Story meets Life

My friend Eric tells great stories. I don’t mean that he makes up his own stories, or he tells tales of legends of old around a campfire, or anything. He just tells great, engaging, often hilarious stories about things he’s actually done and lived through. Like the time the transmission went out on his van and he tried to get it home by sitting in it to steer while his pal RC pushed the thing uphill toward a busy intersection and braking just in time to avoid disaster and praying to God the nearby cops didn’t bust ’em.

Eric’s got stories like that. I don’t. I mean, I tell stories about how my day went, and the bullshit I had to put up with at work, or nutty person I ran into on the bus. . .but never stories like that. Stories of real danger and crazy hijinks, often involving alcohol. Stories of narrow escapes from calamitous fates and real life that isn’t spent in front of a computer screen wishing for adventure in my life and seeking it through shared imagining and rolling dice.

Now, sure, a lot of Eric’s stories are the result of questionable judgment (like ignoring his wife’s advice to call a tow truck). . .but I envy him just the same. He lives a life of experiences, real ones, while I read books an watch movies and play characters and yearn. I don’t live a life of ducking danger, flouting authority, or daring escapades. I live a life of thought, not action.

The Society for Creative Anachronisms calls these “No shit, there I was” stories. I’ve enjoyed nights around a campfire hearing story after story of these funny, endearing, and outrageous life experiences. And silently regretted that I don’t have a “No shit” story. Not even close.

When I think about bringing story and everyday life together, this is what comes to mind. But what do I really want? A life of foolhardy danger? Less common sense than the little I already have? An existence divorced from the joys and responsibilities of founding a stable family?

Maybe I do. Or maybe I just want meaning in some form, and I instinctively grok that meaning comes not from thinking, but from doing.

Peace,

-Joel

Two fights and an observation

Recently I was running a game of the RPG Over the Edge, and an interesting thing happened. Well, two things. I was struck by the contrast.

A couple of Player Characters were working for the Neutralizers, an organization that locates and, well, neutralizes Supernatural threats (it’s a game of modern-day surreal conspiracies).They were tracking down a double agent who’d been exposed and fled.

So James (played by Ben), with a couple of backup agents lay in wait for the traitor Isis in her apartment hideout, while Phillip (played by Sheldon), watched the outside from across the street with another flunky. As cover, his player had Phillip stock up on pamphlets for a wacky religion that reveres a rock singer, and stood on the corner air-guitaring and proselytizing.

So, Fight Number One: A couple of Satanist gang-bangers whose turf it is approach Phil and hassle him. Phil, unruffled, waves flyers in their face and asks if they’ve “heard the good tunes.” The Satanists’ rebuttal is something along the lines of “hail Satan!” and is delivered with brass knuckles. The fight is on!

And on it went, round after round. Sheldon’s designed Phillip with special traits for defensive reflexes and the ability to take a punch. Which means the big bad Satanists can hardly lay a finger on ‘im, but neither can he lay a solid hit on them. His Neutralizer henchman, played by me, backs him up, the weaker gangbanger flees, and the henchman after many rounds of deadlocked sparring, finally gets in a good shot with his knife that drops the Satanist.

The incident started out enjoyable enough. But it drug on and on and on as I rolled die after die, everyone hoping each roll would give a conclusive and satisfying result so we could all go home and get some sleep.

Now, Fight Number Two: next week, we reconvene and begin the action with James and his agents, waiting indoors. Sure enough, Isis shows up, but pegs Phil and his pal as Neutralizers and sneaks past them. Knowing she’s been expected, she feints–pulling open the apartment door but then doubling around and crashing through the window! Fight on!

Everyone leaps into action! James shoots a deadly wrist crossbow at her, but! she twists catlike out of the way and fells him with a heat-beam. Phil and his pal hear the clash from outside and come running. One agent goes to toe with her while the other rushes to get James on his feet with an adrenalin shot. James and his agents frantically grab or shoot at Isis, but! she ducks and weaves as she makes a desperate lunge for her secret escape hatch. She’s almost out and in the clear-the hatch is wired with explosives for any who follow–but! she turns to try to cow her attackers with her freaky power: an inhumanly compelling voice. But! the Neutralizers are ready for that: James has arranged to pump white noise through their earpieces to cancel it out. Isis is shocked at the power’s failure, and James drops her with a poison crossbow bolt. Isis is near-dead and captured just as Phil and his cohort burst frantically in the door.

So what was the difference between these two scenes? They both used the same rules, the same group of players, and similar sorts of action. The difference was relentless forward motion.

In the first case, the action was static. No characters had any particular purpose beyond “stand here and trade blows until the other guy falls down.” There was nothing particularly at stake for the participants (though I could have created a personal stake by say, having the fight jeopardize the mission. But stupid me, I didn’t.) It was just, y’know, a fight, and we all just waited for it to end so we continue with the action that really mattered.

In the second battle, everything was moving all the time! With every action in that cramped apartment, the situation changed dramatically. The characters had purpose: Escape vs. Capture, Kill vs. Survival, and on each turn someone was acting toward that purpose in response to the ever-changing needs of the moment. It was exciting!

Now, there were some specific contributing factors, such as Phillip’s defensive abilities which were great for avoiding injury but lousy for resolving the situation. Or the devastating nature of close-quarters weapons fire under the rules, which made the second fight much more decisive. But the bottom line was that forward motion. Failure at any given point didn’t mean “ho-hum, try again,” it meant “Oh shit! Now she’s getting away/turning her nasty powers on us/shooting me in the chest!”

Forward motion, it strikes me, is the first and foundational ingredient of Story By the Throat. All else follows and is made possible by this.

Peace,

-Joel

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