05 May 2006

The Game I Can't Write Yet

The game I can't write yet is about creating a persona, a person to be, by arraging and layering various masks. At different moments, in different situations, different masks come to the forefront and become your primary face, but your other aspects are always hovering in the wings or in the background. You are vast; you contain multitudes. One of the most valuable skills is to be able to rearrange your masks to adapt to the needs of the present. Perhaps you should display The Mask of the Mother Bear more prominently than The Mask of the Angel of Death to tackle your current predicament.

The game I can't write yet is also about building this persona based on exising masquing traditions. You are not the first person to ever wear masks. You are most likely wearing several masks that you inherited from others, only some of which you have used up to their full potential. Some of these masks you took up willingly. Others were pressed upon you. Some masks may be old and tattered. Some masks you may have made yourself, in homage to the more splendid masks of your heroes, hoping to live up to them. Together, your set of masks represents your history, your heritage, and your future. It is the faces you've worn and the faces you may some day be ready to wear.

You will gain masks and lose them. You will outgrow some. You will cast some aside. Some you may burn or bury or tie to a stone and throw into the ocean, to keep others from ever wearing them. Some you will take from the dead bodies of your foes or friends. Some you will fish from the bottom of the ocean, rocks still tied to them. Some you will piece together from tiny fragments that have been scattered to the four winds. Some will be given to you by lovers or life-long friends. Some you will be tricked or cursed into carrying. Some you will make yourself, using bits and pieces of other masks, to pass on to your own children, lovers, friends, or mortal enemies.

The game I can't write yet is about being part of a small community of people, all of whom carry and wear a variety of masks. They are your family. You love them but you also hate them, because they are so much like yourself, but also so different. This community changes over time as the people in the community change. They will not always carry the same masks. They may change into someone that is harder for you to love or hate, or someone you will have to love or hate in a different way. With the changing of masks, the community and the social rules that bind it together will change as well. And you'll have to adapt to the changes because, like it or not, this is your family. You can run away for a while, but you can't change where you came from. You carry each others' masks and that binds you together. You are the person you are partially because of them.

Just had to get all that down. Thanks.

P.S. And if you say, "Masks sound like they are sorta related to the Keys from The Shadow of Yesterday," your mind is working in the same direction as mine.


Blogger Leigh Walton said...

I guess it's pretty obvious why so many RPGs work with the theme "we are all members of a special group that is different from normal society, and thus we are thrust together in a love/hate familial community."

Considering the demographics of RPG players (nerds: oppressed minorities and elitists), the practical requirements of plot (generally need to keep the number of NPCs manageably small), and the nature of roleplaying (assembling to perform a ritual that the outside world doesn't understand; sealing ourselves off into a fantasy universe; often forming a genuine OOC bond with other players), it's practically inevitable. There is also a ton of potential story content associated with family relationships.

But are there alternatives?

At times I find the WoD-style elitism/insularity tiresome (among other things, it can contribute to unpleasantness in the players' OOC attitudes). I wonder how a game might encourage players to think of themselves/characters as members of a global and/or welcoming community.

Maybe this is something you'd want to consider, as someone who's interested in reaching non-hobbyists? But maybe the only way to hook people is to develop a positive connection with a specific community of players...

Anyway, just trying to think outside the box a bit. Maybe this is what Eero's article is about?

For example, are there gaming-in-public styles that involve (safe, positive) interaction with non-participants?

12:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I assume you've read Jack Vance on the subject? I forget the short story title but I'll go dig it up if you want.


p.s. I like it! Let's Play!!

2:28 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Walton said...

Shane: I don't know that short story, but I'd be happy to go find it if you give me a hint.

Leigh: I totally agree with you about the tendency to project geek outsider culture into the setting and character choices of most games. But I think you see similar patterns enacted in lots of other mediums (X-Men, Spider-Man, Harry Potter, Narnia, basically all fiction aimed at young adults), and those mediums (superheroes, sci-fi, fantasy, epic heroic history/myth) have always been the source material for most roleplaying. That doesn't mean it's a great idea, but I don't think roleplaying is alone in this.

White Wolf drew on the goth/punk subculture for more than just the tone of their stories, so yeah, the elitist/insular "nobody understands how cool we really are" thing is definitely there.

Actually, I don't think any of the games I write are guilty of the criticism you're making here. In the mask game I described above, everyone is a masquer. You're part of one masquing troupe, but there are many, many others. And you will never meet someone who doesn't wear a mask. And my sin + teenagers + monsters game, Vesperteen gives secret magical powers to all teenagers, not just a select few. It's still a part of the "secret magic powers" tradition, but at least there are no Muggles.

As far as I know, there is no roleplaying equivilent of performance art yet, though there are of course instances where larps interact with bystanders in character, but not in some evangelical sort of way.

But, yes, you bring up some good things to think about.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Leigh Walton said...

I guess I mean a couple different things.

1) the PCs are not automatically superior to "normal people" -- they ARE normal people, or even inferior.

2) the PCs are not restricted to operating primarily within a limited social circle - it's not the case that only a few people in the gameworld really matter.

3) the PCs have no particular connection between them. (one way to do this is to not have a fixed group of PCs, but rather the PCs are whoever happens to be important at the moment. another way is to do a Magnolia-type story where people go about their everyday lives, and on some meta-level the threads come together to spell out something)

4) the players actually do things to fight the "club" instinct among themselves as well, whether that be playing in public, regularly having new players, "outsourcing" play, etc.

This is mainly a thought exercise. There's definitely a lot of unexplored ground in family-based gaming. There are some specific things I would personally like to cultivate and other things I would like to avoid, but right now i'm just trying to brainstorm what would happen if various fundamentals of roleplaying were reversed. The idea of écriture féminine, and deconstruction in general, has got me thinking.

9:08 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Walton said...

Leigh, you have been personally invited (by Thomas) to come explain #2, and Fred has questioned the very possibility of #1-3 (he tends to have pretty strong feelings about "how roleplaying can/should be done").


If you don't want to apply for a Story Games account, I'll be glad to pass your wisdom on.

10:27 PM  
Blogger Leigh Walton said...

i have applied for a Story Games account (no guarantees on how much I'll use it), but apparently won't get a response for a while.

quick replies:

a couple people took the list as some kind of manifesto, which it really wasn't. It's a list of ORs, not ANDs. Each one is meant to be an idea to explore-- it's not an all-or-nothing program.

I agree that "deconstructing in-game insularity" and "deconstructing meta-game insularity" are separate topics, though they are somewhat related.

Idea #3-- the Magnolia model, for those who haven't seen the movie, is like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-- every character connects to other characters, but in a long chain rather than a big cluster. Lots of stories are like this - not everyone knows everyone else - Magnolia just emphasizes it, and covers a much wider range of character types than most fiction.

BTW, I came across this and it seemed relevant.

Also, some of the connections between characters in Magnolia are not factual but thematic-- Tom Cruise hates his father for years of neglect, while Jeremy Blackman is completely under the thumb of his overbearing father. During one of the movie's climaxes we cut back and forth between Tom cursing his father beside his deathbed and another character admitting that he may have molested his own daughter. The characters involved don't know each other, but by juxtaposing scenes the movie communicates a lot thematically.

One idea would be to have each player play a particular "type" or theme, which would be incarnated in different ways in different scenes. Like if I'm playing "the asshole," then whatever is happening in the game, I'm an asshole, and when my current asshole character leaves the scene then a new one appears. The possibilities are endless. "The attention whore," "the skeptic," "the in-over-his-head person." I know other games have combined this idea with a supernatural element -- you are actually playing the Power of Assholes, and though you manifest in different ways you maintain a common personality/character. But then you still end up with a bunch of Powers sitting around masturbating with each other and having conflicts within The Community of Powers or whatever. This idea would be to remove that centralizing element.

One phrase that came to me whilst reading: Lots of RPGs try to be X-Men. What I'm suggesting would be more along the lines of Optic Nerve, or a Will Eisner comic. Decidedly un-special characters, going through little isolated bits of life drama.

Of course, plenty of people think Optic Nerve is crushingly dull...

5:36 AM  

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