Theatre: An RPG (Quickplay Rules)

This game is intended for players experienced with roleplaying. For beginners, we recommend Countdown: A Game for Two Players, by the same developers.

An abandoned theatre in the woods, rotting and overgrown with plants
Image by Daniel Ramirez (CCBY 2.0)

Theatre is a live-action roleplaying game for any number of players, limited only by your available space and resources. Together, as in most roleplaying games, you’ll enact a story. One difference in this game is that you aren’t in control of all the events in the story: they proceed in the sequence established by the adventure you’re playing. What you can control is how those events are explored: what mood do they establish? What events are especially significant, and how do the characters actually feel as they go through the sequence?

You’ll typically play this game with a pregenerated adventure, which establishes the nature of the characters and the moves they’ll make during a play session. Advanced players can play the game improvisationally, with certain players essentially making up the characters and moves as they go; guidelines for this mode of play are available in additional supplements. A sample pregenerated adventure is included at the end of this document, but a wide array of free and paid adventures are available from third-party creators and publishers.

For small groups, a home setting is perfectly appropriate. If you intend to play with a particularly large group (more than ten, perhaps), you will need an appropriate venue with sufficient seating where everyone can see the roleplay area. Consider a place where musical performances are held, perhaps a park bandstand; these usually have an raised, visible area for roleplay and enough seating to support a large number of House players.

Regardless of your setting, you should establish a space for roleplay that is visible to all participants, with enough space to move around. Try to establish a space that people can access from all sides, and make sure to have options for private areas to which people can withdraw if they’re not actively involved in play.

Player Roles

In Theatre, the players are divided into three groups: the Troupe, the Crew, and the House. You can play with as few as two players; try to have at least one Troupe player and at least one House member, but the system is otherwise very flexible.

While there is no maximum number of players supported by the system, we recommend limiting the number of Troupe and Crew players to around ten each unless your group is particularly experienced. House roles are especially appropriate for beginners, as they need not be familiar with the rules or the adventure being played.

The Troupe control player characters; for beginners, you should probably assign one PC per Troupe player, but as you become more comfortable in play you may wish to assign multiple characters to a single player, as is most feasible. We recommend against playing multiple characters that interact in the same Scene of an adventure. Each character in an adventure should have a Troupe player controlling them.

The Crew are responsible for facilitating the play of the Troupe and for setting mood and other aesthetic aspects of the game session. They are, essentially, controlling all elements of the setting of the adventure. The basics of the Crew’s responsibility will typically be described in the adventure module, but it is a rather flexible and rules-light role, similar to that of a Game Master in a more typical roleplaying game.

The final group of players, the House, can be of any size. While you can participate in a game session without any House players, the presence of the House is important and rewarding if you seek a full game experience. The House observes the rest of play, and takes moves collectively or individually to guide the mood of play and, in extreme cases, call it to a premature end.

Some advanced adventure modules may blur the lines between these play groups. For example, the actions of the Crew may reflect certain characters within the story of an adventure, or the characters played by the Troupe may interact with House players as if the House players are themselves player characters.

Flow of Play

Use the sequence of your selected pregenerated adventure to determine how play proceeds. While you can certainly play through an adventure that is unfamiliar to you, we recommend that the Crew and Troupe review the adventure module beforehand to guide their roleplaying. If you find it inconvenient as a Troupe player to consult the adventure during play, you can even memorize the moves available to your character.

Once you are ready, the House players will observe the gameplay as the Troupe players roleplay the moves of their characters in the sequence dictated by the adventure module. The Crew players facilitate this roleplay with their particular planned (or improvised!) support.

During play, Troupe players will typically roleplay behavior described in italics and read suggested dialogue labeled with their character’s name. As you become more comfortable with the rules of the game, you should feel free to stray from the exact actions or dialogue dictated by an adventure, but make sure to do so in such a way that it does not interfere with the play of other Troupe and Crew players. You may wish to discuss any major changes with Troupe and Crew members before the game session.

During play, Crew players will typically stay out of the main roleplay area, adjusting elements of the play space from afar and only making direct changes in the roleplay space between Scenes. Crew play may include changing the decorations of your play venue to match the setting of each scene; finding and preparing props or cosplay to add verisimilitude to the Troupe’s roleplay; or controlling appropriate music, sounds, and lighting for the session. You may find it useful to appoint one member of the Crew to a supervisory role, making overarching decisions about Crew activities and making sure the Crew and Troupe play together smoothly.

During play, House players will closely observe play and provide feedback over the course of a game session. The Crew and Troupe should keep in mind the opinion the House players are communicating and let it shape their play as long as it does not distract from roleplaying as the adventure dictates. For beginning House players, we recommend that they offer simple critique between Scenes by cheering or jeering, but as you become more comfortable with your play group, you may enjoy encouraging the House to offer detailed commentary, either during a Scene or afterward in a post-session review.

Sample Adventure Module

Included as an appendix to this ruleset is the adventure module The Tragedy of Macbeth. For convenience, the full adventure text is available in HTML format on an external site. Get the adventure module here.

Variants of Play

There are several variants of play, appropriate for players who, for logistical reasons, cannot play the default version of Theatre. These include:

  • Timeshifted Play: The Crew and Troupe players proceed as normal, without any House players present. However, record the play session using audio and/or video recording. You may wish to have a Crew player edit this recording to remove any table talk or rules mistakes for a smoother experience. Later, the House players can observe the recording and provide their feedback in whichever way seems appropriate. This approach can make a play session accessible to a large number of House players, as they need not all watch the recording at the same time.
  • Solo Play: You can play through an adventure solo, taking on all the player roles yourself. Think of yourself as a House player first and read through the adventure. Imagine the play of the Troupe and Crew as you proceed: you may read the moves aloud if you wish, but this is not necessary. While any adventure may be played this way, there are adventures available that are intended for solo play, with additional detail to the Crew moves and a complexity of story that would be too complicated for group play.
  • Competitive Play: To make this a competitive game, form multiple teams of Troupe and Crew players, with each team engaging in a play session. Each session will use the same House players, regardless of team. Each Troupe/Crew team will play through a different adventure, and the House players will determine which team did a better job. You may award a prize such as a commemorative statuette when the competition is complete.

Welcome to Theatre

Thank you for trying out these quickplay rules for Theatre! While there are many more details in the full version, including a guide to writing your own adventures, we hope that in playing with these rules you have a good idea of how the game is played. We welcome any feedback you may have on how your play went!

If you want a more conventional tabletop game, check out my game about making friends and protecting your home, Fusion Time.