Project Ramblings: A Comedy in Five Acts

Game Design Thoughts Ahoy!

Okay, so A Tragedy in Five Acts. It's actually done a lot better than I thought it had any right to, and I'm glad about that. Word of mouth has spread enough that people are starting to run it at cons who aren't me, and it's turning out to be something of an evergreen game -- it sells consistently if not hugely, and that makes me happy. It's never going to be a sales leader, but it has something of a following, and that makes me happy.

That said, it's occurred to me of late that the endgame in Tragedy needs some reworking. It works great until you get to Act V, and then things stumble a bit in resolution -- it's not impossible to work it out, by any means, but the system that drives the game so well up until that point just stops mattering, and that feels rather abrupt to me. It's a thing I've been thinking about addressing in a second edition of the game, and the more I think about it, the more I want to press forward with it. Of course, that means that it's getting closer to the time of doing something about the long vaunted A Comedy in Five Acts game I've thought about, as I could release them both together.

Whereas Tragedy is actually a very cooperative game in many ways -- you're all working together to screw your characters over, and your own character most of all -- I don't think that can really work for Comedy. Shakespeare's tragedies are arguably all about social ties and how that can destroy you, whereas his comedies are much more about individual fulfillment. In Shakespeare's tragedies, everyone is together at the beginning but spins apart by the end, while the opposite is true in his comedies. Hence the narrative auction mechanic in Tragedy, which gets everyone competing but ultimately on-board with the same story. Works great to replicate the experience of his plots while maintaining the audience perspective of knowing more than the characters know. The question is, what do I do to get the same level of immersive audience/narrative experience in Comedy?

I think that Comedy is going to have to be much more of a "screw your neighbor" game than Tragedy is, at least system-wise. In Comedies, the characters are beset by unexpected (yet somewhat formulaic) problems that force them out of their customary roles and into intimacy with someone else. There are issues (mostly social, but not entirely) that can be overcome if they'll just grow up a little and think or feel or act their way through them. The ones who do are the heroes and heroines, the ones who don't are our comic relief. But before they figure it out, there are all sorts of struggles and fights and arguments (whereas in the tragedies, those are typically suppressed until the end of the play, when they explode).

So instead of fatal flaws, I think I need to come up with a "surprise!" deck of cards, which includes elements of the comedies that the characters don't see coming. I think I'll need one at the beginning to set the elements and one halfway through to mix things up even more. I'm also thinking that I need some sort of team mechanic, possibly having teams shift halfway through the game, and making it from 4-6 players -- matches of up to 3 couples are not uncommon in the comedies, but you need at least two couples to make it work, and conceivably two couples and a bad guy trying to keep everyone apart. (While I'm at it, I could make some reference cards, fatal flaw cards, and role cards for Tragedy II.) The question is whether it's a random draw, or whether players can play these cards on each other. That I think I'd have to run some playtests to find out.

The real question is, does the auction mechanic make sense for Comedy? I would like to have some sense of continuance between the games, so that people who know Tragedy wouldn't have too much trouble picking up Comedy, so I think I do need some sort of auction mechanic in place. Hmm. I wonder, though, if I could auction off plot cards, so they go to the highest bidder (or, conversely, are avoided by the highest bidder)? Can you also draw cards to play against opposing factions? Do different factions have different strengths and weaknesses? Are we auctioning off narrative control in the form of an idea that gets played out in the next round as volunteered by someone, or are we putting the narrative in the hands of the plot cards? While on the one hand I rather like the randomness, we'd have to be careful not to kill the narrative arc of the play -- maybe the available cards change per act?

Additionally, I think moving the director role around will still work (Ooh, what if I ended made a 4-player version of Tragedy that ended the points run at the end of Act IV, with the winner being director of Act V?) The next question, though, is do we have roles in Comedy? I'm not entirely sure that we do. Maybe instead of roles we have complications and relationships, with some echoes of Fiasco mechanics popping their heads in here. I actually really like that. Characters in comedies are much more defined by their relationships to the other characters in a personal way, whereas the tragedy networks are social or societal more than intimate.

Of course, the final thing I have to think about is leaving room in the game for customization of experience. Shakespeare, God love him, is really sexist and heteronormative despite the travesty roles (cross-dressing women) and some good representations of women (although we can talk about whether the fact that all the players were men dilutes that a bit, particularly if we try to set aside a modern perspective). That was edgy back in the day, but I don't want to enforce a boy-girl, boy-girl relationship dynamic in my games. One of the awesome things about Tragedy is that the freeform aspects of the game allow for all the latitude you want in setting up who you are and how you relate to other people. I don't want the addition of more formulaic elements to kill that aspect of the game. I'll have to find a way to keep that individual freedom of identity while still routing it through some very expected twists and turns in order to keep that Shakespearean comedic feel.

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