The lesson of the genial Vikings

McBride - friendly norwegiansLast time I talked about the idea that roleplaying or storyjamming can profoundly change your life by allowing you to rewrite your soul pathways into new (hopefully healthier) patterns. But how’s that look in actual play? I offer myself as example:

I’ve been playing for a few months in a game of Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel, set in Medieval Ireland in the era of Viking settlement. We’re playing three denizens of a small fishing village north of  Dubh Linn, caught in the creep up the coast of Norse settlement and rule. Matthew’s playing a prince, coming home after being fostered by Norsemen, who wants there to be peace between everyone. David’s playing a vengeful raid victim, seducing and killing her way through the clan who violated her and took her son. And I’m playing a young tough who fought the Norse over in Caledonia with his uncle, and comes home to find the same Viking dogs infesting his hometown!

Now, I made this character with the full-on expectation of rising up in bloody and righteous revolt against some oppressive foreign bastards. Period, the end. I might succeed, I might fail. But a brave stand against vile oppressors was pretty much my only thought.

But this is the Burning Wheel. Our characters are defined by their Beliefs and Instincts. But it’s then Jim’s job as Gamemaster to challenge those beliefs through the events of play, creating situations with no easy choices. And that’s what happened.

When young Gabhrán returned home he was shocked to find the Northerners ruling in place of the hereditary chieftan, but even more shocked to find everyone pretty OK with it. His Ma and Da as well as the slain chieftan’s son all insisted that they’ve been well and fairly treated, and the village is prosperous and content. There was a rebellious faction stirring, but as time went on it became clear that they and Gabhrán have little basis for revolt beyond sheer bloody-mindedness. And when Gabhrán undertook to champion the cause of a grievously wronged woman–sexually assaulted and accused of murder–in truth this was the aforementioned vengeful seductress, truly guilty of the murder and not assaulted at all. This culminated in Gabhrán fighting a duel in defense of her innocence which ended in the death of a guiltless Viking dupe.

It began to dawn on me that I entered the game with some unexamined assumptions. When I considered playing a righteous revolutionary, I was unconsciously equating “righteous” with “revolt.” In other words, “”ruler” and “oppressor” were synonymous in my mind, and I was assuming that all that was needed for a righteous cause was someone, especially someone foreign, in power. That told me something startling about my attitude toward the world, and just how much of it is based on unconscious bias. Am I really that reactionary and unthinkingly contrarian?

I’ve been forced to reevaluate how I view the world. I’m examining how my principles–love, peace, justice–actually work themselves out in my personal universe. Answers aren’t easy, but I’d say they’re worth the work.

I want to point out that this wasn’t a hiccup or defect in gameplay–“Whoops, sorry guys, my personal biases mucked up the story, won’t happen again!”–but rather the game’s purpose in action. I did exactly right in choosing Beliefs that I care about, and Jim and the other players did exactly right in providing meaningful friction to those Beliefs. You play Burning Wheel to be challenged, and challenged hard, on a personal level. But at the same time, we weren’t playing for personal life lessons, as a substitute for therapy or something. We were playing to create a story with courageous honesty, and in so doing, told ourselves some of our own story.

The game is still in progress. The ultimate fate of the village of Tiráth is undecided. Gabhrán certainly hasn’t become an enlightened paragon of tolerance and understanding. But his revolutionary forays have become more and more troubled, and his incitement of the people less and less in his control. He is confronted at every turn by the humanity of his opponents. Will he become a fanatical monster, or will his Beliefs be strained to the breaking point?

We play to find out. We play to tell our story.




16 Responses to “The lesson of the genial Vikings”

  1. 1 buriedwithoutceremony
    November 9, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Hey, beautiful.

    Apocalypse World has been effecting me in a big way.

    At first, I thought my character, Whiskey, was really distant from me. She’s an ex-courtesan, ex because someone smashed her jaw in with a fireman’s axe and now she’s missing a jaw and is pretty scary. She gets revenge and heads to a new community, where she gets a job as an “enforcer” for Willis.

    And then Willis proceeds to objectify her, treat her as a trophy, demand that she kill people, and undermine her autonomy. And I’m upset at the GM for a while, until I sort that out in my head – I’m playing a sexy woman turned killer, and he’s treating me as (a) a sexy woman, and (b) a killer. And I’m wondering what the issue is.

    And those issues start to unravel, and suddenly Whiskey’s problems are exactly my problems (just abstracted and re-skinned). They’re about assumed autonomy, and the conflict between “being who you want” and “living the life you want”, and how you can’t step down from a position of privilege, and how the world doesn’t stop for you to figure out your inner problems, and how your needs don’t get to define your pressures.

    And suddenly, I’m playing myself. Only, I’m a woman with a beautiful body and no face, a gun at my side at all times, and a track record that includes murder and torture. And I’ve just quit the only job that was keeping me alive in this community, and my idea of success is… gaining the trust of a 14-year old weaver’s assistant. And my boyfriend is a psychic enforcer lapdog of the man whose employ I just quit.

    Whatever Whiskey gets through (or fails to), I’ll get through. It’s a pretty cool feeling, being able to relate to someone I’m not.

  2. 2 Justin
    November 9, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    I was looking to put together a game to teach a similar lesson.

    On the ruler=oppressor note, a Filipino general in the 40’s (whose name escapes me) who was a strong voice in the independence movement complained that revolution would be so much easier if the Americans would stop being so nice, what with all the building hospitals and feeding the poor.
    Also: Monty Python’s Life of Brian’s People’s Front of Judea.

  3. 3 nemomeme
    November 9, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    I’m finding myself in a less compromising mode lately; maybe a reaction to my peacemaker character, Nuallán?

    I’m usually a little ill-at-ease with “role-playing-hobby-as-soul-changing-therapy,” but I have to confess to thinking about my father (gone 12 years now) a lot recently, and it surely has something to do with the dad issues my characters in this game and in my PTA game have. Or maybe they have them because I do? Interesting.

    Anyway, great post Joel. I’m bringing a bottle of stout tonight that is guaranteed to re-write your soul’s pathways.

  4. 4 VoidAngel
    November 9, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    I find your conclusions about your presuppositions to be… interesting. Particularly since you’re wrong.

    Now that I’ve claimed to be privy to the inner workings of your head, I remind you that in a way I am. Brotherhood and all that. Anyway, what I think you’re missing is that you weren’t equating “ruler” with “oppressor.” You were equating “[i]conqueror[/i]” with “oppressor,” an entirely different thing. Your character’s expectation of a violently opressive Norse overlordship were quite justified given the pillaging and raping that he’s seen. This, in turn, might be -why- you were associating revolution with righteousness. What you’re describing now is your character coming to grips with a question similar to one I’ve asked myself off and on since my first deployment: Given a conquest that has already happened, and a benevolent rule, at what point is resistance no longer morally justified?

    If it were Oregon that had just been invaded by a massively overpowering force, you can be sure I’d be in the insurgency. But if there was no hope of winning, no external power who was at least trying to liberate Oregon, at what point does blowing up infrastructure to harm my enemies become counterproductive? When does one quit fighting and accept that the reality of conquest cannot be undone? There are times when you don’t give up, even if you are sure you cannot win. But if they’re not harming the people, if they’re being -good rulers,- (conquerors rarely are, though notable exceptions exist), then why keep fighting? Honor? There is no honor in pointless defeat. Love of my home? Is the good of going back to a nation which seems to view my home as a pawn really better than where we are? Perhaps the idea of what happened (aggressive war often is merely armed robbery writ large) of such importance to me? Is an idea really defensible by force of arms?

    These are the kind of questions I would face in the situation your character is in, and I think that’s what you’re having to struggle with as well. You’re an American, don’t forget, and as such you have been produced by a warrior culture who believe that ideals are worth fighting for.

  5. 5 Hans Otterson
    November 10, 2009 at 1:00 am

    Joel, I’m having a hard time grasping the big picture of what you’re saying here (I’ve read the earlier posts). So, it’s that roleplaying can change your life by coding healthier patterns of behavior/thought into you. But what you describe in this post is basically you being thoughtful about your life and doing the work of processing through your experiences. I’m not quite convinced that roleplaying is leading you places you wouldn’t be led without it. Maybe I don’t understand?

  6. 6 storybythethroat
    November 10, 2009 at 10:18 am

    Wow, a lot of fascinating comments! I’ll probably reply to a couple at a time, as tie permits.

    Joe (Buried): Great to hear your own story of this experience! Its interesting, isn’t it? Its not as simple as “I have some issues so I made a guy with those issues and he worked out those issues and in so doing I worked out those issues i real life.” In fact I’d be willing to venture that a simple approach (1 to 1 correspondence of character to player issues) has less chance of a satisfying result. Rather if you go with the gut,it seems–roll out a character that’s interesting or appealing to you instinctively–you’ll find that there are all kinds of dimensions that intersect with swaths of self-discovery in ways you couldn’t predict.

    Justin: TOTALLY People’s Front of Judea. “Apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?” I mean, “Romans GOOD!” is as simplistic and inadequate as “Romans BAD!” But it’s important to understand the whole reality of a situation. And what I’m getting at is that even if you decide to oppose a system, it’s vital to recognize the humanity of those running that system.

  7. 7 storybythethroat
    November 10, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Matthew (Nemo): Nice to hear about your own process in the same game. The process I was describing was of course personal to me.

    I’ve been very careful to stress that personally revealing roleplay is not the SAME THING as capital-T Therapy. I wouldn’t want to presume to replace that function, nor would I want to dilute the artistry of creating story AS story. I a lost want to say that catharsis is a by-product, but that sounds too marginal. It’s a sort of “he that loses his life will save it” thing, or if you prefer, learning to fly by throwing yourself at the ground and missing. The effect is something you want, something immensely rewarding, but you achieve it by sort of not staring at it directly, by “just playing” and letting it happen. But at the same tie, it helps to have some intentionality about your mode of play, such as Burning Wheel’s framework of driving with your Beliefs and having them challenged.

    It’s all very paradoxical, but it works.

    And thanks for the stout, my pathways were very happy last night.

  8. 8 storybythethroat
    November 10, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    VoidAngel: Dude. It’s one thing to have your own opinions, but please don’t tell my own story for me. Can you just take my word for it that I really was going so far as to equate oppression with ALL forms of rule? I’m not saying that’s a position I deliberately adopted, but it is the degree to which my thinking sloppily slid. It was a convenient shorthand that my mind set up for determining who the “bad guys” are in the world, one which has the side effect of stifling thought and analysis of just WHY a rule is oppressive. Hence my wake-up call and rexamination.

    It’s probably about time to have a clear discussion about what standards of courtesy I expect from people in this space, but that’s the topic of another article. Just suffice to say that brotherly privilege or no, I don’t appreciate someone telling my thoughts to me.

    However! You have volunteered some very courageous vulnerability in telling your own story, so I feel I can honor that and spot you some goodwill. You obviously, as an Iraq-deployed guardsman, have experience I don’t, and unique occasion for examining your approach to these issues. That’s a heavy load to wrestle with. And you’re wrestling with it directly, in an actual situation. I can only imagine what that’s like. Using a roleplaying situation to confront an issue is, not a substitute for the real thing, but it does allow you to address situations you may not encounter in real life, and address them in a different, uniquely powerful way.

    “You’re an American, don’t forget, and as such you have been produced by a warrior culture who believe that ideals are worth fighting for.”

    That’s a good point. The cultural values I inherit run deep, and often without my conscious awareness. It’s no small thing to buck them, and they inform everything I do and think. A weighty thing to be aware of, for sure.

  9. 9 storybythethroat
    November 10, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    Hans: Does any of this fresh batch of commentary clear things up for you? If not we can explore things further. My short explanation is that, sure, I COULD have come to those realizations without roleplaying–but WOULD I have? I mean, we’re fed and enriched from all kinds of sources–stories we read, songs we here, life experiences–right? And they all have a unique way of speaking to us. The plain fact is that this Burning Wheel game brought things to light that I wasn’t otherwise thinking about. I believe (as I said in the preceding articles) that roleplaying, because it’s a story. and what’s more a story we tell has a way of revealing ourselves to ourselves that you can’t find anywhere else.


  10. 10 Hans Otterson
    November 10, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Ha! I dunno, I realized someone was aiming a camera at me and got kind of nervous, so I looked up at the sky.

    Anyway, I see what you’re saying. In my previous post I was playing devil’s advocate a bit, if not totally well. At the core I believe in what you’re talking about (maybe not to the extent of rewriting soul pathways, but perhaps that’s a conversation for later). Because I believe in the power of roleplaying/storyjamming, I sort of want to push against that belief to see if it breaks, just to make sure to myself that it does indeed hold up.

    • 11 storybythethroat
      November 10, 2009 at 11:46 pm

      Hans, I’m so sorry! That “douche” comment wasn’t from me. I think one of my co-workers hijacked my account. I’ve deleted it.

      At least you took it well, but that isn’t the way I would ever tease, at least not on the internet.


  11. 13 luke
    November 23, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Joel: Yes, yes, yes. The game provides the structure to get us to a space in which we — the person behind the mask — make vital decisions that say something about our own hearts and heads. Great stuff.

  12. 14 storybythethroat
    November 24, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Thanks, Luke, glad to see us in accord on this. That’s an aspect of Burning Wheel that rocks HARD.

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