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.

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Sunk Cost

Kevin Weiser of the Walking Eye podcast interviewed Ron Edwards last November. They talked about a new development at The Forge, from which a non-controversy had sprung on a few forum threads. This would normally be of little note (and Ron, to be sure, seemed rather perplexed at the idea of giving time to the controversy, only speaking on it at Kevin’s request). But something emerged tangentially from the discussion that hit me like a ton of bricks.

Ron had announced that The Forge, an instrumental site in promoting self-published, creator-owned RPGs, was entering a new mode, a “winter phase,” having accomplished the main goal of its “spring” and “summer.” The way Ron stated it was: “…bluntly, I (and Clinton, and Ed Healy, and a lot of other people active at the founding) have unequivocally won the battle we wanted to win.”

With such a turn of phrase, it was easy for people to take offense—just who did he think he was winning a battle AGAINST? It’s obvious from context that the “battle” Ron and the Forge fought was not over GNS Theory or Narrativism or any such thing, but for the recognition of creator-owned RPGs as a widespread, viable artistic and financial choice. But the question remains. Who was the Forge’s enemy in this fight?

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The Relevant Dickweed

One of the issues that’s puzzled me longest in roleplaying is how to provide socially functional opposition in a game. When is fictional murder, thievery, trickery, or hostility all good fun, and when is it “griefing” or bullying in real life? In other kinds of games this line is a lot clearer; players may argue over a foul in basketball but everyone has a clear expectation that yes, it’s your job to put the ball in the hoop and it’s my job to block your shot.

But in roleplaying games we’re telling stories. Some RPGs may have very clear opposing roles, like “It’s my job to try and kill you, and it’s your job to try and survive.” But where the storytelling goals are more subtle, things can get hazy.

Ron Edwards, co-founder of the Forge and author of cool games including Sorcerer and Trollbabe, was recently interviewed by Kevin Weiser for the Walking Eye podcast. At about the 30-minute mark of Part 2 (the interview is QUITE extensive, but worth it if you’ve got the stamina), he remarked, “There’s nothing wrong with playing the guy that I like to call the ‘dickweed character’, who’s causing trouble for the other characters all the way through. The best dickweed character in all of fantasy literature is Gollum. But the point is, is that that character is providing RELEVANT adversity.” Continue reading The Relevant Dickweed

Beyond mere misery: playing Nicotine Girls

A couple of weeks ago I played a little game called Nicotine Girls, by Paul Czege. I was terrified. The game is modest enough in scope, but the subject matter is incredibly vulnerable: you play low-income young women aged 16-19, in desperate or dismal circumstances, trying to make their dreams come true.

I first found Nicotine Girls a couple of years ago, on Paul’s website. It appealed to me a great deal, but I shied away from actually playing it, especially since the one other gameplaying person I showed it to seemed to think it impossible to play seriously. So it just filed away in the back of my brain, because I was afraid.

I was afraid that I as a thirtysomething white guy would make some horrible sexist and classist blunder in play. I was afraid the game would degenerate into pure misery tourism under the guise of something deep. I was afraid it would take a more glib turn and degenerate into a disrespectful laugh-fest. In short, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the subject of the truly disempowered.

But some other recent play put it back to the front of my mind, and I began to gather the courage to try. At Go Play NW I polayed it with Michael, Ogre and Johnstone. I had a pang of guilt as we started, as I realized that I, as the Gamemaster, was not in as vulnerable a position as my cohorts. They would be putting a lot of emotional investment on the line with these impoverished and desperate characters, while I would be primarily piling on the adversity. It seemed unfair of me to ask of them what I would not do myself. but we began with a frank conversation of the emotionally vulnerable core of the game, and proceeded on a foundation of intimate trust.

The thing with Nicotine Girls, is that your actions are extremely constrained both by the situation–low-income girls trapped in their circumstances–and by the rules framework–you must act out of Hope or Fear, and you can only use Sex, Cry or Money to get what you want. And there’s a hope roll at the end of the game to attain your Dream that’s heavily stacked against the players. It seemed like a dismal setup that could only end in tragedy–Misery Tourism indeed.

But an amazing thing happened: there was a wonderful array of texture and nuance to the fiction we created. There were moments of misery, but also humor, of tragedy, but also hope. The characters were drawn as vividly and realistically as in a movie like Trainspotting or SLC Punk. And three girls’ fates ran across a whole spectrum, from the senselessly tragic to the deservedly dismal to the brutal but hopeful. What the nigh-impossible Dream roll did was ground the story–this ain’t no Disney movie, there isn’t a fairy godmother in sight,  but your life is what you make it.

I was moved. We all were. I was so gratified to put my trust in these guys and have it returned. Together we transcended the shallow or pretentious and moved beyond it to true beauty and unflinching truth.

Peace,

-Joel

How to (not) build community

bullhorn-evangelismEven once I recognized and processed what I what I wanted from roleplaying, it wasn’t easy to find Story Now play in practice. I had a lot of hiccups and false steps along the way, but I’m finally starting to figure it out.

When I stumbled upon the Forge, I devoured Ron Edwards’ essays and read a whole bunch of dense, extensive discussions, in an effort to figure out what the whole deal was about. In the process I found a system of thought that helped explain the dysfunctions in my roleplaying history, and I was able to put a name to the kind of play I wanted but wasn’t getting: Narratawatsi–I mean, Story Now.

Great, right? Only not so great. I approached a fellow roleplayer or two (mostly my brother) to explain the great new ideas I’d discovered, and I met. . .resistance. For one thing, I was still learning the concepts, and misrepresented them horribly. By the time I had things squared away, I’d already left an impression in my bro’s head along the lines of “Story Now means acting out of character for the good of the story,” which was justly repellent to him. And there’s no guarantee he and the others would have been interested in the play I wanted even if I had explained it properly.

So, while my gaming buds enjoyed the very occasional foray into hippie roleplaying land, they mostly wanted to play the same games the same way. So I had to look elsewhere for my Story Now fix. Through the internet I found a Yahoo Group of Portland indie gamers. We all met up and started gathering to try out new and different games, and evolved into Go Play PDX. I’d finally found my tribe, and all was well in roleplaying-land, right?

Nope, wrong again. Yes, I had fun and formed lasting friendships with a bunch of friendly, creative people who love shared story creation and trying new things. But I made this shocking discovery that–get this–even within the same “scene” people have different aesthetic preferences and creative priorities! Oddly enough, walking into a gaggle of self-professed “Story Gamers” and waving any old game around at anyone who’ll sit still is NOT a recipe for reliable, fulfilling play, of Story Now or any other agenda. Everyone needs to be on the same page, which means matching the right game with the right people AND clearly articulating the style and goal of play.

In the midst of a couple of games–Sorcerer and Red Box Hack–flopping with my friends because I approached it carelessly, I examined the experience with Ron Edwards at the Forge, and we explored the concept of BUY-IN: getting everyone on board for THIS activity, right NOW, with THESE people. Ron’s method for soliciting buy-in is to pitch Color and Reward, that is, what kind of story are we creating–space Nazis, political-intrigue elves, or post-apocalyptic cyborgs–and how does the game facilitate that experience? If you’ve got people on board for both those things, then you can look forward to a rewarding experience for all. If someone doesn’t get the color (“Whaddya mean political? I thought elves just shoot orcs with bows.”) or is turned off by the game method (“I gotta roll HOW many dice?!”) you’re headed for trouble.

I guess the bottom line is that there is no one monoculture of “Story” or “Indie” gamers one can gather around oneself. There’s a diverse community with a variety of interests. And there’s no simplistic “typing” to sort players into. different activities, different times, different people. All those things are mutable. The guys who indulge in immersive emo-porn one night might well be all over some board-gamey orc slayin’ the next. Just make sure you’re all on board for whatever activity is at hand. Don’t make the mistake of bringing your tenor sax to Death Metal night. And if you’re looking for Story Now gamers, don’t sweat so much assembling a “community” of monocultured, same-interest players. They don’t exist. Solicit interest for specific games with specific folks. You’ll have great games, and “community”–like the motley crew below, with whom I bonded over specific games–will happen on its own.Gamestormcrew

Peace,

-Joel