Play Passionately: State of the Union

At the beginning of the year Claudia Cangini contacted me about translating some of my Play Passionately articles for publication at an event she was organizing.  Unfortunately, the articles here are written in a blog context and so I offered to write a ground up essay.  The result is this survey of the principles behind Play Passionately.  Having been translated into Itallian it marks my first foreign language publication.  It originally appeared in “Riflessioni Appassionate” a publication distributed at InterNosCon 2010.

Additionally, if you have not seen the work of Narrativa you are missing out.  They take simple book design and create works of art.

Play Passionately: The Social Risks of Story Creation

Story is a problematic word when it comes to RPGs.  To some, a story is just a causal sequence of fictional events and a good story is one that simply indulges the imagination.  If the character got to ride a dinosaur on the moon and stave off an invasion of Martian vampires then that was a good story.  Such a definition of story has never been satisfying for me and the fiction produced from such play has always felt hollow and devoid of emotional truth.  To me, a good story must reveal something about the characters as real human beings no matter how fantastical their circumstances.  I crave a certain kind of emotional intimacy, revelation and resolution that speaks to recognizable human issues.

Since role-playing happens face-to-face getting that kind of emotional resonance requires a degree of honesty, self-reflection and social vulnerability in ways that I think many gamers find uncomfortable.  Indeed I think that a great number of “story oriented” gamers have spent a great deal of time and energy developing techniques that remove that need for vulnerability.  By removing that risk these techniques not only diminish the emotional rewards of story creation but also unintentionally introduce new social tensions and stresses that further complicate the role-playing experience.  It is my intention to layout a few “best practices” for opening yourself to the levels of creative risk that routinely produces high-impact emotional narratives.  Collectively I refer to the philosophy underlying these techniques as Play Passionately.

The first step is learning to define a character based on his crisis rather than his capabilities.  I’ve seen many systems lauded on various internet forums because they yield “predictable” results.  What that seems to mean is that the player succeeds when he’s expected to succeed.  I’ve often seen this coupled with a notion that the GM should contrive a reason for a re-roll when an “outlier” result happens.  The general message is that the player constructs a character around what he wishes to see the character do.  The GM then basically queues up a rotating bevy of obstacles such that the “talking” guy deals with social problems and the “fighting” guy deals with physical threats and so on…

The problem with this is that outside this niche-driven spotlight rotation method investing in a character’s capabilities can lead to immense disappointment and frustration.  If what I care about is the fact that my guy can “talk his way out of anything” then anytime I fail to talk my way out of something then my one point of investment in the game has been blocked.

I was running a game of Sorcerer and after the first session one of the players commented that she didn’t like how much the die system redefined her character.  When I asked for clarification it turned out that there had been certain key moments where she had failed a die roll and in those moments her character concept had been redefined because the character she wanted to play “would have” succeeded at those things.  She had failed in those moments and her actual idea of who the character was had been altered.

The key to avoiding this disappointment is to shift focus away from thinking about what the character is supposed to accomplish and start thinking about the character in terms of what crisis he is confronting.  When a player invests in the character’s crisis the paths to satisfaction become less confined.  If my character is defined by his struggle with his religion then any set of events and resolutions which speak to that struggle will be satisfactory.  Maybe he drives his family away with his zealousness.  Maybe he abandons it all together.  Maybe he learns to keep it quiet so he can co-exist with his best friend.  What happens almost doesn’t matter because what the player and the group care about is the character’s struggle with his religion.

That isn’t to say that a character’s approach to that struggle isn’t important.  If part of the character is that he’s willing to shoot someone to back up his religious beliefs then that matters.  In fact, it’s vital.   But saying, “This is a guy who’s willing to back up his beliefs with a gun” is very different from saying, “This is a guy who never misses a shot.”  The former raises questions and introduces elements of narrative risk.  Who is he going to shoot?  What happens if he succeeds?  What happens if he fails?  The later introduces a comfort zone in which the character can safely take action without risk to his image or ego.

Once we’re thinking about characters in terms of the crisis and struggles they deal with, it raises the question of how we pick a crisis for a given character.  I’m going to borrow a phrase from Seth Ben-Ezra’s jeepform inspired LARP exercise, “A Flower for Mara.”  The phrase is: “play close to home.”  What that means is construct characters that care about what you care about.  That’s not the same as playing yourself.  Many games, such as Primetime Adventures or Shock, ask you to pick a real-world issue the character is struggling with.  Often, I have seen players pick issues that are appropriate to the character concept but that they have no personal emotional stake in.  A very common example is a player who constructs some kind of religious figure and then gives him issues with faith.  The result is almost always a kind of cartoony fire-and-brimstone didactic character that rings hollow with regard to real faith.

It is not enough to simply pick a topic out of a literature textbook as that leads to over intellectualized and distanced play.  I suggest pulling from something that personally frightens you or that you struggle with.  This doesn’t have to be an exercise is personal psycho-therapy since often we can pull these elements directly from the game’s setting material that got us excited about playing the game in the first place.

For example, I was running My Life with Master (a game about playing minions in the service of an evil Master) and the group had built a Master who ate young women to steal their youth.  One particular player immediately said, “I know what minion I DON’T want to play.”  I looked right at them and I said, “No, that is exactly the minion you do want to play.”  The character concept was the Master’s butcher.  The thought of carving up young woman was absolutely horrifying to this player.  He did play the character and the game was better for it.  Every act he did was portrayed with genuine revulsion.  When the Master finally ordered him to turn on his own sister the anger and the defiance the player presented in the character was heart-breaking.  He took those strong negative emotions he had for the concept and channeled them into a power house engine for creative contribution.

Armed with a character defined by a crisis the player has some personal investment in the actual activity of role-playing becomes rather simple.  The player simply has to advocate for his character.  The character is active in an emotionally charged situation.  The player merely has to decide what the character wants and what action the character is willing to take to get it.  It should be said that this is not the same as playing optimally or playing to win.  The character may act quite rashly or in a manner that is counter-productive from an audience perspective.  All that is required is that the player says what the character is doing to fulfill his agenda.

This fundamental “job” for the player might seem obvious.  However, I have noticed a trend in some gaming circles for players to treat the characters as simply one component in a larger structural artifact often referred to as The Story.  Such play often involves manipulating the characters into situations with the intent of achieving highly specific outcomes for better or for worse.  This is most obvious when a player expresses a desire for his character to fail in a given situation.  Such behavior by the player is often defended as pushing for an outcome that is more dramatic.

However, what is often over looked is that such behavior is fundamentally manipulative.  Emotional engagement has ceased to arise from honest connection with the characters and their crises and moved into the social arena where “dramatic effect” is to be owned and delivered to each other with calculated effect.  The behavior often leads to social competition under the guise of co-operation as players begin to “one up” each other for status and recognition over their dramatic contributions.

This phenomenon is most easily observed in Stake setting games such as Primetime Adventures when players have ceased to set Stakes centered on what their characters want out of a given scene but instead shift to settling creative disputes between players directly.  “If I win, then Alice and Bob’s affair is discovered by Carl but if you win then Alice gets pregnant but Carl doesn’t know it isn’t his.”  The characters in the developing fiction have stopped taking directed action at all.  The players are put in the position of having to manipulate and spend game resources to defend their creative input.  The mechanics have ceased to resolve imagined tension between characters within the fiction and instead have moved to resolving real creative tension among the players.  The game simply becomes a wrestling match between the players over narrative direction.

Somewhat ironically I believe that such behavior is an attempt to reduce tension.  I have come to the conclusion that many gamers value drama but actually shy away from tension.  By drama I mean emotive character play such as lying, betrayal, threats, grand speeches, mysterious behavior and so forth.  By tension I mean actual trepidation over potential outcomes when characters come into active conflict.  In many ways, it is emotionally safer for a player to manipulate his character into a calculated dramatic failure rather than honestly pushing the character’s agenda with no certainty to how things will resolve.

In many ways, players turn to an ideal abstracted story structure as a way to introduce assurances about outcomes.  When play deviates from those structural story assumptions, the defensive response is to say that the story has been “ruined.”  However, when story is viewed as the by product of emotionally charged characters in motion and conflict rather than a list of pre-play guarantees about how characters behave, what they can achieve, and how the situation will generally resolve, then any unexpected moment simply becomes an opportunity for self-reflection and re-evaluation.  A story can not be ruined (assuming it arises from genuine character-driven decisions, actions and conflicts). Only player expectations about what kind of story his character was in can be ruined.

In many ways a great deal of trust is required to drop these expectations and take a character loaded with personally evocative emotional issues and launch him into uncertain action.  It requires trust that your fellow players have sympathy and interest in your creative investment.  It requires trust that the game at hand is designed to allow passionate expression of characters and conflicts.  I do not deny that this is asking a lot.  When it pays off it pays off big.  The play experience and fiction generated is emotionally riveting.

However, when it fails, it fails pretty spectacularly and can result in much anxiety and hurt feelings.  You can not be afraid to fail.  Without risk there can be little reward.  Creative endeavors are huge social risks.  My advice is to embrace that and play with others who are willing to embrace that.  You don’t need to protect yourself from falling if everyone is willing to fall together.  I’ve had games that simply didn’t work and in each case the play group simply shelved the game and moved on.

To me, a good game is one that produces a great story but a great game is one that reveals insight into me or my friends that I might not have seen otherwise.  RPGs can be a great medium for building empathy and bonds of friendships between people.  However, that can only happen among players who are willing to put a little of themselves on the table to be examined.  That level of social vulnerably requires playing honestly, playing intently and playing passionately.

3 Responses to “Play Passionately: State of the Union”

  1. […]  I wasn’t really able to put a handle on my thoughts until Tuesday night, when I read the piece by Jesse Burneko over at Play Passionately (Thanks go to Jef Godesky for tweeting the link) about the “social risks of story […]

  2. oberonthefool Says:


    Part of me really likes this article, and part of me is pissed that you are kicking a hole in my fun. I know you don’t mean it this way, but there’s a lot of “badwrongfun” poking laced into this one. It’s a bit of a jagged pill.

    The simple point of fact is that very few people have a group that is emotionally close enough to play the way you describe. Sad but true. And it’s not something you can force or even construct consciously. It has to develop over time, and it’s a complete crapshoot. Or you get lucky playing with strangers (or acquaintances who may as well be strangers) for that con session that you’ll end up retelling for the rest of your gaming career.

    Ultimately, I can’t help feeling like, if I can get “fake drama” of the sort you describe out of my games, I’m doing pretty well and I should be happy, rather than feeling like it’s not good enough and being disappointed.

    It’s rare, but this is one of those times when I understand why some people wish indie/story/forgie people would just shut the hell up and let the rest of us have our ignorant little fun.

    (not saying you should, just saying I get where they’re coming from)

  3. […] particular, his State of the Union post on how he approaches games like Sorcerer is a brilliant summation of his thoughts about the […]

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