Finding that purpose

I wanted to follow up on my previous post regarding my reflections on Inquest to go more in depth into the Inquest session that I played on the first of the year.

It was a planned session with three other friends (Alessio, Benedetta, and Daniele) over a New Year’s gathering. I was playing as the GM and prepped a case inspired by the TV show “American Vandal”. The basic outline was the same: a known prankster is falsely accused of a very serious crime and gets unreasonably punished by the school board, while other students decide to investigate.

In Ron’s courses, specifically Situation & Story, we talked about playing on purpose, and I wanted to describe in my own words what that meant to me. In this session, I felt an extremely strong sense of shared purpose with the other players. I believe this is what Ron calls “Story Now”.

So, as I said, the basic whodunit was similar, but the crime was different (porn was played through the school’s video broadcasts and e-blackboards), and I decided to set it in Italy and base the characters off of people I knew in high school rather than draw directly from the TV show.

Before play each of the three non-GM players made up a student driven to seek the truth, and then we started right after the happening. As we played, I realized that each person was drawing from their own high school experience, and we sometimes got close to unspoken but clear Lines as each player’s comfort was challenged.

The actual nature of the crime is relevant. The gym coach was featured in the video, making it a case of revenge porn. The culprit was the (female) school class president, enraged that the coach held her back from serious athletics as he held misogynistic views on women’s sports. My initial opinion on this was that the coach’s crime didn’t justify the response, and I felt blasting revenge porn across the school was a quite dark act.

But then we played, and as the detective-players’ portrayal of their characters, and particularly Benedetta’s Dayana, intersected with my portrayal of the misogynistic gym coach in unexpected and emotional ways, which we supported each other through. A particular scene that I remember is a confrontation between Dayana and the coach where he implied his views while subtly threatening the student with disciplinary action.

In the end, their judgement of the “real culprit” was fought over, which lead to at least one inter-detective Conflict, but eventually quite soft, and I eventually found myself in agreement with their decision to cover up her involvement and focus on finding an alibi for the prankster.

There was another scene—a confrontation between the two corrupt teachers, the headmaster (a spineless weasel), and the student-detectives, under threat of suspension. Such interaction never happened in the American TV show, while in my case they successfully used this opportunity to show evidence to the headmaster and convince him to act on it through an implication of legal threat. I reflected on the content and realized that if the students were under threat of suspension, it would have gone very differently in Italy, and thought of my own weasel headmaster. This scene cemented our common hatred of ineffective Italian school bureaucracy.

So, what’s my point? I’ve had many experiences with Inquest that I would consider functional play. With this I mean we were fully engaged with the situation, we knew how the rules worked and how to use them, authorities were clear, no or little murk was present, and we could definitely look back at whatever happened and see how each of our choices and contributions affected it, how they intersected with each other and formed a chain of choice and consequence.

I’m not talking about that. That for me has become the baseline of “yay, we did it”. In certain of these functional sessions that go particularly well, I started seeing frequent, not rare, moments of what Ron calls “interpersonal activation”—people commenting, laughing, reacting, crying, shouting, emoting in general to content that was being introduced by others.

I’m also not just talking about that. In this session, we were always functional and always emoting, and we could also read each other’s reactions and body language and cared enough for the other person to know what it meant.

I think this is the base upon which we can play on purpose.

[I’m reminded of Ron’s diagram that he used in the course, if he’d like to share it in the comments.]

I’ve come to the understanding that stories have always some sort of moral content, which is moral in the small-m sense, i.e. involving some form of value judgement upon something, which may or may not even be overt.

In transitive media, we get this content delivered in sort of a question-and-answer package. The story asks a question (or, most probably, several) and answers them through their characters’ viewpoints, choices and their consequences. We can reflect upon it and draw our own conclusions, and characters can offer differing viewpoints, and there is sort of interactivity there, but the role of author as provider and audience as receiver is distinct.

What I think we do in “Story Now” as a play purpose, and what we did in this session, is that we acted as author-audience combined, and we developed this moral content (and specifically the answers part) through play and through each other, with no need of agreement beforehand, and in fact with probable disagreement that even fueled play positively.

At the end of the session I could feel that we had a moral exchange as people, and that play was more than diverting, but also mediated a moral conversation between us that couldn’t have happened as effectively or as clearly without us playing through it.

As humans, I think stories are entertainment, but also communicate moral content to one another in a way that’s more effective than simple explanation and argument. I haven’t found another activity yet where this can be done as a dialog with other people. This I find really exciting.

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9 responses to “Finding that purpose”

  1. I’ll be critical about one thing. The entire content regarding the display of emotions is a distraction and, I’ve found, to be a negative one. People are good at emoting, often demonstratively, often entertainingly, often socially very effective. That doesn’t mean they’re playing on purpose.

    It’s a completely different dial. Some emotions and their communications among one another do indicate or are expressive of that purpose; some are expressive of something (anything) else; some are disruptive or manipulative, the latter to the point of being outright fake.

    Of if phrasing it by person makes more sense, then, a given person may like or cannot help (in a good way) to express purposeful play emotionally, whereas another person is calm and even apparently dismissive in their expression of it. To go all the way down in the fundamentals of the medium, consider that agency is defined as being heard, given the evidence of reincorporated content. How much, how often, how reinforced via emotional expression or communication, are details.

    I think your point is much more clear without those phrases included. Mentally edit them out and see what you think.

    • I think I agree with you. Let’s see if I can narrow it down effectively.

      The point of “interpersonal activation” is not about emotion, although emotion, and the display of it, may be a result (and it was in this case).

      The point is that we’re using the basis of functional play as a means to express something to each other about each other, so we’re effectively using the shared fiction as a medium of expression, i.e. not just making it happen. And that reincorporation is a core part of this, as it’s effectively communicating to the other person “what I heard you said is this, and this follows”, therefore agency.

      On top of this expression we can make purpose happen.

      Am I getting closer?

    • I think you’re belaboring the point unnecessarily. These are all good things to consider, but I have learned not to pick and pick at this topic in text. It’s about your experience, you’ve said what you want, a minor caution about phrases/topics has been addressed, and you don’t need any assessment from me. I suggest being done with talking about it and concentrating on enjoying play.

  2. > There was another scene—a confrontation between the two corrupt teachers, the headmaster (a spineless weasel), and the student-detectives, under threat of suspension.

    Just a small question about technique — were the student-detectives the only player characters in the scene? How did you handle dialogue, motivations, and tension between multiple NPCs in the same scene? This is something I find difficult, and avoid if at all possible.

    • Yes, the player (non GM) characters were the three student detectives. I was playing three GM characters:
      – The headmaster who was just a spineless coward
      – The judgemental latin teacher who had an agenda against the prankster boy who was falsely accused
      – The gym coach who just wanted everyone to stop looking into this lest they recognize him in the porn video

      First of all, it’s important to know that in Inquest conflicts, as soon as there is an established conflictual intent between characters, we pick up the dice. All narration of what happens next happens after the roll, is collaborative in nature (a player will be the “narration guide” but everyone will help), and relies on the constraint that we know how it’s going to pan out as the result of the roll. (Similar to how we played the denouement in our S/Lay W/Me session: we already know how the adventure will pan out due to the results of the Match, but we play regardless to figure out exactly how)

      So, related to tensions between GM characters, I have three options:
      – If the tension only involves GM characters, I can just say what happens as a statement towards the other players. I can use the third person if “talking to myself” feels weird.
      – Alternatively, I or anyone can choose to call for a conflict between GM characters and roll for them to see who gets their way. Non-GMing players have the opportunity to butt into the conflict during “fair and clear”.
      – If the tension involves one of the protagonists, someone has to call for a conflict.

      In this case we did the latter.

      At the end of a conflict, the dice results will paint a pretty clear picture of what needs to happen and whose goals are achieved. One of the players (depending on the dice roll) will take over as “narration guide” and say how we get there—the others will describe the necessary characterizations for their characters. There is quite a lot of authority intersection here.

    • I don’t think that a rules summary answers Canyon’s question. Canyon, I think you’re asking something very straightforward: how does one play multiple NPCs at once? It begins by examining two things.

      First, how multiple characters are played at once (i.e., in the same scene) by one real person each. It may require reviewing real play in a genuinely eligible stretch of play, in which everyone spoke, and every character did something – particularly in some moment in which actions/turns were not ordered in a fine grain by the procedures.

      Exactly what I mean, or hope to demonstrate, depends greatly on that example, which I leave to your own review and your own thoughts. Try to see whether and how every character’s activities and dialogue were perceived and acted upon by every player, and how real-person speaking was ordered, probably informally.

      Second, how does one play merely one NPC? That’s not trivial, especially given your points in the post about the player-character seeking to serve the sorceress. Consider anyone you know doing so. Are NPCs present for specified functions, e.g., delivery of clues, delay of game, combat? If so, then arguably one is not so much playing them as enacting a plan, perhaps with branching points, perhaps improvised in immediate path, but nevertheless a known structure. Is just one NPC non-problematic to you? If so, what do you do?

      As with the first point, the above is not an invitation to dialogue here but for you to take with you and think about. I have no intended insight for you to guess and nowhere to lead; you’re on your own.

    • Ron,

      I’m not quite sure I understand point 1, since it sounds like all of roleplaying! (Or is that the point?)

      When I read point 2, on the other hand, I went, “Holy shit”. Time to play.

    • No more talking here, please; it can only obscure and complicate any clarity so far, and anyway this post has been thoroughly hijacked. If point #2 works for you, then good, and, as I said, you’re on your own, see what happens.

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