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

Vulnerable places

I talk a lot about raw, emotionally vulnerable play on this blog, and whenever I have a roleplaying experience that scratches that itch, I gush about it here. But I haven’t very thoroughly explored the issue of how to achieve a safe space for that kind of vulnerability. I’d like to examine a recent case to see what comes to light.

I’m preparing to play in an Apocalypse World campaign. I, along with Hans, my friend and MC, have been looking forward to it  with relish. We both feel that we’ve had fun with past AW games, but never really gotten at the emotional core of apocalypse world play. for my part, following my initial, very moving experience over a year ago, I’ve had a string of one-shots that were mostly just fun, casual and diverting, without a lot of emotional investment in the characters. not to knock fun, casual and diverting, but for this game, Hans and I wanted something deeper. When I hit up my friends to play, I emphasized this in an email:

“[We’re] looking for a game that really emphasizes the humanity and desperation of the post-apocalypse, with folks who are prepared to go to some emotionally vulnerable places and aren’t afraid to have their buttons pushed. “I will Not Abandon You” play, as it were. If you’re down for that, you’re welcome to play with us!

Continue reading Vulnerable places

Teen hate, adult regrets

My friend Willem wrote an article about the profound disrespect for adolescence imbedded in our culture. He takes a piece of NPR journalism to task for perpetuating this myth while reporting on a neuroscientist’s research into adolescent brain development in a desperate attempt to “cope with” and “survive” her own teenage sons.

Willem expertly laid bare the cultural doctrine of disdain for youth, and scapegoating (teens fight wars, but old men RUN them!) hidden in this “research” and “reporting.” Rather than teen brains being “incomplete,” flawed, lacking, he says, they’re perfectly wired to take risks, which is actually vital to human culture and human survival. Children excel at Play, Teens excel at Risk, Adults excel at Providing, Elders excel at Story. It’s a vital, beautiful cycle, repeating perpetually. Willem concludes with the following assertion:

Consider that if you haven’t done these things to your fullest ability, in your own time, then you haven’t lived.

When I read those words, I wept. Seriously, literally wept. Continue reading Teen hate, adult regrets

Reinventing “Us”

I’ve staked out some pretty lofty territory for the role of creating stories together in real time—”roleplaying,” in a word—that territory being no less than the reclamation our shared humanity through mythmaking.

But what good does that actually do for us, really?

Well, the short answer is that through mythmaking we tell ourselves who we are. We burn patterns into ourselves that make it easier to enact specific values. Just because the Labors of Hercules and the Death of Cuchulainn have been replaced by the Tale of the Spider-Man and the Goblin of Green, and the Death of Gwendolyn the Fair doesn’t mean we’ve escaped from that patterning at the soul level. Oral-tradition cultures believe that without stories, you can’t know who you are. And indeed we’re shaped by the stories we’ve received, whether it’s Sam and Frodo, Elizabeth and Darcy, Han and Luke, Scarlett and Snake-eyes, or Jack and Sawyer. Our experiences our contextualized by reflexive associations like “oh, like on Simpsons,” whether we like it or not.

Of course, we like to think that in the brave, bold 21st Century, we’re freed from the bonds of tradition and able to reinvent ourselves as we each see fit. After all, we’re all individuals. But really, isn’t that all the more reason to consciously work to define healthy patterns for ourselves? We’re blessed now with more ability than at any time in history to consciously redefine who we are, so why not take advantage of that?

There are several means available for rewriting our internal pathways. Religion is one; therapy is another. But roleplaying—the act of telling stories to and with each other—is an immensely powerful tool. It works on us in much subtler ways than an explicitly educational activity, because it tells a story rather than preaching a message, and yet acts much more dynamically and relevantly than passively receiving a story. And storytelling helps us swallow the pill of self-revelation and transformation smoother than a purely therapeutic process. Stories are perfect vehicles for receiving messages and processing our existence, as they allow us to live and breathe a thing, to take it into ourselves instead of merely talking about it. And this is no mere dodge from living an experience “for real,” but rather works hand in hand with our actual life experience to help us process and contextualize it.

How this works in passive media is, you receive the story, and it stirs something inside you. You identify with it, or you’re challenged by it; either way you contextualize your own experiences by the story’s metric. When you encounter an experience that evokes that story for you, you’re likely to act in resonance with or defiance of that story’s pattern. That’s powerful enough in itself.

How it works in roleplaying is even more potent. We choose. We choose. Together. That’s so dead simple and obvious, yet mind-blowingly revolutionary.

Playing out an experience at the roleplaying table is a unique activity—not amateur therapy and not wannabe novelization–that has its own peculiar quality. As I said, we make the choices in the story, and if we choose with integrity to our own hearts and to the vision we see, then we will make something TRUE. Something authentic, not “factual”, not “what it would be like if…” but something valid about us within a shared fiction that reveals our souls and bolsters our hearts.

This is who we are, as humans. This is the birthright we cast aside when we commodify entertainment. This is the mythic force we can reclaim.

Peace,

—Joel

So what the Hell does THAT mean?

Story by the Throat is a phrase I’ve coined to describe an approach to storytelling in all areas of life, but particularly roleplaying games. It’s something I’m seeking, not something I’m a master of, so I picture this blog being more of a fluid conversation, rather than a teaching or lecture dynamic, as I explore this concept with anyone who’s interested. That’s the hope, anyway.

Story By the Throat is a connotative term, not a definitive one. Meaning I’m trying to convey a certain emotional experience by painting with words, rather than codifying into conceptual law the exact parameters of a phenomenon that has no clear borders. Rather than wrestle that greased linguistic pig, I’m going to go with my gut and try to connect with you all on a more felt, instinctive level. With luck I’ll occasionally succeed.

Story by the Throat in the context of roleplaying is passionate engagement around the whole gaming table in making a story together. It’s roleplaying with heart and fearlessness that really shows what our protagonists are made of, in the tradition of the gutsiest fiction. It’s switched-on, fired-up, total excited attention to what’s happening right this moment. It’s Story Now, not Story Someday When We All Look Back Fondly, or Story Already Fleshed Out Fully in Our Mental Character Concept, or Story Already Worked Out in the GM’s Notes and We Just Run Through The Motions.

Story by the Throat in the context of individual storytelling is a reclamation of the Oral Storytelling art practiced in every culture in the world. It’s learning to use and appreciate a form of entertainment that’s interactive and personal, that’s living and breathing in way that a movie or television show can never be. It’s the age-old scene of the folk of a community gathering at the tavern or campfire to sing songs, tell tales, drink, laugh, and bond. It’s togetherness and participation fueled by creativity.

Story by the Throat in the context of art is boldly vulnerable self-expression, through whatever means speaks to you. It’s a poem, a play, a story, a painting, a woodcraft, a needlepoint, whatever. . .which truly contains a piece of your passion and your heart. It is not safe, paint-by-numbers “oh, isn’t that nice.” It is committing your whole self to expression and beauty.

Story by the Throat in the context of everyday life is realizing the wonder of the world around you. It’s both recognizing when the everyday events surrounding you are charged with the drama and portent, and living a life such that you’d feel proud of its qualities as a tale of wonder and beauty.

Story by the Throat is, in short, emotionally investing in life, being unafraid to laugh, cry, drink deep, and connect with other human beings in a dangerously authentic way.

All of these are open to discussion. I look forward to it.

Peace,

Joel