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, 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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The Dreaming Crucible: Beginning Play

It’s been awhile since I wrote a Dreaming Crucible rules post. The text of the game is published under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license, so I’m sharing pieces of it through blog posts. I hope to get a Dreaming Crucible wiki up and running in early 2012, so that play of the game will be freely accessible to anyone outside the realm of commerce, leaving the physical book to thrive on its own merits as a beautiful artifact. Previous Crucible game text posts:

And now, at last, we come to Beginning Play!

When you’ve got your roles sorted out and are ready to play, make a comfortable, relaxed space around a table. It doesn’t have to be a big dining room table; a modest coffee table in a cosy living room will do just fine if that’s the sort of setting where you can relax and focus. Make sure everyone can see and reach the table easily. Place the bag at the center of the table. it will be a focal point in play. place the bowl of stones off to the side, at a corner of the table or perhaps even off the table—accessible, but unobtrusive. Give every player the Story Cards related to their role. Do whatever you like to provide atmosphere—dimmed lights, mood music, lit candles, food and drink, conversation, focusing exercises. When everyone’s comfortable and engaged, begin by choosing Seeds.

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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!

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Crucible aid

For players of The Dreaming Crucible storytelling game, I’m proud to present: printable play aids!

The most essential aid is the game cards that come bound into the book. If you’re interested in playing the game more than once, you now have a reproducible resource for doing just that! (Note that the cards are double-sided, and oriented sideways, so make the necessary printer adjustments.)

Dreaming Crucible Cards PDF download

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Where Are Your Keys? In my brain, that’s where.

Last weekend I attended a two-day workshop intensive for the language fluency game Where Are Your Keys? with Evan Gardner and Willem Larsen. I’d dabbled with playing short games of it before, and certainly had many conversations about Fluency concepts with Willem, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to truly immerse in WAYK and see what it would do to me.

The short answer is that it lit my brain on fire! Even a week later I feel like I’ve got a whole set of neurons switched on that I wasn’t using. The learning methodology and sheer mindset of Where Are Your Keys? has been running like a script in my head, even in my dreams.

So what’s the big deal? Is this just another “learn German in your sleep or your money back!” type of gimmick? I say no. WAYK cuts right to the heart of how we learn in the first place. Continue reading Where Are Your Keys? In my brain, that’s where.

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