All posts by Mo

Café Game Exchange

So I was reading on Meg & Em’s blog about Epidiah’s terrific idea and have the perfect café in Toronto in mind to try it out with.

If I did the ground work here and the café in question agreed, would any of you who has a published game be interested in sending me a comp copy to put in the exchange?

Dance me to the end of game.

“Enjoying roleplaying is rather like enjoying dancing: At some point you have to throw your inhibitions to the wind, admit you might look like a fool to passing spectators and enjoy the moment. Also like dancing, which at first may seem like a fairly limited activity, roleplaying has almost infinite depth and variety in the experiences it provides.”

From this week’s the Escapist. Check out The Dice They Carried for a fun article.

Context

So my Great Aunt Gertrude keeps asking me to get on with writing more about that body of post-immersionist theory (thanks Mick, great way to put it!) I’d been working on last year, and it just so happens I have a couple more things I’ve been itching to talk about: The first of a pair is context. The second will come in a later post.

As you might have suspected, I’m really big on context – all my theory’s heavily invested in the idea that play success is wholly dependant on the contextual positioning of the player in relation to everything else: other players at the table, social contract, system, preferred payoffs, goals, modes of play, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to use the word context contextually: what I’m specifically looking at here is the player’s requirement for context. Also, while I absolutely think this discussion has application with some of the other sockets, mostly I’ll be talking about character socket play, because, well, that’s what I like & know best, and so focus on. So in a nutshell, what I’m looking at is how much or how little contextual establishment a player requires for her character in a game, and how I think that might relate to her payoff, goals and modes of play.

So what is contextual establishment? Well it has to do with how a character relates to herself, the world, the story, the other characters. As a person, you have a context in every moment of every day. That context is critical to your understanding of the world and to your ability to interact in it. It is built by all of your past experiences, by an inventory of your present situation, by the expectations which you invest in the world, and your ability to forecast future outcomes.

Picture this: You and your friend John are walking through the mall. You’re looking to buy a new leather jacket which is going to cost 500 dollars and you’re planning on paying cash. You’re counting out the money on the way to make sure that you have enough.

Now picture this: You and your friend John are walking through the mall. You’re looking to buy a new leather jacket which is going to cost 500 dollars and you’re planning on paying cash. You know that John has compulsive habit of punching people in the head when he sees large sums of money and taking it because he’s done it to you a half a dozen times. Are you still counting out the money on the way? (Why, you’re probably asking, am I even with John at the mall?)

Now picture this: You and your friend John are walking through Compton. You’re on the way to the store to buy a new leather jacket which is going to cost 500 dollars. Are you carrying 500 dollars in cash? If you are, are you counting it there in the middle of the street? Are you still with John, given that he’s a reckless head-punching bastard?

So yeah, as a person, context affects how we feel about things when they happen and how we decide what to do in response to them. Most of the time we don’t notice our internal relationship with context. We have long-tuned instinctual processes built to deal with it like the one that makes you flinch in fear when that head-punching bastard moves his arm quickly but doesn’t when your cat Buster darts across your lap.

When context changes radically or inexplicably, the instinctual processes can totally break down. And as anyone who’s ever traveled extensively can tell you, being deprived of context (cultural context, for this example) over a long period of time can be disorienting or even frightening. Learning to intentionally work through differences in context (rather than instinctually coasting through sameness in context) causes a lot of cognitive dissonance.

When I lived in Brazil or India everything I did, no matter how simple, took energy and focus because I had to work to understand the cultural context of everyday life and try harder than usual to act within that model. The propensity for failure to understand the context and then act inappropriately also became greater, which caused a heightened sense of latent (and sometimes acute!) anxiety than I would otherwise feel.

So in roleplaying context is important too. All players need at least a little context to get traction in play, and some players need a lot more than that. At a broad and basic level, context is established through setting, system, genre, and past play (among others). Telling you the game we will play takes place in the real world, gives you different building blocks to build a contextual model than telling you it takes place in Narnia, Glorantha, or aboard the Millennium Falcon. Telling you that the game will be a pulp, will affect your mental model differently than if I’d said western, noir, or space opera. This is really why RPG’s loves them some genre and why games in general are prone to setting books, splatbooks, archetype lists etc. etc. They are all ways to shortcut communal context around the table and get people in position to play together.

You can cut context a thousand ways but where I want to get to in this discussion is that beyond the communal context at the table which everyone needs and which makes the game possible, some players require specifically higher degrees of context to achieve their goals in play, interact with their character in mode or get at their payoff. Some examples:

  • Higher context players might require historical context in character (like a background), to provide a contextual sense of where the character has come from and who the character is as a person whereas a lower context player may prefer the character to be a blank slate that’s fully open to interpretation.
  • Higher context players might require in character social freeplay to get a sense of the contextual relationship between their character and other personas (PC or NPC) in the fiction while lower context players might find it just as satisfying to invent those relationships on the fly.
  • Higher context players may need contextualization before conflict to position themselves to be able to experience the interaction whereas lower context players might more fully enjoy the experience if they’re given the thrill of in medias res scene framing.
  • Higher conflict players may prefer moment-to-moment or event-to event play while lower context players might find time lapsing or sudden time jumping a happier pace.

Of course, I shouldn’t have to say this because if you’re reading my blog you should already know that it’s implied, but: there’s no objective right or wrong, better or worse in this equation. Whether high or low, the threshold of context required by a player is relational to their enjoyment of play and the only place better/worse comes in is in how well the player’s payoff was realized.

Calibrating context correctly is an important process to enjoyment in game. Like me in India, the farther away you are from the context you’re expecting the less comfortable the game will be and the more detracting from fun. I suspect I understand how this trends with other elements of the emotional agenda, but I’m not ready to point at it until I’ve established the piece it’s (fraternally) twinned with.

Next up: Relief.

Simon Says…

So Simon Carryer rocked my socks earlier this week with this Culture Builder that he posted elsewhere on the Interwebs. I thought more of the world should know about it.

Here’s the idea:

First, you need to come up with 13 “rules” for your culture. They should range from really broad, general, and non-intrusive, through to very specific, all-encompassing laws. You can crib them from existing cultures if you like. Depending on the game, maybe everyone can help come up with these. Number them 2-10, then Jack, Queen, King.

For example:

2: People wear blue for mourning.
3: Women always get first choice of food, and the eldest choose first.
8: There is a tribe called the “Gazzir” who provide guards to aristocratic families. The tribe is renowned for honour unto death, and fanatical loyalty to employers.
9: Swords are forbidden to be carried by anyone not of noble lineage. For this reason, pole arms are common.
Queen: Those who are sentenced to death, or contemplating suicide, can opt to join a sect of monks called “the Nameless”. They give up their old identities, and live ascetic lives of servitude.
King: The Emperor’s word is law, and none may question it and live.
(of course, you’d have 2-K all done)

Now, in game, when you need an off-the-cuff NPC, or if you’re preparing NPCs for a game, draw a card. Referencing the number on the card and check the suit. Take the rule you’ve drawn and interpret it according to the suit:

Hearts: The character embodies, enacts, or enforces the rule.
Diamonds: The character twists, alters, or avoids the rule.
Spades: The character’s life is altered (for good or bad) by the rule.
Clubs: The character breaks the rule.

So, drawing from the above list:

2 of Diamonds: Alaric the Mason wears blue every day, and has done for years. No one knows if he’s mourning a long-dead wife, or if he’s just weird. Though he seems perfectly normal in other respects, it makes people suspicious.

3 of Spades: Gwen is the mother of five hungry children, and poor. She lives with her mother-in-law, who always chooses the most food for herself, leaving very little for Gwen and the children. Gwen is forced to eat almost nothing, so her children can survive.

8 of Clubs: Numun the Betrayer was a Gazzir guard who betrayed his employer, a cruel and merciless man. Numun and a few of his friends slew the man. Now Numun’s tribe is hunting him down to restor their honour.

9 of Hearts: Darran of Everwood is a young nobleman, and an expert swordsman. He itches for a chance to test his skill against the best in the land.

Queen of Diamonds: Aliea is an advisor to the Emperor. Though she wears the garb of the Nameless, and claims none of her former identity, forgoing even her name, she is often present at high-level meetings, and has a strong voice in the Emperor’s war-council.

King of Spades: Beatrice, a serving-woman at the palace, is sentanced to death for refusing to go to the Emperor’s bed.

Aces: Aces are a special case. Come up with a previously unknown rule, and then refer to the suit to find the character’s relationship to the rule.

So the idea is that you get a whole lot of characters with kind of intertwined fates, different stakes in the culture.

Simon says… “I think it’s an interesting way of doing “show, don’t tell” in a fantasy game, where the culture, and how it works day-to-day, is revealed by the characters the players meet, rather than dictated from on-high. If nothing else, it’s a great prompt for imagination. These characters were all thought up on the fly as I was typing this, but I’d be happy to have any of them in my games. I like how they really act as plot-hooks, but they’re plots that are firmly rooted in the culture. So often I think fantasy cultures are treated as this monolithic thing, where all members of the culture adhere to a set of guidelines unerringly. What I like about this idea is that it introduces the complexity and moral ambiguity of real cultures, without endless complications to the game.”

Disruptive Emergence & the Impassioned Character Socket

**Warning** This post will contain a spoiler about season 3 of The Wire. You’ve been warned. Also, if you’re responding, please don’t spoil seasons 4 or 5 of The Wire for me. K?Thx. **Warning**

So last night, Brand and I are watching the last three episodes of Season 3 of the Wire, and along comes the scene where Pryzbylewski is standing, gun in hand, looking at the dead body of the cop he’s just shot. (For those who don’t know and didn’t care if they were spoiled, Pryz is a misfit wildcard inept cop that got through the Academy on nepotism, who early in Season 1 nearly beat an innocent kid blind for sassing him, and ended up behind a desk. His becomes a real redemption story when turns out, despite everyone’s best guesses (including Pryzbylewski’s) that he’s actually “real po-leece” when it comes to the analytical trace work involved in Major Crimes. The first time he’s out of the office in like two and a half seasons, he gets involved in a random chase and ends up mistaking a cop for a perp and shooting him dead.)

At this point, I hit pause on the g-d-clickybox and turn to Brand. “That there is what Vincent’s looking for when he talks about mechanics that bring on undesirable emergent story.” There wasn’t really any lead up to the scene, just a few quick shots interspersed with the other scenes: McNulty and Pryz eating Chinese food and getting the call, McNulty running through a back ally while Pryz round out in the car to head him off. Then there’s McNulty on the walkie, and he hears the shot fired, and finally there’s Pryz standing there with his gun out, looking freaked out of his mind. The killing is out of the blue, and all the lead up and shooting itself don’t even happen on screen. It’s obviously the work of disruptive mechanics.

Brand loved it. I didn’t. …. Shocking, I know.

But it did make for this great two hour conversation before we ended up getting back to the show. There’s a lot from that conversation I won’t get to in this post, might get into later if I’m up to it.

There ensues this real clear articulation that happens over how we interact (differently) with media – mainly movies and TV, but touching on print stuff too. He likes this scene with Pryz because it’s dramatic, because it moves the story, and because it lends a kind of realistic satisfaction to the series. In real life, our shortcomings come out to haunt us in the moments we think we’ve overcome them. When life is at its most brutal it often is over before you know what’s happening. It’s swift and explosive and afterwards nothing is the same. The Wire also (mostly) strives to provide a sense of real-lifeness as cop dramas go, so this makes the presence of this kind of event even more satisfying, in his eyes. He feels this turn of events is full because it’s a value add. It provides another kind of drama that enriches the story overall.

Brand, through his story socket, connects with the event and appreciates it cognitively. It’s intellectually fulfilling.

While I totally get why he likes what he likes there (and see it as valid) I don’t like it because it feels empty. It feels like the show has witheld. I’m engaged with the show, and I’m very much enjoying it because it does a very good job of creating complex characters in all shades of grey, and then all of a sudden, it changes the rules on me and I’m not allowed access to the character experience. On a dime, the character’s life is changed forever, I have no access to understand what really happened, nor to make the transition with the character (because I have been sharply and emotionally decontextualized from him). All of a sudden Pryz feels foreign to me and I can’t empathize with him properly. Sure, I can step away from it and type now: It is an interesting narrative device. I can cognitively appreciate what they were trying to do, and even how they succeeded in doing it. I even mean it when I type that, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was unfufilling to me in the moment of engagement.

I, through my character socket, became unconnected to the event which prevented me from appreciating it in the impassioned moment. It’s emotionally unfufilling.

Character Disposability

(or, variations on an old theme.)

So Brand and I have been playing Vincent Baker‘s new game In a Wicked Age. It’s a load of fun, very intuitive, fiction forward and non-fiddly for those of us who like the system to get out of the way in the moment of play. I might write up some AP of the game at some point, but for right now I want to talk about one specific rule.

In a Wicked Age has Forms of action (Covertly, Directly, For Myself, For Others, With Love, With Violence), that serve essentially as your character’s stats. Two of these Forms (Covertly and For Others) can be injured and two (Directly and with Violence) can be Exhausted. When your aims in game are thwarted in a final (final in the scene, not overall) way you get injured or exhausted, which means that the dice size of those Forms are reduced by one level (e.g. a d6 becomes a d4). When two of your Forms’ dice size are reduced to 0, that character is out of the adventure. (There is room in the game for the players on either side of the dice to negotiate a different outcome than being exhausted or injured, where both sides are willing to give a little).

The game also has something called a We Owe List, which stores names of characters that the game commits to coming back to include again in further stories. Players get on the We Owe List by being the underdog in a fight and managing to stay in it until the end of the first round. That how doesn’t really matter one way or another to this post; what’s important is that there is the possibility that you can come back at some point if A.) You have managed to get your name on that list and B.) you get knocked out of the game by being exhausted or injured.

For me, this all brings up an issue around character disposability: at what point can a character can be removed entirely from play, and by who’s agency is that removal performed? In A Wicked Age, the player can make a character choice to walk away or narrate their character’s death (though that choice might be contested by another player) but it can also be determined by the mechanical system alone (exhaust or injure a character sufficiently to remove the character who is not on the We Owe List from play. These mechanics bother me a great deal as a player.

As an impassioned, other kind of player who makes deep emotional connections to the characters I play and who prefers, for the most part, gestalt over emergent play, this can be very disorienting. This isn’t a criticism to In A Wicked Age, which Vincent Baker designed (and pretty elegantly from what I’ve seen so far) to do specific things that aren’t necessarily targeted at me or the kind of player I am. It also isn’t a phenomenon particular to IaWA. Clinton R. Nixon’s TSOY has a similar mechanic that is triggered whenever a character achieved a Transcendent success (rank 7) which can only really happen once the character has become a Grand Master in the skill being rolled. When transcendence happens, the character is not immediately removed from play, but must be retired within 24 game hours. Of course, all of the combat oriented traditional games, such as D&D can bring on the immediate end of a character by attacking it, preventing it’s escape, and killing it.

The crux of the matter for me is that the work of my playstyle focuses on the loopback between myself and my character which is formulated via an intense emotional investment that enables the cathartic play I seek out. Even if the character is not a real person, even if the character and I do not share a meatspace, or know each other as people, my relationship with (most of) my characters is one of deep emotional connection. She may not be an actual person to be available to be known but I do know her, understand her, feel her, am her.

While sudden, seemingly random (read mechanically mandated) death might emulate the world as it really is or “should be” or provide a more tangible sense of verisimilitude into the danger of the world, I’m not looking to emulate or experience the world as it is but to tell the story of my character or tell the story my character is part of. I don’t need tangibility in danger, or to feel like the game world has gravity, but I do need to feel like the game is robust enough for me to push hard and hurt my character dramatically and drastically without feeling like the game’s going to just take her out from under me because I rolled too well, or just didn’t roll well enough in this moment right here. Knowing that condition exists actually serves to make me more guarded and inhibited in play. When we play TSOY, we hack the rule (currently we’re playing Fortune’s Folly, 7th Sea source material using TSOY’s rules and where Transcendence normally happens we have put a “fate lash” – a mechanic that seriously complicates the character’s life, but leaves her living) if I can’t hack it (heh), I never ever take a Grand Master skill. In IaWA, I’m just not comfortable until I’m on the We Owe List, and if death were to come up, I’d do my best to negotiate a different outcome.

I can also totally see how more emergent players might find this to be a satisfying game driving contribution to their story. But for me, I need time and space to find the closure of a character. Partly that closure provides time and safety to come back to the I before character death (ritualistically important, I think, in high emotional, serious or dangerous play). Also, that closure helps me to retain my emotional investment in the story overall because it gives me a chance to refocus the conduit into my secondary story socket.

None of this to say that mechanically mandated character disposability should never exist, but just to write out the experience to offer it as a design data point of interest.

Intimacy Enabling: Art, Kink, and the Virtual

So in thinking about my last post in the series, it occurs to me that there are a lot of things that enable intimacy in roleplay. This post is about three of them.

Art

Ages ago, on Yud’s Dice, Brand talked about how the word art was a power word…

“Art is a loaded term. Art is a word used to give value to one human endeavor or activity above another. Art is a way of saying ‘This thing is important to my stance on the human social condition and gives/takes power away from the part of society I inhabit.’ ” ~Brand, in Games, Art, Power, and Me

…and I’m entirely on board with that. I think discussions about what is and is not “art”, (just like those about what is and is not a “game”) are most often semantic wars used to legitimize one endeavor while marginalizing another. However, in thinking about the more extreme kinds of RPG situations where intimacy is strongly enabled, it occurs to me that “art” is a power word loaded in other, possibly more positive ways.

Just as I can legitimize or marginalize an activity that other people are doing by bestowing or withholding the word “art”. I can use the same word to bestow an activity I am participating in with a particular kind of freedom, not just to empower it from an objective cultural perspective, but to empower it socially within the activity itself. “Art”, we are taught to believe, is something of value that transcends the normative rules of human behavior. “Art” is something that is breaks us out of our mundane, human experience and compels us instead to move towards a sublime contemplation of the human condition; it’s a goal greater than value of its elements or of its participants.

So what does that mean to intimacy? Well, when an organizer of an RPG-as-art event uses the word art, most importantly, without even opening up an actual discussion, it begins a framework for a social contract between the participants. It says: this event is about seeking a sublime reflection of the human condition, and the product of it is greater than my desire or your desire, and aims to make a creation greater than the sum of our inputs. It mandates a particularly demanding level of investment on behalf of the participants, but at the same time promises a particularly powerful artistic license and bestows a lack of judgment in the process of, and a particular sense legitimacy on the participants as “artists”.

Similarly, several of these events, especially in the range of the Nordic Art-LARPS, span play over extreme periods of time (such as Europa, a five day, fully in-character LARP set in and simulated like a refugee camp in Eastern Europe) which demands a particularly intense level of intimacy not just with other participants, but with the story, the setting and the character. This is linked in with what I said above about the particularly demanding level of investment mandated to participants. I also don’t see it as a co-incidence that these mechanisms of intimacy are coupled with a pro-immersion mandate. After all, I started this discussion to explain how intimacy was a vital component of support for those playing in character-socketed Impassioned Other territory.

Now, I should be clear that I’m not at all interested right now in the discussion of whether the product of these RPG-as-art events actually are or are not art, nor whether the participants are or are not artists. What I am interested in is the way that the use of the word creates a specific cultural context drawn in a tight circle around these events that optimally should result in a powerfully intimate milieu to play in. I’m also not interested in the discussion of if RPG-as-art events are or are not better or worse than other kinds of roleplay. What I’m interested in is the way that the intimate milieu and cultural context drawn around these events facilitate the participants arriving at and achieving a common payoff.

Kink

Taking intimacy to the emotional and physical extreme, BDSM roleplay is replete with mechanisms to facilitate intimate play. Although this may not be the first thing that jumps to mind for you when considering roleplay, BDSM play certainly involves taking on characters, degrees of immersive activity, and story play to varying degrees of completion, spontaneous and organized, small and large from the episodic to the epic. Although it’s rarely discussed, there is a good deal of people involved in both activities independently, and I’ve also talked to a wide variety of folks who have described the BDSM activity that has spilled over from their LARP or tabletop experiences.

Participants in BDSM play put a strong emphasis on safe words and scene negotiation. Whether the event is between consenting partners or as part of a larger, organized venue, a vast, varied, and clearly defined vocabulary aids in the the identification of hard and soft limits for the participants (kind of like lines and veils in power sexual situations) and events are not only flagged to facilitate the understanding of the event’s social contract, but occasionally they come accompanied with fully explicit, written codes of conduct or actual legal contracts that must be signed before walking in the door. Also, not unlike NGH and IWNAY set up boundaries and support space, some BSDM scenes use SSC (Safe, Sane and Consensual) and RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) philosophies to guide or inform their play practices and use ritual elements to transition into and out of the play space.

The tools in a BDSM context are, for the most part, better defined and the contracts more explicit because the potential for harm is considerably greater than it is with conventional roleplay, and so there is an absolute need for them to be more efficient and reliable. Here, like in RPG-as-art events, a particular investment and level of intimacy is demanded and created in a direct response towards supporting the achievement of a particular payoff. And like my conclusions above, I find it no surprise at all that BDSM events also have pro-immersion mandates. Even in situations where there are no distinct characters to play, becoming the *role* you play in the BDSM context is, well, the point, and for many involved, the pathway to sexual fulfillment; it’s the payoff.

The Virtual

Finally, and distinct from the previous enablers, virtual spaces such as MU**’s , MMORPGS, PBP and PbeM, by their very nature as anonymous gateways enable participants to achieve a heightened sense of intimacy. Here I am not talking about games like Bitches in the Vineyard, in which a MUSH was used to facilitate the play of a bunch of people who knew each other from another context (Story Games) but for whom physical distance made around the table play impossible (Brand and I are in Toronto, Jess Pease in Boston, Jess Hammer in New Jersey, Nancy in California). Instead, I’m talking about standard PBP, MUSH or MMORG play, where a participants logs into an interface to play a game and meets the (majority of) other participants through the game.

While you could argue that actually intimacy is impossible in such an anonymous environment, when you look at the reasons that intimacy are important to the Impassioned Other context, as an environment which supports personal vulnerability and unfettered social interaction, you can see what I’m getting at. When a participant in this situation engages with the game, who they are in actuality ceases to matter, and assumption of the Other is facilitated. An enhanced sense of safety is inherent both because of the anonymity of the medium, and also because the ritual is built in: to enter the game space, I logged in, to get back to the safe space, I log out.

Environmental factors may also enhance this, for all of these games are most played from the safest of spaces: your own home, they are often played while alone, without outside interruption, frequently in dim light looking at a bright monitor in a way that lends itself to a mildly hypnotic connection. Participants can fully be vulnerable to the game environment because their selves are fully protected, they can full give over to the character or the story they are “living”and because whatever information they give over can be carefully constructed, can express things that are of a more vulnerable, personal context. They have less fear of being judged, and can escape more effectively in a fantasy context.

Again, just like in RPG-as-art events and BDSM play, most of these virtual play spaces (all of them, I warrant, in which characters exist as more than an icon on the screen) are pro-immersion environments that encourage participants to act fully within the context of the character in reaction to the game world. I don’t find it surprising that intimacy and a permission to be vulnerable is found in the same context.

Whether its that Impassioned Others are drawn to intimate spaces or that intimate spaces are constructed to support Impassioned Other play, I’m not sure, but I thought this would be a good start to looking at the connection between the two to see how the qualities of the social interaction encourage particular modes of play. Also, if you abstract, you might glean how different qualities of social interaction might discourage particular modes of play. How, for example, would a person playing in a Cognitive I mode with a system socket fit into an Art LARP, a hardcore BDSM scene, or a strict IC MUSH?

Design Blogroll – Games for the Mind

Ian Burton Oaks is quietly, yet prolifically posting over at Games for the Mind about some interesting stuff. The place I’m going to point you to is his discussion of GMing in which he also talks about hippy games and their possible tendency to be “socket locked” (that is, hard wired to a specific socket) which may inhibit or prohibit players of other sockets from engaging. Good stuff! I’ve added him to the blogroll, as you might have noticed. See also, his discussion on why he thinks Sorcerer isn’t socket locked. It makes me wish that I’d played Sorcerer at one point to be able to evaluate his analysis.

Go check it out.

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.

Playing at Cons

So Brand and I have signed up for Camp Nerdly, and have every intention of going to Gencon this summer barring, you know, random acts of India or whatnot.

This is where I make my first confession: I’m a con virgin. I’ve not been to a single, solitary one. I was asked, years ago when I was writing for Tribe 8 to come to Conthulhu in Toronto and sit on a panel for Women in the “Industry” but I quickly declined. I’ve never really been big into fandom on that kind of scale, and the excitement of cons was pretty lost on me.

This is where I make my second confession: Cons scare the jebus out of me. Though my self of early 90’s theatre geekiness would be shocked to hear me say this, the truth is that I’m really a big introvert. When I think of a convention hall with milling people everywhere, a bazillion hours of small talk and non stop 24/5 interaction without a quiet, thinky space to retreat to? I get a little woogy. I like me the small nooks and long conversations over dinner, not the frenetic chaos of the con floor. Besides, I used to say, I’m never going to even talk to those people again, so why should I bother?

But then, I started getting into design, and talking to all of you freaks, and started thinking that meeting people would be a very good thing. Also, I started thinking about releasing a game, and about coming out to represent what I’ve produced and this made approaching the idea of going a lot more palatable, even… exciting. But, when Gencon came around last year, I was on the other side of the world, so that turned out not to be so possible.

This is where I make my third confession: I know that one of the things that make you all most happy about going to cons is the games that you get to play together, and I want to feel like that too, but deep down I know that cons produce an atmosphere of play that is pretty antithetical to produce the kind of play I like, or want most, or want to exhibit to others. This is one of the reasons I wanted to go to Nerdly before I go to Gencon.

Nerdly’s got less going on in general: there’s a max of seventy people all there to concentrate on one thing. There won’t be thousands of random people from other fandoms contributing to the chaos at Nerdly. There won’t be shifts of demoing games and working the booth that will inevitably drag out all my best socializing energy before I actually get around to the socializing. There will be things like communal cooking and non-gaming group activities and such that build a better sense of community. People will be there with their partners and their kids, which will foster a better sense of them as whole people. Plus, there’s three days dedicated to just that kind of easy socializing and to games, which means even if I don’t get to play where I normally play, there’s a good chance that I’ll get to play closer to it than I will at Gencon.

And while again, this wasn’t the post I meant to write, this time it’s brought me right to the doorstep of the one I did mean to: Intimacy and the Impassioned Other.

My Gaming Census

This isn’t the post I set out to write. But it’s helpful in understanding that one, which I hope to write next, so I’m posting it anyway. I think that examination of the kind of gaming context you’re in can really help to identify where you’re coming from and help explain why things do or don’t make a particular kind of sense to you or someone else.

Some demographics from my face to face gaming world:

Life:

  • There are 11 folks who comprise the majority of my face to face gaming in the last five years or so, down from about 20 in the five years before that and 40 or so in the five years before that.
  • Six are men and five are women.
  • (edited to add: ) We fall, fairly evenly spaced, between the ages of 28 and 37. There’s a significant cluster of around 5 sitting at 32-33. The average age is 33.
  • All are “white”. Ethnicities represented are: Greek, Irish, English, Scottish and “Mutt” (their word, not mine).
  • At least four have some degree of self-identification with the word “queer”. At least one has been involved in committed same-sex relationships.
  • We cover a wide socio-economic band. Historically, we come from lower lower middle class to upper middle class backgrounds. Currently, we fit all fit somewhere between upper middle class and middle middle class.
  • Six of us have an identification to an organized religious group. None would be considered by the group to be particularly devout, only one would be considered adherent, one would be considered moderately adherent. Of the religious affiliations represented, we have: Mormon, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Buddhist and Wiccan.
  • Ten of the eleven are married couples. Three of those couples have kids. Three of the couples own their own houses.
  • Two of us have graduate degrees, four more have undergrad degrees, two more are enrolled to complete or came close to completing undergraduate degrees, one has specialized training, and two have high school diplomas. Of all the degrees mentioned, all are in the arts, save for three degrees earned by the same person, two in science and one an MBA.
  • Three grew up in metropolitan centers with a population of a million of more. One grew up in a metropolitan center with a pop of 300-500K, and three grew up in cities with a pop in the band of 100-200K. We all have spent the majority of our adult years in Toronto.
  • Six have lived in other countries, and five have traveled the world fairly extensively.
  • Politically, every one of us is left of center, most moderately, a few extensively. At least half would self-identify as socialist, and at least a couple maintain communist leanings.
  • We have three teachers, two business professionals, one illustrator, one chef, and one contractor among us. The others have jobs in television arts and customer service.
  • Ten of the eleven are historically very good friends. Some of these folks I have known for 15 years, others only 5 or so. I socialize with them both in game and outside of game. I have been to all of their weddings, and I have looked after their kids, their houses and their pets. These ten folks make up about two thirds of the core folks that I consider good friends. The others are non gamers. The extra one is pretty new in the last year, however, I have no doubt that if we continue to play that we’ll end up there too.

Notable (and possibly related) Experience:

  • At least half of us have been involved in theatre at some point or other. Of these, at least five have been on stage acting (in a play that required purchased tickets to attend). Of those, and two of us have had extensive theatrical training including improvisational theatre, playwriting, directorial experience.
  • Three have a background in public speaking, one of which has been a radio broadcaster.
  • Four of us have been paid as published writers. Two of those have more than five publication credits and one of those have made a living on their writing alone.
  • Two are extensively trained in and make their living by fine arts.

Gaming:

  • Six have GM’d games in which I was involved, (five of the men and me).
  • Nine of these have substantial LARP experience, and most people met each other through that experience. Of those, five still play LARP at least monthly, and one of them runs the biggest (and most successful) LARP in Toronto.
  • Only one of those people is new to gaming in the last fifteen years or more.
  • Eight have played around in new fangled hippy systems or hybrid concepts and seven play there in a fairly regular basis.
  • Two play CCG’s competitively. Three more play occasionally, and two more have played frequently in the past.
  • All of them, save one loves them the boardgames.
  • None of them came out of a history of war gaming, only three of them have played any at all, and of them none play with any regularity.
  • Two are heavily into MMORPGS
  • About half have extensive online MU** experience.
  • Only two of us have a voice in any online forum, blog or community that centers around gaming (can you guess which two?) and only two more even occasionally read anything on said forums.

On the games:

  • The games I’ve played in the last five years with these eleven folks: Dogs in the Vineyard (4 games), Exalted (4 games), Unknown Armies(3 games), Crime & Punishment (2 games), Tribe 8, Truth & Justice, Witchcraft, My Life with Master, The Shadow of Yesterday, 7th Sea, Breaking the Ice, Mage: the Awakening, Buffy, Nine Worlds, and Nobilis.
  • Eight of these games (four of the Exalted games, two of the Unknown Armies Games, the Truth and Justice game, and the 7th Sea game) represent the majority of my gaming time, were/are very involved games running anywhere from 1-4 years in length with sessions averaging 5-6 hours. Most of those were played either weekly or biweekly.
  • Six of them (The Mage game, one Dogs game (still playing), one Unknown Armies game, the Nobilis game and the Tribe 8 game, Witchcraft) were mid-length games that had 4-15 episodes of play at an average of 3-6 hours per session played over a year and a half.
  • The rest (TSOY, MLWM, BtI, Buffy, Nine Worlds, the other Dogs games) were all in the 1-3 episode range, and were either meant to be one offs (MLWM, BtI, one DitV), short plays (Buffy, one DitV game) or just didn’t work for us (Nine Worlds). The sessions would range anywhere from 2-6 hours in length. The two C&P games were, obviously, playtests.
  • None of these games were based on pre-written campaign adventures.
  • Several of the long run games were shifted or hybridized to change the dynamics of the game or suit the social contract at the table.
  • All of the long run games, and most of the mid run games were very dynamic. Most told epic stories and had evolving characters that faced brutal challenges. Most of the stories had a novel-like structure with the longest of the games being serial novels. Their stories were, full, evolved, and well developed stories, each having a beginning middle or an end. The longest ones had multiple beginnings middles and ends, and felt kind of like like trilogies (quadrilogies, whatever). Of those games that are considered over, most of them ended at a completion point, rather than falling apart or abruptly ending mid-stream.

So as not to discount their experiences with me, I should say that there is another half dozen folks that I have played with virtually, in this time. In these cases, we come together to play TT games in a virtual environment, rather than coming together to play a game that exists virtually (like a MUSH or a MMORPG). I have also played in pick up, one-shot games with approximately a dozen other people in the last couple of years. These kinds of games do not form the bulk of my gaming time (as I know that they do for some) and so do not have nearly as much impact as my other body of games.

If you’re up for it, I challenge you to take stock of your own gaming census and post it in your own blogs or forums, to give others a better sense of where you’re coming from.