Accelerated Story, Part 1: Alive

My friend Willem Larsen, developer of the Language Hunters accelerated learning system, recently published a series of blog posts on the “Rules of Accelerated Learning.” These are a set of interlocking patterns for fluent skill-building presented in bite-sized pieces. I really dig what he has to say here, and the way he says it.

Ordinarily Willem applies these insights toward the language game, but here they’re presented in a general fashion, to apply to ANY skill you want to build proficiency in. Since I’ve been exploring how the principles of fluency intersect with story games for a couple of years now (no surprise since Language Hunters is itself a game!), I want to dig into these rules and look at the concrete ways they can be leveraged toward collaborative storytelling and roleplaying. As we explore them one by one, I hope to see understanding expand ever outward as the rules break off, recombine and create new connections, building insight on insight.

Before we begin, it’s worth noting Willem’s disclaimer: Each rule is very contextual; these are not silver bullets or cure-alls.

The first rule is: “Focus on What is Alive.” As Willem says,

It’s difficult to learn skills or new competencies from reading books, verbal explanations, or standardized curricula.

Therefore, always look for situations where you can observe or learn from skilled practitioners, and gauge your success by the degree of engagement of the participants.

This matches up with my experience with roleplaying games. I originally received roleplaying rules via oral tradition, but as soon as I was able to get my hands on RPG books I started acquiring my skills and rules knowledge that way. Reading books was a great way to acquire comprehensive knowledge, but it translated awkwardly into play with actual humans.

Generally speaking, I encountered two situations: either one person had really read the book, and was constantly trying to teach the game to others but it would never really stick, or else everyone had read the book, and would get constantly bogged down in the minutia of rules interpretation and special cases and exceptions and looking things up for clarification. In both cases play was focused on the text: adhering to it, referencing it, interpreting it. But the text wasn’t the game. The thing that happened in real time between real people was the game. The text was just a way to transmit the game from designer to players. And in many cases, arguably impeded the actual game, the thing that is alive.

The indie games I’m into now tend to have smaller, more focused texts than, say, D&D. this alleviates the text-focus somewhat, but I’ve still observed the tradition of textual supremacy hanging around the edges. After all, someone is still reading that book so they can transmit the knowledge to other players, and I’ve noticed myself and other players still exercising that impulse to engage with the game and the teaching text-centricly. We either listen to instruction like college kids taking lecture notes, trying to make sure we understand the exact details of the rules, or else we jump in to correct the speaker based on our own rules-knowledge, trying to ensure that we’re playing “correctly.”

I’ve realized that when you focus on what is alive, the concepts of “correctness,” of “rightness” and orthodoxy fall away. What matters is not whether we’re playing the “right” or “best” way, but whether we’re fully engaged and having fun in this moment. If I’m playing a game here, now, with these people, I want to live in that space, not check out of it every ten minutes to make sure we’re still hewing properly to words in a book.

It’s a hard habit to break, but when we play like this, we’re not “gauging our success by the degree of engagement of the participants;” we’re promoting DISengagement, which deadens the process and pulls us out of the present NOW of play. And it decelerates our learning process, because we haven’t simply done the thing, so next time it comes up we won’t have the confidence and ease of doing it, and will again rely on the text—what was that rule, again? What’s the book say about how to handle that? I think there was something in chapter three…

And play stops dead.

That’s not to say that books don’t have a use! Books can be sources of valuable insight and useful techniques, and enjoyable to read in their own right. A good roleplaying text will be chock full of tools that are purpose-built for helping us solve difficulties in our play. But when it comes to doing a thing, I humbly suggest that it’s time to put the book aside, and do it. After you do it, you can reflect on it, glean techniques from books or conversations or online forums, then bring them with you when you next return to the present and focused space of play. This a continual feedback loop of improvement.

Shared story-making is a craft that particularly relies on the present, fluid engagement of its practitioners. And so it’s particularly vulnerable to momentum sinks like mechanics debates or page-flipping for rules. I invite you to work past that understandable impulse, and learn to play in the present moment, and focus on the real people in front of you, and the dynamic, wild thing you’re shaping together—focus on what is alive.



9 Responses to “Accelerated Story, Part 1: Alive”

  1. 1 JDCorley
    February 20, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    They used to call this the JDCorley Principle, because they were so tired of hearing it from me. Maybe in hippie language instead of mean old man language it will stick. Good stuff.

  2. 2 Joel
    February 20, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    They used to call this the JDCorley Principle

    NOOOOOO what have I become?

    Seriously, though, I’ve really come around to this principle in a big way. I think placing primacy on texts is an understandable impulse; if you’ve sunk all this investment–time, brainpower, money–into books that tell you how to play, then of course you’re going to become protective of those procedures and want to keep checking with the source to make sure you’re doing it “right.” But as I said, seeing what that does to the flow of play was a big factor in learning to let go.

    Do I still have the urge to correct people on rules-knowledge? Oh my, yes. Do I still want to devour every bit of lore from a text, from forums, from interviews and articles? Hell yes. But recognizing this principle helps me meter those impulses, and have the patience to save the textual part of the reflection cycle for its proper place.

    It’s funny, I hadn’t directly connected this with the JDCorley principle until you mentioned it, though I totally see it now. I guess, as one of those people who got tired of hearing it, that the thing that annoyed me was not so much the sentiment, but its actionability. Like, When you said “all play is houseruling,” I couldn’t tell what to DO with that insight, or how it moved the discussion along. Whether that was you or me, or the forum culture, or what, who knows! But I’m glad to close that loop in my mental landscape.

  3. February 22, 2012 at 12:09 am

    Joel, I think the thing I’m doing with Left Coast is like what you’re saying here.

    I’m writing the rules as a tool to communicate as clearly as possible how I think the game should play. Then I’m providing the players with 3 very short handouts and telling them to look at those handouts (rather than the rules) when they’re playing the game.

    I think I’m going to add in a proviso: that when you’re playing the game, maintaining flow and staying in the story is what’s important. If you’re ever unclear what to do, make it up and keep playing.

    Then, after the game’s over, players can go back to the rules to clarify any confusions.

    This is all inspired by the first time I played Trollbabe after reading it about 5 times – and I completely misunderstood the basic system of escalation. I now operate on the assumption that I’m going to get stuff wrong any time I play the game. I guess my rules need to give the players confidence to make their own decisions, and then make it easy for them to refer/learn afterwards.

  4. February 22, 2012 at 6:49 am

    Rock the rules of learning Joel! I’m looking forward to Gamestorm (http://gamestorm.org) where we’ll be having a panel on this very topic.

  5. 6 Joel
    February 22, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Steve: That sounds great! I’m a huge fan of handouts and summaries and mnemonics for keeping techniques alive in play. It’s great technology for keeping the rules structure in play without breaking flow. I’ve found that simplest is best; a comprehensive and complex outline (for instance, the complete rules summary on the Dogs in the Vineyard sheet) has the same effect as page-flipping in a rulebook. Perhaps even moreso, because the complex text is available for everyone to study, not just one guy with the book. It even draws your eye and entices you to bury yourself in text almost involuntarily, in my experience. With a rules framework that complex, it helps to make it modular, perhaps separated into several flashcards that can be whipped out when needed then hidden away again.

    A simple phrase or mnemonic, on the other hand, acts as a great placeholder for a body of principles, and keeps the techniques in the forefront of players’ minds, effortlessly and invisibly. Dogs’ “Roll the dice or say yes” and Apocalypse World’s “to do it, do it” point toward larger, deeper explanations of techniques without having to explain them each time. Language Hunters uses signs, and catchy phrases like “Craigslist” and “How fascinating!”

    Incidentally, I’m curious whether this was the old, free version of Trollbabe, or the newly published book. I ask because Ron’s said that Trollbabe is his best attempt at a teaching text, and I’m very curious about what that looks like.

    Willem: Me too! I figured starting this series would be good preparation for having that discussion. :)

  6. February 23, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    It was the old version of Trollbabe (not free, though: $10 or $15 for the .pdf). I was curious about the new Trollbabe – even more so, now that you say it’s been designed as a teaching text.

    Hmm. Based on your reply (above), I begin to feel my summary may wind up falling into the’ comprehensive and complex’ side of things. I won’t revise it now, though – I’ll send it out to Ritchie and the Shieldmonkey playtest group in Melbourne, and try it out for myself next weekend to get a feel for it.

    … thinking …

  7. 8 malcolmpdx
    March 6, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    So, I totally get this, being a Tekumel gamer, which is in some ways the ultimate text-primacy example…there are literally 1000s of pages of deep setting information, including whole grammars for languages, details on just about anything you can think of, religious texts, and on and on and on.

    Awesome to learn from. But not great for actually playing in sometimes, because people think they need to be correct, or adhere to “canon”, and yes, people do use that word to describe it.

    Actually playing in that setting, however, with other people, has taught me more about the setting than any reading ever did. I have studied this settting for 25 years; only just the other day, because of actually playing, did I come to realize why the culture is the way it is. Quite astonishing.

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