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Examine Your Source Material

Posted in Uncategorized on September 27, 2010 by jburneko

This article on The Forge by Ron Edwards is of relevance to the following article: Redefining Mainstream

We live in a world with A LOT of media.  We can’t engage all that’s avaialbe and certainly can’t begin to engage all there has ever been.   For the last few months I’ve been submerged in The Dresden Files.  I recently said to someone, “I don’t really like them, but I can’t stop reading them.”  To me that says the first part of my statement was a lie.  I must be liking them on some level or I’d have stopped.  Further, to its credit, The Dresden Files is the only book series of its kind I’ve been able to stick with at all.  I stopped reading Harry Potter after book three.  Hell, I can’t even make it past the first book of Lord of the Rings.

This has been a life long problem.  The media I enjoy most doesn’t seem to line up with my other hobbies and interests.  Growing up I got handed a lot of Asimov and Heinlien because I appeared to be “that kind of kid.”  But I found that stuff too dry and sanitary.  In school I was fed Tales of a Sixth Grade Nothing and Super Fudge and later Johnny Tremain which even at that age I would have told you didn’t have enough sex or violence.  I was pretty much convinced that books were dumb.

Until at the age of 15 I read “Phantom of the Opera.”  Whoa!  Where had THIS been all my life?  From there I moved to Dracula and then to Frankenstein.   Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde was soon to follow.  I jumped on to that teen trend of my generation and devoured a lot of Stephen King.  I even read Interview with the Vampire (which is pretty good when considered in isolation of the rest of the series).

Looking at other media I’m reminded that I didn’t read comic books until my early 20s and even then it was stuff like Sandman, Sin City, The Maxx, and GloomCookie.   I saw Amadeus four times in theater when I was 8 years old.  My favorite films of all time include Dangerous Liassons (and it’s modern twist Cruel Intentions), 12 Angry Men, and Shooting The Past.  Even my taste in video games runs more towards the cinematic with Monkey Island, Gabriel Knight and The Last Express topping the list and games like Silent Hill coming to the top of the more “actiony” pile.

As I said, it would be a lie to say I’m not enjoying The Dresden Files.  But the books are not engaging me in the kind of deep personal satisfaction that some books do.  This prompted me to take a cold hard look at my shelf and see what does make me feel that way.  I see James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet.  I see Dennis Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie novels.  I see Harriet The Spy (god damn, that book).  I see my GloomCookie comics.  I see A Series of Unfortunate Events (the author has admitted writing the series from the same frustration I had with childhood reading).  I see Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and Patrick McGrath’s Asylum.  I see Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books.  I see The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales and Mathew Lewis’ The Monk.

Now, I generally keep on top of geek pop-culture.  I’ve seen almost all of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.  I’m, as I’ve said, reading The Dresden Files.  I’m a long time Doctor Who fan.  I’ve read Watchmen and seen the movie.  I’ve watched a fair number of Anime.   There is stuff in there I enjoy and some of it even produces that deep sense of personal satisfaction.  But my point is there’s a profound pattern that emerges when I cut away, “stuff I enjoyed” from “stuff that’s genuinely inspirational to me.”

By now you’re probably asking what has any of this got do with role-playing?  I looked at my shelf and I realized holy shit, I’m HIM.  I’m THE GUY.   I am the dude we keep talking about in various places around the internet.  You know, the guy who by all cultural logic *shouldn’t* be role-playing.  I’m the guy with deep literary and creative investment but NOT in traditional gamer/geek source material.

Whenever a big blockbuster movie comes out there’s usually a number of threads that pop up around the internet about “how do we role-play this?”   When I walked out of Inception I knew exactly what was going to happen in gamer-dom.  There would be a number of people talking about how to role-play Inception but largely focusing on the team heist element and the multiple layers of reality and different time scales.  Something told me I’m one of the few who walked out thinking, “Gee, how do I create a role-playing game where the players delve into their own psyche and confront hostile manifestations of their own guilt?”  Oh wait, I already wrote that game.

My point to all this is that we live in a very noisey media filled world.  And I’m going to go against conventional wisdom and say that most of it has a lot of merit on some level for a wide variety of reasons.  But my experience with The Dresden Files and my book shelf have reminded me that there’s a gap between simply what one enjoys and what actually speaks to one on a personal deep inspirational level.

So I ask you, look at your media.  Draw that line in the sand.  What have you enjoyed vs. what has gotten really and truly under your skin and into your heart?  What would role-playing with THAT material alone look like?

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Play Passionately: State of the Union

Posted in Uncategorized on May 25, 2010 by jburneko

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.