Solidarity on the Brooklyn Bridge

I’m sitting in my farmhouse home in Warren, Oregon, and watching live feed of the Occupy Wall Street protesters facing off against police on the Brooklyn Bridge. They’re crammed onto the bridge shoulder to shoulder, calling out slogans and standing peacefully, and the police are arresting them…one by one. One by one they’re cuffing the protesters and walking them over to a paddy wagon. Someone is filming all this from above, and I can see it all clearly. There’s no struggle, just an endless parade of quiet, unresisting arrests, while the crowd chants “Let us move!” and “We’re fighting for your pensions!”

The citizen media crew call out to each detainee, Hey you, guy being arrested, what’s your name?” Some respond, some don’t, some can be heard clearly, some can’t.  A man named Michael Burton takes his arrest calmly, his eyes seeming to meet mine as the camera zooms in, radiating quiet determination and strength. A young woman wearing an Invader Zim “GIR” hat, just a teenager by the look of her, is arrested, and someone shouts “How old is she, officer?” and “Oh, sure, arrest a child; see how THAT goes!”

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The Protomen are my religion now.

No, really.

I saw The Protomen live for the first time at Lola’s Room last week. The Protomen are a band that sings dystopian agit-prop tributes to the classic video game Mega Man. Every album (there are two so far) is an Act in a dark, epic rock opera that grows more and more agonizingly tense as straights get more and more dire for a futuristic city under fascist robot domination, and for their would-be saviors. They played back-to-back shows, each one featuring a different Act.

I could only attend one, so I chose the second, which is the one that resonates more strongly with me, though both are amazing. Act I is about Doctor Light’s robot son Mega Man defying his creator’s will and standing up to Doctor Wily and his robot thugs, only to be disillusioned by the fickle public he fights for. Act II is a prequel, chronicling how Light and Wily created the robots together, how Wily seized control of them and of the entire city, and how Dr. Light’s first attempt at ending his rule met with disaster.

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Guest Post: Taking Stories Back

Last week at the Portland Zine Symposium, my friend Mike Sugarbaker showed up at my table with a tiny pamphlet he’d just made, called “Taking Stories Back: A Mini-Festo.” He put them out on the table as a freebie, and folks grabbed them up as fast as he could staple them! It was incredibly inspiring, and I knew we had something special on our hands. So I asked Mike to do a guest post on the blog based on the original pamphlet. Here it is, adapted and condensed down to the essentials:

Serial fiction is important. Characters are important, and other worlds are important. There’s something magical about visiting another place, a place that might or might not even be possible, time and time again, and seeing how the people who live there are doing.

We knew this generations ago, when we gathered around fires to listen to the storyteller. Now, the fact that there even was a storyteller suggests that different people do get different amounts of skill at telling stories. But that’s not the only reason we gave up responsibility for telling stories to somebody else. We like to be surprised by our stories; we like to feel like they come from someplace else; we like to get them passively instead of working hard at them; and we like to have our senses dazzled. All that is understandable.

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Shakespeare for all of us

I attended the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival‘s “Much Adoe About Nothing” in Kenton City Park. I loved it. The cast were a fun and energetic bunch, and the intimacy of our close proximity on the grassy lawn, with the players’ antics spilling freely among the audience, made the whole spectacle a delight.

The most eye-opening part of the production was the “Original Practice” itself. The troupe is dedicated to reviving the actual acting techniques of Shakespeare’s day, when new plays were being written and performed at breakneck pace, and an acting company didn’t have the luxury of extensive rehearsal and meticulous preparation. Instead they carried their lines on scrolls, and charged in with “limited rehearsal; an onstage prompter; fast-paced, energetic acting; and lots of audience interaction.”

OPS Fest recreates that practice, and the result was enthralling. I love live Shakespeare, and I’ve seen some fine performances, but what I experienced at Kenton park on Sunday was like nothing I’d seen before. You might think reading their lines from cue scrolls might render the performances lifeless, but not so! Instead the play crackled with life, brimmed with humanity, and embraced messiness.

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Vulnerable places

I talk a lot about raw, emotionally vulnerable play on this blog, and whenever I have a roleplaying experience that scratches that itch, I gush about it here. But I haven’t very thoroughly explored the issue of how to achieve a safe space for that kind of vulnerability. I’d like to examine a recent case to see what comes to light.

I’m preparing to play in an Apocalypse World campaign. I, along with Hans, my friend and MC, have been looking forward to it  with relish. We both feel that we’ve had fun with past AW games, but never really gotten at the emotional core of apocalypse world play. for my part, following my initial, very moving experience over a year ago, I’ve had a string of one-shots that were mostly just fun, casual and diverting, without a lot of emotional investment in the characters. not to knock fun, casual and diverting, but for this game, Hans and I wanted something deeper. When I hit up my friends to play, I emphasized this in an email:

“[We’re] looking for a game that really emphasizes the humanity and desperation of the post-apocalypse, with folks who are prepared to go to some emotionally vulnerable places and aren’t afraid to have their buttons pushed. “I will Not Abandon You” play, as it were. If you’re down for that, you’re welcome to play with us!

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The Superstar Connection

This one’s extremely personal, folks.

For Holy Week (the week in the Christian cycle leading up to Easter Sunday), I posted songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar on Facebook, one video a day. It started as a whim, but it quickly became a kind of religious practice.

I first saw Superstar about 5 years ago, a local production in which a dear friend played Mary Magdalene. I was moved, in an indescribable way. I  engaged with all my body and soul with the messy, human struggle between Jesus, Judas and Pharisees.  By the end I was bawling like a baby. After the show, the actor playing Jesus found me and hugged me. I didn’t know what it “meant”, but I knew I’d been given a gift, and I felt utterly grateful to Molly, my friend, and her fellow players.

Every now and then I listen to the soundtrack, or play the 1973 film version. I mainly do it to remember the sense memory of that night with Molly and crew, which will always be the “real” Superstar for me.

This time, though, I resolved to pay closer attention to what Superstar was saying to me. Just like past times when “Reading the Signs” has been enlightening, I learned something vital about myself.

The message that Superstar screamed at me through all the songs I posted: human connection is tragically, excruciatingly hard. Our broken, separate-ness sometimes alienates us in spite of every intention to connect, to trust, to love.

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A Piece of Myself

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.

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Enemies

I’m going to get all mystical on you for a minute: I talk to Yeshua sometimes.

It usually happens when my hippie punk-rock faith community has a communion service—I take my wine-soaked hunk of bread, find an out of the way corner, close my eyes, and visualize entering a room to sit and sup at his side. This may sound strange, but I hope it’ll be relevant to human experience whether you believe in talking to Yeshua or not.

Mostly I talk and Yeshua listens. That’s because I try not to put words into his mouth, or simply imagine him quoting a convenient scripture. If I’m going to hear a message in words from Yeshua, it’s important to me that it be his words and not my projection. So, because I’ve still got a lot of mental clutter that interferes with my listening, the conversations are pretty one-sided, and I’m OK with that. Usually I feel Yeshua’s responses to my venting or questions in nonverbal ways, like a loving look, or a physical embrace.

But a few weeks ago I DID hear him, quite distinctly. I had, as usual, laid a problem at his feet: “I feel such a strong urge to fight battles. I want to stand against oppression and injustice, but mostly I just end up hurting those I love. Surely there must be a place for my warrior’s heart?”

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The Dreaming Crucible: I Will Not Abandon You.

Its time for another installment of The Dreaming Crucible online edition! The Crucible is my storytelling game about young people working through their pain in a deadly Faerie quest. It’s available on Etsy.com or the Indie RPGS Un-store as a handmade book (see the above link), but the text itself is available under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. And so I’m releasing it in sections, first here on my blog, and soon to be compiled into a Wiki.

Last time I talked about the game’s narrative Principles of Play, but today I’m going to delve into an even more basic principle that embodies the Crucible’s underlying philosophy.

The Dreaming Crucible is a game about teenagers and children coping with trauma and heartache. This can take a relatively mild form, or it can delve into the darkest corners of alienation and abuse. Furthermore, a happy ending is possible but not assured. Are you willing to risk that? How far are you willing to go in depicting a child suffering? How young a protagonist are you comfortable with portraying in such excruciating circumstances? These are important questions to answer as a group.

The Dreaming Crucible is not safe. My hope is that you will enter into a relationship with the game and with your fellow players, such that you will go to the dangerous places together in mutual bravery and trust. Game designer Meguey Baker has coined this distinction as Nobody Gets Hurt vs. I Will Not Abandon You.

She says, “I as a player expect to get my buttons pushed, and I will not abandon you, my fellow players, when that happens. I will remain present and engaged and play through the issue. I as a player expect to push buttons, and I will not abandon you, my fellow players, when you react. I will remain present and engaged as you play through the issue.”

I Will Not Abandon You is the default mode of Dreaming Crucible play.

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On Shoulders

On Story-Games.com, Tazio Bettin (Suna) has been asking how one copes with “standing on the shoulders of giants” in game design; that is, feeling like everything you might design has been done before, and possibly done better than you could hope to do yourself. This is an issue that’s always been close to my heart as an aspiring creator of art in any form. it’s easy to become intimidated by all the brilliant and inspiring works that have proliferated throughout history. And the more you love art, the more you’re likely to be overawed by that brilliance.

One of the things I cherish about roleplaying and storyjamming is the affirmation of the concept that everyone is an artist. Everyone has a unique voice that can gain expression in any number of artistic forms–storytelling, painting, poetry, you name it! Every person has precious gifts to share

I truly believe this. And yet Tazio’s question lingers: in the presence of greatness, how does one muster the drive to create at all? How do you shake the feeling that all the ground has been covered, or that you can never measure up?

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