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 

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

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

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?

Continue reading On Shoulders

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

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

Unflattering Imitation

I participated in a fundraiser for my special education job the other night. It was a talent competition called “[Education District] Idol”, and consisted of volunteers singing popular songs with a live band or karaoke track, and attendees buying votes to raise money for our programs. I sang “In the Ghetto” and had a good time.

There was something odd that kept coming up, though. First, at rehearsal, the organizers (and fellow performers) who were listening asked me if I was going to “dress up as Elvis.” They suggested that I go to a thriftstore for a “costume” or maybe “slick my hair back.” Then after I sang on performance night, one of the judges declared, “folks, Elvis is alive and well!” Later that evening the district superintendent complemented me and told me I was “channeling the spirit of Elvis.” Continue reading Unflattering Imitation

Soft Focus

Focus is my eternal enemy in creativity as well as all other aspects of my life. Don’t worry though; it’s an enemy that I thoroughly  vanquish every day. Never has the dread spectre of focus taken hold in my mind without being banished in mere minutes to the outer reaches of procrastination and distraction!

In all seriousness, this is a big deal—maintaining focus on things I want to accomplish, even things I’m passionately drawn to, has never come naturally to me and my creative life is marked with milestones of guilt and disappointment at skills unpracticed, works unfinished, muses unheeded. I’ve tried all kinds of regimens and tricks to try and make myself do what I long to do, but always my idle, distracted self asserts itself and scatters the fragments of Dream to the winds as I fill my head instead with trivia, amusement and hipster pap.

I imagine I’m not alone. But if you’re entering these chambers today in expectation of some wonder method to revitalize your art and practice, I’m afraid I’m in the trenches right along with you, struggling to triage my own stagnant creativity. I can’t promise easy answers, but let’s journey together, and see if we can’t uncover a few insights, shall we? Continue reading Soft Focus

Free Play 1 – The Sources

As promised a couple of weeks ago, I’m taking a look at Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art to see how it integrates with my current understanding of creativity, spontaneity and collaboration. It was one of my first encounters with the subject a decade ago, and I want to see how I relate to it now and deepen my understanding and practice.

Section 1: “The Sources” talks about creativity, what it “is” and where it “comes from.” He describes the goal of the improviser as “moment-to-moment nonstop flow.” The process looks something like: allow yourself to be in the moment, relax and let one moment flow into the next, sculpting your art in real time, daring to express your inmost nature. In that way you can free yourself to create for the sheer joy of the act itself, and ultimately “disappear” in the absolute immersion of the work.

Sure, sounds simple enough, but how, right? Well, there are lots of techniques and practices that aim toward this. But there’s no easy “spontaneous creativity” switch inside a person that they can throw and let it out. It’s a process, a wax-on, wax-off journey that develops the skill by practicing it until it becomes as natural as breathing. Continue reading Free Play 1 – The Sources

Free Play: a Flute and a Prologue

10 years or so ago I picked up a little book called Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch.  It lit up my whole switchboard and gave me a philosophy and direction for creative living. Its subtitle even found its way unconsciously into Story by the Throat’s tagline. This book was one of the first sources to talk about something I had a thirst for. I read it over and over, soaking up Stephen’s exciting ideas.

But now a decade later I find I’m barely closer to realizing these principles in my own life. So I’m going to take a closer look, step by step, and see how Free Play‘s concepts connect with the other things I’ve learned and experienced with creativity, spontaneity and collaboration.

I’ll begin delving into it in the next few days. Meanwhile, I present the Japanese folk tale from the book’s prologue. It speaks volumes all by itself: Continue reading Free Play: a Flute and a Prologue