Rockpocalypse - from role playing game to play
Published on 16 July 2020
Starting as a Master's research project by local drama teacher Jessica Lamb, Rockpocalypse had its world premiere season at the Walter Reid Cultural Centre, Rockhampton in November 2019.
ROCKPOCALYPSE STARTED OUT AS A DATA GATHERING METHOD FOR YOUR MASTERS’ RESEARCH. WHAT WERE YOU TRYING TO ACHIEVE FROM THIS PROJECT?
When I started my Master's of Applied Theatre Studies (MATS), I really wanted to explore attitudes to place. I was in a headspace myself of feeling really down on Rocky and frustrated by the fact that new, original theatre (my passion) wasn't really a common thing here. But I realised that me having a grumble wasn't going to a) solve my problem or b) make me feel any better, so I thought the best solution might be to look outside of myself and see what other people in this community thought about Rockhampton. By positioning that research as a work of theatre, I thought I could do double duty by providing a new, original piece of performance to the community at the end.
Over time, that basic goal grew, as I began to explore how I might get people's thoughts on the issue of place. I could interview people, but since I was ultimately looking to create a play with a local but nonetheless fictional voice, it felt ethically dubious to collect people's personal stories and perspectives only for me to massage them into something different. Instead, I began to look for a way to get locals to come and fabricate imagined stories of their own - all riffing on the theme of place.
Now, it's really easy to ask someone with a theatre background to help you make a piece of theatre. But it's really hard to ask someone who has little to no relationship with theatre to do the same. Because it still (annoyingly) has this facade of 'high-art' and cultural elitism, many people find theatre to be intimidating and exclusionary. The "good for you, but not for me" mentality is strong with this one. So I needed to come up with a different approach - some method that would allow community members to develop characters and work collaboratively to tell stories about place.
Obviously anyone in the roleplaying game (RPG) scene can guess where this is heading...
So the roleplaying game, Rockpocalypse was born.
WHAT IS THE PREMISE BEHIND THE ROCKPOCALYPSE GAME?
The basic premise of Rockpocalypse (the game) is that you wake up one morning in the not-so-distant future to discover that Rockhampton has been abandoned. For reasons as yet unknown (though this emerges over time as you weave the story with your fellow players) you and a small, select group of individuals have remained behind.
Back in the present day, your group has been recruited by a government agent, who has been communicating with these future iterations of you through a tear in time. The agent has been unsuccessful in gaining their trust, and needs your help to communicate with the future Rockhamptonites to determine what has happened.
As you play the game, you are faced with a series of restrictions on what kind of information you can and cannot divulge, as you take turns in the hot-seat standing up to the group's interrogation.
By the end of the game, players in the present day must piece together the information they have discovered (generated) in order to announce the cause of the exodus, resolving the narrative and reaching the game objective of finding the cause of the exodus.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THE GAME TO START AFTER AN APOCALYPSE?
Believe it or not, I thought a post-mortem of the city would be a great way to identify what it is about this place that we value, alongside what we wish to change. At Uncle Bob's funeral, we might lament the drinking habit that led to his death, but the eulogy will also heavily feature his charitable works and charming personality.
The benefit of a fictionalised process is that we get the perks of hindsight before it's too late to implement change.
WHEN YOU WERE DESIGNING THE GAME WHAT DID YOU HAVE TO CONSIDER?
There was a huge learning curve in designing the game. I've always loved tabletop games, but I'd never created one before! I looked to existing open RPG systems (FATE and GURPS were a couple) for some structural inspiration. I knew I wanted the game to be collaborative instead of a zero-sum game (one with a winner and a loser), but I also had to account for social dynamics. How was I going to make sure every player had the chance to contribute without being dominated by more extroverted players? How would I prevent players from feeling on the spot and panicked when improvising and creating story?
One of the enticing things about using games to engage non-theatre folk is the fact that games feel much less mysterious than theatre practice. Everyone has played a game at some point or another, so they have that sense of familiarity about them. Regardless of what the game is, we are generally safe in assuming that there will be some kind of objective, and that this will be achieved in accordance with rules of some sort. In designing the game, I knew what my research objective was (to get players to work together to tell a story) but I needed to find a way to make this seemingly straightforward goal feel satisfying. By designing rules that made the process harder, the game became more fun. Telling a story was no longer a tricky, creative task where everyone felt the pressure to be clever and artistic - instead it was a tricky problem solving task, where the pressure came from arbitrary boundaries that the game imposed. Instead of feeling judged by one another ('oh, that idea is soooo boring') - players were judged by a set of dispassionate rules that couldn't care less about how creative or brilliant a response was. The scary, emotional vulnerability of putting a bit of yourself out there was made slightly less scary, if only by a manner of degrees.
AS A TABLETOP GAMER YOURSELF, WHAT GAMES DO YOU ENJOY PLAYING AND WHY?
I am wholly aware that this makes me a philistine, but I didn't play my first game of D&D until after I had completed the Rockpocalypse project. (I loved it, but am also incredibly grateful for that. I think the resulting Rockpocalypse game was much simpler in its design because of that naivete, which certainly made my life easier from a research perspective). I really enjoy Gloom, which I think is an excellent example of narrative-centric gaming. Fluxx is brain-breakingly fun and subverts player expectations of the nature of both rules and objectives. Pandemic (and newer expansions of it) offers both a well-crafted mechanical game and scope for some deeper storytelling depending on who you're playing with, which is great depending on what you're in the mood for. Finally, Zombiecide is a personal favourite, though mostly because I like zipping around on my Wanda roller skates and making 'uggg' noises whenever the zombies get to move. It's technically co-op, but with the way we play it in my house, I usually end up dead from "friendly fire" (sabotage!).
IF YOU HAD TO RECOMMEND ONE GAME TO SOMEONE WHO HAD NEVER PLAYED A RPG BEFORE WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
Honestly, I would suggest starting with a storytelling game for those who are a little hesitant and want an easy entry point (I mentioned Gloom earlier, but there are so many games that give players stimuli upon which to create a story). Then again, for some people the storytelling is the most intimidating part. For them, it may be better to jump headlong into a more complex game that's very mechanic-heavy and allows them to apply game logic first while they develop their confidence in character over time (obviously that's super not me - I find something as simple as Munchkin can be a mechanical pain in the butt sometimes. There's definitely a niche for every type of player!).
INVOLVING THE LOCAL TABLETOP COMMUNITY THROUGH CAPRICORN TABLETOP WAS A GREAT IDEA. HOW WERE THEY INVOLVED IN YOUR PROCESS FOR TURNING A RPG INTO A PLAY?
The players at Capricorn Tabletop were so generous. Not only did they provide space for me to run the RPG sessions - they also provided many of the players! And since it was the stories that the players developed that served as inspiration for the Rockpocalypse play text, they were pretty crucial to the process!
WHAT WERE THEIR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF BEING INVOLVED IN DEVELOPING A PLAY?
As a part of my recruitment process, I was pretty upfront with participants about the fact that the RPG sessions were going to be used as the basis of a play text about Rockhampton, so I don't think anyone that chose to participate was resistant to that idea. The feedback I got from players tended to sit somewhere on the scale between mild bemusement and intense enthusiasm. I surveyed the players after the process, and many of the respondents indicated that they would not feel comfortable contributing to a 'theatre making process', but that they did feel comfortable playing a 'theatre making game', so that was encouraging. What was really exciting was seeing players of the game in the audience of the play a year later at the Walter Reid. People who weren't very engaged with theatre previously were showing up to see this weird, new play in a small black-box that they had likely never had occasion to visit. It was awesome!
WHAT SCENARIOS AND THEMES DID YOU SEE COMING OUT OF THE GAME SESSIONS?
After the game sessions, I did a cross analysis to try and identify common themes and narrative threads. Those that were near-universal across all player groups included: environmental degradation, feelings of regional isolation, a mistrust of the academy and fears of corruption. Obviously the premise of the game would have had a pretty heavy hand in guiding us towards these darker places, but I did find it interesting that these were the ways each of the player groups anticipated Rocky might fall. These themes are quite apparent in the Rockpocalypse play text as a result.
AFTER YOUR GAME SESSIONS HOW DID THIS THEN TURN INTO A PLAY?
I conducted what we call a dramaturgical analysis of my research data - I searched for characters, stories, snippets of quotes, narrative structures and theatrical conventions that had emerged from the process. I then created composite characters, which is where I found characters who functionally served similar roles within the games and combined their attributes to form four individual characters. I wanted to develop these four characters further, so I then provided their profiles to four local actors and asked them to come and play a modified version of the Rockpocalypse RPG for me. This resulted in some great character development that helped me to get a clearer sense of these roles (and helped me realise that two of my composite characters could be distilled down even further, leaving me with three core roles). These three core roles were Den, Alex and Jay - the central RPG characters presented in the Rockpocalypse play text.
Then obviously there was a lot of me staring at a wall and hoping for some god of genius to come and smack me in the face while I tried to coalesce these characters and a composite of the player-generated narratives into some kind of sensical text. Once we got some funding (and after I'd written a polished draft of the play and my dissertation to finish my MATS), we were able to get in a brilliant dramaturg named Robert Kronk (a successful playwright himself) and an awesome local director and cast (Travis Hock, Cate Fry, Rose Stunzner, Mark Alston, Megan Norris and Bryn Robertson) to workshop the text for further creative development. Anna Straker joined the team to design our amazing set (we put a mountain of dirt in the Walter Reid - bump out was brutal!) and Arts Central Queensland Inc. produced the work.
Overall, it really did take a village, and I'm honestly surprised I remember any of the fever dream that was those final stages of the creative process.
HOW DID THE LIVE PERFORMANCE GO?
Rockpocalypse had its world premiere season at the Walter Reid Cultural Centre, Rockhampton from Friday 22nd - Sunday 24th November 2019. It attracted a small but locally-significant audience of approximately 150 and generated a good deal of positive response. Following the performance, 53% of audience members surveyed indicated that they were not regular attendees of theatre events, which suggests the process was quite successful in attracting new audiences to the theatre (which traditionally suffers from stagnant audiences). 97% of respondents said the locally-generated narrative was of interest to them
WHY IS THEATRE SO IMPORTANT TO OUR COMMUNITY?
This capital-T idea of Theatre as ‘high-art’ has done so much damage to our communities. We have people who are telling compelling, challenging and artful stories every day, though they may never set foot in a theatre building. The best thing about seeing Rockpocalypse come to life has been seeing those people enter these spaces, engage with this art form and come to the realisation that there’s absolutely nothing extraordinary about it. Yes, theatre is transformative and aesthetic and moving… but it’s not out of the ordinary. Anyone can do it. Anyone can see it. And (most importantly) it belongs to us all.
Theatre is our opportunity to come together as a community and celebrate, reflect, revolt and explore. It's our way of being a part of something that is both larger than ourselves and that is ourselves. Anyone who has been to a hometown football match has experienced theatre of this kind. (And I envy you - your preferred theatrical form is far more accessible in regional Queensland than locally-engaging live performance). Unfortunately, most of our experiences of theatre in Rockhampton have very little relation (if any) to our place and our voices, so we're really only getting half of the experience. (Like watching an exceptional football game in which you root for neither team). I can be in a room cheering alongside a thousand other people for a local cast putting on an amazingly polished show... but if that show doesn't say anything about place and time and us, then what is it doing that my television can't? (Well, the answer is it is bringing us together, which in itself is a public good... Coronavirus excepted. But why not bring us together in dialogue with the work, rather than as a passive audience?). Non-footy fans deserve the experience of a home ground grand final every once in a while too! (Have I laboured the metaphor enough yet?)
WHAT DID YOU LEARN THE MOST FROM THIS WHOLE EXPERIENCE?
It's easy to complain and hard to act, but action is infinitely more rewarding (and makes you more friends than constant whinging, too).
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE SOMEONE WANTING TO TRY RPG OR JOINING THE THEATRE?
Ask yourself what it is that draws you to the experience. Just as there's a perfect game for every type of player, the theatre is vast and accommodates every role and way of working you can imagine. If you love the costumery and the adrenaline rush of treading the boards, you'll find a niche really easily here (and for that, I applaud you! We need eager performers!). If you're drawn to the technical aspect of making amazing theatrical atmospheres, walk yourself down to the Pilbeam and let them know you're ready to learn. If you're passionate about writing or devising new stories, playing with the dramatic form and seeing the things that matter to you reflected on our stages... hit me up. Let's make a club. We'll get jackets.
The Rockpocalypse play text is available at https://playlabtheatre.com.au/product-tag/rockpocalypse/ in both digital download and print (POD) formats.