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Ready, set... roleplay!

When roleplaying games meet live theatre


Published: 3 Mar 2023

By: Sara Lau

Time taken : ~10mins

Whether you’re a casual or a hardcore gamer, RPG is a term you’ve likely heard bandied about before. Short for roleplaying games, this genre makes up a huge part of contemporary gaming as we know it, especially online. Before Skyrim and Elden Ring, what ruled the world of RPG is TTRPG, tabletop roleplaying games. Popular ones include Call of Cthulu, Vampires: The Masquerade, and of course its posterchild, Dungeons&Dragons (D&D). 

Dungeons&Dragons enjoys a unique position in pop culture: It’s often used to frame the archetype of the “nerd” in mainstream media (see Howard in Big Bang Theory) but is still somewhat “cool”, having had a resurgence in the 2000s and endorsements by celebrities such as Terry Crews, Joe Manganiello and Henry Cavill. D&D has become so popular that it even thrives in the world of streaming and digital media, through shows such as Critical Role and Dimension20. The latter in particular has shifted an entire generation of people’s perceptions towards D&D and TTRPG through its strong narratives and outright theatricality, with its core group of players made up of comedians, actors and improvisers.

Of course, one cannot talk about theatricality without mentioning TTRPG’s sibling activity known as live-action roleplaying, or LARP for short. Its participants known as LARPers enact different scenes and scenarios, several that are drawn from RPGs, complete with props and costumes.

From theatre of the mind to actual theatre

Theatre, RPG and LARP have always been somewhat connected and intertwined, united in their common purpose of storytelling. However, the incorporation of RPG's elements and mechanics into the conventional theatre space is a relatively new development, or at least something that isn’t common in Singapore. But how does roleplaying change when it enters a theatrical space? What is the difference between roleplaying and just, well, acting? 

“Adding game mechanics such as roleplaying further heightens the theatrical experience by allowing the audience to be more involved”, says Rei Poh of the collective ATTEMPTS, who has continuously and successfully incorporated roleplaying and game mechanics into their theatrical experiences, “Audiences—or players—have to play with a new set of rules, to make decisions within these parameters.” These parameters he speaks of are common in RPGs like D&D, where there are different character archetypes like bards, sentinels and wizards, all of whom have different characteristics and skillsets. These are further shaped by D&D’s alignment chart, which determines a character’s moral and ethical perspective. 

A Tiny Country (left) and ATTEMPTS: Singapore (right) by ATTEMPTS. Photos by André Chong.

Translated into a theatrical setting, there are then two layers of action in play: what the participants think they should do in controlling their character, and what they think their character would do. While there are some decisions that participants would be more inclined to make—simply informed by societal norms—the beauty of participatory theatre is that the audience can always surprise you. 

Rei believes that incorporating such gaming elements and mechanics allows audiences to further explore themes and topics that could be difficult, going beyond just immersing in a narrative by actively playing a role in how the story unfolds. “It’s also about investigating what governs our actions,” he surmises, “When audiences are only able to operate within fixed boundaries, eventually, they start to question the rules themselves.”

Raihan Harun of Void Deck Games—a participatory design studio based in Singapore who create similar experiences—offers a slightly different perspective. “If you start with common tropes, then it becomes easier for people to immediately step into the role. Then, when you provide a scenario that’s also easy to understand, it becomes easier to address themes that may be difficult for most to speak directly about.” 

He then provides an example of a game that Void Deck Games did not manage to execute called Pulau Zombie, set in a time where Singapore has been run over by the undead and people need to flee to nearby islands.

This idea is meant to reflect the refugee experience. Nobody really wants to talk or think about it, but when presented through a gamified narrative, the stories and their themes become far more accessible to people.

Start them young

For adults with the cognitive capacity to understand the multiple layers of decision-making that roleplaying requires, roleplaying in theatre is stimulating and enriching. But for a younger age demographic, would it be any different? Well, according to Raihan, “They’re still going to have to make decisions. They will have to stand up and have their voices heard, even if it’s within the characters they are playing.”

After successfully running Magic Circus Monster Hunt in 2021, Void Deck Games returns to Esplanade’s children’s festival March On with Changeling, an RPG adventure designed for 8-12-year-olds. It follows the story of the missing boy Nadim, whom the participants have to seek and rescue from the Bunian fairies. The LARP-inspired experience is fully immersive, complete with props and puppets (there’s a dragon, of course), costumes, lights—basically, the whole nine yards. Those who participate will see themselves making choices as their characters, solving puzzles and interacting with actors.

How Changeling is structured is similar to that of participatory theatre for adults, but with more scaffolding and elements that cater to children's needs. “We wanted to provide a scenario where young people can immediately understand the scenario and their roles. They will be playing heroes who will have to face social challenges and ethical decisions, very much like entering a real-life game.” Raihan also shared that on a deeper level, the team hopes that this would lead children to think about their place in the world. The focus is on empowerment, conveying the message about the possibility of choice, as well as the acceptance of failure and disappointment.

Expanding worlds, embracing difference

Now that we know the “what” and “how”, perhaps it’s time for the “why”: why do roleplaying, RPGs and LARP attract so many people across age groups and generations?

“It saved my life,” Farez Najid says simply. Farez—an actor, member of TableMinis and performer in Changeling—fell into TTRPG at a difficult point in his life. The game and community were what allowed him to refocus, ultimately changing his perspective. “D&D made me look forward to each session. I began to look at my life as an adventure, where successes and failures were akin to rolling 1s or 20s on the die. It's just part of the game, just part of life.” 

The relationship between RPG and mental health cannot be overlooked, and is something that is consistently talked about in the community. This makes sense, seeing how roleplaying is the central feature of RPG, and also happens to be a tool used in behavioural therapy and cognitive-behavioural interventions.

[Roleplaying] is what makes Dungeons&Dragons an effective therapeutic tool, because it gets our brain in a state where it is primed to learn and grow and evolve in ways that we can’t do normally... the game tricks us into letting our guard down.” 

Cade Heaton, Ball State University

As individuals find themselves healing and growing through RPG, more and more academic research is being directed to determine and map out its benefits for youth and adults alike. In the US, there are even RPG therapy organisations such as Game to Grow and The Bodhana Group. Online database RPG Research has been actively researching, aggregating, and openly sharing the latest research on the effects and potential benefits of all role-playing game formats since 1983. 

On one episode of Farez’s podcast Alamak? You D&D?!, he and his guest speak about how horror themed TTRPGs could be used to practice overcome fears. In another, guest Imran Johri speaks about D&D’s role in his parenting, and how TTRPG aids his relationships with his children. For all the fearmongering around games, there are plenty of individuals and communities who can testify to RPG’s many benefits for relationship-building as well as mental and emotional health. 

The themes of failure and acceptance in Changeling does stem from a deeply personal place. “When Raihan wrote Changeling, our life experiences informed his writing. We both did really badly at ‘A’ Levels and struggled with academic excellence and expectations from our family,” Joanne shares, the co-founder and designer of Void Deck Games. The two met in junior college and both started LARPing together, and already had their hobbies that were then considered non-conventional and unacademic like drama, film and design. It was through RPG that they managed to escape from the pressures they faced, and ultimately where they found their success.

While Changeling offers an exciting adventure, beyond that, it also has a deeper message. Raihan hopes that "...it starts a conversation with families about failures, about trying to go outside of your comfort zone. I want the children to have fun, but also for them to understand that when you fail and fall down, you can pick yourself up and try again.”

Changeling runs from 10 – 19 Mar as part of March On 2023. 

Contributed by:

Sara Lau

Sara is a content executive at Esplanade – Theatre on the Bay.