I’d never heard the term “theater kid” back in the 1980s when I was in high school, but given the number of musicals I was part of, it’s probably safe to describe me as one. (I’m not entirely sure how we were able to include the song “Cabaret” in a Catholic High School Musical now that I think of it…)
I’ve been thinking about aspects of theater lately—especially improvisation. I often read what others write when they are discussing various established media universes – Marvel, Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune, etc. and how it pertains to their roleplaying games. I’ve often read people describing their campaign prep and will sometimes see things like, “because The Last Jedi was a ‘woke’ cinematic failure, it is not canon in our game.”
Now there’s nothing wrong with diverging from an established universe’s canon. Indeed, if you set a game in a universe with a long timeline and your game is any place but the middle, you’ll need to decide what impact the campaign may have on the established universe. For example, in a Star Wars Clone Wars campaign, what happens if the characters kill Count Dooku in the early days of the war?
Tweaking the premise of the setting can make for an exciting game. For example.,The Dresden Files RPG has characters in the same fictional universe as paranormal investigator Harry Dresden. However, it has an entire section on how one could, if they so choose, remove Harry Dresden from the setting. Listing many of the places in the novels he could have conceivably died—providing players the opportunity to be the ones to tackle his later cases.
However, I think this is an area where some caution is warranted. One of the advantages of playing with a known setting is it provides a hook that makes the setting easy to explain. The more “but instead of” you need to add, the more difficult it becomes to get a handle on the setting. As one begins going down this route, I’ve found that implementing a pastiche of a setting might prove easier.
One concept of theater improvisation that can be quite interesting is the art of “yes, and.” The idea is, in improvisation, you accept what someone else has established, and you build upon that foundation. In my opinion, one of the best examples of this is found in Star Wars. The prequel Star Wars films had a lot of detractors. However, The Clone Wars (TCW) show has built upon that era. TCW accepted everything that happened in the prequel trilogy as its foundation and built up a highly regarded show over 7 seasons. It took what was only hinted at in the movies and created entire storylines. It made the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan closer. It created a palette of criminal organizations, bounty hunters, independence movements, and terrorist organizations. Characters introduced in TCW have appeared in live-action films and television shows—Saw Garerra’s in Rogue One and Bo Katan in The Mandalorian.
The idea of “yes, and” can make what came before even better – the prequel movies tend to be better regarded now than when they were first released. Star Wars arguably also has an example of not doing this as well. The film The Last Jedi most definitely had its detractors (it’s one of my favorite Star Wars movies, but I am most definitely in the minority). The Rise of Skywalker wound up undoing much of what The Last Jedi established rather than building on it. To quote Honest Trailers, it managed to “do the impossible: unite fans who loved The Last Jedi and fans who hated The Last Jedi – by pleasing none of them.” I’m genuinely curious if the current set of television shows will do a similar operation of accepting what has been done before and building upon that.
Roleplaying games set in established universes provide excellent opportunities for “yes, and” moments. Keeping in the setting of Star Wars, I once ended a Star Wars RPG with the Battle of Endor. It featured the final battle aboard the second Death Star with their archnemesis High Inquisitor Tremayne and discovering the Emperor had internal shielding to protect the reactor core from the Rebel attack. The characters defeated their enemy and deactivated the internal shielding, knowing they had made Lando and Wedge’s final attack possible. And they got to dance with Ewoks—as one does.
~ Daniel Stack
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