Indie Hurricane: a whirlwind of community

In March, I organized the Indie Hurricane department of the Portland area’s Gamestorm convention for the second year running. Last year’s hurricane was a polite little gale, fun but modest in size, and downright polite. This year it was a raging storm and a smashing success.

Our games took over the entire upper lobby surrounding our designated play room, with games swarming over couches and coffee tables. The enthusiasm and creativity was palpable as indie gamers from Portland, Seattle, Olympia, British Columbia and more rocked games that were by turns tender, silly, action-packed, and romantic. I was so proud to see our crew forming such an amazing and dynamic presence at the con. The Open Story Gaming Circles that we formed twice daily, where a bunch of facilitators each pitch a game and interested players break off into whatever game appeals most, served a valuable role in balancing spontaneity with structure, and seemed to do a marvelous job of pulling in new players. Many, many game tables seated a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar faces, all having a good time. The games I played in were phenomenally fun and rewarding.

Continue reading Indie Hurricane: a whirlwind of community

Intimate details

I’ve had some experiences recently with explicit sex in roleplaying games that I’d like to explore with you. To start with, I’d like to share a set of short erotic stories written from the fictional events of three roleplaying games I played: respectively, Ben Lehman’s Hot Guys Making Out, Paul Czege’s Bacchanal, and D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World.

Because these stories are so intensely personal, and out of deference to loved ones, I’m presenting these stories in a password-protected PDF. If you’re a friend or blog regular, email me for the password at Storybythethroat AT Gmail DOT com. Adults only, please!

Three Vignettes

The stories aren’t necessary to understand the post, though. If you don’t read the vignettes, their summaries are:

1) The orphan Gonsalvo and his inscrutable benefactor Honore share a moment of smoldering tension as the lad emerges from his bath.

2) While the Bacchanalia rages in Puteoli, the incestuous twins Appius and Livia make love one last time as a current sweeps them out to sea and they blissfully drown.

3) After the village gardener Burdick discovers her assistant Thuy has been keeping the other gardeners as drugged and brainwashed slaves, she gives the injured Carna a brew to flush the drugs and makes love to him to break Thuy’s hold.

Continue reading Intimate details

A Piece of Myself

I played two games of The Dreaming Crucible with some old friends and new at Vancouver, WA’s Gamestorm convention last month. I had fun in both, but the second game did something the first one didn’t: it moved me to tears.

The Dreaming Crucible is designed to enable the kind of raw, vulnerable stories that provoke strong, even cathartic reactions in the participants, but I’ve rarely seen this potential fully realized. Usually, the story produced is imaginative, engaging, and satisfying, but the emotional impact is fairly light. Once or twice a game has educed a quiver of emotion from me. But more often the better games I’ve played feel right, like all the basic elements I envisioned for the game are present and operating properly, but the result is merely…diverting.

The Sunday game at Gamestorm was different. I could tell from the start that something special was going on; I began as I usually do by explaining the I Will Not Abandon You mode of playing the game, which is generally greeted with nods and shrugs, as if to say, “oh, that’s nice.” But this time my fellow players Drew and Lisa responded with satisfied mmms and a gleam in the eye. I could tell they were switched ON, and ready to truly, enthusiastically play with vulnerability. And when we played, something wonderful happened.

Continue reading A Piece of Myself

The Dreaming Crucible: I Will Not Abandon You.

Its time for another installment of The Dreaming Crucible online edition! The Crucible is my storytelling game about young people working through their pain in a deadly Faerie quest. It’s available on Etsy.com or the Indie RPGS Un-store as a handmade book (see the above link), but the text itself is available under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. And so I’m releasing it in sections, first here on my blog, and soon to be compiled into a Wiki.

Last time I talked about the game’s narrative Principles of Play, but today I’m going to delve into an even more basic principle that embodies the Crucible’s underlying philosophy.

The Dreaming Crucible is a game about teenagers and children coping with trauma and heartache. This can take a relatively mild form, or it can delve into the darkest corners of alienation and abuse. Furthermore, a happy ending is possible but not assured. Are you willing to risk that? How far are you willing to go in depicting a child suffering? How young a protagonist are you comfortable with portraying in such excruciating circumstances? These are important questions to answer as a group.

The Dreaming Crucible is not safe. My hope is that you will enter into a relationship with the game and with your fellow players, such that you will go to the dangerous places together in mutual bravery and trust. Game designer Meguey Baker has coined this distinction as Nobody Gets Hurt vs. I Will Not Abandon You.

She says, “I as a player expect to get my buttons pushed, and I will not abandon you, my fellow players, when that happens. I will remain present and engaged and play through the issue. I as a player expect to push buttons, and I will not abandon you, my fellow players, when you react. I will remain present and engaged as you play through the issue.”

I Will Not Abandon You is the default mode of Dreaming Crucible play.

Continue reading The Dreaming Crucible: I Will Not Abandon You.

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

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

Free Play 1 – The Sources

As promised a couple of weeks ago, I’m taking a look at Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art to see how it integrates with my current understanding of creativity, spontaneity and collaboration. It was one of my first encounters with the subject a decade ago, and I want to see how I relate to it now and deepen my understanding and practice.

Section 1: “The Sources” talks about creativity, what it “is” and where it “comes from.” He describes the goal of the improviser as “moment-to-moment nonstop flow.” The process looks something like: allow yourself to be in the moment, relax and let one moment flow into the next, sculpting your art in real time, daring to express your inmost nature. In that way you can free yourself to create for the sheer joy of the act itself, and ultimately “disappear” in the absolute immersion of the work.

Sure, sounds simple enough, but how, right? Well, there are lots of techniques and practices that aim toward this. But there’s no easy “spontaneous creativity” switch inside a person that they can throw and let it out. It’s a process, a wax-on, wax-off journey that develops the skill by practicing it until it becomes as natural as breathing. Continue reading Free Play 1 – The Sources

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.)

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