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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Outside The Dungeon: Some Possible Sources For New Kinds Of Mechanic

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

What would interactive theatre look like if we’d never played The Dragon Game?

This is a theme that’s been touched on here before:

There, I mention Fiasco (a game for generating screwball farces) as a model. In it, the main contest is that the players all have a web of messy relationships, and on their turn show a scene in which they either determine the setup OR the outcome.

It gets messy fast.

The coastal mages’ famous product teaches us that a mechanic is about overcoming, and the game is run by an almighty presence called a Dungeon/Game Master.

Let’s look elsewhere and see what we find.

Powered by the Apocalypse

In a fantastic series of articles, one of the creators of the Apocalypse World game engine highlights many of its core philosophies.

One idea close to the heart is momentum: the story triggers mechanics, which add momentum to the story, which then add momentum to the mechanics. That is to say, fictional causes have real-world effects (like rolling dice). Real-world causes (like the results on dice) have fictional effects (like narrative happening).

Many interactive theatre makers love Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games, partly because this system, where mechanics always lead to effects that have narrative weight, makes great stories.

They have an ‘erratic cycle’ - each mechanic collides semi-unpredictably into other mechanics and narratives. It makes the game fun and easy to run, because the knock-on effects lead to narratives.

It’s also a collaborative system, rooted in the conversation.

A good piece of advice for interactive theatre mechanics is this: that’s nice, but what does it mean in the show?

If the conversation between guest and creators requires it, can we dump that mechanic for something that feels right?

Above all, how do the mechanics collide with one another in interesting narrative ways, and lead on to other mechanics and narratives?

PbtA automates a lot of that, and it’s good to keep in mind.


I’ve only got stuck into this today, but it’s a strong example of why looking at other systems can be really interesting.

Most interactive theatre puts information behind a screen in some way. It’s coded, or in a locked box with a hidden key, or the performer who holds the information needs to be befriended.

It’s a Caves & Flying Lizards thing. In Cells & Igniting Reptiles you can roll badly and just… not get the vital clue.

In GUMSHOE systems, you get the information as long as you have the competency required (if you’re a forensics person and you poke the body, you know how they died).

The fun part of investigation, GUMSHOE says, is having the clues and doing stuff with them.

Which I’m inclined to be persuaded by, having spent time watching audiences staring at puzzles feeling stupid, and like they can’t have the content they came for.

The downside GUMSHOE admits to is that this works really well for uncovering grand schemes, but those schemes are then fixed. However, it’s quite possible for GUMSHOE’s villains to adapt their schemes against those trying to thwart them, and I think there’s room for fun here.

But I am in the early stages of having ideas here, so will keep quiet for now.

Memoir ’44

Lots of board games are useful touchstones for interactive theatre makers, because they provide simple tools that people can invent narratives around.

I’m picking Memoir ’44 because I’ve enjoyed watching people play it, it’s on my list, and I think its core mechanic is quite neat.

While there are questions of taste around World War Two games, the dramatic idea of “you can only give a limited range of orders, because communication problems, and then have to trust your teammates to be sensible with them” is really quite fun.

Imagining a show with three separate rooms, each trying to understand what the heck the other rooms were trying to do, appeals to me.

Maybe the orders have random words removed (oh no, enemy interference) or redacted (you do not have clearance to tell your lover about these things) or destroyed (just be thankful the messenger got here at all).

All of them dramatically satisfying.

[Incidentally, if you’re interested in board games as a source of interactive theatricality, do get in touch. I may have a lighthearted something of interest coming up.]


I hope some of these ideas are entertaining, and lead to new directions for interactive theatre.

For now, back to the drawing board for some of my own mechanics, and how they tie into the shows I’m trying to make.

A person in a David Bowie-esque blue suit walks over a map of the ancient Mediterranean, watched by two people. It is a very big map.
Or I just want an enormous map, like the one for my Antony and Cleopatra for the York Shakespeare Project


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