Normal People

On the discord, Sam said: “I am yearning for a game where it would be out of the ordinary to see a fist fight, let alone someone die. I think I want to play a game about ordinary people doing things no one could possibly call an adventure. What games have you played that do this?”

This post exists so we can have that discussion here.

Immediately I thought of Clover, a game where you play a young girl in a happy childhood going on mundane adventures. I played it at a convention ages ago (perhaps I even facilitated it), but I don’t recall almost anything, except that our play of it was very peaceful and contained nothing out of the ordinary for a five-year-old girl’s day. So, play of Clover might satisfy Sam’s desire, or at least inform it.

Sean mentioned Breaking the Ice, which I have also played, and in the realistic close-to-the-ground manner that the basic text emphasizes. It’s also been a lifetime since I’ve played it, but I recall the setup of one of the games–Breaking the Ice is a two-player game where the characters go on three dates. Part of character creation is taking a trait of the other person you are playing with that you do not share, and giving it to your character. The most memorable time I played it, I was a committed religious practitioner and the other player was not. Having our characters swap those traits immediately gave the game juice and was one of the things that led us to care about them and their frankly basic, un-adventurous, nonviolent dates.

13 responses to “Normal People”

  1. When this question came up I immediately thought of Breaking the Ice, which I remember conversations about at the Forge. I played it once about a decade ago I think, with someone who ironically we never got to a third date. But then I started to dig around for other games or experiences involving inherent built-in nonviolence, and I did not have any. Its not why I tend to play rpgs.

    But as I thought more, I imagined this Train Spotting style content explored through The Pool. The Pool does not strike me as a game that requires physical violence to manifest its qualities as a system. I think it works well for ordinary people going through their ordinary lives. I realize there is some violence in Train Spotting, but its where my thoughts began to coalesce.

    I do want to push-back, slightly, on the idea or normal and ordinary. Regular, every day people can be extraordinary even in what we might consider the most banal circumstances. A game of The Pool built around an 8-hour shift at a Tech Support queue might be hilarious, would certainly be stressful, but also might be amazing in its protaganism. My experiences doing that job ranged from rage inducing, to I hate to leave this thing I do, because some days I do make someone’s life better. Exploring the human condition through play is never ordinary. Well, its not supposed to be.

  2. I think we’re in danger of conflating a few things: violent content, fantastic content, adventurous content, and content concerning the everyday lives of ordinary people. To me, these are independent variables that can interact in interesting ways.

    Sticking purely with content concerning the everyday lives of ordinary people absent violent, fantastic, and adventurous content, I remember playing a Primetime Adventures game we titled “Loose Change.” It was a sit-com concerning people who didn’t quite have their lives together hanging out at a dying arcade that had merged with a laundry mat in an effort to stay solvent. We only played the pilot because it was a convention game but it was an interesting challenge to play these ordinary, sad-sack, lonely people who spend their time playing old video games and doing laundry.

    But I’m also reminded of literally the best Primetime Adventures game I played which was basically a medieval soap opera. We had agreed beforehand that these were ordinary people, living in an ordinary world and fantastic content was only allowed to come in via metaphorical visual effects. This turned out to be an amazing constraint.

    There was one character “haunted” by the ghost of his father. As the producer I played the father as a fully present and active character but we all understood this was all just in the mind of the character. Another character kept adopting more and more personal and spiritual imagery of wolves and was functionally becoming a “werewolf”. There was a moment where a character kicked in the doors of a cathedral with radiating sunlight illuminating him like he was glowing with the righteousness of God.

    So in that game we had ordinary people, living ordinary lives relative to their setting. Fantastic content existed as metaphor only. Violent content was on the table but was rare, meaningful and usually not lethal. And what I’m thinking of as adventurous content was totally absent.

    Finally, there’s the playground of material that primarily occupies my personal game design work. My strongest influences include films like The Machinist, Franklyn, Neverwas, K-Pax (and to a lesser extent Fight Club). All of these concern ordinary people with ordinary lives but one or more key characters are suffering a break from reality resulting in the presence of fantastic or surreal content.

    My game “Haunted” is about a murderer being stalked by the ghost of his victim but is neither a mystery nor supernatural investigation game. So we start with a shocking act of violence but the degree to which violence remains prevalent is customizable. The majority of games have been about ordinary people pushed over an edge and then just trying to cope with the fallout in the rest of their otherwise ordinary life.

    Another of my games-in-progress is called “The Elevator of Regretful Memories” which is very much about navigating the stresses of ordinary work, social and family life but with the added wrinkle that the players are suffering from worsening nightmares about their personal regrets and those nightmares start bleeding into their perceptions of their current circumstances. The degree to which these are purely perceptual (ala Franklyn) vs. concrete horrors (ala The Babadook) is, again, customizable.

    So, on the one hand, I really love games about ordinary people but on the other hand I often pair that with surreal or fantastic content but not in what would be considered a heroic or adventurous context. So, when I saw the original question I mentally found myself asking “normal” along which axes of content? All of them? One or two of them?

  3. 1) I think I would question “things no one could possibly call an adventure”, because, well, look at *Ulysses* or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or most of *The Sound and the Fury* and you have grounded, mundane events without much, if any focus on violence, but deliberately put in junction with “mythology”/”high art” and suggesting connections between the two. But that’s a bit of a quibble, perhaps.

    2) I’ve technically played a game of Fiasco which fulfilled these criteria, but I feel in retrospect that big scarequotes should be put around “played a game” there. Apart from that, I’ve never played anything both mundane in situation and without violence. Now, for the last eighteen months, I’ve been playing a very satisfying game which has been deliberately nonviolent, but it’s pure fantasy. I wrote a few posts about it on here. (, There’s not really a text I can point to for it as a game, however, but some thoughts from that experience: it’s never been tempting to throw violence in, and many of the strongest memories are of straightforwardly mundane events like conversations or planning meals, I think because they ended up in a knot of procedural density and thus felt satisfying to have gone through afterwards. While this is not entirely divorced from content, of course, I do think the form is pretty open there, and that this kind of… mundane? Dogme ’95? play is definitely viable and meaningful.

  4. Based on the comments above, let’s pull the variables apart. In no particular order (and certainly not in importance) …

    1. No violent confrontations, or very, very few.
    2. Death is unlikely enough to be effectively absent.
    3. No “adventure” in the sense of specific travels or arrivals which create or address unusual problems.
    4. Arguably ordinary relationships, problems and motivations.
    5. Naturalistic, i.e., not fantastic situations; perhaps some magical realism or techno-details at most.

    In my reading of Sam’s casual, informal comment, I think it’s not a strict list of requirements. So it isn’t important to insist upon “and” among all these things. One person might be interested in #1 and #4, anther might be interested in #3 alone, et cetera.

    I also don’t think we need to hunt for games which “could” do this, meaning, any one or more of these things. We’re not talking about games but about situations of play. So talking about game titles isn’t about could/couldn’t, but at most is about games which seem well-suited, or which might not seem well-suited but might surprisingly be so. (Example of the former from the Discord chat is my Shine a Light, which matches with all but #2; example of the latter from the Discord chat is Unknown Armies, which might include any of the list except #5.)

    Perhaps the titles topic is a bit peripheral, although interesting … the most relevant thing to develop here is experiences in play, just as Sam asked.

    • I reviewed the post and comments, and although it’s no one’s fault or poor behavior, it is a little unfair to focus on you (Sam) rather than Hans, the post author. So I’ll continue some more thoughts below with that in mind.

  5. Following up regarding Clover, which I played with its author some time ago. Also, as it happens, I was just refamiliarizing myself with it a few days ago, as I’m building a library of play-this now-discuss materials for teaching.

    What I remembered, and also came forward in rereading it, are the very clear constraints on what is stated.

    First, play proceeds primarily through asking questions, from anyone to anyone. This accords with one of the most important aspects of my notion of authorities: that they aren’t “who says something,” but often “who has the answers someone needs in order to say something.”
    – Clover’s player asks Dad’s player about the environment (in the broad sense); Dad’s player asks Clover’s player about Clover’s feelings. These questions must be answered.
    – The above questions must be asked upon entering a new sub-situation (scene). Otherwise they are asked “whenever,” and I am interested in the times when they don’t seem necessary during play.
    – If more than two people are playing, the others play friends and follow Clover’s rules, except that they do not have to answer if they don’t want to.

    Second, aside from the above questions and answers, very little is constructed or required beyond the Clover player saying what Clover says and does. Other talking seems to be table-talk, outside the authorities of play. The overlap of listening (if you have taken the People and Play course) is limited to very specific things; all else is not necessarily shared.

    OK, that is a lot of technical analysis, and here’s my point: none of it has anything to do with non-violence or non-death. We could play the most horrific, explicit, lethal, and even nasty content with exactly the same rules. Do you see how important this is? The rules of Clover do not imply, bound, or enforce its most important thematic content. That content – stated solely in a single line in the starting text – is what brought us to the game, and it’s what we do with it. It’s not what the game “gives” us.

  6. Jeez, I didn’t think when I posted that question it would get picked apart like this! But maybe I’m too sensitive.
    Anyways, I wanted to drop in here to say that this desire for something a little less fantastic and more relatable to my everyday experiences came after playing Sorcerer, and noting that the scenes that hit me the hardest had very little to do with sorcery, and much more to do with very simple interactions between family members and new friends involving honesty and the desire to be sincere in a context where sincerity and honesty were difficult.

    • I’ve mentioned here and there that the film Live Flesh, directed by Pedro Almodóvar, is one of my primary experiential references for playing Sorcerer. That might have puzzled people who investigated and found no spectral or gory magical content, but the term “demon” as emotional metaphor and conflicted relationship applies in full. If you haven’t seen it, I’m pretty sure you’d like it.

    • I’ve played a campaign of Mass of Nyarlathotep who was full experimental for me – using Cthulhu Dark.

      The 10 first sessions had no lovecraftian, horrific or fantastic element. I was basically allowing myself to test things – I had no vocabulary at that time, but today I would say our group was testing dynamic form of authorities. I was inspired by apocalypse world at that time, and I’ve just read Sorcerer but not played it.

      I started with a questionnaire, as advised in Apocalypse World, with framed question – that I made up intuitively. Each character had a personnalized questionnaire. But they all started with that question :
      – So now you awake in your room, describe it to me. –> The players generally introduced lots of small details that would build up the situation. Sometimes just colour or indicators of who the characters was. It was also a back and forth process, like “I have this beautiful hat” “is it yours? “No it’s a woman’s hat, someone gave it to me.” “a lover ?” “No my sister”.
      – so it’s morning, you wake up, what the first thing you do in the morning. We’re the Easter Monday”. And I would heave something like “I’m Irish so we’re catholic and there’s a huge family feast here”. Then I would frame the scene and try to relate to the building situation. I would ask questions about the family “So you have many brothers and sisters, right ? Which one do you hate ? Which one do you prefer?” And I would play the characters based on those answers.

      I think my implicit influences here were Scandinavian movies such as Dogville, Festen, etc. and those kind of very personal movies (The Decline of the American Empire). It went in various directions, no lines and veils, with an incredible group:
      – One of the (woman) player was playing a circus artist in a violent relationship, where we explored domestic violence. It was intense, deep, edgy and intense (I was just professionnally trained in that field). Most of 10 sessions were circling around that: the obsession of control, her inability to get out the relationship, the loss of her relatives because of that, the cycle of violence and the attempts to get out of it, the pregnancy, etc. (She got out).
      – A (man) player was a barman, originally the “I don’t have any anchor so you can’t fuck with me” type. Through a few discussion, we elaborated on his familial relationship and his inability to get a secure romantic relationship. I remember it clicked when I asked “do you have a girlfriend or a wife?” “No I just have some short stories but then I drop them out”, “ok so maybe you have babies around?” “No because I take them to the angelmaker”, “ok, let’s frame that scene. You’re in the circus where the angelmaker practices with your actual girlfriend, what was her name?” So again, very edgy themes that became central to the character’s development. I was using the Cthulhu Dark system differently, like “there is a bang when we roll a 6” – which ended up by the death of his girlfriend. The player switched totally to “detached player without relationship” to “this event changed my life and I need to change something now”.
      – Another (woman) player was a bootlegger from a jewish family. So we had a few fights or gunfire, but nothing Hollywoodian. Most of her emergent story was about falling in love with one of the barman’s friend, who was catholic and from another gang.

      I was super focused on crossing and weaving between the character’s scenes and situations, as I have just read the Sorcerer’s supplement – and that was my way of trying new ideas.

      I introduced fantastical elements in the 12th session if I remember well, after we had a feeling of “finishing the kickers” for every characters, and it felt like a new campaign when I did that (not really but not relevant for your post here).

      I think the key element was that everyone was deeply engaged into not playing “caricatures” of characters, but really addressing the issues that arose from the building situations and responding to each other. I remember having done a lots of research – not scientifical research, but more in the exploration of the nuances of how to play a specific characters. I build it up step by step, character by character, so I didn’t start with an army of colourful cast, but like – Ok let’s see who is this barmaid’s sister, and how she experiences her relationship with him, etc.

      Then with all the crossing, some things came up organically – the barman’s sister falling in love with the bootlegger’s brother, the circus artist’s pregnancy changing her relationship with her parents, etc. Some events were really dramatic, such as the death of a circus trapezist during a public performance (by rolling a 6! – but always things that would be plausible in those conditions of lives.

    • PS : I forgot to say that this whole part was only played in New York City, with characters from the city. There was a real emphasis on their local environment (Barman and Bootlegger in Hell’s Kitchen, Circus artist in the Circus in Central Park – and sometimes her parent’s home in Brooklyn. There was some scene in other locations, but those was the central locus). I only used the official campaign as a resource book for playing in NY.

    • If it helps any, much of my picking apart was just trying to clarify my own thoughts out loud/in the text box! I think that you’re hitting on something which I’ve spent a fair amount of my adult life articulating to myself- the stuff that’s really affecting in fiction for me is the stuff that’s grounded in mundane and understandable emotions and emotional contexts, and extraordinary elements (both fantastical or speculative-fiction components and the components that violate Ron’s #1-#3 here) can certainly contribute to that via metaphor, heightening tension, and all of that, but they often also act to add distance from the emotional contexts (I could blather on here about how genres like romance and mystery also tend to call upon emotional distancing effects as well, but I’ll spare everyone that). So exploring those emotions in a less distanced and more direct way is definitely enjoyable and strikes strong impressions on my memory when it’s happened in roleplay. But at the same time, it’s a gap in hobby culture that’s both curious and unsurprising- I suspect that the emotional vulnerability present even in a game of Clover which is straightforwardly about childhood is simply frightening to many people, given how many people I’ve played with (and myself in younger days) who aimed at avoiding any hint of that vulnerability in play. Alas.

  7. I’ve played Breaking the Ice a couple of times, including with Emily, and never particularly enjoyed it. Over two decades of many opportunities for “grab and play, fun, familiar human topics, no capital-D Drama,” I always choose something else. Given the recent opportunity to revisit its text, I now realize why. It looks good for doing those things, but it isn’t.

    There are three dates, each containing 4-6 turns. Turns alternate the Active Player and Guide roles between the two people. Per turn, the Active Player gains dice. I think you roll them as you go along, or maybe at the end f each turn (doesn’t matter for this discussion). A rolled die is a success on a 5-6, not in the immediate fiction so much as an ongoing effect on the relationship.

  8. Gaining Attraction dice (up to three): they are held by the Guide and awarded (the rules term) one by one to the Active Player when-and-if that person’s character does things which seem attractive to the Guide’s character.
  9. You also get Bonus dice if your character does nice things for the Guide’s character (apparently this is different from “attractive” things), when they express their character’s traits, when they utilize a setting element (basically more traits), or when they amuse or impress the Guide.
  10. You also get a die (like an Attraction die) for invoking your character’s conflict, which is a prevailing issue which more-or-less interferes with their romantic success in general. As with all of these, the criterion is (quoting the rules) “satisfying the Guide.”
  11. You also get up to two Compatibility dice (one initiated by you, one by the Guide) by using an existing Compatibility in a joint narration.
  12. You get to re-roll failures for the Attraction and Bonus dice based on disadvantages you described during the scene, as judged by the Guide i.e., just like the way you got the dice in the first place except that they were stall-outs or confusions. So if you gained dice for your positive/attractive descriptions and were also judged as deserving one re-roll based on your “disadvantaged” inclusions, then you can re-roll one of them if it came up 1-4.
  13. If you get four or more successes during a turn, then you gain a Compatibility.
  14. At the end of the third date, you roll the usual dice and also one die per Compatibility, to see the levels of attraction. The number of Compatibilities get a qualitative description but the levels of attraction determines the relationship outcome: 3-4 is “low steady flame,” 5+ is strongly implied to mean they have sex (“Chemistry sizzles! Hot cha cha!”), 6+ means they enter into a long-term relationship.
  15. You can see that these are all the same thing over and over, right? It’s collaboration-consensus as opposed to intersection of honored authorities, it’s dice as merely pacing, playing what you’d play anyway, or even just something to do, and overall every detail is over-structured such that there’s no uncertainty except the formally-present and formally-resolved content itself.

    That last point is most important for the present discussion. Consider a topic in several of the courses, that when features or plot-points A, B, and C are locked down and can’t change, or change only by algorithm, then the purpose of doing so is to open up and even amplify the maximally unconstrained features or plot-points D, E, and F. Therefore the question about anything fixed (known, whatever you want to call it) is always clear: what isn’t fixed, which is boosted by the fixed things?

    Breaking the Ice has nothing like that. It’s all just A, B, and C. Looking back on play, I see that how the procedures therefore generate a non-naturalistic quality, fictional in the bad sense of an overly-crafted, manipulative media product. The characters are merely Sims, and even if we do get involved regarding the fiction, the procedures operate as swerve and cringe comedy for them to gesticulate and grimace.

    I’m restricting this comment only to this feature. The Patreon post focuses on further, more disturbing aspects of the fictional and real-people features of the game.

    Let’s take Clover as a positive contrast. It operates very much off the intersection of authorities, clearly stated as who must ask about what and who must answer, with no “need to please” or rewards for doing so. Crucially, it also includes certain open questions about what Clover is and isn’t afraid of, what sort of things does she imagine, and anything else to get to know about this nice kid, none of which is textual but is specifically left open for self-expression. The same applies more contextually, about what may or may not be going on among the older people that she doesn’t perceive (without making that into a problem; it’s building setting through situations).

    This contrast is quite striking to me. Breaking the Ice works against what you (Hans) are talking about, no matter how modern-day and ordinary-people the trappings are.

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