The Dreaming Crucible: Beginning Play

It’s been awhile since I wrote a Dreaming Crucible rules post. The text of the game is published under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license, so I’m sharing pieces of it through blog posts. I hope to get a Dreaming Crucible wiki up and running in early 2012, so that play of the game will be freely accessible to anyone outside the realm of commerce, leaving the physical book to thrive on its own merits as a beautiful artifact. Previous Crucible game text posts:

And now, at last, we come to Beginning Play!

When you’ve got your roles sorted out and are ready to play, make a comfortable, relaxed space around a table. It doesn’t have to be a big dining room table; a modest coffee table in a cosy living room will do just fine if that’s the sort of setting where you can relax and focus. Make sure everyone can see and reach the table easily. Place the bag at the center of the table. it will be a focal point in play. place the bowl of stones off to the side, at a corner of the table or perhaps even off the table—accessible, but unobtrusive. Give every player the Story Cards related to their role. Do whatever you like to provide atmosphere—dimmed lights, mood music, lit candles, food and drink, conversation, focusing exercises. When everyone’s comfortable and engaged, begin by choosing Seeds.

You may have noticed we haven’t actually started play yet. That’s because setup is an oft-neglected aspect of gameplay, and deserves some special attention. I’m talking about more than just making sure you have all the materials needed to play, or gathering players together. Those are elements of setup, but the core principle of setup is creating an environment conducive to play.

Naturally, this includes assembling materials and recruiting players. But it’s so much more. There’s setting a mood, by arranging physical space and by entering into play with intentionality. There’s letting players know they are welcome and safe within the game. And there’s creating a dynamic focus by removing clutter and distractions, allowing all players to immerse in the experience. Every aesthetic element of The Dreaming Crucible is calibrated toward facilitating this.

I’ve already talked about creating a safe emotional space, with I Will Not Abandon You above, but arranging the physical space is important as well. Too often in my gaming experience, we shoehorn play into a time and space where it doesn’t fit well, and simply “make do.” Perhaps we feel our schedules are too busy to slow down and enter the playspace calmly and intentionally. Perhaps we’re so used to clutter in our lives that it becomes invisible. Shoving some junk to one end of a table and setting up gamepieces seems sufficient to me because that’s how I manage the physical artifacts of the rest of my life. New mail? Toss it on the desk. Picking something to wear? Root through the piles on the floor. Internet time? Curl up with my laptop wherever there’s room, and hope nothing gets spilled in its vicinity. When you’re disorganized, weary and pressed for time, it’s easy to feel that this is natural and unavoidable.

But the truth is, living that way adds stress, breeds depression and makes it harder to accomplish anything. Work stalls out and pleasures have their edge blunted. It’s no different for games. Roleplaying in a living room, everyone sprawled out however, with magazines and laptops at hand, used to be second nature to me. But it got under my skin because the focus, the energy, the creative spark between people who are deeply engaged with each other, just weren’t there.

Ben Lehman’s Polaris is the first game that I encountered which suggested a different approach leading to a more rewarding experience. It uses ritual phrases to mark the beginning and end of play phases, and the lighting of candle which burns throughout the session of play, marking a special, set-apart time outside of the ordinary time of day to day life. I was entranced by the beauty of this concept, which is very fitting to the unearthly glamour of that game. Willem Larsen, creator of the language and skill building game Language Hunters, also clued me into the value of setup both in his facilitating of Polaris, and his leadership in games of Language Hunting. A clear space, obvious arrangement of participants and props, and a focus and intent on play are all elements that I value in play, and I carried these principles with me when I designed the Crucible. I’ve gotten good results from arranging space both physically and verbally, having more intense and personal games with friends and strangers alike than I’ve had with most other games, period.

Making space to play means ritually marking out a bounded, finite world in which you and your fellow players will live for the next 2-3 hours. It means savoring the moment to moment richness of play, unimpeded by conscious or unconscious distractions. It means generating an intense focus between the people at the table that lets their collaboration come truly alive.

And this starts with simple, physical organization. An empty table, with a simple wood finish or single-colored cloth, creates a clear field for interaction where the outside world does not intrude. The artifacts of play arranged elegantly, symmetrically, define the landscape of the play world, and focus in our attention on the game about to commence. Soft, appropriate music can help bring players emotionally in line with the tone of the game. A facilitator welcoming players, gently but firmly asking that snacks and clutter stay out of the space, then calmly explaining the nature of the game, sets the stage for rewarding, high-trust interaction.

And then, truly, you are ready to play.



4 Responses to “The Dreaming Crucible: Beginning Play”

  1. 1 JDCorley
    December 29, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Hey Joel – i just received my print copy of Dreaming Crucible that I ordered in the winter sale. I was about to post about how much I like the three principles up front. I think all games (both in the text and play sense) could benefit from clear, concise expression of expectations for play. Like, are we just joshing around and having a good time? Are we Very Serious in this game? I really like the way DC puts it across (though my current group and I don’t do much IWNAY play because, ya know, child abuse and neglect is my day job, and I’m not the only one).

    Physical space is so important. My group currently has a strong preference for sitting around the living room on couches. I hate this so much. I much prefer a table, it helps people focus, helps them hear and stay interested in what others are doing and thinking. However, the big living room helps side conversations occur, which is necessary for a 6 person game group like I currently have. More games should talk about the tradeoffs in playing in different spaces with different layouts.

  2. 2 Graypawn
    December 29, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    JD – I’m with you, I’d love to unpack this further. Joel – love, love, love this post.

    I first came across ritualized enter-and-exit play with Beasthunters, when you do the really awesome salute thing to begin play. It’s very perfect, giving the participants the opportunity to acknowledge “Now the game is on.”

    I also used this kind of methodology for a game i worked on for years. The premise was a play-yourself game, where you entered into the many worlds of imagination the other players created. It started as kind of a ‘gather up all the settings you never got a chance to run’ experiment, but it later became a great thing to help each of us communicate and grow closer to each other. One of the tools i used in that was “Crux Items” – which were physical relics that actually ‘transmitted’ you to the gamescape, or opened doors for everyone to enter in through. The game demanded that you ‘Crux In’ and then ‘Crux out.’ There was no such thing as a cliffhanger ending. We were forced to think of our adventures in real-time, recognizing that we might not be able to solve the situation because some of us had to go home and get some sleep before work in the morning.

    One Crux Item i made was a candle and a set of matches. To enter the game we had to turn off all the lights and see each other by only the candle. Then we would blew out the light, and the GM would whisk us away to the game by narrating our arrival in the dark. Of course we turned the lights on later, but the ritual worked every time. It never lost its magic.

    I’m all for creating a deliberate game space. I’m also (obviously) all for theatrics. I love playing with props, trinkets and treasures, dressing up as my character (or just in a gaming-themed outfit). I love lathering myself in the whole of the experience. But…unpacking this means admitting all the outside elements. I hate playing at small tables, i hate playing on couches (especially games with dice). But not everyone has a big table to gather at. I live in Seattle, and honestly i can think of two people i know that actually live nearby and have ‘large’ house where Gaming could even occur. Often we have outside elements (roomates or spouses, sizes of our abode, how loud you’re allowed to be) and other factors to consider when creating a game space. For a couple of years my closest friends and i all lived with our parents while searching for better jobs. We played a lot of games in the IHOP. That was hard time. It’s not easy to immerse yourself to tears and trust when every ten minutes someone asks if you want a refill.

    All that said, i feel like i can firmly say i believe whole-heartedly that effort toward creating a deliberate game-space is never going to make things worse for you.

  3. 3 oberonthefool
    December 31, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Any tips on convincing other players of the necessity and value of such deliberate and/or elaborate preparations and ceremony? Personally I’d love it, but I just don’t see it flying with most groups, for exactly the reasons you outline above. Some people game as a means of socializing, or as an escape from their rigidly scheduled daily routines- turning gaming into another rigid routine seems to scare them off. =\

  4. 4 Joel
    January 3, 2012 at 12:32 am

    JD, I’m with you too. As I said I used to make all kinds of concessions on physical space, group focus, etc. And I’m not saying I’m all hardline, like “NO! You will sit up straight at this table and you will LIKE it!” but I AM really finding that WHEN the physical space and group social space is uncluttered and harmonious, the result is more focused and rewarding, so I’m pushing for that and exploring that.

    I see I Will Not Abandon You as an open and adaptable concept. Of course if someone’s triggered by something you’re not going to automatically go all letter of the law and soldier on at the cost of real trauma. You’re going to be sensitive and aware and responsive to each other, and that includes putting on the brakes if something is truly NOT OK. And different groups may have different areas they avoid, like you said. It’s up to each group to navigate what’s OK and what’s not, and the different ways that things are and aren’t OK, and so forth.

    It’s hard to write that into an IWNAY rule, because “I Will Not Abandon You, unless, y’know, I need to” is too soft a statement and would totally undercut the purpose of the pledge. (I think Meg talked somewhere in the old IWNAY threads about how withdrawing isn’t always “abandoning.”) It’s not a rigid rule but a general ethos. I tried to get at its flexibility with the statement, “I Will Not Abandon You is the default mode of Dreaming Crucible play.”

    Graypawn, I knew I was forgetting a key influence! I love the Beasthunters salute. When I played with Christian, and he gripped my hand and looked me in the eye, I could tell he was really committed to the ritual as a means of personal bonding and setting intent.

    Your Crux rituals sound wonderful (might be something worth incorporating into the Ruins, by the way).

    I think it’s important to remember that there is no ideal play environment, no ideal social space. It’ll never be “perfect.” You just do the best you can with what you’ve got; sometimes what you’ve got is watery eyes, lit candles, and hushed voices, and sometimes what you’ve got is couches, the crinkling of Cheeto bags, and interrupting roommates. But I agree; it never hurts to try for creating space, except in the way that not getting exactly what you want can hurt.

    Oberon, that’s a great question! As with most things in storygaming (or life, really), you can’t force it, and the harder you insist the more resistance you’re likely to encounter.

    In my experience, it’s nearly impossible to alter the tone or practice of a group activity midstream. The established methodology and ethos are like circuits etched into everybody’s consciousness, that channel actions so powerfully that it’s hard to alter even when you want to. Even if folks are willing to sit politely and listen to your requests to change, even if they agree to change their practice with you…there’s an irresistible pull, a tendency to “snap back” to the way they’ve always done it. The shared space and time of the game are a giant hole marked “insert activity A here.” Try to insert activity B, or even activity A2, and people will resist, even unconsciously. That’s what happened when I tried to “reform” my college roleplaying group into playing my new hippie way. I may as well have been speaking Altarian.

    I’ve found that anything you can do to recontextualize goes a long way. If you can change anything about the situation–different game, different day and time, different mix of people–you can get things off on the right foot and set expectations up-front. If you can say to your Thursday group, “hey, everyone, there’s this new game I’d like to try; anyone who’e interested, can we meet at my place on Sunday” you get to set the stage. Have the play space arranged when they come in, and gently but firmly assert yourself. You don’t have to make a big deal or call attention to how raaadically different this game will be; just be prepared to explain and make requests at the key points where folks are likely to enter into old habits. A separate table for snacks or a single set of dice in a decorative bowl can keep the playspace clear. Any “weird” techniques or ceremonies can simply be part of the new game you’re playing. New game; new rules, even if they’re house rules. And of course for some games, such as Polaris, they WILL be official rules!

    I learned a lot this year from playing games with Ross Cowman of the Olympia storygaming crew. He has a very mild, quiet way about him, and holds space in a very effortless, low-key way. The dice-in-a-bowl trick is his, and he very softly asserts a focused, distraction-free playtime with deliberate breaks. If someone brings a problematic idea to the table, he asks them questions until he’s either satisfied that they’re prepared to approach a difficult issue in good faith, or they realize the idea is frivolous/disrespectful/offensive or what have you, and alter it. He commands respect without demanding it, and facilitates a safe space without drawing attention to it. Very inspirational.

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