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

What’s YOUR trajectory?

Last week I wrote about a couple of game experiences that really nailed a certain emotional desire for me. I rambled on for quite a bit about it! The bottom line was, I’m pursuing a certain element of intimate tragedy, through characters who care passionately for others, but whose presence can’t help but cause them pain. But now I’d like to hear about others’ experiences.

So how about it? What sort of narrative is YOUR heart seeking in the storytelling that you do or the storytelling that you receive? And by what sort of trajectories do characters approach that narrative in their inner qualities and fictional circumstances?

If I get a couple of answers there’s follow-up questions. But start with that for now!

Peace,

—Joel

Tragic Trajectories

Vincent Baker, author of the roleplaying games Dogs in the Vineyard, In a Wicked Age and more, was the guest of honor at the Portland area’s Gamestorm convention last weekend. I had the opportunity to play a couple of his games, and they provoked a powerful emotional response. Here’s two vignettes:

1) Dogs in the Vineyard:

Sister Eleanor is one of God’s Watchdogs, virginal nineteen-year-olds sent out with a Bible and a gun to solve the problems of religious frontier towns. They arrive in town during a funeral. Brother Charles’ daughter has been murdered, and he’s frantic to have the Dogs marry her to her husband posthumously—the Town Steward refused to bless them, then disappeared–so she won’t have died a harlot. Eleanor yearns to ease the stricken man’s grief, but when she meets prospective husband Brother Ephraim, a pompous elder who doesn’t give a shit, she wavers. The father is aghast and tells them all to just go.

Sis. Eleanor follows him to the graveyard, and helps him dig the grave in silence, then finally asks him to please talk to her so she can bring the killer to justice. Charles asks, “will that make it right?” Eleanor can only answer, “I don’t know. but I can’t let it go.” Bro. Charles tries to storm off, but Eleanor bars his way and insists, and he gives in, telling her what he knows. She leaves, but with a feeling growing in her gut: “I don’t know if I can make it right.”

The rot in the town soon outs itself—Brother Ephraim had the Steward killed to control the town himself, and had the girl killed when she challenged it. There’s a showdown, bullets fly, and Bro. Ephraim is subdued, dying. Sis. Eleanor goes to Bro. Charles and offers forgiveness to his son, who was Ephraim’s pawn. She puts her hand on Charles’ shoulder and the father breaks down weeping. Eleanor stands over him and she too sobs and sobs. Continue reading Tragic Trajectories

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