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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!

One friend read that and decided to bow out, both for scheduling reasons and because he wasn’t sure if an RPG setting was a place he wanted to be “emotionally vulnerable.” and more power to him! I have no judgment on that and feel like the email did its job in exposing that difference in priority. Then another player, my brother in fact, asked me, in a slightly apprehensive tone, “what exactly do you mean by ’emotionally vulnerable’?” I told him it was mainly about adhering to the Apocalypse World tenet of playing characters like real people, and examining real grief, real suffering, real joy. He seemed satisfied with that answer, though he later decided to bow out of the game anyway.

But it got me thinking: I say something like “emotionally vulnerable” and assume everyone knows what it means, but I’m not even sure *I* know what I mean by it! It’s more of an instinctive, felt thing that defies definition, but I set about to try to express it, so I could make sure my fellow players understood me. Here’s what I came up with and emailed the group:

When I say “emotionally vulnerable play” I DON’T mean group therapy masquerading as roleplaying, or pre-planning what themes will be addressed and how, or elevating emotional resonance OVER the characters and story. In fact, I feel that we can only achieve real emotional resonance THROUGH maintaining the integrity of the characters and story. What I DO mean is, bringing to the game an openness to being powerfully emotionally affected by play. Beyond that, it’s individual to the specific game. So, for this game, “emotionally vulnerable play” is centered on AW’s tenets to play the characters as if they were real people, and to make Apocalypse World seem real. To me, that means engaging a lot of empathy as players. We don’t necessarily have to play nice, compassionate people, but whatever fiction and characters develop, if we maintain awareness and appreciation of their plight on an emotional level, we can avoid devolving into humor as emotional avoidance or pure action-escapism. Humor and action are great, but not at the expense of empathy.

So that, if you like, is my “definition” of emotionally vulnerable play. It basically amounts to “tell me what game we’re playing and I’ll tell you what emotionally vulnerable play means in that game. Both a game’s structure and its subject matter deeply affect what kinds of themes you can address, and how. For instance, here’s a list we came up with of themes that we came up with that interest us in Apocalypse World:

The touching humanity of people in desperate circumstances
What happens to human society in the midst of catastrophic collapse
The possibility of love in the midst of misery, cruelty and violence
Characters coping with the effects of abuse, violence, sexual assault, etc.
Unconventional sexuality, both functional and dysfunctional
Possible sexual relationships between PCs
PCs as a sort of intentional family, though maybe a fucked-up one
Trying to build a better world out of a pile of shit
The search for meaning/transcendence/redemption in a god-forsaken world

Now, I don’t expect to hit all of these themes, or even most of them, in one game. But this, I hope, gives us a sort of constellation of themes that clearly lays out the range of possibilities for play, without locking us into a narrow course or particular outcomes. We’ll follow where play leads, but with a strong set of orientating trajectories that send us down fruitful avenues. Of course, the real test is whether this sort of listing and discussion is actually useful in soliciting emotional buy-in and producing satisfying play. We’ll soon see!

Peace,

—Joel

5 thoughts on “Vulnerable places”

  1. Very inspiring…on of these days i’d like join one of these games. I think it’d be an awesome experience, especially with one of your “emotionally vulnerable play”. :3

  2. I’ve appreciated this kind of play when it arrives organically and I’ve found games that leave a space for it among those I enjoy. I’d even say I generally prefer those kinds of games.

    But steering towards those kind of moments hard and including that as a goal/mission statement prior to a game project is something I’d *personally* be wary of. This for reasons too long and various to enumerate here but the kernel of my hesitancy lies in the belief that those moments are most powerful when subtle and “found.” Whether you’re talking about a movie script, a novel, or a role-playing session.

    I’ll be curious to hear how this develops. You’ll be playing an outstanding game in any case. (more than a couple dozen sessions of AW for me now…)

  3. As the MC of the game Joel’s discussing, Matthew, I have to say I agree with you–those moments have to be “found”, and can’t be forced. We’re not trying to force it. We’re saying, “In this game, we really want to find these emotionally vulnerable moments. Let’s seek them together!”

  4. I understand where you’re coming from, Matthew. I had similar misgivings when I wrote the original email. I only did so when vague talk about “emotionally vulnerable play” was prompting people to ask questions. I was quite concerned that I would overstate or overplan the themes we might address, and thus stifle the spontaneity of play. I was delighted to find this wasn’t the case!

    After the first session, the group discussed this briefly, and came to the conclusion that listing so MANY themes was what kept it fresh and alive. Listing, say, two or three themes WOULD channel play narrowly into a predetermined course, but with so many themes laid out on the table as it were–more than would be POSSIBLE to address satisfyingly in one game–it simply provided a rich tapestry to draw from.

    I also tend to think that framing the themes as open-ended questions or issues, rather than answers or conclusions, helps immensely. An old Story Now technique. 🙂

    But in any case, the whole thing’s an experiment! I didn’t know how it would turn out; I just took it into my head to try a new method of communicating expectations and hared off with it. Seems to be working out pretty well so far, but it”ll be a field for constant refinement, like all other creative techniques.

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