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It is pure pleasure both to play with and to converse with Simon Pettersson, with the added benefit of his help & guidance during my first visit to Lincon last month. Patrons already got to read about my adventures with sleeping quarters there, so if you want anecdotes and details, that's the way.

When I started Adept Play, I decided upon a few games that would be general ice-breakers, ways to connect with new people, and more-or-less signature experiences for the site. One is obviously The Pool, showcased at Lincon recently, and another is Sorcerer, which was less by choice than by umpty-ump people asking to play it during the last couple of years, and one (which I led with if you look in the older posts) is Cold Soldier, by Bret Gillan. The linked document is my rewrite of his rules (by permission), which I have at readiness whenever I travel anywhere with role-playing in mind.

So, Simon and I played Cold Soldier, which I didn't record, but we enjoyed a reflection session recently, he being kind enough to donate some time during his vacation to Brazil. Not suprisingly, it's technically Actual Play but easily qualifies for Seminar status as well, as it's practically a master-class in design and play thinking.

For a bit of perspective, Simon chose Vengeful God and I chose The Past, specifying a flat thousand years ago in the very spot we occupied at the moment in Linköping, Östergötland, Sweden. Viking + more Viking, if you want to know. Our discussion doesn't tell you much about the events, so I will summarize that Old Norse Hela does not take kindly to the Christianizing of the Nordic lands, and she is establishing the realm of Hel right on the land itself, take no prisoners, do not pass Go, and no discussion required. The discussion is pretty clear about the mechanics that fed into what happened.

I'd like to see a lot of feedback on this conversation. It's one of the strongest, moment by moment, that I've enjoyed throughout all these years.

vvv

 

Department: 
Actual Play

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robowist's picture

I was all set to write a post on Legendary Lives, and then got sucked into the conversation (or seminar) with Simon Pettersson, and it put some hot ideas on the front burner. So I promise a reflection on Legendary Lives, but let me provide some thoughts and questions here . . . and then I’ll get back to what has transpired in Smith City.

 

Some immediate context first. In June, I ran a four-game series of My Life With Master with The Gauntlet (an online rpg community). This was my first time playing the game. And in a couple weeks, I’m going to be working through Emily Care Boss’s “Romance Trilogy” with The Gauntlet. Bret Gillan notes that Cold Soldier is inspired by Boss’s Breaking the Ice, Czege’s game, and Ron’s S/Lay w/Me. So many of the topics in this discussion are directly touching on issues of concern for me.

 

Scary Gaming

One of the reasons why I’m taking on the Romance Trilogy is because so many of the ideas and principles of the games scare me. I suspect that this is a reason why many other prospective players would avoid these games immediately upon hearing the elevator pitch.

 

Ask me to play a violent Wolfling on the edge of a mental breakdown who is set loose on a band of weapons smugglers? No problem.

 

Want me to play a game close to home--one where my own unvarnished experiences, desires, hopes and fears are potentially on display? I’m not so sure about that. While the rules don’t require this type of “close to home” intimacy, Boss regularly mentions and encourages it in her games.

 

Breaking the Ice (the first game of the trilogy) is a two-player game where a pair of characters work through three initial dates. It’s designed to deal with the awkwardness, sparks, setbacks, miscommunications, and building attractions involved at the start of a romance. During the initial character generation, Boss asks you to chat with your fellow player to find out about your commonalities and differences. You then take one of these differences and then use it as one of the core attributes of your characters . . . except you switch it with the other player. So, if you are young playing with someone a couple decades older than you, you might play the older person starting up a romance with someone significantly younger. The game can obviously get quite personal . . . just as Cold Soldier can with its requirement that the GM order the soldier to do things that the GM finds personally repellent. 

 

The last game of the trilogy, Under My Skin, turns up the heat even more. It is initially written as a LARP (Live-Action RolePlaying game), and the players take on the roles of friends, couples, and acquaintances who discover new loves and attractions and who then have to decide on how they will react. Even if they return to their previous partner, they will be changed by the experience. 

 

Scary stuff. These are games with a high potential for bleed (a spillover between character and player). And I could see things turning out very badly--badly on a deep, emotional level--for some players who come to the games with the wrong approach, expectations, or mindset.

 

Emotional Modulation (or Controlling the Bleed)

Here’s a provisional principle: For games with an empathic content, there needs to be a set of mechanisms and procedures in place that will allow players to modulate and manage the personal identifications they have staked. The higher the empathic content, the more important these mechanisms and procedures become. (Is there a term that describes the way that these mechanisms and procedures serve to manage the empathic content?)

 

For Breaking the Ice, the Switch requirement, is, from the start, one such device: You are, by definition, required to play a character who is, in at least one significant way, very different from yourself. So your character is clearly not you.

 

The mundane elements of the character sheet, dice rolls, and outcome evaluations are also key. If I’m starting to get uncomfortable with the amount of bleed in Breaking the Ice, I can focus more of my attention on these mechanics to settle me. The card mechanics of Cold Soldier seem to have a similar effect: If I’m slipping into an emotional valley which I’m not wanting to enter, I can think of the game in terms of the poker hand I’m trying to build

 

Setting can also be used to good effect. In My Life with Master, I suggested that we could place the game in the current day, but the players unanimously and vigorously vetoed that idea because they were afraid of the game cutting too deeply into the heart. This is one reason why Czege’s default 19th-century eastern European setting works well. 

 

I’m developing a four-player version of Breaking the Ice (which I’m calling Hacking the Ice), and in this one, I’ll have two players controlling a single character. One player will be responsible for the rational/practical dimension of the character, and the other will address the emotional/passionate side. Aside from opening the game to more players, the added focus will help to modulate bleed effects. In my hack, you won’t be your character: At most, you will only be half of your character.

 

To LARP . . . or Not?

Under My Skin adds additional challenges for me. I don’t know that I’d be equipped to play the game in its default LARP form, especially if it were played close to home. Boss writes, “In Under My Skin, players can choose Core Issues for the characters that relate to their own experiences. This is (relatively) safe space to explore what might be very risky to do in one’s own life.” 

 

That phrasing with the parenthetical “relatively” has me quaking in my shoes.

 

The fact that I want to play the game online, however, already defuses some of that fear. The kinetic and intimate nature of face-to-face LARPing along with its tendency to avoid some of the mechanics of ttrpgs, increases the possibility of bleed effects. VARPing (Video-Augmented RolePlaying) provides some technological distancing which for me is useful.

 

In The Romance Trilogy, Boss includes a variant of Under My Skin titled “Ere Camlann” which sets the game in the days of King Arthur. Players take on the roles of people like Lancelot, Guenevere, Morgaen, and Mordred. And I’m going to add some light tabletop roleplaying elements to the game for an added measure The literary-historical setting and the dice roll mechanic will give me some added ways to modulate the empathic bonds.

 

It is clear that the extent of empathy and bleed effects are variable in a game. I’ve been in games where some players have been impacted on a deeply personal level while other players are simply appreciating the fiction as a separate entity. This variability might in part be a result of how the players are (or are not) using the modulation tools that the game affords them. If one player wants to experience a more emotional or empathic game, they can direct their mind away from the mechanics and procedures that could tone down that dimension. Whereas another player might leverage those elements precisely in order to keep themselves in a zone where they are more comfortable. 

 

These game elements are analogous to the formal and aesthetic features of literary texts. Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, touch on topics and emotions that cut deep, but there is a reason why we read him as opposed to listening to a heartfelt emotive rant on Youtube. Much of that has to do with the poetic qualities of Shakespeare’s work, which we can use to modulate and control the emotional content he is expressing.

 

Guaranteed Story?

There are so many other topics to address. I’m especially keen on the discussion of whether one should design a game that guarantees a good story. But that discussion actually touches on some of my thoughts concerning Legendary Lives, so I’ll plan to develop those thoughts in a separate posting.

 

One request: I'd love a video Actual Play of Cold Soldier, both to clarify the rules in acton and to provide a more concrete instance of the GM-player dynamic.

 
Ron Edwards's picture

Some time ago, Clinton and I discussed the similarities and differences between highly emotionally-engaged role-playing and self-help or para-therapy workshops (this Venn also includes elements of street theater and, as further discussed, musical jamming). One conclusion I came to is that [insert any prestigious art form here] has a sphere of cathartic application, and when engaging in that sphere, one does not go to it for safe therapy or for comfort.

I also concluded that people assess [that same art form] for that variable all the time, based on whatever they can find out about it and also on their own particular mood or desires of the moment. They choose how much risky or unwanted-but-wanted emotional investment they'll go for, and for some people at some times, they will go very far.

In both "conclusion" statements above, I was thinking about role-playing in terms of "should." How much Bleed should it have? How much Bleed does a designer responsibly allow or push for? And my third or emergent conclusion was that no shared circumscription was possible. It's an art form too, small-a if you prefer, and certainly underground in many ways.

So one may expect to see all manner of design in terms of comfort vs. edginess, distancing vs. revelation, or whatever other variables you may name. One may expect as well to see all manner of at-the-table alterations of the textual rules as people adjust those variables to their own standards. I, at least, cannot imagine any other outcome; you could establish a whole textbook of safe-and-fair practices that are supposed to govern RPG desig, and some yahoo or genius or just-whoever could turn around tomorrow, break those same rules either via their own game design or via how they choose to play your game, and there's nothing you can do about it.

I have a question for you. Imagine that a high-school graduate, perhaps someone who has attended more than one of your courses in English, shares with you exactly what you wrote above, in the Scary Gaming section ... not about role-playing at all, but about literature. It's not intended to be a reductio ad absurdum; it strikes me as a very real concern regarding literature, especially if you consider the widest range of publishing, and the related medium of theater. Go ahead and replace all the title references with equivalents, and I don't mean sick-and-awful, I mean Bleed as you describe it.

This person is asking for your help or at least some insight or recommendation. They are no longer your student or in high school; they are their own young adult now. What do you tell them?

Simon Pettersson's picture

First of all, sorry about the terrible sound quality. I do have a headset with a decent mic, but of course I didn't bring it with me to Brazil.

Thanks for a productive discussion, Ron. Listening to it again, I can't really get my mind straight on why you feel that this is a game that doesn't try to "guarantee" a good story. Making the connection with the revolting thing is important, sure, but I still want to classify Cold Soldier as a game that is very guided and that's hard to "fail" at. I don't really get that "Yes, we were able to make it work" feeling from the game. Which is not a bad thing, just a classification thing. What you were talking about, where the game isn't "over-engineered", I feel is more of a fruitful void thing. The game doesn't take the decisions from you, which is great and necessary for the game to fly. But I can't really imagine a game of CS that fails. It might not feel very gut-punchy and intense, but as a story, it'll always get a bunch of revolting things, the soldier sometimes trying to resist, remembering things, and you have that climactic conflict at the end.

Compare this to a game like Svart av kval, where there are loads of ways to get a story that just doesn't make sense, with undramatic conflicts and loose ends, failing to address any kind of premise.

I really like Cold Soldier, and I think it's a great game. But I don't think it's a "difficult" game, in the way we were talking about. I think it does try to "guarantee" a good story and that in the end I'm not going to get a feeling of "Yes, we succeeded where we could have failed" from playing it.

Maybe we are talking about different things, but in that case, we should differentiate them clearly. I.e.:

  1. The feeling that when the game is finished, we get the same kind of feeling that you can get when you win a boardgame. That is, this could have failed, but thanks to our skill, it succeeded. It was a challenge that we met. This is what I'm talking about.
  2. The fact that the game doesn't try to take your decisions for you, to "force" emotional investment by basically telling you to invest, instead of showing you things and let the investment come as a product of this. Thinking that's what you were talking about.

I feel we mixed these things a bit in the conversation, and I think they are very different things.

Ron Edwards's picture

Hi Simon! It may help the reader to know that I clipped out a short section to revisit later, calling it "Simon GNS," because we wandered a little and decided to delay the topic.

Briefly, I was all prepared to argue with you about these things, but then you went and solved everything with your concluding point. I think it's wholly correct: that I'm talking about #2, and that #1 and #2 are very, very different things. Oh no! Now we can't argue! (and the whole internet suddenly implodes)

Ron Edwards's picture

More seriously, we should talk more about how strategic, quantitative, and probabilistic procedures can serve the context and aims of #2.

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