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Hantverksklubben 21: Feelgood

Yesterday we finally managed a new session of Hantverksklubben, our ongoing experimental GM-less freeform group. The theme for the day was "Feelgood", and it was a … mixed success. The original post in Swedish is here. The text below is translated using Google with slight touch-ups, but the language might not be perfect.

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Finally we got to a session with Hantverksklubben, after two canceled sessions. This time we got together five participants: me, Kim, Helma, Bunny (Björn) and Lukas. Helma noted beforehand, however, that she was a little tired and dropped out after maybe 2/3 of the game. The theme was "Feelgood", suggested by Bunny. He thought that we are often bad at giving space to the positive emotions and instead focus on conflicts and suffering, a feeling that would prove justified. Here is the list of topics we talked about:

  • Focus on the interpersonal, friendship
  • Niceville, A Wonderful Friendship, Forrest Gump, Mamma Mia, Studio Ghibli, Wolf Children, The Green Book, sports movies
  • Contrast
  • Need vs. want, self-fulfillment
  • Uncertainty vs. conflict. Who are these people, what are their relationships, background, etc.
  • Freudian excuse
  • Replaying the scene
  • Let scenes take time
  • Atmosphere, details, add descriptions in pauses in the dialogue
  • Express feelings
  • Love, friendship, self-fulfillment, discovering how much you enjoy helping others
  • Discovering that being different is okay, discovering the value of others, learning from each other
  • End on a positive note
  • Start low and go upwards
  • Flashbacks, show the background, what the person has been through.
  • Never cynical
  • There may be elves

(The latter added ironically after Bunny chose the "urban fantasy" genre and we tried to talk about what it means. However, it would prove to be the most important item on the entire list.)

Sebbe is a young elf who is unable to get his life on track. He shares an apartment with Jimmy but finds it difficult to pay his share of the rent, as he can't manage to keep a job. He got fired from his last gig at the factory when he arrived late and punched the boss Benny, a straightforward man who does not want "elf trouble" in his workplace. After some mediation by Jimmy, he manages to get his job back, and there he meets Gloria, an older elf who lives by the motto "Keep your head down and stay out of trouble". The lives of these three people will change fundamentally due to this meeting. Sebbe discovers his own worth and his real calling as a chef, Gloria is reunited with the idealistic artist spirit she had when she was young, a side of herself that she's been trying to displace in favor of a grayish everyday "hard-working" attitude, and Benny discovers the value of a culture he previously dismissed, and finds love there.

This sounds very feelgood, but most of the positive was concentrated in the last (admittedly long) scene. The story was good and gripping in many ways, and dealt with topics such as xenophobia, discrimination, youthful dreams and the gray oppression of everyday prosaic reality. But we had a hard time actually getting that much feelgood. Part of that, I think, was simply that the story grabbed us and swept us along in its own logic. I set the first scene and considering that we had talked about that you could start a little sad and then work your way up, that you could work with contrasts, I set a rather gloomy scene. Later, themes of discrimination against elves came into the story and we explored this a lot. I think if we had started in a different way, we could probably have gotten more of a feelgood story throughout, but part of that may also be the habit we have of constantly introducing drama and conflict.

Two scenes stand out in my mind when it comes to the tone of the game. In one, police arrived to arrest the young elves Zirion and Yumma. It began fairly calmly, but escalated sharply and ended with a police officer severely beaten by Zirion's supernatural powers. In the other, Benny and Jimmy were drinking beer in a pub and a group of drunk and loud elves came in. It ended with Benny having his first positive experience of Elvish culture and friendship, and meeting the woman who would become his wife. These scenes were interesting in that their endings were unexpected and transformative and changed the situation, and they changed the tone of the story quite drastically.

I must also mention the big plot twist in the story. From the beginning we had followed two seemingly completely unrelated stories: The one about Sebbe and Gloria and the one about Zirion and Yumma. Towards the end, in a scene that apparently jumped several years into the future when Zirion is released from prison, Lukas, who played Yumma, drops the bomb:

"My name is not Yumma anymore. I call myself Gloria now."
"Gloria? That's a human name."
"I got a job. At the factory."

It turns out that all the scenes we saw with the two young elves took place many years in the past, and Yumma was Gloria as a young woman. The contrast between the idealistic and artistic Yumma and the cynical and pragmatic Gloria made that blow land quite heavy.

So the conclusion here is that we got to a feelgood end, but that it was not so easy to make room for positive emotions during the game. I think we could have added more intermediate scenes and spent some time with the characters along the way, and I would probably have liked to have seen a slightly more gradual transition to the last scene where everything was resolved. See more of Benny who slowly got to see his prejudices questioned, see how Sebbe slowly regains his self-confidence through cooking. Watch Yumma slowly come in contact with the zest for life she has lost. However, it was already a pretty long session, and we did not really have time for it. But I also think that part of the reason we did not get so much feelgood during the game was just that the story grabbed us and we did not fight back.

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
freeform

Comments

Helma's picture

This was the second time I “played” with hantverksklubben and again I would like to chime in with some observations from a somewhat “outside” perspective. Apart from Simon I had not met anybody in the group before, but everybody was really nice about me dropping in. I would like you to see the following not as a criticism of any kind, it is not meant as such from my side.
We played without seeing each other and I'd say that not only had an effect on me, but more important, on how the scenes/situations progressed. Often those who do not play a character are asked to provide what I would call “environmental input”, describing sounds or sights, or “NPC”, like the police in the scene described above. Before play we had talked about how “taking it slow” might help to build a nice arc. But as there was no way to signal for other players that you wanted to provide input but waited for the “right” opportunity ultimately the one who was fastest when any of the characters stopped talking decided the pacing. My impression was that this was a main factor a couple of times when things escalated into conflict and confrontation.
Something else was that for some reason people seemed to have difficulties to get away from “we build up scenes by creating tensions”. A wild guess of mine would be that the others have known each other and played together for a considerable time and this might be their “modus operandi” when they play together. Not seeing the others made it difficult for me to judge if I was the only one who thought things were getting away from us and being the new one I decided not to ask for a break. Which in hindside was a mistake.
After the session I tried to analize what else was different compared to my first encounter with handverksklubben and it occurred to me that we during the preparation phase talked a lot less about technics that we would like to use to achieve our goal of “feelgood”. I don't know about the others, but I think it would have helped to find a more balanced arc. Even though in the end everything turned out good for the protagonists I do not think we really were able to learn what would help us to convey “feelgood” as a feature of “normal” play. I'd really like to have a “rerun” of this evening but where we would focus on what makes us “feel good” when the characters we play find some peace in a world that seems to have the goal to destroy them and the values and people they cherish, the calm but not boring moments. What, if anything, do they have in common, how did we get there?

Simon Pettersson's picture

I think it's fair to say we missed the mark on the feelgood theme. I don't think it was so much escalation within the scenes, though, and I don't think (though I may be wrong) that playing without video was that much of a factor. We normally don't use video when playing (we've used it on three out of 21 occasions), and we've had plenty of slow scenes in other games. Also, many of the scenes in this session were slow and never escalated, it's just that they weren't very feelgood. The first scene with Sebbe and Jimmy, the scene where Sebbe rode with Benny in the car, Sebbe and Gloria's first meeting, the cantina scene, these were all quite low-key scenes that never escalated, but they were also pretty feelbad. We also mentioned quite a few times during the game that it wasn't very feelgood, but kept setting dark scenes.

I think the basic problem is that I set the first scene and made it quite dark, going from the "start dark and the get better" thing we talked about. In hindsight this was a terrible first scene, and I should have started on a lighter note from the start. I think the game would have been very different had I done so.

The story then followed the same logic. I think our fault was not escalating and introducing conflicts, but just being taken by the story and following its "natural" progression and simply disregarding the theme. Each player sets one scene at a time, and I've got this nice but sad scene that follows on the previous one and I really want to set it and it follows naturally from the previous, so maybe the next player can take care of the feelgood part? In a normal game, with no set theme like this one, I think this is a healthy behavior, as it's mostly just taking the contraints and the situation seriously and seeing where the story leads us. In this game, because of my downbeat first scene, that proved fatal to the stated purpose of the session.

Also, the xenophobia theme got established quite early and it became more or less the main theme of the story. And I think doing a lot of feelgood when playing a story with that theme was difficult.

As for replaying it, Kim added "positive scenes" to the List after this game, so we'll probably get to do more or less of a rematch. That said, feel free to add the exact same theme again, especially if you want to make sure you're present when we play it. There are precedents for redoing a theme, so it's absolutely no problem. We've done "aggressive scene framing" twice (and it's on the list for one more), and we have a replay of the "combat" theme on the List, as well.

Ron Edwards's picture

I've read the Swedish discussion and briefly chatted with Helma. Since I wasn't there and I don't really want to treat this as a journalistic investigation, please accept the following notions as conversational, as if we were having tea at the imaginary (but plausible) cafe we made up for the Happy Together game.

  • As the sessions have continued, I think I see that they have accumulated a lot more preliminary specifications. The effect may be to conform to pre-stated content, especially outcomes.
  • Maybe it is a stronger practice to specify either methods, to see what comes of it; or generalized outcomes (exactly of the sorts you've been doing, like "feelgood," "horror/fear"), to see how they may be formed ... but not both at once.
  • It's important to me to wonder, very much without knowing, why the horror/fear session worked, in the basic sense of meeting that particular desire or specification, and that the feelgood session was mixed or iffy in the same sense.
  • I've mentioned this before, briefly: considering that most of the participants are very familiar with one another, I think that you may have collectively created a baseline system, upon which the methodological specifications are added or which they tweak slightly. Given the extensive library of Hantverksklubben sessions so far, it might be useful to go back and say, "Given what we did, what were we doing?" in terms of underlying, mostly-consistent system.
  • Maybe I should clarify that I think, if this is the case, that it is a wonderful and powerful thing, and by no means any sort of criticism or de-valuing of what you're doing.

Also, my recent return to no-English-subtitles melodramatic Swedish TV ... kanske tyda på min svenska blir bättre, sedan kanske jag kan delta i en riktig Hantverksklubben sammanträde så småningom!

Simon Pettersson's picture

As the sessions have continued, I think I see that they have accumulated a lot more preliminary specifications. The effect may be to conform to pre-stated content, especially outcomes.

We've had some very different kinds of stories, and many have not been focused on the kind of outcomes that we had here. I don't think that the problem was that we tried and failed to do feelgood, it's that we didn't really try. We were quite aware of it, and comments like "Well, this isn't going to be a very feelgood scene" were common before setting the scenes. I still think my analysis is a large part of what happened: I started with a feelbad scene (because one of the things we'd been talking about beforehand was to start low and build upwards) and we simply got engrossed in the story and wanted to see where it led us. Nobody was really trying to make it feelgood. There was a sense of "we'll turn it around soon, but right now I really want to set this one scene". Talking about it afterwards, everyone agreed that they really liked the story and enjoyed the game. It was only a failure by our stated goal.

Maybe it is a stronger practice to specify either methods, to see what comes of it; or generalized outcomes (exactly of the sorts you've been doing, like "feelgood," "horror/fear"), to see how they may be formed ... but not both at once.

This tends to be the case. Some themes are technical (like "interfering in other people's scenes") and others are more about theme (like "horror" or "fantasy"). Helma noted after this game that we didn't really talk much about techniques at all beforehand, and we didn't use many "unusual" techniques in the game. It was all pretty straightforward scene-setting and narration and dialog.

It's important to me to wonder, very much without knowing, why the horror/fear session worked, in the basic sense of meeting that particular desire or specification, and that the feelgood session was mixed or iffy in the same sense.

Like I said, my analysis is simply that we got started on the wrong foot and got into a story that was about something else. Perhaps some part of it was the dramaturgical "feel" we have as players. It felt like a pretty feelbad story, and abrubtly switching it to a feelgood one would have felt strange. We conformed to the kind of story that is pain and suffering for the most part, then turns around and has a happy end. We even mentioned it during play, when Björn talked about the movie "Little Miss Sunshine", which has such an arc. Perhaps part of it was that already in the second scene the theme of xenophobia/racism got involved in the story in a pretty fundamental way, which makes it hard to just switch over to feelgood without feeling you're minimizing a serious issue.

I've mentioned this before, briefly: considering that most of the participants are very familiar with one another, I think that you may have collectively created a baseline system, upon which the methodological specifications are added or which they tweak slightly. Given the extensive library of Hantverksklubben sessions so far, it might be useful to go back and say, "Given what we did, what were we doing?" in terms of underlying, mostly-consistent system.

There is absolutely a baseline which is then tweaked. It stabilized probably after the first five sessions or so. When we did the horror game, there was a discussion whether we should have fixed characters, for example, but after that, there has been no such discussion, as playing without them has become standard. I don't think this has resulted in a standard type of story, however. The kinds of stories we have played have been very varied. It's true that they tend not to be feelgood stories, but there are stories that are very slow and soft and stories that escalate into grand conflicts, stories that are personal and stories that are grandiose. Again, not much feelgood, and that's largely why Björn suggested the theme, since he thought we are used to playing a lot on the negative emotions. Sorrow, hatred, frustration, nostalgia, unrequited love, vengence, etc. But I think it's a theme in roleplaying in general and not just Hantverksklubben.

At any rate, Kim added the theme "positive scenes" to the List, so at some point we'll try again. I think we'll do it better the next time, with this session in mind.

Also, my recent return to no-English-subtitles melodramatic Swedish TV ... kanske tyda på min svenska blir bättre, sedan kanske jag kan delta i en riktig Hantverksklubben sammanträde så småningom!

Du är såklart jättevälkommen! If nothing else I'm still very much open to the idea of running an "extra" session, which could be in English, at/with Spelens hus. Or just play a single English session with the normal group. We won't switch to English as a regular thing (and I expect you wouldn't want us to), but I'm sure everyone wouldn't have a problem with running one English session.

But yeah, det vore jätteroligt att få spela med dig på svenska! Roleplaying is great language practice, as I have learned by playing regularly in French.

Ron Edwards's picture

I think I miscommunicated somehow. I'm not seeking to explain or deal with the not-so-feelgood outcomes; you've talked about it fully and there's no disaster or problem to solve. I mentioned it briefly in order to say I was not concerned with it ("wonder" meaning, in this case, no answer actually sought), but probably just shouldn't have said anything in that direction.

To start over, I'd like to discuss (i) methods without considering outcomes vs. (ii) outcomes in order to discover methods, without reference to "success" for any given session. At this point I think it's best merely to state this, then save it for later play or discussion.

I agree with you that the common system or underlying methods, which get tweaked or directed or even subverted per session, isn't itself skewing your results or forcing certain outcomes. Well, not necessarily. There's an interesting issue that I think the group has collectively poked in different ways, which might be called not mining for conflict. I'm invested in this because I've noted that explicit "make a conflict" practices consistently yield forced, kind of stupid play, and I really like the focus on uncertainty, in which conflicts may happen. So the system you're using is relevant, it has properties.

Simon Pettersson's picture

Ah, sorry, I was sort of in the mindset of that being the thing discussed in this thread, so I interpreted your post in that light.

To start over, I'd like to discuss (i) methods without considering outcomes vs. (ii) outcomes in order to discover methods, without reference to "success" for any given session. At this point I think it's best merely to state this, then save it for later play or discussion.

Yes, it's clear that these are somewhat different things, and that we're doing both. In fact, as Helma pointed out after our latest session, when we're doing (ii), we're not talking much about techniques at all, more about "storytelling" things. For example, when we did the "fantasy" theme, the pregame discussion was largely about what is interesting about fantasy, what it does well that other genres don't do as well, why we like it and how we can make a story that's about those things that are interesting about it. It was the same in this session, talking about the genre in itself, and not much about how we can realize that genre in play. I think that's an interesting observation that might color the ways we do the discussion in the future.

We have started to gether a small repertoire of "common" techniques, which are basically things we've done that we like and that we reintroduce in later sessions. The stated purpose of the group is to "hone the skills of roleplaying", so this is in a way the point of what we're doing (though in reality I think Hantverksklubben has become a goal in itself by now). The "take turns describing things" scene is such a technique. Another, if you can call it a technique, is to be clear about the intentions when setting a scene. I.e. communicating whether this is a scene where I have an idea where it's leading or if it's open for the participants to get an idea and run with it. Another thing is that I think we've moved from doing monologues the Jeepform way (narrating them as internal thoughts, i.e. similar to dialogue, in physical games generally signalled by standing up at the table) to showing internal thoughts in a more "storytelling" way, as you might see them in a novel, by simply describing them, often in third person.

I do wish we'd reuse more of the stuff from the "technique-themed" sessions in the "outcome-themed" sessions. Maybe I'll try to keep that in mind in the game tonight, if there is one (we'll see if we get enough people showing up).

There's an interesting issue that I think the group has collectively poked in different ways, which might be called not mining for conflict. I'm invested in this because I've noted that explicit "make a conflict" practices consistently yield forced, kind of stupid play, and I really like the focus on uncertainty, in which conflicts may happen. So the system you're using is relevant, it has properties.

Yes, and there's a good example in this game. As explained in the main post, we started the game with two parallel stories seemingly unconnected to each other. A fair bit into the game, it turned out that the young elf Yumma in one storyline was actually the same person as the middle-aged Gloria in the other, and that all these parallel scenes had been flashbacks. That kind of a twist would be difficult, if not impossible, in a more traditional setup, and being able to do things like that will of course affect the kinds of stories we tell.

As for focusing on uncertainty, I'd love to run a full session of Nerver av stål with you some day. I think that game has some mechanisms that steer the group towards non-conflict uncertainty (which is not to say it's conflict-free, only that there are other kinds of uncertainties, too).

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