made sense to develop it as a BearDog show and it was a match made in heaven. 

But I was a bit concerned. Even though I’ve been a performer for most of my life, I haven't really done improv and to be honest it had always scared me a little. But I had seen Calum do it a number of time and it must have rubbed off on me. 

Whenever Calum had discussed improv to me the idea of the  Game of the scene always came up. This was a concept detailed by the American improvisational comedy group, the Upright Citizens Brigade in their teachings and their Improvisation Manual

The idea of improvisation having being playful, imaginative and a game meant that it didn’t take me long to wonder whether there could be a link with the idea of the game of a scene and board-game mechanics as a way of generating ideas, characters and surprise for us. Board games aren’t scary (only suspenseful). Board games were fun (only challenging). I got board games. Was there a way of mashing up the two to help two 'non-improvisers’ make it easier on themselves and 'short-cut' our way to a show? Taking what we knew and what felt unknown to get a bit of common ground?

Besides, I had promised a board-game day with Thomas for almost a year and I was beginning to feel bad. 

We have already proven that our basic story idea (Man dies. Man ends up in limbo. Man meets Dog. Dog is also dead. They travel to the after-life. Dog is a puppet. Man is a Thomas) at TouchedTheatre’s Punched: Christmas Special last year. So the next stage for us is to start building an improvisational performative strategy to answer this question; how do we create multiple men, multiple dogs and multiple journeys to the afterlife? 

We want to borrow the game mechanics of dice-rolls, Top Trumps and role-playing games and utilise their ability to encourage story-telling, chance, failure and re-playability.

So far our fledgling idea so far is to use a combination of cards and dice to determine job, class, breed, history, characteristics, personality, cause of death and temperament for both Man and Dog. Then we will let them meet properly for the first time on stage.

 

So what game mechanics do we like and which ones do we want to steal from?

 

For starters, games such as Gloom requires players to tell stories about a family of characters they control and inevitably how they die (the aim of the game is to give your characters most woeful, mis-adventurous life as possible and then kill them) Detail is encouraged and narrative is best when it runs through the game.

Classic role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons which use a character’s ability score for their Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. These characteristics are given a numerical value from 1-20; the sliding scale of these attributes encourages a rich and rounded character. Traditionally these are determined with a dice roll during a character’s creation, to utilise a bit of random chance. Players refer to these stats throughout the game and story that they tell. This is concise way of deciding character quickly, randomly and fairly. Certain actions also depend on the roll of a dice to see just how successful they are. 

Dread as I had mentioned above, s a role-playing game that uses a different way of creating character and deciding how successful these characters are. Players answer a selection of questions (Happiest moment? Saddest moment? Why are they here?) to form their character. As a group, the players take their turns to tell what their character is doing. For every action that would be difficult for them to do, the player has to pull a block from a Jenga tower. If they can take a block and put it on top of the tower without it falling, they perform the action. If not, they immediately die. It’s tough, it’s brutal but what is great is that there is a real undetermined chance and you are kept on your toes and as players, we have to react immediately to the story.  The suspense during this game was the most taut I had ever felt during a game. It was tangible!

I could go on. We have access to quite a number of games, each with their own set of rules and outcomes.

 

Basically, if I had to some it up in one sentence, what we want to try is a kind

Merce Cunningham meets Dungeons and Dragons.  

To be honest, if we get anything from board-games, it’s just a fun way to bring people together to tell a story. I want to start rehearsals with a quick game to rev up the brain. Board-games can encourage the story-telling, collaboration and collective imagination we need to start a big day of improvisation.  

Where do we go from here?

Roll a dice, flip over a card, shuffle the deck and come back to the blog soon to find out more on our explorations. 

by Joni-Rae Carrack