Most scenes in a radio play do not begin with a narrator describing the setting. Instead, they rely on dialogue and background noise to create a sense of the time and place. Realistically, this is not something a GM can do on their own. It requires at least 3 people: two for the dialogue and one for background noise.
Creating the setting for a scene using 3 people is a type of improvisation. The goal is to build a “platform,” an improvisational concept I discussed in a previous article (and linked below). At least two characters (probably 2 PCs, but maybe a PC and an NPC) will be engaged in a discussion of some kind, and at least one person (player or GM) is attempting to make background noises. A few initial lines of dialogue and background noise will create a vivid setting, and establish who is present. Once this is done, the platform building is over. It is time to introduce a conflict of some kind to initiate action and drive the plot forward, which is a different kind of improvisation.
Establishing who is in a scene needs to be the first part of a platform when modeling a scene after radio plays. Two of the three people who can create platform details will be doing so by participating in a dialogue. The characters need to be introduced if they are to do this.
When talking about who is in the scene, it is important for the dialogue to imply a person’s role. This is accomplished most quickly by including it in greetings. For example, “excuse me, doctor.” when getting a Doctor’s attention. This is harder for positions where a person doesn’t normally refer to someone by their title. For example, no one gets the attention of a plumber by saying “hello, plumber.” In this case, it can be included in a greeting by saying “hello, I need some plumbing done and I hear you’re the best in the business.” or something similar.
Alternately, a speaker could set someone up to fill in the details about their role by asking a question. “How are you?” is an open ended question that could easily lead into a person mentioning their job, or other relevant features about one of their social roles, such as being young, elderly, or membership in a particular ethnicity. Any open ended question will work.
If any of these details can be shared by voice acting, it is better to include it in voice acting. This conveys more information, quicker and with greater subtlety. That being said, I don’t suggest mimicking accents if anyone nearby might be offended by the accent. It’s best to be polite, since RPGs are social games.
Background noises are used to describe the other people in the area. Examples include crowd noises, muffled dialogue, the sound of a policeman saying “save it for the judge, scum.” in the background… Noises from the environment can also imply things about the people who are there: trying to recreate beach noises imply that families or surfers might be around, and throwing in some snippets of overheard dialogue can clarify whether it is one, the other, or both. For example, the background person could say “Hurry up Dad,” “totally gnarly, man,” or “Hurry up, dad; the waves are tubular.”
Establishing what is in the scene is done by background noise, characters commenting on things in the scene, and character saying they’ll do things. Lets suppose we want to put a table in a room. The background noise person could make noises that imply an event that requires a table, such as a dinner party. One characters could simply say something to the effect of “look at that table.” The other character can respond with something about why the table is remarkable, hopefully making the remark seem a bit less silly. The most natural way to include a table is to simply say something like “let’s sit down.” and following it with the background noise person making a clunking noise representing the chairs moving as the characters sit down.
For the characters, dialogue that establishes the people and objects in a scene will usually imply a location, as well. However, it is important to think about what is implied, and then do things to either confirm the likely implication or imply an alternative.
The same techniques for describing What can be used to describe Where, if appropriate. This is for when the people in the dialogue would prefer to describe where they are before describing What is there. In such a case, the location will imply who and what is present. Once again, players ought to use dialogue to confirm or alter any relevant implications.
For a background noise person, Where will often be easier than anything else. By creating background noises for a place or an event that normally occurs at a particular place, they set themselves up for making sound effects for who and what. Usually a background noise person will be limited to options that imply both where and who, or where and what, at the same time. Those options were covered above.
Sounds that only imply locations, on the other hand, are a classic way to begin a scene in a radio play. For example, the sound of seagulls to make a beach, without implying who is there. It leaves a lot open to be filled by the characters involved in a dialogue. It’s nice to leave a lot open to others sometimes, but it’s probably best to usually add as much detail in as little time as one’s skill allows.
This is done best in the greeting and response from the greeting, due to the limited number of background noises that can imply a time. “good day,” “good evening,” and “good morning” are very quick and easy. Alternately, a response to a question like “how are you?” could be “Good. My lunch is delicious. Want to try a bite?” Sound effects are largely limited to bells sounding out the time of day, radio disk jockeys announcing that “this is for your ride home,” crickets at night, and birds during the morning. Often, When is implied by the Who, What, and Where. If the characters can’t find a seat in a crowded bar, it’s probably night time. Much like how Where is implied by Who and What, it is best if someone takes it upon themselves to confirm an implied time somehow.
Improvisation Concepts that Matter to Radio Drama Style Platforms
There are two important improvisational concepts that are being used here very clearly:
1. Offering: Offering is when a person introduces something new to a scene by saying something about it. They are called offers because they invite a response from the other participants. “look at that cat!” is an offer. Responses to that will likely add some detail about the cat. Responses to an offer can be offers themselves. Offering is trickier when doing background sounds. Instead of the characters directly responding to the background sounds, they might just ignore them for a bit. That’s okay, so long as the characters don’t contradict a background sound. For example, if the background noise person is making sea gull noises, a character shouldn’t say “there are no seagulls on this beach… Maybe the water is poisonous!” The characters acknowledge the background noise mostly by acting appropriately for the implications of where they are, what is happening around them, and when that is. It is incorrect for a background noise person or a character to use an offer that forces an immediate response from everyone. For example, a sudden gunshot in a crowded room is not appropriate. Events like that signal the end of platform building, as they are an initiating event for a conflict. These kind of offers should only be used to end platform building and initiate action.
2. Endowing: Just because an item has been placed in a room, does not mean we know anything about it. Endowing are actions that attribute properties to things. Saying “good afternoon” tells everyone it’s the afternoon. Saying “gee, it’s a hot one.” in response is endowing the afternoon with a property: that it is a hot afternoon. Endowing is a way to interact with a background sound person’s offers, and is also one of the better ways for a background sound person to respond to a character’s offers. If the background sound is a loud party, the characters can say something about how crowded it is, for example. If the characters sit down at a table, the background noise person could make a solid thud or a creaky wobbling noise, implying something about the table.
Confirming Implications vs. Leaving it Open
Since initially no one is saying precisely who or what is present, and no one is saying precisely where or when the scene is taking place, these details will initially just be implied. It is important for the participants to take actions to confirm or alter the implied details of the scene. However, they may prefer to deliberately leave details unconfirmed. So long as no one contradicts anything already said, this is not a problem. In fact, it can be fun once in a while if details are left unconfirmed. Until an implied detail has been confirmed, remember that someone might change it. This could make for some very amusing changes if done late in a scene.
Remember, however, that whole sets of new objects cannot be added to a scene once Platform Building is finished. This is to avoid an unsatisfactory deus ex machina.
Benefit of Using Radio Play Style Platform Building
The radio play style sounds like a lot of work, and requires one person dedicated to making background noises and sound effects. This work comes with a notable benefit, however: creating the scene is all done by roleplaying, sounds, and acting. There is a minimal amount of time spent on out-of-character descriptions, narrations, or expositions. Often, none will be required! The scene will feel more “alive.” Most importantly, this is a crucial part to learning to emulate a radio play. Radio, as a form of media, is a closer approximation of how tabletop players can share a story than film or novels. Learning to do radio play style Platform Building sets us up for radio play style action.
My next post on radio play style RPGs will be about the action that occurs during a scene, whether it’s a fistfight, a chase on horseback, an argument between lovers, a ticking time-bomb, a business negotiation, or whatever else you can think of. When everyone learns to voice-act their character’s actions instead of describing the actions, the game will suddenly become very fluid. All actions will be well integrated into roleplaying. I hope you are looking forward to it!