Vulnerable places

I talk a lot about raw, emotionally vulnerable play on this blog, and whenever I have a roleplaying experience that scratches that itch, I gush about it here. But I haven’t very thoroughly explored the issue of how to achieve a safe space for that kind of vulnerability. I’d like to examine a recent case to see what comes to light.

I’m preparing to play in an Apocalypse World campaign. I, along with Hans, my friend and MC, have been looking forward to it  with relish. We both feel that we’ve had fun with past AW games, but never really gotten at the emotional core of apocalypse world play. for my part, following my initial, very moving experience over a year ago, I’ve had a string of one-shots that were mostly just fun, casual and diverting, without a lot of emotional investment in the characters. not to knock fun, casual and diverting, but for this game, Hans and I wanted something deeper. When I hit up my friends to play, I emphasized this in an email:

“[We’re] looking for a game that really emphasizes the humanity and desperation of the post-apocalypse, with folks who are prepared to go to some emotionally vulnerable places and aren’t afraid to have their buttons pushed. “I will Not Abandon You” play, as it were. If you’re down for that, you’re welcome to play with us!

Continue reading Vulnerable places

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