Weave richly the dream…

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 Elfminstrels, 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.




10 Responses to “Weave richly the dream…”

  1. 1 nemomeme
    June 26, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Even within the talented and committed play culture that has sprung up around the extended small press rpg games community, I think games like this have an additional self-selection of appeal that promotes experiences like the ones you had with these two sessions.

    The inherently serious subject matter, the tight focus, and the GM-less/GM-full structure of such games seems to nourish greater potential for new levels of buy-in/artistic commitment. Not always, but I’ve seen it a lot and as a result I’m increasingly attracted to designs with distributed narrative authority and with a strong, “this is the kind of story we’re going to tell together” front-loading.

  2. 2 nemomeme
    June 26, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Oh, and on the sensual point: I’ve still never played 1001 Nights and really want to at some point. Maybe *after* you play The Dreaming Crucible with me. ;)

  3. 3 Joel
    June 26, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    “The inherently serious subject matter, the tight focus, and the GM-less/GM-full structure of such games seems to nourish greater potential for new levels of buy-in/artistic commitment.”

    Yeah, Matthew! Also, the lack of more mechanical rules in Seið definitely contributes. It’s not right to call the game “rules-light”; there are rules in action at every moment of play. But they’re all, as I described above, focused toward us realizing our shared dream, so there’s no “OK, OK, enough with the description and let’s get to the conflict mechanics!” attitude to creep in. If we'[re not there to weave the Dream, then what ARE we doing?

    “I’ve still never played 1001 Nights and really want to at some point. Maybe *after* you play The Dreaming Crucible with me”

    Hell yes to both!

  4. 4 Gilbert
    June 28, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    Joel, can/will you unpack what you mean by “rules in action at every moment of play”? This is stimulating thought, but I want to be clear about what you mean.

  5. 5 Joel
    June 28, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Sure, Gilbert!

    I mean that, as the rules govern narration and description, they always apply, and every moment of play is informed by them. There’s no “well, the rules only apply at this and this and this juncture, at all other times ‘just roleplay’.”

    So like, if Love in the Time of Seið (or Archipelago II, the game it’s based on) just had a “draw a card when an outcome is in doubt” rule, you’d just be doing your thing until someone says “That might not be quite so easy!” and during all the other moments of play (many, many moments) you’d just be working out amongst yourselves what to say, whose turn it is to talk, who says what about what, and what happens in the story, and so forth. But Archipelago/Seið instead gives you a framework, starting with “these are the characters and what to pay attention to about them,” moving on to “take turns setting scenes, say who’s in the scene, hand out minor characters to play,” and continuing on with “scene-setter and character-players describe stuff, but everyone has these phrases to invoke.”

    It’s the last part that’s key, because while you’re still working out who says what and what happens, as human beings, the rules give you a framework. You’re not “interrupting play” to ask “wait, could you clarify,” or “ooh, could you keep going with that conversation?” or “I’m not liking where this is going.” You’re exactly playing by the rules to say “I need to clarify something!” or “stay with it!” or “do it differently!” By giving you a structure, it bolsters and empowers your own conversation about the game. Or rather, the conversation that IS the game.


  6. 6 Gilbert
    June 28, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    I’m so glad you are having these experiences. They seem to be showing what I was failing at explaining when I was ranting about ‘stripping away mechanics’ and ‘unobtrusive rules’. These are the types of experiences that I wish we had more expertise in invoking for others.

    I want to get that out, but I have a block between what I’m feeling and what I am writing. I’ll try to unpack that another time.

  7. 7 nemomeme
    June 28, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    My own personal rule/killer app for Love in the Time of Seið is the focused listening that occurs as a Theme Guide where you’re listening to, for example, where the King player’s narration touches on his Themes of “Law” or “Ancestors” and you you might step in to enhance, color, or twist one of those two Themes.

    And more generally, the focused and active listening the rules require of all the other players because they are all Guides who need to be attentive and occasionally bring a phrase in to help make the story richer.

  8. 8 Susano-wo
    June 29, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    Is there going to be a play post coming for the Dreaming Crucible game? It sounded like a kick ass session, and “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.” is given me “El Huevos Azul,” as they say in Gambia. Really want to know more about the surrounding story, and how that all turned out.

  9. 9 Joel
    June 29, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    Yeah, I was kind of a tease, wasn’t I?

    I might or might not follow up on it; I’ve got a lot of GPNW experiences to unpack and I’m tackling them as they come to me. It was quite a game, though, and I do want to examine it more, publicly or privately. If I don’t post about it I’ll call ya. :)

  10. 10 Hans Otterson
    July 10, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    Bring it to the Forge! How did the Light Faerie work out in play this time?

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