What happens if you analyse opera like a TTRPG? - Part 1, games as social theory
Updated: Jul 31
I’m currently reworking the game rules used in We Sing/I Sang (working title for the rules: ‘Our People’s Song’). I’m not an expert game designer or opera maker, and I think better when writing essays, so here’s me working through two ideas I like, which might mesh together to a third point.
1. A game’s rules are its social theory.
2. An opera’s form is its social theory.
3. What social theory can a game opera cover?
For opera-readers, I’m writing about Tabletop Roleplaying Games (TTRPGs). The most famous are Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), Call of Cthulhu, and Vampire: Masquerade. Which is a shame, because the most interesting are things like Monsterhearts, Dread, Microscope, Dream Askew, FONT, Thousand Year Old Vampire… I could go on, but in short: ‘indie games’. Players usually play individual characters who go and do stuff. When the outcome’s uncertain, rules are used to decide what happens next. There’s often a Game Master who plays the rest of the world those characters are in.
For game-readers, I’m talking about opera. The most famous are La Boheme, Der Zauberflöte, Carmen and a few others. Although there are hundreds of ‘canon’ operas, only about 20 are regularly performed. Which is a shame, because there’s a really interesting new opera movement going on at the fringes. People sing, usually as individual characters, and act out a story. It’s usually epic in some way - big emotions, or gods and/or elemental social forces are at play. There’s often a conducting leading an orchestra and lots of singers so they act as one musical entity.
For both: I’m writing this a) for myself to clean up some thoughts b) assuming that the opera-TTRPG Venn Diagram is vanishingly small, so some basics have to be covered and c) trying to honour a self-imposed word count. I’m sorry for any mistakes.
Also, the original was really long, so I've broken it up into three parts. If you're a TTRPG person, Part 1 may not be useful to you. If you're an opera person, Part 2 may not be. The last part is about my own opera-game, so may not be useful to anyone at all.
Part 1 - TTRPGs
Game rules offer theories of how the in-game world works
Game rules offer theories of what stories are interesting to tell
Games offer models of social interaction, which imply ideas about society
The level of interaction with games and their rules, thus their social theories/assumptions, leads to a degree of internalisation.
I’m starting with games, because the point’s more widely accepted: a game’s rules guide the world of the stories that happen in it.
To go into detail: all games have rules, and most pitch themselves to tell certain kinds of stories. That’s one of their few universal commonalities. The game’s rules shape how we interact with it. You could sit with a group of friends and make up stories about some characters, but the rules should facilitate collaboration and fun. But interacting with a game’s rules, means interacting with its values, which at some level one internalises by practicing them. To go into a comparison:
D&D is a game about going on adventures and fighting monsters. Its core rules sprawl over about 1,000 pages, mostly tying into its complex combat system.
Monsterhearts is a game about being a ‘monster’ in an average school as a metaphor for adolescents working out how to fit into the universe. Its core rules take about 200 pages in large font, mostly saying ‘if this character does X, roll these dice to find out what happens.’ The rules centre telling the characters’ stories.
Those are two very different ideas of the world. D&D says that the people who are interesting to talk about are those who know how to turn to violence to solve problems; designing worlds for such stories involves building them with problems that can be ‘solved’ with violence. And, ideally, violence against things that are sentient enough to be interesting antagonists, but possible to kill without too much guilt. The dehumanisation this often all-but-requires is widely recognised.
(Yes, I simplify. Lots of people (including me) strive use D&D’s rules to tell stories that challenge, question, or ignore that violent paradigm - in part because it’s a useful common language in the TTRPG space. However, combat is still the core around which most of its other rules are based.)
Monsterhearts, in contrast, says that teenagers can be interesting protagonists. That it’s better to solve disagreements socially, and that treating other people badly often has unexpected side-effects. Ultimately, Monsterhearts encourages players to grow by working compassionately with others. The game goes to great lengths to reflect on players characters’ distasteful behaviour.
Games also have certain ideas about their own place in the world. Monsterhearts happily accepts that it’s superb at queer teen monster horror, and other games do other genres better. (I rediscovered the term ‘Creative Agenda’ while hunting a reference; it’s useful here). D&D doesn’t; it claims that you can tell any story in its engine. Which rather implies a belief that in all times and cultures, problems can be dealt with through force against creatures undeserving of existence.
In short, games’ rules and self-views enable certain stories. Those rules are based in an idea of how the real world works.
That idea’s reflected in what players do during the game. Game rules build tiny social models of how we do interact, and how we could.
For example, the Game Master in D&D (known as the Dungeon Master) knows all the secrets of the world, but doesn’t share them. The rules often place them on the other team to the players, trying to roll higher on their dice.
The GM of Monsterhearts (the Master of Ceremonies) builds the world with the players, is encouraged to share world-secrets so everyone can enjoy dramatic ironies, and only the players roll dice (while the MC is asked to be a fan of the characters).
One of those social models is more hierarchical and adversarial; one is more cooperative. There’s a gulf in “what they trust players to resolve between themselves without needing rules to arbitrate disputes.” Other games remove the Game Master altogether, proposing that we can all be characters and shape our world.
That’s what this section’s helped me realise. My favourite game designs assume that, while playing, the players can trust each other to be honest about what happens to their characters in the world.
As mentioned above, D&D spends hundreds of pages making rules to arbitrate everything it thinks might come up, seemingly assuming that otherwise people will argue or be dishonest. Other games don’t. They trust people to play honestly for the world of their story, and find ways to resolve disagreements about what that means outside of rules-lawyering (and within safety mechanics).
And, for the new Our People’s Song rules, that means ‘I don’t need so many rules. Trust people.’