It was late February and early March when I wrote most of this entry. Perhaps I should actually post it before it becomes either thoroughly irrelevant or even longer. [Edited to note: It's long and probably boring unless you're interested in the social dynamics of roleplaying groups and how they relate to play style and creative agenda. If you want to know more concretely what I get out of roleplaying, go look at the previous entry instead.]
I think most of you who I've talked to in person in the last six months know that roleplaying's been a really good part of my life lately -- but it struck me while I was writing the previous entry that I wouldn't have enjoyed My Life With Master a year ago. That's even more true of the game of Mountain Witch that followed it. Changing gaming styles, like developing a taste for sushi, started out bad-uncomfortable. Eventually it shifted to good-uncomfortable – this tastes strong and weird, so why do I want more? – and from there to awesome with bouts of discomfort and the determination to conquer chopsticks. Things started clicking for me last summer in ptevis' post-Roman / pre-Arthurian Britain campaign, "A Land Rich in Tyrants" (which first used Riddle of Steel and then Burning Wheel mechanics). But this entry is mostly about the uncomfortable part of that transition.
Help, I'm being protagonized!
A little more than a year ago everyone was frustrated with the centrifugal tendencies of the post-Roman Britain game. The indie press games of the sort we've been playing lately give more responsibility to individual players than the games we played in college did, both with regard to who has narrative control and to what extent characters can diverge productively from the group. Ultimately I really like that, but it has – *schlafmanko looks at the length of this entry and notices that her file of cut material is at least as long as the entry itself* – like fifteen pages of pitfalls for me. A year ago our characters were all for doing interesting things, but were having trouble managing to engage in any of them together.
I was used to playing as part of a team of characters, and having to decide my character's actions by myself, out in the open without consulting anyone else, made me antsy. Chalk it up to lack of existential authenticity ala Heidegger, or social discomfort with situations where other people are watching you but not giving feedback, or the fact that it makes me nervous to roleplay things that would make me nervous in real life, whether or not my character would be nervous. I also figured that my own insight into problems that my character had been training for or stewing over for days, weeks, months, years! was unlikely to simulate the character authentically. When you're playing as a party, talking to other people might or might not lead to a better facsimile of character competence, but even if it doesn't, at least you have cover and feel less stupid.
The funny thing is, being concerned with that also meant thoroughly missing the point of the type of game we were playing, and I knew it. Theoretically we could've discussed as players what individual characters would do, but that would've felt like a cop-out precisely because it would've been one. If the game is about character, about being in hard places, dealing with hard emotions, making hard decisions and dealing with their consequences, then you actually need to figure out what to do and not defer it to someone else. And I certainly wasn't going to complain that my own character flaws and insecurities were making it harder to enjoy the game.
What took longer to figure out was what the pleasure was in a game like that and what in Father Paulinus – my character – I cared enough about to throw myself in for. By the end of the game, it turned out that one of several character issues I cared about involved Paulinus' degree of independence from family loyalties. In retrospect, I refracted the same discomforts I've been talking about so far – taking ownership of one's problems and decisions – through my character and amplified them. So basically I solved the problem of being uncomfortable by making myself more uncomfortable. Worked like a charm.
In a bid to save Britain from civil war, Father Paulinus had thrown his allegiance in with Gwythifer, the emperor Vortigern's son and heir. Although Gwythifer's family and Paulinus' had long been opposed, they'd allied to take down Vortigern's treacherous pet Saxons. As the war against the Saxons progressed, Paulinus found himself several kinds of loyal to Gwythifer. Then Julianus (Paulinus' brother-in-law, played by Roy) found out that Gwythifer had murdered his sister (Paulinus' sister-in-law, played by Sarah) for political reasons years earlier. It had been a pretty significant event in Paulinus' life, ultimately leading to his conversion from Pelagianism to Augustinianism. Julianus killed Gwythifer and by war restored Ambrosius to his rightful throne, though admittedly that was well in the works before he found out Gwythifer's guilt.
Both on a game level and a meta-game level, I felt like Gwythifer's funeral sermon needed to be given by me. Standing up publicly before your family to eulogize and forgive your sister's murderer is a terrible thing to do – but that was part of the point. On that count, Roy-Julianus' snigger near the beginning of the speech was Exactly Right. (It's also a good example of why I don't want to say too much about the relationship between my characters and me-stuff until after games, though I'm sure some of it's obvious. Turning people's responses to Paulinus into reactions to me really would've ruined everything here.) But Paulinus felt that by this break from his family, by the gratuitousness of it, by a sort of mimetic magic, he could buy Britain a break from its past. Paulinus had to do it because it was horrible and gratuitous, and he humbled himself to God. I'm not sure I can explain this intuition fully, especially months later; it felt like having second-hand a religious experience that wasn't quite my own, which was neat and weird. Plus the sermon totally stuck it to the archbishop theologically.
I wrote the speech out ahead of time, which was good because I was exhausted by the time it came up. But as the game kept going in the last section – we needed to finish before Keith moved to San Francisco – I could tell that if I didn't say something fast, the scene would be skipped over entirely. On one hand, I wondered if the alternate ending with Julianus appearing before the council to account for Gwythifer's death might be more interesting. In whatever weird headspace I was in a second renunciation – not saying the speech in game – seemed vaguely parallel to the renunciation of family pride that Paulinus was undertaking. (It wasn't really parallel, though, because Paulinus' renunciation of self actually dictated his self-assertion. That seems to happen a lot in Christianity, except when it doesn't.) On the other hand, I'd already lost several too many opportunities by dithering – "dithering" meaning that I was nervous enough not to jump in to call for scenes I wanted when I wasn't quite sure what I'd do if I got them – and I realized I'd be more disappointed if I didn't give the speech.
Now playing Paulinus, because he was a powerful old man, had shown me something about how I reflexively position myself socially in ways that tend to downplay everything I'm doing and saying. So of course that's what I did when it came to the speech. That made the game and its ending disquieting, but by the same token useful. Plus the last month or so of the game was riveting, and you can't complain about riveting.
A game about trust and disclosure
Fast-forward from October, when Land Rich in Tyrants ended, to February. Our Mountain Witch game revisited some of the same dynamics I found in the end of the post-Roman Britain game – independent character action and player insecurity, in particular – but with different results. Shit, that's an understatement. The trust conflicts at the end of Mountain Witch thoroughly changed how I related to the rest of the gaming group.
Mountain Witch is a game about desperate ronin who've been hired to climb Mt. Fuji and kill its creepy magic-wielding lord. Each samurai has a dark fate, or more accurately, a dark secret that's going to affect the course of the game and likely lead to betraying other samurai. In the first half or two-thirds of the game, the characters build trust in each other while the players foreshadow and slowly disclose the fates that will betray them. None of the players or the GM knows anyone else's fate when you start out.
The game was awesome -- lots of moments with intense energy and the air feeling close, like the room had suddenly gotten smaller. But at home thinking about it in between the final and penultimate sessions, I got anxious. Now, virtually everything that I enjoy and that is important to me makes me ridiculously nervous from time to time (though not like it did in high school anymore -- poor emacsen), so "it makes me sorta anxious" really isn't the killer it might sound like. But when it started messing with my work and appetite, I figured there was a problem and spent some time puzzling out why I was so anxious. I came up with a lot of different reasons, though whether that's because I kept finding new things to make me anxious or whether it was mostly a lot of floundering as I tried to figure out the heart of the problem, is hard to say. In any case, I was never particularly anxious during game and my state of mind was only indirectly related to anything that happened while we were gaming.
It was clear by the middle session that there were emotional stakes in the game. Ted was the blind during the first round and then I raised. That's to say, Ted was pretty unhappy about some of the dynamics in the first session, and we spent a long time talking about it afterwards. I decided to rework my character substantially to make her resonate with the themes Ted seemed to be playing with. Didn't work, though it made her more interesting. The other result was that now my character also reflected themes in my relationship with Ted twisted sideways a couple times. By itself, I don't think this would've been enough to make me anxious, because there aren't the sort of out-of-game tensions in my relationship with Ted that would make betraying each other in-game particularly explosive right now. It's not like that game of Diplomacy a couple months after I unwittingly started dating Ted, when I was more interested romantically in another guy in the game and all three of us knew it. But implicating my relationship with Ted made what happened in this game seem more important, and it was enough to make me a bit nervous about what would happen if I did betray him.
I was more worried about not being able to betray him, though. Once I started thinking about it, I was taken aback by the automaticness of including Honjo (Roy's character) in my conversation with the Mountain Witch's lover. I started thinking just how hard it would be to betray the others, should it come to that. I was worried that my personal social tendencies would make it impossible to do justice to my character. Furthermore, the structure of the game means that ultimately the responsibility to do justice to your character really is yours alone.
So, it was loosely analogous to the situation Paulinus got himself into by the end of the other game, and I solved it in a similar way. I turned the problems in my head into character issues, this time intentionally: I figured that if I were this nervous about betrayal, then a Japanese woman who'd spent her current life striving to be honorable was likely to have similar anxieties. Shifting emotional profits and losses between me and my character is a shady accounting trick. I like it, though I think it's odd that it works.
It was all so Durkheimian... (on playing too much Call of Cthulhu in college)
But what I've said so far still isn't enough to explain why I was so anxious about betraying the group in Mountain Witch, and to say more about that, I need to say something about the way I was playing in college. About 60% total of my roleplaying in college was Call of Cthulhu, but it had become virtually all I played by my last two years in Chicago. Here's an old entry that explains what I enjoyed about roleplaying back then. The money quote is "But in-game experiences aren't just real, they're so real that they give meaning to the rest of the world and charge it with electricity." My understanding of what was going on with gaming at the time was shaped by Durkheim's Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Gaming was about creating collective representations and charging them with collective effervescence, which is the intensification of emotion that happens when a bunch of people feel the same way – rock concerts inevitably get used as an example of collective effervescence, but the concept also applies to grief, anger, etc. As Durkheim theorized, representations that have shared enthusiasm behind them seemed real in a way that transcended the purely subjective, even though I knew they were partly made up. They also contributed to forging our community of gamers in the science fiction club into a group that was very much part of my identity.
As the in-game corollary of the collective effervescence player dynamic, the group decided on most actions together and took them as a coordinated whole. The ethos in the Cthulhu games was Don't Divide The Party. I remember one occasion when everyone else trundled off to Mars through a portal in an Egyptian tomb to be chased by demons through the Twelve Hours of the Night. Historically I'm okay with writing myself out of stories when it seems appropriate and just watching what other people do, since they're usually doing cool stuff, like going to Mars. What made the situation no good in this case was that I thought everyone else's characters were complete idiots, and everyone else thought I as a player was an idiot for not coming along.
So there wasn't always a lot of room for characters to diverge productively from the group in play, but the group's actions were mostly consensus-based. There was lots of kibitzing and planning that wasn't strictly in character – that was fun, though I don't think very many of my ideas ended up being practical to use. I always had fun with the research side of Call of Cthulhu, but I'm not good at thinking up clever actiony schemes, and I'm fine with the thought of living life without that skill. That may partly be a girl thing, just like it's partly a girl thing that I've been socialized to find the position of listener very satisfying and more comfortable than the position of talker.
I'm probably drawing this too starkly, but the way these dynamics combined, I ended up in a situation where my participation didn't do much to shape what went on and where participation in the game outside the group was discouraged. And because the games kicked ass for other reasons, I was in a position where that pattern of behavior – social conformity, voicelessness – wasn't just fine with me, it was a real pleasure.
Furthermore, my style of play involved picturing things as vividly as possible, so that they seemed as real as possible, in order to extract as big an emotional bang out of them as possible (though that has a private quality that doesn't fit with the Durkheimian analysis). It meant having a very vivid sense of the horror that the group was confronting in Call of Cthulhu and being afraid of what I'd be up against if I left it, especially since I wasn't the one thinking up workable ideas on how to confront the horror. Vividly imagining things also made me less likely to do anything useful; I remember maybe six months after I first started playing Call of Cthulhu (a bit more than a year after I'd started roleplaying), Ted pointed out after a game that if my character's reaction to the horror was going to be staring at it, I was gunning for catatonia as my form of insanity, and that wouldn't be any fun. I said, but I'm still busy picturing things at that point! Doing that was fundamental to my enjoyment of the games, so it wasn't like I was going to stop. Eventually I got faster, though it's an issue that's never entirely gone away.
It's interesting how enjoying different things about gaming than the rest of the group combined with gender dynamics and my pre-existing tendencies in ways that in retrospect seem unhealthy. That pleasure was reiterated for more than three years, and now that I think about it, I'm not so sure that sticking together at all costs was a good message for a person like me to be ritualizing every week. Probably it was a really bad idea. Oh well.
Back to Mountain Witch. Besides generalized anxiety about whether I would be able to betray others and what would happen if I did, whenever I contemplated future actions, one of the things I kept coming back to over the course of the game was the idea of just leaving the group at some point. In real life, ditching the group certainly isn't something I have a problem doing. It should have been easy in game, too, but actually seemed almost unthinkable. I kept thinking, "But if I leave, then I won't be with the group anymore," which apparently meant something horrible-not-fun would happen and quite possibly end the story before I was ready -- not that I can remember any of my Cthulhu characters ever dying prematurely. Maybe I was worried that if I left the group, my story would simply cease to exist. But the artificiality of that fear is apparent in the fact that the times I wandered off in Mountain Witch to investigate things while I was on watch and everyone else was asleep, it made me only naggingly nervous.
So the dynamics of the Cthulhu games are another factor for why the new style of play in general felt uncomfortable and why Mountain Witch in particular made me crazy anxious. I'm amazed that those college games seem to have had such lasting emotional effects, though when you step back and think about it, it makes sense that all that vivid imagining might do something to one's psyche. I'd be irked, if it weren't for the fact that I'd do everything again if I found myself between eighteen and twenty-two and back in college tomorrow. And at some point I did get to the second round of one of those GenCon Call of Cthulhu games played in the locker rooms, and that suggests that I must've been saying something. I'm just not sure what.
In the end, I think we were effervescing in the last session of the Mountain Witch game, too. By the time it started, I was happy-excited rather than anxious, lead into gold again. And I don't know how much of this was due to me expressing anxiety ahead of time, but the atmosphere was warm and energetic, everyone grooving off of what everyone else was doing. My character had been ready to sacrifice everything she was for her husband (played by Paul as GM), but when I found that she couldn't escape having to kill him a second time anyway, Ted bought narration to describe how it happened. It was neat how other people helped in telling my story, picking up details that I'd specified earlier and using them well -- meaning I didn't feel deprotagonized. I felt affirmed.
So it turns out I'm not alone after all. Once again, I am dense, because Ted-Paul-Roy have always been there and all of them have done things to support my play, especially Paul as GM. Where I am now is being fascinated with ways that people can support other people's stories, since historically I'm clueless about that, too. It's a semi-predictable fascination, since it's also the trajectory of the games we've been playing lately, namely Prime Time Adventures, Polaris, and Penny For My Thoughts. There are less reproducible techniques, too, and the best example I can think of is playing Polaris by lantern light in the damp clinging cold at Nerdly Beach Party, when Nancy narrated to me that with each of the Solaris knight's words it grew colder. And macklinr and Paul bent over the table to breathe out puffs of steam.
That's where this entry should end, but of course writing the previous section also got me thinking about what sorts of space for expression are and aren't available in the current game, and here's part of what I came up with:
As I wrote in the old entry referenced above, most of my gaming in college – at least the stuff worth remembering – was about enchanting place. It's part of what Ken recently called adventurous expectancy, following Lovecraft. The interpretive practice that enchanted place didn't necessarily add any particular meaning to things; what it did was give certain sorts of details significance, like you could feel them pointing to something beyond themselves without being able to say what. I remember running into this difficulty one time on a walking tour of Chicago, when the guide pointed out the grid that extended through the plaza between the federal buildings and then through the buildings themselves. I utterly failed to explain to my family why that was neat. But when I told Ted later, his reaction was something close to, "Cool. I'll have to remember that. Might be useful." The Unknown Armies campaign was over by then, but the interpretive practice of enchanting place extended through our larger group of friends and beyond the gaming per se.
The sort of gaming we're doing now mostly enchants character for me. I mean, when I hear stories about people in certain kinds of messy situations, I say "ooh" in a way that's different than I would've said it before, because suddenly I'm imagining that situation through the lens of my recently acquired gaming sensibilities. I can tell I'm not the only one for whom roleplaying enchants character dilemmas, because it permeates Knife Fight's "I am not my identity" category, which often reads like real versions of the sorts of situations that show up in the games we play. Whether many of us were also dealing in discourses that enchanted character before we started playing (say, some kinds of neopaganism and theater) isn't relevant for my point here; all I want to say is that roleplaying's reinforcing them. Oh right, my point:
The collective interpretive practices that help determine what's awesome and effervescent in our current game don't extend to our group outside the game. That is, there isn't a space around the game now that's equivalent to the one around the games in Chicago. As a group, we tell emotional stories about what makes our characters tick; outside of the game, our group dynamics are such that all four of us tend to downplay emotion and mostly not talk about what makes us tick ourselves. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, and I can see arguments for it being a good thing. But in either case, sometimes it's a weird thing. Partly it's the effervescence messing with me again. Durkheim's effervescence is a lot like Victor Turner's concept of communitas; they're about creating a sense of closeness as a group that isn't based on the same things closeness would otherwise be based on.