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Hantverksklubben 19: Fighting against oneself

So yesterday we had another session of Hantverksklubben, and I already wrote a play report on rollspel.nu, where all our play reports are stored. But since we've now had some discussion about our activities on Adept Play, and since Helma joined us for this session, let's post it here as well. This was session 19 (where the first session is "session zero", since it didn't have a theme, so it's our 20th session), and the theme was "Fighting against oneself". Since the Swedish original is available via the link above, might as well just do the English here. I'll sun it through Google Translate myselfe and fix up the text; it's not a lot of work. It's not amazing English, but it should be understandable! If you speak Swedish, maybe read the original instead. :D

It looked like we’d have a game yesterday, then it looked like it wouldn’t happen, and then it happened anyway! Participants were me, Rickard and Helma, who saw my interview with Ron on Adept Press and wanted to try. Cool!

The theme what "Fighting against oneself", suggested by me. My thought was that there are a few different types of conflicts that are more or less common in role-playing games. Most common are probably external conflicts, where A and B want different things, and thereby end up in conflict with each other. A wants to take over the world and B thinks it would be bad. Then we also have internal conflicts, where A wants X and Y, but these are mutually exclusive. A wants to save his beloved, but also the school bus full of children. This type is also common in role-playing games. The conflict I was interested in here, which I feel is less common, is where A wants to do X, knows he should do X, but still finds himself there doing Y. A wants to stop drinking, but now they sit there anyway drinking red wine directly from the bottle. A wants to get in shape, but that chocolate cake looks so good, and they can start tomorrow just as well; it doesn’t matter, right? This type of conflict is what I was interested in exploring.

Here is the list of things we discussed before games:

  • Sabotage for your own character. Czege principle?
  • Accept their own shortcomings, instead of fighting them.
  • Internal dialogue
  • Try different masks: they have (perhaps negative) personality traits.
  • Do not play to win.
  • Everyone plays different personalities in the same person.
  • Work with descriptions
  • Plant personality traits in other people's characters
  • Self-sabotage, not reaching their ideals
  • Cognitive dissonance, ego protection
  • French movie Amélie
  • Inside Out - Disney movie.
  • Bird in the ear - someone "whispers" to the player.
  • Ally McBeal
  • Fight Club
  • Externalize the mind as a physical person
  • Do not exert yourself, then you have an excuse. Not daring to succeed. Jonah Complex.
  • Procrastination.
  • Seeing oneself as a minority / excluded.
  • Hypothetical scenes.

As you can see a fairly long list, but much of it was examples from different media, rather than techniques. Here is a brief description of the story:

Helen and Sigrid are friends in high school. Sigrid is good-looking, happy, popular, successful at school and the star of the swimming team. Helen is … none of that. We follow their journey through life. Helen struggles with overwhelming self-esteem and alcohol problems. Sigrid lives life, wants well and of course wants to help her friend, but she has so much fun and finds it difficult to give up her own pleasure to be there for Helen. But life goes on relentlessly, and as Helen struggles through the blackness and learns not to give in when The Blot whispers horrible thought in her ears, Sigrid finds that she is alone when her own life is idling, and she is too proud to show herself weak in front of the only friend she has left.

It was a story that was very difficult to summarize, but incredibly touching. I felt a lot of sympathy for the two main characters, and we got a pretty nice dramaturgical status switch. Things I thought we did nicely:

  • Somewhere in the middle of the story, Sigrid and Helen were out dancing. It was here that we began to see the cracks in Sigrid's perfect facade. They talked about their friend Peter from high school and wondered what had happened to him, and Sigrid said "Those who are poppis in high school are the ones who get a shitty life when they grow up," which of course was a comment on her own life, and overshadowed the turn that was taking place.
  • Helma set a scene between me as Helen and Rickard as her psychologist, where Rickard played with the camera as a tool. We played with the camera on, and while he was talking like the psychologist, he sometimes stared straight into the camera and said what Helen perceived the psychologist's speech as. Type "We are beginning to approach the end of today's conversations BECAUSE I DON'T WANT YOU HERE". Cool technique!
  • I set a scene where Helen was lying in bed and could not sleep, and put Rickard and Helma to play her "angel and devil on my shoulders". It became an interesting scene where she got up, got some fresh air, and went into the kitchen to drink wine, while her (weak) self-confidence argued against her crushing self-loathing.
  • Rickard also set a scene with Helma as Sigrid at her father's funeral, Helma drove off with Sigrid and let her talk shit about her father in front of her sister, and then go away and do drugs, after which Rickard abruptly cut the scene to Sigrid sitting alone and drinking, with the text message about her father's death. The scene we just saw was thus Sigrid's idea of what would happen if she went to the funeral. She would just sabotage everything, so better to stay home.
  • I also played a bit on a scene with a subjective description in the beginning, where I as a narrator argued a bit with Sigrid. "That guy is pretty cute anyway. Aren't you going to go and talk to him a little? He bought you a drink." and so on. Worked quite well; would have liked to explore that technique more.
  • Rickard also set a scene where he "coached" Helma, who played Sigrid, in a conversation with her father. Rickard wrote emotions in the chat that Helma read and played out as Sigrid. Interesting technique, and ironic, because the conversation was about how Sigrid's dad tried to "coach" her (read "check")!
  • I put the last scene on New Year's, a bit symbolic that all other scenes took place in the summer (but different years). Helma played Helen, who organized a New Year's party. Rickard played Sigrid. I played The Blot, the manifestation of Helen's problem with her self-image, which Rickard invented in the psychologist scene. The Blot talked to Helen, tried to make her feel obligated, tried to tell her that people only came to her party because they felt sorry for her. But Helen does not listen. She focuses, "I should not listen, it's just The Blot, it's not true." So The Blot gives up, turns, and walks up to Sigrid. "Hi, Sigrid. It's you and me now. You will not be alone anymore."

I am happy with the story and with how we worked with the theme. We got to a lot of interesting scenes where we in different ways "externalized" the characters' inner struggle and made it into role-playing between players instead of just one player sitting there going "woe is me". It was a bit tentative at first, while we were looking for the right "problems" and how to attack them, but once it clicked, it was really good. Also a proper story with a lot of depth in just two hours of active play. The old problem that I think I have had, where giddy play can be played in a short time, but "heavy" play requires at least four hours, I feel has been completely broken with Hantverksklubben, which is also nice.

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
freeform

Comments

Simon Pettersson's picture

So one thing that wasn't present in the first Hantverksklubben game was this thing with no character ownership. No PCs or NPCs, just characters. Depending on your preferences, you may find this unpalatable, but there are two distinct advantages with this mode of playing. First of all, it completely rids the game of the old "we need to have as many protagonists as there are players" restriction. In this case, we were three players, but the story centered around two characters, and in a pretty asynchronous way, too. We started focusing a lot on Helen, then played more Sigrid in the second half. I find this liberating, and it opens up the game for a bunch of stories that just aren't possible when you need to cram four different protagonists into the game and give them equal amounts of spotlight. We've had a two and a half hour drama game with six players and it was awesome, because we had only a single protagonist, so we had a lot of time to dig deep.

Secondly, it really removes any hint of "play to win" mentality. In the other thread, I talked about how the game is fragile, removing the challenge and thus the motivation to try to win. Without PCs, it's even more impossible to try to win. You're switching around whom you're playing in every scene, so "fighting for your character" doesn't even make sense anymore.

Helma's picture

So I had listened to Ron's interview with Simon and read Simons play report here which resulted in a couple of musings about what would make an experience as described by Simon possible and enjoyable. I did'nt really buy the “no rules” part and wondered how important it is that players would know each other in some way (not necessary have played with each other, but interacted in some way, chat, forum, whatever) for play to take of in a satisfying way. My plan was to gather my courage, go there and observe what happens before commiting to anything more.
As Simon wrote, for a while it looked as if nothing would happen at all, because there were not enough players. At that point I decided to jump in at the deep end. Pretty obviously, as I did not knew the other players (onless you put “watched an interview” into my little list above), knowing each other is not an important factor for success. Being able to relatively fast feel your way into each others intentions and hopes for the evening is, but that seems nicely taken care of by the preparations of play that see you discuss the “theme” of the evening and the tools you would like to explore in connection with the theme. Which leads us to the second big question I had: no rules? Really, nothing? And the answer to that question is: there are rules (at least with my definition of what a rule is). There is the social contract at the table, we are here to explore this theme that is important to you together with you because it is important to us too. There are the points we list before starting play, which include techniques we want to try. There are the instances where somebody else directly does influence the way the way the character you play in a scene. These for me replaced nicely the random factor dice or other devices “normally” introduce into play – on a side note: I recently found out they are quite important for me, I seem to get bored if there is no risk of “oops” or externally induced adversity (some call it failure) in play. Without it I feel that collective storytelling takes over which is not quite what I'm looking for when roleplaying.
I liked the way this format enables one to explore specific things isolated from other factors in a somewhat “scientific laboratory” environment and will certainly explore it some more. All engaged in Handverksklubben can contribute themes to explore and I'm already finding myself thinking of what would be interesting for me. For example: I usually do great when it comes to dialogue but describing for example combat or the environment I feel lost, there must be ways to do that in an engaging manner that can be trained and learned.
In the end I had a really great evening. At times I felt quite mean to the characters in play and truly sorry for them and I hope I did not scare the others to much by acting out my beastly side. And I had the chance to test a lot of things that are new or difficult for me:
- play in Swedish (it wasn't difficult at all)
- play a guy (for all of 3 minutes)
- switch characters between scenes (still dizzy)
- setting scenes (aargh, I really have to train that)
oh, and we did not at all talk about what the girls looked like (which was refreshing), but if you ask me, Helen is on the right and Sigrid on the left, just a feeling.

Simon Pettersson's picture

Yes, we absolutely have rules! Like I said in the interview, we have rules, but no mechanics, which in my vocabulary are different. We have no skills, no dice, no resolution system, etc. But we do have rules. I'm not sure it's even theoretically possible to play without rules.

I'm curious about the bit where you say you need externally induced adversity/failure to not get bored. I mean, we didn't have any resolution system, and no real "threat" to your ability to succeed with whatever you want to achieve, but we did, as you say, affect each others' actions. I think about the scene where you played Peter, grabbed my (Helen's) hand to jump with me, and I said "No, I pull it towards me, which makes me lose my balance and I fall down into the water, landing quite badly", followed by Rickard's closing of the scene with the words "I think it was that summer that Helen broke her arm". So I see this as "riffing off each other" or "taking the ball and running with it", or similar metaphors. You introduce an idea, I build on it to introduce something else, and then Rickard further adds to it. I don't think this can reasonably be called "adversity", speaking about the players. Nobody tried to impose their will on the game in preference to another, there was no winner or loser amongst the players (I mean, I actively sabotaged for the character I was playing). Rather, we were riffing on each others' ideas to build a story together. It's not a "No, intead I do this!", but a "Yes, cool! And then I do this!" thing. I really think there's no conflict between players in this play style. But there are ideas and changes that you need to take into account, which means that things are happening that you need to react to. The fiction changes, you are thrown materials and you try to make cool stuff with them and throw them back. It's like a three-person juggling act and painting the balls at the same time. It requires skill, but not competition. Does that sort of capture what we were doing and why it wasn't boring, for you?

Also, Ron added the image. I still don't really know how to do that with the post tools on the site so that it shows up like that. But yeah, my first association, mind programmed by too many college movies, is that the blonde is the popular one.

Helma's picture

The meaning of words in these discussions is a difficult thing for me as I lack the background (no matter which countries role playing culture we are talking about) but I'm going to try and define my take on “rules”. You wrote
Yes, we absolutely have rules! Like I said in the interview, we have rules, but no mechanics, which in my vocabulary are different. We have no skills, no dice, no resolution system, etc.
I used rules very broadly here, covering all of the above and then some. I agree with your description of the initial scene. What got me thinking about my preferences in play in general was the scene with Sigrid and her father. I'm still exploring what it is that makes me feel one way or the other so this may not make much sense (sorry in that case). The scene that I was thinking about specifically was the one with Sigrid and her father. Rickards input for me was “set in stone”, so I was transforming it into some kind of mechanic? I mean, I couldn't influence what he put in the chat, from my point of view I could as well have rolled on a table with emotion or drawn cards. The resulting mood-swings were probably better than any timing I could have come up with myself. And even though it still was improvisational theater in a way, that is what gives me a kick.
Otherwise I still think we are doing a balancing act between story telling and discovering the story through play. But that is a) not necessarily a bad thing given what this exercise is meant for and b) my impression after 1(!) session so it is very much preliminary.

I mean, I actively sabotaged for the character I was playing
That does not exclude that you as a player get what you wanted. Sometimes the goal is to make your character miserable, or they just are the kind of person that invites trouble and you honor that. In that case the satisfaction (feeling of “winning”) comes from “how well can I do this. Also, Ron added the image. I still don't really know how to do that with the post tools on the site so that it shows up like that. But yeah, my first association, mind programmed by too many college movies, is that the blonde is the popular one.
Which explains my confusion when there suddenly was a picture. Btw. I tend to mix up right and left every now and then, so “my Helen” is blonde.

Simon Pettersson's picture

Rickards input for me was “set in stone”, so I was transforming it into some kind of mechanic? I mean, I couldn't influence what he put in the chat, from my point of view I could as well have rolled on a table with emotion or drawn cards. The resulting mood-swings were probably better than any timing I could have come up with myself.

Right, yes, I see what you mean, and I can absolutely see how we can call that mechanics. There's bound to be overlap and grey areas here, and I'm totally fine with that. I'm not after a rigorous definition or anything. I think everyone understands what I mean when I say "no mechanics" (ok, perhaps with a bit of explanation). My point is that we don't sit in the pre-game discussion going "Ok, so what if every character has a Force value, and then you draw a card …". None of that. It's stuff we can do in the moment, impovising, without tools or preparation. Rickard invented that mechanic on the spot, we did the scene, it was fun and interesting, and we did it because we wanted to. It wasn't "one of three scene types" that you set in this game, it was a thing that fit into the story and the theme and that we wanted to do at this moment. It's a fluid thing, playing with form, is what I'm after. We can say this is mechanics, and then we make up a new word for what I mean; that doesn't matter. I do think it's a meaningful distinction, but with a gradient rather than a hard line, and perhaps that technique was somewhere in that gradient.

And even though it still was improvisational theater in a way, that is what gives me a kick.
Otherwise I still think we are doing a balancing act between story telling and discovering the story through play. But that is a) not necessarily a bad thing given what this exercise is meant for and b) my impression after 1(!) session so it is very much preliminary.

Yeah, compared to other play styles, there may be somewhat more story telling and somewhat less discovering, to an extent. I'm fine with that. I think there are still plenty of surprises since we're introducing different ideas. I don't know what you're going to make up, so we're each others' dice, providing randomness through our interactions. We're not discussing the story and deciding where it goes unanimously, but rather taking turns making decisions that to the other players are essentially random (though of course predicated on the fiction so far). And there's a lot of fun in playing with the form, in inventing and implementing ways to tell the story. There's the pleasure of practicing a skill. Anyway, yes, I completely agree that Rickard's input here was like a random input for you, but I think that's true most of the time. In any dialog scene, you have no control over how I'm going to respond to what you're saying. We do have completely railroaded scenes, sometimes, too, or even monologue scenes where there is no input at all from the other players. But since there isn't a GM doing that throughout the game, there's still a lot of unexpectedness and nobody can control the story.

I don't think of what we're doing as an exercise, though. If this were a workshop, if it were practice, we wouldn't have stuck with it for 20 sessions. (The longest campaign of my 25 year RPG carreer was 12 sessions!) For me, it's all about the stories. The themes exist to make interesting stories, rather than using the stories for practicing the themes, if you get what I mean.

That does not exclude that you as a player get what you wanted. Sometimes the goal is to make your character miserable, or they just are the kind of person that invites trouble and you honor that. In that case the satisfaction (feeling of “winning”) comes from “how well can I do this.

Sure, but my point was that there's no adversity between the players. There's no "I want A but you want B, so one of us is going to win and the other is going to lose". We may have differing ideas of what will happen next, sometimes, but that's not adversity, that's just ideas and inspiration, and providing randomness by introducing unexpected things. If you introduce an idea, I'm not going to say "No, this thing should happen instead of what you said". If I really don't like it, I can absolutely say "I don't think that makes sense in this story", but that's still not adversity. Just like when we're playing a fantasy game and I say "I wanna play a cowboy with a sixshooter". You may say "That kinda ruins my image of what we're playing here", but that's a very different thing from you saying "I'm going to break down the door" and me saying "Oh no you're not! I stop you!" and we're competing as players to see who wins. I mean, I hope you didn't feel like you were trying to jump in there with me and you "lost" when I imposed my will of pulling my arm towards me and falling. To me, that was just riffing off each other's ideas (providing randomness), not a competition between players as to who can impose their will on the fiction. If you had said "I really want to grab your arm and jump in with you, can we do that intead?" I'd have said "Yeah, sure, let's do that instead, then!".

Helma's picture

I'm pretty sure there is no real difference between our points of view. We just come to this place (Handverksklubben) from different directions. I hope you do not feel that I try to criticize your standpoint or what we did together, I just try to make sense of it in my own way.
There is one thing that is important to me though. I've so far never felt the need to compete with somebody else around the table (gm or player) and never felt that somebody else did. The idea that this could happen is completely foreign to me. I may be very naive about that, but should I ever experience that kind of competition in play that probably would make me walk away from the table. So the only way to win or loose would be together, depending on whether we feel what happened in our play was exciting and satisfying for us in some way and with that definition I think we won big time on Saturday.

Simon Pettersson's picture

I'm pretty sure there is no real difference between our points of view. We just come to this place (Handverksklubben) from different directions. I hope you do not feel that I try to criticize your standpoint or what we did together, I just try to make sense of it in my own way.

Making sense of our play is what this place is for, right? 100% good-natured discussion, as I see it.

There is one thing that is important to me though. I've so far never felt the need to compete with somebody else around the table (gm or player) and never felt that somebody else did. The idea that this could happen is completely foreign to me. I may be very naive about that, but should I ever experience that kind of competition in play that probably would make me walk away from the table. So the only way to win or loose would be together, depending on whether we feel what happened in our play was exciting and satisfying for us in some way and with that definition I think we won big time on Saturday.

So here's an example of what I was referring to: In a "regular" game with a GM, you're trying to climb a statue to pry out its jewel eye without alerting the guards. You're trying your best to get the most success for your character. Basically, you have a preferred outcome. This is a common and functional play style. You want to get the treasure out of the dungeon without dying, and you're doing your best to get that outcome. Here, you are using the tools at your disposal (both in-fiction tools and game mechanics) to try to make the fiction turn out in a specific way. You're "playing to win". Part of the excitement and fun of the game is the challenge this provides. This is the sort of thing I meant is absent in the play style we're doing at Hantverksklubben (and indeed most of the games I habitually play). In this play style, the challenge is different. There's still a challenge, but it's one of storytelling skill, and in this challenge, we're all on the same side, as opposed to the dungeon crawl game, which would break down if the GM also tried their best to give the characters as much gold as possible.

Good discussion!

Ron Edwards's picture

Hey Simon, I am pretty sure that adversity, as a term, is being used here specifically as an in-fiction feature - the character experiences adversity. It's not referring to any specific interaction among the people who are playing.

As an example, in our game of Happy Together, I think both of our characters experienced and expressed adversity regarding certain aspects of each one's life. It's a good example because it not only had nothing to do with adversarial interactions between us as the players, but also illustrates that adversity can be subtle, out of immediate view/play, and not between the characters we're playing ... but very definite and, I think, in our game, absolutely central.

Simon Pettersson's picture

Hey Simon, I am pretty sure that adversity, as a term, is being used here specifically as an in-fiction feature - the character experiences adversity. It's not referring to any specific interaction among the people who are playing.

Yeah, I think we're all in agreement about what is happening in these games, though there might be some terminology confusion. I stress these bits about "play to lose" since it's a central point to make this play style work, and it differs fom an "advocate for your character" play style. And it also differs a lot from Adventures of Baron Munchhaussen and Once Upon a Time, which you mentioned, which have player-to-player conflict to the point of having win conditions, in a way that makes them pretty much unplayable as written. If you play Hantverk-style and you're trying to get the best outcome for your character, you will ruin the game. Fortunately, in my experience, when you remove the challenge from that exercise, i.e. make it trivially easy to get the best outcome for your character, nobody tries to do that, because they realize it would be pointless.

Ron Edwards's picture

Sooner or later, with an eye toward actual concepts and play practices rather than mere terms, I'd like to dig into the differences or interrelations among:

  • caring about a character (we may say "my" as a fleeting rather than permanent thing, it's not important)
  • striving for a best outcome where "best" may be thought of as a player-desired fictional situation
  • playing the character as striving for his, her, or its desires, which themselves may or may not be "good" or "good for them"
  • playing the character as vulnerable to situations or interactions that may turn out poorly for them, for any definition of "poorly"

These are clearly different things, which I think is easy. The harder topic concerns when one or more of them is compatible with one or more of the others, and when one or more of them is incompatible with one or more of the others. Not as a principled abstract comparison, but asinstances of play which we actually do and experience.

 

Simon Pettersson's picture

Sooner or later, with an eye toward actual concepts and play practices rather than mere terms, I'd like to dig into the differences or interrelations

I have an anecdote that relates to this, I think, that I've used many times to explain the way I think about these things. It's not from a Hantverksklubben game; it's quite a number of years ago. I could write it here in this thread, or make a new Actual Play post about it, if you want. It is a piece of actual play, from a specific and very memorable session where a conflict between the intentions of me as a player, of my character, of the game mechanics and even of my fellow player, sort of crashed into each other, and that very collision, and how we handled it, really made a huge difference for my enjoyment of the session, and for the story we played (in a good way!).

I wrote about it in my book on GMless freeform, so I even have a text (albeit in Swedish) prepared. :D

If I understand correctly, these sessions are played without a pre-defined set of rules. It seems though that you establish a set of rules for a session and continue with those. I would be very interested to see a summary of the rules for one of the sessions.

Simon Pettersson's picture

Kind of, depending on what you mean by "rules". In my vocabulary, what we establish are a set of "techniques", the difference being that they are not obligatory. That is, we spitball some ideas of things we'd like to try. Some of these we try out during the game, some of them we might not get to, and others we invent on the fly while playing. So in this game, the following techniques were invented (or imported) in the pre-game discussion:

  • You could set a scene with two players acting as "the angel and devil on the shoulders" of the character in the scene.
  • You could set a scene where you externalize part of the personality of the character as a separate character (as in Fight Club).
  • You could set a scene where you use different "masks" to assume different parts of the personality (we never did this in the game).
  • You could use the "Bird in ear" technique to plant thoughts into a character in the scene.
  • You could use the simple monologue technique, vocalizing the thoughts of the character you're playing.
  • You could work with subjective descriptions, representing the way a character sees the world (i.e. "There's a cute guy at the bar, and your friend is busy anyway, so she probably won't mind you chatting a bit wth him").

I think those are the techniques we talked about before the game. The "hypothetical scenes" and vocalizing the way Helen interpreted the words of the psychologist were techniques invented during the game by Rickard, so they weren't talked about before we started. Note that, as I said, all of this is "things you can try if you want"; they're ideas on how to play with the themes. There are never any rules like "Whenever X happens, we do Y". It's always "Here's a thing that might be interesting, maybe I'll do this in some scene". And it's all intermixed with talking about the theme, what's interesting about it, and how it appears in existing fiction (synchronizing our expectations).

Simon Pettersson's picture

So the way I think about the word, the rules we use are always the same. Basically:

  • We take turns setting scenes.
  • Whoever set the scene cuts it when it's done.
  • Each character is played by one player in each scene, but we switch it around between scenes.
  • Whatever someone says happens, happens. If you really don't like it, we discuss it and change it (hasn't happened yet).

That's pretty much it. But, of course, depending on how you use the word, the things we invent before the game can also be called "rules". I separate the way we play into rules, mechanics and techniques, because it makes it easier to understand what we do and what we don't: The rules are always the same, the techniques are invented specifically for each session, and we don't use any mechanics at all. Again, I'm not saying these are eternal definitions of these words that everyone should adopt (and "techniques" here is very different from Big Model techniques), but they are practical terms to talk about what we do at Hantverksklubben, and they broadly line up with how the corresponding words tend to be used in the Swedish RPG discussions I take part in.

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