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What is Theatrix?

Theatrix is an RPG published by Backstage Press back in 1993. It came with an excellent worldbook for playing in the Ironwood setting (a series of adult fantasy comic books written by Bill Willingham of Elementals fame). At one time, I ran a Theatrix Ironwood game on Compuserve's RPG Forum. (It was called MOA: "Misfits of Avalon." It's one of many games I'd like to resurrect someday.)

Theatrix is largely diceless (though there is a dice-rolling option), but much more structured than other diceless RPGS, such as Amber. It uses theatrical devices as its premise, advocating that characters and plots observe the conventions of TV and cinema (in terms of how to define characters and adjudicate their activities, not in terms of the "reality" portrayed in the game, which can be anything from realistic to highly cinematic to comedic, etc.).

Unfortunately, Theatrix is long out of print, and there's no trace of Backstage Press on the web, and hardly even a mention of Theatrix.

Since I like using Theatrix for online games, I will present here enough information to make a Theatrix character -- hopefully without violating any copyrights.


A Quick Summary of Theatrix

In Theatrix, characters are described by Attributes, Skills, Abilities, Descriptors, Personality Traits, and Flaws. These things do not have fixed point values. Instead, everything is given a value in terms of "complexity," and your character can basically have anything you can justify (to the GM's satisfaction) with a background story.

Once the character is created, obtaining new traits, or improving existing ones, requires an "advancement subplot." The player tells the GM what he wants for the character, and the GM will devise suitable subplots that will bring this about. The more complex the advancement, the longer and more difficult will be the subplots. Subplots are measured in "Plot Points" -- completing a subplot gets you a certain number of Plot Points. Completing the primary adventure also earns you Plot Points. Besides advancement, Plot Points can be spent during the game to ensure successes, bring about certain plot twists, and the like.

Character traits, and the complexity of each of them, are campaign-specific, and set by the GM.

Theatrix is at heart a diceless system -- players announce what their character is doing, and the GM makes a decision (with varying degrees of arbitrariness) as to whether or not the character succeeds, based on the needs of the plot above all. Skill merely determines how well you succeed or how badly you fail. Like most diceless games, it requires a good GM and players who trust him. However, there are a lot more guidelines and a more detailed framework for action resolution than in Amber Diceless RPG.

If this sounds like an awful lot of GM fiat, it is, but realistically, that's how most online games work most of the time where you can't see the dice being rolled. It works well for storytelling-style games, not so well for games with lots of tactical combat and fine-grained distinctions between the capabilities of various adversaries.


Plot Points

Plot points are used by characters to achieve dramatic effects. They are earned at the end of an "episode." The amount depends on various factors.

What characters can do with Plot Points is described below, under Personality Traits and Descriptors. In addition to activitating traits, however, a Plot Point can be used at any time to activate a statement and guarantee that it will be true. For example, a PC might say "I need to get hold of my partner before he walks into the ambush! I'm going to call him and catch him before he leaves!" The player could use a Plot Point to ensure that his partner indeed has not left yet.

Another example: "I reach desperately for a weapon, and find a metal pipe that happens to be lying on the ground behind me." A Plot Point makes this statement true.

All such activations of Statements are subject to GM approval, of course. Also, statements can be activated to advance the story, but not to dictate the results of a particular action. You cannot use a Plot Point to say "I shoot him and nail him right between the eyes," for example.


Character Sheets

A Theatrix character sheet consists of the following:

  1. Attributes: There are six attributes. Each is rated on a scale from 0.0 to 10.0. The range of attributes is campaign-dependent -- in a campaign where the only characters are human (or human-like), then 10.0 represents a maximum human score. In a campaign where some characters might be far stronger, faster, smarter, etc., than any human, attributes may be racially-dependent. E.g., 3.0 might represent human Strength, while 6.0 would be troll Strength. Attributes can be mixed, i.e., some may be human-scaled, while others are racially scaled.

  2. Skills: Skills may be as broad or specific as the GM wishes. I.e., some campaigns might have separate "Shortsword," "Broadsword," and "Katana" skills, others might have a single "Swords" skill, and others might have one skill to cover all sorts of melee weapons.

    As with attributes, skills are ranked from 0.0 to 10.0. 0 means totally untrained, 3.0 is considered a competent professional level, and 10.0 would be the greatest who ever lived.

    Specialization: A skill can (optionally) be specialized. For example, Swordsmanship (Katanas) or Kung Fu (Tiger style) or Driving (Sports cars). Specialization means you will perform just a little bit better than someone else with the same skill rank within your specialization, and just a little bit worse outside of it. (I.e., if two people are dueling with the same Swordsmanship skill, and one is specialized in a katana and the other is a generalist, then the katana-wielder would have an advantage if he's using a katana, but he'd be at a disadvantage if he's using a broadsword.)

    Skill Rankings

    Score
    0.0Untrained
    1.0Basic training
    2.0Journeyman; capable but inexperienced
    3.0Professionally competent
    4.0Highly trained and experienced, capable of teaching others
    5.0Expert; you've completely mastered the skill
    6.0World-class, notable in your field
    7.0One of the very best, if not the best
    8.0The best in the world, one of the best ever
    9.0Legendary skill, quite possibly the best who ever lived
    10.0If it's physically possible, you can do it. Your feats are the stuff of tall tales. You can shoot the wings off a butterfly at 50 paces, with your off-hand, over your shoulder while looking in a mirror.

    Difficulty

    In Theatrix, the GM assigns a difficulty level to anything a character attempts to do. Using pure diceless rules, your skill level does not determine whether or not you're successful, so much as how well you succeed or how badly you fail.

    Below are the difficulty levels, followed by a chart giving a general idea of how capable you are at various levels.

    Difficulty Levels
    Difficulty Example
    EasyA routine task that no one with any skill will fail under normal circumstancesShoeing a horse
    NormalSomething most people with the skill will usually succeed at, given enough time, equipment, and preparationCooking a seven-course meal
    DifficultSomething hard enough that even a skilled person might failCorrectly diagnosing a rare disease
    ExtraordinarySomething that even a skilled person will usually fail at, even given enough time and equipment.Hacking into a high-security government website
    ImpossibleSo difficult that most people would consider it impossible, even under the best of circumstancesRepairing a piece of alien technology that you've never seen before, and have no idea how it works.

    Once the difficulty level is determined, the GM decides, based on your skill, whether you are not capable, about capable, or very capable of performing that action. The chart below (© 1993 Backstage Press) gives a general indicator of how capable you are at each skill level. The GM may draw finer distinctions as needed (so a difficult action is not necessarily just as easy as a normal action for someone with a skill rank of 4.0, nor are they both equally easy for someone with a rank of 3.0).

    Difficulty Chart
    EasyNormalDifficultExtraordinaryImpossible
    0.0 
    1.0 
    2.0  
    3.0   
    4.0   
    5.0    
    6.0    
    7.0     
    8.0     
    9.0     
    10.0     
    Not CapableAbout CapableVery Capable


  3. Abilities: Abilities are somewhat like skills (being rated from 0.0 to 10.0), but they are "inherent" rather than learned. Anything supernatural or supranormal is usually treated as an Ability. Sorcery, psychic powers, and the like fall into this category.

  4. Descriptors: Descriptors are very broad, and there's no theoretical limit to how many a character can have. A Descriptor is an unrated trait that simply describes something about the character. Wealth, status, contacts, owning a magic weapon, ninja training, great beauty, photographic memory, owning your own company, knowing where the Ark of the Covenant is buried, being a member of the Mafia, etc....these would all be Descriptors.

    While a Descriptor is "always on," in that if you have the Descriptor "Extremely Beautiful" then you are always extremely beautiful, a Descriptor allows you to use a Plot Point to "activate it" and thus have a guaranteed impact on the plot. For example, a character who is Extremely Beautiful can take it for granted that NPCs will react to her accordingly; if the GM is deciding how a random person will react to her, he'll certainly take her extreme beauty into account. But this doesn't always guarantee a favorable result. For example, if the Extremely Beautiful character tries to seduce her way past a guard, the GM might decide that the guard just isn't going to let some woman cost him his job, no matter how beautiful she is. If the player spends a Plot Point, though, then she can "activate" her Descriptor, which guarantees that it will affect the plot (in this case, it probably means that she successfully seduces the guard, though the GM might declare some other effect if there's a very strong, story-driven reason why this should not work).

    Every character must have at least one Descriptor, which is their Primary Descriptor. If you had to summarize your character in 1-2 words, how would you do it? That's his or her Primary Descriptor. These should be unique for each PC.

    Examples:

    • "Immortal"
    • "Vampire Slayer"
    • "Mr. Fixit"
    • "Samurai"
    • "Computer Geek"
    • "Bug-Eyed Monster"
    • "Psychotic Vet"
    • "Shaolin Monk"
    • "Art Dealer"
    • "Made Man"
    • "Tomb Raider"

    A Primary Descriptor tends to have a broader range of applicability when you use a Plot Point to activate it. A whole range of skills can be assumed to come with some Primary Descriptors. Additionally, making your Primary Descriptor figure prominently into your roleplaying earns a Plot Point for that episode.

    Example: Primary Descriptor: Samurai. You at least know how to use Samurai weapons, can speak Japanese, know appropriate etiquette, and have some status in feudal Japanese society. This won't completely replace any pertinent skills. For example, in a formal situation, you'd be assumed to know enough etiquette not to make gross, ignorant, errors, and by expending a Plot Point, you could declare that you perform so well that you make a favorable impression with your Samurai knowledge of etiquette. This even if you don't actually have the Etiquette skill. But if you want to perform well consistently, not just avoid embarrassing yourself and have to spend a Plot Point whenever it's important, you'd need the Etiquette skill. Likewise, any Samurai can pick up a katana and know which end to hold, but if you don't actually have Swordsmanship as a skill, then spending all the Plot Points you have may not get you through a fight with a skilled opponent.

  5. Personality Traits: Personality Traits are rated Moderate, Strong, or Extreme. Personality traits are both an advantage and a disadvantage, so they do not "cost" anything (i.e., you can give your character as many as you like). A Personality Trait is an advantage when the GM rules that taking a certain action requires an appropriate Personality Trait at a certain level, or else a Plot Point expenditure. And under certain circumstances, a Plot Point in conjunction with a Personality Trait can guarantee success with a given action (for example, a character who "Hates Vampires" could activate a Plot Point after being stunned in a fight with a vampire, and declare that his rage allows him to shake off the incapacitating effects of the blow). A Personality Trait is a disadvantage when it compels (or prevents) a course of action that the character might otherwise prefer (not) to take.
    • Moderate Traits have a noticeable effect on the character's behavior, but s/he can overcome them when s/he has to.
    • Strong Traits have an almost constant effect on the character's behavior, and can cause him or her to behave irrationally. It will take a great deal of inner struggle to act against a Strong Personality Trait.
    • Extreme Traits have an overwhelming effect on the character. Anyone who spends more than five minutes with the character will probably become aware of the Trait. It would take long, excrutiating soul-searching, probably resulting in a permanent change in personality, for a character to act against an Extreme Personality Trait.

  6. Flaws: Flaws are disadvantages, rather like negative Descriptors. (Unlike Personality Traits, which are sometimes a disadvantage, a Flaw generally has no positive effects.) There is no theoretical limit to the number of Flaws you can take. A Flaw has whatever effects you'd expect, whether the Flaw is "Epileptic," "Evil Reputation," "Military Duty," or "Hunted by an evil sorceror." The benefit of having a Flaw is that whenever it figures prominently in a storyline, you get a free Plot Point. (Having someone react poorly to you because of your Evil Reputation doesn't count. But if your well-laid plans fall apart and you are hounded out of town because of your Evil Reputation, it's had enough of an impact to earn you a Plot Point. Having one epileptic fit during the game wouldn't earn a Plot Point, but having a series of seizures, or a fit at the worst possible time, would.)

    The above summary provides enough information to create a character. However, specifics of character creation, the value of certain Descriptors, how many Plot Points are required for a particular advancement, etc., are campaign-dependent.


    Theatrix Ironwood -- using Theatrix for an Ironwood campaign

    Theatrix Highlander -- using Theatrix for an immortal Highlander campaign

    Theatrix Buffy -- using Theatrix for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer campaign.