A Shocking Tale

I recently played a game of Shock: Social Science Fiction by Joshua A.C. Newman, with my wife and a couple of friends. It lasted something like 4-6 sessions, was fun and rewarding for us, and produced a satisfying story. Not only was it a work of art to be proud of, but it retained tension and life for us as players the whole time we were playing. Looking back, I can see several solid reasons why.

In Shock: you pick a future shock, some fantastic sci-fi development that irrevocably changes the world, then brainstorm relevant social issues that the Shock would exacerbate. You then each play a Protagonist in this alternate world who wrestles with one of the Issues. In our game the Issues were War, Class, Man vs. Wild (actually more like Civilization vs. Primitivism), and Living in Denial. The Shock was dependence on fossil fuels being replaced by dependence on alien technology in the control of a scientist elite.  Utopian city-domes rise up across North America, while outsiders in the wasteland are left to their own devices, and exterminated when they cause trouble. After we concluded our final session, I reflected on play and noticed that several key aspects of the rules and procedures kept play fresh, engaging and satisfying. I’m going to break down the lessons I learned as I describe the path of our story.

Continue reading A Shocking Tale

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

Story to the People!

Mark UnseenLast week, I talked about a terminology shift some people are making in how they talk about roleplaying games. I jumped merrily on that bandwagon, and if you’re wondering why I bothered, this is it: I can now start to talk about the purpose I’m pursuing in RPGs, without getting bogged down in the clunkier and baggage-laden “isms” these things used to be described with. I can now talk about Story Now.

Waaay back in “So what the Hell does THAT mean,” I wrote:

“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.”

This is the secret ingredient to shared story creation in roleplaying. There’s lots of roleplaying out there where story creation isn’t truly shared, or where it isn’t prioritized at all. In those cases, the managing of everyone’s creativity is arranged such that “story” is mainly one person’s deal that everyone else recieves and responds to, or else it’s at most a pleasant byproduct. In Story Now play, on the other hand, everyone’s creativity is on the line equally, as shared creators. It demands a lot of trust, and can be a bit frightening. But those who play Story Now attest that the emotional vulnerability is worth it.

Story Now is about focusing on Protagonists, not just “some characters who do some stuff.” It’s about playing characters with purpose, and making those characters the focus of the game. And above all it’s about allowing characters to change.

That’s why the Now, the ever-changing present moment, is the ground of Story by the Throat. Because if you’ve already got a 20-page history and a neat set of “my character would/wouldn’t do that” answers for every occasion, there’s no story to tell. It’s already told, in your head. It’s like this thing of diamond, impermeable, incapable of surprising you. The input of other players will break against your character as waves against rocks and you will not be moved. If that’s what you want. . .sure. But you might be better of just. . .writing that stuff down so a passive audience can receive it. Because in this case a passive audience is just what your fellow players are.

You’ll notice that the nicey-nice platitude that “all goals of play are equally good” or any notion like that is utterly absent here. I’ve found what I want to do, and I’m going to seize it. And I’m not going to mince words about it. So other ways are also fun for people. So this creative agenda ain’t for everyone. I’m not gonna come into your libing room and shit on what you enjoy doing, but here in my living room I’m going to be frank about what I love.

“Story Now!” is not so much a term with a definition (though it is a distinct thing) as it is a fist-pumping anthem. I’m cool with that. If you feel like pumping your fist with me, then great. If not, I’ll merrily march along. But I find enough value in the concept of voluntary and passionate trust in creative endeavors that I’m willing to get a bit aggressive in my appeal. I invite you to join me and live in the moment of Creation together, to putting our creations to the test and allowing ourselves to be changed. Our characters, yes, but us too, as we develop emotional resonance for these beloved imaginary parts of us. Story Now is a battlecry that keeps us all honest, as we hold ourselves to what we demand of each other, that we engage with each other Here, Now, and flinch not from the fire of change.

Peace,

-Joel

(for further reading, check out Jesse’s excellent dissection of the different types of story in roleplaying games, at Play Passionately.)

Roleplaying by the Throat

OK, enough preamble–now it’s time to take these concepts and wrestle ’em to the ground. I’ll focus on roleplaying to start with, since that’s the central activity for this blog.

In “So what the hell does THAT mean?” I wrote:

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.

Let’s unpack that a bit. “Passionate Engagement” is of course the key, the centerpiece to the whole philosophy. It’s a basic commitment, when we as roleplayers sit down together, to build an enjoyable and fulfilling experience that satisfies our aesthetic and emotional standards. Something we can be proud of. Not because we “made art” in any hoity-toity sense, but because we were vulnerable enough to invest something of ourselves in our shared creation, enough to generate some intensity and genuine emotion and possibly grow as humans and friends.

There’s a tradition that sometimes rears its head in roleplaying culture, of non-investment: “It’s just a casual thing, let’s just chill and munch some snacks, roll dice, slay a dragon, crack some jokes. Don’t…y’know…make a thing of it.” Even when players sink a ton of their time, effort and money into the hobby, this “don’t take it too seriously” vibe can rear its head. RPGs in this case are less creative exercise (which is a kind of exertion), and more blowing off steam (which is an escape from exertion). Which, sure, is a valid goal. But it’s not my passion. I’d prefer either a passive entertainment or a non-story activity for that purpose. For story, I need engagement.

Engagement with what? Look at the next part of my little rant that divulges the very reason I roleplay: to see what our Protagonists are made of.

I don’t mean anything as basic as “Can Hero McBadass slay the dragon? Roll Dice! Yes, he can! He’s BADASS!” After all, what does that show us about Hero Mc-B? Did we discover anything about him as a human being? Why did he slay the dragon? What hardship did he endure? Did he have to sacrifice anything to slay it? Who was hurt, and who benefited, by his actions? Did the act change him, irrevocably, for good or ill?

That’s where Story by the Throat lives: right there in those moments where the character is in the heart of the fire and we ache with the uncertainty of what he will do and what it will cost.

Thoughts?

-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