Sin Aesthetics

In which Mo explores the social pathology of roleplaying and begins to experiment with game design.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Intro to Immersion 101

I've been promising an essay on immersion to a bunch of people for a while now, so as much as I hesitate to use any word so formal as "essay", I guess this is where it starts.

Hrm, OK. Lets start here:

It can be said that:

  • Narrativism requires active rather than passive participation in the process of the game.

  • Narrativism requires enhanced emotional commitment to the story in order to make it powerful.

  • Narrativism requires strong, dynamic, pulsing characters that make strong, dynamic, pulsing choices to make the story out of.

And I find:
  • Immersive players, by nature of their immersion have clearer ideas and often fuller articulation about the wants and needs of their characters, which can lead (with support) to fuller, more dynamic kickers, and choices.

  • They have techniques, which enable them to make strong emotional investments into the game (via their characters).

And yet, much of the theory around Narrativism seems to suggest that immersion is antithetical to Narrativist play. To this I'd like to say: WTF?

I concede that immersive players who create full, cohesive, complete backgrounds in which their stories are already told and there are no choices to be made, or who's rich internal dialogue never comes out of their heads and into the story do not make good additions to a Nar game. However, I’d go further to posit these behaviors don't make good additions to any game at all because they are dysfunctional behaviors and are not complementary to any mode of play. Essentially they're just the immersionist version of turtling.

Does that mean all immersionists will exhibit these behaviors? By no means. Many immersionists will employ the techniques used in Narrativist games to enhance both their immersive play and the story. They will do so consciously, and functionally, and the game will be better for it.

The problem is, that immersion's a difficult thing to pin down. It's hard to talk about because it's an instinctual and emotional process – that by which we find the place that we can most satisfactorily "plug in" emotionally to the game. I don't think that those who use characters as their emotional "socket" are the only kind of immersionists, but I'll talk more about that later. For the rest of this entry, I'll stick with these folks alone. I'll also show my biases up front: I consider myself a character immersionist, and I believe that we are frequently given a bad rap.

There seems to be this perception out there that all immersionists talk about their relationship to character as if it's a magical or mystical process that cannot be explained, and that this leads many of the theorists to get exasperated and decide that immersionists simply are obfuscating because object to the analysis of their play. I disagree with this, and I find it rather dismissive.

There's a reason why so many immersionists express their immersion experiences in mystical terms: the immersion process is in a secular sense, extremely mystical in that the process is enigmatic, obscure, and it often inspires a sense of wonder in the person who experiences it.

I think that this mode of expression means less that "I object to you analyzing my play" and more a statement of one or more of the following:

  1. I don't necessarily fully understand the process myself

  2. I have major trouble expressing it analytically because it crosses over from the left brain to the right brain, and I have trouble finding language for it.

  3. It feels less authentic and emotionally satisfying to me when I try and force it language around it.

  4. I'm sensitive about because I'm emotionally connected to it and while I don't object to subjecting it to the process of analysis, I feel like people are frequently dismissive or belittling about the process and I fear that people will dismiss or belittle me for engaging in it.

  5. It's an emotional process and I've been socialized against discussing emotional things.

  6. I'm doing it for dysfunctional reasons and I don't want to admit to myself that I'm being dysfunctional

  7. I've learned to do it not out of choice, because of dysfunctional stimuli and I don't feel safe talking about it, or I'm dysfunctional about how I do it because of dysfunctional stimuli and I don't feel safe talking about it.

So, how do we get around that? I don't know… yet. I do know that I am a character immersionist, I don't object to analysis of my play, and while I do have a dose of A, a hefty chunk of B and a little bit of D going on, I recognize that games are being created by both myself and others, and if I want those games to support my style of play. In order for that to happen, we need to find a way to get at what it means. So, this post and the posts to follow will be me talking about the bits I've figured out or am trying to figure out.

Some of the stuff that I'll be talking about in later posts:
  • Description of what immersion means for me as a player, how I came to it, why I like it, and some techniques I use while doing it.

  • Different substyles of immersion

  • Immersion and GNS modes

  • Other immersion "sockets"

  • Mechanics that support immersionist play and mechanics that detract from it (specific to Nar games and actual play examples, possibly more)

  • Probably a whole lot of other blather.

Monday, November 07, 2005

1000 Stories

So... the weekend was a lot unique. Brand's paperwork finally came through, so we took an overnight run down to Niagara Falls to land him at the border and to celebrate. Very fun, very exciting, such a latent load of stress off for us both! - all of which might have contributed to what happened next. On Saturday, our second (and last) day out, we were supposed to be going to lunch and then heading to the Aviary. We never made it. Over lunch I told Brand (again) that I wanted to make games with him, like, soon. We've been batting around cool ideas and what if?'s and how do we do...?'s for a long while now.

So we did.

I mean, we're by no means done, but in the three hours in the restaurant, the three hours at the train station, the two hours on the train and the two hours over dinner we'd sketched out what we wanted the game to accomplish, how we wanted to accomplish it, came up with an in-progress mechanics model, a chargen system, a system of social support and engagement based on a game idea I dreamed up a couple of months ago.

Yesterday I spent the day creating characters, to "try on" what the game's dimensions were from the inside. In the next couple of days we're going to theoretically model the system works (Hey! I guess this means my Process & System Analyst training comes in useful in my regular life for once, eh?) This weekend we're mapping it out and trying to flesh out enough text that other people will be able to try it out. I'm hyped about moving towards a playtest because I want to see how people will react to it, what they will create with it.

I'm not sure how much I want to go into details yet, because things are still ruminating in my head, and are changing on an hour to hour basis. Suffice to say I'm extremely excited because if we can do what we're setting out to do, we will be offering support for types of play not necessarily supported by existing games - hard hitting, strong emotionally connective stories that are modular, evolutionary , are designed to accomodate both immersive and non-immersive players and that have strong ritual support that both underline and encourage social responsibility in play.

Tall order? Hell yes! Can we do it? I guess you'll have to tell us when we're done!

For now, we're referring to it as 1000 Stories. Not sure what it will be called down the line... Can you tell I'm hyped?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Actual Play - Breaking the Ice.

Okay, so I'm a dork who starts a blog and then does nothing with it for two months. I should have warned y'all: I do this, especially at the beginning. I get periodically obsessed about one of my hobbies and devote whatever free time I have to it. This last month I've been sketching. I've also been working. More in the last month than in the last year, I'd say. Anyway, on to the post.

Brand and I pretty much have the whole gambit of Nar games now, they've been arriving almost daily, in flurries, like snow. The only one we're missing is Mountain Witch, and that's just cause shipping to Canada was problematic, so it's sitting at his folks house waiting to be shipped out in the next couple of days.

So Brand and I decided, quite spur of the moment-y, to play Breaking the Ice tonight. We spread out a big flip chart sheet on the coffee table, break out a mound o' d6's and set to work. We settled on something easy to start: Romantic Comedy - a PG 13 John Cusak-y kind of thing somewhere between High Fidelity and Gross Pointe Blank. We ended up nowhere near either of them. Our switch was gender.

Mo: Charles LaFleche
Colour: Purple -Royalty - Entitlement - Wealth
                      -Talkative - Writer
                      - Gossip
                      - Rumour
                      - Sunset - Lake
                      - Ending - Coffin

Turned into: Self: Metrosexual New Orleans Playboy
                          Creole descent
                          Independently Wealthy
Work: Society Gossip Columnist
Play: Has a summer home
       Crowned Prince of Mardi Gras
       Beautiful Singing Voice
Conflict: Dead lover: Lorelai

Brand: Deneis King
Colour: Blue - Police - Brutality_________
                                                         > Bourbon Street - Stripper
                               - Saxophone - Jazz - Speakeasy
                               - Sadness - Rain - Farm
                               - Sky - Airplane
Turned into: Self: Grew up on a farm
                                 I used to date a cop
Work: Window Dancer
            Trained in ballet
Play: Jazz addict
            Plays the Sax
Conflict: Jealous Ex

Overview: Background: Charles met Deneis at the club she works at on Bourbon Street, he asked her out, she accepted, he's going to pick her up.
Date 1: Charles picked Deneis up, she took him to Pirelli's for the best fried chicken in NO. While there, a couple of cops show up and give Deneis a little bit of a hassle, introducing her ex-bf Marcus (complication) and a finds a friend of hers has started working there, exhibiting her lower class background (re-roll). He handles both situations moderately well, they leave. Deneis plays her sax for him. They discover that they have a mutual interest in Jazz (compatibility), he comes on to her harder, they have a first kiss, he leaves. They've established a bit of Attraction to each other (2).

Between dates (reroll on perm attraction), we discover that there has been some rumours circulating about her ex-bf the cop dating a woman with ties to underground crime. Deneis earns new trait: Brother in a gang.

Date 2: It's just after Easter, lent is over, the N.O. Mardis Gras royalty are gathering, and Charles has brought Deneis as his date. It's a masquerade ball, and she has come as Odette the Black Swan. The rumour comes out, some society women identify Deneis, call her a slut, make overtones to the crime connections. Charles uses his mad skillz as the local gossip maestro to publicly embarrass the woman. Deneis sticks up for herself before running out. Charles humiliates the woman and then chases Deneis out. She tells him that she can't live with his job, they part, not intending on seeing each other again. Their attraction grows more, mostly because they have resolved not to be together (4).

Between the dates the rumours get worse, the brother gets arrested and Charles refuses to print the story (re-roll), earning the ire of his boss and the trait: In danger of losing my job.

Date 3: On a suddenly rainy day weeks later, in the entrance archway of Preservation Hall, Charles is waiting out the rain storm when a soaked Deneis ducks in for a moment of respite against the deluge. They talk, and learn that they have more in common : that they believe that what is inside is what counts (compatibility). They apologize to each other, decide do give it one more go. They go for coffee at Cafe du Monde and run into Marcus, who was generally intimidating. Charles goes to stand up for her when she finally stands up to Marcus, and the pair go running off. Cafe du Monde is overrun with a traveling, damp, grumpy octogenarian tour bus load (reroll) so they take their Cafe de Laits and beignets to go and head down to the Jazz National Park. There is a crooner inside, and as they listen, sharing their love of jazz, they dance in the hall and out into the rain. When Charles' boss comes upon them, who has been brought to witness by the woman who Charles humiliated at the club, Charles confronts him and quits. Deneis and Charles both agree that they are above all the Gossip (compatibility)

Deneis takes him home and after a sexy change of clothes, they have a fade to black. Afterwards, Charles watches her sleep and thinks of Lorelai and finally begins to mourn. She wakes and they talk about the accident that killed her. Deneis comforts him and he asks her to promise him that she won't die on him, she tells him that she can't promise that she'll be there forever, or even that she'll love him forever, but that she's here now, and she loves him now, and that's enough. She told him that it was a mistake to think he was driving then, or that he was driving now. She told him they were all just hydroplaning in life and there wasn't any control to be had, and in their mutual comfort of each other, the credits rolled. Final attraction score: 6 Final compatibility: 3.

Playing notes:

We struggled a lot to find a happy pace in the game. Because we were learning the whole new fangled dice process, we found that we would get distracted by that and drop the story. So, while the story turned out kind of neat in the end, it wasn't consistent through the actual play. We weren't entirely sure when we should be rolling dice, so ended up rolling them as we went (including Attractiveness dice and bonus dice) but this ended up getting us bogged down in vying for re-rolls by making plot go askew when we failed. On a re-read, we see that the book says that conflict/compatibility dice are to be rolled in-scene, but the others should be at the end. That probably would have made for a better focus in scene, but we also wondered if it would end up in a pattern of:

Good date interaction + good date interaction + good date interaction = lots of dice + bad dice roll -> bad date interaction + bad date interaction = higher attraction, and weren't sure how that would affect the game.

I had some trouble because I'm really an immersivist at heart (and I think that this style of play can entirely be Nar, but this is for another post) and because our story was told in fits and starts I couldn't really immerse - so I have a more intellectual appreciation for the story than an emotional attachment to it.

I also had problems with the switch, though I so did not expect this. I do not think it was strictly a matter of playing a male character, as I have done this on a number of occasions. I thought maybe it was playing a sexualized boy (less as trouble sexualizing the object of desire but as being the subject of desire in this context) but I don't think that's it either. I thing it was more the type of sexualized boy that I was aiming for. I was an envisioning a Jude Law to Brand's Gabrielle Union, where usually if I had opted to play a boy I would have aimed for a butchier, less upper-crust high society man, and more a blue-collar rake, if this makes any sense.

We thought the word web was a neat chargen idea and liked having input into each other's character. Now that I've seen it in practice, I'd probably apply a better focus and intent to it, and not been so random. We'd probably make more traits at the get go and add them more liberally in play to help shape the story more fluidly. That's mostly a matter of getting used to how the game works.

We liked that we could decide at 6:30 to play, be about to start actual play by 7:00 and wrap up by 9:00 (with the freedom, of course, to go longer). It made for a fun, non-stressy way to spend an evening. We'll definitely play again, especially since we have a better idea of how the game should flow, and we expect that when we iron that out between us, it will be loads of fun.

We both liked the idea of "suaving" to earn bonus dice and "flubbing" to earn re-rolls (we both look favorably on system support to reward players to be vulnerable and give), though we have trouble dis-associating the roll from the chronological event of the outcome. The re-roll system is really neither task nor conflict resolution, it's social support and story generation, yet it determines the attractiveness score and compatibility traits, which are, essentially, the conflict resolution outcomes of the interaction (date). It's not a bad thing, but it is a whole different take, and therefore requires some stretching to get your head around.

The Active Player/Guide dynamic was very interesting to us, and quite revealing about us. On my part, I'm someone who has rarely been a GM, and so it is not second nature to handle things like awarding bonus dice, determine re-rolls, etc, nor especially to keep track of those things while at the same time contributing to the story. I felt (especially at the beginning) a little torn between the two responsibilities when acting as the Guide. The fact that I was initially negligent highlighted how deftly the bonus die system is an approval generating mechanism. In the book it mentions that the dice you dole out are a method to give props to the Active Player, and it's interesting to see how true that is. I kept forgetting to give them out, and Brand quickly thought I was not enjoying the game or his contribution to story, so would change gears. When I tried to follow, I would forget again about the dice, and so he'd think the change hadn't been sufficiently interesting. He frequently had to prompt me to confirm if I had just forgotten to award the dice or if I needed more.

On Brand's behalf, who has more GM experience than any other person I've ever met, he found the Guide roll to be difficult in an entirely opposite way. As a GM, he's used to being the source of all opposition, the "push" that makes it possible for the characters to make hard moral choices out of which stories are born. In Breaking the Ice, there's no pusher, and no push. The game is all pull, everything is contribution, collaboration and agreement. It drastically changes the way that story is created, and we both agree that it's closer to a female mode of story creation, though neither of us are fully sure what that delineation will lead us to. Props to Emily for making a game that allows us to explore that differentiation.

We both found it interesting that as Active Players, neither of us in the course of play ever turned down or even really debated any suggestion made by the Guide. Brand wonders if we had never been each other's GM's before if we would have given more resistance, but in the end we think it's just that the system effectively supported the collaborative aspect, rewarded it by mechanics, and we were both more interested in seeing the process than pushing the story this time around. It'll be interesting to see where our next game goes.