Intimacy and the Impassioned Other

So here I’m going to talk only about the upper right block, the domain of the Impassioned Other, where I spend the most and best of my play.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a strong masker. I maintain a distinct identity within the characters I play, but I have a powerful empathic connection with the character. I funnel my influence over the game through the agency of the character. I am influenced and informed by the character as a conceptual model, but because I can still maintain a sense of the character as a conceptual model, I can also assert influence over its development (with time and context) without denying my payoff. I willfully give the character a measure of transformative power over me as a goal of play, and for me, that transformation equals my cathartic goal.

All of these things are only fueled forward by my strong preference for impassioned play. Funneling decisions and actions holistically and intuitively via the character within the emotional milieu of the story and the character’s context in it optimizes the cathartic connection (open the floodgates!) and works to constrain any cognitive dissonance that might interfere with the empathic connection to character.

So, as you might imagine, out here where I play can be a really vulnerable place to be. There is a direct conduit between my emotional centre and the experience of the character, and I heavily invest in that empathic conduit. I feel things that my character feels as emotionally acutely as if I was the character, and although I maintain some degree of distinctive identity from the character, I am deeply affected by her plight even in situations where I personally do not agree or sympathize with her. When the games I play are the best that I can ask for, I have not just invited the game into my emotional centre to mess around, I have in fact, demanded that it do so.

Like Brand mentioned in his article on danger, some people would call this behavior in a game “dangerous play” or “edge play” because it is a willfully vulnerable state, and could possibly end up in the player getting hurt (I.e. psychologically or emotionally damaged, not “hurt feelings”). This is not what I consider “dangerous play” nor “edge play”; for the most part, it’s just “play”. I rarely get hurt in a game, but if I do it’s not because of this process, but because I’ve chosen to play in dangerous territory, with issues that I know are triggers or grey zones for me. Even then, because of the way I set up games, I don’t ever really get hurt, I just get shaken, and need a period of recovery (If people want, I can talk about this in a separate post, but I don’t want to go any farther here for fear of getting off topic).

However, the point is, that it is a vulnerable place to play, and that the structure that is required to support that vulnerability never happens incidentally. It requires a considerable amount of personal and emotional intimacy, both with the other players in the game and with the character & the story to make work. So I’m going unpack each of these individually for a bit.

In the post before last, I gave you an overview of My Gaming Census. The reason I needed that was to help explore how my gaming environment contributes the level of intimacy required to play where I play. I don’t think it’s necessary to go through each of the following and expedite how they might foster the kind emotionally intimate environment that would help somebody feel supported in being vulnerable in a group activity. So I’ll just repeat some key census data here:

  • I’ve known the people I play with for, on average, 10 years.
  • One of the people I play with most often is my husband.
  • I socialize with almost all of them more frequently than I game with them
  • I’ve been to all of their weddings, took care of their property, pets and/or kids. (and vice versa).
  • I know them all well enough to list that data off the top of my head.
  • We’ve played in intensive, high emotional, epic games with each other for years.

And a few more that might be suggested by the ones above but that I want to make explicit:

  • We’ve adjusted our play groups, meeting times and locations for game around, vacations, pregnancies, life events and baby raising.
  • We have had a thousand discussions on what we like and what we don’t like.
  • We’ve had a thousand wicked play experiences, and some really big play disasters.
  • We cook together, eat together, mind babies together, and clean up together, usually all in and around a game session.

And there are three things that I didn’t go into on the census. The first is that the more we play, the better, and more intentional our social contracts have become. Most of my games these days are based on IWNAY. Some are NGH with lines as clearly defined as possible. These clear policies help to define the boundaries at the table, or to mandate the expectation of support when things go badly, and strengthens the trust around the table.

The second, is that we make common use of ritual in our games. Each long running game has its own soundtrack, often has a theme song, has repeated key lead-in phrases, and environmental cues like incense or candles to help transition into and out of a protected space.

The third is that the majority of people that I play with are also Impassioned players, and a good chunk of those are Impassioned Others (notably, I believe, all of the women). While we are all not following precisely the same process or seeking precisely the same payoff, our shared preferences help us understand each other’s needs in the game, and so, for the most part, things in this area are pretty well protected (I by no means intend to say that my gaming group does not ever face obstacles or challenges, it’s just that in general we’ve done these pretty well, IMHO).

The second kind of intimacy that is (mostly) required to play where I play is an emotional intimacy with the character and the story. The answer to securing this one is usually just time, energy, and focus. For me and the majority of people I game with, emotional investment into the character and/or story compounds over the time played. It’s very rare for me to be able to plug in to a character immediately and have enough investment to seat in an emotional context and achieve the cathartic payoff I’m looking for. Sometimes it takes whole sessions to find, sometimes I get glimpses of it, sometimes it stutters in and out (Vincent, if you’re reading this, I’ve had more success in seating out the gate with Dogs than with any other game I’ve played).

However, in a long-run campaign, it’s rare that I don’t slide right into the emotional context of a character as soon as we start, even if it’s been a while since we’ve played a game. This is also a reason why “time lapsing” is disruptive to me in games. By that, I’m not implying any particular lapse of time, but instead a lapse over a critical period of time, whether that is 1 day or 100 years. In Exalted, if we just finished a plotline in which a sense of closure was achieved, skipping 100 years probably wouldn’t be a problem. However, if we skipped a day or week in the life of the same character where no closure had been achieved, I might have trouble with engaging the emotional context of the character. The same goes for the story.

And since this has turned into a really long post, I’m going to start to wrap up. The whole article is meant to say that playing where I play takes certain support parameters (as I am sure do many areas on the grid, especially along any given perimeter) and to explore the kinds of support my group employs. Also, this post has been meant to say that if you don’t recognize my play style, one possible reason could be that you just don’t encounter it. If your main source of gaming is pick-up play, convention play, or (tabletop) play in a public space, it’s possible that the environment is not conducive to people who play like me.

7 thoughts on “Intimacy and the Impassioned Other”

  1. Great post, Mo.

    There’s something that’s always bothered me when I read posts about your play style or the play styles of folks that I consider to be somewhere in the same ballpark as you. And I’ve never really been able to articulate it, but I think I might now understand what part of the issue might be. And let me say from the beginning that this probably has to do more with projections about how playing in a game with you would work. In real life, we’d probably function just fine.

    So, you know how you suspected that one of my primary sockets might be being the agent of other people’s fun? I think that comes from a lifetime of GMing and just my own personality preferences, but it’s definitely there and, I suspect, is fairly common among many roleplayers, perhaps especially so in people drawn to indie games.

    Well, when I read about your play style, it sounds like it’s so personal, so introspective, so dependent on how your yourself feel about the game. And, therefore, it feels really disempowering to me as someone who wants to play games to you. It’s hard to see how I, as a fellow player, can regularly be an agent of your fun when your fun seems so subjective and mainly the product of your own agency. Honestly, it’s similar to the feeling I get when I get dumped by some bi girl I’m dating for another woman 🙂 It’s like “Wow, I really can’t compete with that. I don’t even have a horse in this race.” So there’s a lot of anxiety that comes from even thinking about people who socket into the same things you do.

    Now, when thinking about it honestly, I doubt that we’d have any serious problems in play, but that’s the gut-level reaction I always have when reading about this kind of play. It’s like “Wow, Mo’s playing by a completely different set of rules that might make it impossible for me to really connect with her during play.”

    Anyway, I’d be interested to hear your reaction to that and would be even more interested in hearing how other players can contribute to your play experience, even players who you don’t necessarily have an intimate relationship with. Because right now it’s hard for me to see the social component of roleplaying and how that connects in to what you’re doing.

    1. Hi Jonathan, great questions.

      First to clarify what I said to you at one point: I suggested your socket was *social* and that it might be possible that you funnel your contribution through the agency of other people’s fun; essentially, an “Other”-based social socket. It’s a fine distinction, but important.

      I guess the answer is, you do have a horse in the race because you’re playing in the game with me. I can have this emotional conduit all fully in gear and raring to go, and without you, or Brand or whoever I’m playing with, there’s no catharsis, because nothing happens. What you provide me in game is critical, it’s *life*. Whether you are a GM or a fellow player, you help me get my fun by bringing breathing characters that are willing to interact with me in a high velocity way.If I am the subject and the object of my interaction, then there’s no emotional charge. It’s why dialog is one of the hardest things to write in fiction.

      If you want to be an agent of my fun, make a character that I can fall in love with, or that I can like despite hating, or something with a deft and dynamic charge between us. Make a fallible, full out open heart bleeding character that I will put my life on the line to defend. Or, in the right kind of game, give me a character that I will love and who will betray me, or betray himself for me, or who confesses his love for me with his dying breath just after I’ve taken brutal revenge in killing him. These are just examples, but the answer is: bring me a character that brings it personally and emotionally and feels like a real, whole, complex person.

      There’s probably more, but that’s huge and it’s late, though I’ll think about it some more in the future for sure.

  2. Jonathan,

    I’m going to answer some of this, because I have a perspective Mo doesn’t have — as she doesn’t play with herself as much as I play with her. (No, get your mind out of the gutter.)

    The truth is that its easiest to support Mo’s play style when you’re either a GM or an adversarial figure — like the Mistake in Polaris. When you have the ability to toss stuff at her and push/pull the character in a direct and supported manner it makes it pretty easy to directly contribute to her fun.

    Even in that area there are a few tricks that work. Having an empathic connection to the players is vital — or at least it is for me. My ability to GM a game for impassioned players is directly proportionate to my ability to emotionally read them: both in general and in the moment. The general read is one of the reasons for the group intimacy thing Mo speaks about — the better I know you the more I can read you in and around game. The read in the moment is often harder, and has lead to some specific rules around our table. For example, we don’t usually sit around a table all together, we sprawl about the room. But no player can sit in a place or a way that makes me unable to clearly see their face and make direct eye-contact with them. We had problems with that a couple years ago, and without the face-read and eye-contact I rapidly go from THE AMAZING GM to the SHIT GM.

    Of course system things like flags, kickers, and character generated content all work wonders with this. If your impassioned players tell you want they want, then all you have to do is support what they told you. You can then focus the empathy upon varying it and making it creative so you don’t just regurgitate what they tell you.

    With Mo, in specific, that part is easier than with some players who are more Othered or more Impassioned than her, because Mo can stop between scenes, drop out of character, and discuss what she wants to happen next, where her character’s head space is, and so forth. You can do lots of setup work for her before and after game and before and after scenes (though I don’t like to spend too much time between scenes, as it destroys my pace). So while it can be difficult in the moment of a scene to not break the cycle, if you pay enough attention between and after you can get a good sense of where it should go.

    (BTW, I highly encourage all my immersionist players to develop a skill like this. Being able to talk about things OOCly when not in the moment is a wonderful help to a GM. However, for some people it may be against their goal or payoff, and so it doesn’t always work.)

    Now most of that is directly applicable to GMs, but can be indirectly applicable to other players as well. The best key for other players is to use all of the above, but to learn to do a lot of it through pull. Believe it or don’t the reason Mo started talking about Push/Pull back in the day wasn’t because it was important on its own, but because she wanted to open up a discussion about how you work an impassioned/other table.

    If you can set things that are interesting and drawing up, bring up ideas that the PC can’t help but engage with, figure out ways to make yourself or your character vulnerable in a way that will impact the I/O PC, then you’ll be able to contribute to their fun just fine. You just have to have a degree of finesse, control, and subtlety because you can’t (without breaking it) just ram force or OOC instant ideas into the game and expect it to work. Instead you have to figure out what they want, what you want, and how you can guide those two things to come together.

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