Fluency Play

So my friend Willem Larsen has developed this method for learning and playing story games which I’m in love with. We’ve struggled with finding a name that does justice to the process, until suddenly it hit me:

With respect to Willem, I’d like call this play method “Fluency Play.”

This cuts right to the heart of the method: basically instead of trying to assimilate an entire body of RPG procedures and put them into action from the get-go, you start at the most basic level and work your way up. The aim is to have a game experience with maximum creative flow, where the shared dreamspace is as unbroken as possible. So you only play at the level you’re fluent at.

See, the thing about fluency isn’t that you’re an “expert” in something. People say “I speak fluent French,” meaning they have a high level of mastery with complex vocabulary and grammar. But really, fluency means you’re comfortable and fluid in performing a skill. My baby girl is fluent in crawling but not in walking. You can be fluent in asking “Where is the bathroom” (i.e. you can say it without thinking or flipping in a phrasebook) without being fluent in discussing the social impact of human sanitation practices throughout history. You wait until you can perform the current level effortlessly, without a moment’s thought, to move to the next level.

So applying this to games? You don’t introduce all the rules at once. You don’t even introduce all the rules “as you need them.” (“Oh, you moved across a threatened square? Time to read the Attacks of Opportunity rules…”) You introduce new levels only when the group is FLUENT in the previous level. For instance, you might first do an intro scene for each character, with no conflict, getting comfortable with description and dialogue. Then do simple conflict scenes, with a simple card draw or die roll. Then run conflicts adding bonuses for traits. And so on.

The payoff, in a word, is FLOW: a seamless experience where collaboration is natural and effortless and that creative bubble isn’t “popped” by head-scratching confusion, flipping through a rulebook, or the sheer overload of trying to hold a dozen interlocking concepts in your head at once. This is largely–not entirely–uncharted territory in game design. We accept page-flipping and headscratching in our games, the way someone might accept knotted back muscles and chronic neck pain, little imagining that some proper massage therapy might release the tension and free up their body to perform fluidly, joyfully.

I wrote once about traction–about procedures having just enough granularity to give your feet purchase and your fingers a handhold, that your choices are meaningful in the game. So how does friction relate to fluency? Simply: fluency is the path to playing with teeth. Fluency encompasses all the steps from sitting in the car and turning the key, through putting it in gear and pressing the accelerator, to steering deftly along roadways and around obstacles–until at last you’re feeling the tires grip the blacktop as you swing around the corners of a winding road in a daring mountain race. That’s the sweet spot we’re aiming for. Not puttering around the parking lot forever, but also not falling into a trap like “Whoa, there’s a sharp turn coming up and another car ahead of me hugging the inside–now WHAT to the instructions say, again, about applying gas and brake to glide safely past him?” Flow and traction are two complimentary opposites.

So in the end I lose nothing–I can enjoy all the richness of robust mechanisms and sophisticated procedures that bolster my story and my play, without the jarring disconnect of breaking flow to learn. Learning shouldn’t be work, learning is play. And play is good.



14 Responses to “Fluency Play”

  1. 1 Willem
    September 21, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    I commented over in the Story Games thread. I mentioned there:

    1) Fluency Play sounds fine and dandy to me. I’ll happily use it.
    2) Most of the techniques in WAYK do seem to directly apply, so I linked to ’em.
    3) I might post about Bookends later, which seem like a super-relevant way of thinking about the step-by-step flow of the pedagogy.

  2. 2 storybythethroat
    September 22, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    Thanks, Willem! I should follow your example and provide some links here as well:

    “What Does fluency Mean?” on the College of Mythic Cartography

    Where Are Your Keys? The Language Fluency Game

    The discussion on Story Games

    Also, Willem, I’d love to hear more about Bookends here.

  3. 3 Willem
    September 22, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    Well, in order to communicate the sequential-bite-sized-pieces-that-you-practice-until-fluent-each-in-their-turn idea by calling each “bite-sized piece” a “bookend”. In Polaris, for example, each individual game or step on the ritual phrase ladder constitutes a “bookend”, something you play with until everyone can do it effortlessly (or GDFN, “good enough for now”). You don’t shoot for perfection, you shoot for fluency, the ability to practice something off the cuff, relatively effortlessly. Fluency lies somewhere solidly between the ideal of perfection and the illusory confidence of “knowing” something.

    So, Bookend #1 may involve preparing the play space, Bookend #2 involves either warming up or the first part of character creation, etc. The smaller the bookend, the better in my opinion, really. Bite sized neither means just a taste, nor does it mean choking yourself on too big a mouthful (like when my brother tried to eat an entire sandwich in one bite in high school – suffice to say his life flashed before his eyes before he coughed it up).

    I’ve had at least one player of WAYK say that they don’t think “bookend” frames the concept very well, so I remain open for a better term, if anyone has one.

  4. November 6, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Great post. This is how I’ve tried to ease into a few new RPGs, and when it works, it’s great. I’m glad to have a name for the practice now.

  5. 5 storybythethroat
    November 6, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    I’m so glad to be of help, Will! One thing that Willem and I have discovered in exploring this thing is that we’re not “inventing” some raaaadical new way of playing, but rather just digging deep into ourselves as game-players and finding the bits and pieces of what’s already been working best and smoothest in learning and playing. Then it’s just a matter of cleaning the cruft of habit and confusion away from THAT.


  6. March 18, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    Hey Joel.

    Just wanted to know that we reference this on our upcoming episode. Thank you for putting it out there for us. Please have a listen if you’d like.

    • 7 Joel
      March 18, 2012 at 7:47 pm

      That’s great, Eric! I’ll definitely check it out.

      If you haven’t already, check out my new “Accelerated Fluency” series of posts, which dig into the “Rules for Accelerated Learning” Willem Larsen recently posted on his blog, and look at how to apply them directly to roleplaying. So far I’ve done part one and part two.

      Where this post is the theory, those posts are the practice. Less manifesto-waving and more tinkering with the nuts and bolts of what works.

      Willem and I are also leading a panel on Fluency Play for Vancouver, WA’s Gamestorm Convention this Friday! I’ll be excited to see what new insights emerge from that discussion.

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