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Game Poems: Acting Games Meet Story Games

"Game poems:" Short roleplaying exercises that build a bridge between theatrical improv and tabletop roleplaying.

Cross-posted from Playthisthing!

A "story game" is a non-digital roleplaying game with a set of rules that are designed to encourage improvisational roleplay leading to a narrative experience. I've reviewed a number of story games over the years, but today will instead talk about game poems.

What, pray tell, is a game poem?

Poetry differs from prose in that its purpose is concisely to evoke imagery, emotion, and epiphany, not necessarily to tell a story (although telling a story is permissable). A game poem, like a story game, is a form of improvisational roleplay within a rules structure, but it is intended to last for a short period -- no more than an hour, surely -- and its purpose is to evoke imagery, emotion, and potentially an epiphany, without necessarily creating a coherent narrative.

Here are some examples:

  1. Playing 20 Questions with Cthulhu, attempting to discover how you may summon him and re-establish the dominion of the Great Old Ones over earth -- that is, do some physical action, such as crossing your eyes, that the Cthulhu player chose at start of play -- with the extra rule that each time you learn something about the ritual, a word, chosen by Cthulhu, is erased from your mind and may not be used by you again (or can be replaced by gibberish). [The Sign of the Great Old Elder God From Beyond]
  2. One player is chosen as John (or Jane) Galt, who has chosen to withdraw from our decadent socialist society and become wholly self-sufficient. Each player in turn poses a challenge to John Galt, going down Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs but narrating a specific instance in which Galt might be expected to rely on another human being; Galt must try to explain how he can be self-sufficient even in the face of this challenge. [Going Galt]
  3. The players are three old men in an old age home. They all hate each other, and have known each other for years. Each has a reason to want to try to kill each other. Each complains to each other about some real or imagined slight in the past, until one shouts "That's enough!" and uses a power peculiar to that character to try to kill another player. [Three Old Men]
  4. Two players are people who have just seen each other on the subway, and have fallen into love at first sight. Three other players are the Drunk, the Businessman, and the Friend. Players take turns narrating what they do and say. The non-lovers' purpose is to introduce complications. After 10 minutes, one of the lovers must get off the subway, and the game ends. [A Moment on the Subway]

As in any game, the outcome and path of the exercise are unknown a priori; so much depends on the improvisations of the players. Yet, as with story games, a set of coherent rules are used to guide the improvisations of the players -- and if the end-goal is not necessarily a coherent story, it is, as with written poetry, an emotion, image, or insight. The distinction between game poems and "acting games" is, in fact, slight -- except that acting games are intended primarily as training in improvisation, as an element in becoming a better actor, while game poems are intended primarily as improvisational amusement, with improvement in improvisation a perhaps desirable secondary effect.

As such, game poems are another example of the ongoing impulse to marry tabletop roleplaying and theater, an impulse exemplified also by the story game, the indie RPG movement, and the jeepform. If you roleplay, in fact, I think it would be worth your while to investigate game poems, find a handful you like, and play them. In particular, I can see the utility of using one as an icebreaker before beginning a longer session of a more conventional RPG.

To learn more:

Gizmet's Game Poems

Story Games Game Poem Challenge

Game Poems at Norwegianstyle

Gizmet's 24 Game Poems book

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