Laban Movement Types

Brand and I do a lot of description in our RPG’s – not surprising as we both are writers and we play emotion centric games in which we often want to have things illustrated, but not verbalized in play. We use description cues in an NPC’s movement to give them characterization and depth. This is especially true of the two games we’ve been playing recently. One is a pseudo historical swashbuckling bodice-ripper done in a quasi-novella style and the other is our home brew So You Think You Can Dance game, in which- as you can imagine – character movement is particularly important thing to describe.

One of the tools we use to get at characterization through movement is a methodology of analysis I learned back in my theatre days so long, long ago. A dance dude by the name of Rudolf von Laban provided a system of language to describe and understand movement by breaking it down into a set of Basic Effort Actions made up of component binaries based on weight, space and time. According to him, movement was some degree of heavy or light, direct or flexible, sudden or sustained. In all combinations, this produces eight basic effort actions descriptively called Float, Thrust, Glide, Slash, Dab, Wring, Flick, and Press.

These terms are used to describe individual actions in Laban Movement Analysis, but they have been adopted by acting methodology to shorthand emotion through movement in theatre. Brand and I use them in RPG’s to shorthand the emotional state of a character, but we also use the ideas in them to shorthand their personalities as well. I thought one or two of you might find the model useful in your own games, so here’s a list:

Press (direct, sustained, heavy) is my favorite effort action, and I always start here when describing them. It’s heavy, so the movement has weight and bearing. It’s direct so it goes at a goal, and it’s sustained, so it is not as much quick or sharp as grinding ever forward. Press is a presence-y commanding push, a slow, relentless dominance of action, a grinding down under forward progress. Press is a bulldozer, press is a marching army, press is a dominant seduction. In our games, press people are great people – An emperor, a general, a calm, intense, ambitious person who is unafraid of grinding anything in his path to dust to get at what he wants.

Thrust (direct, sudden, heavy) is an easy one to describe. It has at it’s goal with speed, efficiency, control and deadly intent. It’s the final blow of a driving blade. A bullet to the brain. A knockout punch. In our games. Thrust characters are intense people. When they are good guys they’re often proud and capable and exceedingly restrained.

Slash (flexible, sudden, heavy) is a neighbour of Thrust. It’s heavy and fast, but where Thrust is controlled, Slash is wild. Slash is a back alley knife fight. Slash is a swashbuckling, bottle smashing, drunken brawl. In our games, Slashers are arrogant, audacious, sexy rakes with big reputations.

Wring (flexible, sustained, heavy) is the last of the heavy actions. It’s sustained like press, but it’s not direct. It’s flexible and twisting, like wringing a wet towel out. Wring is an inward churning individual. Wring could be a twisted malcontent. Wring is an strategic herder. In our games, wrings are often scheming villains, twisted and evil.

Glide (direct, sustained, light) is light, graceful, and directed. Gliding is a ballroom dancer. Gliding is an ice skater. Gliding is a courtesan on a gondola. Gliders in our games are socially adept, dangerous people who get you to do things you didn’t intend to do and yet somehow have you respecting them for it.

Float (flexible, sustained, light) is like Gliding without direction, Wring without Weight. Float is lazy cumulus clouds. Float is puppy love. Float is collateral damage waiting to happen. Floaters in our games are benevolent friends, hapless tarot fools skipping off cliffs, and sometimes the maddening few that can not be encumbered by you.

Flick (flexible, sudden, light) is like Float, but without the ease of sustained action, or Slash without the threat. Flick is lick of fire. Flick is toss of hair. Flick is an always distraction. Flickers in our games are most often maddening, mercurial creatures who must be cajoled, convinced or connived into commitment, or loyal, but somewhat inconsequential allies.

Dab (direct, sudden, light) is like Thrust without deadly intent. Dab is a bon mot. Dab is cutting remark. Dab is a Lady Macbeth. Dabbers in our games are devastating social creatures. They’re political powerhouses, and deft manipulators.

Let me know if you find this useful, or if you’re using anything like this in your own play or discussion around play. If you’re one of the folks (Jim, Emily, Jason, I’m looking at you) that has a late interest in theatre or improv that grew out of RPG’s I’d recommend you spend some time physically playing with the eight Basic Effort Actions. It’s a great movement exercise, and an enlightening emotional technique.

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.

Café Game Exchange

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

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

Dance me to the end of game.

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

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

Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up: Relief.

Simon Says…

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

Here’s the idea:

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

For example:

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

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

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

So, drawing from the above list:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disruptive Emergence & the Impassioned Character Socket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Character Disposability

(or, variations on an old theme.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intimacy Enabling: Art, Kink, and the Virtual

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

Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kink

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

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

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

The Virtual

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

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

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

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

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

Design Blogroll – Games for the Mind

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

Go check it out.