Roleplaying and Shakespeare? The Play’s the Thing was always going to catch my attention, but I didn’t expect for it to be quite as strange and cool as it is. The players, guided by the Playwright, are actors in a theatre troupe trying to act out a play – however, when anyone can suggest weird and wonderful edits, who knows where things will end up? The Play’s the Thing is a fantastic way of acting out your favourite Shakespearean dramas – just be ready for everything to change at the whim of the players, or sometimes the pettiness of the actors!
The first thing The Play’s the Thing requires is a Playwright with an idea of the story they want to perform. This can be a Shakespeare play or something original that fits the traditional forms (such as comedy, tragedy, history or romance). There are some handy breakdowns of how to use various Shakespeare plays at the end of the book if a GM is lacking inspiration. Next, all the players make their actors. The actor will have a particular niche, the kind of role they are typecast into, whether it’s ingenue or character actor. Then the actors claim roles in the play, and there is no concept of the ‘right’ role for an actor type – for instance, Gertrude as a villain is a fresh new take!
From there, the playwright explains what will happen in the first act and people play through it, in very broad narrative beats, throwing in the odd quote here and there – except that all of the actors have the power to suggest edits. Think that Lady Macbeth should have had the climactic duel with Macduff, or that Viola and Olivia should have ended up together? Suggest the edit! The point of this game isn’t in fact to act out a Shakespeare play straight but to throw spanners in the works, cause sweeping changes and re-engineer it to your own desires, or those of your actor, who obviously wants a part that shows them at their best. Maybe Dogberry is secretly the evil genius behind Don John’s plan, or Caliban decides to help Ferdinand to achieve his goals so he can redeem himself. Maybe someone decides enough is enough and offs Leontes, leaving his kingdom in turmoil. As long as the dramatic progression of the play matches the genre, you can do pretty much anything with the events and characters along the way.
Of course, the Playwright doesn’t have to accept your edit, and your success or failure depends on how big the edit is, how good your actor is at manipulating the logos, pathos or ethos of a play, and the use of a spendable resource called Story Points. One thing I have mixed feelings about is the inability of the Playwright (as far as I’m aware) to just accept an edit even in the face of failure if they think it is a cool enough direction for the story, but then that does undermine the resource-based aspects of the game.
If all of this sounds terrifying, never fear! The game has great guides to the different genres of Shakespearean drama (tragedy, comedy, history, romance/problem play) and suggested modifications to the rules to make some easier to run. Plus simplified summaries of the plays with guidelines on how to submit summaries for plays not included to the website.
The artwork is also fantastic, with stylised figures and marvellous backdrops, and really gives a sense of the game’s flavour. It’s pretty well explained, too, though I wonder if the actors ‘offstage’ abilities actually get much use in game, and also I imagine a shy player might find that they don’t want to edit as judiciously and therefore get no use out of their actor’s stats. However, despite my initial misgivings about a game in which you play through a Shakespeare play, this is a great implementation. I’m very curious to see how it actually plays, but thankfully, the summaries give a low-prep access point into a session.
Perhaps not for everyone, but the edit mechanic is a very interesting addition to the concept of contested narrative control and even if you aren’t a Shakespeare fan, The Play’s the Thing is like no other RPG.