Accelerated Fluency 3: the Fluent Edge

Welcome to Accelerated Story part 3, where we’ll continue to look at Willem Larsen’s “Rules of Accelerated Learning” from his Language Hunters blog, and explore how to apply those rules to story gaming/roleplaying.

As always, Willem’s disclaimer: Each rule is very contextual; these are not silver bullets or cure-alls.

The third rule is The Fluent Edge:

It’s easy to be bored by the amount of repetition needed to become fluent, and overwhelmed by the complexity of what you want to learn.

Therefore, perform your skill at your current level of fluency, and then increase the challenge by a tiny bit more – taking you to your FLUENT EDGE.

This is perhaps the most fundamental principle of accelerated learning, or even of gameplay itself. The energizing factor, the sheer excitement of play, is the walking of this edge, getting into the “zone” where players are just challenged enough to engage fully in the game without becoming bored or overwhelmed.

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Middle School Energy

I’ve been working as an intern for the Language Hunters nonprofit organization, partnering with Corbett Middle School to teach the Language Hunting approach to language acquisition and accelerated learning. Which is a fancy way of saying I’ve been playing games in Irish with preteens for the last month. Four weeks into our nine-week program, we’ve learned a lot about middle schoolers, our approach, and about gameplay and learning in general. We’ve hit an exciting turning point where the students are starting to have “aha!” moments about how the game works, and really delve wholeheartedly into joyous play.

It wasn’t easy to get there, though, for us or them. In two class periods with about 50 students each, we found that managing the delicate flow of a Language Hunt game faced several severe obstacles. The number of players, the chaos of adolescent social dynamics, and of course the compulsory educational environment, even in so progressive a school as Corbett Middle School.

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Accelerated Story 2: Fluency

Welcome to Accelerated Story part 2, where we’ll continue to look at Willem Larsen’s “Rules of Accelerated Learning from his Language Hunters blog, and explore how to apply those rules to story gaming/roleplaying.

As always, Willem’s disclaimer: Each rule is very contextual; these are not silver bullets or cure-alls.

The second rule is Fluency over Knowledge:

Even after much training, it can be disappointing how little you are able to do (or remember)…

Therefore, prioritize doing over knowledge-about.

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Accelerated Story, Part 1: Alive

My friend Willem Larsen, developer of the Language Hunters accelerated learning system, recently published a series of blog posts on the “Rules of Accelerated Learning.” These are a set of interlocking patterns for fluent skill-building presented in bite-sized pieces. I really dig what he has to say here, and the way he says it.

Ordinarily Willem applies these insights toward the language game, but here they’re presented in a general fashion, to apply to ANY skill you want to build proficiency in. Since I’ve been exploring how the principles of fluency intersect with story games for a couple of years now (no surprise since Language Hunters is itself a game!), I want to dig into these rules and look at the concrete ways they can be leveraged toward collaborative storytelling and roleplaying. As we explore them one by one, I hope to see understanding expand ever outward as the rules break off, recombine and create new connections, building insight on insight.

Before we begin, it’s worth noting Willem’s disclaimer: Each rule is very contextual; these are not silver bullets or cure-alls.

The first rule is: “Focus on What is Alive.” As Willem says,

It’s difficult to learn skills or new competencies from reading books, verbal explanations, or standardized curricula.

Therefore, always look for situations where you can observe or learn from skilled practitioners, and gauge your success by the degree of engagement of the participants.

This matches up with my experience with roleplaying games. I originally received roleplaying rules via oral tradition, but as soon as I was able to get my hands on RPG books I started acquiring my skills and rules knowledge that way. Reading books was a great way to acquire comprehensive knowledge, but it translated awkwardly into play with actual humans.

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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

Two fights and an observation

Recently I was running a game of the RPG Over the Edge, and an interesting thing happened. Well, two things. I was struck by the contrast.

A couple of Player Characters were working for the Neutralizers, an organization that locates and, well, neutralizes Supernatural threats (it’s a game of modern-day surreal conspiracies).They were tracking down a double agent who’d been exposed and fled.

So James (played by Ben), with a couple of backup agents lay in wait for the traitor Isis in her apartment hideout, while Phillip (played by Sheldon), watched the outside from across the street with another flunky. As cover, his player had Phillip stock up on pamphlets for a wacky religion that reveres a rock singer, and stood on the corner air-guitaring and proselytizing.

So, Fight Number One: A couple of Satanist gang-bangers whose turf it is approach Phil and hassle him. Phil, unruffled, waves flyers in their face and asks if they’ve “heard the good tunes.” The Satanists’ rebuttal is something along the lines of “hail Satan!” and is delivered with brass knuckles. The fight is on!

And on it went, round after round. Sheldon’s designed Phillip with special traits for defensive reflexes and the ability to take a punch. Which means the big bad Satanists can hardly lay a finger on ‘im, but neither can he lay a solid hit on them. His Neutralizer henchman, played by me, backs him up, the weaker gangbanger flees, and the henchman after many rounds of deadlocked sparring, finally gets in a good shot with his knife that drops the Satanist.

The incident started out enjoyable enough. But it drug on and on and on as I rolled die after die, everyone hoping each roll would give a conclusive and satisfying result so we could all go home and get some sleep.

Now, Fight Number Two: next week, we reconvene and begin the action with James and his agents, waiting indoors. Sure enough, Isis shows up, but pegs Phil and his pal as Neutralizers and sneaks past them. Knowing she’s been expected, she feints–pulling open the apartment door but then doubling around and crashing through the window! Fight on!

Everyone leaps into action! James shoots a deadly wrist crossbow at her, but! she twists catlike out of the way and fells him with a heat-beam. Phil and his pal hear the clash from outside and come running. One agent goes to toe with her while the other rushes to get James on his feet with an adrenalin shot. James and his agents frantically grab or shoot at Isis, but! she ducks and weaves as she makes a desperate lunge for her secret escape hatch. She’s almost out and in the clear-the hatch is wired with explosives for any who follow–but! she turns to try to cow her attackers with her freaky power: an inhumanly compelling voice. But! the Neutralizers are ready for that: James has arranged to pump white noise through their earpieces to cancel it out. Isis is shocked at the power’s failure, and James drops her with a poison crossbow bolt. Isis is near-dead and captured just as Phil and his cohort burst frantically in the door.

So what was the difference between these two scenes? They both used the same rules, the same group of players, and similar sorts of action. The difference was relentless forward motion.

In the first case, the action was static. No characters had any particular purpose beyond “stand here and trade blows until the other guy falls down.” There was nothing particularly at stake for the participants (though I could have created a personal stake by say, having the fight jeopardize the mission. But stupid me, I didn’t.) It was just, y’know, a fight, and we all just waited for it to end so we continue with the action that really mattered.

In the second battle, everything was moving all the time! With every action in that cramped apartment, the situation changed dramatically. The characters had purpose: Escape vs. Capture, Kill vs. Survival, and on each turn someone was acting toward that purpose in response to the ever-changing needs of the moment. It was exciting!

Now, there were some specific contributing factors, such as Phillip’s defensive abilities which were great for avoiding injury but lousy for resolving the situation. Or the devastating nature of close-quarters weapons fire under the rules, which made the second fight much more decisive. But the bottom line was that forward motion. Failure at any given point didn’t mean “ho-hum, try again,” it meant “Oh shit! Now she’s getting away/turning her nasty powers on us/shooting me in the chest!”

Forward motion, it strikes me, is the first and foundational ingredient of Story By the Throat. All else follows and is made possible by this.

Peace,

-Joel