Category Archives: Roleplaying Theory

Soaps vs RPGs

Over on LJ, Jim Henley was talking about improv and its proximity to RPG’s and ended up asking me some questions about the improv soaps I used to do a lifetime ago. It made for an interesting brain dump, so I thought I’d post it over here in case y’all found it interesting (edited for format, readability and atrocious grammar).

Jim: It occurs to me that I need to know everything about your soaps. I know you’ve referred to them before, but they seem like a whole extra level of ambition beyond the creation of a play at a time, which is a level of ambition above “let’s make up a skit from scratch.” Some nosey questions that come to mind: Am I correct in inferring continuing characters across episodes?

Mo: Yup, constant characters. The soap would generally run for about 12-16 episodes. Sometimes they were like daytime soaps, sometimes Sci Fi, sometimes horror. When Vampire and Mage came out, we used their source material as a base… before they made them in to LARPS!

Jim: Were these performed for an audience or just within the troupe?

Mo: A faithful, if exceedingly rowdy and badly behaved audience. They would pay every week to see the next installment. Typically shows were late at night following another play (often other plays that some/all of the cast was in!), and had to be flexible enough to work off of whatever set and audience was in the theatre space at the time – which made for some fun challenges. Usually they were on Friday or Sunday nights, but one of them went nightly over the course of the week. In some of the soaps, the audience would shout out instruction or direction that the actors would feel free to take or ignore.

Jim: You had a set scene list to go through in performance? Would that mean that Scene X had to come out a certain way to justify Scene Y, but the actual beats of Scenes X and Y were still improvised? Did plans for scenes ever gang agley? What then?

Mo: We’d come in 1.5 – 2.5 hours prior to the performance, and do a quick physical warm up, then the director would post the scene list. The scene list would be skeletal, kinda like: “SCENE FIVE: X character encounters Y character in Z location. X tells Y this bit of critical information and leaves. Alone on stage, Y determines to do this thing about it.” Yes, often there would be subsequent scenes in the same episode that would directly depend on the outcome of your scene, but sometimes the scene was just for colour too, or set up something for next episode.

Usually scenes were between 1-3 people, thought sometimes we would have larger groups or the whole cast involved. Sometimes it would start with a couple, and one person would leave and another would come in. Each scene would take anywhere between 3 and 10 minutes, give or take, occasionally longer for very complex scenes.

After the director posted the scenes, everyone would crowd around and find out what they were doing that night, figure out which scenes they were in with whom and about what and have a few scarce minutes to talk about the scene, or block it out, if it were very physical.

I remember one particularly memorable scene where my character killed another character in a beat down drag out fight, complete with squibs and pre-scored costumes and props and stuff. We blocked it on an unfamiliar set in 10 minutes and never had time for a test run of course – crazyiness! For that scene, of course, because one character would be removed from play, it had been decided at the rehearsal three days before, so we had time to gather props and such. We didn’t know how the death would go down, just that it would. (edited: Of course, also when any scene where big props or big special effects were needed would have to known it was coming at least partly in advance. Once: homemade pyrotechnics!)

So we’d talk, brainstorm, block, then go get into costume and makeup, and then have five minutes of a voice warm up, often backstage as the audience was coming in.

Scenes occasionally went very wrong indeed, though much less than you might think. Someone once, because they were a late comer to the scene, missed entirely that he was supposed to be in that scene, and so the two people on stage ended up stranded. The funniest part about that one was that there was no backstage area in the theatre that episode, so all of the actors were sitting on a long bench in a darker nook but in full view of the audience. When it became obvious that something had gone awry, the other actors pointed him to the stage him, he got up, went to the post, read the scene made a “Well, here goes nothing” face and then jumped in… to gales of laughter from the audience, who always loved it when we’d fuck up.

If something went wrong, well, we’d just have to get it back on track, which demanded some quick thinking at times. Usually though, especially when there was a backstage, people would review their scene objectives just before going onstage, so when things went wrong they didn’t affect continuity of the whole show.

Jim: Let’s talk Socket Theory! Or maybe MB&G. Did you “attach” to the soaps differently than you attach to roleplaying games? Would you say your MB profile within the soaps was the same as your RPG profile, your real-life profile, or was it a third profile?

Mo: (What’s MB&G? Myers Briggs?) Hard to compare them, because at the time I did them, I wasn’t gaming. I came back to gaming (had played D&D as a kid) just at the tail end of them. Because the last few we did used games as source material, I ended up meeting a number of local gamers and started to play again. However, I would say my relationship to game grows directly out my time in the theatre in general, and out of the soaps in particular – especially my socket.

To prepare for the soaps, well before you’d hit stage, we’d have a couple of rehearsals that fleshed out the idea of the soap, the themes, the setting, the basic locations, the kinds of characters that would be needed. We’d play handfuls of characters in endless freeze games, and then pull characters we really liked, or were particularly effective (funny, scary, poignant, melodramatic, etc) out and make a cast of them, sometimes creating new characters to fill in the gaps.

Then there would be a whole bunch of rehearsals where we’d have character interviews. You’d literally go up on a hotseat, on stage, under a spot, and the rest of the cast and crew would rapid fire questions at you. In an hour they’d have dragged all this character history out of you and under pressure, you’d often find your character voice developing. There were also some funny, and always repeated questions like: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party?” or “So why do you want to join the secret service?” You were supposed to stay in character for the whole time and react to the questions as if they were really being asked. Some of the character history would be retained, some discarded.

Then there’d be a series of rehearsals where we worked on movement and voice, getting down the physicality of the character, the voice of the character, the idiosyncrasies and twitches. Then we’d have improv as your character in the world scenes that didn’t have to connect to one another – real sandbox stuff. Usually there’d be 1-2 months of ramp up before the soap, depending on the commitment of the director. By the time you got to the actual performances, you knew your character’s inner workings, and could slip in and out at a moment’s notice. Ideally, by the time it came to opening night you’d have done this so well you couldn’t really be caught off guard because you’d really immersed in the personage of the character. – So yeah my socket to character and my immersive tendencies both grew directly out of this world.

However, these days gaming is a deeply personal thing for me. The catharsis that I dig for is something very different than I used to have back then. The payoff of the soaps was performative, while the payoff of my games today is experiential. There’s more intimacy and nuance than ever would have been possible in front of an audience, even when that audience was very well behaved.

Jim: Hiding behind all the above questions is the ur-question of how the soaps were NOT essentially RPGs of some sort.

Mo: Really, I’d say that the biggest way in which I’d delineate RPGs and the soaps would be the expectation of a quality, finished and coherent product (that was worth purchasing). This idea includes the idea that you’d spend ten times the preparation time investing on the fiction than you’d ever spend inside the fiction itself. It also includes the “draft”ing of the fiction, or the willingness to input things that will never be incorporated, or will be edited and distilled down to a story that makes it something that’s not just worth doing (important!) but worth both having other people find it worth watching (the point) and worth paying to come and see (the way we keep afloat doing what we’re doing).

We look at RPGs in the rosy hindsight of post-interpreted narrative where we selectively remember the elements of play that make most sense to keep based on their retroactive meaning and importance in relation to the story that won out in the end. The soaps had to hit the ground running with a linear, developed narrative (for that episode) in place from the get go, no real room for (critical) error, and no second chances. (As a side note, it’s worth noting that a couple of times our soaps were then further distilled down into plays and re-performed like a traditional, scripted play after the season had ended.)

Also important to this difference is the collectivist approach to the process. There was no need to mitigate authority or have mechanical intervention to gateway events because our collective goal was the performance, and whatever you had to give up to achieve that goal, be it character autonomy, narrative input, spotlight time, whatever, the goal came first. RPGs, in my more general and current experience, have too much individualist practice/inclination to work the same way that the soaps did then.

That said, within the intimacy of my playgroups, be it solo with Brand or the small, cultivated playgroups I play in most and enjoy best, that collectivist impulse is still, mostly, beating it’s hummingbird’s heart.

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.

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?

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.

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.

Putting it all Together

So, if you noticed than in talking about Cognitive / Impassioned play and I / Other that I plotted one horizontally and one vertically and sussed that I might one day be working them together, it’s here that you get a cookie. 🙂

Why would I put them together? Because I think that there’s a link between these two dynamics that might help us talk about the way we engage with games. Also, I think it might help to illustrate that when we were talking about immersion, that we were covering a lot of exploratory ground. All of the components of the grid are related because they deal with the emotional matrix of how we get the fun out of our fun, but they vary (unsurprisingly) widely in goal and execution. Perhaps immersion isn’t this one thing that you are or aren’t, that you do or don’t, but is instead this big body of investment, response and technique that we all are and do to varying degrees.

I think it’s revelatory that so many people who are so obviously doing radically different things from each other have a decided commitment to the word immersion, and an invested stake in maintaining claim on it. It speaks to an alignment with a personal core value of play. For, despite the fact that there is most often little agreement as to what immersion is or is not, there is one thing that everyone who says they are doing it seems to agree on: it’s necessary to my enjoyment of the game.

So when we can identify that our investment is comprised of several different components, and that those components vary in ratio and degree from one another but work towards each individual player’s personal enjoyment in the game, then we can come closer to understanding what we each mean when we assert what we do and what we need to get our groove on. Once we have a look of at the field the components provide we can start to identify play areas where patterns develop into genres of investment response and technique, and come to a deeper understanding of our play.

p.s. I do realize that I put that grid up there and didn’t actually delve into it. That’s because this post is just meant to explain why I am going where I am going. In the future, I’m going to be talking about how things besides our Purple Mo and Red Brand fit into the grid. For now, just understand me when I say: This is a heuristic model.

Some Notes on Being Human

Now of course, the place you find yourself on either the Cognitive / Impassioned scale and the I / Other scale is not a static thing. If you gamed 10 years ago and you’re gaming now, chances are that there are a handful of things about game back then that you’d just as happily not import into the present. Likewise, in next 10 years there are things you’re doing now that you probably won’t be doing then and vice versa. Like my Wargamer cum LARPer friend of a couple of posts ago, the things we do, both in life and in game change us (at least if we’re doing it right) and changing as a person often means a shift in goals and priorities. What makes us happy now may not make us happy tomorrow or next year; what made us happy last year may never make us happy again.

Also, just because you put a dot on the scale that is meant to represent you doesn’t mean that you are not capable of shifting to accommodate the situation at hand, or that you never act outside of the placement of that dot. When playing with strangers, I tend to play down the emotional scale to ensure that I don’t make anyone at the table uncomfortable. I also tend to play closer to the “I” than usual to ensure that I am making directive decisions that will foster the fledgling social situation at the table.

Why does my dot wander? Well, because in that situation, my payoff and my goal are different than they usually are. My payoff might be “advance the social milieu of the group at hand, and have a fun, un-awkward night in the process”. In that case, my goal isn’t a cathartic one, it’s entirely socially based goal that has little to do with the game. In that case I may not even be character socketed; I might adopt a social or story socket for the night, because the payoff is powerful enough to make it worth it.

Likewise, under constraints imposed by other players or by system, my dot might have to wander in specific situations. About six months ago, Brand and I introduced a group of our friends to My Life with Master. The point of the night wasn’t even really to game, it was just to hang out. The point of playing MLWM was not to get impassioned or cathartic, it was to introduce some of our traditional RPG friends to some of what the Indie scene had to offer. It was a one shot, with a lot of players, so there wouldn’t be a lot of time to create catharsis anyway. So my goal, my socket and my payoff weren’t what they normally are, so my dot was in an entirely different place.

This is all to say that there is a difference between what you have occasionally done, what you did all the time a long time ago, what you are capable of doing, and what you do on a regular basis. When you’re examining your goals, sockets and payoffs, it’s important to identify if the situation you are analyzing is atypical, and therefore not representative of what you normally do to get your RPG rocks off.

When you are looking to place yourself on the scale what you’re looking to do is to identify: when you are playing for the payoff you most often play for or the payoff you want most (note that these might not be the same thing), how do you want to experience the game and through what method will you interact with it? It may be very useful to you in the moment you are playing an atypical game to understand how your payoff is different than normal and how you respond to that shift, but to start with, it’s most useful to trend yourself over the course of the payoff that you are trying to achieve most of the time.

Getting in the Cockpit

So, the second axis I wanted to have a look at is the place that you position yourself to drive your actions in the game. I’m going to talk about this a lot more in future posts, especially about the wording I’ve chosen to describe it: I and Other. For the sake of understanding this introductory post, remember that I am currently working on trying to map the body of play that I once (unsuccessfully) tried to shoehorn into the word immersion; Other could at some point have further application, and will definitely have a more detailed meaning than this, but for the sake of this one post, think of Other as your object in the fiction: your PC, a communal character that you inhabit in the moment, an NPC with which you drive the game as a GM. The I, of course is you as you (though even that will become a little more complicated later on).

You all (except maybe my Great Aunt Gertrude) will be utterly unsurprised to hear me say at this point that the first indicator of where you sit to drive your play is your socket. A person with a primary character socket and no secondary socket is likely going to sit right up at the top of this scale, especially if their goal is Kenotic, and their payoff has an escapist bent.

Likewise, a person who has, say, a primary system socket, a secondary social socket, and a tertiary story socket might never actually make their contributions to the game through a game object, but will instead, contribute directly to the game. I’ve heard some actual play recordings where the players involved never actually inhabited a character object all. Characters, PC or NPCs were never referred to in the first person, and never had an actual voice in play. Even if the character spoke and was not just paraphrased, the player narrated the speech as if it were dialogue in a novel, rather than a character to inhabit.

On the runway from the I to the Other, there are lots of ways to funnel participation through the character as a game object. I’m going to run some of them down for you using the best analogies I have at my disposal. I am peripherally aware that they are similar to some terms already in use in immersion theory. I want to be clear that I’m not at all trying to adopt those terms and their associated meanings (or baggage). Remember that I don’t read rpg.net or the Forge and I’m not a big forum girl. As such, please do your best when you read on to disassociate what you have been taught I might mean and to concentrate on reading them as simple analogies:

As a marionette, where the player does not inhabit the object, but dances it through the fiction with a directed will, there is a distinct emotional and sensory distance between the player and the character. The two share nothing; the marionette is nothing more than a tool with good aesthetic value.

As a puppet, the player inhabits the object only partially, all decisions are unmitigated by the puppet and are made for the direct, unencumbered benefit of the player or the story or something external to the character object (even if that benefit is the player’s sense of the character’s continuity in the story). The player has some amount of emotional investment in the character object and may have a very detailed blueprint of the puppet but is not influenced by the character object directly. Influence on the game is equally (qualitatively and quantitatively) made via the character object and directly without it.

As a mask, the player maintains a distinct identity within the character object, but has established an emotional, often empathic connection with the object and uses it as the primary vehicle to influence the game. The player is influenced and informed by the character object, and the character object is willfully given a measure of transformative power over the player as a goal of play. The player can take intentional action in the game that is uninfluenced by the character object, but optimally will do so only through the funnel of the character.

As a possessing force, the player abandons a personal identity and surrenders to the character object as a goal of play in order to directly, experience the full subjective reality of the character. The more intensely this is done, the less able the player is take any self-directed action as it does not originate from the (the player’s matrix) of the character’s subjective reality. This is all the way up the Other scale.

I / Other Scale

Once again, the purple dot is me (my trended behaviour, mind not an absolute that doesn’t exist). The empathic connection to character object is critical to my goal and my payoff, because it is in the ability to feel the emotionality of my character object’s response to the story that my impassioned engagement is fueled and the cathartic response is won. However, it is just as important to me to not then extend to allow the character to be a possessing force because to create really effective cathartic situations and get my Epicaric Virago on, I must have the freedom to manipulate the character and drive her towards badness and strife.Brand is the red dot again. He doesn’t need to be up close and personal with any particular character object in order to get his groove on. In fact, having to live within the confines of a character can sometimes hold him back from getting at his payoff. The character is a very rich source of story bits and momentum tools that make the story hot, but they are not usually gratifying to him in and of themselves.Also it’s worth noting that as a GM, Brand interacts with the Other as if it were a marionette, while as a player, he leans closer to being a puppeteer. I have a similar shift, though not as pronounced: As a player I solidly mask the Other, while as a GM I interact with the Other as both mask and puppet.

So, you can affect the game directly as your self, or you can affect the game funneled through an interaction with a character object. These modes of play are determined by the kind of payoff you are looking for, the kind of goal you set to achieve it and most importantly, by the socket that you use to engage with the game. Now that only two of you (of the original three) are still reading, I’d also like leave you hanging by noting, that while I’ve talked about the Other as character object, I do think it might be possible that other kinds of sockets can also become the Other. Setting is a particularly intriguing one when you think about how no-mythers might marionette the setting while deep setting socket folks (Elliot, I’m looking at you here) may well be considered to be possessed by the setting. If you have ideas on this, post them. Somewhere down the line I’ll likely be coming back to this.

Cognitive vs. Impassioned Play

I’ve thought for some time that one of the reasons we get so bollixed up when we talk about play styles is because although we often assume that we approach game the same way, we really, very much do not. I think there are a couple of things that we’ve neglected in discussion that merit more focus: the manner of our engagement with the game and the method of influence we choose to affect the game. Right now, I’m going to be talking about the first one and will cover the other in later posts.

Earlier this year when Brand I were talking Myer’s Briggs and gaming, we talked about whether a person, a player, or a character was a Thinking or a Feeling type. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time, both online and IRL watching the trouble that pops up when strong T’s and strong F’s try to do, well… anything together, but especially when they are working on theory and design, or in game creating stories together. More than ever I am convinced that a further understanding of this area would help us build better play groups, create more compatible play, deliberately design games that could choose to foster a particular kind of play, or accommodate different kinds of play in the design.

That said, I’ve consciously ditched the words Thinking & Feeling because I think they misleadingly point towards quantifying intellectual or emotional capability, which is decidedly NOT what I’m looking to do. Instead, I’m looking for a way to measure to what extent we consciously construct our games, and whether our goals in game trend towards being visceral or cerebral.

Some things to note before I go any father:

  • This isn’t an either/or proposition; I suspect most people will have at least a little of each, even if they have a very strong preference for one.
  • This isn’t a question of capability. Just because a player has a habitual place on the scale doesn’t mean in the right situation she couldn’t act another way and do it well.
  • There is no value attached to either end of the scale; there is no better, just better for you or better for the situation at hand.

So, instead, I’ve gone with Cognitive and Impassioned as the two ends of the scale. The Cognitive side speaks to a certain amount of, well, cognition in game. Decisions in the game are made consciously, deliberately, sometimes strategically and are usually based on a specific set of data points. The cognitive manner of play hopes to cerebrally engage the player in the process of playing the game or creating the story. Conversely, the Impassioned manner of play hopes to viscerally engage the player in the moment of play or the context of the story. Decisions in the game are made holistically, intuitively, in reaction to the emotional context of the story and its game objects (characters, setting, plot, etc).

When you interact with the game, do you want it to make you think or do you want it to make you feel, or both and in what proportion? When you are playing a suspense thriller kind of plot, will you feel the story churning viscerally in the pit of your stomach, or will you be endlessly, cerebrally trying to figure out whodunnit? Through the course of the game, do you forecast ahead to optimize the effect of the story/moment/action or do you intuit it, letting the passion of the moment guide you? Of course, you can be in the middle, too, but how far in the middle, where do you fall? What kind of gratification are you looking for as a result of the game, and what techniques, methods, talents, and skills do you use to achieve it?

Hint: In determining where you sit on the scale between Cognitive and Impassioned play, it is helpful to understand your payoff, your goal and, to a lesser extent, your socket.

So, in the last post, I stated my payoff as: “to experientially feel a sense of emotional euphoria as a result of a powerfully engaging story”. My goal in game is to experience as intense a catharsis as possible; the stories that churn my ovaries are full of deep visceral complications: tragedies, love, sex, betrayal, revenge and brutality. And in a character socket, I want to be down in the muck and the mire of the emotional messiness, and to live in and react to the moment of the game.

That’s a pretty clear emotional agenda in the context of cognitive vs. impassioned play. It can be paraphrased as: “I want to create an emotionally charged story, experience it viscerally, and let it be transformative to me.” On the scale between cognitive play and impassioned play, I’m closer to the impassioned edge than, well, most anyone I’ve ever played with (though I’m sure there are people with an even stronger tendency than I have). The purple dot is me:

Brand, the red dot, is an impassioned player too, but in his case, visceral intensity is not the whole end game: it’s an important facet to payoff, but not the payoff itself. As a strong story socket player (with a massive and talented wealth of GM experience), Brand requires that the story that he’s working on carries strong visceral resonance and impact because to Brand, that’s what gives stories lasting value. He’s intensely intuitive and non-constructed about the way he shepherds stories into existence, but he draws on an extremely impressive mental anthology of mythology, literary history and rhetoric which can’t help but temper his impassioned participation with a cognitive influence.

So, I’ll end this post quickly before Brand gets a big(ger) head. The point is that there is more than one way to skin, cook and eat your delicious payoff. You can deliberately construct it, which makes it a cognitive exercise, you can intuit your way by reacting to the emotionality of the moment in an impassioned pursuit of your goal, or you can fall somewhere in between.

Note: If you’re reading along with this and you’re nodding your head thinking “I’m a really smart and thinky kind of person, and I feel really good when/after roleplaying, I must be both!” Then you’ve missed the point. Scroll up and read the post again with this in mind: Mo’s a competitively intelligent Process and Systems Analyst who’s prone to deconstructive analysis, and she’s all way over on the impassioned side of the scale.

Covering the Bases

I’m pretty sure that the three of you that read Sin Aesthetics understand me when I use words like sockets, goals or payoff, but just in case my Great Aunt Gertrude decides to check in on me and is having trouble understanding what the heck I’m talking about, this post is a quick run down. For the sake of my lazy ass, I’m going to quasi cut and paste some from a couple of public conversations I had with Thomas Robertson, who asks too many damn questions for his own good, but as such is useful in getting me to explain my damn self.

Sockets:

The socket is the place in the RPG which serves as the participant’s locus of enjoyment. It’s the place where people plug themselves into game and give and take their focus and energy to and from. Obviously character can be a primary socket, because immersion wouldn’t be such a problematic word without the character being an extremely invested locus.

It’s also easy to identify what some other kinds of sockets are. Setting is obviously a socket for a lot of people. System is an obvious one too. We can be pretty damn sure in our community that there are Story socket players. There are other kinds, too: Social socket people, Choice socket people, probably a lot of others too.

I think that many/most people have more than one socket, that is, more than one place that they can plug into the experience of the game, but I suspect that there is always a primary socket, one that is preferred above others. I would say of myself that character is my primary socket, but that I also have a distant story socket as well. Farther still, I could have a social socket and a setting socket, even a choice socket… but the farther down the road a game pushes me to go to find a socket, the less like an RPG it will feel like to me, the less it will fulfill the body of what I come to games to for, and if always pushed to a different socket, the less likely I will be to continue playing the game.

Payoff:

This one’s simple, though figuring it out often is like pulling teeth. We all have one reason that we play RPG’s. Regardless of the kind of player we are, or the kind of play we do, our reason is one in the same: We come to the game to get out of game what we want out of game. People talk about the concepts of “art” or “game” or “play” as lofty ideals but in reality, gaming has a payoff for everyone who engages in it, which is why we play RPG’s rather than golfing, stamp collecting, worm breeding, singing in a choir or whatever else might have had an appealing payoff if RPG’s didn’t exist, or more importantly, didn’t give us what we want.

That payoff will differ vastly from person to person. For some, the payoff is simply “completely forgetting I am me for a couple of hours”, for others “engaging in an actively creative co-operative endeavor with people I like” might be the payoff. “Feeling fully, really challenged in a social engagement while making something that feels lasting to me” or “proving that I have the biggest dick at the table” might be the thing you want. “Being validated by other people recognizing my talents as a really good GM”, or “participation in creating an epic that was worth telling” might also be what keeps you coming back.

If some of those sound more important than others, if some of them sound right and some wrong, then you’re missing the point of why I am talking about payoff. There’s no right/wrong/better/worse/worthy/not worthy/valuable/not valuable when it comes to you and what keeps you coming back to the game. You want what you want. It’s whether or not you are being honest about what you want, both to yourself and to other people where things can get to being wrong. If my payoff is: “working hard, winning big, and lauding my victory” and your payoff is “non-conflict co-operation towards an emotionally engaging experience” we’re not going to play well together unless we really, consciously work at it. That doesn’t mean that either of our payoffs are better or worse, it just means we like different things out of the hobby.

You’ll notice too, that many of those payoffs in the list up top sound like they would align really well with the kinds of sockets I was talking about earlier. Is that surprising? It really shouldn’t be… we do most what works to get us the payoffs we desire, after all. In my case, with a primary character socket, a secondary story socket and a penchant for highly emotional cathartic play it shouldn’t be at all surprising that my payoff is something like: “to experientially feel a sense of emotional euphoria as a result of a powerfully engaging story”.

Goals:

Back in this post, I talked about some possible goals of play, though they were certainly not meant as an exhaustive list.

Goals in this context define what the end experience of the game is that you work towards, and may imply or suggest a method you use to move towards achieving it. Ideally, your goal should closely align with your payoff. I’ve seen lots of situations in reality where that wasn’t the case, but each and every one described a very unhappy player.

I had a friend who came from a heavy competition war gaming background who stumbled upon and came to really like the social dynamic of the LARP scene. Playing in it drastically changed the kind of payoff he expected from RPGs. He went from a payoff of “validation of my intelligence and cunning through hard won challenge” to something like “escapist enjoyment of being someone else in a highly theatrical mode”. The problem was that when he came back to table top, he employed his old high challenge, high competition skills and techniques towards his old goal, but could never, unsurprisingly, achieve his new payoff. He doesn’t play anymore, and most of the people he used to play with (post LARP) aren’t really sad about that.

So there you are. That there’s the basics: sockets, goals and payoffs. There will probably be more as I ramble on, but that’s where I’m starting from.

Abandoning Immersion

So I’ve been out of the country for four months, and there’s nothing like being thrown into the unfamiliar for a prolonged time to clear the head. While I was away I had very little time to keep up with the sundry blogs and forums that I normally follow. When I could find some precious time to look around, I found that with distance, my brain was becoming more and more frustrated with the discourse of gaming in general, and in particular, with immersion. It’s a word I’ve been using for a long time now, and a word I really was rather fond of once, but I think it’s long lost any semblance of meaning.

So I’m letting it go.

Since last fall when I started shifting my focus towards specifics and away from some nebulous idea of the body immersive, I’ve found it more and more helpful in actually establishing some kind of communal understanding and explorative progress with the people who I’m talking to. So from here on in, (on SA and wherever possible) I will be using words like goal and socket and payoff as a kind of matrix to point to specific things rather than try and situate things that are clearly different in a catch all word like immersion. Rather than saying You are immersive or I am not immersive, which really tells you nothing because too many people assert too many conflicting qualities to immersion, I will talk about the means of play, the motivations of play, and the path of play, which hopefully can allow me to talk to the three of you quite clearly, at least for the next ten minutes.

This also means that if I get general questions about “what this means to immersion” in the comments, I’ll likely be ignoring them.

While I’m on the topic of comments, I’d like to note that going forward I may or may not respond to any or all who comment. I’m doing this on my blog rather than on a forum for a reason which has little to do with you and a lot to do with me. If I wasn’t doing it here, I wouldn’t likely be doing it anywhere, and I’ve found over the last year or so since I started Sin Aesthetics that engaging in response is very powerful to me. It historically has the power to fuel or destroy my enthusiasm or my momentum and that I’ve given it the unmitigated power to do that pisses me off.

So, from here on in I will be attempting to engage with it selectively to feed my energy and momentum when it can and to let it go when it can’t. When I will and when I won’t probably has little correlation to the value of your response, so don’t take it personally. Please ask questions and comment where you see fit. Even if I don’t respond immediately, it doesn’t mean I won’t read it and let it influence me or that I won’t get back to you as a later date.

Immersion Goals Borrowed from Literary Theory

Borrowed from the literary tradition, I’d like to put forward some new words for your perusal that might help explore the differences of goals that exist under the catch-all word immersion. There may be others that would help too, but I think these three are important.

Catharis: Yes, I know you know this word, but do you know what means in the context of literary theory? Catharsis (which was introduced by Aristotle in The Poetics and means either “purgation” or “purification” in Greek) is the emotional effect a tragic drama has on its audience. The audience of a tragic drama would experience an overwhelming feeling of exaltation or relief following the drama because either they formed a vicarious identification with the hero which cleansed the emotions as if they have themselves had undergone the trauma of the story, or because the audience becomes so engrossed in the emotions for the hero that they are removed from the context of their own lives and return refreshed and renewed back to themselves following the drama.

Kairosis: is associated with the epic novel (association with the Greek meaning “the right time”, and represents the feeling of integration experienced by the audience with the protagonist. It is associated specifically with the moments of moral and psychologicical transitioning of the character in important, dramatically impacting moments. It is interesting to note that Kairosis is often achieved by challenging unique dynamic characters with typical, everyman dilemmas and emotionally engaging in the moments of change.

Kenosis: is associated with lyric poetry, and represents the audience’s abandonment of the ego manifestation in favour of the immediate emotional body and sensory manipulation of the poetic. It comes from the Greek word for “emptiness” and is used to achieve a feeling of timelessness or transcendence.

(If you don’t care about the words in their application in literary theory, you can skip this indented part.

***ETA: There’s more discussion after the indented part. Pick up the post again in the paragraph starting with: “So, what the heck am I talking about?”**

When I look at these terms, I make some adjustments on them to compensate for the differences in the method and process of the act of roleplaying:

Where we in a widely literate, educated and media saturated environment have specified, culturally driven, inherited understandings of drama, and in a world where the lines between the novel the drama and lyric poetry have been distorted, deconstructed and blurred, it seems to me that goals may not cleanly align by the form but can still maintain similar extant resonance to the emotional outreach of the audience.

Where we, as roleplayers, serve as both the authors and audiences of our own characters, inside a dynamic, living drama rather than a static text, we can elect to chase the fulfillment of multiple goals at once.)

So, what the heck am I talking about? Well, I know for a long time I have been describing my particular brand of character immersion as an intense, cathartic connection with the character in which I feel the character’s emotional state acutely, understand the mental process of the character acutely and objectively (rather than the character understands it: subjectively) and feel a vicarious emotional response of my own towards the character.

When I look at this in relation to the terms, I know Catharsis to be my primary goal: It is the place that the intense connection to the character is formed, in which I feel, simultaneously, the character’s emotional state, my own emotional state, my character’s inner workings, my own inner workings and my empathy for the character. Catharsis will make me physically weep when my character’s lover dies in her arms even if she does not shed a tear, because while I feel her emotional state as acutely as she does, I am feeling it vicariously. I am immersed in who she is, but I am not her. The feeling of exaltation or relief is something I can validate. An intense, cathartic immersion experience can leave me feeling a little high in an emotionally-induced endorphin way. This goal, IMHO, is all about feeling (For you following the MBTI stuff, it is an immersive F gamer’s playground).

I also know, although it is not part of my description above, that Kairosis is a frequent goal for me. It here that I go to for the moments of resounding transition; the moments that feel as if the soundtrack on the drama has picked up and the character’s life and the story will never again be the same. The “right moment” of Kairosis is the one where the character and the story interact and change each other, powerfully and irreversibly. This one is both about thinking and about feeling. In order to do this reliably and intentionally it requires a thinking setup, but transitions to feeling mode in the actualization of the moment’s resonance. I suppose it is possible to be setup and actualized both in T mode, but I’m not sure if it would lead to the immersive integration that the goal is looking for. This kind of immersion could serve story socket players as or even more effectively than character socket players. It is also, I believe functionally incompatible with Kenosis.

Kenosis is not a goal of mine, but one that is associated with the term immersion quite frequently in discussion, especially in association with larpers over the pond. Also called “Deep IC” or “altered state flow” or that I have been calling “submersion”, the goal here is to feel completely like the character and to feel as little like yourself as possible. The feeling of timelessness or transcendence is something that a lot of these folks talk about, even sometimes going so far as to compare it to a religious experience. Again, this is also about Feeling, I think (MBTI note: and I would think that it is commonly a goal of “SF” immersive gamer types, who would require strong myth to make a full transition from self to character). Note: This kind of immersion goal would also work as well for a setting socket player as a character socket player: the goal would be to get out of the player’s world and into the world of the player’s character.

I also think it’s interesting to note that when looked at this way, it’s unsurprising that there is so much debate about the compatibility of the goals of nar games and the goals of immersion. A goal like Kairosis requires intentional dramatic framing and intention to achieve the synthesis of character transitioning in the right moment and as such would be perfectly compatible, whereas a goal like Kenosis may repel such deliberate constraint, or force the player back into his own head, making the styles incompatible.

Also, it gives some good groundwork for why immersive players are at odds as to what kinds of game processes or mechanics are counterintuitive to their immersion activity. A Kairotic Immersives might not have trouble discussing stakes or out of game strategy to optimize the “right moment”, Cathartic Immersives might have no trouble authoring to intensify drama but could have real trouble any time the game required transition from a Feeling to Thinking mode, such as crunchy calculation or resource management. Kenotic Immersives might find any out of game negotiation that draws them out of character unappealing.

Death and Mourning.

This post has been sitting in my pending file for some time, and Chris over at Deep in the Game reminded me that I never finished or posted it.

I remember a time when ending a game was a thing I never looked forward to. I remember, in fact, dysfunctionally digging my heels in hard and resisting it to the bitter, dissatisfied end. Characters are my emotional sockets to the games I play. They are the conduits that funnel my energy into and out of play, and the catalysts which allows me to play hard, right up to the edge, and not get burned. I didn’t much trust my GM’s to do my characters (or the story) justice in an ending, and that lack of trust was earned in many (but not all) of the games I played.

With the advent of Nar play, where I can push or pull endings of my own instigating, I find myself far more interested in participating in them. I’ve had a number of big ones over the last couple of years, one of which I talked about over on Fair Game in “The End of the Game“, the other was Kika’s end that I rambled about in my my push/pull actual play post.

In reflecting on them in recent weeks, I’ve been musings about character deaths and the preferences of players around them.

I have a friend (who played Dae, the barbarian warrior woman from the that Exalted game) who is adamant when negotiating her social contracts that the possibility of character death is NIL unless the player declares an authorial intention to die. This doesn’t stop other players from choosing to receive the grim stabbies, but it means that regardless of her actions in game, her character will not die by any means but by her own out of game declaration.

Now before anybody asserts that this is a dysfunctional, dickweedy, or assy attempt to play without responsibility or consequence I’ll pre-empt with this info: I’ve been playing with this player for about 12 years, and in that time, I don’t ever remember a single situation where she spit in the face of death and then refused to die. Despite the fact that I introduced you to her as the player of a warrior, she usually plays social, non-combative characters.

Why the !death rule? Well now, that’s a complicated question. I’m not sure I have the answer. I’m not sure she could even tell you herself. I have some theories, though. I may be talking out my ass, here, these are just based on observation and speculation and are not actually from the player herself. She does read this blog though and she’s welcome to clarify or expand on anything I put down.

The concept of possibility is very central to her personality. In life, she’s not someone who’s comfortable with a lot of restrictions. She likes her options open, and she rarely closes doors behind her. She’s so taken with possibility that she often finds herself having trouble finishing things. So on one hand, we could make a fair assumption that she doesn’t like her characters to die simply because it means the end of the possibility of the character and shutting the door to possibility is fundamentally (as opposed to tangentally) antithetical to who she is.

RPGs are the playground of wish-fulfillment, and this player likes the heck out of that jungle gym. Every character that I remember her playing in has at least some element that the player would aspire to be or have something that the player would like to have (freedom to be uncensored or unfettered, considerable social power), and I suspect that she engages in immersion because (at least in part) it allows her the ability to feel like either she owns the quality (when she would actually aspire to have it) or the freedom to play in the quality tangibly.

There are definately times I do the same thing with my characters. mostly my big spots are confidence and power. I often borrow from my characters the ability to be hotheaded, spontaneous, thrillseeking. I borrow their bravery and courage, their right to live in the world without being morbidly introspective about it.

Is this the manifestation of our imago? Is there a creation and experimentation of the ideal us in the characters we make – even in those that aren’t us, or that we don’t like? Do we establish our own potential by being in the playground of someone who can, and is this why giving up characters is so difficult for some of us? Do we feel like what we have proven that we can do becomes unowned when a character dies? Do we mourn the loss of that potential when our characters die?

Now for myself, I’ve discovered that when it come to the end of a character, I actually prefer death as an ending to a living ending, and I had to look at why…

I think that its because unfulfilled possibility is a tragic thing to me, because knowing that there was a character that I’d invested in, that was the locus for such fun is still alive and still out there means that there is still room for exploration, still more to be played. A death means that everything was played out, it means tangible closure. Resolution and reflection are really important to me. I think that when the character dies, I can strike the set like I used to do in theatre and pack the bits and pieces back into me.

Note: I didn’t post this so that somebody could start a debate about what’s better or worse, or what’s functional or not, so don’t bother with those. I’m interested in our psychological and emotional attachment to character and to RPG’s in general.