Swapping all the Places

Recently, my partner and I finished out the ongoing game-that’s-hard-to-describe we’ve been playing, which they call “Harmony Campaign”, set in Glorantha. It lasted about two and a half years, with a long gap near the end where active play was rare. In that time, a number of changes in both our lives occurred, directly correlated with certain breaks in play. And now it feels right to look back and talk about it in an immediate retrospect.

One of those life events, but a minor one, was taking People and Play, more than worth the time and money, and going through it helped me understand something on a more visceral level, even as it wasn’t (to my recollection and class notes) expressed directly. Roleplaying is its own art form with its own rules about what constitutes “good” roleplay, including in the domains of narrative structures, pacing, and so on, and so forth. So when I say we finished out the game, I don’t mean we resolved all the ongoing questions within the domain of play, or even produced a “final” situation (I think with a small “s”) plot-wise. I mean that we reached a position where the procedures of play we had inarticulately developed together were no longer adequate to pursue those questions any further. And additionally, delightfully, this position was emotionally satisfying for both of us as a conclusion. All kinds of narrative threads and possibilities were left up in the air or dangling freely or whatever metaphor, many of them to such a degree that I’m sure any editor would be grinding their teeth at some kind of text replication of the events of play, itching for a red pen to start pruning.

But I think now that that’s how roleplay works when it’s actually going, when play is happening. The possibilities are open and bounded, meaning that there will be loose threads where a possibility was defined but not fully teased out. Nothing can ever be truly “tight” in the way literature is supposed to be, because for that to happen, events must be determined in advance and there’s no possibility for play. That feels perhaps a little platitudinous, looking at it. But I think that following on from that, there are artistic statements and meanings from roleplaying that are far more easily conveyed and explored and interacted through that medium than through other artistic media, that draw upon the looseness of narrative and the bounded openness of reincorporation to offer more ambiguous and open-ended works of art than conventional media production would tolerate.

Film studies people talk about the power of the image, that an image on the screen has no intrinsic singular meaning, but leaves space open for the viewer to interpret it. And the fewer channels of information there are, the more room for interpretation there is. A long take with minimal dialogue or sound on the soundtrack opens up a great deal of interpretative space. In roleplaying, you might call this the “power of bounce” or the “power of noodling” or even leave it unnamed because it’s so intrinsic to the process of play.

Perhaps it’s time to talk about the events of play in some detail, rather than the thoughts I had in response to them. To recapitulate things, in the course of play thus far, the central character, Topi, beginning as a courtier to the ruler of a city-state where lifestyle fetishes were a normal and expressly supported part of the community, had proceeded to walk right into grand metaphysical events, interact directly (and sexually) with the divine, and then things proceeded from there.

Without going into incessant Gloranthan detail, Topi developed a new mytho-politicial coalition to replace the slain god-king that had previously ruled over the area, then used that coalition to carry out a grand magical ritual to reshape a cosmological opposition between two opposed gods into a quadrangular polyamorous relationship, reshaping the world in a very literal sense as the moon and certain stars changed color. In the middle of all this, Topi embraced a transhuman transformation and grew a pair of feathered wings.

Then after a little break, we spent some time exploring some of the consequences of this cosmological change, as Glorantha’s plantlike elves adjusted to the addition of new plants from the moon. Finally, the characters went north, in an attempt to “do something about the Lunar Empire”.

Topi ended up being adopted into a noble family within this empire which was headed by a minor goddess/genius loci, and thus she was able to meet with representatives of the power elite on somewhat less uneven terms. I’m going to have to go into a bit more of that Gloranthan detail now in order to explain the events in useful detail.

Glorantha’s Lunar Empire is one of its largest and most powerful states. It was founded by a street girl who ascended to divinity and then mystic transcendence and remade Glorantha to give it a visible moon (it already had an invisible one. Long story). She remains as the goddess of this moon, and left behind her “son” (or as the old hippie who invented Glorantha and had a hand in officially blessed Gloranthan texts until the mid-2000s put it at conventions, her detached and ambulatory penis), who serves as the temporal demigod emperor of this empire, and serially reincarnates himself using different bodies that express different personalities, known only as the Red Emperor. This empire also has his demigoddess sister, known as the Great Sister, who was sent to represent and protect the ordinary people of the empire by the moon goddess, and, among other backdrop figures, Jar-Eel the Razoress, a superhero, an avatar of the moon goddess, a living goddess in her own right, a lyric poet on the harp (like Sappho), and the subject of her own cult, effectively a one-woman army.

The Lunar Empire is described in that old hippie’ notes from all the way back to the 1970s as a modernizing, liberalizing force that encourages literacy, religious tolerance, improved and rationalized healing magic, and is consistently described with the stock phrase, “the feminist Lunars”. It also, from that very beginning, has had associated with it a very direct and pointed metaphor for… something to do with the conjunction between nuclear weapons and the military-industrial complex, taking the texts as an aggregate, and has been consistently described in the same sources as expansionist and horrifically brutal in how it subdues enemies and rebels.

So with that in mind, Topi, Jar-Eel, Great Sister, and some other characters sat down to a private dinner at a religious function. Topi’s goal was to try and find some way to bring about a lasting peace that would allow her to do right by her allies that wanted independence for certain provinces on the edge of the empire, as well as establish a way for the Lunar religion, which she found sympathetic since a sexual encounter with the moon goddess, to continue to exist and preach itself freely without the compulsive power of the state behind it.

Through play, then, we determined that Great Sister was first and foremost interested in protecting believers in the Lunar religion, followed by compliant nonbelievers under the rule of the Lunar state, but was willing to accept the possibility of a better method for achieving that protection without preemptively committing to that method. Then we discovered that Jar-Eel’s position was that she thought it would be wrong to simply use her power and authority to force the world to bend to her personal wishes, which were close to Topi’s, and that she considered herself bound by the Lunar constitutional order. Also, she wanted to have sex with Topi, and they did, and then a break intervened, and then we played again, only really discovering that Jar-Eel was finding out new things about herself personally and sexually but not politically, and then there was a long break.

When the break came to an end, we played one more session, or rather one spontaneously emerged from another conversation. In the course of that session, Topi and Jar-Eel agreed upon an improvised magical ceremony wherein the two of them would conjure up an invented history in which they had been near-identical twins at birth, the two of them converging into similar appearances, Jar-Eel acquiring her own pair of wings, Topi’s hair turning red, and in this history, their combined power made the Moonsword cult shift to grant members of the cult the power to become a similar near-identical little sister of the twins, sharing in the superhuman abilities of the two and able to voluntarily choose whether or not to exist in the Jar-Eel form or their prior form. And then, when the ceremony was completed, the timelines and histories reconciled and mediated and the result was that, as we determined, about a million people within the Lunar Empire and beyond could turn into one-woman-army Jar-Eel the Razoress whenever they wanted, had been able to for decades, and as a consequence, the apparatus of the Lunar state-as-a-state had withered, obsoleted by a million superheroines running around.

And then we playfully concluded the session by speculating about what the “Red Emperor” was in this changed world, a ceremonial title awarded to the woman with the biggest dick in the Lunar Empire, or something like that. In the moment, it felt important to blend the “low” with the “high”. And then that’s where it ended, everything else left open.

Obviously, there’s plenty of political subtext here to poke and prod at, and while we weren’t necessarily pulling out Audre Lorde quotes in play, we were well aware of it as sessions played out and I think it played a definite part in the long breaks. But what I think is most liberating for me is that the ending leaves things open. The combined statement is made, and it’s ephemeral, of course, but it’s also free from prescriptive demands of “well what happened next?”

I realized, several days after the final session, that we had ended up in similar terrain to the anime series Gatchaman Crowds (2013) and its ending, which my partner had shown to me during the early sessions as part of a vacation together, and which we both enjoyed. Without going into overwhelming detail, this series also ends with a superheroic figure distributing their abilities to be shared across most of humanity, which exorcizes the malevolent alien force working to goad humanity into self-destruction.

But Gatchaman Crowds leaves more to implication, I think because going into any detail about the future when any human can become superhumanly strong and fast whenever they please would demand levels of detail that couldn’t be satisfying, just as a consequence of it being an audiovisual medium. And this game could be more explicit because it’s in the medium of reincorporation/listening, leaving less need for details. Or maybe I’m still processing matters.

Less in the realm of flight-of-fancy, eventually a significant part of the procedures of play became sex. Not so much “ah, this specific sexual act substitutes for the dice”, but rather, the procedures of play developed into a form of “vector addition” of seeing where the desires of characters at cross-purposes came together and emerged to act upon the world, a process of give and take and gently advancing and retreating and tentatively working things out; which is to say, this part of the procedures as developed through play were simply a form of sex and we acknowledged that by combining another form of sex with them.

Lessons learned, then: this game was its own thing, and certainly not replicable, but also of uncertain ability to communicate its process via producing a text, and certainly outside of my ambit or my partners’ to do so without some more confidence in our ability to engage in sex ed. In this way, free from any desire to commercialize it, we can then use specific techniques and knowledge of the range of what’s possible through play to continue on with our exploration of this discipline of art, between the two of us and with others.

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2 responses to “Swapping all the Places”

  1. I’m awed by your game’s scope and type of content (political, sexual) as I’ve never seen the like in play myself.

    Another thing that stood out to me is this:

    “But what I think is most liberating for me is that the ending leaves things open. The combined statement is made, and it’s ephemeral, of course, but it’s also free from prescriptive demands of “well what happened next?””

    Again, I lack experience (with endings leaving things open) where roleplaying is concerned, but regarding film and literature, I generally avoid (and often detest) sequels and prequels (even highly acclaimed ones, such as the Godfather, Part II). So much is better left to the imagination or idle pondering.

    • So without getting too pontificating and trying to stick to my own personal experiences, many of the games I’ve played in have had some degree of sexual content, and some have had political content, but that content has tended to be superficial.

      Two examples: I played in a game of Exalted (2016) where I, looking at the setting content in a “framework” sense, made a character whose awakening to his previous existence as a superhuman divinely empowered warrior came through an ecstatic/transcendent vision of the business cycle of the fantasy society he lived in, and a revelation that there was a better way, a way that did right by more people. And then I named him with a calque/transliteration of “John Maynard Keynes”. But the actual political content was fairly limited to minor background material- using the promise of social welfare to ram through a sharp rationalization of steel and military equipment production, predicting devastation on a threatening city through their foolishness awakening a star to hurl a bolt (large meteor) down upon them as a rebuke. The political content thus emerged from backdrop into situation, became reincorporated, but was functionally coloring atop predefined assumptions of what play involved (and the nature of textual procedures for Exalted (2016)). The sexual content also emerged through play via characters tentatively flirting with one another, but it was again, adjunctive to what the play was “supposed to be about”.

      A second example: I joined a game of King Arthur Pendragon 5 (2005), which was already ongoing, and was attempting to play via the idealized model of the book published for that game, The Great Pendragon Campaign, of playing through the rise and fall of Camelot. I knew that the situational context was that I would be joining after an influx of Breton and Aquitanian knights into Arthur’s service, so I made a character who was an Aquitanian knight in Lancelot’s service, and as a consequence was an Arian Christian, and religiously distinct from both the “British Christian” (that is, locally adapted orthodoxic/Catholic Christianity, though pre-Great Schism) and the pagan fairy knight. But this content, in the course of such play as the game allowed, became fundamentally coloring rather than directly relevant and reincorporative. However, said knight went on an adventure in a session with a more limited set of players, whereupon she met a fairy woman who had been ill-treated by a cowardly knight, comforted her, won the respect of her mother… and then this ended in marriage, which in turn meant generating a Love Passion, a procedural representation of the degree to which the character expressed the given emotion about the object of the Passion, with additional procedural effects not as relevant here. The process of generating Love Passions after marriage requires a die roll, to which are added various modifiers, one of which is the partner’s Appeal/APP value, which for this fairy damsel was supernaturally high. I rolled high, and ended up with a Passion value high enough to make the knight known throughout Britain and France for the strength of her love for her wife.

      So I then played the knight (for the few sessions I was able to participate in after that) with the constraint that she would not actively pursue extramarital sex or courtly love, and this became part of the content as she became a “wingman”/wingwoman for other knights engaged in such pursuits. Something more than pure color, and not quite a pure adjunct, but also a fairly superficial degree of play “in the line” when it came to the underlying topics of desire, sexual mores, and social norms around sex and romance and love.

      So I can’t speak truly generally or from more than a pretty limited perspective, but I think that these topics, and others of course, are ones where people are often vulnerable, playing with the topics requires trust among and between the players as a group, and the glib/superficial/color-only spectrum is a way in which many people and thus many groups of players, establish an environment where trust is unlikely to be violated by keeping the engagement limited. This is also, in my experience, taught by hobby culture as “how it should be done”, as people with more limited involvement in hobby culture have usually been more interested in playing with these topics explicitly and less superficially. But we could castigate hobby culture forever.

      When it comes to open and ambiguous endings, I think Jerry D. Grayson’s recent post titled “The Story Is A Thing That Happens On The Bus Ride Home” (https://adeptplay.com/2024/02/26/the-story-is-a-thing-that-happens-on-the-bus-ride-home/) really foregrounded how fractal that part of roleplay-as-medium is: session-to-session, matters remain open and the meaning is constructed in retrospect from thinking about the events of play and turning them over in your head or with friends and family and other acquaintances. And it happens with “radical” or “expected” content, with “experimental” or “traditional” forms. Or so I think.

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