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All the World's a Stage: Yes, and...?

David Bowers

All the World's a Stage is brought to you by David Bowers every Sunday evening, investigating the mysterious art of roleplaying in the World of Warcraft.

Roleplaying is, at its heart, a form of improv. Of course there are many differences between improv and roleplaying, but when you look at the actual practice of each, you can see that they both live and breathe by the same basic principles, and they both crash and die when these principles are ignored.

"Improv" is an interactive performance art that requires a certain level of training and rigor. The audience pays the actors to appear on stage, and the actors shape their performance around cues from the audience. It's entirely spontaneous, and as you can imagine, it can be quite crazy for an actor, not knowing what's going to happen next.

To help with this, they use a special technique they call "Yes, and...?" which lets them handle whatever sorts of situations that might come up without getting thrown off-guard. Basically it means that each actor always accepts what the others say is true, and modifies the performance to go with whatever comes up. For example, if one actor says "hello mother" to another actor, now the one he spoke to is his mother for the duration of this scene. The "mother" accepts this new reality and offers something of her own in response, such as "Where have you been all night? Your father and I have been worried sick!" Alternatively if any actor denies what another actor just said or did, that's called "blocking," (as in, "No, I'm not your mother!") and it tends to stop the scene right there unless the initial actor can roll with it and accept it in his turn (as in, "Oh. I'm sorry... My mother was standing there a moment ago... I'm blind, you see...").

Roleplaying is a bit more rigid than this particular example, of course, as each character's identity is usually thought out beforehand. Still, roleplayers are often too rigid, with too many expectations about what should and should not happen. In a novel, of course, it's quite appropriate for the author to have complete control of the entire story; but in roleplaying, as in improv, the very cornerstone of successful technique lies in moving fluidly with the control other people have -- contributing to the performance without dominating it.

To illustrate, let's start with an example of how things can go wrong:

Orthar wanders along the road through the forest. He seems lost.
Orthar says: Excuse me miss, can I ask you a question?
Ladyvira says: Die, mortal! Taste the awesome powers of my demonic heritage! Feel your soul writhe and burn under my touch! Die! DIE!!!
Orthar says: Oh come on, that is so dumb.
Orthar ignores Ladyvira.
Now, admittedly in this situation Ladyvira is coming out of nowhere claiming to be a demon of some sort, and that's pretty hard to accept. But in fact, Orthar's refusal to play along is what takes all the fun out of it and blocks the scene. Of course, each person has a right to refuse to play along if they want to, but in doing so, you may miss out on some roleplaying opportunities you may not have thought of. Consider how Orthar might have reacted differently:
Orthar says: Excuse me miss, can I ask you a question?
Ladyvira says: Die, mortal! Taste the awesome powers of my demonic heritage! Feel your soul writhe and burn under my touch! Die! DIE!!!
Orthar grasps his arm and winces in pain.
Orthar says: Ah! Who .... what are you?!
Ladyvira says: I am the daughter of Sargeras! I have come here to feed on your puny soul!
Orthar steels himself for a battle.
Orthar says: You will not take me without a fight!
Ladyvira casts Seed of Corruption on Orthar.
Orthar's skin starts to boil and his face explodes.
Orthar says: AAARGGH! My eyeballs!
Orthar falls to the ground, apparently dead.
In this situation, Orthar went with the flow, and he got a chance to be really creative. Nevermind that Orthar is a level 70 paladin and Ladyvira is just a level 7 warlock (without Seed of Corruption, no less). She's made up that she's the daughter of Sargeras, so now she's the daughter of Sargeras, and she can cast what spells she pleases! What paladin in the world could stand up to that? You have to choose what's more fun: blocking a scene and walking away, or rolling with it and seeing what happens? Blocking may leave you feeling grumpy and frustrated with other roleplayers, but accepting and going with the flow can let you really roleplay, no matter what else is going on. In this particular situation, Orthar still didn't have to let the scenario stretch out very long -- Ladyvira is clearly on some kind of far-fetched power trip, after all -- but he really milked it for all it's worth, and savored his chance to write "Orthar's skin starts to boil and his face explodes." Besides, as far as Ladyvira is concerned now, Orthar is dead and she might as well move on to someone else. Later, of course, since Orthar is a paladin, he can just heal himself, put his face back together, and go on about life as usual.

The continuity and plausibility is a lot less important than in a novel, because you're not roleplaying with thousands of professional novel critics. The other roleplayers out there are students and homemakers and lawers and librarians all just trying to have a good time and be as creative as they can. Whether or not they understand the principle of "Yes, and...?", you can still use it to great effect and have a good time. Besides, if you roll with whatever comes your way, you might find a lot of opportunity in the scene to be funny and rewarding in your own way, even if you didn't really like the other person's contribution.

Usually, of course, players don't go to such extremes as I gave in my example. Real roleplaying tends to consist a lot more in conversations over tea at a tavern somewhere than it does in face-exploding and soul-consuming, but a lot depends on what sort of group you hook up with and what you yourself enjoy. Certainly there are times when someone really is behaving excessively and it's best to ignore them entirely. So whenever you start to get too put off in any way, you are completely free to replace "Yes, and...?" with "No, bye!" The judgment call is entirely up to you.

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