Posts Tagged ‘collaboration



25
Jun
09

How to (not) build community

bullhorn-evangelismEven once I recognized and processed what I what I wanted from roleplaying, it wasn’t easy to find Story Now play in practice. I had a lot of hiccups and false steps along the way, but I’m finally starting to figure it out.

When I stumbled upon the Forge, I devoured Ron Edwards’ essays and read a whole bunch of dense, extensive discussions, in an effort to figure out what the whole deal was about. In the process I found a system of thought that helped explain the dysfunctions in my roleplaying history, and I was able to put a name to the kind of play I wanted but wasn’t getting: Narratawatsi–I mean, Story Now.

Great, right? Only not so great. I approached a fellow roleplayer or two (mostly my brother) to explain the great new ideas I’d discovered, and I met. . .resistance. For one thing, I was still learning the concepts, and misrepresented them horribly. By the time I had things squared away, I’d already left an impression in my bro’s head along the lines of “Story Now means acting out of character for the good of the story,” which was justly repellent to him. And there’s no guarantee he and the others would have been interested in the play I wanted even if I had explained it properly.

So, while my gaming buds enjoyed the very occasional foray into hippie roleplaying land, they mostly wanted to play the same games the same way. So I had to look elsewhere for my Story Now fix. Through the internet I found a Yahoo Group of Portland indie gamers. We all met up and started gathering to try out new and different games, and evolved into Go Play PDX. I’d finally found my tribe, and all was well in roleplaying-land, right?

Nope, wrong again. Yes, I had fun and formed lasting friendships with a bunch of friendly, creative people who love shared story creation and trying new things. But I made this shocking discovery that–get this–even within the same “scene” people have different aesthetic preferences and creative priorities! Oddly enough, walking into a gaggle of self-professed “Story Gamers” and waving any old game around at anyone who’ll sit still is NOT a recipe for reliable, fulfilling play, of Story Now or any other agenda. Everyone needs to be on the same page, which means matching the right game with the right people AND clearly articulating the style and goal of play.

In the midst of a couple of games–Sorcerer and Red Box Hack–flopping with my friends because I approached it carelessly, I examined the experience with Ron Edwards at the Forge, and we explored the concept of BUY-IN: getting everyone on board for THIS activity, right NOW, with THESE people. Ron’s method for soliciting buy-in is to pitch Color and Reward, that is, what kind of story are we creating–space Nazis, political-intrigue elves, or post-apocalyptic cyborgs–and how does the game facilitate that experience? If you’ve got people on board for both those things, then you can look forward to a rewarding experience for all. If someone doesn’t get the color (“Whaddya mean political? I thought elves just shoot orcs with bows.”) or is turned off by the game method (“I gotta roll HOW many dice?!”) you’re headed for trouble.

I guess the bottom line is that there is no one monoculture of “Story” or “Indie” gamers one can gather around oneself. There’s a diverse community with a variety of interests. And there’s no simplistic “typing” to sort players into. different activities, different times, different people. All those things are mutable. The guys who indulge in immersive emo-porn one night might well be all over some board-gamey orc slayin’ the next. Just make sure you’re all on board for whatever activity is at hand. Don’t make the mistake of bringing your tenor sax to Death Metal night. And if you’re looking for Story Now gamers, don’t sweat so much assembling a “community” of monocultured, same-interest players. They don’t exist. Solicit interest for specific games with specific folks. You’ll have great games, and “community”–like the motley crew below, with whom I bonded over specific games–will happen on its own.Gamestormcrew

Peace,

-Joel

13
Mar
09

Choosing Disadvantage

My friend Todd of Love is Concrete has been saying that “Love is a disadvantage that we choose.”

That phrase has really got a grip on me. It clicks something important into place. Because what’s the opposite of that? Using. If you’re not choosing disadvantage, you’re using, you’re manipulating, you’re keeping your guard up, you’re protecting yourself. It doesn’t mean you’re the most cynical or cruel motherfucker on the planet, it just means you’re primarily benefiting yourself.

Love, on the other hand, is giving, uplifting, being vulnerable, opening yourself to pain. It’s expending energy to the greatest good of others–a disadvantage that we choose.

It strikes me that this is what Story by the Throat is. It’s the kind of vulnerability I seek, in games, in telling stories together–letting our guard down and creating something that speaks. My hope is that it can carry over into living, and being vulnerable there, to not be afraid to make a story with each other.

I don’t know exactly what that means yet, but it’s a thing of power. It’s living without pretense, without manipulation, without fear and distrust and victimization.

I want that. I want that in stories, I want that in games, I want that in life.

Stories are a disadvantage that we choose.

Life is a disadvantage that we choose.

Love is a disadvantage that we choose.

Peace,

-Joel

30
Nov
08

Paying Your Dues

I had an dissatisfying experience in a roleplaying game session a bit ago that may be familiar to you gaming veterans: one player directed his character to kill another player’s character, a supposed ally. I directed my character to try and stop him. He succeeded. I was frustrated. But that’s not the whole story.

So the situation in a nutshell was this: The perpetrator was M, a longtime member of our roleplaying group but new to this particular game. So his character was introduced in the midst of a frantic rescue mission into this lair of vampires and cultists. He’s a monk and a cleric from some order that hunts vampires, and comes along to help. Well, we rescue our friends (one of them the character of a player, S), but they’ve been turned into Vampires! They’re still in they’re right mind though, and it’s not too late to cure them. M’s vampire-fighting guy agrees to not kill the vampires until next sunrise, to give us a chance to turn them back, right? So we’re all escaping, the group gets split up, and my character, M’s character, and S’s character, plus some supporting cast, are all fleeing together.

Some new information came to light that M chose to interpret as meaning he had to kill the vampires right away before they became super-powerful. Despite the GM clarifying that this wasn’t necessarily the case, M declared he was attacking S’s character. I declared that my character, who had been covering M suspiciously with a crossbow, tried to shoot him down first. S’s character, already weak and severely wounded, went down quickly, and M, despite being shot several times by me, fled through the city.

There are several interplaying factors here. There’s an absolutely poisonous social dynamic present based on bitter past history, for one thing. And I also experienced a lack of the “traction” I discussed earlier in the rules, which prevented me from being able to meaningfully affect the conflict. But I’d like to set those aside and talk about why the incident bothered me from the standpoint of the story.

I was immensely dissatisfied with our story taking that turn. Why? It wasn’t the fact of a main character dying in itself. It wasn’t even the factor of player-characters (let’s say “protagonists”) having deadly conflict. Those are both things that, traditionally, some roleplayers take issue with–in the first case, dying equates with “losing,” and in the second, internal conflict is seen as a player being a dick, by definition. But I don’t feel that way, in either case. I can accept a protagonist death, and the inter-protagonist strife that might lead to such. . .if it’s a sufficiently satisfying development in the story.

But what does that mean? Let’s unpack the sample case a bit. We’ve got an established situation with established characters moving to a climax. A pair of characters has gone through hell at the hands of their captors, and their friends make a desperate effort to rescue them. They all make their escape, but all hell has broken loose outside the lair. In the chaos, one of the captives is struck down just when freedom was in his grasp.

All sounds pretty potentially cool, right? But wait–the character was slain, not by a hated enemy, or by a force unleashed by the protagonists, or betrayal by a friend-in short, not by any previously established element of the story. No, he’s killed by some guy who just wandered into the situation, offered to help, casually killed one of the people he was “helping” rescue, based on a flimsy justification, then fled the scene.

This is not a chain of events that would produce satisfaction in any narrative medium. And it did not produce satisfaction here. The real-people reactions ranged from bummed to annoyed to outraged. Why? M was within his rights to declare that his character was opposing, even attacking, another character, and even had an “in-character” reason to do so. But the fact is, he hadn’t paid his dues.

It seems to me that for any major development in a story to be satisfying, you’ve got to pay your dues, to lay a proper foundation and establish your right to introduce that development. Otherwise your narrative reads like this one:

Frodo: Hi, Gandalf!
Gandalf: Bilbo, give him your ring.
Bilbo: Okay. Bye!
Gandalf: See you at the pub, Frodo.

. . .etc.

S’s death at the hands of M was a huge letdown because M hadn’t put in the work. He didn’t do any work to ground his character’s actions in the established fiction we’d been creating, off and on, for several years. He didn’t do any work to strengthen his character’s motivation and drive, and invite us to buy into that. His contribution fell flat because he didn’t earn it.

While this seems like a simple aesthetic issue, I submit that it really boils down to trust. A movie audience trusts the writer, director and cast to “pay their dues” to create a satisfying film that holds together and is authentic to itself. And much, much more so does a roleplaying group depend on trust, because the creative contributions flow in all directions, and the material involved is not someone else’s but your own. A group that can’t trust each other to pay their dues, is a group where any member might at any time catastrophically and arbitrarily disrupt the shared fiction that we are carefully building together–which is as this incident illustrates, a recipe for dysfunction.

This is why a roleplaying group, much like any other intimate and vulnerable gathering for a dedicated purpose (marriage, church, etc.), can embody both the best and worst of human interaction. I’m continuing to seek more of the “best” side of the equation.

Peace,

-Joel

23
Sep
08

The Game in a Jam

My friend Willem has this blog, the College of Mythic Cartography. He talks a lot there about “Storyjamming,” which is his term for what’s usually called roleplaying games. I’ve played a few games with him, and what we do and why we do is pretty much the same.

Except that it’s not.

I’m not calling him out or anything; Willem himself will tell you that he sees the two activities as different. And I admit there’s something primally appealing about his ideal of pure Story flowing from the mouths of a collaborative group, reclaiming a lost human drive and tradition, bringing storytelling back to modern ears and modern lips. It’s a noble goal; it’s a goal I share. And in the service of that goal, Willem considers all the fiddling around with dice and cards and points and stats to be mostly unwanted distractions, to be trimmed down to just enough “to drive a story.”

I on the other hand like rules. I like the “game” in my “roleplaying game.” I like stats and dice and tokens and whatzits. I like robust interlocking systems that yield fruitful results from deft interaction. But I want what Willem wants. I want a revival of oral tradition and storytelling for the masses. I want spontaneous meaningful creativity amongst my friends.

So, can I have both? Or am I shooting myself in the foot for the sake of an ingrained preference of my personal history? Am I sacrificing my deepest longings for a framework that is a stumbling-block to story and a barrier of entry to non-“gamers”?

Should I game or should I jam?

Peace,

-Joel

20
Aug
08

So what the Hell does THAT mean?

Story by the Throat is a phrase I’ve coined to describe an approach to storytelling in all areas of life, but particularly roleplaying games. It’s something I’m seeking, not something I’m a master of, so I picture this blog being more of a fluid conversation, rather than a teaching or lecture dynamic, as I explore this concept with anyone who’s interested. That’s the hope, anyway.

Story By the Throat is a connotative term, not a definitive one. Meaning I’m trying to convey a certain emotional experience by painting with words, rather than codifying into conceptual law the exact parameters of a phenomenon that has no clear borders. Rather than wrestle that greased linguistic pig, I’m going to go with my gut and try to connect with you all on a more felt, instinctive level. With luck I’ll occasionally succeed.

Story by the Throat in the context of roleplaying is passionate engagement around the whole gaming table in making a story together. It’s roleplaying with heart and fearlessness that really shows what our protagonists are made of, in the tradition of the gutsiest fiction. It’s switched-on, fired-up, total excited attention to what’s happening right this moment. It’s Story Now, not Story Someday When We All Look Back Fondly, or Story Already Fleshed Out Fully in Our Mental Character Concept, or Story Already Worked Out in the GM’s Notes and We Just Run Through The Motions.

Story by the Throat in the context of individual storytelling is a reclamation of the Oral Storytelling art practiced in every culture in the world. It’s learning to use and appreciate a form of entertainment that’s interactive and personal, that’s living and breathing in way that a movie or television show can never be. It’s the age-old scene of the folk of a community gathering at the tavern or campfire to sing songs, tell tales, drink, laugh, and bond. It’s togetherness and participation fueled by creativity.

Story by the Throat in the context of art is boldly vulnerable self-expression, through whatever means speaks to you. It’s a poem, a play, a story, a painting, a woodcraft, a needlepoint, whatever. . .which truly contains a piece of your passion and your heart. It is not safe, paint-by-numbers “oh, isn’t that nice.” It is committing your whole self to expression and beauty.

Story by the Throat in the context of everyday life is realizing the wonder of the world around you. It’s both recognizing when the everyday events surrounding you are charged with the drama and portent, and living a life such that you’d feel proud of its qualities as a tale of wonder and beauty.

Story by the Throat is, in short, emotionally investing in life, being unafraid to laugh, cry, drink deep, and connect with other human beings in a dangerously authentic way.

All of these are open to discussion. I look forward to it.

Peace,

Joel




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