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 Just because the Labors of Hercules and the Death of Cuchulainn have been replaced by the Tale of the Spider-Man and the Goblin of Green, and the Death of Gwendolyn the Fair doesn’t mean we’ve escaped from that patterning at the soul level.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

The Game in a Jam

My friend Willem has this blog, the College of Mythic Cartography. He talks a lot there about “Storyjamming,” which is his term for what’s usually called roleplaying games. I’ve played a few games with him, and what we do and why we do is pretty much the same.

Except that it’s not.

I’m not calling him out or anything; Willem himself will tell you that he sees the two activities as different. And I admit there’s something primally appealing about his ideal of pure Story flowing from the mouths of a collaborative group, reclaiming a lost human drive and tradition, bringing storytelling back to modern ears and modern lips. It’s a noble goal; it’s a goal I share. And in the service of that goal, Willem considers all the fiddling around with dice and cards and points and stats to be mostly unwanted distractions, to be trimmed down to just enough “to drive a story.”

I on the other hand like rules. I like the “game” in my “roleplaying game.” I like stats and dice and tokens and whatzits. I like robust interlocking systems that yield fruitful results from deft interaction. But I want what Willem wants. I want a revival of oral tradition and storytelling for the masses. I want spontaneous meaningful creativity amongst my friends.

So, can I have both? Or am I shooting myself in the foot for the sake of an ingrained preference of my personal history? Am I sacrificing my deepest longings for a framework that is a stumbling-block to story and a barrier of entry to non-“gamers”?

Should I game or should I jam?

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