Accelerated Story 2: Fluency

Welcome to Accelerated Story part 2, where we’ll continue to look at Willem Larsen’s “Rules of Accelerated Learning from his Language Hunters blog, and explore how to apply those rules to story gaming/roleplaying.

As always, Willem’s disclaimer: Each rule is very contextual; these are not silver bullets or cure-alls.

The second rule is Fluency over Knowledge:

Even after much training, it can be disappointing how little you are able to do (or remember)…

Therefore, prioritize doing over knowledge-about.

This looks to me like it has a lot of overlap with Rule 1: Alive. As I examined last post, a big part of focusing on what is alive is prioritizing practice with living, present participants over book-learning and amassing knowledge. This rule deepens that concept, giving us some practical techniques for maintaining that sense of alive-ness:

  • Do something, anything, rather than speculating on how you might do it.
  • Observe and make use of your experience as you experiment with doing your target skill.
  • Interact and collaborate with other learners who are focused on doing over knowledge.

The first point is addresses several story gaming phenomena. Players can get stuck or paralyzed as they search for the perfect thing to describe next. Or they can “play before they play,” discussing the possibilities: “Or maybe you shoot the assassin in the shoulder and her hood drops back and it turns out to be your mother! Or maybe…” And sometimes a player can be led by their enthusiasm for a game to spend hours alone thinking, reading, and writing material for it, but not actually playing it with people–the so-called “lonely fun.”

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with taking a pause when you need to, or with holding your ideas lightly as you listen to the input of other players, or with spending your alone time lovingly cultivating  your favorite game material. But the question to ask, in all these cases, is, “does doing this keep the game alive, and does it facilitate fluency? Or is it piling on complexity, breaking flow, and quashing spontaneity?”

Focusing on fluency over knowledge is about freeing yourself to live in the moment. It’s an attitude that accepts that what you do will not be perfect and refined, but it will be something, and it will be alive. Better a rough around the edges narration that actually happens and moves the game forward than an immaculate description that never makes it into play. And as Graham Walmsley points out in his book Play Unsafe, if you say the first, obvious “boring” thing that springs to mind, usually it will be absolutely fitting, and occasionally it’ll be brilliant.

The second point tells us how to cultivate fluency in the long term. When I turtle up, mulling over my contribution to make it absolutely perfect before sharing it, my inputs are few and strained, and I don’t learn anything from it. Next time, I’ll turtle up again, anxious for my narration to be “just right.” But if I “do something, anything,” then I’m giving input all the time, and I have plenty of opportunities to reflect on what I’ve said, note what worked well and what didn’t, and refine it for next time. That’s why these are rules for accelerated learning: by simply doing, we put in the necessary practice to rapidly hone our craft.

The last point is simply an observation on the effect your culture of play will have on your craft. If, for instance, you play with a group of rules-heavy, page-flipping detail lovers, that inertia will work against you in your quest for fluency and flow. Or if your friends all dig enthusiastic what-if oneupmanship sessions before finally settling into one course for the story, it may be hard to remain in the present moment and just “say something.”  More basically, sometimes the player indulging in the “lonely fun” of endless late-night character and campaign building may be doing so because they plainly don’t have anyone to play with, or no one who wants to play their favorite game.

I’m not advising anyone to ditch their friends. But be aware that the social and creative dynamic of your group will have a profound effect on your play experience, and be prepared for a struggle if that culture doesn’t match the techniques you want to develop. You may choose to power through and accept small gains, or negotiate a shift in your group’s play procedure, or find other players more suited to your needs (this may or may NOT involve quitting your existing group, of course). Whatever you do, it’s worth addressing with eyes open.

In conclusion, when we value fluency over knowledge, we can better focus on what is alive, and actually do the things we love, not just think about doing them. See how that works? Future rules of accelerated learning will continue to build on each other this way.



7 Responses to “Accelerated Story 2: Fluency”

  1. 1 Deliverator
    March 19, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Oh, man. I hate to be a hater, I really do. But ever since you guys have been posting about this fluency thing on S-G, it’s been making me really uneasy. Like, deeply, soul-wrenchingly unsettled. There are a number of reasons, but what it boils down to: there are a large number of situations where *not* correcting a rules error in the moment will absolutely ruin a game or be really, really deprotagonizing. (It also, of course, has a lot to do with my own experiences of games failing.) These fall into two broad categories:

    1) Misreading a single small-ish rule that has broad consequences. Imagine if someone thought you had to roll *better than* a 4 on each die to score a success in BW/MG, or if you simply missed the rule that the current GM has to bring the story to a close once she’s earned eight dice (and can’t earn any more) in 1,001 Nights. Those are just two random examples, but I’m sure you can think of more: a mistake that seems innocuous, but fundamentally alters the basic structure of a game’s economy irrecoverably*.

    2) The GM fundamentally misunderstands basic *principles* of the game’s rules. I’ve had this happen to me with both Taking 10 in d20/3.5 and Failure Consequences in BW. The former was annoying and led to slowdowns; the latter was absolutely deadly—the game just fundamentally doesn’t work without it. By analogy to cars, we’re not talking about the fancy bells and whistles here, or even the headlights; we’re talking about removing the tires. (Have you ever encountered this situation? I’d love to hear how you handled it–not trolling, sincerely interested.)

    I want to add a caveat about how no one wants to quibble over +1 bonuses (and in something with a d20-ish scale I generally won’t), but if the game’s only got, say a 1-6 range anyway (look at Mouse Guard Obstacles), that shit’s really important—important in the sense of having an enormous impact on PC success or failure. Which is, again just IME, as much of a factor in whether or not players have a satisfying game session as whether or not there is consistent flow in engaging with the game’s mechanics.

    I have also almost never—I’d say 1 group in 10, perhaps—encountered a gaming group where it was okay to talk about rules mistakes once the session was over. Rules errors, uncorrected, almost always instantly become part of a table’s play culture—no matter how detrimental to the game, and precisely *because* “arguing about rules” is so verboten. (If you *do* have a group that’s genuinely okay with revisiting texts and such between sessions, then I can see how Fluency Play could work well.)

    Sorry. :-(


    *I also want to point out that with smaller rulesets, with fewer rules, each rule is much more important. One thing I think I’ve seen you talk about is playing Polaris without, at first, using all the Ritual Phrases. This idea makes me wail with despair—they’re all so important and interlocking that I can’t imagine how this would work. Also, there’s a nice play aid with all of them on it.

  2. 2 Deliverator
    March 19, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Oh and BTW, I *completely* agree with everything you’re saying—do the obvious, etc—in terms of *fictional contributions*.

  3. March 19, 2012 at 7:06 pm


    You don’t need to fret about these things! Fluency Play doesn’t mean “we aren’t allowed to correct one another.” In fact, it practically means the opposite.

    Fluencey Play stresses learning as you go, and part of that is inevitably going to be rules corrections. As you encounter a rule, you learn it. As you misinterpret a rule, you refine your understanding of it and practice re-applying it.

    And in address to your #2 point more specifically… Fluency Play is most effective when someone at the table is already fluent, and that involves understanding how to enact principles of play. Just like Willem’s work on language revitalization, it’s easiest with a native-speaker at the table helping everyone else learn. It’s not always necessary, but yeah, it’s definitely of huge benefit.

    Embracing Fluency Play doesn’t mean “dooming ourselves to playing it wrong,” it means “let’s start now, with a commitment to learning more as we encounter the need or opportunity.”

  4. 4 Deliverator
    March 19, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    Oh, OK. That makes me feel better. *Except*… I, personally, in any group I play with that does include the designer of the game, be the one who has to do the teaching—I acquire game fluency *fast*. Which gets old. But that’s not really anything wrong with the methodology.

    Objection Withdrawn, Y’Honor!

  5. March 20, 2012 at 5:03 am


    You may indeed acquire game fluency fast, but I’m certain you are still affected by the difficulty of others’ acquiring fluency; their unwillingness to learn new games, having to wait for others to catch up to your level of contribution, arbitrating misunderstandings about rules interpretations, the difficulty of recruiting new (and diverse) players, the loss of new players who feel overwhelmed by the complexity of play and quit after a session or two, and on and on.

    One goal of Fluency Play is achieving Group Competency; as a whole, as a team, the play group performs and experiences the game at a high level. If the game is modular (like Burning Wheel) then you can keep adding more and more complexity as the group seamlessly masters it.

    Without this kind of fluent progression, it feels more like an old car periodically backfiring and sputtering out at stoplights. In those situations I’ve often walked home instead and gotten there faster.

    We’re looking instead for a well-maintained, high-performing group engine, that delivers a rich, satisfying experience.


  6. 6 Joel
    March 22, 2012 at 9:16 am

    Willem, that’s a great point: I remember years and years of playing games where a couple of people were enthusiastically fluent in the rules and the rest of the players were just along for the ride and needed things explained over and over. The fluent players (which often included me, but sometimes not) would get frustrated with the other folks who couldn’t remember “just a few” basic, “simple” rules.

    Now certainly, there were some identity politics going on in some cases–“No, we’re not going to learn your stupid 2d6-rolling system; we’ve devoted all our expertise to D&D! Now please explain how it all works, every single time.”–but often it was just plain fluency issues.

    Matt, I see your “objection withdrawn,” so this isn’t me arguing or convincing. Just, hopefully, shedding more light on the issue. There are a couple of up-coming Accelerated Learning Rules that address what we’re talking about: “Take it slow/Take it fast” and “We’ll all get there together.”

    It’s a neat paradox of fluency that when we take it slow, we learn faster. At the beginning it may seem like we’re going to be going at the same glacial pace forever, as we linger on every technique, repeat it in 3s to cement it, and so forth. But in my experience what actually happens is, before you know it, you’re flying along, handling tasks with ease that in the beginning felt painstaking. Of course, this requires focus and energy and a host of other techniques, but it really works!

    And the point is to all get there at the same time. If one person is totally ready for advanced practice but three people aren’t, then that one person racing ahead is likely to throw everyone off. The folks at a lower fluency level are left overwhelmed and bewildered, and the advanced practitioner finds themselves with nobody to return their “serve.” I’ve certainly done this. I get all excited about some storygaming technique that could really make the game sing, and I overload everybody’s circuits with it before they’re ready. It’s difficult to maintain patience in those moments, but it really pays off when I do.

    To take the Polaris example: when I first got my Polaris book, my wife started reading it, and she was really excited to play. The premise, the mood, the poetic text, all really spoke to her. It’s the only roleplaying text she has EVER been interested in reading. I noticed at some point she had stopped reading, and I eventually asked her about it. She said when she hit the Key Phrases it all looked too overwhelming to her, and she thought “If I have to keep all these in my head in order to play, I might as well give up now.”

    Certainly, one factor here is the rule “Alive”: learning from a living practitioner beats book-learning every time. But also, the Key Phrase network in Polaris is daunting to throw at someone all at once. Fluency Play isn’t saying that playing with all the phrases just isn’t all that important. It’s saying that they ARE important, and by building them up bit by bit we learn to handle them with ease, free of headscratching breaks in play flow. If you go a round of scenes using just “But Only If” and “And That Was How It Happened,” you get a feel for the flow of phrases in play, and juuuust when you’re starting to chafe and go “but man, what if the Only If demand goes too far? How do I push back?”… that’s when you introduce the next Phrase.

    This is called maintaining your Fluent Edge–which is the next Rule I’ll be posting! How about that! :)

  7. 7 rogercarbol
    March 22, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Hmmm. Sounds like a book I might need to pick up.

    To me it seems to get at the heart of ‘just what is “skill anyway’ which I think you may have glossed over. In my experience, a skill is a solution to a problem. “Look out, it’s a … big, furry, toothy animal right behind you. Dang I wish I had a word for that.”

    This implies, to me, that the natural place to start is with the problem. Let the unskilled flail at it for a while, become familiar with it. Otherwise the skill can seem obtuse at best.

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