Tragic Trajectories

Vincent Baker, author of the roleplaying games Dogs in the Vineyard, In a Wicked Age and more, was the guest of honor at the Portland area’s Gamestorm convention last weekend. I had the opportunity to play a couple of his games, and they provoked a powerful emotional response. Here’s two vignettes:

1) Dogs in the Vineyard:

Sister Eleanor is one of God’s Watchdogs, virginal nineteen-year-olds sent out with a Bible and a gun to solve the problems of religious frontier towns. They arrive in town during a funeral. Brother Charles’ daughter has been murdered, and he’s frantic to have the Dogs marry her to her husband posthumously—the Town Steward refused to bless them, then disappeared–so she won’t have died a harlot. Eleanor yearns to ease the stricken man’s grief, but when she meets prospective husband Brother Ephraim, a pompous elder who doesn’t give a shit, she wavers. The father is aghast and tells them all to just go.

Sis. Eleanor follows him to the graveyard, and helps him dig the grave in silence, then finally asks him to please talk to her so she can bring the killer to justice. Charles asks, “will that make it right?” Eleanor can only answer, “I don’t know. but I can’t let it go.” Bro. Charles tries to storm off, but Eleanor bars his way and insists, and he gives in, telling her what he knows. She leaves, but with a feeling growing in her gut: “I don’t know if I can make it right.”

The rot in the town soon outs itself—Brother Ephraim had the Steward killed to control the town himself, and had the girl killed when she challenged it. There’s a showdown, bullets fly, and Bro. Ephraim is subdued, dying. Sis. Eleanor goes to Bro. Charles and offers forgiveness to his son, who was Ephraim’s pawn. She puts her hand on Charles’ shoulder and the father breaks down weeping. Eleanor stands over him and she too sobs and sobs.

Hold on to that for a moment. Note that Eleanor is a rough and rowdy Dog who takes after her father to the consternation of her mother. Then clear some brainspace for this story as well:

2) Apocalypse World:

Half a century after the bombs fell, a motley band of “water collectors” roams the ash wastes making their REAL living through thievery. Operator Proust is the man with the plan, Savvyhead Jessica is a beautiful and compassionate mechanic, Angel Gabe is a medic who wishes they really WOULD dig a well once or twice, and Brainer Cybelle is a transsexual lover of humanity, in every sense (who’s fond of Jessica). As their rig stalls out in the middle of nowhere, low on “go juice,” they’re attacked by the men of Esco, a local enclave leader they’ve robbed, wanting back not so much their loot, but Jessica with whom Esco is smitten. There’s gunplay and Jessica is shot and in a bad way. Next thing we know, the band is captured, the Operator and Brainer laboring in the Slave Pits, while the Angel is chained in the infirmary, tending to Jessica.

Gabe heals Jessica, but the first face she sees on waking is Esco’s, and she realizes he’s a good man and she cares for him. About then Proust makes his play: threatening to blow the whole place with an artillery shell dug up in the Slave Pits, unless Esco lets them all go. Esco says fine but the girl stays, and that’s when Cybelle makes HER play: using her Brainer gifts, she brushes Esco’s shoulder and murmurs, “show us the girl. I’ll stay with you until they’re safely away.”

Esco is totally swayed—he suddenly has eyes only for Cybelle, and orders his men to release everyone. As Gabe is ushering Jessica out, her eyes lock with Esco’s and she sees total indifference, and it shakes her. Cybelle is led off and lets Esco have his way with her, which for a Brainer lays his mind bare: she feels all his burden and regrets, and sees that his heart is broken over losing Jessica, twice. She further sees that if this breaks him, his community will not survive. While Esco sleeps, Cybelle is overwhelmed in the Psychic maelstrom.

Enter Jessica. She comes bearing a bowl of water, a symbol of healing and reconciliation. She holds it out before her, in the center of the triangle of lost souls. As Esco awakes and Cybelle comes to herself, understanding and forgiveness pass between them.

I played Sister Eleanor and Cybelle the Brainer in these stories, respectively. Both of them moved me to the brink of tears, and left me with treasured memories of the games. I hope that an echo of that comes through in recounting them. But what was going on in these games that brought us there?

Simply put: I created characters who care passionately for others, but whose presence can’t help but cause them pain. Eleanor wanted desperately to ease Charles’ suffering, but her role, her duty, as holy judge could only add to his grief. Cybelle cared for Jessica deeply, but could only help her by seducing her love. And likewise she cared for Esco, and cherished their time together, but in the process had to steal him away from where his heart lay.

Many factors, both of context and of craft, supported that. For instance, the creation of a town for Dogs involves populating it with people who want, desperately, help that will bring grief to someone. And there are a ton of cues in both games calibrated to propel the protagonists forward on a collision course with the setting. Eleanor’s parental issues and stubborn streak came directly from selecting “complicated history” in character creation and working out what that meant to me, and from having a ton of relationship dice to assign when, for instance, she met a grieving father and her heart went out to him. In Apocalypse world, everything about your character from Name to Look to Moves is selected from a list, which far from being restrictive, is an amazing springboard for creativity. If I hadn’t had “caring eyes” and “awkward, angular build” staring me in the face, Cybelle would never have come to be. Those cues told me a lot about what kind of person she was, sexually and emotionally–not a slut, not a whore, not a manipulator, but a genuine lover of people. There were cues from the other players as well–for instance, I could never have predicted Jessica’s gesture of reconciliation; I figured I was charting a course to pure brokenness for the trio.

As I said the actual craft of play enhances all this. Vincent, I found, had a true gift for inhabiting these grief-stricken characters, conveying their brokenness and humanity with a few deft strokes of dialogue, body language, inflection and so on. And I’ve developed in myself a knack for seeing my character simply, directly, as a person, which helps give me a clear, easy vision at all times for what they will do next, without hemming or hawing about what would be the “coolest” or most “meaningful” thing for them to do.

And of course the final ingredient is that you have to want it. And I most definitely want it. When I gushed to my friend Ogre about these games, he nodded appreciatively and said “Joel, that is the perfect story for you. That’s the story you’re drawn to, more than anyone else I know.” And I realized he was absolutely right; this is something my soul is seeking. And I’m so glad I’m finding it.



9 Responses to “Tragic Trajectories”

  1. 1 Chris Goodwin
    April 1, 2010 at 8:14 am

    I could never have predicted Jessica’s gesture of reconciliation; I figured I was charting a course to pure brokenness for the trio.

    I couldn’t have either — didn’t, in fact. To be honest, I had no idea what was going to happen until Vincent suggested the bowl of water. It was amazing at the time, and reading the vignette just now gave me goosebumps.

  2. April 1, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    It was a real pleasure to watch that AW game. Everyone was on fire. Thanks for letting me sit in.

  3. 3 Joel
    April 1, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    John: Glad to have you. It’s wonderful to share such a great experience, and even on the sidelines your presence added to the proceedings.

    Do you have any specific observations as audience for that game?

    Chris: Yeah, I had that sense. Which is, again, what’s so great about all those million zillion cues during play: If you hadn’t had the Move “Right Tool for the Job,” that outcome would probably have never happened. And if I hadn’t had a specific list of questions to ask when I Brain Scanned Esco, the heartbreak might never even have come to light in the first place. We built so strongly, so beautifully, on those frameworks, without the frameworks predetermining content. It was so exhilarating!


  4. 4 Annie
    April 1, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    It sounds like you’re all still longing for a little more, even though that particular set of people will probably never come together for that game again… and even if you did, you’ll each be in a different place in life than you were before.

    Perhaps that’s what made it so special: to realize a rare resonance of hearts going on, but in that same moment to know that as soon as it’s over, it’s OVER. That’s pretty tragic in real life too. Perhaps the impending pain of going separate ways at the end of the game inspired some “method acting.” It’s kind of like GK Chesterton says: “The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.”

    It brings up an interesting problem though. How do you get more of THESE kind of games and less of the other kind. It’s almost like a feed back loop: recognition of compatible game sensibilities leads to mutual trust and admiration, leads to mutually satisfying creativity and improv, leads to ONE AWESOME GAME. If you break any one of those links, the “awesome” never quite happens. I think that’s why there’s so much pressure on long games to have all those working parts, otherwise you know you’ll never get the awesome. At the same time, when you’re at a convention, it’s an unexpected gift to get such a great game in a one-off because it’s impossible to be as careful picking the group, etc., etc., so all the parts work. That it worked twice for one-off games is almost a miracle.

  5. 5 Joel
    April 3, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Thanks, dear. You’ve captured eloquently the feeling of satisfaction mingled with longing that I had, without me even realizing I had it!

    I think when lightning strikes at a convention, it’s particularly rare and valuable, but I think I feel this way whenever any treasured human thing comes to an end. Even if there’s something new and exciting just around the corner–another game with the same or different people, some other special gathering, some other creative project–there’s always the feeling that THAT thing, THAT moment, THAT experience, can never come again. Which is sad, but also (as you and Chesterton said) what makes it precious and wonderful. It’s just the way of things. When I accept that, allow myself a little wistfulness, and move on, I tend to be happier and more at peace than when I hang on to, say, a choir or a church community or a roleplaying group for years because of that one time that was so special and wouldn’t it be GREAT if that exact experience would show up again?

    How to get those experiences? I’d say the first thing is to recognize that each experience is unique; even if you get another great experience with the exact same people and the exact same game, it will be a DIFFERENT experience than the first. Embrace that. Beyond that, knowing what you want and being able to articulate it helps immensely. I’m fond of Ron Edwards’ “Color and Reward” formulation: “this game provides a certain aesthetic experience [COLOR] and achieves it through these means (REWARD].” I would never actually SAY the words “color and reward” when pitching to , but being able to say some equivalent–“Let’s explore the tensions between Norse and Gael in Medieval Ireland in Burning Wheel by driving hard with Beliefs” for instance–helps a lot for finding likeminded people and being on the same page.

    Also, I think having relatively short-lifespan games alleviates that pressure to make everything GOOD–if you’re going to be playing something else in a couple of months (or even just evaluating in a couple of months whether to renew for another “season”), then the game doesn’t HAVE to be super-great and zen-like, allows breathing room for it to become super-great naturally.

  6. 6 Joel
    April 3, 2010 at 11:02 am

    Another thought I just had–while these one-shots were special, there was so much potential to develop further. Eleanor is just beginning to work out her issues with her mother and her place as a woman. Cybelle and Jessica surely have more to explore in their relationship, plus the medic Gabe had also fallen in love with Jessica, and that’s a whole OTHER hornet’s nest waiting to get shaken and poked.

    I’d say that while long games build a lot of pressure to be good and stay good, they can also ALLEVIATE the pressure that one-shots have of having to be good NOW OR NEVER.

  7. 7 buriedwithoutceremony
    April 28, 2010 at 12:23 am

    This is really cool.

    Thanks for sharing it.

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