It’s been awhile since I wrote a Dreaming Crucible rules post. The text of the game is published under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license, so I’m sharing pieces of it through blog posts. I hope to get a Dreaming Crucible wiki up and running in early 2012, so that play of the game will be freely accessible to anyone outside the realm of commerce, leaving the physical book to thrive on its own merits as a beautiful artifact. Previous Crucible game text posts:
And now, at last, we come to Beginning Play!
When you’ve got your roles sorted out and are ready to play, make a comfortable, relaxed space around a table. It doesn’t have to be a big dining room table; a modest coffee table in a cosy living room will do just fine if that’s the sort of setting where you can relax and focus. Make sure everyone can see and reach the table easily. Place the bag at the center of the table. it will be a focal point in play. place the bowl of stones off to the side, at a corner of the table or perhaps even off the table—accessible, but unobtrusive. Give every player the Story Cards related to their role. Do whatever you like to provide atmosphere—dimmed lights, mood music, lit candles, food and drink, conversation, focusing exercises. When everyone’s comfortable and engaged, begin by choosing Seeds.
You may have noticed we haven’t actually started play yet. That’s because setup is an oft-neglected aspect of gameplay, and deserves some special attention. I’m talking about more than just making sure you have all the materials needed to play, or gathering players together. Those are elements of setup, but the core principle of setup is creating an environment conducive to play.
Naturally, this includes assembling materials and recruiting players. But it’s so much more. There’s setting a mood, by arranging physical space and by entering into play with intentionality. There’s letting players know they are welcome and safe within the game. And there’s creating a dynamic focus by removing clutter and distractions, allowing all players to immerse in the experience. Every aesthetic element of The Dreaming Crucible is calibrated toward facilitating this.
I’ve already talked about creating a safe emotional space, with I Will Not Abandon You above, but arranging the physical space is important as well. Too often in my gaming experience, we shoehorn play into a time and space where it doesn’t fit well, and simply “make do.” Perhaps we feel our schedules are too busy to slow down and enter the playspace calmly and intentionally. Perhaps we’re so used to clutter in our lives that it becomes invisible. Shoving some junk to one end of a table and setting up gamepieces seems sufficient to me because that’s how I manage the physical artifacts of the rest of my life. New mail? Toss it on the desk. Picking something to wear? Root through the piles on the floor. Internet time? Curl up with my laptop wherever there’s room, and hope nothing gets spilled in its vicinity. When you’re disorganized, weary and pressed for time, it’s easy to feel that this is natural and unavoidable.
But the truth is, living that way adds stress, breeds depression and makes it harder to accomplish anything. Work stalls out and pleasures have their edge blunted. It’s no different for games. Roleplaying in a living room, everyone sprawled out however, with magazines and laptops at hand, used to be second nature to me. But it got under my skin because the focus, the energy, the creative spark between people who are deeply engaged with each other, just weren’t there.
Ben Lehman’s Polaris is the first game that I encountered which suggested a different approach leading to a more rewarding experience. It uses ritual phrases to mark the beginning and end of play phases, and the lighting of candle which burns throughout the session of play, marking a special, set-apart time outside of the ordinary time of day to day life. I was entranced by the beauty of this concept, which is very fitting to the unearthly glamour of that game. Willem Larsen, creator of the language and skill building game Language Hunters, also clued me into the value of setup both in his facilitating of Polaris, and his leadership in games of Language Hunting. A clear space, obvious arrangement of participants and props, and a focus and intent on play are all elements that I value in play, and I carried these principles with me when I designed the Crucible. I’ve gotten good results from arranging space both physically and verbally, having more intense and personal games with friends and strangers alike than I’ve had with most other games, period.
Making space to play means ritually marking out a bounded, finite world in which you and your fellow players will live for the next 2-3 hours. It means savoring the moment to moment richness of play, unimpeded by conscious or unconscious distractions. It means generating an intense focus between the people at the table that lets their collaboration come truly alive.
And this starts with simple, physical organization. An empty table, with a simple wood finish or single-colored cloth, creates a clear field for interaction where the outside world does not intrude. The artifacts of play arranged elegantly, symmetrically, define the landscape of the play world, and focus in our attention on the game about to commence. Soft, appropriate music can help bring players emotionally in line with the tone of the game. A facilitator welcoming players, gently but firmly asking that snacks and clutter stay out of the space, then calmly explaining the nature of the game, sets the stage for rewarding, high-trust interaction.
And then, truly, you are ready to play.