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

Reading the signs, Part 1: Montsegur

At Go Play Northwest I played Frederick J. Jensen’s Montsegur 1244, facilitated by John Aegard. The game is about a French castle that has taken in a band of heretical Cathar refugees and is besieged by the Inquisistion, with the bitter end predetermined but each character’s physical and spiritual fate still very much at stake.

It was an intense, personal game experience, with rich storytelling and painful human tragedy. It affected me deeply in many ways, but I didn’t at first realize that it was trying to tell me something important about my own life.

You see, in the game I played the landless knight Pierre Roger, captain of the defense of Montsegur. He’s married to Philippa, eldest daughter to the Lord of Montsegur, but also dallies with Arsende the Harlot (all this is part of the pregenerated situation of the game, not created by players, but it’s up to the players to interpret and flesh out). And there was a theme that kept emerging, partly from my portrayal of Pierre (he was ruthless and decisive in martial matters, but bewildered and hesitant in family affairs), and partly fellow player Susan’s portrayal of Philippa (she spent a lot of time arguing with her parents and sister, and barely addressed her husband), and partly the way scenes were framed (many crucial scenes for Philippa were framed with Pierre absent, or else his presence a mere afterthought). The result was, Philippa was in crisis but estranged from Pierre; he felt for her but knew not what to say or do on her behalf, and she in turn shut him out of all major decision-making in her life. Continue reading Reading the signs, Part 1: Montsegur

What’s YOUR trajectory?

Last week I wrote about a couple of game experiences that really nailed a certain emotional desire for me. I rambled on for quite a bit about it! The bottom line was, I’m pursuing a certain element of intimate tragedy, through characters who care passionately for others, but whose presence can’t help but cause them pain. But now I’d like to hear about others’ experiences.

So how about it? What sort of narrative is YOUR heart seeking in the storytelling that you do or the storytelling that you receive? And by what sort of trajectories do characters approach that narrative in their inner qualities and fictional circumstances?

If I get a couple of answers there’s follow-up questions. But start with that for now!

Peace,

—Joel

Tragic Trajectories

Vincent Baker, author of the roleplaying games Dogs in the Vineyard, In a Wicked Age and more, was the guest of honor at the Portland area’s Gamestorm convention last weekend. I had the opportunity to play a couple of his games, and they provoked a powerful emotional response. Here’s two vignettes:

1) Dogs in the Vineyard:

Sister Eleanor is one of God’s Watchdogs, virginal nineteen-year-olds sent out with a Bible and a gun to solve the problems of religious frontier towns. They arrive in town during a funeral. Brother Charles’ daughter has been murdered, and he’s frantic to have the Dogs marry her to her husband posthumously—the Town Steward refused to bless them, then disappeared–so she won’t have died a harlot. Eleanor yearns to ease the stricken man’s grief, but when she meets prospective husband Brother Ephraim, a pompous elder who doesn’t give a shit, she wavers. The father is aghast and tells them all to just go.

Sis. Eleanor follows him to the graveyard, and helps him dig the grave in silence, then finally asks him to please talk to her so she can bring the killer to justice. Charles asks, “will that make it right?” Eleanor can only answer, “I don’t know. but I can’t let it go.” Bro. Charles tries to storm off, but Eleanor bars his way and insists, and he gives in, telling her what he knows. She leaves, but with a feeling growing in her gut: “I don’t know if I can make it right.”

The rot in the town soon outs itself—Brother Ephraim had the Steward killed to control the town himself, and had the girl killed when she challenged it. There’s a showdown, bullets fly, and Bro. Ephraim is subdued, dying. Sis. Eleanor goes to Bro. Charles and offers forgiveness to his son, who was Ephraim’s pawn. She puts her hand on Charles’ shoulder and the father breaks down weeping. Eleanor stands over him and she too sobs and sobs. Continue reading Tragic Trajectories

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