Stanislavski vs Brecht in tabletop roleplaying

Yeah, that's the title. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

This is going to get pretty wanky, here, so brace yourselves. Also, you should brace yourselves for the fact that my knowledge of both Brecht and Stanislavski is based on a half-remembered theatre studies module, conversations with my much-smarter wife and a quick scan over Wikipedia, so don’t expect bold theatre criticism or anything above loose interpretation.

Anyway; Stanislavki and Brecht were pretty important theatre types and they both approached at the principle of characterisation from two different angles which I’ll inaccurately distil for you below:

Iiiiiin the Red Corner


There’s a face to haunt your nightmares

Stanislavski was all about method acting, in that the actor should try to inhabit the character, to absorb themselves in the imagined role and act how their character would act in any given scene. The stereotypical Hollywood phrase “Yeah, but what’s my motivation?” is Stanislavskian – it endorses the idea that the character is more than what’s being shown onstage, that the audience is privy to just the tip of the dramatic iceberg. He’d encourage actors to ask “What if I was in the character’s situation?” and try to channel that emotion, that instinct, through their performance. Emotion. Feeling. Understanding that there was more to a character than could be portrayed. All that good stuff.

(He also did some cool stuff with physicality and embodying emotions through actions, but that doesn’t really factor in here. That’s excellent stuff for roleplay, though, remembering that you can stand up and move your limbs and, you know, act)

We can all understand that, even if we can’t embody it to the full when we’re roleplaying. (I can’t.) That’s kind of what the Player’s Handbooks tell us to do across the board; imagine what your chap (or chapess) would do in response to any given situation, and tell the GM that you’re doing it to make it happen. We can all do that. We’ve been doing that since we first picked up the dice and decided that what best suited our Fighter’s motivations right now was to go hit that goblin in the face with a dirty great axe.

Iiiiin the even Redder Corner


I like a man who enjoys a good coat and a fine cigar and a dizzyingly strange theatre performance

Now, on the other hand, you have Brecht. Brecht was weird. Brecht was a Marxist and tried to build the sensation of revolutionary outrage into his work. Brecht pioneered the Verfremdungseffekt, a word I had to copy and paste because there’s no way I’m learning how to spell it, which translates roughly as “defamiliarisation effect.” He created stark reminders that what was happening onstage was not real, that it was a play; characters would address the audience, stage lighting would be dazzling and unreal, stage directions would be read aloud. Characters were nothing more than masks that actors wore as long as they were of use; wear them well, for sure, wear them beautifully, but realise they are nothing but story components.

It was designed to shock the audience and get them thinking; to move away from striving towards realism and telling traditional stories and into something new and upsetting, that spurred people into action. Your characters don’t have motivation. Your characters are characters in a story; they do not exist in any way once the curtain drops. They are nothing but tools.

That’s strange. (Inherently.) Most of us, myself included, don’t really understand what the hell he was talking about on anything but the most basic level and our interaction with the style is being appropriately shocked and unsettled by watching it, by coming close. But I think, as role-players, we need to think a little less like Stanislavski and a little more like Brecht. Not in the weirdness aspect, but in that we have to always remember that we are part of a game.

It’s like that Natasha Bedingfield song, really

Stanislavki’s method is incredibly good if your script is already written. If your dramatic arcs are pre-planned by a trained playwright and your behaviour is overseen by a director, great. By offering a more thorough, naturalistic performance you can let the characters shine through. You can play to the audience. Nothing is going to stop the drama, because you can’t say “Well, I don’t think my character would like this, so he’s going to stop following the plot of the play.” Characters are tossed by the winds of fate and it’s up to the actor to interpret that, to make the best with what they have.

Our scripts are not written. We are flying by the seat of our pants. We are operating in a strange land; we take the detailed characters one might find in a novel or a film and then put them into this semi-random world of improvisation, moving through it one step at a time, never preparing what we are going to say or do past a couple of lines ahead. Sometimes those two concepts don’t sit hand in hand.

We can play our characters to the hilt, and they can subsequently ignore each other and do nothing. We can have arguments that go nowhere. We can slope off in different directions and achieve our own private goals, out of sight of the rest of the players. And, to me, that sounds awful. For sure, it’s an extreme situation, but it’s not unimaginable. I’ve certainly been in games where that’s happened.

You are not your bloody character

Good roleplaying requires you, as a player, to be aware that you are in a game; and not just in a “I don’t want to be Elfstar any more” sort of way. It means you have to understand what’s best for the story as a whole, because we are all performing for one another whether we want to or not. Just because our audience is small doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be catered to. This is all basic improv stuff that I’m cribbing, here. Say “Yes and,” or “Yes but,” and don’t say “No.” There are plenty of guides that can help you improvise more satisfying stories, and I suggest that you read them.

A lot of Player’s Handbooks talk about separating your character from your self; they are not you, and vice versa. Mainly this comes under the advice of not getting pissed off when the GM beats your character up with one of their characters, or when another character is rude to you. But there’s more to it than that. Your character is just a mask; your character is a story construct, not a person with thoughts and feelings and emotions. They are fully under your control. It is your responsibility to use that control not only over their thoughts, feelings and actions, but their position in the story.

I’ve given advice that advocates ceding control of your character, in the past – things like going along with plots even though your character wouldn’t enjoy doing so, letting other characters act against your will, and so on. And there seems to be a lot of argument against that advice, too. What I’m encouraging here is meta-gaming.

Cleric and Thief by dukuang

I googled “Cleric and Thief” and this came up, which is pretty much what I wanted. Credit to Dkuang on Deviantart

Meta-gaming is not a dirty word

I don’t mean “meta-gaming” in the sense that you’re flicking through the Monster Manual to discover what gorgons are weak versus, or having your character act on knowledge that they don’t have. I’m saying… well, I’ll say it with an example.

Let’s say your Thief needs to steal something vital for your save-the-world plot from a the house of a wealthy collector. He could do it fine by himself, but he notices that the Cleric’s player hasn’t been up to much this game and is sitting quietly while the other players plan. Your character – a construct that doesn’t exist, that you made up, that doesn’t have feelings – sure as shit wouldn’t want the Cleric to come along. She’s noisy. She frowns on theft. She gets on your character’s nerves.

So what’s a better story? Is it the story of the time your Thief went off on his own and achieved the objectives quickly and cleanly? Or is it the story that you told after you asked the Cleric’s player if she can come up with a way for the pair of you to go together, and you end up odd-coupling your way through the mission? Maybe the Cleric insists that she comes with you to keep an eye on your light hands. Maybe she wants to learn how to be stealthy. Maybe she wants to learn more about the collector’s motivations. Cracking. Whatever. You have two characters not entirely in their element together. Go tell some stories.

You haven’t made your character any less of a character by doing so. All you’ve done is use your full control over them to put them in a more interesting position.

Play your PC like an NPC

If you’ve never NPCed in someone else’s game, do it. Do it as soon as you can. There is no better way to understand what the hell I’m talking about here.

As an NPC, you’re freed from long-term considerations of your actions. You’re an element of the plot. Your development is secondary to that of the PC’s. You’re not only thinking about how you would react to any given situation that comes up, but you’re trying to let the PCs shine. You’re steering them towards trouble, towards entertainment, towards adventure. You don’t have to worry about the grand motivations of being a GM; you are playing that character in that moment in that situation, you are using them as a tool to help the players tell stories.

I guarantee you that if you begin to treat your PC in the same way – separating them from your self, acting with one eye on being entertaining and story-focused and the other on playing them as a story tool – then you’ll start having more fun. You’ll find yourself in more difficult situations, interacting with characters you might not otherwise interact with. You will push up against your own comfort zone AND their comfort zone. You will triumph over adversity, or fail to triumph, and that’s what you’re after, right?

Don’t compromise your character’s motivations, but do get them into trouble

Throughout all this, I don’t want to encourage people to destroy the core of their characters. I don’t want them to become faceless, motivationless, shifting bags of rules that merely follow the whim of the GM. I do want people to realise that what’s much more exciting than the “traditional” Stanislavskian method of roleplaying is to position their character in difficult situations and role-play appropriately. To be aware of their existence within a game and control them appropriately.

The most contentious point of my previous piece on roleplaying – the 11 ways one – was one where I told players to extrapolate rather than negate, to build on the actions of others rather than try to block them. It’s not a be-all and end-all. I certainly can’t say I do it all the time, and perhaps I presented it wrongly. But:

Imagine your Thief needs to get information about saving the world from a prisoner, and he decides that torture is the way forward. Imagine the Cleric is against this. If you say – “Right, to hell with this, I’m torturing the guy.” The Cleric could stop you then and there, saying that she overpowers you and ties you to a post overnight until the guard come to collect the prisoner. If she succeeds, no-one gets any information; you don’t get to act.

Or! The Cleric’s player realises that this is an interesting thing to happen, for their morals to get in the way of the investigation, so they have their Cleric arrive halfway through your torture, rather than turn up before it starts. Maybe she’s got God stuff to do. Or she can’t make up her mind on it. Or she’s trying to persuade herself that it’s for the good of the world, but she just can’t.  By the time she arrives, the guy’s a mess; but the GM realises that this is a good opportunity for some roleplaying, so he has the prisoner tell you half of what you need to know. Is the Cleric going to let you finish, now you’ve started? Does she heal away the pain you’ve inflicted? Are you going to listen to her? Does she call the church? Do you try and abscond with the prisoner?

That’s a conflict I can buy into. That hasn’t weakened either of your character motivations, but pushed a negation into a full-blown conflict because Bad Things Have Already Happened. Both of your characters get to do what they want and hold true to their morals, but both of the players realise that it’s more interesting for this to happen after the torture has begun. “Yes and,” not “No.” (my thanks to user Eskidell on the RPGnet for asking the torture question on this discussion thread)

Imagine the stories


Remember that time you had fought your way down to the bottom of the dungeon, and you were low on healing potions and all injured and you saw a dragon in front of you, laying on its hoard, eyes glinting through the thick darkness? And collectively, even though your characters and tired and beaten up and abused and could easily go home, hire an army, come back and kill this thing with minimum risk, you say – “Fuck it, let’s do this. Imagine the stories.”

Strive to be like that at all times. Imagine the stories, great and small, and help each other tell them.

Update: I have a Patreon, now, through which I release my own roleplaying games. If you want to become a Patron, that’d be cool.