And many others. These are available in English from Grove Weidenfeld.
One cannot discuss something unless there is an agreed vocabulary. The title page of this work makes some startling claims; to understand them, you must first understand what it is that is being claimed. Thus, we must obey the philosopher's injunction: define your terms.
Roleplaying games are a commercial genre deriving from Dungeons & Dragons, the first such game. In a roleplaying game, each player takes the part of a single character in an imaginary world. One person, the gamemaster, acts as a combination of narrator, playwright, and referree. He creates a world and a story for his players to explore, providing the background, emotional context, and main encounters. The players have complete freedom to determine how their characters respond. Roleplaying has been called 'cowboys & Indians with rules', and the description is not a bad one.
It is often difficult to explain the notion of roleplaying to novices; used to Monopoly or Trivial Pursuits, they are unsettled to find a game in which there is no winner and no set end, no strategy, no board nor pieces. I have found, however, that actors understand the idea almost immediately; "Oh," they say, "you mean improv."
Precisely. Except that a roleplaying game is typically more than character improvisation; ideally, there is true dramatic development, a true story is told. An improv session rarely lasts more than a few minutes; some roleplaying campaigns run for decades, often with the same basic characters.
If truth be told, however, most roleplaying games are jejune in the extreme. Roleplaying is a commercial genre designed to exploit popular culture, the same culture exploited by film, TV, popular novels, animation, and breakfast cereals. Most roleplaying games are licensed from other media, e.g., Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, or are attempts to create licenses that can be taken to other media, e.g., Shadowrun, or are attempts to generalize from popular genres, e.g., Dungeons & Dragons, a 'generic fantasy' roleplaying game. They are, to be succinct, unintellectual, even antintellectual, and tend to emphasize combat and violence at the expense of exploration of human issues. There are admirable exceptions, such as Stafford's Pendragon, tragedic roleplaying in Arthur's Britain, but they are far and few between.
Bestial Acts is different. It is a roleplaying game, exploiting the same tricks and techniques of other roleplaying games; but its purpose is didactic, rather than exploitative. It is explicitly and pugnaciously intellectual, based on the work of a mid-century German Marxist playwright who, however respected he may be in the academic theatrical community, is not precisely the hot licensing sensation of the year. It is wholly uncommercial, making no attempt to apeal to the bourgeois instinct for passive entertainment, and will probably sell in small numbers. It is a self-conscious attempt to take the paradigm of the roleplaying game and apply it to artistic effect.
We are all familiar with the notion of drama: the theater -- plays. What right has a roleplaying game to claim that it is theater?
Roleplaying games already possess many of the elements of theater. In such a game, each main character is acted by a person, a person the rules to such games call players, but we might as well call actors. One person, whom such games call a gamemaster, but we may as well call a playwright, acting also as director, creates the story the actors will act, and establishes the setting and the tone. To be sure, in roleplaying, the playwright does not put words in his characters' mouths -- they must provide their own dialog -- and while he may establish the nature of the story in advance, the outcome must always depend at least partly on the actions of the actors, or the result will not be a satisfying experience for any of them. Still, this merely makes roleplaying a different form of drama, not something entirely other. We have previously alluded to the similarity with improv; in this respect, a roleplaying game is perhaps more like audience-participation drama.
In the theater, people sometimes talk of "breaking the fourth wall." That is, a stage has three walls -- the rear, and the two sides -- but no fourth. It is open to the audience; yet, the actors are required to behave as if unaware of the audience, as if the action were taking place in some far off location, the actors en privée, the audience merely witnessing the action. Yet if one can somehow break that fourth wall, somehow encompass the audience in the drama, the play can perhaps be made more powerful, more meaningful to those who witness it. (A very un-Brechtian conception, by the way, but more of that later.)
Audience-participation drama is intended to do precisely that. The methods vary; sometimes, audience members are dragged up onto the stage, and asked to take certain roles in the drama. Sometimes, the fantasy behind the drama includes an audience; for instance, the play may be about a wedding, and the audience assigned the role of the guests. Sometimes, as in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the audience formally votes on some aspect of the drama. Sometimes, as with guerilla theater, the actors produce a drama for an audience that does not know it is an audience -- on the street, on a bus, in an airport terminal -- only revealing that they are actors, and the action that has transpired is fiction and not fact, once the drama has concluded. (A very interesting concept, by the way, but wholly uncommercial, since there is no way reliably to extract money from the audience for the experience.)
A roleplaying game is, then, a variation on audience-participation drama. The 'actors' are not professional actors hired for the occasion; they are normal, everday people. True, roleplaying games are normally played in private, with no audience analog; but Bestial Acts is specifically designed so that it can be performed before an audience. It is a self-conscious attempt to move roleplaying closer to drama.
How does it do so? First, roleplaying games rarely have action. Players describe what their characters are doing; the action takes place solely in the imagination. Bestial Acts requires a certain degree of staging -- very little, to be sure since, in the tradition of Brecht, sets are minimal, indeed, minimalist. Second, although players have, in theory, the freedom over their characters that they have in roleplaying games, Bestial Acts is specifically designed for performance in three acts. It is morely highly scripted than most roleplaying games, but less so that most dramas. Third, although it may be played in the traditional manner of roleplaying games, by a group of friends assembling at someone's house, it may also be played in the manner of audience-participation drama, in a theater, before an audience, with members of the audience as the actors.
We term Bestial Acts both "a roleplaying game" and "a drama"; in truth, it is a search for the middle ground between the two.
Bertolt Brecht, 1898-1956, was one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century. His first poems were published at 16. Initially a supporter of the Kaiser, he served as an orderly in the German army during the First World War, but by its end was deeply disenchanted, not only with the war, but with the whole of society. In 1924, after his first critical successes, he moved to Berlin, where he continued to write, collaborating, among other projects, with the great German composer, Kurt Weill, on The Threepenny Opera and The Rise & Fall of the City of Mahogonny. In 1933, in disgust at the rise of the Nazis, he moved to Denmark. In 1941, he moved to America, where he worked briefly in Hollywood. In 1947, he was subpoened by the House Unamerican Activities Committee; after testifying, he returned to Europe. He spent his last years in East Berlin.
Typically, Brecht's work deals with guileless individuals faced by implacably evil society. The early Brecht seems to have believed that the serene surface of society merely masked the true nature of the human character -- unbelievable brutality -- but after his conversion to Marxism, concluded that bourgeois society was responsible for the viciousness of humanity and that, once it was replaced by a socialist order, the fundamental goodness of human nature could flower. We now know, of course, that communism was, if anything, even more repressive and bestial than capitalism, and may conclude that the later Brecht was misled by romanticism (he would have hated the thought) to accept that some drastic revolution in society could alter the fundamental nature of the human soul. Perhaps the early Brecht was on the mark: the human soul is fundamentally squalid and ugly.
Brecht disdained "bourgeois drama." He had no desire to entertain; he wished to "distance" the audience from the action. Where traditional theater seeks to sweep the emotions of the audience up in the play, to carry them off and entertain them, Brecht prefers his audience to view the play critically, to understand and internalize its ideas. He called his work 'dialectical theater;' the word "dialectical" is Marxist jargon, but in context we can understand it as meaning that the work is intended to be in dialog with the audience. Its purpose is didactic,rather than entertaining; it is intended to rip the veil from bourgeois society, showing its fundamental viciousness, and impell the audience to question their own actions and attitudes, perhaps persuading them of the need for fundamental change to the social order.
Brecht's one commercial success was The Threepenny Opera, a play still subject to occasional revival (more, perhaps, because of Weill's compelling music than Brecht's book). Based on John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, it portrays the poor of London as living lives that are (pace Malthus) nasty, brutish, squalid, and short. Brecht's intention was to display the fundamentally evil nature of society, but his largely bourgeois audience (who else could afford the theater, after all) merely took it as a reasonably accurate portrayal of impoverished existence, never questioning their own role in sustaining poverty, perhaps even feeling their ambivalent attitude toward the poor reinforced by the play. Brecht loathed this reaction, feeling that the play was completely misunderstood, and vowed not to repeat his mistake in creating something that the bourgeoisie could like.
What do we mean when we say this game is based on Brecht's dramatic theories and aesthetic?
The aesthetic is that of Brecht. In Bestial Acts, the players take the part of everyday, guileless individuals, and are faced with intolerable moral dilemmas. The only honest resolution to these dilemmas is to act in vicious, brutal ways. The purpose is to show that, when push comes to shove, each of us will do whatever he must to survive. It is, in short, to rip the veil from bourgeouis society, showing the viciousness that lies beneath.
So much for aesthetic. But 'based on the dramatic theory?' Certainly. The purpose of most roleplaying games is to sweep up the players in the emotion of the moment, to provide an entertaining diversion for an hour or two. The purpose of Bestial Acts is to provide them with a harrowing emotional experience, to force them to question their own moral code. Most plays involve elaborate sets, appealing characters, and stories that follow traditional curves; Brecht prefers minimal settings, characters that represent archetypes, stories that defeat traditional expectations. Most roleplaying games involve elaborate rules, complexly-designed characters, and stories that follow traditional curves; Bestial Acts has virtually no rules, characters that begin as blanks, and stories that defeat traditional expectations.
Bestial Acts is what the title page says it is: a roleplaying game, a drama, based on the dramatic theories and aesthetic of Bertolt Brecht.
Why should one want such a thing? Perhaps because it is a dramatic break with the usual sort of drama; perhaps in revulsion against the inanity of the usual sort of roleplaying game; perhaps to show the kinship between roleplaying and drama, and how techniques from one can be applied to the other. The author humbly hopes that, whatever your reason for reading this, you will at least find it interesting.
Bestial Acts requires a gamemaster and a narrator. When used in a home setting, these roles will generally be assumed by a single person. When performed before an audience, they will generally be two different people.
The gamemaster is responsible for the direction of the drama, and for resolving conflicts when they occur. He is also responsible for moving the action along, for spurring the players on as necessary. He will find it necessary to improvise on the spur of the moment, to invent aspects of the setting and character background, and so on. He should ideally be an experienced gamemaster, director, or actor, who is not fazed by the necessity of invention. As with all roleplaying games, the gamemaster makes the game. Even the best-designed game cannot rescue a poor gamemaster, while a good gamemaster can produce a compelling experience for his players even with an incomprehensible set of rules and the most inane of story lines. It is the author's explicit wish that, should Bestial Acts ever be performed, the gamemaster or director should be listed in the credits as least as prominently as the author.
Those who are familiar with traditional roleplaying games will find that Bestial Acts places more of a burden on the gamemaster than most such games. There are few rules to guide a gamemaster in his resolution of conflict, there are no "non-player characters" through whom he may influence the action, and the players will often be unfamiliar with roleplaying at all. The author recommends that only those gamemasters will considerable skill at improvisation attempt to run Bestial Acts for their players.
The Narrator is the only actor whose lines are scripted. All other dialog is improvised, either by the players or the gamemaster. In a theater setting, it is recommended that the Narrator be a faceless voice, heard over the public address system.
Bestial Acts is designed for six to twelve players. It is difficult to create sufficient conflict with fewer than six, while more than twelve are difficult to manage. In a theatrical setting, the players should be drawn from the audience, presumably as volunteers. In a home setting, the players will presumably be drawn from the gamemaster's usual gaming group.
We recommend that at least one player be a 'ringer.' In a theatrical settting, this would be an actor who sits in the audience, volunteers, and is selected. In a home setting, the ringer would be a member of the usual gaming group whom the gamemaster recruits before inviting the others to play. The ringer should be familiar with the work, have played or at least read through it before. His job is to help the gamemaster sunder the bonds of polite society and turn each of the players against the other, which he can do more effectively in the guise of one of the players.
In a staged version, you will need one actor, who will serve as "The Terrorist" in Act One.
The tone of Bestial Acts is dark, expressive of despair at the human condition. The players are plunged into a world in which the normal constraints on human action are obliterated. They are exposed to anarchy, the complete abscence of authority, and are encouraged to embark on a Hobbesian war of all against all.
Since the players will presumably be nice, middle class folk, familiar with a nice, middle class existence, it will take some work to get them into a state of appropriate hatred and terror. We will suggest ways of advancing the appropriate ethic, but here, again, is where the gamemaster must be alert for opportunities to intervene effectively.
Bestial Acts is designed for play in three acts. In Act I, the characters' aircraft crash-lands in snow-bound mountains, and they are forced to cannibalism by pressure of necessity. In Act II, they are tried for the crimes they commit in Act I. In Act III, they are consigned to a death camps, where only those willing to betray the others can survive.
Because players in a roleplaying game have far more freedom of action than actors in a traditional play, we cannot predict the precise course of action in advance. It may be that the results are not dramatically satisfying, or that the players are poor actors, and the audience becomes restive; indeed, in a theatrical setting, one may predict that the effectiveness of the drama will vary considerably from session to session.
It may even be that we will fail to set the players at each others' throats, that they will resolve their difficulties in selfless, noble fashion: they will draw straws and some will sacrifice themselves to save the others, that they will refuse to convict the cannibals on the grounds that the law is unreasonable. If so, of course, they will all go to the gulag together, but the dramatist will consider himself to have failed. The audience may even prefer such an outcome, considering it uplifting and edifying, but it surely will not be Brechtian.
You will need as many chairs as players -- somewhat more, in a theatrical version. Folding chairs are perfectly acceptable in a staged version, kitchen chairs at home. In a theatrical environment, we recommend that the stage be bare, or be set only minimally -- perhaps with a white backdrop to suggest snow in the first act. Each player must be given a piece of paper and a writing utensil; the gamemaster will need the same. In a theatrical environment, we suggest that each have a clipboard, to make it easier to make notes. At home, you may wish to substitute books, which the players can use as writing surfaces. We also recomment that each player be given a name badge -- those idiotic "HI! I'm..." labels used for parties are quite adequate.
In a theatrical environment, we recommend that you have on hand a number of blankets, preferably one or two fewer than the number of players.
Set up the chairs in two or three rows, all facing stage left, to suggest seats on an airplane. Select your players and have them sit in the frontmost chairs, each with his paper, writing surface, pen or pencil, and label.
If an actor is used as "The Terrorist," seat him in the last row, as far from the players as possible.
Once the players are seated, the Narrator should speak. You may wish to play a recorded airplane drone in the background until the crash; it should be soft enough not to drown out any dialog.
At this point, the gamemaster should introduce himself, either as 'gamemaster' or 'director,' as you wish. He should tell the players that they are each to take on the role of a character -- any character who might plausibly be taking a long-distance flight. It doesn't much matter who or what they choose to be; indeed, all of that can come out later. All we need now is a name. Each player must decide on his character's name.
To invent a name; what could be easier. But, the gamemaster should point out, by choosing a name, you are making a choice about your character. If you choose a male name, you are male. If you choose an Italian one, you are Italian. If you choose the same last name as another character, you are presumably related. If necessary or useful, the gamemaster may note that we have no objection to players who wish to play characters very unlike themselves -- different in gender, in race, in nationality. Indeed, this can be quite interesting.
A player should be chosen to declare his name first -- declare it, out loud, to the other players and the audience, if any. He should then write it on his badge, and afix it to his shoulder. The players should be told to address him by his characters' name for the remainder of the drama.
A second character should be selected to declare a name. If the gamemaster has not already done so, he may point out that the second character, if he so wishes, has the option of using the same last name as the first character, in which case they are assumed to be relatives.
Once names have been chosen, we progress.
Suddenly, the terrorist stands up. His coat opens wide to reveal something strapped to his chest. In either hand is a wire, running into his sleeves.
In a home version, the gamemaster should simply tell the players what happens -- "Suddenly, from behind you, in the back row of the plane, a scruffy-looking man with several days' stubble leaps to his feet and into the aisle, screaming" (the above).
"There is an enormous explosion. There is a gaping hole at the back of the plane. The air pressure suddenly drops, your ears poppping painfully. It is hard to breathe. The plane lurches into a spiralling dive, tossing you about the cabin. Behind you, the entire rear fuselage of the aircraft is gone, and with it, dozens of people."
In a theatrical version, you may wish to use flash powder and blanks to suggest an explosion. There isn't any real need for the gamemaster or narrator to go into detail about events, because things should be pretty obvious. The Narrator comes on over the PA system (or, in a home version, the gamemaster says, "Over the PA system, the captain says:")
If you've been playing an airplane drone over the PA system, you may wish to alter it to a screaming whine, suggestive of an aircraft in severe difficulties.
There is the sound of a crash over the PA system. There is silence for a moment.
Choose one player, more or less at random, and tell him he has a broken leg. A few others have minor scrapes or bruises, but on the whole, they are amazingly unscathed.
At this point, the players should simply be asked what they do.
They will probably want information from the gamemaster; he must volunteer it, as asked.
There are no other remaining passengers; the rear half of the aircraft was blown off, many of them with it. Some were sucked out the opening by the slipstream, some may perhaps have simply been blown to gobbets by the explosion, but not even bodies remain. There may perhaps be the bodies of the captain, copilot, navigator, and flight attendants forward, in the cabin; but the front of the airplane was smashed by the crash, the door it is unopenable without a blowtorch, and there is neither sound nor answer from inside. The cabin radio is unreachable, and probably inoperable even if they could reach it. The galley contains shrink-wrapped airline meals, enough for a couple of days. There are blankets and, if they can get into the luggage compartment, heavy winter clothing for everyone.
They are crashed on a high peak of the Erzan Range, one of the highest ranges in the world. Outside are bare slopes, swept by snow. The temperature is considerably below freezing, with wind-chill undoubtedly far below zero Fahrenheit. They have no clear idea where they are, and no obvious way to call for help. There is no wood and no vegetation, nothing out there that could build a fire, and no obvious shelter other than the plane. Possibly, they can improvise a blaze with materials from the plane itself, but given the presence of heavy clothing and the shelter of the aircraft itself, exposure is a problem they can surmount.
They can locate a first aid kit, and anyone with minimal knowledge of first aid should be able to set the broken leg; it is a clean fracture.
They may want to know more about their own characters -- "Do I know anything about mountain climbing? Do I have a compass?" Encourage them to invent whatever background material they wish, although you can ask them to keep it plausible if they start getting to aggressive: No polar explorers or experts in wilderness survival, please. (If one of your players, by happenstance, actually is a polar explorer or an expert in wilderness survival, you may have to put up with this, in which case you'll need to be especially quick on your toes.)
They will presumably stick with the plane and wait for rescue, rather than set off into the blizzard, but if they are foolish enough to head off into the storm, it should be feasible to bring home the idiocy of this in fairly short order. They start to get frostbite, the person with the broken leg (if with them) has to be carried through deep drifts of snow, someone falls into a ravine and breaks an arm, they lose their bearings in the snow. Eventually they should give up, and stagger back to the plane.
Once they've resolved to stay, at least as long as the blizzard lasts, tell them, "A day passes. Another day. You're starting to run out of airline food." If they wish, they can start some rationing scheme.
After two or three days, as their food is exhausted, the blizzard clears up. It is a clear, fine day, and from their perch atop one of the mightiest peaks of the Erzan range, they can see the vastness of the wilderness, stretching away to the horizon, peak after snowy peak jutting into the sky, steep valleys below, a blanket of white snow broken, far below them, by the dark green of conifers. Perhaps a river winds through a gorge in the distance, but there is no sign of human habitation, none, save for the occasional far-off drone of a plane, and the occasional satellite moving rapidly across the clear, star-spangled nighttime sky.
They can find a flare or two; they can keep the plane free of snow, to make it easier for searchers to spot; they can drape clothing or somesuch across the snow, to make something visible from the sky. This avails them nought.
Days pass. They begin to get hungry. The person who broke his leg is weakening, the leg not healing properly because of the lack of nutrition. The hunger becomes a constant ache in the belly.
Possibly, now that the weather has cleared, they will decide to leave the plane. In this case, they must decide what to do with the person with the broken leg. Do they take him? Leave him? Send out one or two people to find civilization and lead rescuers back?
If they abandon the person with the broken leg, he dies, of course; in a theatrical setting, you may ask him to resume his seat in the audience until the second act.
If the characters depart en masse, describe to them how they struggle down sheet slopes, in bitter wind, through drifts of snow; how they must huddle together through the bitter night, shivering violently, to survive. Perhaps they make it to the timberline, where they can find some meager shelter amid the trees, and dead branches to build fires; buit they have no firearms, and cannot bring down any game without them, in their weakened condition. Eventually, one of them becomes too weak to go on; ideally, choose someone who has a "relative" among the other characters, who may decide to become defensive about the weak character. They must abandon that person (or eat him, of course) to continue, or set up camp here.
Eventually, they'll either all be dead, or decide to stay someplace, in which case, after further cannibalism, they'll be rescued.
If one or two people head off alone to try to find rescue, they are never heard from again; ask them to be seated until Act II. They simply disappear into the snow, and their bodies are never recovered.
Whether they set up camp someplace away from the plane, or stick with the aircraft, the question of cannibalism will eventually arise. Days go by; weeks go by; hunger becomes insatiable, and people become physically weak. If any of them is to survive, they have no alternative.
How do they deal with the issue? Perhaps they'll draw straws. Perhaps someone (your ringer?) will violently attack someone else, or try to ambush someone away from the others.
There are no firearms aboard the craft (naturally). There are no real weapons, either, but plenty of objects that can be used as weapons: steak knives from the galley, screwdrivers and crow bars from the crews' tool kit. In extremity, you can always use one of the oxygen tanks as a club.
I see no real need for combat rules; generally, combat will not be between evenly matched opponents, but between a hungry person, striking by surprise, and someone that we've already established is in a weakened state. Generally, the attacker succeeds. You should describe the results in some disgusting detail; the bashed-in skull, the red blood and gray brains using from the cavity, the limbs twitching in reflex. No sanitized violence here, please.
This is a real danger. It is also completely spurious. Can you truly imagine a bunch of random airline passengers, calmly and heroically drawing straws like a bunch of disciplined soldiers?
That's the key, of course. "Drawing straws" is barely plausible with the young, unattached people not yet bowed down by the weight of the world, who have no real responsibilities to others.
If the players choose straws, you want, if at all possible, to sow immediate dissension.
Take the player who drew the short straw aside, and give him some concrete, immediate reason to want desperately to survive. For instance:
Possibly, he'll explain the situation to the others, and ask them to help -- "I ask not that you spare me, but that you deliver my bag to my beloved wife."
Fine. Take one of the others aside, and tell him he's an informant for State Security, that it will mean an immediate promotion if he turns the drugs in -- and so forth.
Suppose they neither draw straws nor kill someone, but positively refuse to resort to cannibalism. What then?
The person with the broken leg weakens and dies. Are they truly going to let all that meat go to waste?
Suppose they insist on being noble and heroic, bravely sacrificing themselves so that others may eat.
Well, the first character may do this. But he only fills bellies for a few days. Time wears on. And -- will the second be so noble? When you draw him aside and give him a strong reason to want to live?
All right, but suppose they absolutely insist on being noble, right down the line.
Fine. Presumably you can at least get them to eat someone who dies of natural causes. That makes them cannibals.
Do they have the wherewithal to build a fire? If not, do they eat them raw? If the latter, they'd better stick to organ meat. There are any number of diseases you can catch from human flesh--after all, any disease your victim has --
Hmm. How about this?
Ideally, we want the characters terrified of one another, crouching in separate places in the snow, desperately clutching improvised weapons and gnawing at bits of human flesh. You're unlikely to get quite this nasty a result, however. Any recourse to cannibalism is sufficient to lead us to Act II.
Suppose they completley, absolutely, utterly refuse to eat human flesh, even the flesh of someone who dies of natural causes?
They all die, of course. Starvation will do that, you know.
Anticlimactic. But there it is.
Finally, of course, they are rescued, preferably after about half of the party has been eaten.
They receive whatever medical care they need, food, rest, and so on. Before they are arrested.
[Remaining characters put on trial for cannibalism, a capital crime in their country of origin, which is a Pinochetesque dictatorship. Those who got eaten get to return as new characters: judge, jury, and prosecution. Encourage characters to rat on each other.]
[Characters condemned to the gulag. Short rations, hard labor, abusive guards and inmates. Encourage betrayal, brutality, and a Hobbesian war of all against all.]
I've never bothered to finish writing up acts II and III, since there patently seems no potential market for a work of this nature.