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Ritual and Gaming/Game Design

Started by Meguey, September 01, 2005, 05:06:36 PM

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All the recent discussion in Actual Play of Dogs, Under the Bed, Barbaren, and Bacchanal got me thinking. Here's what I thought:

I have been creating ritual for groups from two to 20+ for about 20 years. I am a professional facilitator and ritual designer for MotherWoman!. MotherWoman! is a local non-profit specifically designed to help women (and men) access and process the full range of emotions that arise in parenting, especially those that are frightening, uncomfortable, most deeply buried, and that stem from old wounds. Taking people into the darkest places of their psyche, allowing and facilitating them as they face and own their own pain, fear and strength, and helping them heal and integrate is something I do well. The issues brought up in gaming may not be less than those brought up in parenting, but they certainly are not more.

I'm sure we all have an idea of what a ritual is. We all partake of several every day, to larger and smaller degrees.  Ritual that I want to discuss in the framework of gaming is not habit (brushing your top teeth first, then the bottom), not superstitious behavior (always cracking your knuckles once before turning on the computer so as to avoid blue screen error), and not massive social rites (weddings, etc.) I want to talk about the more private, personal or small group ritual with a set purpose.

Why this matters:
When we attempt to create games (or play them) with any consciousness about the real person, any desire to experience deep and possibly lasting insight or effect, we are, to some degree, performing ritual. If we neglect a portion of the ritual process, we run the risk of actual emotional damage. I'm not saying we can't design and play games that challenge and push and pull, I'm saying if we are going to design and play such games, we need to do so consciously. There are clear steps and stages in ritual, and they form a container for the events within. Given a container, amazing things and astonishing play can happen.

First, take a minute to examine the ritual already existing in what we do. The primary thing is time. We set aside time to do this thing which is out of our ordinary daily life. We may even have a steady, habitual block of time dedicated to gaming. Depending on personal habits, we may have a habitual space or room we game in, and we may clean it, pull in chairs, set up props, or other things to change it from its regular purpose or refine its purpose to the work of the evening. The next big thing is food. In your group, what are the food rituals? Do you divvy up who brings what? Can you just count on one member to always bring the beer/chips/bread? In our group, cooking and eating food together is an important part of the experience. In others, it's the break to order pizza mid-way through the evening. Some groups have cookies that get ritually handed out as spiffs by the GM. We gather together the ritual tools we will need for the task: paper, pens, dice, tokens, chips, etc. Sometimes there's one person holding all the responsibility for all of the above, sometimes it's shared around. It doesn't have to look smooth; sometimes part of the ritual is the irritating scrabble to find supplies, "What have we got to drink around here?" or waiting for the habitually late member.

Then there's a second section to examine: what we do in actual play. The act of filling in or pulling out a character sheet is ritual. Some games make this very explicit: the KPFS character begins with "get a piece of paper. write 'i kill puppies for satan' across the top" This is a different approach than many, which start with "Write your character's name at the top", and the act of restating "i kill puppies for satan" helps to cement the notion that one is now in a different, non-standard time and place. When that KPFS sheet gets brought out in subsequent sessions, it acts as a reminder of that first dramatic step out of regular time and space.

Other things we do in play that we could consider ritual are the dice rolls or other conflict resolution devices, the way that attention is more solidly given to people in turn, referring to previous sessions notes, and the now-standard 'finger wiggle' which means 'fan-mail for you', even if we have no tokens and even if we are not playing PTA.

There are certain definable elements that transform a conversation or a social gathering into a ritual:

Intentional - There is a purpose for the gathering. This goes beyond the "it's game night" surface purpose. Games in which pushing people into new and unfamiliar or uncomfortable emotional territory is an up-front part of the design have Intention. Examples are KPFS, Dogs in the Vineyard, Bacchanal, and Death's Door. Each of these has something way beyond "rocking good time" as the Intention.

If the Intent breaks down, the game doesn't go deep and stays at the "it's game night, let's pound on things" level. Which is fine, sometimes. Also, if the Intent breaks down, the point of the game is unclear and there's a lot more confusion about why the characters are doing what they are doing, even if the game is rolling along. It's as if there is no motive at the heart of the game other than "solve this problem."

Contained - There is a definite opening, middle, and closing, with the opening and closing holding space for the middle. This container is what allows people the safety net to go into the deeper places. I explicitly Do Not mean that no one will be emotionally triggered or even wounded, I mean that they will be supported into and out of the experience in ways that foster positive integration of the experience.  Using a concrete thing as a marker of Containment is common and easy; a candle, a song, an object passed from person to person, a ball of string, a reading or a description of entering and leaving ritual or game space.  Anything that can be easily repeated at the end or shows a distinct change in state (lit/unlit, open/closed) to define the space and time in the middle will help Containment.

Contained means for each session as well as for the campaign. Polaris does this beautifully with the ritual lighting and snuffing of the candle, and also the "And so it was" and goes so far as to flat-out name it as ritual phrasing. Any game that is overt about the support of the players has at least some Containment. Bacchanal has it in stating that one should play with people one trusts. Dogs in the Vineyard has it in the 'structure of play' section, where it solidly and completely supports the GM and players. Death's Door has it on page two, with vivid clarity. Bacchanal has it in the physical setting, the ritual dividing of the dice, and the way the dice bring about the end-game. Games with a closed-loop style, with clear ending conditions, may well generally have better Containment than open-ended games.

If Containment breaks down, the emotional content of the game spills over into regular life. Part of the containment process may be the hanging out for an hour or two after the game, but if that hanging out is spent on decompressing and it still feels tense and awkward and painful, you've probably had Containment breach. Containment in games is apparently much harder to do on a tight time schedule, and no surprise there; if you're doing a 2-hour one-shot of a game that drives people towards difficult emotional content or dilemma, watch your Containment carefully.

Conscious - Participants have awareness that they will be entering out-of-normal time and space. This can be as simple as a well-written, well-understood piece by the author giving the players a clear heads-up about where the game is going. Sorcerery has this right on the cover – 'An Intense Role-Playing Game' – and backs it up with the questions in 'The Heart of the game'.  Bacchanal definitely has this, on the second-to-last page. Any game that depends on solid player buy-in to the concept is at least semi-Conscious.

Some of the biggest aids to this sort of Consciousness are props. That can be a soundtrack made for the game, some sort of decoration the GM brings to the table (I particularly remember a broken wine glass on a sheet of paper that had a splash of red watercolor and some burnt matches setting the tone), specific dice requirements. The wineglasses and special dice of Bacchanal are great for this. The Polaris candle provides both a focus for Consciousness and a good Containment marker.

Also at issue here is the Conscious part of the player. If you come into a game saying "Ok, I want to deal with issues around fatherhood in this campaign" or "This kick-butt chick is how I'm dealing with my issues about women" or "Rape scares me deeply. I'm going to possibly face that coming up in play, and I'm aware of that", you've got Consciousness. Hopefully you have combined it with Intent and selected a game that will help you in your goals. Being aware of where the game falls in relation to the 'superfamilies' Ron Edwards mentions here, and of what type of game is being played, as Andrew Cooper described here, will help Consciousness.

If Consciousness breaks down, it can result in clashing players, because one has Consciousness about the game and has not been clear with the others. It can result in players feeling blindsided by a game or GM that they were not expecting. It can result in characters that are stereotypes and stock tropes instead of full characters with depth and weight. It can result in the Intent of the game being derailed.

Creative – Participants are not spectators; they bring their creative energies to bear. In gaming, this is often so very verbal. To bring the ritual aspect forward, bring in anything physical: standing up and demonstrating "So, I'm standing here, and the guy's down on the floor like this"; shifting body posture, voice, or adding little character 'tells'; even some mechanical procedures, especially fan-mail and other 'I re-enforce your Creativity' methods. The old idea of character sketches can be Creative.

If Creativity breaks down, you get rampant digression of the "so, how's that new lawn mower of yours" type. The players are not showing up for each other and not taking part in the joint creative process. Digressions that are spin-outs of the game, further detailing of the scenes, adding backstory, may add to Creativity, but may break Intent and may distract from Consciousness. Creativity can also be broken when there is too little room for the players to enact their Consciousness, and too little player, scene, or game flexibility. The final breakdown of Creativity is players being heavily railroaded, but by then everything else is shot, too.

Action – Something happens, either during, or as a result of, the ritual, either externally or internally. Ritual and gaming are not passive. Action 'during' can be authentic movement, various physical activities used in ritual, writing, and physically releasing an object or a piece of writing are examples in ritual; in gaming, think writing, the energy that flies between players, the described action, and the physical and emotional responses of the players. In Action as a 'result', it might be anything from thinking deeply, to writing a letter to a congressperson, to confronting a parent, to quiting smoking. Most importantly, in both cases, Action shows up in the reflection, motivation, and shift in how one is in the regular world. When someone emerges from a game or session thinking differently about some aspect of themselves or the world, especially if it comes from having touched something deep and it alters their basic understanding and behavior, Action has been fulfilled.

If Action breaks down, the players do not engage. Described action is flat, players are physically lax, and nothing seems to be moving about the game. One or few players may feel as though they are pulling the game along by strength of will. If no one comes away from the game saying "Wow, that made me think about ___", Action has broken down.

I will happily give examples of contained and uncontained rituals and/or games if there is a need or if asked, but I think they distract from this particular essay.

When we are in ritual space, there is a neurological "spillover" that happens, and often this results in a 'shiver' or some similar physiological reaction. Some people can get that from meditation, dance, sex, or other places. I think we can and do get that level of whole brain-whole body experience from gaming.

Ritual has a definite pattern, and if a part of the pattern is missing, the ritual will feel hollow, incomplete, or simply not work. It's an X or hourglass shape, and it flows like this.

(For those who have read Emily Care's post game design and psychology, this will look slightly familiar. The intensity of the experience builds and deepens towards the middle, Work, then eases again as the experience moves to release.)

Welcome – Hello, housekeeping issues, Intent.
Gathering – Guidelines to establish Container, this is where we're going, Intent.
Journey Inward – Out-of-normal Activity to connect and focus Consciousness to Intent; can be singing, drumming, guided meditation, prayer, fasting, often internal.
Work – Creative Activity with Consciousness and Intent; can be meditative, physical, symbolic, mythic, energetic, usually expressive in some way.
Return – Incorporate experience back into Intent; how did the work leave me changed, look more at the bigger picture, make Conscious connections with Actions that may be indicated by the experience.
Celebration – Reconnecting with community, sharing experiences or lessons learned, processing.
Release – Conscious recognition of returning to regular time and space, make sure everyone is fully ready to return, Intentionally ending ritual and releasing Container of time and space. Often there is food shared here, as it builds community and helps ground people in the physical, present world.

Game Play:
Welcome – Hang out/Catch up/Check in with each other, intro or restate Intent of game.
Gathering – Create Container by getting out tools, sheets, etc, and by discussing or restating boundaries, recap last session. This is where the players decide if they feel safe enough to push themselves.
Journey Inward – Begin play, light scenes keeping Conscious of Intent and boundaries, push your character deeper.
Work – More intense scenes, deeply Conscious of character, addressing issues you bring to the Intent, addressing personal issues – what do you learn about yourself in this space? This work can be in different scenes for different people.
Return – Lighter scenes, resolution, experience allocation, resource management, changes in character concept as a result of play, plans for next time.
Celebration – Share experiences, rehash, and hang out.
Release – Check out, make sure everyone is fully ready to wrap-up, pack up tools and open Container, stretch, eat, schedule next session.

Game Text:
Welcome – Introduction of the game, Intent of the game, definitely under a page long
Gathering – Boundaries, Lines, Veils form Container; this is where this game can push you, this is how to keep yourself safe so you can be pushed. In writing the game, it's a good idea to mention how to open the Container up at the end at this stage as well.
Journey Inward - Out-of-normal Activity to connect Consciousness to Intent; setting and character design, mechanics.
Work - Creative Activity with Consciousness and Intent; how you play this game, support for the players, conflict resolution, experience allocation, resource management, where the buttons are and how/when to push them, maybe actual play descriptions.
Return – Recap rules and how they support play, actual play descriptions, any play aids.
Celebration – Actual play if relevant, pre-made characters, "what I hope you get out of my game", which touches back to Intent and is as close as the designer can get to sharing experiences with the player.
Release – Thanks, designer's notes, acknowledgements, ads for other games.

Notice that, in Text, I listed the Container right at the beginning. In a game that is intended to push people towards a deeper experience, having that up front is critical. I think our Bacchanal game would have been smoother with the Container of "play this with people you trust" in the first two pages instead of the last two.

Not all gaming is ritual. Sometimes the whole point is just to get together and hang out. Sometimes the gaming is the excuse to have a regular social date with friends. There is plenty of gaming that doesn't need this sort of attention, or needs only light, passing awareness. A lot of great gaming can happen when the Intent is hanging out and having fun, the Container is just the presence of the players and whatever tools they want, Consciousness is just that everyone's on the same page as to what game is at hand, Creativity is all good, and Action is simply that everyone leaves feeling like they had a great time, and all of it is not even done consciously.

Some gaming creates well-integrated, lasting emotional effects without intentionality on the part of the designer or players.  Gaming can bring people closer, and drive them deeper, just by giving them a place to explore.  This can happen in any game. My point in writing this is to raise questions and perhaps provide language about how we can approach gaming on a different, more intentional level, and do so in ways we all come out feeling richer by it.



Exactly. Seth's actual play is a near-perfect example of several of my points. Thanks, Vincent.

Christoph Boeckle

I have nothing constructive to say except that this read rocked some serious socks and got me thinking about lot's of aspects I have more or less neglected. Thanks for the great read!

Christoph Boeckle

While we're talking about rituals, does anybody know what Chris Lehrich is up to? Haven't "seen" him in a long time.
There are some things I'd still like to hear more about (Bricolage especially).

Sorry for hijacking this thread, but it's somewhat connected.


Hi Meguey,

You also might want to read Ritual Discourse in Role-Playing Games by Clehrich (Chris Lehrich) in the Article section.  The article and your thread intersect in a large number of ways.  I hope it is helpful to you!

Artanis - Chris is writing a book right now and should be back in about a month.
Aure Entuluva - Day shall come again.



Jay, Christoph - Yes, I've read that post/thread. Thanks for providing the link.

Jason Lee

Hey, I wanted to ask about this:

QuoteWhen we are in ritual space, there is a neurological "spillover" that happens, and often this results in a 'shiver' or some similar physiological reaction. Some people can get that from meditation, dance, sex, or other places. I think we can and do get that level of whole brain-whole body experience from gaming.

Can you explain how/why this happens at all?  It's rather foreign to me.  Perhaps simply because of how I react, perhaps because I just haven't noticed, or perhaps because my largest exposure to ritual is martial arts wherein the intention is to make that mind-body connection mundane.

- Cruciel

Josh Roby

Meguey, I think you're absolutely right, and I think if we talked about all of these things so explicitly to (say) mothers of thirteen-year-old potential gamers, they'd freak the hell out.  Gaming is very much a ritual, and is very much about altered states of consciousness, but in order to make it socially acceptable, we gloss over a lot of these steps or we hide them behind other things.  Gaming becomes 'stealth ritual'.  Can you perhaps talk about how gaming hides its ritual trappings in inocuous facades?
On Sale: Full Light, Full Steam and Sons of Liberty | Developing: Agora | My Blog


Quote from: Joshua BishopRoby on September 01, 2005, 11:37:11 PM
Meguey, I think you're absolutely right, and I think if we talked about all of these things so explicitly to (say) mothers of thirteen-year-old potential gamers, they'd freak the hell out.  Gaming is very much a ritual, and is very much about altered states of consciousness, but in order to make it socially acceptable, we gloss over a lot of these steps or we hide them behind other things.  Gaming becomes 'stealth ritual'.  Can you perhaps talk about how gaming hides its ritual trappings in inocuous facades?

Everything hides its ritual.

What's that saying?  "If fish were anthropologists the last thing they would write about would be water."

Before you go to a football game you eat, have a tailgate party, some two-hand touch football.  RITUAL.

Before you bowl you have a few beers with the fellas.  RITUAL.

Before you play with your band you tune your instrument together and talk about great shows you've seen.  RITUAL.

Its all around us.  As a hobby, gaming isn't the only one.

But I think it is great that games like Polaris have made the ritual a part of the game, part of the game mechanics.

That's neat.

Ben Lehman

Meg --

   Thanks a lot of writing this article.  It's a really good outline of exactly what these muzzy, ad hoc rituals of ours are doing, why they're doing it, and I think I see serious glimmers of how we can do it better.
   I only wish I had read it before I published Polaris!


Adam Dray

This is remarkably similar to ritual in BDSM (alternate sexuality) scene play. Wow. Especially the bits about Containment and spillover into "real life" and the need for decompression/aftercare. Very cool.
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777


Adam: This ritual format will be structurally identical across nearly any activity that brings people out of the familiar, pushes them to interact, and then returns them safely.  I have a suspicion that if you showed Meg's hourglass to a clinical phsychologist they would be nodding "yup, that's what I do."

Joshua: I don't think it's as bad as all that.  Most games and gaming never fall into this space where they need the framework to be consistently safe.  Most games that do, seem to have it.  Also, Meg's done a very good job of putting this is plain language, and speaking as a parent, an article like this would actually go a long way towards easing concerns for most people.  It's not going to do any good with the 'already inclined to freak out crowd', but many of those types of people are only really looking for an excuse.

Jason: I can speak to this, a bit, having also put a fair amount of time over the years into martial rituals.  The sense of peace that settles in when you enter the training space, the little 'jump-jump' of adrenalin right before a contest, the sense of 'awareness' that some martial artists talk about are all examples of Meg's 'similar physiological reaction'.  It's the body reacting to the deliberate state of the mind.

Like Ben, I wish I had put more thought into building the ritual completely for Death's Door.  There's some strong components there, but I've neglected to properly guide people back out of the places they can go.
Fortunately, I've got more games on the go that have Intent. :)

I write games. My games don't have much in common with each other, except that I wrote them.

Emily Care

Great article, Meg! 

Quote from: Jason Lee on September 01, 2005, 10:36:41 PMCan you explain how/why this happens at all?  It's rather foreign to me.  Perhaps simply because of how I react, perhaps because I just haven't noticed, or perhaps because my largest exposure to ritual is martial arts wherein the intention is to make that mind-body connection mundane.

Hey Jason,

You're asking about what Meg calls the "spillover", when ritual comes together & gives you an emotional/physiological response. There was a passage in Seth's post about his group playing Polaris that describes this feeling to the tee:

QuoteHonestly, I had thought that it was a little odd to use the "character intro" phrase at the end of chargen.  However, once we had put together our characters, we went around the room, each repeating the phrase.  Again, I went first: "But hope was not yet lost, for Na'ir al-Saif still heard the song of the stars."  And at that moment, I felt something stir in me.  The world is coming to an end, but here is one who will not go down quietly.  I could tell the others felt it as well.  As we went around the room, each character's name rang out like some mythic hero.  The knowledge that only tragedy awaits each of them only added to the poignancy of the moment.

I commented to Ralph yesterday that, from the outside, it all feels so silly, saying these special words.  Yet, it works, and it's almost frightening how powerful it is.

I get that shiver I get when I'm moved, just from reading about it. These are powerful tools.

Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games


Wonderful article - thank you so much. If it's not outside the scope of the Forge, could you recommend any books / publications on the creation of ritual? Many thanks.