Ropecon 09: briefly on zombies and cinema

10 September, 2009 at 7:51 am (actual play, Ropecon) (, , , )

Tommi Horttana, brother of a friend of a friend whom I had not met before, wanted to play some forgish games and another friend of a friend did not know how they were different from most roleplaying games. I prepared to create some horrible abomination on the fly, but luckily Sami Koponen of Efemeros fame happened to be nearby and the game he was playing in ended. So, we played some scenes of (the Finnish version of) Zombie Cinema.

The remarkable thing was my continued difficulty in playing games with shared narration and explicit scene framing. The others were pretty much pros or natural talents, it seemed. Small part of my poor performance is the heavy reliance on visual media (movies, TV) and the effects used therein, which I am not familiar with. The significant part is, I think, that though I can make scenes where something happens, I don’t have a feel for that something is supposed to be in this style of play. The good part is that now I have a new way of looking at storytelling.

I’ll be playing in a Burning Wheel campaign where I’ll try to make a dramatically interesting character. We are almost past the mechanical parts of character generation, so hammering beliefs and instincts is what remains. Just to not make things too easy for myself, I’ll try playing a religious character who is quite fervent about it and is not a sword-wielding maniac or overtly abrasive. This ought to be interesting.

Further, a bunch of us at Jyväskylä have been trying to make a short movie-like object. Success has thus far been mixed, but the parts I have found to be most enjoyable are the scripting/brainstorming sessions. They have also been the most challenging, which is appropriate. One lesson learned is to only include the relevant: Communicate something about a character or keep the viewers on track about what is happening, basically. (The other people make sure that inserting random bursts of action is not my problem.) Maybe this ties back in to playing a dramatically interesting character and to scene framing.

Note 1: Tommi Horttana is one of the designers of Lies and seductions, a free (as far as money is concerned) computer game for some non-open operating systems. It should be about relationships. I don’t play many computer games, but interested readers might want to take a look, as Horttana is quite smart as far as people go.

Note 2: Zombies.

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D&D, old and new (Ropecon 09)

5 September, 2009 at 2:18 pm (actual play, Ropecon) (, , , )

In Ropecon I played Fane of the poisoned prophecies as GM’d by mister Raggi. After the con I’ve played four sessions of 4e.

Minor spoilers regarding the Fane shall follow.

Both of the games were mediocre, but for different reasons. The Fane felt somewhat directionless; we entered the place, killed some stuff, discovered some healing herbs, moved on, encountered a Cthulhuan camel, and so on. There was a big secret that we did not uncover, though the clues were there. I’m not certain that figuring out the secret would actually have been useful. On the treasure side we did find the herbs and one shelf of books, but the value of either was dwarfed by the appetite of the disenchanter-camel. Overall, I think the game might have been better if we had had a concrete goal or reason for being there. A good resource hoard to search for, say, or something more personal. Also, second journey in would likely have been more meaningful.

On the system side, we had one combat that felt too long (the moon chamber). All of them did nicely evoke a sense of danger and the need to move on, which was, I think, the point.

Overall: The play itself was fun; interacting with the environment and guessing at the level of risks. The combat system is pretty incidental I’d go as far as to further simplify it or abstract it away, since what happens inside combat is not, at least for me, that interesting. Props to James for not naming the monsters. It does make them feel more sword and sorcerish, probably due to facing the unknown and otherwordly, and less like D&D fantasy (Dragonlance, Forgotten realms, …).

Yeah: Every character made it out alive, though two, including my fighter henchman, were unconscious.

As for the game of 4e, we had some fights, found some traces of drow conspiracy, had some fights, attacked some underground temple and were all killed. Verdict: 4e is far more deadly than old school D&D. Maybe our only healer being one-shotted during surprise round also was a contributing factor.

4e does not prohibit people from roleplaying; I don’t see any relevant differences when compared to 3rd edition. What is relevant, and what is striking in contrast to old D&D (which does not have much encouragement for roleplaying, either) is that modern D&D has combats that take awfully long time. I take it that people enjoy such combats, but I would rather be roleplaying. In addition, such awfully long combats create the illusory dichotomy between using rules and roleplaying, so harming much discourse on rpgs.

Our game would have been better if we had more players familiar with the rules. Right now there was insignificant amounts of fumbling and me and the GM keeping track of rules for other players. Roleplay was, as always, as meaningful as we made it.

Overall, I probably will be playing 4e (or 3rd edition) only when there are no other interesting games available. They are still preferable to almost all board and card games, though. Chess might be counterexample, if I bothered learning it properly.

So, mediocre games but for different reasons. Clearly different games, also, with similarities being in the name and some cosmetic stuff.

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Ropecon 2009 – lecture notes

4 August, 2009 at 7:17 pm (academic rpg theory, Ropecon) (, , , )

This year’s Ropecon happened over the weekend and thereby is done. In this post I’ll give more or less general impressions on things that were not roleplaying games. Descriptions of gaming shall come later. I hope I have time for them with the Jyväskylä Summer school starting tomorrow.

On the general socialisation and contact-making side I managed to talk with all but one of the people whom I wanted to meet (that one being a childhood friend who had hurt his ankle and was not very active due to that). I acquired new contacts, including James Edward Raggi IV, and was surprised by J. Tuomas Harviainen having heard my name. Evidently I know random people by name and random people know me by name, yet I still manage to avoid all insider groups. Anyway: I was on social overdrive for the entire game, talking to random people I did not know about random subjects. I’m still exhausted by it. Serves me well. Next year I’ll take a day off after Ropecon so as to recuperate a bit.

I listened and took notes of three lectures: Rituals and roleplaying by mister Harviainen, Arabic mythology by someone and Introduction to academic roleplaying theory by Ludosofy. I have the notes and interested locals can take a look, though I may be necessary for interpreting them.

Rituals and roleplaying was certainly a useful lecture, clarifying the subject a fair deal. All mistakes and misconceptions are naturally mine, as I’m writing from lecture notes and memory; I am at least missing some subtle distinctions. Harviainen started with a primer on ritual theory, explaining four roughly different classes of rituals (religious/magical, interaction such as the way in which you greet someone, animal such as mating rituals and finally compulsions such as washing one’s hands dozens of times consecutively), what humans get out of them (predictability and safety, as well as additional value) and then showing ties to play. Namely, Huizinga and Winnicott (of whom I know nothing about) have equated ritual and play, while lusory attitude is one form of additional value one can get out of rituals. Predictability means easier understanding through shared framework and rules (which also make sanctions possible); one way this relates to rules in roleplaying games is obvious. Harviainen also noted that rituals always have a cost (they restrict what one can do; no guns in a boxing match, to use the standard example) and hence people expect something out of them. Different people may and do expect different things, which may cause problems (compare: creative agendae in Forge theory). Rituals, as mentioned, add value; they do so by increasing rewards, by becoming autotelic activities (which means that they are their own motivation) and by creating shared experiences that can’t really be shared with non-participants (communitas was a related jargon term). There was also the word inter-immersion, which might have had something to do with several activities or people working in concert, but I did not have time to write it down.

Harviainen continued on to the shared features of pretense play and rituals. There is social contract (one is supposed to act in certain way), magic circle by some other name, meaning that group/tribe creates a temporary space separate from normal life, which is evidently also known as liminality, and then there is re-signification which draws from the field of semiotics: Catholics eat the flesh of Jesus, boffers are proper swords, that one guy is an elf. Delimited space, which to my knowledge means magic circle, has an information barrier that intensifies the experience inside; there is a cognitive authority like a priest or game master who has much power within the circle and picks and chooses from different sources on what to take as the right and proper rule (different parts of Bible, different game manuals, say); there also was some playing around with how much people know before the ritual/game itself and how prolonging the phase of uncertainty can create intense experiences, but also how having all the information one might want and need provided within the magic circle can create powerful immersive experiences.

Harviainen had drawn a figure, but managed to make it quite unclear, or maybe I am simply unused to humanists drawing figures and trying to express themselves. It was some sort of feedback loop with one arrow going to both ways and simply saying “feedback loop” as explanation.

There was further material on the cognitive changes one can achieve by rituals or roleplaying. One can teach new skills and perspectives by them, but forcing a new worldview permanently would require continuous enforcement from society, as otherwise the effects are not anchored properly. As a striking example Harviainen used the larp Mellan himmel och hav (Swedish, translates as Between sky and sea) all participants of which became polygamous after playing, but reverted back to their monogamous ways some months (IIRC) after the game. Religions and cults are examples of how strong anchoring can cause persistent changes (also, why cults prohibit non-cult relations, I think). I am not quite sure how very closed groups of peers might interact with the anchoring and society as a whole. North Korea was given as an example of huge interaction larp. A question that dawned on me: Does this not apply to all societies? There was also talk about creating a powerful cult (or cult-like larp).

There were questions, some of which I covered above, and the following were interesting points raised by them: People taking different roles (among family, at work, with friends, …) can be seen as different interaction rituals. Larps and initiation rituals tend to have low frequency but high intesity, while tabletop gaming and going to church once a week have low intensity but high frequency. Is good tabletop game one which has high intesity, too?

The amount of notes I have from the lecture on Arabic and Islamic mythology is twice the previous and I won’t go on detail on it, at least here. Suffice to say that it was interesting material and could easily be used in any game sticking fairly close to or drawing heavily from real world mythology. A similar lecture or blog post on Christian mythology would be very interesting indeed. As it happens, I do know two roleplayers who also are students of theology. Any volunteers?

Third lecture I attended was the introduction to academic rpg theory. Ludosofy started with general study on games and play (all roleplaying is playing games, all gameplay is play), continued on how impossible it is to define roleplaying carefully (of which I could write an essay), but mentioned the concept of family resemblance, and on how definitions are used as a means of power play (the earliest studies on roleplaying are studies on D&D, not roleplaying as a whole); contrast naming something as art.

Ludosofy briefly explained the concept of diegesis, or that which is true within fiction, a term stolen from theory of literature, I think. Markus Montola has further divided the concept into subjective and objective diegesis, the latter of which roughly corresponds with shared imagined space as coined by Fang Langford.

Magic circle was explained and the issue of pervasive games was awaken, but not dealt with; pervasive games are ones in which the in-game and out-of-game have blurred, if any, limits. Several ways of looking at immersion Ludosofy also named and some of them received further attention; namely, Mike Pohjola‘s definition of roleplaying as immersion to outside consciousness, Fine’s egrossment, Gadamer’s Spiel, Callois’ mimicry, though also ilinx of which I should write something someday. Harviainen makes the following divisions: perikhoresis, separated identity, narrative identity (unrelated to GNS, for the record) and mixed identity. I might be able to write a bit more about them if someone asks, though I’d have to consult Ludosofy before so doing.

Ludosofy mentioned semiotics but did not really go into that much detail on them (I started my theory hobby on semiotics, so they are a familiar concept and I was not listening that carefully) and also mentioned the conflict between narratology and ludology, as roleplaying games can be analysed as story-making or as a game (which creepily mirrors some of the most harmful divisions in hobbyist rpg theory, such as roll/roleplay); there are also other approaches, such as looking at them as rituals.

As a nice end to the presentation there was a minor flame war and some interesting questions. “Eikös tämä ole aika nollatutkimusta?”, which does not translate properly, was heard. Yeah, if you are looking for concrete advise on improving your game, then academic rpg theory might not be the right place to start at.

BTW, Ludosofy, the primary difference between the new and old edition of Universalis is presentation. There might have been some rules tweaks, also.

I have some plans for the next con. I might run three games, one four-hour one and two three-hour games. On the other hand, I might hold a lecture on applied rpg theory, lest someone think it is only for high-brow academics, and only run two games of some length. The lecture option sounds more promising right now and would, I feel, be more useful for me in the long run. I can already run games well enough.

Other con experiences (and some related ones):

In Finnish:

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