A story means itself

A young girl from the movie The Secret of Roan InishLast fall, I took a Native American Studies course with the wonderful instructor Judy Bluehorse Skelton. Our text was extremely shallow and inadequate, but the best Judy could find, so we used this as an opportunity to challenge and interrogate the text as an opportunity for thought-provoking discussion. As we examined the book chapter by chapter, we arrived at the chapter on Native American Literature.

I was excited at the outset, because stories are dear to my heart and the thought of being exposed to a trove of new, rich authors was delightful. But the chapter bothered me on a deeper level than any previous. Its constant explanation of the themes in the literature was unwelcome and intrusive: I was being told what to think about these narratives, rather than getting to simply experience them. It actually robbed me of an important facet of that experience, by imposing an outside interpretation before I’d even gotten to read them for myself.

It was an essentially colonialist approach to appreciating stories; studying and cataloging, sorting by theme, and essentially treating them as a dead thing—no, more than that, even actively killing them in the name of preserving their valuable qualities. Since the text brought up the relationship of literature to language, I was struck by the parallel to language learning, specifically the value of approaching a language on its own terms rather than trying to translate the words into your own context. There’s a reason Willem Larsen, founder of Language Hunters, calls this “Killing Fairies“; something very real does die when you use analytical tools to hammer another language into your native language’s shape. The same applies to stories: a story is, and doesn’t have a “literal translation”; it means itself. When authors Kidwell and Velie  tried to nail down the “meaning” of a novel, the novel itself wriggled out of their grasp.

It’s a difficult paradox: how do you you appreciate and discuss stories when the language of analytics ultimately fails to truly describe a story in a fundamental and catastrophic way? I suppose the starting point is simply acknowledging the limitations of such discourse, even if we can’t entirely escape it.

Which is not to say I wish to disengage my critical brain when I encounter stories! But it’s a tricky balance, maintaining awareness of stories’ agenda while honoring and taking nourishment from them. For me, experiencing a story involves a sort of surrender to the internal reality and modality of the tale; it’s “true” (though that’s an inadequate and misleading word) in its own context, true in a felt, emotional, mythic sense, even if it doesn’t refer to “facts.” Examining the problematic elements of a story is an important part of the process, but that comes later. First comes immersion, the living and feeling of the story as it washes over me. If a story’s message or agenda is too noxious, I won’t be able to achieve that immersion (and probably be more well off for it), but that experience is my goal, and the standard by which all stories are judged.

Because I couldn’t engage with the stories dissected by Kidwell and Velie, which I hadn’t read for myself—novels like House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday and Ceremony by  Leslie Marmon Silko—my thoughts turned to a story which I do know, which also deals with the theme of connection to the land: the film The Secret of Roan Inish, based on the novel The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry, by Rosalie K. Fry.

In Roan Inish, an island off the coast of Ireland (Scotland in the novel) is deserted by the fishing community that lives there, as the younger generation becomes restless for the city and moves there in search of work. Only the old remain, living on the mainland in sight of the isle. All concerned is portrayed as broken and empty, needing connection with the island to be whole. (“Do you miss it greatly?” “Roan Inish? Ah, it’s only a place, I suppose. Mostly I miss the way of life. You’re surrounded by the sea, with your whole family about ye.”) A girl, Fiona, is sent by her city-dwelling, widowed father back to live with her grandparents on the coast. The country-dwelling family seems more connected with their place—with the land and sea—than the city-folk, but are still wounded by their severed tie to Roan Inish. Her baby brother Jamie had been lost at sea in the evacuation, forming a living symbol of the disconnect from their place: “The sea had taken poor wee Jamie. It was angry with us for leaving Roan Inish.” The old folk know they belong on the island, but are resigned to their lot. The next generation want nothing to do with the place. It’s only the children Fiona and Eamon who are able to provoke the family to action and reconcile them with the island. As I write these words, I know that I’m doing violence to these stories, as surely as the Kidwell/Velie text does violence to the stories it explains. I have to stop; I’ve said too much. The only words that have any life in them are the scant quotes from the actual film. I’d rather you hear ten words of it than a thousand of mine:

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My words are not the stories; they are only a brutish finger pointing clumsily at the stories themselves. I don’t know how else to write about them, though. Game designer Vincent Baker is fond of saying that when someone asks him a roleplaying theory question, he can’t answer it, except by designing a game around it. In his interview on Clyde Rhoer’s Theory from the Closet [49.15], he put it like this: “I’m a game designer, not a statement creator! If I want you to understand [a particular game design concept]…I’m going to design a game and put it in front of you, and you’ll understand how it works in that game.”

Ultimately, the way to share the gifts of these tales would not be to write a paper about them, but to simply share them—give you a book to read, or sit down with you and watch a film. Or tell you a story. Or play a game together. I think it’s no accident that in so many traditions, elders and teachers answer questions with a story. The story isn’t an explanation or an example of the answer, the story is the answer. Even in Christian tradition, Jesus mainly just tells stories, and says “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Only when pressed, in a couple of Gospel accounts, does he finally concede and give an explanation to his closest followers, presumably reluctantly.

A story is itself. A story is lived experience, both of the teller and of the untold generations through which the stories have been handed down. A people who think in stories (and not in platitudes or in “rational arguments”) would, I feel, have a greater grounding in love and empathy and of relationship to the wider world.

Peace,

—Joli

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 

Notes on an Easter Pageant

Your thunder and flash and spectacle
Envelops us, fills space
Music swells, lights flare
Your sermon
Wrapped in drama’s clothing
Becomes our world.

You seem so proud
So sincere in your fervor
That it breaks my heart to say it

But your god doesn’t speak to me.

Continue reading Notes on an Easter Pageant

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

Occupy Story

Sam Adams, the Mayor of Portland, had given the Occupy Portland encampment at Chapman and Lownsdale parks three days’ notice of eviction. “At 12:01 am on Sunday, November 13, all persons and property in Lownsdale and Chapman Squares will again be subject to enforcement of all laws including the laws against being in a park after midnight (PCC 20.12.210), and erecting structures in a park (PCC 20.12.080),” Adams said, and added that “on or after November 13” the parks would close for repair.

Occupy Portland was torn. Some seemed to agree with Adams’ reasons—that the camp had become unsafe, unsanitary, a mire of squabbles and drug use. They advocated abandoning the camp and leaving camps behind, to focus on other strategies. Others thought the eviction would at least be an opportunity to “clean house” and make a fresh start with a new encampment. And many were determined to hold the camp at all costs, seeing eviction as a quashing of the movement.

As I studied all these viewpoints, I was torn myself. Processing with my head and not my heart, I could see logic in all perspectives, and having only slight, surface experience with the encampments I didn’t have a lot of hard data on how well it functioned and whether or not it served a purpose for the movement. Occupy Portland put out a call for all citizens of Portland, as well as brother and sister protesters in Seattle, to come rally at the midnight deadline to stand together against the eviction. My head was torn, but my heart was telling me to be there.

Continue reading Occupy Story

Of Community and Crucibles

I tabled at the Portland Zine Symposium last weekend with The Dreaming Crucible. It was the culmination of a year-long anticipation, since I first published the Crucible just one week AFTER the previous year’s Symposium. Sunday from 11 to 4, I sat at a little wooden table, a massive cloud of origami cranes fluttering in my hair, and introduced folks to my little storytelling game. It was fun and eye-opening! Initially I felt a lot of commercial anxiety, as I always do when I table with product—they’re not buying! Man, why aren’t they buying? I hope that person comes back like they said they would; they seemed really interested! Jeez, I’m going to be here for hours and only sell one copy; that works out to two dollars an hour and I might as well just quit self-publishing and work at McDonalds!!!

Continue reading Of Community and Crucibles

PAX Dreaming

I just wanted to let my readers know that I’ll be at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle this weekend, playing and selling my brand-new, revised edition of The Dreaming Crucible, my game of grueling and transformative Faerie journeys, with gorgeous art by Erin Kelso. At right is a taste of the artwork that’ll be gracing the cover, with more works in the interior.

If you’ll be at the show, come see me! You can stop by The Dreaming Comics (no relation!) dealer booth and demo space to check out the book and play the game with me. I’d be delighted to tell stories with you.

And that’s all the time I have right now; so much to do! I’ll be back in the blogosphere when this whirlwind has subsided.

Peace,

—Joel

Free, Affirmed, Expressive, Consequential

Awhile back “Doctor Professor” of the blog Pixel Poppers wrote some interesting stuff about interactive storytelling in video games. In the first half, he discusses how video games have failed at storytelling, by imitating other media (film, mostly) instead of playing to their own medium’s strengths: interactivity and dynamism. In the second half, he takes a look at what successful and innovative videogame storytelling might look like.

Doctor Professor’s points resonate with me. I’ve come to love the newest generations of VG technology (Playstation-onwards) for their ability to convey a story through cinematic presentation, and I’ve favored the kinds of games that present fully-realized characters with emotions and personalities (Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy) over games that provide blank protagonists to imprint your own emotions and thoughts onto (Deus Ex, Elder Scrolls). I’ve found that the latter tend to fall short of actually feeling like a story, while the former at least provide story in a meaningful way, even if it’s spoon-fed to you and beyond your ability to impact.

But Dr. Prof is right; these stories are wasting the medium’s artistic potential. They’re showing movies with intermissions for gymnastics and target practice. They’re often pretty movies,  sometimes with characters and themes that speak to me. And the gameplaying segments that alternate with cinematics can often be rewarding and fun in their own right. These are not failures as games.

But as an art form, they can be more. Some games are pioneering this change, such as Metal Gear Solid (known for its interminable cutscenes but also for making gameplay decisions matter in new ways) and Mass Effect (which will allow pivotal choices made in the first game to load into the next one). Pioneering new ground doesn’t run smoothly, of course. Both the above gamers have severe limitations on the player’s ability to affect the story. But hopefully as this trend continues we’ll see a radical shift as, like Doctor Professor says, the video game medium comes into its own.

The Professor names four strengths of video games that are vital for exploring their storytelling potential. 1) choices must be free, 2) choices must be affirmed, 3) choices must be expressive, and 4) choices must be consequential. When a player’s input is not channeled or forced into a predetermined path, AND receives feedback that validates the choice (characters thank you,  get mad, etc), AND allows for emotional expression and thematic statement, AND has a meaningful effect on the world and its inhabitants, THEN the player can truly be said to shape the outcome of the story. The user is a collaborator rather than a consumer.

Which is one of the strengths of face-to-face roleplaying, presumably–with human imaginations on tap for content, rather than computer algorithms, the potential for free, affirmed, expressive and consequential choice, for all participants, is vast. Collaborative story should pulse through a roleplaying session. And yet I’ve had many roleplaying experiences that have shut down each one of those attributes of choices, often several at once. Just as video games, in emulating movies, aren’t realizing their unique artistic potential, so “pen and paper” games fall short of their calling when they merely emulate the pre-written novel or the pre-programmed video game.

My friend Christian of Berengad Games also recently explored ways of achieving dynamic and interactive story in video games. He had a specific theoretical implementation in mind and I contributed my own. But whatever the specific implementation–and there’s room for multitudes–I think the key lies in Dr. Professor’s 4 elements: free, affirmed, expressive and consequential.

And if computer programmers are breaking new ground here, can interactive group storytelling in the real world do any less? For myself, I can’t go back. Those four criteria are my minimum bar for participation. At the very least, if any of those elements aren’t on the table, DON’T LEAD ME ON–tell me up front, so that I can make the mental shift and NOT approach the game as group storytelling. But when I’m seizing story, I’ll stay in the company of the innovators and explorers, and keep my eye on the horizon.

Peace,

-Joel

Remembrance in the Thin Time

This month I participated in a holiday that commemorates the blessings one has received in life. No, not Thanksgiving. I’m talking about Samhain.

I had the privilege of attending a Samhain festival at Portland’s St. Peter & Paul Episcopal Church. I’ve long been fascinated with ancient Celtic culture, but never had the opportunity to attend a traditional (reconstructed) celebration before. It was wonderful, and full of surprises.

The first surprise was that an Episcopal church was drawing from a deep well of Celtic Spirituality.  I don’t know much about the Episcopalian tradition, but I had always assumed that as a branch of the Anglican church, their focus would be, well, English and not so much Irish. I had no idea where in Portland I could encounter Celtic Christianity, and now it had found me.

The second surprise was that the service, held in a church, was connected with deep roots that go beyond doctrine or dogma. The ceremony was rooted in two concepts: a circle where all are welcome and all are equal, and the empowerment of everyone present to tell their story.

That was it. No exclusion, no pressure toward religious belief, no attempt at “managing” input beyond invitation and facilitation. Everyone from 10-year-olds to the middle aged was able to don the storyteller’s cloak and tell both of legends dear to them and of their own experiences dearer still. I was blessed, and I’m not just mouthing a ritual word to say that.

The third surprise was an unexpected encounter with my own past.  The Rector, Kurt, explained that Samhain (“Sow-in” or “Sav-an”) is the “Thin Time,” the beginning of Winter where resources strain and life hangs by a thread–but also when the veil between flesh and spirit thins, allowing us greater closeness with those who have gone on, but are still in our hearts.  Like my Dad.

I didn’t attend the Circle expecting to encounter my father. I only knew that I had been invited. But as others shared their memories of departed loved ones, I realized that the window was open for a connection with him. I donned the cloak and told the tale of my father and me: of the heritage and roots he instilled, of the bitter differences we had, of the death that left us unresolved, and of the gifts of love that I carry even through the pain. And I felt his presence for the first time in years.

What happened here? First, I came open to having a meaningful experience, but with no particular expectations. Second, the hospitality of that Circle made a safe space where I could unburden my heart. And third, a context of ritual and tradition was provided that could draw me into a mindframe that I wouldn’t have arrived at on my own.

That’s how community looks. That’s how ritual looks. And that’s how telling stories together looks, whether at bardic circle, church service, or game table. And it’s beautiful.

Peace,

-Joel