I played two games of The Dreaming Crucible with some old friends and new at Vancouver, WA’s Gamestorm convention last month. I had fun in both, but the second game did something the first one didn’t: it moved me to tears.
The Dreaming Crucible is designed to enable the kind of raw, vulnerable stories that provoke strong, even cathartic reactions in the participants, but I’ve rarely seen this potential fully realized. Usually, the story produced is imaginative, engaging, and satisfying, but the emotional impact is fairly light. Once or twice a game has educed a quiver of emotion from me. But more often the better games I’ve played feel right, like all the basic elements I envisioned for the game are present and operating properly, but the result is merely…diverting.
The Sunday game at Gamestorm was different. I could tell from the start that something special was going on; I began as I usually do by explaining the I Will Not Abandon You mode of playing the game, which is generally greeted with nods and shrugs, as if to say, “oh, that’s nice.” But this time my fellow players Drew and Lisa responded with satisfied mmms and a gleam in the eye. I could tell they were switched ON, and ready to truly, enthusiastically play with vulnerability. And when we played, something wonderful happened.
Lisa played the Hero, and chose for her Character Seed: A boy sinks into sullen silence, staring straight ahead as his father’s voice rises in fury and condemnation. She said the boy’s name was Trevor, and after I asked her some questions about Trevor’s life I set the opening scene. I described a suburban garage with no room for a car, piled high with moving boxes and junk and tool sand an overrun workbench and a spare refrigerator. I said that Trevor’s dad was yelling because it was late Saturday afternoon and Trevor had had all day to clean the garage and had hardly touched it. As I grasped mentally for the dad’s character voice, I realized with alarm: I was playing my own dad, and describing my own garage of years ago, and enacting many a Saturday afternoon in my own childhood.
I felt a lump in my throat. I could have done many different things at that point. I could have changed course, and made the situation as unlike my own as possible, changing Trevor’s dad accordingly. I could have called a halt and explained that this was too close to home. But I had said, and for the first time the words had passed between we players with the understanding of a solemn vow, “I will Not Abandon You.” So I kept playing, and I embraced what I was Seeing. I described my own father physically. I adopted his speech and turns of phrase. I heaped fury and shame on poor Trevor of the exact kind and caliber that had been heaped on me over 20 years in the past.
I didn’t flinch or pull away. But when the scene changed and Trevor’s/my dad left the stage, I welcomed the transition.
After that, the actual Faerie journey was a relief by contrast, fraught with fear and peril though it was. The fantastic nature of that Realm served to distance us a bit from Trevor’s pain, I think, though not enough to prevent us from playing out his transformation with integrity. Drew, as the Light Faerie, portrayed a wonderfully serene and oblique guide on this quest, while I as Dark Faerie harried him with a fearsome witch demanding he submit to his obligations. Trevor grew bit by bit from a timid but warm-hearted boy into a bold and compassionate young man.
With his “Heart Full of Love” transformed into “Strength of Love,” and his “Recklessness” become “Fierce Bravery,” Trevor returned home with the inner fire to assert himself and fulfill his needs. Lisa narrated that he entered his house after dark, and I described, the lump in my throat once again rising, Trevor’s dad slumped in a chair staring at the television, and growling “where have YOU been, Boy?”
Then Lisa did the unexpected. She stated that Trevor rushed to his dad, threw his arms around him, and said “I love you, Dad.” I almost lost it. This was a heartbreakingly beautiful gift in my moment of vicarious anguish. I described how the dad—just as my own father would, after a fight—hugged Trevor back, his eyes reddening and tearing up in regret, and said, “I love you too, buddy. I love you too.” End of scene.
When we had finished, I came clean to the group about what I had done with the dad in the story. In the process, I broke down crying, and thanked them. Drew and Lisa both hugged me in turn, and I believe we parted lifelong friends.
I found that putting an honest piece of myself and my life into the fiction was a quick path to emotional resonance. It made me invest very ardently in the fictional material, and I realized when Lisa voiced the words that I desperately needed to hear our fictional father and son say they loved each other. Our unresolved issues are a wound mostly healed, but still a sore spot. I think the game offered a bit of salve for that, paradoxically by reminding me of my pain. But then, that’s how those things work, really.
I did learn something new about emotionally vulnerable play that day. I’d always known that it requires trust, but could never work out a reliable way to achieve that trust. I now realize that a statement like “I Will Not Abandon You” is like a test of trust, especially in the company of relative strangers. If you look someone in the eyes and say those words, and they shrug in return, it wasn’t meant to be. But if you speak it and they lean forward with that eager gleam, take heed—magic is about to happen.