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Journal Entry

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

World fantasy, roleplaying games, Story Now and numinous magic

A delightful World Fantasy Convention last weekend. Being at a con without transatlantic jetlag is something I should do more often.

I did the con right, too: skipped most of the programming, except for seeing Susan Cooper (Susan Cooper! I kept expecting her to stop time), and a few lovely readings: Mary Robinette Kowal, Delia Sherman, and Toby Buckell. I didn't rush hectically to every party, either.

I went to bed by midnight a couple of times. I went swimming. I wandered the pebbled beach in the early morning. I even wrote, two of the four days, which is pretty good for me at a con.

I met many lovely random people (the dudes from the Mothership, a were-magpie from Malmö and her fellow leader of the Overt Feminist Cabal of Sweden, gamers from Saskatchewan who love Saskatoon pie, many others) and some lovely non-random (as in, I was waiting impatiently to meet them) people too.

There was the obligatory, much awaited and relished, argument with Ted Chiang (is "erasable time", i.e. time travelers changing things, a coherent idea?)

There were bits of business at the con, but they were all more or less spontaneous. One agent meeting. A pitch from an anthologist or two. Random five-minute conversations that painlessly produced awesome ("hey, I have this cardgame we could skin and pitch to Atlas, you in?" "Sure, here's how we'll do it..."). Would that "business" always meant such random blips of delight in a sea of undirected fun!


But the undisputed pinnacle of WFC fun this weekend was playing Monsterhearts ("a game about the messy lives of teenage monsters") with Amal El-Mohtar, Shweta Narayan, and Nathaniel Smith.

I was running the game, and the thing about Monsterhearts is, when you run the first session of a Monsterhearts campaign as the GM, you go in with zero prep. Nothing. You have no plans. You have no idea about the setting, except the general suggestions that the game materials themselves make -- among which the players are free to pick and choose. You're paratrooping at night with the players into a wilderness of undiscovered Story, and you have no map.

I've GM'd a lot in my life, and I used to feel bad for not having more prep -- for not having planned things out in advance. I used to feel bad for winging it; to feel I was doing a half-assed job. And I was partly right, because the systems that i was playing -- systems that wanted you to be the Master, to be the Storyteller -- sort of wanted me to have that kind of preparation -- at least, if I wanted the story to be about anything more than the players killing and robbing whatever funny-looking creatures they met. I played all those years mostly fighting against those systems, fighting to get them to do what I wanted them to do, which was let me and the players make up stories together.

Monsterhearts (in the footsteps of Apocalypse World, which does the same) turns all that on its head. No prep allowed. No story the MC (you're a Master of Ceremonies, not a Game Master) is pushing towards. No idea what will happen next.

Going into a game with no prep (especially when you've talked it up as the best thing evar) is a strangely vulnerable feeling.

(Of course, as Amal pointed out, there was prep -- it was just communal. I'd promised the game would take three hours; it took that long just to set up the characters and go through the homeroom seating chart, spontaneously generating NPCs via leading questions. This may be what happens when you play with writers.)

Playing a game which is actually designed to drive emergent story -- not to simulate a world, or allow for boardgamelike challenges, or help a GM walk you through a prepared storyline -- is a revelation, and doing it with the caliber of imagination present in that room is potent stuff indeed.

(I've also running an Apocalypse World game online, with old friends; that's pretty damn potent too!)

It's like collaborating on a story, except the hard parts of the collaboration are dealt with by the mechanics. Not only that, the mechanics also push you to tell more interesting stories, and force you to tell them emergently-now-together, rather than trying to each do your thing and then cram them together afterwards. (Unlike collaborating on a story, of course, there's no immediate end-user-consumable product, but that's one of the beauties of it; it's more like a jazz jam session for writers than it is like a boardgame -- and yet there's still a deep ineluctable gameness going on).


I'll just give you one example. This is one of the moments that stayed with me from the game. Nathaniel's character is a witch named Sabrina. Yes, she's literally Sabrina the teenage witch, but here's the thing -- the name is why she's a witch. She was teased so mercilessly about her name that she obsessed on the internet until she actually had magic powers. Which are a secret, of course. Not even her friends know.

So she's out on the pier, drinking, with these popular kids who don't like her. Sabrina tries to manipulate the ringleader, Cathy (an NPC), into following the Selkie, Nula (who doesn't know she's a Selkie) into the water (Nula just dived off the pier).

Sabrina fails the roll, which is an invitation to me, the MC, to make a hard move. The thing that's a little perplexing to me in that moment is that, in my mind, Cathy actually wants to follow Nula anyway. So when Sabrina fails the roll, it shouldn't mean that Cathy doesn't follow Nula.

But that's okay, because a failed roll means I get to make any hard move I like, as long as it's rooted in the fiction. And it should be a failure for Sabrina -- that's what the dice are asking for.

I have no plan, though. I have nothing prepared. I have no particular intention here except to destabilize anything stable, to make all acceptance conditional, and to drive the story into darkness.

So here's what I do. Cathy smugly stalks away towards the beach, and everyone follows her down the pier, leaving Sabrina alone. Then something in the jumble of the after-hours amusement park along the pier catches Cathy's eye. She pauses, turns back, and says "You know, Sabrina, you weren't invited to this party anyway. You should just go home." She reaches into the closet, pulls out a broom, and wings it towards Sabrina -- it clatters at her feet. "Here's your ride."

The other kids are cracking up, high-fiving.

Until that moment, other than the origin story mentioned during character creation, no one in the story had teased Sabrina for her witchy name. It wasn't clear where the origin-story teasing had happened -- it could have been in elementary school. I had no plan to revive the "Sabrina's a witch" thing, though it was clearly set up as a painful wound of the character's.

There was a broom in that closet solely because Sabrina's player rolled a 6. The 6 made me go look for the broom.

The mechanical effect of Cathy tossing the broom was to send Sabrina into her Darkest Self. That's a specific script built into the character type, for the character losing it and embracing their monstrous side. The witch's monstrous side is magical vengeance. Minutes later Cathy was decompensating, seeing demonic visages everywhere and drowning Iris. Moments after that, the whole clique was shuffling dazedly into the water to the Selkie's song (she had to save Iris somehow, but there are going to be serious consequences to Nula's reputation).

The whole game was one moment like that after another. We had no idea where we were going. Without the mechanics, we would have stalled out. Instead, we kept reaching for Story, and Story always showed up.


Monsterhearts comes from Apocalypse World, and I want to leave you with one thing about Apocalypse World, a brilliant piece of dovetailed setting and mechanics that points to something, I think, which is important beyond the context of roleplaying games as well.

So the thing that distinguishes the setting of Apocalypse World from the bog-standard Mad Max kind of post-apocalyptic scenario is "the world's psychic maelstrom", a howling discordant strangeness just beyond everyone's perception, pressing in. You can feel it if you try. And you can open your brain to it. That might get you useful information or effects. Or it might make you very, very sorry. The weirder you are, the better chance you have, but it's never a sure thing, and there will probably be hard bargains and uncomfortable choices. It's up to the dice (and then to the MC, taking the dice's direction and attending to the story so far).

But the really important thing about the world's psychic maelstrom is what the game doesn't say about it -- what it doesn't pin down. What's left open.

There are no tables and charts to describe how the psychic maelstrom works. There are no lists of its inhabitants or qualities. There's evocative language -- language full of dread and strangeness -- and crisp game mechanics that leverage the maelsrom to destabilize things, without ever saying what it is. And then there's a mandate to discover the rest, maybe, in play.

I think this is not just important to story gaming, but to stories in general. Here's what I wrote on the Apocalypse World forum recently:

From my point of view -- also as an author of fiction -- the way the world's psychic maelstrom works in AW begins to repair the decades of ruination that fantasy RPGs since D&D have wreaked on fantasy.

The psychic maelstrom is numinous. It is deeply unpredictable. You encounter it at terrible risk; it can change everything, make anything possible, and you have no idea, in advance, how, or what the cost and consequences will be.

In other words, it acts like magic used to act in literature -- how magic acts in Middle-Earth, in Earthsea, in Prydain -- and as the miraculous acts in, for that matter, the Hebrew Bible -- and not how magic and the divine function in fantasy ever since D&D turned them into vending machines that produce precisely predictable effects given precisely predictable inputs.

Harry Potter casts third level spells from page 126 of the Player's Handbook. Ged opened his brain to the world's psychic maelstrom.

Posted by benrosen at November 5, 2013 08:06 PM | Up to blog

Please report on the exchange with Ted Chiang!

Posted by: Brent at November 17, 2013 07:11 AM

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