Last 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.