Tell your story, ask a question, interpret generously

The response from visitors to my blog has for the most part been cordial, affirming and enriching. But a couple of recent incidents have told me it’s time to make clear how I endeavor to conduct myself here and what I expect from guests in return.

My friend Willem Larsen of the College of Mythic Cartography has developed a set of guidelines for some forums he moderates. The way I hear it, he got so fed up with the choice between pages of nitpicky rules and nebulous “commonsense” standards of niceness, that he boiled down the behavior he was looking for to three simple directives. I find they sum up beautifully how I’d like to interact with people here or anywhere:

Tell your story. Relate your experience, describe your feelings, share your personal knowledge. Instead of responding to others off the cuff with whatever instinctive reaction or opinion comes to mind, dig deep into your own experience that causes you to think or feel that way. Share that. Your story is valuable, and so is everyone else’s. When we share on that level, we can empathize more fully and discover each other’s value.

Ask a Question. If there’s something you don’t understand about someone else’s story, if there’s some detail you think might be relevant, if you think you might have some experience in common…ask. Don’t assume you know what someone “really” meant unless they’ve said it directly. This dovetails nicely with the first guideline–if you can’t understand where someone is coming from, you can always ask, “what experience have you had that led you to that conclusion?” We want to hear each other’s stories, and questions are great for teasing those out and finding common ground.

Interpret Generously. If someone’s statement sounds ridiculous to you, or someone seems to be advocating a reprehensible position, assume for a moment that they’re not. Assume that what they’re saying makes sense, is reasonable, and has value. Try to imagine how that could be. Ask questions to clarify, until you are sure you understand where the person is coming from. ANd if you still find you have differences, you can part ways politely, without anyone being compared to Hitler.

I find this way of communicating to be more human and life-affirming than a lot of modes I’ve tried in person or online. And while it’s a challenge to to break out of old patterns, there’s something freeing in following a simple set of principles instead of having to guess, by gut feeling, whether you’re being “nice,” or “a dick,” or whatever.

Is there room for disagreement under this philosophy? Absolutely, we can disagree quite freely. The only thing we lose is the ability to argue or “debate” in a juvenile, “uh-HUH!” “Nuh-UH!” fashion. Our disagreement is expressed through our experiences and we can be certain that even in our differences we can be truly heard.

That’s the call by which I invite yo all into the hospitality of my space. That’s the standard I’ll expect of you as guests. When there are hiccups and challenges, we’ll work it out through discussion and hopefully continue on in goodwill. If any of us (yes, me too!) stumble and someone points it out, it’s not a “punishment” or a label of “bad person.” Only in persisting in a disruptive behavior might a guest outgrow my hospitality. In the meantime, Welcome. Come and tell your story!

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.)

They’d be crazy to follow us, wouldn’t they?

millennium_falcon_ep52With all this thinking about, watching, and gaming Star Wars, lately, I’ve been idly wondering what it is that makes Star Wars work: why is the original trilogy so engaging and fresh, even after multiple viewings and decades of accumulated cruft? Then a stray thought popped into my head: Star Wars works because it only ever does something once.

Think about it: every thrilling and memorable moment of the films happens once, then never again. The first time the Millennium Falcon escapes a planet, they blast off into hyperspace and leave the Star Destroyers in the dust. The second time. . .the hyperdrive’s busted and it’s time for a thrilling chase. The first time they’re pursued by TIE Fighters, Han and Luke gun them down with the quad cannons. The second time, the cannons sit unused while the ships play thread the needle with asteroids. One military engagement is X- and Y-wings against TIEs, the next is Snowspeeders against Imperial Walkers. Same with environments: the first flick’s action takes place in a desert and a giant battlestation. The second has an ice world, a swamp and a city in the clouds. The third returns to the desert, sure, but the main event’s in a forest. Nothing ever becomes stale or routine.

Now, it is true that Return of the Jedi re-uses one important thing: the Death Star. But this is precisely where Star Wars starts to wear out its welcome, precisely because it repeats itself. Jedi gets a little frayed around the edges as the fresh ideas start to dry up, and I’d argue that there’s practically nothing fresh and new in the prequels, because they abandon this principle.

That’s how it works in so much adventure fiction. Always the new, the fresh, the different, the surprising, with scarcely a look back. But when we look at adventure roleplaying, we often see the opposite. Players generally do the same thing, over and over. It makes a certain amount of sense–if something works once, why not again? If quad guns work well against TIEs, let’s hop in the turrets every time we face them, right?

But it kills drama. It kills excitement. It kills wonder. If the thing to do is the same thing you did last time, there’s no reason to do anything particularly; actions just sort of blend together into a soupy gray. I wonder how we would go about reclaiming that freshness in a game environment. Dramatic devices like the busted hyperdrive help, and we can definitely play mindfully toward that. What else? Perhaps a procedural framework that incentivizes doing things in a new way? That offers diminishing returns each time you use the same solution to a problem?

What else would work? And how have you tackled this issue?

Peace,

-Joel

Choosing Disadvantage

My friend Todd of Love is Concrete has been saying that “Love is a disadvantage that we choose.”

That phrase has really got a grip on me. It clicks something important into place. Because what’s the opposite of that? Using. If you’re not choosing disadvantage, you’re using, you’re manipulating, you’re keeping your guard up, you’re protecting yourself. It doesn’t mean you’re the most cynical or cruel motherfucker on the planet, it just means you’re primarily benefiting yourself.

Love, on the other hand, is giving, uplifting, being vulnerable, opening yourself to pain. It’s expending energy to the greatest good of others–a disadvantage that we choose.

It strikes me that this is what Story by the Throat is. It’s the kind of vulnerability I seek, in games, in telling stories together–letting our guard down and creating something that speaks. My hope is that it can carry over into living, and being vulnerable there, to not be afraid to make a story with each other.

I don’t know exactly what that means yet, but it’s a thing of power. It’s living without pretense, without manipulation, without fear and distrust and victimization.

I want that. I want that in stories, I want that in games, I want that in life.

Stories are a disadvantage that we choose.

Life is a disadvantage that we choose.

Love is a disadvantage that we choose.

Peace,

-Joel

Sometimes, nobody gets shot in the face.

PhotobucketRecently my brother, my wife, and a friend played Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, a fantasy Western game of God’s Watchdogs protecting a struggling religious community, at gunpoint, from corruption and injustice. My brother and I had been wanting to play it with each other for quite some time. It was a joy to play together!

DitV derives a lot of tension from the “how far would you go” question in exerting your will, applying constant pressure along those lines. “Would you wrestle down your brother to stop him from shooting that whore what defiled his boy? Would you draw a gun on him? Would you shoot him?” And similarly, “to save this town from disaster, would you shoot this person who’s causing trouble? Even if his reasons are sympathetic and heartbreaking? Even if his family depends on him?” and so on.

As a result, Dogs and games like it get sort of a rep, for being horrible bloodbaths where everyone’s shooting everyone in the face, where conflict ramps up, up UP to tragedy, and everyone Comes To A Bad End.

And sure, it can be. Sometimes you want it to be. But our game wasn’t like that. For one thing, there were no rebellious cults forming, no Sorcerous subversion, no attacks by demon-possessed maniacs–yet. There were just people, mired in an intractable mess. There was the old man who’d dug up some old silver coin on his land and insisted it was his, not the town’s. There was the desperate father who needed the bounty to trade for his diseased daughter’s medicine. The poor browbeaten Town Steward whose clout didn’t equal the old man’s, and was losing the respect of the townsfolk whose needs he couldn’t fulfill. And the proprietor of the local mercantile, convinced he could use the silver to make peace with the hostile tribal folk and trade for food to recover from a devastating crop blight.

All was poised on the brink of disaster. In fact, it’d already come to grief, as the father went to the old man’s estate to take the wealth by force and ended up accidentally shooting the patriarch’s only son. And in fact without intervention things would get far, far worse. But in fact the Dogs’ involvement (which can turn quite bloody itself given their power of Judge and Executioner!) served to defuse tensions, de-escalate conflict and allow reason and justice to prevail. Everyone tried to press the Dogs to take sides in their conflicts and grudges, but they kept their heads and worked out a solution for the good of the town, not individuals, while balancing the scales of justice. The temptation always loomed to bring violence to bear, but no one did. Everything stayed on the level of talking–and it was awesome.

The tension was palpable, and the resolution satisfying. Without a single shot fired. The tension arose from the question: Will it turn violent? Consider Azariah, the desperate father, trying to hold off my brother’s character at his doorstep, afraid for himself and his sick daughter. Brother Clarence pressed him until he gave in. They both stood poised to start shooting to get their way, but Azariah was unwilling to escalate to gunplay. He blinked first, and submitted his will to the Dogs.

This goes back to what I was talking about in Paying Your Dues. Sure, it could be fun if the Dogs rode in and encountered murder at every turn, desperate folks solving their problems at gunpoint, and malefactors refusing to relent. Fire and judgment! Hooray! But how much more satisfying to start simple and build, to solve one town’s problems handily only to see the issues complicated in the next, and further escalated in the next? To see the Dogs themselves evolve under increasing pressure? To see a strong soul with sure hand and shining eyes, then watch him strain ’till he’s like to break?

That agonizing question–will he break?–is what we want to answer. But the end is meaningless without the journey.

Peace,

-Joel

Gets ya every time

onepiece-luffybloodyhand1Some friends and I were talking recently about the manga One Piece by Eiichiro Oda. It’s a seemingly innocuous story about goofy pirates and their physics-bending hijinx, but my friends and I find it irresistible. Why? My pal Jake put it best: “Oda’s a master of his craft. When one of the characters is beaten and bloody and almost dead, and struggles to their feet to say they’ll never give up on their friends–even though there’s a moment for every character in every volume–each time it pierces my heart.”

It seems like it shouldn’t work. It seems like once would be enough, twice bearable, three times too much. I mean, how many times do we need to see Luffy stand up for his friends, or Zoro fight on at the brink of death, or Usopp overcome his fear? But it works. Each time we’re on the edge of our seat. Each time we let out a little cheer. Each time we feel fulfilled.

Whether zany rubber pirates are your cup of tea or not (and believe me, ours is a love not often understood!), chances are there’s some story in your life that does this for you. Whether it’s Luke Skywalker confronting his father, Westley rising from his bed, sword in hand, or Jack slipping from Rose’s fingers and sinking beneath the ice, there are stories that “get us right here”–different for the individual, but repeating the same themes and delivering the same payoffs again and again. And we drink them up.

What need does this fill, that it never gets old, throughout human experience? What role does repetition play in our story-life as humans? Why do some tellings succeed, and others fall flat? What is that “craft mastery” that makes the difference? Is it personal taste or something more?

I don’t know. Do you?

Peace,

-Joel

Birth of a legend

niamh-with-eyes-openOn December 10, at almost midnight, Niamh Shempert was born. My daughter. It was a harrowing day and a half for Annie and I, her especially, as our home birthing stalled out from dehydration and we finally checked into the Birthing Center at Legacy Emmanuel Hospital after 24 hours of labor. At the hospital Annie was able to receive just enough anesthesia to rest and recover her wits and strength, and when she finally started pushing the process was swift and intense.

Annie smiled in her labor pains, proud and triumphant to be delivering her child at last–to the awe of nurses and midwives, and of me. She proved every person in that room wrong, with their thoughts of shoulder dystocia and C-sections and gestational diabetes, as Niamh (“neev”) came quickly and gloriously out to meet the world in perfect health. Then, while the nurses treated Annie’s hemorrhaging, I was Niamh’s guardian in the wee hours, holding her in comfort and love through Nurses’ tests and warding off invasive procedures. Our birth wasn’t what we planned, but we had it on our terms in as natural and nurturing a setting as possible.

I knew as I held Annie’s hand in pride and awe that I was in the midst of a great story, one that would be a joy to tell and retell–all the more for its factual truth. Now as last week’s events seep into my skin and stir about in my soul, I wonder things. I wonder about the place and value of story in our lives. I wonder about the virtue of seeking out such adventures versus letting them come to us. If our birth had gone as planned, I wouldn’t have such an amazing story to tell. I would have a much simpler and everyday tale that would elicit a few “aww, that’s nice” ‘s, not hold them in wonderment. But would I ever, ever willingly put my wife and my daughter through such danger and trauma just to add an epic to my repertoire? Not on your life!

So, I ask: what IS story in our lives? Is “adventure” something, as they say, that you hate while it’s happening, but love in the telling? Is there a way to pursue storied life without inviting needless sorrow and pain? I look at my daughter in the paradoxical knowledge that I want her to have adventures, but would never wish her danger or harm.

But for now, it is enough to glory in the epic of her arrival, and take joy in her present peace.

Paying Your Dues

I had an dissatisfying experience in a roleplaying game session a bit ago that may be familiar to you gaming veterans: one player directed his character to kill another player’s character, a supposed ally. I directed my character to try and stop him. He succeeded. I was frustrated. But that’s not the whole story.

So the situation in a nutshell was this: The perpetrator was M, a longtime member of our roleplaying group but new to this particular game. So his character was introduced in the midst of a frantic rescue mission into this lair of vampires and cultists. He’s a monk and a cleric from some order that hunts vampires, and comes along to help. Well, we rescue our friends (one of them the character of a player, S), but they’ve been turned into Vampires! They’re still in they’re right mind though, and it’s not too late to cure them. M’s vampire-fighting guy agrees to not kill the vampires until next sunrise, to give us a chance to turn them back, right? So we’re all escaping, the group gets split up, and my character, M’s character, and S’s character, plus some supporting cast, are all fleeing together.

Some new information came to light that M chose to interpret as meaning he had to kill the vampires right away before they became super-powerful. Despite the GM clarifying that this wasn’t necessarily the case, M declared he was attacking S’s character. I declared that my character, who had been covering M suspiciously with a crossbow, tried to shoot him down first. S’s character, already weak and severely wounded, went down quickly, and M, despite being shot several times by me, fled through the city.

There are several interplaying factors here. There’s an absolutely poisonous social dynamic present based on bitter past history, for one thing. And I also experienced a lack of the “traction” I discussed earlier in the rules, which prevented me from being able to meaningfully affect the conflict. But I’d like to set those aside and talk about why the incident bothered me from the standpoint of the story.

I was immensely dissatisfied with our story taking that turn. Why? It wasn’t the fact of a main character dying in itself. It wasn’t even the factor of player-characters (let’s say “protagonists”) having deadly conflict. Those are both things that, traditionally, some roleplayers take issue with–in the first case, dying equates with “losing,” and in the second, internal conflict is seen as a player being a dick, by definition. But I don’t feel that way, in either case. I can accept a protagonist death, and the inter-protagonist strife that might lead to such. . .if it’s a sufficiently satisfying development in the story.

But what does that mean? Let’s unpack the sample case a bit. We’ve got an established situation with established characters moving to a climax. A pair of characters has gone through hell at the hands of their captors, and their friends make a desperate effort to rescue them. They all make their escape, but all hell has broken loose outside the lair. In the chaos, one of the captives is struck down just when freedom was in his grasp.

All sounds pretty potentially cool, right? But wait–the character was slain, not by a hated enemy, or by a force unleashed by the protagonists, or betrayal by a friend-in short, not by any previously established element of the story. No, he’s killed by some guy who just wandered into the situation, offered to help, casually killed one of the people he was “helping” rescue, based on a flimsy justification, then fled the scene.

This is not a chain of events that would produce satisfaction in any narrative medium. And it did not produce satisfaction here. The real-people reactions ranged from bummed to annoyed to outraged. Why? M was within his rights to declare that his character was opposing, even attacking, another character, and even had an “in-character” reason to do so. But the fact is, he hadn’t paid his dues.

It seems to me that for any major development in a story to be satisfying, you’ve got to pay your dues, to lay a proper foundation and establish your right to introduce that development. Otherwise your narrative reads like this one:

Frodo: Hi, Gandalf!
Gandalf: Bilbo, give him your ring.
Bilbo: Okay. Bye!
Gandalf: See you at the pub, Frodo.

. . .etc.

S’s death at the hands of M was a huge letdown because M hadn’t put in the work. He didn’t do any work to ground his character’s actions in the established fiction we’d been creating, off and on, for several years. He didn’t do any work to strengthen his character’s motivation and drive, and invite us to buy into that. His contribution fell flat because he didn’t earn it.

While this seems like a simple aesthetic issue, I submit that it really boils down to trust. A movie audience trusts the writer, director and cast to “pay their dues” to create a satisfying film that holds together and is authentic to itself. And much, much more so does a roleplaying group depend on trust, because the creative contributions flow in all directions, and the material involved is not someone else’s but your own. A group that can’t trust each other to pay their dues, is a group where any member might at any time catastrophically and arbitrarily disrupt the shared fiction that we are carefully building together–which is as this incident illustrates, a recipe for dysfunction.

This is why a roleplaying group, much like any other intimate and vulnerable gathering for a dedicated purpose (marriage, church, etc.), can embody both the best and worst of human interaction. I’m continuing to seek more of the “best” side of the equation.

Peace,

-Joel

The Game in a Jam

My friend Willem has this blog, the College of Mythic Cartography. He talks a lot there about “Storyjamming,” which is his term for what’s usually called roleplaying games. I’ve played a few games with him, and what we do and why we do is pretty much the same.

Except that it’s not.

I’m not calling him out or anything; Willem himself will tell you that he sees the two activities as different. And I admit there’s something primally appealing about his ideal of pure Story flowing from the mouths of a collaborative group, reclaiming a lost human drive and tradition, bringing storytelling back to modern ears and modern lips. It’s a noble goal; it’s a goal I share. And in the service of that goal, Willem considers all the fiddling around with dice and cards and points and stats to be mostly unwanted distractions, to be trimmed down to just enough “to drive a story.”

I on the other hand like rules. I like the “game” in my “roleplaying game.” I like stats and dice and tokens and whatzits. I like robust interlocking systems that yield fruitful results from deft interaction. But I want what Willem wants. I want a revival of oral tradition and storytelling for the masses. I want spontaneous meaningful creativity amongst my friends.

So, can I have both? Or am I shooting myself in the foot for the sake of an ingrained preference of my personal history? Am I sacrificing my deepest longings for a framework that is a stumbling-block to story and a barrier of entry to non-“gamers”?

Should I game or should I jam?

Peace,

-Joel

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