2 Sides of A4: The Optimal Length (For Interactive Theatre Knowledge)
Updated: Mar 21
Update: I've had some further thoughts on why this is wrong.
TL;DR: it’s two well-formatted A4 pages for information that’s regularly used. Roughly. As a rule of thumb.
How have I reached this conclusion?
By wildly unscientific means, but I’d like to offer my reasoning.
Paper & Information Retention
First: there is are two other game-based hobbies that require lots of bits of paper containing key information: TTRPGs and board games. So we’re referring to those.
Second: there is a point at which players - especially new ones - stop being able to retain information. A choirmaster I once sung under referred to this as the ‘short pipe problem’ - after about five notes, people start forgetting the first.
In interactive theatre, there are usually two kinds of information needed: narrative (what is the world we’re doing this in that makes why we’re doing this matter?) and mechanical (how do we do this?).
Some people prefer one to the other, though generally the former is easier. It’s a story. And a story can be told through set design or visuals, reducing the amount of explicit information needed. So why use words?
Because words are what we use to communicate, without which we are apes screaming at one another. If I want to do any more than tell you where the ripe fruit is, I must use words. I must use words to warn you that the ripe fruit is not ours to take, or to bind you by a clear mutual agreement about our use of the fruit, or to tell you exactly how I feel about you in words that convey the sense and meaning of what is inside my mind.
Yes, I have been wondering if some people may try to use Large Language Models to write love letters (after all, they can be a valuable tool for writing things people struggle to write!), and how hollow that would be, to receive recycled words for what’s inside someone’s mind. Better rough words than wrong ones.
And how at some point someone’s going to be in court for failing to meet an obligation, only for the court to be told that the email/contract in question was written by a machine and the sender did not understand it.
Dungeons & Dragons: A Game Of Many Words
Words are really good for communicating exact concepts. Dates, times, relationships, rules, feelings.
Anyone who’s played a complex game will know the feeling of players looking at all the rules and going ‘how does this actually work?’
Sometimes, the answer is better teaching. But often, it’s ‘cut out all the nonsense that doesn’t help.’
The clearest example of this is Dungeons & Dragons. A new player will be given 2-3 dense pages of text on their character sheet, almost all of which (except for categories like ‘name’) will require further explanation (‘what does an Armour Class do?’ ‘Why is Flame Strike different to Fireball?’).
Consequently, most new D&D players feel somewhat lost. While they can usually do some things, they spend a lot of time asking how. This impedes their fun.
Eventually, many do overcome this obstacle and learn how to play well enough to really enjoy themselves. But that point normally comes via two possible paths.
Two Paths Through D&D
First, the path of ‘let’s ignore that for now.’ In this path, many, many rules are ignored or glossed over to create a de facto stripped-down version of D&D which plays faster, but suddenly someone starts talking about resistance to fire damage.
Second, the path of the virtuous ignoramus. The player stumbles, somewhat overwhelmed, until they understand the local collection of homebrew (i.e. house rules, actively encouraged by D&D in its rules text and its complexity). There is a whole industry of people who explain D&D and argue over its minutiae. This is because D&D is really sodding complex.
Did I mention that the core rulebooks run to about a thousand pages? When I say there’s a lot to learn, I mean there’s a lot.
But don’t worry, new players! The Players’ Handbook is only about 300 pages long, and you only need about 50% of that.
Only 150 pages. It’s a small novel.
So we strip it down.
Powered by the Apocalypse, and other friends
Contrast that with indie blockbuster Mörk Bork, or a Powered by the Apocalypse game.
Mörk Bork’s rules come to 71 heavily-illustrated pages, most of which is flavour text and (genuinely) optional sources of inspiration. A character sheet is A4, though about half the space is taken up with illustrations. The rules take up half a sheet of A4. It’s easy to find information, there’s not much information to find, and thus their play experience rapidly shifts into using those rules to be creative and have fun.
An even better example is any TTRPG using the Powered by the Apocalypse engine, which from the beginning had the unwritten rule of ‘one sheet of A4 containing all the rules a player will ever use, one sheet of A4 containing their character; rather than saying the name of a rule and its mechanics, you should explain what the rule is each time it appears’.
While that would be refined as the Powered by the Apocalypse family grew, the basic goal has remained the same: two sheets of A4. Rules should both give a sense of the flavour of the game (compare Apocalypse World’s ‘Go Aggro’ with ‘Panic (Fight)’ from The Warren (a game about rabbits). Both relate to doing violence, but in very different ways.
For one thing, you already know how wise it is to use violence in The Warren.
I don’t think it’s too far to tie this attitude of easy-to-pick-up game design with the broadly leftist philosophies of their makers. First, as designers they are very aware (and supportive of) the idea of a broad field of games, which players can graze among, and therefore might want to pick up quickly. Second, as a matter of accessibility for all groups, doing more to signpost how to play (rather than relying on volunteers as D&D effectively does) is really helpful.
Back to Interactive Theatre
How does this relate to interactive theatre?
Because it’s a words-heavy format. At least in part because it has, historically, been made by rather middle class people for rather middle class people, and therefore focused on bureaucratic settings that hold administrative/managerial power, because those contain many assumed rules that the audience will be familiar with. Who is a resident in a paper-filled office? Who is a tourist? (to use Chloe Mashiter’s helpful framing).
This can be a deliberate effect to create a sense of pressure and complexity, but much of the time simply feels like the audience are meant to be struggling to understand the tools they’re using (at least to an extent that allows GM sleight of hand behind the scenes).
Come Bargain With Uncanny Things was a show heavily reliant on its atmosphere and implied world. The audience stripped down the vast show bible to what was actually needed. So when I revise it, that will be a major exercise.
Also, I was thinking about good not-D&D TTRPGs for new players, and realised one of my unspoken rules was ‘no more than two pages; maybe three if the formatting’s clear’.
Trimming It Down
There are various ways to reduce a show to two pages, most of which work in combination.
First, you can let the audience make their own selection (or decide for them). Have one ‘page’ be information about the world that’s needed, and another ‘page’ be information about how to do a particular minigame.
This is the most common approach. But it does require a level of audience luck, because until they’ve made that choice they are effectively handed as many potential pages as you have minigames. Examples include Crisis? What Crisis? and Crooks: 1926.
Second, write light. Have simple mechanics and worlds. Be simple enough to express within the title and a poster from the local council). The vibes/atmosphere of the show adds importance.
This relies on strong core mechanics that are open enough to let the audience run off and play with them. It’s what defines Powered by the Apocalypse and Mörk Bork: a light chassis that can take almost anything you throw at it.
Third, you can rely on unspoken rules. In Come Bargain With Uncanny Things, a repeatedly-noted feature of it has been that a central mechanic was the audience relating to one another; something they already knew how to do.
This approach does require an understanding of what the audience will know - it’s easier for shows with clear genre or social expectations.
Fourth, drain secrets; share things. They are the most common form of bloat, used as little nuggets of reward for good audience behaviour. But in practice, they often act as a way to control the flow of information, or ‘level up’ in power, or pretend to be dramatic when a character reveals their Shameful Secret.
My objections to the Hero’s Journey of increasing power are documented elsewhere.
Secrets create an imbalance of information, and thus of power. If you want your audience to feel like equal partners, have them know as much as anyone else in the room. With the right mechanics, you can ride to the stars.
I will admit, I generally dislike secret knowledge. There is a pleasing honesty to the audience seeing the situations being created; there is a level of artifice in characters having unlockable secrets. It’s why I (broadly) prefer Shakesperean characters to certain modern playwrights. Macbeth is exactly what he seems to be the moment he walks onstage. The delight and craft is seeing how that is used to make something exquisite (plus, y’know, all the other good stuff).
Similarly, don’t hide mechanics without good reason. ‘To make content for the audience’ is not a good reason.
I would love to arrive and be handed a page of A4 that explains everything I might have to do. I can find out what I need to know, and feel empowered (alongside other ways of sharing information).
It’s one of my favourite parts of Charley Ipsen’s Come Bargain design - every single bit of wall decoration related back to sharing information (generally, Charley Ipsen’s design did a lot of work for me, and I should write about that at some point). Every world where people writing has ways of sharing information - that’s what words are for. Find that way of sharing knowledge, and use it.
And fundamentally, it’s not that hard, most of the time.
Fifth, don’t build rules [or worlds]. I’m not entirely sure how this would work, but it’s the form of engagement with interactive theatre that I think most excites its creators. It means people have come into a show and created their own thing.
The best mechanic in Come Bargain that most supported this was ‘make a gift for the Uncanny Thing’. I don’t think it quite got there, but that simplicity made a space for creativity. Shield & Torch used simple mechanics for character creation and giving people things to do, using its NPCs to guide player-guests.
This approach relies on the facilitators being something closer to guides than game masters. It requires creating an environment where the guests feel supported to be creative (while also being steered from play that jars with the environment you’re trying to make).
But then your two pages are mostly ground rules for a shared space.
I don’t know. Go off and find out how small you can make your show’s heart, so that the audience can build a world around it.
A few, on-the-table mechanics can ride a long way, with an empowered audience who thus feel trusted. But relying on novelty or increasing complexity to distract from a weak theatre-side part of interactive theatre merely adds pages.
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