A couple of experiences from Go Play NW last weekend: first, I played my game The Dreaming Crucible with Joe McDaldno and Jackson Tegu. Jackson has a little Crucible experience, so for once I was able to turn the role of Dark Faerie over to another and just play the Hero. This meant that the other players were in charge of bringing the world of Faerie to life. And we had the most descriptively rich game of The Dreaming Crucible that I’ve every played.
A Well-Dressed Man who commanded the inanimate whisked young Aaron on a flying carpet to a vast clockwork plain and commanded him to repair it. A Stickboy borne on a raven persuaded the boy to flee the place, and secured a dog for him to ride through a forest pulsing with life. Aaron met an apple tree who was delighted for company but sad to think he might rob her of her apples. Then he lost his companions and the forest path turned to tile and walls rose up to hem him in and he almost spent forever in a bare room with a vanity and a chair. He came to a cottage where an old witch became an alluring girl and traded him the lives of his companions for passage to the Well Dressed Man’s black spire. The girl skinned the dog and Aaron wore him, still living, as a cloak as he and the Stickboy climbed the spire to confront his suave enslaver.
Second, I played Matthijs Holter and Jason Morningstar’s Love in the Time of Seið with Matthew Gagan, Blake Hutchins, Matthew Sullivan-Barrett, and Jackson Tegu. It’s a game of “Norse Blood Opera,” and our play had its share of familial strife, displeased ancestors, lovers’ betrayal, and vying for the throne, all revolving on the machinations of a sensual and scheming witch-woman.
The game was steeped in conflict, but also rich in detail, a delight to the senses. Blake was obviously passionate and knowledgeable of Norse culture and shared with all of us at the table. I was particularly struck by his descriptions of the aged, strength-waning king brooding in his grim and magnificent hall: the carven pillars and decorations, the king’s embroidered surcoat and black and white lace-patterned leggings and haunted, bearded face with a sad gravity smoldering on it, and the sword of kingship at his side, held ever in space by an attendant for the king to take up its hilt at need, are all as vivid and haunting to me as anything out of Beowulf or Tolkien. And when the king confronted his trusted knight in that hall, grief-stricken at his intent to hunt the forbidden Spirit Bear to which the strength of the Kingdom is bound, and the king at last stirred from his convalescence and took up the sword of judgment to strike down the betrayer, but faltered and struck not true, grazing the knight and striking blade-tip to the floor, throwing off sparks at which the very earth trembled and the strength went out of the saddened monarch once more…well, we at the table were rapt, spellbound in the most literal sense, at the dream we had woven together.
What made this work? Listening in boredom to the GM’s long-winded description, recoiling in horror at the words “let me tell you about my character”—these are time-worn tropes of Geek Culture. What made these games different, and not a drudge or a chore?
I see several factors: first, a shared artistic commitment. In both games we were all people who were 100% on board with realizing a Dream of Faerie or a Norse Fantasy Kingdom in full richness and depth. We were invested in what each other was about to say, because we wanted to see that dream come to life and celebrate it.
Second, creative collaboration. Even when one person had a long turn talking, it was a picture to which we were all contributing, not one person’s pet character or set location that had no relevance to anything else. In Crucible Joe and Jackson built on each other’s input and handed off descriptive elements as if sharing toys, and I benefited with a fascinating and unnerving dream to journey through. And the dream they wove grew in the first place from my input on the internal struggles of my Hero. In Seið each player gets a turn to set their scene, but it’s no monologue–even aside from others contributing through their characters, there are ritual phrases—”More detail”, or “I’d like to throw something in!” that every player uses to coax richness out of the speaker or add their own.
And third, attention to the sensual. We didn’t just give the bare facts necessary for the action, we engaged all the senses for a full and immersive experience. We want to feast on details, let the Dream wash over us. We don’t just want to resolve gripping conflicts (though we DO want to resolve gripping conflicts!), we want to feel that we’re there, so that these characters and struggles matter. I think both game systems helped bolster that approach in different ways, but in the end it’s the commitment of the players to add sight and taste and smell and texture, together, not as monologuing prima donnas, that is key. It’s then that we can start to attain to “the gift of the Elf–minstrels, who can make the things of which they sing appear before the eyes of those that listen.” (Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings Appendix A). In these games, I feel it is no braggery to say that we did.