Shakespeare’s tragedies are part of the Western cultural experience. Even if you haven’t seen one staged under its own name, their plots and characters have permeated theater and literature to the point where they’re practically inescapable. It may wear different costumes, names, and settings, but its features are familiar once they’re pointed out. His works are masterful individually, but it’s their underlying structure and workings that keep them alive and strong, even in our time.
Tragedy was not new to theater even in old Will’s time; there have been tragedies performed since men and women first began to pantomime by firelight. Shakespearean tragedy in particular, however, is unique if only in its building blocks—the underlying structures that allow it to survive relatively unscathed through editing, revision, reimagining, adaptation, exploitation, and even outright theft at the hands of greater and lesser artists alike as Shakespearean tragedy rises and falls in contemporary cultural admiration.
In A Tragedy in Five Acts, we continue this fine tradition of using and illuminating Shakespeare’s work for our own ends by using his dramatic narrative structures to create tragedic efforts for our personal amusements. Though things will undoubtedly end badly for your characters, if all goes well, your experience of the game as players should be somewhat more uplifting, and perhaps inspire your inner thespians as you compete for the starring (and ultimately ill-fated) role in your own tragic story.
Most roleplaying games are entirely cooperative. The players don’t work against each other by default, and the point of the exercise is to work together to tell a compelling story. Regardless of the particulars, one common point about roleplaying games has always been that no one “wins.” A Tragedy in Five Acts changes that. Tragedy doesn’t have a GM and it does have a winner. The winner is the player who accrues the most Tragedy Points and therefore gets to write the ending of the story. In practice, that means that the winner gets to decide on one of three fates for each of the players. Those fates are Dead (self-explanatory), Forsworn (the character is revealed to be a traitor or the villain of the piece, or is otherwise disgraced), and Exile (the character is banished from the setting of the player never to be seen again). Despite the competitive nature of Tragedy, though, everyone needs to work together. Characters can work against each other (and should) — but everyone needs to keep the structure of tragedies in mind. No story means that no one wins, after all.
To play A Tragedy in Five Acts, you need a copy of the game, a printout of the Cast List (you can download a version of it on our Resources page), 50 chits to use as Tragedy Points (it actually works well to use dice, since you wind up rolling some of them — type doesn’t matter), pencils and paper and five players.
Not in the least! The Bard’s tragedies took place in a large variety of times and settings. There’s no reason you should feel constrained to Elizabethan England; Shakespeare certainly didn’t. Your tragedy can play out in Depression-era America, modern-day China, or a far-future lunar colony. The important thing is that a group of people engineer their own downfall due to their Fatal Flaws.
Tragedy requires five players, each of whom takes on a different iconic role. These roles are:
- The Daughter
- The Lover
- The Foil
- The Authority
- The Parent
- Fortune’s Fool
- Overly Trusting
Each of the five acts is composed of three scenes. During each act, a different character acts as Director and gets certain narrative controls. During each scene, the players bid their dice (they start with 10 each) for narrative control. The winner collects Tragedy Points equal to the winning bid, and then gets to roll the dice to collect more.
Players can introduce supporting characters. These characters can wind up playing important roles in the story, but they can’t win and are never the true narrative focus of a scene.
At the end of Act V, scene ii, the player with the most Tragedy Points wins. The last scene of the play, then, is for restoring order, distributing Final Fates, and tying everything together.
We were fortunate enough to have a group of playtesters create a very interesting tragedy for us: The Fall of the Duchy of Arezzo. It’s available for download on our Resources page, and more playtest documents will be added in the future.