A Beautiful Reality

Fabricated Realities is a story game convention in Olympia where games are played inside art installations. Last month I attended for the second year running. It was, once again, one of the richest, most socially bonding and energizing experiences of my life.

It’s hard to describe why. I mean, the art was delightful. And the games played were rewarding and emotionally resonant. And the folks at the convention are some of the sweetest, most thoughtful and wildly creative folks I’ve ever known. But it’s more than the sum of its parts. All those factors combine in an indescribable alchemy to produce something truly wonderful.

How does this alchemy occur? What’s the process? Well, let’s start with the most obvious ingredient: roleplaying inside FREAKING ART INSTALLATIONS. Seriously, from the moment I first heard of the concept, I knew this alone would be worth the price of admission. Even if nothing Olympiaelse was altered from my usual play culture and tecnhiques, it would be wonderful to play games inside art. Self-evidently.

The installations at the event were varied, imaginative, whimsical, evocative… far more affecting than adjectives can convey. They created a palette of imagination, an assortment of ambience flavors to match up with any roleplaying endeavor you cared to throw at them. And they suffused the very air with creativity, rendering the whole convention venue into a sacred space that subtly whispered, we can and will make art here. Yes, that includes you.

But the spell doesn’t begin and end with the art. Fabreal is so much more than playacting on plywood or rolling dice amidst jellyfish. The play culture that emerged from attendees was that of fun-loving, artistically savvy, thematically sensitive,  incredibly thought-provoking and experimental play. The crowd of fellow players was simultaneously stoked and mellow, crazy-silly yet mindful and respectful. I couldn’t ask for a more wonderful band of story-makers to remix culture with. The play space and the play culture catalyzed in the games themselves to create amazing play experiences. Switched-on, engaged, hilarious, tragic, daring, supportive, silly, deep roleplaying, nestled into delightful surroundings and brought by a plethora of friendly and passionate people.

I arrived late for the first Friday game slot, and was content to wander around, gaping at the art, but someone wandered by and slapped a set of Keep It Sunny (the quick-playing, unofficial Always Sunny in Philadelphia game my friend Joe wrote) cards on the table, said his group was done with them, and suggested we play. I pulled a group of people together and we started making a story, just like that. I then GMed Trollbabe, the macho women with hair and horns pulp fantasy game that I’ve been excited about since forever but nervous about running. Likewise Love in the Time of Seið, the Archipelago-derived Norse blood opera game that produces the most texturally rich roleplaying out there. Fabreal made me believe I could facilitate these amazing games, and I did!

Saturday I played my friend Morgan’s Game Chef entry Coyote Won’t Talk, which was made for Fabreal if any game ever was. Sitting on a floor with a flashlight and paper masks to become canids at the end of the world exploring what was great and what was rotten about humans, we wove a spell that wouldn’t quite seem at home at any other convention. In the afternoon I played  Monsterhearts,  the game of teen monsters playing with each other’s hearts and bodies, with my friend Joe who wrote it, with the full spectrum of confused teenage sexuality on display. I closed out the day with Montsegur 1244, the Cathar heretics burning for their faith at the hands of the Crusaders game; I played the wife of the character I’d played in my previous Montsegur game, and gained a new perspective on that harrowing experience. And we played the game in a room filled with homemade religious icons. That sort of resonance and intensity is the essence of the Fabreal experience for me.

On Sunday I facilitated and played In the Belly of the Whale, a Norwegian Style game of interweaving narratives which requires particular techniques of narration and reincorporation. It was intimidating to attempt, but a supportive group helped make it magical… and playing in an undersea dreamscape didn’t hurt. I played The Dreaming Crucible, my own game of adolescent trauma and faerie journeys, in a hushed and intimate installation of quilted domesticity with two wonderful friends, and we spun a touching and lovely tale.

For the final slot I helped demolish the notions of due process, logical causality and personal space bubbles in Sea Dracula, the absurdist Dancing Animal Lawyer end-of-con spectacular! Following that the space was opened to the public and became a gallery showing, with surreal performance artists inhabiting the spaces. This was a little jarring and hard to interface with after a weekend of collaboration, but I used the opportunity to write poetry. I later found myself crowded into a nook of a local bar with dear friends, sipping bourbon and playing a wild and wonderful round of my friend Jackson’s Superhero, the gonzo-make-stuff-up late-night-silliness action hero game. The game is collaboration and social reinforcement at its most elemental, and the perfect end to the Reality I’d been inhabiting.

It’s unbelievable to me that I fit all those stories into one weekend. I couldn’t possibly describe them all in this space, but you can find some synopses here. Any of these were games it would be technically possible to play at any meetup or convention, yet the feel of play and the social vibe was uniquely Fabreal. Nowhere else do I find play that’s as boldly unconventional or as grounded in deep trust.

All this talk about dynamite play is not to say that we players were special, gifted, high-caliber. Yes, we brought together a lot of skill, craft and personality to our games. but the culture is also very welcoming and supportive of new or unconfident players. Facilitators operate from the assumption that newbies are simply story gaming stars waiting to be born, and they go a long way toward creating a safe space, an inclusive, supportive and helpful environment for people to spread their narrative wings. People from all backgrounds, roleplaying and not, artistic and otherwise, came together and all made amazing things together. Which I don’t mind telling you, gets me a little misty-eyed; it’s exactly what roleplaying is about for me.

The reality is gone now, dismantled and dissolved for another year. But I’m still breathing its air, still resonating with the hearts that built it with me. It’s a beautiful reality, all the moreso for its vanishing. I already long for next year.

Peace,

—Joli 

Indie Hurricane: a whirlwind of community

In March, I organized the Indie Hurricane department of the Portland area’s Gamestorm convention for the second year running. Last year’s hurricane was a polite little gale, fun but modest in size, and downright polite. This year it was a raging storm and a smashing success.

Our games took over the entire upper lobby surrounding our designated play room, with games swarming over couches and coffee tables. The enthusiasm and creativity was palpable as indie gamers from Portland, Seattle, Olympia, British Columbia and more rocked games that were by turns tender, silly, action-packed, and romantic. I was so proud to see our crew forming such an amazing and dynamic presence at the con. The Open Story Gaming Circles that we formed twice daily, where a bunch of facilitators each pitch a game and interested players break off into whatever game appeals most, served a valuable role in balancing spontaneity with structure, and seemed to do a marvelous job of pulling in new players. Many, many game tables seated a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar faces, all having a good time. The games I played in were phenomenally fun and rewarding.

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Occupy Emotions

Ever since my initial exposure to Occupy Wall Street, I’ve longed to participate. The Occupy Portland branch has been thriving, but living outside the city on a St Helens farm, and temporarily without transportation, there was little I could do but watch.

So watch I did! I followed the #OccupyPortland and #OccupyWallStreet Twitter streams, read dozens of articles as they popped up daily, viewed scores of Youtube clips, and watched demonstrations on Livestream when I could. When protesters chose to sit down and be arrested in Portland’s Jamison Square, my heart longed to be with them. So I held vigil, watching until the last protester was arrested at 3:30 in the morning, livetweeting quotes from the Occupy Portland Livestream. I spread links across Twitter, Facebook and Google+. I traded thoughtful Tweets with Portland Mayor Sam Adams. But I had not set foot in the Occupy Portland encampment, or walked bodily among them in their numerous marches.

I felt a desperate, emotional need to be there.

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Cozy.

On Labor Day Weekend, a friend and I drove up to Seattle for CozyCon, a “game convention” that basically consisted of Tori Brewster inviting a bunch of friends and acquaintances over to her spacious house to sleep over and play story games all weekend. It was a great time.

I really dug  the relaxed hangout atmosphere of the con. Drinking beers on the lawn, playing card games in the kiddie pool, staying up till 2AM being silly—it was more than just casual, it was…community. It was a beautiful thing that allowed us to be friends and people, not just “gamers,” with each other. It was intimate in all the best ways.

And that was reflected in the games. Every game I played was touching and tender (though sometimes awesome and hilarious as well!) and grounded in a deep trust at the table. I ended each day with all kinds of warm feelings humming through me.

Continue reading Cozy.

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!!!

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Remembrance in the Thin Time

This month I participated in a holiday that commemorates the blessings one has received in life. No, not Thanksgiving. I’m talking about Samhain.

I had the privilege of attending a Samhain festival at Portland’s St. Peter & Paul Episcopal Church. I’ve long been fascinated with ancient Celtic culture, but never had the opportunity to attend a traditional (reconstructed) celebration before. It was wonderful, and full of surprises.

The first surprise was that an Episcopal church was drawing from a deep well of Celtic Spirituality.  I don’t know much about the Episcopalian tradition, but I had always assumed that as a branch of the Anglican church, their focus would be, well, English and not so much Irish. I had no idea where in Portland I could encounter Celtic Christianity, and now it had found me.

The second surprise was that the service, held in a church, was connected with deep roots that go beyond doctrine or dogma. The ceremony was rooted in two concepts: a circle where all are welcome and all are equal, and the empowerment of everyone present to tell their story.

That was it. No exclusion, no pressure toward religious belief, no attempt at “managing” input beyond invitation and facilitation. Everyone from 10-year-olds to the middle aged was able to don the storyteller’s cloak and tell both of legends dear to them and of their own experiences dearer still. I was blessed, and I’m not just mouthing a ritual word to say that.

The third surprise was an unexpected encounter with my own past.  The Rector, Kurt, explained that Samhain (“Sow-in” or “Sav-an”) is the “Thin Time,” the beginning of Winter where resources strain and life hangs by a thread–but also when the veil between flesh and spirit thins, allowing us greater closeness with those who have gone on, but are still in our hearts.  Like my Dad.

I didn’t attend the Circle expecting to encounter my father. I only knew that I had been invited. But as others shared their memories of departed loved ones, I realized that the window was open for a connection with him. I donned the cloak and told the tale of my father and me: of the heritage and roots he instilled, of the bitter differences we had, of the death that left us unresolved, and of the gifts of love that I carry even through the pain. And I felt his presence for the first time in years.

What happened here? First, I came open to having a meaningful experience, but with no particular expectations. Second, the hospitality of that Circle made a safe space where I could unburden my heart. And third, a context of ritual and tradition was provided that could draw me into a mindframe that I wouldn’t have arrived at on my own.

That’s how community looks. That’s how ritual looks. And that’s how telling stories together looks, whether at bardic circle, church service, or game table. And it’s beautiful.

Peace,

-Joel

How to (not) build community

bullhorn-evangelismEven once I recognized and processed what I what I wanted from roleplaying, it wasn’t easy to find Story Now play in practice. I had a lot of hiccups and false steps along the way, but I’m finally starting to figure it out.

When I stumbled upon the Forge, I devoured Ron Edwards’ essays and read a whole bunch of dense, extensive discussions, in an effort to figure out what the whole deal was about. In the process I found a system of thought that helped explain the dysfunctions in my roleplaying history, and I was able to put a name to the kind of play I wanted but wasn’t getting: Narratawatsi–I mean, Story Now.

Great, right? Only not so great. I approached a fellow roleplayer or two (mostly my brother) to explain the great new ideas I’d discovered, and I met. . .resistance. For one thing, I was still learning the concepts, and misrepresented them horribly. By the time I had things squared away, I’d already left an impression in my bro’s head along the lines of “Story Now means acting out of character for the good of the story,” which was justly repellent to him. And there’s no guarantee he and the others would have been interested in the play I wanted even if I had explained it properly.

So, while my gaming buds enjoyed the very occasional foray into hippie roleplaying land, they mostly wanted to play the same games the same way. So I had to look elsewhere for my Story Now fix. Through the internet I found a Yahoo Group of Portland indie gamers. We all met up and started gathering to try out new and different games, and evolved into Go Play PDX. I’d finally found my tribe, and all was well in roleplaying-land, right?

Nope, wrong again. Yes, I had fun and formed lasting friendships with a bunch of friendly, creative people who love shared story creation and trying new things. But I made this shocking discovery that–get this–even within the same “scene” people have different aesthetic preferences and creative priorities! Oddly enough, walking into a gaggle of self-professed “Story Gamers” and waving any old game around at anyone who’ll sit still is NOT a recipe for reliable, fulfilling play, of Story Now or any other agenda. Everyone needs to be on the same page, which means matching the right game with the right people AND clearly articulating the style and goal of play.

In the midst of a couple of games–Sorcerer and Red Box Hack–flopping with my friends because I approached it carelessly, I examined the experience with Ron Edwards at the Forge, and we explored the concept of BUY-IN: getting everyone on board for THIS activity, right NOW, with THESE people. Ron’s method for soliciting buy-in is to pitch Color and Reward, that is, what kind of story are we creating–space Nazis, political-intrigue elves, or post-apocalyptic cyborgs–and how does the game facilitate that experience? If you’ve got people on board for both those things, then you can look forward to a rewarding experience for all. If someone doesn’t get the color (“Whaddya mean political? I thought elves just shoot orcs with bows.”) or is turned off by the game method (“I gotta roll HOW many dice?!”) you’re headed for trouble.

I guess the bottom line is that there is no one monoculture of “Story” or “Indie” gamers one can gather around oneself. There’s a diverse community with a variety of interests. And there’s no simplistic “typing” to sort players into. different activities, different times, different people. All those things are mutable. The guys who indulge in immersive emo-porn one night might well be all over some board-gamey orc slayin’ the next. Just make sure you’re all on board for whatever activity is at hand. Don’t make the mistake of bringing your tenor sax to Death Metal night. And if you’re looking for Story Now gamers, don’t sweat so much assembling a “community” of monocultured, same-interest players. They don’t exist. Solicit interest for specific games with specific folks. You’ll have great games, and “community”–like the motley crew below, with whom I bonded over specific games–will happen on its own.Gamestormcrew

Peace,

-Joel

Sometimes, nobody gets shot in the face.

PhotobucketRecently my brother, my wife, and a friend played Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, a fantasy Western game of God’s Watchdogs protecting a struggling religious community, at gunpoint, from corruption and injustice. My brother and I had been wanting to play it with each other for quite some time. It was a joy to play together!

DitV derives a lot of tension from the “how far would you go” question in exerting your will, applying constant pressure along those lines. “Would you wrestle down your brother to stop him from shooting that whore what defiled his boy? Would you draw a gun on him? Would you shoot him?” And similarly, “to save this town from disaster, would you shoot this person who’s causing trouble? Even if his reasons are sympathetic and heartbreaking? Even if his family depends on him?” and so on.

As a result, Dogs and games like it get sort of a rep, for being horrible bloodbaths where everyone’s shooting everyone in the face, where conflict ramps up, up UP to tragedy, and everyone Comes To A Bad End.

And sure, it can be. Sometimes you want it to be. But our game wasn’t like that. For one thing, there were no rebellious cults forming, no Sorcerous subversion, no attacks by demon-possessed maniacs–yet. There were just people, mired in an intractable mess. There was the old man who’d dug up some old silver coin on his land and insisted it was his, not the town’s. There was the desperate father who needed the bounty to trade for his diseased daughter’s medicine. The poor browbeaten Town Steward whose clout didn’t equal the old man’s, and was losing the respect of the townsfolk whose needs he couldn’t fulfill. And the proprietor of the local mercantile, convinced he could use the silver to make peace with the hostile tribal folk and trade for food to recover from a devastating crop blight.

All was poised on the brink of disaster. In fact, it’d already come to grief, as the father went to the old man’s estate to take the wealth by force and ended up accidentally shooting the patriarch’s only son. And in fact without intervention things would get far, far worse. But in fact the Dogs’ involvement (which can turn quite bloody itself given their power of Judge and Executioner!) served to defuse tensions, de-escalate conflict and allow reason and justice to prevail. Everyone tried to press the Dogs to take sides in their conflicts and grudges, but they kept their heads and worked out a solution for the good of the town, not individuals, while balancing the scales of justice. The temptation always loomed to bring violence to bear, but no one did. Everything stayed on the level of talking–and it was awesome.

The tension was palpable, and the resolution satisfying. Without a single shot fired. The tension arose from the question: Will it turn violent? Consider Azariah, the desperate father, trying to hold off my brother’s character at his doorstep, afraid for himself and his sick daughter. Brother Clarence pressed him until he gave in. They both stood poised to start shooting to get their way, but Azariah was unwilling to escalate to gunplay. He blinked first, and submitted his will to the Dogs.

This goes back to what I was talking about in Paying Your Dues. Sure, it could be fun if the Dogs rode in and encountered murder at every turn, desperate folks solving their problems at gunpoint, and malefactors refusing to relent. Fire and judgment! Hooray! But how much more satisfying to start simple and build, to solve one town’s problems handily only to see the issues complicated in the next, and further escalated in the next? To see the Dogs themselves evolve under increasing pressure? To see a strong soul with sure hand and shining eyes, then watch him strain ’till he’s like to break?

That agonizing question–will he break?–is what we want to answer. But the end is meaningless without the journey.

Peace,

-Joel