Story is what we make.

Last month I tabled at the Portland Zine Symposium for the second time. My first year was fun and inspiring, but my success as a publisher and creator was limited: a few people bought books, a few more shared some brief, enthusiastic conversations, and mostly people gave a glance and passed by. That’s par for the course at an event like this—the interests represented are vast and diverse, nobody has time or attention for everything, etc. But I knew there was a lot I could do to improve my approach and have a stronger presence for next year.

And I did! This year I snagged a table for both days, which helped for a start. And I knew from last year that my game The Dreaming Crucible, while it’s at the low end of the size and pricing pool for most roleplaying products, at the Zine Symposium it’s a pretty high price point, even at a discount. Which led a lot of people last year to get excited, see the price, and sadly walk away. So I decided that I would keep offering the Crucible, but add something scaled better to the Zine environment.

And thus Wilding Tales was born! Wilding Tales is a mini story game that takes the form of 5 Pocketmod booklets, each containing a different character to play in a small, intimate story of post-collapse community. It’s an experiment in distilling storygaming to its barest essence, as well as providing as simple and accessible an introduction to the activity. And I think I succeeded! I’m still working out the kinks, but expect a version of Wilding Tales to be available online soon.

I tabled with The Dreaming Crucible and Wilding Tales for both days of the Symposium, and here’s what I discovered: first, several people I vaguely recognized made a beeline for the Crucible and said something like “Hi, I saw this at the last Symposium and held off buying it ’cause of the price, but I thought about it ALL YEAR, and I’m buying it now!” It appears there was a slow burn effect going on; the price point caused people to hesitate, but come back to buy it after thinking it over. I’m comfortable with this. I completely understand the desire to be cautious with one’s spending at a show like this, and it’s also very gratifying to know that folks who were interested, then said “I dunno, let me think about it” weren’t just blowing smoke.

My second discovery is that Wilding Tales was a perfect fit for the Zine Symposium! Lots of tablers at the Symp focus on small $1-5 products that are easy to impulse-buy without a lot of financial commitment, and the tales filled that niche nicely. I arrive with unassembled booklets, and I found they flew off the table as fast as I could cut, fold and glue them!

I did have a lot of learning to do in terms of how to package Wilding Tales. One book does nothing; you need two to play and three or more is ideal. So I ended up pricing them 3 for $2 to incentivize purchasing multiples, and by the end of the show I’d figured out that really, the set of five was the “unit,” and that’s what I pushed, 5/$4. I have dreams of a “collect the whole set” element, with different players having different books and clustering off to play new and surprising games with characters they’ve never seen before, in infinite combinations. But that’ll have to wait until there are many more characters designed, and I still will never sell them singly. The point is to be able to play right away!

All in all, the show was a lot of fun and more energizing for me than last year’s. I did a lot of trades, which always feels great: it puts the interaction on a footing of sharing passion and takes it out of the realm of commerce. I picked up a lot of neat stuff: highlights include vintage anarchist lit publisher Corvus Editions, with whom I traded Wilding Tales for Portland Oregon A.D. 1999, a century-old futurist writing;  delightful superhero relationship comic The Flying Mess by Whitney Gardner; cryptych, a tiny, beautiful book of e.e. cummings tribute poetry by Loren mccRory (a trade for Dreaming Crucible); and the re-release of Love Is Not Constantly Wondering if You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life. I admired the breathtaking Collective Tarot and got to flip over a card, finding one pregnant with meaning for me. Plus a huge pile of journal zines, silly comics and photos, screen printed decorative patches, buttons and stickers.

A woman from the Timberland Regional Library in Olympia bought a copy of all my stuff for the library; she said that a co-worker had asked her to look specifically for gaming zines, and I’m glad I could fit that bill. I had nice camaraderie with my tablemates, lots of friendly support from Symposium volunteers like Christina “Blue” Crow, and even met a few friends of Olympia friends while wearing my Fabricated Realities shirt. An afterparty with Karaoke and Beer at the Independent Publishing Resource Center topped of a wonderful weekend.

I can’t get over the wonderful thrill of PZS. Even a month later I’m feeling the creative and social high. It’s not just that it’s a great venue for small-scale self-publishers to hawk their wares—though it is that. It’s also a place where everyone’s voice is heard, where people are doing more than buying and swapping products, they’re swapping passions, swapping dreams, swapping stories. Because our stories are what we make. I can’t wait for next year, and I’m excited to continue exploring the intersection between crafting our own publications and making stories together.

Peace,

—Joli

A Beautiful Reality

Fabricated Realities is a story game convention in Olympia where games are played inside art installations. Last month I attended for the second year running. It was, once again, one of the richest, most socially bonding and energizing experiences of my life.

It’s hard to describe why. I mean, the art was delightful. And the games played were rewarding and emotionally resonant. And the folks at the convention are some of the sweetest, most thoughtful and wildly creative folks I’ve ever known. But it’s more than the sum of its parts. All those factors combine in an indescribable alchemy to produce something truly wonderful.

How does this alchemy occur? What’s the process? Well, let’s start with the most obvious ingredient: roleplaying inside FREAKING ART INSTALLATIONS. Seriously, from the moment I first heard of the concept, I knew this alone would be worth the price of admission. Even if nothing Olympiaelse was altered from my usual play culture and tecnhiques, it would be wonderful to play games inside art. Self-evidently.

The installations at the event were varied, imaginative, whimsical, evocative… far more affecting than adjectives can convey. They created a palette of imagination, an assortment of ambience flavors to match up with any roleplaying endeavor you cared to throw at them. And they suffused the very air with creativity, rendering the whole convention venue into a sacred space that subtly whispered, we can and will make art here. Yes, that includes you.

But the spell doesn’t begin and end with the art. Fabreal is so much more than playacting on plywood or rolling dice amidst jellyfish. The play culture that emerged from attendees was that of fun-loving, artistically savvy, thematically sensitive,  incredibly thought-provoking and experimental play. The crowd of fellow players was simultaneously stoked and mellow, crazy-silly yet mindful and respectful. I couldn’t ask for a more wonderful band of story-makers to remix culture with. The play space and the play culture catalyzed in the games themselves to create amazing play experiences. Switched-on, engaged, hilarious, tragic, daring, supportive, silly, deep roleplaying, nestled into delightful surroundings and brought by a plethora of friendly and passionate people.

I arrived late for the first Friday game slot, and was content to wander around, gaping at the art, but someone wandered by and slapped a set of Keep It Sunny (the quick-playing, unofficial Always Sunny in Philadelphia game my friend Joe wrote) cards on the table, said his group was done with them, and suggested we play. I pulled a group of people together and we started making a story, just like that. I then GMed Trollbabe, the macho women with hair and horns pulp fantasy game that I’ve been excited about since forever but nervous about running. Likewise Love in the Time of Seið, the Archipelago-derived Norse blood opera game that produces the most texturally rich roleplaying out there. Fabreal made me believe I could facilitate these amazing games, and I did!

Saturday I played my friend Morgan’s Game Chef entry Coyote Won’t Talk, which was made for Fabreal if any game ever was. Sitting on a floor with a flashlight and paper masks to become canids at the end of the world exploring what was great and what was rotten about humans, we wove a spell that wouldn’t quite seem at home at any other convention. In the afternoon I played  Monsterhearts,  the game of teen monsters playing with each other’s hearts and bodies, with my friend Joe who wrote it, with the full spectrum of confused teenage sexuality on display. I closed out the day with Montsegur 1244, the Cathar heretics burning for their faith at the hands of the Crusaders game; I played the wife of the character I’d played in my previous Montsegur game, and gained a new perspective on that harrowing experience. And we played the game in a room filled with homemade religious icons. That sort of resonance and intensity is the essence of the Fabreal experience for me.

On Sunday I facilitated and played In the Belly of the Whale, a Norwegian Style game of interweaving narratives which requires particular techniques of narration and reincorporation. It was intimidating to attempt, but a supportive group helped make it magical… and playing in an undersea dreamscape didn’t hurt. I played The Dreaming Crucible, my own game of adolescent trauma and faerie journeys, in a hushed and intimate installation of quilted domesticity with two wonderful friends, and we spun a touching and lovely tale.

For the final slot I helped demolish the notions of due process, logical causality and personal space bubbles in Sea Dracula, the absurdist Dancing Animal Lawyer end-of-con spectacular! Following that the space was opened to the public and became a gallery showing, with surreal performance artists inhabiting the spaces. This was a little jarring and hard to interface with after a weekend of collaboration, but I used the opportunity to write poetry. I later found myself crowded into a nook of a local bar with dear friends, sipping bourbon and playing a wild and wonderful round of my friend Jackson’s Superhero, the gonzo-make-stuff-up late-night-silliness action hero game. The game is collaboration and social reinforcement at its most elemental, and the perfect end to the Reality I’d been inhabiting.

It’s unbelievable to me that I fit all those stories into one weekend. I couldn’t possibly describe them all in this space, but you can find some synopses here. Any of these were games it would be technically possible to play at any meetup or convention, yet the feel of play and the social vibe was uniquely Fabreal. Nowhere else do I find play that’s as boldly unconventional or as grounded in deep trust.

All this talk about dynamite play is not to say that we players were special, gifted, high-caliber. Yes, we brought together a lot of skill, craft and personality to our games. but the culture is also very welcoming and supportive of new or unconfident players. Facilitators operate from the assumption that newbies are simply story gaming stars waiting to be born, and they go a long way toward creating a safe space, an inclusive, supportive and helpful environment for people to spread their narrative wings. People from all backgrounds, roleplaying and not, artistic and otherwise, came together and all made amazing things together. Which I don’t mind telling you, gets me a little misty-eyed; it’s exactly what roleplaying is about for me.

The reality is gone now, dismantled and dissolved for another year. But I’m still breathing its air, still resonating with the hearts that built it with me. It’s a beautiful reality, all the moreso for its vanishing. I already long for next year.

Peace,

—Joli 

Sorcerer: inaction and consequence

After 7 years of anticipation, pondering, forum reading and false starts, I played an extremely satisfying game of Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer with some friends. Jesse Burneko of the Play Passionately blog and Actual People, Actual Play podcast was the gamemaster.

Jesse brought a craft and focus to the game that finally made Sorcerer “click” with me. I’d already learned a lot from my own failures with the game, but the “negative learning” of working out what not to do just didn’t compare with the positive learning of seeing what a well-run, super-charged and engaged game of Sorcerer looks like. It was the final piece in the puzzle of consistently fun and rewarding play of the game, for me.

Our game was called “Down by the Sea,” set in a West Coast town modeled on Venice Beach in California. Home to bohemian artsy types, small-business entrepreneurs and homeless beach campers, this cozy community was the backdrop for three characters: Sebastian, hedonistic nightclub owner  who led a cult of Dynonisian hedonism and whose club was a powerful demon that hungered for decadent acts to be performed within its walls. Kelly, an art director whose Demon, Kennedy, was a smoking hot babe determined to see him go far in the art world, at any cost. Gunther, a homeless anarchist shit-kicker whose leather jacket was a Demon named Vildgrim that craved mayhem and battle.

Continue reading Sorcerer: inaction and consequence

Indie Hurricane: a whirlwind of community

In March, I organized the Indie Hurricane department of the Portland area’s Gamestorm convention for the second year running. Last year’s hurricane was a polite little gale, fun but modest in size, and downright polite. This year it was a raging storm and a smashing success.

Our games took over the entire upper lobby surrounding our designated play room, with games swarming over couches and coffee tables. The enthusiasm and creativity was palpable as indie gamers from Portland, Seattle, Olympia, British Columbia and more rocked games that were by turns tender, silly, action-packed, and romantic. I was so proud to see our crew forming such an amazing and dynamic presence at the con. The Open Story Gaming Circles that we formed twice daily, where a bunch of facilitators each pitch a game and interested players break off into whatever game appeals most, served a valuable role in balancing spontaneity with structure, and seemed to do a marvelous job of pulling in new players. Many, many game tables seated a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar faces, all having a good time. The games I played in were phenomenally fun and rewarding.

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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.

Continue reading Accelerated Story 2: Fluency

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.

Continue reading Accelerated Story, Part 1: Alive

First

Atlas Games posted a list of 31 “Reverb Gamers 2012” prompts for blogging. The idea is that for the month of January, roleplaying bloggers will take a prompt each day and write a short post. Me being me, the impetus to blog daily has proved elusive. But the first prompt really stirred some thoughts, so I’d like to tackle it, however  belatedly:

What was your first roleplaying experience? How did that introduction shape the gamer you’ve become?

When I was about 11 years old, I attended a small Christian school. I mean, like, small small: 9-12 students, across all grades. Though my dad was a pastor, it operated out of a different church in the area. It was little more than a home school co-op, run entirely by parents on a volunteer basis. It was a very close-knit community, but it also provided scant opportunities for varied social activity.

Continue reading First

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.

Continue reading The Dreaming Crucible: Beginning Play

The Dreaming Crucible holiday sale!

Hello, Dreamers! I’d like to announce the Dreaming Crucible’s Holiday Sale! From now until the end of December, the lovingly handcrafted Dreaming Crucible Storytelling Game is $10 plus $2 shipping to anywhere in North America. That’s two dollars savings, or three if you live in Canada or Mexico!

Also, I’ll sign your book with the personal message of your choice!

I know this sale comes at the last minute. So in addition, if you send me a Paypal message with your purchase containing the word “GIFT” then I will Priority Mail the book at no extra charge, IF I mail it between Fri. December 19 and Weds. December 21. You’re on the honor system to only message me “GIFT” if you really need it by Christmas day.

Alternately, if you live in the Portland area and would like to pay no shipping and have it hand delivered, use the second Paypal button and we’ll work something out. Portland area means REALLY Portland area, though; Tigard or Oregon City might be a stretch for instance, and Salem and Canby are right out.

Also keep in mind that if you live around Portland or plan to visit I’d be delighted to arrange a time and get together and play. It’s in playing the Crucible with you that I fulfill its nature and purpose.

Edit: the sale is over. Thanks to everyone who participated!

 

—Joel

Finding Burdick

So we’re playing our final session of Apocalypse World. At least we think it’ll be the last. We’ve all agreed that we’ll either end the game tonight or next session, depending on how things go. And I’m feeling the pressure.

See, I’ve become intensely invested in Burdick’s future. Burdick is my character, a Savvyhead with a greenhouse trying to get the earth to yield a bounty like she used to, rather than the weak, halfhearted crops she produces now. Burdick’s had her hurdles, including clashes with her Hocus brother, Always, who leads his people in a fire and brimstone, will of the gods manner, with ecstatic visions and draconian pronouncements.

Now Always is gone, disillusioned with his leadership and living alone in the woods somewhere. Burdick’s got the Battlebabe Kickskirt at her side, and a gaggle of scared people looking to her for fresh leadership. And the warlord Barbecue has moved in, threatening our territory and our way of life.

Continue reading Finding Burdick