My friend Willem Larsen, developer of the Language Hunters accelerated learning system, recently published a series of blog posts on the “Rules of Accelerated Learning.” These are a set of interlocking patterns for fluent skill-building presented in bite-sized pieces. I really dig what he has to say here, and the way he says it.
Ordinarily Willem applies these insights toward the language game, but here they’re presented in a general fashion, to apply to ANY skill you want to build proficiency in. Since I’ve been exploring how the principles of fluency intersect with story games for a couple of years now (no surprise since Language Hunters is itself a game!), I want to dig into these rules and look at the concrete ways they can be leveraged toward collaborative storytelling and roleplaying. As we explore them one by one, I hope to see understanding expand ever outward as the rules break off, recombine and create new connections, building insight on insight.
Before we begin, it’s worth noting Willem’s disclaimer: Each rule is very contextual; these are not silver bullets or cure-alls.
The first rule is: “Focus on What is Alive.” As Willem says,
It’s difficult to learn skills or new competencies from reading books, verbal explanations, or standardized curricula.
Therefore, always look for situations where you can observe or learn from skilled practitioners, and gauge your success by the degree of engagement of the participants.
This matches up with my experience with roleplaying games. I originally received roleplaying rules via oral tradition, but as soon as I was able to get my hands on RPG books I started acquiring my skills and rules knowledge that way. Reading books was a great way to acquire comprehensive knowledge, but it translated awkwardly into play with actual humans.
Generally speaking, I encountered two situations: either one person had really read the book, and was constantly trying to teach the game to others but it would never really stick, or else everyone had read the book, and would get constantly bogged down in the minutia of rules interpretation and special cases and exceptions and looking things up for clarification. In both cases play was focused on the text: adhering to it, referencing it, interpreting it. But the text wasn’t the game. The thing that happened in real time between real people was the game. The text was just a way to transmit the game from designer to players. And in many cases, arguably impeded the actual game, the thing that is alive.
The indie games I’m into now tend to have smaller, more focused texts than, say, D&D. this alleviates the text-focus somewhat, but I’ve still observed the tradition of textual supremacy hanging around the edges. After all, someone is still reading that book so they can transmit the knowledge to other players, and I’ve noticed myself and other players still exercising that impulse to engage with the game and the teaching text-centricly. We either listen to instruction like college kids taking lecture notes, trying to make sure we understand the exact details of the rules, or else we jump in to correct the speaker based on our own rules-knowledge, trying to ensure that we’re playing “correctly.”
I’ve realized that when you focus on what is alive, the concepts of “correctness,” of “rightness” and orthodoxy fall away. What matters is not whether we’re playing the “right” or “best” way, but whether we’re fully engaged and having fun in this moment. If I’m playing a game here, now, with these people, I want to live in that space, not check out of it every ten minutes to make sure we’re still hewing properly to words in a book.
It’s a hard habit to break, but when we play like this, we’re not “gauging our success by the degree of engagement of the participants;” we’re promoting DISengagement, which deadens the process and pulls us out of the present NOW of play. And it decelerates our learning process, because we haven’t simply done the thing, so next time it comes up we won’t have the confidence and ease of doing it, and will again rely on the text—what was that rule, again? What’s the book say about how to handle that? I think there was something in chapter three…
And play stops dead.
That’s not to say that books don’t have a use! Books can be sources of valuable insight and useful techniques, and enjoyable to read in their own right. A good roleplaying text will be chock full of tools that are purpose-built for helping us solve difficulties in our play. But when it comes to doing a thing, I humbly suggest that it’s time to put the book aside, and do it. After you do it, you can reflect on it, glean techniques from books or conversations or online forums, then bring them with you when you next return to the present and focused space of play. This a continual feedback loop of improvement.
Shared story-making is a craft that particularly relies on the present, fluid engagement of its practitioners. And so it’s particularly vulnerable to momentum sinks like mechanics debates or page-flipping for rules. I invite you to work past that understandable impulse, and learn to play in the present moment, and focus on the real people in front of you, and the dynamic, wild thing you’re shaping together—focus on what is alive.