Of Community and Crucibles

I tabled at the Portland Zine Symposium last weekend with The Dreaming Crucible. It was the culmination of a year-long anticipation, since I first published the Crucible just one week AFTER the previous year’s Symposium. Sunday from 11 to 4, I sat at a little wooden table, a massive cloud of origami cranes fluttering in my hair, and introduced folks to my little storytelling game. It was fun and eye-opening! Initially I felt a lot of commercial anxiety, as I always do when I table with product—they’re not buying! Man, why aren’t they buying? I hope that person comes back like they said they would; they seemed really interested! Jeez, I’m going to be here for hours and only sell one copy; that works out to two dollars an hour and I might as well just quit self-publishing and work at McDonalds!!!

Continue reading Of Community and Crucibles

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.

Continue reading Shakespeare for all of us

Microscope: zooming in on emotion

So, I’m a big fan of Character Advocacy in roleplaying games. Advocacy is, simply put, a mode of play where each player (excepting, sometimes, a Gamemaster) has responsibility and authority over a single character, and is tasked to represent the interests of that character in play. It’s important because if, when encountering fictional adversity, the character has no advocate, the outcome can feel flat: triumphs too easily won, tragedies handed down from on high. When we only produce something we all agree to, then nothing can surprise and challenge us. Advocating for a character is a powerful way to ensure that the character’s victories are earned, that their suffering has weight. In short, to ensure that their story matters to us.

So how can you enable that kind of investment in the absence of character advocacy?

Well, I played a wonderful game called Microscope with some friends, including its creator, Ben Robbins. Microscope is a game of epic histories, where players together construct a timeline of large-scale events then zoom in, playing out the individual scenes of the human activity that shaped the course of history. It’s a very top-down, globally thinking game that almost uses the lives of individual characters as pawns in the service of an overarching narrative.

And yet I found that Microscope helped us produce some very affecting, emotionally invested fiction? Why is that?

Continue reading Microscope: zooming in on emotion

The Dreaming Crucible: Roles

Hello, everyone. I’m continuing to post the text of my storytelling game The Dreaming Crucible online as part of its Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. The main body of the gamewill be posted to the blog, then compiled in a wiki.

The Crucible is a game in which a young person beset with fear, confusion and pain goes into a magical land, where Light Faerie denizens offer aid, comfort and friendship and Dark Faerie forces make every attempt to crush her spirit. it’s time to talk about those player roles:

Heroine

The Heroine player portrays a young girl (or boy) having difficulty coping with some pain or trauma, who journeys to a Land of Faerie where she must obtain something, unravel a mystery, or merely escape—facing expressions of her worst fears or heartache in the process. Heroine must decide how to face the Perils that beset her. The Heroine also describes her exploration of the Land of Faerie, and her reaction to its many beautiful and terrible aspects.

Light Faerie

The Light Faerie player portrays characters who are kind, helpful or pleasant to the Heroine, most specially a Faerie companion who journeys with her and aids her. The Light Faerie intervenes at times to face a Peril in the Heroine’s stead. The Light Faerie also collaborates with the Dark Faerie to describe the Land of Faerie itself, focusing on its delightful and enthralling elements.

Dark Faerie

The Dark Faerie player portrays characters who are hostile, menacing or cruel to the Heroine, most specially a Faerie nemesis who traps or entices the Heroine into Faerie, and the Powers he arrays against her to destroy, consume or seduce her. The Dark Faerie introduces specific Perils that the Heroine must face to continue her journey. The Dark Faerie also collaborates with the Light Faerie to describe the Land of Faerie itself, focusing on its sinister and unnerving elements.

Continue reading The Dreaming Crucible: Roles

The Dreaming Crucible: Principles of Play

My storytelling game The Dreaming Crucible is published under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license, which means that while I do sell it as a handmade book, you’re free to make any use you like of the game’s text, commercial or otherwise, so long as you credit me and allow others to use your work under the same conditions.

That being the case, it’s high time I started releasing the Crucible’s text on the internet. Before too long the whole game will be available in wiki form; in the meantime I’m going to showcase the more significant portions in a series of blog posts. I’ll start with the Principles of Play, which are a set of guiding precepts that function as a baseline approach to playing the game, on which particular rules and specific narrative and collaborative techniques can be built.

Have a look: Continue reading The Dreaming Crucible: Principles of Play

A Shocking Tale

I recently played a game of Shock: Social Science Fiction by Joshua A.C. Newman, with my wife and a couple of friends. It lasted something like 4-6 sessions, was fun and rewarding for us, and produced a satisfying story. Not only was it a work of art to be proud of, but it retained tension and life for us as players the whole time we were playing. Looking back, I can see several solid reasons why.

In Shock: you pick a future shock, some fantastic sci-fi development that irrevocably changes the world, then brainstorm relevant social issues that the Shock would exacerbate. You then each play a Protagonist in this alternate world who wrestles with one of the Issues. In our game the Issues were War, Class, Man vs. Wild (actually more like Civilization vs. Primitivism), and Living in Denial. The Shock was dependence on fossil fuels being replaced by dependence on alien technology in the control of a scientist elite.  Utopian city-domes rise up across North America, while outsiders in the wasteland are left to their own devices, and exterminated when they cause trouble. After we concluded our final session, I reflected on play and noticed that several key aspects of the rules and procedures kept play fresh, engaging and satisfying. I’m going to break down the lessons I learned as I describe the path of our story.

Continue reading A Shocking Tale

Lifting Up

I played a session of my game The Dreaming Crucible with my friends Jake and Nick and Neil who was visiting from the UK. It was a happy and robust play session, with creative cylinders fully firing from all the participants. Not only did I enjoy playing with them, but I learned a lot about how the game works, namely:

We excel when we lift one another up.

The game was fun because we all built on each other’s contributions at each moment in play. We could easily have been four individual creators, each plotting our own brilliant artistic statement with our own story material. Each individual statement could maybe have been artful and satisfying, even brilliant. We might have even been courteous and generous in allowing each other space to build our little artistic towers, not crowding each other and jostling each other for the spotlight. We might have all created something we could look back on and say, yes, it was good.

But none of that compares to the glory that bursts forth when we lift one another other up. Continue reading Lifting Up

Advocacy by the Throat

Juilan Michels, creator of the Open Circle Story method for storyjamming, asked me to write about my thoughts on “character advocacy and suspense,” following a conversation we were having in person. Julian’s said in the past, “I don’t advocate for the character, I advocate for the story.” I’d like to dig into how I feel about that. And what does it have to do with suspense, anyway?

The basics: Character Advocacy is discussed by Jesse Burneko on his blog Play Passionately, and is about a player representing the fictional interests of a particular protagonist, where another player (“Gamemaster,” usually) is responsible for creating adversity and challenging those interests. In a sense this is merely the central and often unexamined tenet of roleplaying for decades—”the GM plays the world, the players control what their characters do and say.”

But for Story Now play there must be a particular focus: a player who advocates for a Protagonist must be free and willing to address problematic human issues through the lens of that character. It’s that player’s job to show us who that character is under pressure.

So why is Character Advocacy so important? Can’t you, as Julian says, “advocate for the story?” It’s collaborative storytelling; surely we’re all mature and sophisticated enough to shed these archaic character-ownership notions and just make story together…right? Continue reading Advocacy by the Throat

Fluency Play

So my friend Willem Larsen has developed this method for learning and playing story games which I’m in love with. We’ve struggled with finding a name that does justice to the process, until suddenly it hit me:

With respect to Willem, I’d like call this play method “Fluency Play.”

This cuts right to the heart of the method: basically instead of trying to assimilate an entire body of RPG procedures and put them into action from the get-go, you start at the most basic level and work your way up. The aim is to have a game experience with maximum creative flow, where the shared dreamspace is as unbroken as possible. So you only play at the level you’re fluent at.

See, the thing about fluency isn’t that you’re an “expert” in something. People say “I speak fluent French,” meaning they have a high level of mastery with complex vocabulary and grammar. But really, fluency means you’re comfortable and fluid in performing a skill. My baby girl is fluent in crawling but not in walking. You can be fluent in asking “Where is the bathroom” (i.e. you can say it without thinking or flipping in a phrasebook) without being fluent in discussing the social impact of human sanitation practices throughout history. You wait until you can perform the current level effortlessly, without a moment’s thought, to move to the next level.

So applying this to games? You don’t introduce all the rules at once. You don’t even introduce all the rules “as you need them.” (“Oh, you moved across a threatened square? Time to read the Attacks of Opportunity rules…”) You introduce new levels only when the group is FLUENT in the previous level. For instance, you might first do an intro scene for each character, with no conflict, getting comfortable with description and dialogue. Then do simple conflict scenes, with a simple card draw or die roll. Then run conflicts adding bonuses for traits. And so on.

The payoff, in a word, is FLOW: a seamless experience where collaboration is natural and effortless and that creative bubble isn’t “popped” by head-scratching confusion, flipping through a rulebook, or the sheer overload of trying to hold a dozen interlocking concepts in your head at once. This is largely–not entirely–uncharted territory in game design. We accept page-flipping and headscratching in our games, the way someone might accept knotted back muscles and chronic neck pain, little imagining that some proper massage therapy might release the tension and free up their body to perform fluidly, joyfully.

I wrote once about traction–about procedures having just enough granularity to give your feet purchase and your fingers a handhold, that your choices are meaningful in the game. So how does friction relate to fluency? Simply: fluency is the path to playing with teeth. Fluency encompasses all the steps from sitting in the car and turning the key, through putting it in gear and pressing the accelerator, to steering deftly along roadways and around obstacles–until at last you’re feeling the tires grip the blacktop as you swing around the corners of a winding road in a daring mountain race. That’s the sweet spot we’re aiming for. Not puttering around the parking lot forever, but also not falling into a trap like “Whoa, there’s a sharp turn coming up and another car ahead of me hugging the inside–now WHAT to the instructions say, again, about applying gas and brake to glide safely past him?” Flow and traction are two complimentary opposites.

So in the end I lose nothing–I can enjoy all the richness of robust mechanisms and sophisticated procedures that bolster my story and my play, without the jarring disconnect of breaking flow to learn. Learning shouldn’t be work, learning is play. And play is good.

Peace,

-Joel

Making Middle-Earth our own

I had a unique opportunity this month: I was paid to visit Middle-Earth.

I got to work for a week at Trackers Northwest’s “Welcome to Middle Earth” day camp for 8-10 year olds. The camp uses the trappings of Elves and Orcs and the One Ring to teach nature awareness and wilderness skills, by framing activities as a fantasy quest. I jumped at the chance to be involved.

I had a blast tromping through the woods with nine boys, practicing stealth, riddling with Gollum, finding clues, singing in Elvish. We journeyed to Rivendell (a cabin in the woods) for our last two days, met another group of adventurers and combined our quests–ours to destroy the One Ring, theirs to safeguard the Elven Ring Nenya.

I learned a lot about storytelling, group facilitation, and, well, kids. For instance, it was very important to establish that we were telling our own story, not recreating one from books or movies. This is especially hard when your story is based on a series of books and movies. People of all kinds are well versed in the use of knowledge for power and dominance–this is usually called “expertise.” With kids this is especially raw and potent: I’d say, “look, it’s a letter from Gandalf,” and a 10 year old would shout, “Gandalf’s dead!” this made it important to get all the kids on board with the concept that we’re all working together to tell our own story.

Next time I’ll lean hard on that right from the start. By the last day of camp, everyone was pretty focused and bought in to our “quest” and its fictional framework.  When I led the troop into the woods of Rivendell (our Rivendell) to find the Fires of Mt. Doom (our Mt. Doom) that had bubbled up there, that we might destroy the One Ring (our One Ring) and extinguish the flames from the land, nobody balked or heckled. In fact, I never saw so much focus. I’d been pleading in vain all week for these kids to practice moving quietly through the woods and watch for hand signs from the person in point. But this time, they did it. They crept in silence, the tension palpable. We moved as one, halting, crouching, looking and listening. As we neared the spot where foul Orcs guarded Mordor’s fire, the anticipation was nearly unbearable. Some kids whispered, “I know it’s just a story but I’m actually scared!” Then we fanned out with our foam arrows at clearing’s edge, and struck! When they were too much for our arrows, we drove them away with Elvish Song, and were victorious!

I think my young charges were slightly shocked that I was really going to let them throw my souvenir replica One Ring into a roaring fire, and not fish it back out. I saw the last vestiges of cynicism drain away as it sailed into the embers.

Imagine if I could get that buy-in right from the start. Imagine if, by the end of the first day, I had nine kids all committed, primed and ready to enter into a shared Dream together, to all shape that dream as equal partners. The emerging narrative of our week together was primarily shaped by me and my ideas and props, secondarily by the books and movies, and only tertiarily by the kids’ imaginations. I can only dream of what that would look like flipped on its head–children boldly and brilliantly seizing story in their hands, learning to break down and eventually ignore the constraints of popular culture and consumer entertainment they’ve been bred to. next year, I hope to see that firsthand.

That’s what I strive for, in all arenas, with Story by the Throat.

Peace,

-Joel