Fluency in the Forest

Rodrigues - red-fox-in-the-forest

A couple of weeks ago I ran a storyjamming workshop for TrackersNW, the same group I worked with on Middle Earth Camp. It was a great opportunity to get paid for doing something I love, but more than that, it was the perfect chance to put the Fluency Play model to the test.

Fluency is about working through levels of complexity organically, bit by bit, rather than dumping a whole ton of rules and technique on players at once. As such, it was a perfect fit for a bunch of back to nature types who want to tell stories around a campfire.

I came armed with techniques and procedures adapted from Vincent Baker’s In A Wicked Age, wedded with fluency tools from Evan Gardner’s Where Are Your Keys? language fluency game. By presenting key IaWA concepts—Oracles, Best Interests, Conflict—through ever-advancing levels of fluency, I figured I could facilitate a seamless experience with story creation from the ground up, and little to no brow-furrowing over rules or complex concepts.

I was right.

I divided our time into two segments: Oracle creation and play. For those unfamiliar, Oracles are roleplaying device for generating a situation pregnant with conflict, as fodder for an evening’s story creation. Write up a bunch of story elements, calibrated for action and instability, draw a few randomly, and you’ve got instant clay for a dynamic tale. We created Oracle elements based on the Trackers’ own experiences in the woods that week.

Then we moved on to play. I had a whole load of rules concepts to share, but I kept each one sheathed until it was needed and welcome. I knew we wouldn’t get to the highest level of all the rules in play, and that was OK. We progressed as far as was right for that group and that time. We ended up halfway through all the prepared procedures, but we got an engaging and satisfying story out of it, where everyone’s input mattered. We told a tale of a wounded hunter hounded by ancestral ghosts, of an ailing but charismatic tribal matron, in desperately in need of healing water, and of a fox and his forbidden he-beaver lover, plotting to drive all humans from the forest. Alliances were forged, treachery attempted, hatreds assuaged, loves rekindled! It was a beauty.

The feedback I received made it all worthwhile. “Those are really great techniques.” “That was just enough structure.” “I always wanted to tell stories but didn’t know how, until now.” Imagine if I had come to that campfire with character sheets and a bunch of polyhedral dice and made people wait while I looked up Particular Strengths in the rulebook…I shudder to think. Instead, we created a magic space where first-time storyjammers could weave a mythic tapestry out of their own experiences, and strengthen their connection with the land and each other.

When you learn fluently, learning is play. Play is good.



7 Responses to “Fluency in the Forest”

  1. 1 Skull
    September 30, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Good job! Hopefully many of these people will come to think of roleplaying games as something other than hack and slash D&D now.
    Maybe you should try doing something like this as a panel at Gamestorm.

  2. 2 storybythethroat
    September 30, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Thanks, Skull. When we were conversing post-game, one of the players did indeed compare tie game to D&D and sounded relieved at the avoidance of both a preponderance of rules and mindless slaying.

    The panel’s a great idea! I would absolutely love to talk fluency techniques at the next Gamestorm. Perhaps I can persuade Willem to tag along with me. :)

  3. October 1, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Hey Joel,

    This sounds like a really successful venture.

    One danger I see in fluency play is a lack of context.
    For example:
    why are we creating this random list of elements?
    why should my best interests be opposed by my friends’ characters?
    what will conflict accomplish?

    Which is to say, I’d like to hear how you provided context & framework & big-picture while starting at a single point and rippling outward. This is the key danger I see in some of these methods. (For example, Ben voices some significant concerns about construing the point of Polaris through Willem’s approach: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=28750.0). I don’t see this as a condemnation of the concept, but of that particular articulation – perhaps!

  4. 5 storybythethroat
    October 3, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Thanks, Joe!

    It’s funny, I was just thinking about that obstacle to fluency myself. I was pondering it with regard to character creation–you’ve got this sheet, with all these doodads and whatzits to set at the start of play, and you’ve got to somehow process all that to te point where you can make meaningful decisions? I’ve seen that aspect of gaming trip up more people than I can count.

    Fortunately this set of procedures ditched the need for a character sheet at all–you just need to remember who your character is, the Oracle text about her, and 1-2 Best Interests. That cuts down on a lot of that “but I neeeeed to know what a good Dexterity Score for a Rogue would beeeee!” difficulty right there.

    Further, I think the key concept is fostering an underlying atmosphere of trust in each other, including trust in the Guide that when he directs you to do something, it’s for a purpose and will be fun. One of the Fluency Techniques I used is to provide a sort of “roadmap” at the start–detailing in brief the stages that we’d be going through and what the end goal would be. That helps players focus because they know when new concept flies at them that it’s intended, not toward some esoteric “fun” that the Guide has planned in his infinite wisdom, but a specific fulfilling purpose that we’ve all bought into. Honestly, my roadmap for the Trackers folks was a little vague; I’d probably tighten it up considerably for future outings.

    Also, when I introduce an specific activity or technique, I would generally explain what it’s for, really, really briefly. For Oracle Elements, I gave an overview of dynamic situation and its role in provoking an exciting story. ditto for Best Interests. By the time I got to Conflict itself, I didn’t really need to belabor the point; by then everyone was all about the drama and clashes. This is a key part of Fluency Play: avoiding ponderous lecturing but still conveying the core concepts people need to not only use a technique under your guidance, but use it independently and teach it to others.


    PS. That conversation on the Forge that you linked is an interesting case. Ben seems to be pinning some elements on Willem’s methods and philosophy that frankly aren’t there, mainly the idea that they involve some sort of limp, non-adversarial move toward “consensus.” The bit that IS salient to the Fluency model, the bit about Polaris’ Key Phrases being an interlocking, un-sunderable whole, in my view misses the point–it’s not that Polaris is “just fine” with only three Key Phrases, it’s that taking on all eight is akin to learning, say, all 14 Estonian noun cases before speaking a single sentence. Sure, all the cases are important to articulate speech in that language, but when you’re starting out it’s important to say something, even if it comes out like “me Tarzan.” So for Polaris it made sense to us to learn “yes,” “no,” and “only if,” before moving on to include a richer texture of options.

  5. 6 storybythethroat
    October 5, 2009 at 11:28 am

    By the way, I’ve analyzed the play experience more in-depth here:


  6. 7 Zac in VA
    October 5, 2009 at 11:12 pm

    Ah, now I’m going to have to decide whether to include fluency rules in my rp game design! My girlfriend and I were playing some Settlers of Catan: Cities and Knights (shmancy expansion!) the other night, and our attitude was “this is new. It’s okay if we miss things”.

    The attitude of trying out each mechanic in turn, just to see what happened, was really fun. Interestingly, the Robber is almost impossible to unleash for the first few turns, which feels like Fluency built into the structure of C&K; neat! Examining the rules for Barbarian Attack gave us a sense of early-game cooperation, followed by late-game back-stabbing once the total standing army for the island is big enough that you can mess with other players. The game definitely unfolds over time.

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