The Play's the Thing (RPG) Review

Altering the Bard: A Romp Through Shakespeare for the Improv Gamer


RPG System: The Play’s the Thing


Shakespeare has an intrinsic appeal to me, as he does to many. I slogged through Romeo & Juliet like many a dutiful freshman high school student, but had a marvelous sophomore year English teacher who made everything come alive. My undergraduate degree, though not my eventual career, was in English Education, and falling in love with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in that sophomore year was one of the first steps that led to that path. In my brief stint as a teacher (which seems a lifetime ago), I taught a small bit of the Bard as well, and harbored quite a bit of love for many of his plays (and still do).

So seeing an RPG based off of his work is intriguing. But, as the title says, the play’s the thing, so let’s jump in…

Act I – Game Summary

The Play’s the Thing is a mostly improvisational exercise in altering the Bard’s famous plays. The structure is deliberately loose, the game is deliberately rules-lite, and while you can have or create goals for your Actor or Character(s), it seems that producing the most interesting permutation of the original work is the chief goal of most sessions.

I’m not sure I’d have it any other way. While I’ll pick some nits – including one particularly irksome one that extends to the production of supporting materials – my overall feeling toward this game is very positive after a couple read-throughs.

You also need not be bound to the time period of the play you choose. Mixing and matching historical idioms is likely a large source of enjoyment for groups that play this.

Lastly, while there’s nothing stopping this from being played by forum, I can’t imagine this NOT being acted out in-person, so that does limit my recommendation somewhat, but only for those who do PbF exclusively.

Act II – Characters and Roles

There are a number of roles like The Lead, Ham, or Villain. These are selected, a few stats are assigned that give players slightly larger dice pools for various tasks (adding a character to a scene, changing a plot point, etc.). Players are also assigned a number of Story Points. They’ll be spending and gaining many more during play, but these start their pool.

There’s an odd little draft that occurs where players can incentivize roles (someone in the play they’d rather not be) with their Story Points, making them more attractive for other players. Each will end up with a major or secondary character to play as, though. Importantly, the “Villain” role does not need to be the play’s villain, nor the Lead the protagonist, etc. This is where the game starts to mix up the variables of the play, since – for example – The Villain’s abilities (or motivations a player decides for them) might be inconsistent with the character they’re playing in the play (maybe they’re Horatio instead of Claudius, for example). This could lead to actions we wouldn’t suspect of Horatio. Or perhaps The Lead has a secondary character, and tries to kill off the protagonist to usurp the main narrative, which then snowballs into a very different play. But that’s the point.

The Role you select doesn’t have a defined goal/motivation, but many naturally flow from character assignments and the few abilities each gets (usually a dice bonus to particular types of situations).

There’s also an implied meta-story with the acting troupe, since players are technically playing both an actor and the role that the actor is performing. Some abilities apply to this out-of-play setting, and Actors will talk to the GM (Playwright) as their actor at times. However, the two work together since any commentary as actor is still going to relate to the play in some way.

Act III – Parts, Props, Plots and Places

The Playwright will have a loose script consisting of five acts, that accurately outlines one of the Bard’s play. They’ll narrate what happens in the act before the actors begin performing, and give each actor a line directly from the Shakespeare play that he or she can speak for story points.

This is apparently a loose adaptation of the FATE system (which I don’t know much about). Parts and Plots are assigned to a character or scene, and they provide a way for actors to “Invoke” them for a bonus, but can also be “Compelled” by them. So if you’re “The Nurse” Part, you gain extra dice when dealing with those you’ve raised, but can be compelled to not be brave or to take the cautious option in a situation.

Props add situational bonuses, and players choose which to bring into an Act that they think will be useful (a Knife if they’re planning murder, for example). Places have slightly more nebulous rules to keep things thematic to wherever the scene/Act takes place.

Act IV – Changing the Action

This is where dice and Story Points come in. Actors can, at any point, call for an edit. This could be the addition of a character to a scene, a new Place, a Prop, adding or removing a Part, or – most often – simply altering what was prescribed to happen in the Playwright’s script.

The Playwright determines if the edit is Trivial, Minor or Major. They can also simply accept this edit, and may even reward a Story Point if it’s a clever idea. However, if rejected, the actor/player can still get the edit through with a dice roll. The target is 10, 15, and 20 for the three levels of edit, respectively. This is where all those situational bonuses come in. Their base stats may give them 2-3 dice, but a situation may trigger another die due to their Role or Part, or a Prop they brought with them. So you build your pool, roll, and see if you hit the target. If so, your edit goes through and the play is forever altered.

There are others ways of manipulating this involving spending Story Points, but it’s all fairly lightweight and in the spirit of pool-building. Contested edits can also happen between players, which sounds like fun.

I think, ideally, there’s a bit of a dance between the initial script, various roles interpreting their characters in different ways, with significant but not excessive doses of proposed edits and trigger points for the Invoke and Compel options, creating something that starts and stops but still has a certain narrative flow. It would probably take a full play to truly get the hang of it, especially for those who aren’t natural improvisational actors. However, nothing in the above clashes with anything else to my eye, so it makes for a clever little system.

Act V – The Playwright and Scripts

The Playwright is expected to encourage edits even while requiring that some require rolls. They’re also asked to be liberal with Story Points, both as reward and so players will feel ok about spending them for extra dice and not worry about saving them for one big edit.

The script they have will outline the characters (e.g. Hamlet, Ophelia, Caludius, etc. in Hamlet) and lines for them, that players can try to work into the play for story points. It will also have a paragraph or so for each of the five Acts. It is a given that the actors won’t stick to this script, but the text does emphasize that if the play is a Comedy, that you should steer it back toward the comedic elements and attempt to have it culminate in a classic ending for a Shkaespearean comedy (in this case, usually a wedding or two and the foiling of any villains).

I’m not sure I agree that you need to stay in the same genre if your players take it elsewhere. Seems limiting, for no good reason that was clearly defined in the rules. But I suppose it’s good advice for new Playwrights who don’t want to lose control of things too much.

The playwright can also offer edit suggestions on their own (the text suggests this to give examples of edits for your players). Additionally, the playwright “reads” for the parts of any character in the play that was not assigned to a player.

Epilogue – Additional Rules and Options

They have some alternate rules for Romance plays and a couple new options in the back. No reason these couldn’t have been included with the rest earlier, frankly, but whatever, it’s material that’s on par with the earlier stuff, which is good.

The Video That Wasn’t

There is a “replay” video that is referenced a few times in the text. See, the author seems to know that even with a simplified rules set, how the RPG works smoothly won’t “click” for many people until they see it in action. So they created a live-play video to do just that, and the text refers you to the URL.

Except they didn’t make it. Years later, the URL is still active on Magpie’s website, but is entirely empty. I reached out to them on Twitter, and they confirmed apologetically that it never materialized.

After one of the mentions of the video in the text, the author says something like “trust me, it will make sense once you see it.” And he was right; I was a little confused on how everything would run smoothly that he had just described. But the answer is not to be, apparently resolving Hamlet’s eternal question.

This upset me more than expected, and I tracked my annoyance to two reasons: One, I’m a visual learner. I really did feel like I’d benefit from seeing it played, and that was before I knew the video was supposed to exist. Once I did know of its supposed existence, my sense of disappointment was spectacular. The play is indeed the thing, and it’s probably not something that can be fully imparted in the text. So it’s a massive oversight in not helping their audience see the game performed, especially when they promised it. Which leads to the second reason: if I’m a major publisher – hell, if I’m a small-time solo creator (which I am) – and I reference a video in my text, I’ll make darn sure it exists before launch. This is really lazy on the part of both the creator and publisher, and is my one large knock on an otherwise enticing game.

The Play’s the Thing RPG – Conclusions

I would love to act in a Shakespearean play. This dream has not materialized in my life, mainly because I understand the large amount of work involved with any troupe and have more pressing (and ultimately fulfilling) commitments in life. But the itch is still there. I suspect this game is the closest I’ll get to it, and hope I get to play someday.

For those needing a clear end goal, this is not the RPG for you. You could float through a play, simply making arbitrary edits at your whim and having a grand time, but with no overarching motive. I suspect, however, that many enterprising players will create a motivation for themselves, and maneuver their dice pools to make it happen. But the great thing is, they’ll also have to get to those ends improvisationally as part of the play itself, and if they push too hard off-script, the Playwright or other players will likely push back. As opposed to a recent review I did of an improv game where the dice were everything and it therefore sapped strength from the actual story, here the dice can only serve your imagination if you carry the narrative to the point where they can be helpful. Even a Major Edit is still manipulating existing aspects of the play you’ve created, and you will need to get to the point where your course of action is plausible and possible.

Additionally, the fact that this isn’t winner-take-all means that many motivations won’t be antagonistic, and therefore won’t be mutually exclusive with others, creating plenty of opportunities for collaborative storytelling within the framework of the plays. I can imagine far worse ways to interact with the Bard, and will be keeping this one in my digital collection in the hope that I can experience it myself someday.

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