Long Island Sandbox, Part Five: The Play Within

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles by Chandra Reyer and Timothy Connolly examining the relevance of analog games in a digital world and the fifth in a series regarding the Long Island sandbox Timothy runs.]

The time-honored storytelling style of play-within-a-play was deftly used by William Shakespeare (HAMLET, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, and THE TAMING OF THE SHREW all come to mind.)  George Bernard Shaw also did play-within-a-play, yielding memorable results (MAN AND SUPERMAN.)

Modern examples of play-within-a-play are also found in Terry Gilliam’s TIME BANDITS, THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, and THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS.  It’s on display in HBO’s GAME OF THRONES as well.

Fantasy medieval tabletop RPG is fertile soil for the play-within-a-play, especially for hobbyists who savor this hobby’s roleplay aspect.

Here’s an enjoyable look at three (3) of the ways that play-within-a-play enhances the 1st edition AD&D sessions in the Long Island sandbox of Benchleydale And Beyond:

Puppetry as news source.  Rosensterne and Guildencrantze (R&G) are cheery NPCs (puppeteer bards, actually.)  They roam the lands of Benchleydale with their travelling puppetry roadshow.  R&G puppet theater in the sandbox is always a marvel, garnering rave reviews, and delighting audiences of all ages.  Production value is taken seriously by R&G, and it’s not uncommon for theatergoers to see colored puffs of smoke, flickering lights, buckets of imitation blood being splashed around, and the occasional burst of flame.  It’s generally a good idea to have a change of clothes handy, if your character plans on sitting in the first five rows of an R&G puppetry performance.

While many of the R&G puppet shows are re-hashed Benchleydale legends (Brave Branamor and his Everflowing Bottle, The Shadowmaster And The Yeti, A Last Kiss For Queen Courtney, and such,) certain performances of theirs are inspired by current events in the sandbox (The Night They Drove Olde Grugnur DownBatsnake’s Alligator Pit Hi-Jinks, Don’t Ye Forget About Mokin, Not Folso’s Boat, Riot In Voodok, About A Wizard, Knifey Never MissesTomb Town Throwdown, Ron Rayne’s Last Stand, Who Blew That Dragon Whistle?, and their latest smash-hit Nightmare In Silverleaf.)

Having the R&G puppet theater as a recurring NPC situation in our sandbox serves multiple purposes.  It’s a news source.  PCs and NPCs alike can enjoy watching R&G puppet theater in Harem Bay and learn about current events in distant lands, such as faraway Sunholme in the Firelands (where paladins are gearing up for another battle with King Snurre Ironbelly’s uppity fire giant commandos,) or Greychapel in the Frostlands (where the clerics dispatched a lammergeier to King Ayabig bearing grim tidings.)  At the very least, it’s an unusual writing exercise for the DM.  At most, it’s a fun raising-of-the-stakes, from a roleplay standpoint, for both the DM and the players.

SKULLCAP AND ENVIRONS (in THE VAST VELDT)

SKULLCAP AND ENVIRONS (in THE VAST VELDT)

Interlude.  DM opening monologues are commonplace at our tables, and we’ve recently given it more of a play-within-a-play flavor.  The DM asked for two volunteers from our players, to speak lines of dialogue during an interlude; lines written for Melf and Otto (NPCs in our sandbox, partaking in a conversation at the Too Soon Saloon.)  [Hats off to players Gary Sellers and Brian Witt for volunteering to be our Otto and our Melf.]

Anything to amplify the roleplay experience for the DM will also amplify it for the players at the table, you know.  A rising tide lifts all boats.

For your reading pleasure, here follows a written transcript of this latest DM opening monologue of ours.  There’s even a mention of Swords & Fjords during the interlude, explained in more detail afterwards.   Enjoy!

[DM OPENING MONOLOGUE BEGINS]

Meanwhile, in the imaginary lands of Benchleydale And Beyond, there’s a barkeep at Harem Bay, at the Too Soon Saloon (just four miles east of Urseid, across the way from Downtown Duck & Poultry, where Duckelnuffel gleefully plies his trade.)

The barkeep’s name at the Too Soon Saloon is Ben Anigans.  Old Ben is a good man, a family man, and he minds his own beeswax, mostly.  Sure, he asks the unusual question every now and again.  Who doesn’t?  Most of old Ben’s friendly icebreakers though, when new patrons visit the place, are along the lines of “Have ye caught any fish lately? I hear the sizzlefish and the snoofish are bitin’,” or “Did ye visit Duckelnuffel this mornin’? Sells the finest free-range baby chickens in all of Harem Bay, he does.  Owns ten acres o’ free-range land, for the little chicks too, he does.  Ye ought to see when he releases each year’s baby chickens into the acres.  Makes a great big show of it, he does.  Folks come from miles around too, they do.  It’s called the Annual ‘Chicks Out For Harem Bay Festival.’”

Well, last week, who should enter the Too Soon Saloon and order a Harem Bay’s Last Shot, but Melf!  Yes, the famous adventurer himself.  He of the Acid Arrow and the Minute Meteor!  Ben Anigans was gobsmacked.  After all, it wasn’t every evening that Ben saw a chance adventurer of Melf’s caliber enter the Too Soon Saloon, you know.

A few moments later, who else should walk in, but Otto!  Yes, he of the Irresistable Dance!  Old Ben Anigans could hardly believe his eyes.  Melf and Otto sat at a table together, ordered a round of drinks, and they began to speak.

Melf
My dear friend Otto, it is so very good to see you.  Did you bring what I asked?

Otto
As sure as the Honora moon shines brightly above, Melf.

Melf
Extraordinary!

Otto
Now close your eyes and put out your hand…

Melf closes his eyes, and put out a hand

Otto
(places something into Melf’s open hand)

Melf
Oh!

Otto
Isn’t it marvelous?

Melf
It is!

Otto smiles a big smile

Melf
Where did you find it?

Otto
Okarr the Magnificent gave it to me.

Melf
Did he?

Otto
Yes, he had an extra one.

Melf
It’s the most extraordinary thing that I have ever seen, and I’ve seen everything!

Otto
Everything?  Ha!  Well, it’s yours to keep now, Melf.  Perhaps you’ll find a place for it in your Grotto?

Melf
Oh, I know the perfect place for it.

Otto
Where’s that?

Melf
Do you know Princess Darkfeather, of the Drow?

Otto
Only by name.  Isn’t she the one…well, thankfully, Darkfeather and I have never met.

Melf
Thankfully, you say?

Otto
Isn’t she the one who…you know…

Melf
Yes she is.

Otto
And isn’t she the one who was in that love triangle with…you know…

Melf
Yes

Otto
And isn’t she the one who accidentally walked in on…you know…

Melf
Yes

Otto
And isn’t she…

Melf interrupts Otto

Melf
Yes, yes, yes, it is the same Princess Darkfeather of the Drow.  She needs our help.  We are her only hope.

Otto
We are?

Melf
It is her father, Darktater, who plans to exterminate all of the elves who dwell above ground.

Otto
Darktater?  But why would he…

Melf
Yes, Darktater would even snuff the peaceful elves who live in the Forest of the Moon.  It’s been said that Darktater will even stomp on the signpost which clearly reads Forest of the Moon, in gorgeous elvish letters.  Oh yes, when Darktater gets through with it, he’ll surely throw his head back and yell “That’s no Forest! And, that’s no Moon!”

Otto
But I have many dear friends in the Forest of the Moon!

Melf
As do I, Otto.  As do I.

Otto
We’ve got to stop Darktater.

Melf
Princess Darkfeather knows the location of various entranceways which lead down, down, down, a descent into the depths of the Orth, to the Vault of the Drow.

Otto
And?

Melf
If we could somehow infiltrate…

Otto
We?

Melf
Yes, we.

Otto
When?

Melf
Soon.

Otto
How soon?

Melf
Not too soon.  It can wait til after the Chicks Out For Harem Bay Festival.

Otto
Ah! Very good. I was hoping that that would be the case.

Melf
We’d better see if we can recruit any heroes for the cause.

Otto
That would be lovely.

Melf
Word gets around, you know.  I heard about an adventurer named Smax Rockatansky, who took down the Night Drider, and his denim gang near Urseid.

Otto
I heard of him too.  He took down Jhon Ethaboy, and Zubba Banetti, he did.

Melf
Yes.  Toecudda ran away though, just like the coward he is.

Otto
Oh?  I didn’t know that.  Where did he run off to?

Melf
Mokin.

Otto
Mokin?

Melf
Yes, Mokin.

Otto
Isn’t that where Lord Ginormous…you know…

Melf
It is.

Otto
Oh dear. Smax Rockatansky is going to Mokin, isn’t he?

Melf
Not necessarily.

Otto
What do you mean, Melf?

Melf
We can hopefully find Smax Rockatansky before he goes to Mokin, and we can recruit him for this mission into Drow territory.

Otto
That would be a blessing.  But first, let’s enjoy some spirits, eh?

Melf
Yes, let’s.  Barkeep!  Another round of Harem Bay’s Last Shots for my mysterious friend and I.

Otto
So, how are things at the Grotto?  Have there been any Oonga or Rukoh sightings?

(both Melf and Otto laugh)

Melf
All is good at the Grotto.  I rolled up a Swords & Fjords character the other day.  He’s a brockbarian!

Otto
Excellent! I picked up two Swords & Fjords adventure modules just the other day, as a matter of fact.

Melf
Which ones?

Otto
Let’s see… there was Crypt of Mamma Jamma and Deface This Module

As much as this is a tale of baby chickens, dark elves, and secret meetings at the Too Soon Saloon in Harem Bay, it is also a tale of our heroes who bravely went deep beneath the ruins of old Maure Castle.  Their mission, to investigate the unopenable doors, and to return to good King Asiago with news of their findings.

Having dealt with a bloodthirsty iron golem in the old Great Hall of Bronlingennen Maure, our heroes have thankfully found what appears to be a safe place for resting.  One can only hope that they’ll enjoy an uninterrupted rest period of 8 hours or longer.

Will they then report back to the King?  Or will they press onwards?  While they ponder this, the sounds of singing halflings can be heard from off in the distance, faintly at first, then louder and louder, as the singers approach…

[DM sings] There are stars in the southern sky
Southward as you go
There is moonlight and moss in the trees
Down the Seven Bridges Road

There are stars in the southern sky
And if ever you decide, you should go
There is a place with thyme-sweetened honey
Down the Seven Bridges Road

[DM OPENING MONOLOGUE ENDS]

lammerg

WEST OF KING ASIAGO’S ROYAL CASTLE

Swords & Fjords.  Gelnett Games & Hobbies is a popular shop in Benchleydale, found in the town of Silverleaf.  NPCs come from miles around, to scratch their tabletop gaming itch at this friendly establishment.  Popular tabletop games available for purchase at Gelnett Games & Hobbies include Trebuchets & Trollmoors, Behead The WitchQuickling (a smaller version of Munchkin,) Modrons: The Gathering planar-based card game, Chutes & Larders (in which you’ve just enjoyed an evening with the princess, and now you must now sneak out of the royal castle,) Don’t Wake the Hallstrom (a dice and pip game,) The Cheese Grater (a card game, in which you’re a noble member of the royal court, trying to save good King Asiago’s throne and kingdom,) Old Nick the Three Captain, Beeramids, Lightningfoot Lager: The Game, and many more.

The most-popular game sold at Gelnett Games & Hobbies is Swords & Fjords; a tabletop RPG set during the “Great Yeti Uprising” which rocked Benchleydale a quarter-century ago.  Available player characters include axe-master, brockbarian, fool, mugg, sneef, and more.

S&F is where the play-within-in-a-play approach to tabletop RPG really gets to go in all sorts of wild directions.  Rather than being front-and-center, S&F exists purely as a backdrop, exclusively enjoyed-and-spoken-about by NPCs (as above, with the dialogue between Melf and Otto during the interlude.)  As such, S&F is off-limits for actual players in our sandbox.  Aside from that, there’s no real limit to how high S&F can soar on the wings of imagination.

Among the many available adventure modules for S&F, Benchleydale NPCs will find the aforementioned Crypt of Mamma Jamma and Deface This Module, as well as Split The Party, Into the Fjord of Felnolokian’s Flame, Subterranean Nonsense, Dimly-Lit Lair of the [REDACTED] Yeti Shaman, Sea Shanties: Six Quick Nautical Adventures on the Nomer Sea, The Baker’s Dirty Dozen, Eriop’s Extraordinary Excursion, and Uncle Blozo’s Incredulous Harvest.  S&F even has a Maestro Forbidden series of adventure modules, of a darker and more serious tone, intended for S&F characters of higher levels.  Modules in this series include Forbid, Forbade, Forbidden, Still Forbidden, and Even More Forbidden.

 Tap into the power of the play-wthin-a-play.  See what it can accomplish for you and your players.  After all, the tabletop rpg hobby can sometimes seem to be very much like theater.  And, theater is something that everyone enjoys, be they young, old, or in-between.  Attracting younger players to the hobby is important.  DMs, channel your inner impresario!  Players, channel your inner thespians!  The show must go on!

Join us next week for Part Six of Long Island Sandbox, and we’ll explore The Frostlands expansion map.  Until then, stay frosty!  And let ye olde good tymes role!

Art by Mark Quire

Art by Mark Quire

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