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Author Topic: In a Feral Age. . .playing fluently with trackers  (Read 2442 times)
Joel P. Shempert
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« on: October 04, 2009, 10:55:55 PM »

A couple of weeks ago I ran a storyjamming* workshop for TrackersNW, an organization that teaches wilderness skills and encourages a primitive lifestyle (I've blogged about the general emotional tenor of the experience here. I was asked specifically to teach the Trackers how to contextualize their experiences in the wild into story and myth. It was a great opportunity to get paid for doing something I love, but more than that, it was the perfect chance to put the Fluency Play model to the test.

I've written about this on my Blog and on Story-games, recently. Fluency is about working through levels of complexity organically, bit by bit, rather than dumping a whole ton of rules and technique on players at once. As such, it was a perfect fit for a bunch of back to nature types who want to tell stories around a campfire at the edge of Mt. Hood National Forest.

The system I employed was heavily modified In a Wicked Age, adapted for the fireside--cutting out character sheets, dice, Forms and Particular Strengths. What you have left is Oracles, Best Interests, and card draws for conflict. You draw a card, +1 for following a Best Interest, and compare highest card. The three rounds of conflict with shifting Advantage still stand, with Negotiation afterward. "Injury" now means giving up a Best Interest. I bolstered the procedures with methods from Evan Gardner's language fluency game, Where Are Your Keys? in order to facilitate a seamless experience with little to no brow-furrowing over rules or complex concepts.

We first created Oracle elements based on the Trackersí own experiences in the woods that week. For instance any animals or animal signs spotted in the woods became rich oracle fodder. It was a little awkward putting them on the spot, but once the first person spoke up the elements really poured out. I prompted occasionally to make sure an Element had dynamic features, but it was pretty much all them.

I got 4 volunteers to play the main game, with others hanging around to watch. (Where Are Your Keys? has a Technique called "Lunatic fringe" where you engage onlookers to bolster main play of the game. I tried to utilize this, but honestly, did it poorly. I intended to assign bit parts to the "fringe," but was hampered by the fact that it was just principal actors on the stage for the bulk of our early scenes.)

The Oracles we drew were, "A hunter, fleeing through the forest, is stabbed through the foot with a thistle," "A family of foxes, preparing for a party, make mischief in the woods," "A flask of water, drawn from a sacred spring, will bring healing to the first one to drink of it," and "The rising sun brings peace and good cheer to all." That last was supplied by a fellow who saw that most of the elements were turning out dark and foreboding. From that clay we formed the player characters: Old John the Hunter, hounded by the spirit of his ancestor, Best Interest--to escape from the forest, I think. Lord Baltimore the Fox, charming and mischievous prince of his clan, and illicit lover of a young he-beaver, prince of his clan, Best Interest--to drive the humans from the forest. Illiana, proud old matron of her village, laid low with an infection, Best Interest--to receive the healing water. Donny the vagabond, bearing the flask of water through lands unknown to him, Best Interest--to keep safe the water. I'm afraid I don't remember the participants names at this point; wish I'd written them down.

Actual Play:

We began with Old John, momentarily hobbled by a thistle, being tormented by the ghost with the young fox looking on. The ancestral spirit had died in torment and could not have its rest until its descendant, John, built it a shrine that very night! John protested, but set about his dreadful task. Lord Baltimore determined that these pesky humans disturbing the forest's peace must be stopped, and called on his Beaver lover in the middle of the night to aid in his plan. Meanwhile, Donny, hastening through the wood was confronted by a watchman of a rival village to Illiana's, who demanded tribute of the vagrant, and when he learned of the sacred water, coveted that. He led Donny to his village.

Lord Baltimore and his Lover, Van Eyck, went to call on Illiana, the one human sympathetic to beast folk. They snuck into her bedchamber where she lay ill, but Illiana's overprotective adult son laid hold of them and was going to cage them and skin them. Illiana spoke up commandingly from her bed, and forbid him to harm them. I then introduced the technique, Conflict! with the ritual phrase, "Oh No You Don't!" and we each drew a card to see which character got their way. Illiana lost, so the animals were thrown into cages. Illiana got her son to leave on some ruse, ten freed the fox and beaver and struck an agreement with them: she would help them if they could get her healing water.

The village guard brought Donny to his house, and I said that he was trying to snatch the flask from Donny. I fixed Donny's player with a look until he went "oh!" and declared, "Oh No You Don't!" So we had our second conflict. This time I added a technique: when acting in your Best Interest, draw an extra card. Even with two cards, Donny lost, so the man seized the water and left him locked out on the porch. Baltimore and Van Eyck, though, stole the flask back and fled to the other village, Donny giving chase.

Meanwhile Old John was feverishly toiling at his shrine, but fearing to remain in the haunted forest any longer, was approached by the great Beaver Patriarch, who, furious that his son was out cavorting with that rapacious fox, struck a deal with the old hunter to build his shrine for him, in exchange for hunting and killing the Fox Prince. Thus agreed, John set out on the fox's trail.

Everyone converged on Illiana's house for the final scene. the animal lovers brought the old woman her water, with Donny arriving too late protesting that the water was his. Old John entered pursuing Lord Baltimore, but face to face with Illiana, it was discovered that they were old lovers, long separated. Illiana's family burst in, only to see their matron spring up, healed, and embrace her old love. The Beaver father arrived, his labors complete, and saw the animal youths together and happy. And at that moment the dawn broke, melting the old Beaver's heart, and inspiring forgiveness and mending of grudges in the hearts of all. The tale ended on a note of reconciliation and the promise that all could coexist in the valley, but of course Lord Baltimore and his Beaver beau would have plenty more mischief in store.

Analysis:

Throughout play I marked out techniques so everyone would understand what they were doing and hopefully be able to duplicate it--everything from "scene framing" to "first time, describe your character." I got a lot of positive feedback immediately after the game. "Those are really great techniques." "That was just enough structure." "I always wanted to tell stories but didnít know how, until now." This all told me I was doing my job. I found the experience of jamming with these people nearly effortless; they all caught on to what to do and how to do it (and do it well) almost instantly. Lord Baltimore's player was fantastic--she stepped up boldly with an audacious and memorable character, leapt eagerly into conflict, deftly linked different PCs' scenes together with a great sense of "oh, and then MY character shows up THERE and fucks shit up," and was the first to frame her own scene, which I made sure to mark out for everyone--sure, at first the Guide provides a lot of direction, but then ALL the players can start providing scene ideas! Not that the other players were slouches, either. They were great, like I said--accepting, eager, and quick studies.

The only rough patches were: using the "fringe" for bit parts was, as I said, awkward; by the time we had a scene with an "extra" character (since I still needed to use main NPCs to drive conflict as a Guide) to assign, there was one extra guy hanging around. I assigned him Illyana's little granddaughter, and he gamely supplied a few lines, but it didn't go anywhere. Also, one of the PCs, Donny the water-bearer, didn't get the focus and fleshing out that the others did--I mean, nobody had, like, an extensive biography (all well and good for IaWA), but Donny was a complete blank slate. Why did he obtain the spring water? Where does he come from and where is he going? WHy must he keep the water safe? Donny's player ably directed him in casual dialogue and in pursuit of conflict via his Best Interest, but it didn't go beyond that. I'd like to work lout some techniques for drawing out a player in that circumstance.

The Fluency Method worked like a charm. It has an amazing ability to adapt itself to the needs of a group, time and place. No table, no lighting? Then fine, no dice, no character sheets. Experienced players? go fast, work high on the technique ladder. New players? Take it slow. We worked our way about a third up the total ladder of complexity levels tat I had planned, but we did it smoothly, and with complete fluency at the level we were at, leaving no one behind. Higher levels can come as we're ready for them. With fluency, learning is play, so you're always playing.

Peace,
-Joel

*"Storyjamming" is a term coined by Willem Larsen, meant to reflect a particular approach to collaborative storytelling not well-represented by some of the baggage of roleplaying. It extends Ron Edwards' "Bass Player" metaphor for Sorcerer GMing to liken the whole of roleplaying to a band, "jamming." The main elements are a focus on maximizing narrative flow, vividly shared dreamspace, and a fairly equitable apportioning of narrative Authority. If any of that sounds confusing, "Roleplaying" is still a perfectly serviceable approximation in my book.
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Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.
Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #1 on: October 05, 2009, 10:01:01 AM »

Joel, can you share the technique ladder that you used?  I'm curious about how you organize techniques, since many strike me as situational, temporal, or otherwise very relative.  This is really interesting stuff! 
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Joel P. Shempert
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« Reply #2 on: October 06, 2009, 10:28:21 AM »

Jason, thanks for the interest!

The "roadmap" is a little tricky to talk about, since as I said the one I presented to the trackers was vaguer than I wanted, by necessity of preparation. I'd like to develop roadmaps that are tailored to a particular game. But in any case, the technique as originally used in Where are Your Keys? is called "Travels With Charlie" (the language fluency levels corresponding to Barney, Sesame Street, Larry King and Charlie Rose), and consists of holding your hand out as if it's a map you're studying, and pointing to each finger from lowest to highest. You label each "rung" on the ladder, so I marked out the four levels as 1) talking in front of the group, 2) narrating actions and dialogue, 3) framing scenes and advanced structure, and 4) deliberate creation of theme and meaning. This both demonstrates to players that the techniques they're taking on are working toward a purpose, AND reassures them that they won't be expected to produce sophisticated content right out of the gate. Of course the secret is, though we didn't really progress to "advanced" techniques explicitly, their deft use of the basic techniques produced plenty of complex structure and satisfying theme, without anyone consciously gunning for it!

But your question about how I organize techniques is broader than the actual roadmap/travels with Charlie presentation. What I did was think through what techniques had an obvious primacy over others--you've got to have a character before you can assign them Best Interests, for instance. I actually wrote techniques out on 3 by 5 cards and put them on key rings in related groupings, to help me keep things straight. There were some that needed to be revealed at certain times (Best Interests during character creation, and so on), but others could just kind of be held at the ready to be sprung when the time felt right--both an opportunity to demonstrate and a general readiness in the group, which you just have to sorta feel out. It worked well, and I managed to present most of the major techniques I was shooting for.

Does that give you a clear picture?

Peace,
-Joel
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Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.
Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #3 on: October 07, 2009, 06:13:47 AM »

Can you break it down?  What was the title of each card in your card-ring?  How many cards were there?  I know IAWA well enough to guess, but I'm interested in the level of granularity you are talking about when you say "technique". 

The language learning thing is a total mystery to me - I visited the site and it didn't make any sense. 

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Joel P. Shempert
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« Reply #4 on: October 07, 2009, 09:10:40 PM »

Sure, Jason--I figured you'd be wanting that, but didn't have the time yesterday. So I've dug out my cards, and this is what I've got;

Foundation
   Guide establishing the principle that I have a special role in walking us through the process, and in "GMing"
   Be Obvious involves playing word-association to practice saying the first thing that comes to mind, AND serves as a reminder whenever someone's stuck
   Yes, And play a game telling a story around the circle with "yes, and" statements to practice building on each other's contributions

Situation
   Oracle Situation generator, from IaWA of course
   Motion, Tension, Questions qualities to focus on for a good Oracle element
   Characters pulling characters out of the Oracle draw
   Best Interests Assigning them and aiming them at each other
   Don't Plan keeping things loosely sketched and not "playing before play"

Scene Framing
   Where? Who? What are they doing?
   Zoom In IaWA instructions for framing the first scene
   "In This ____ Age. . ." ritual phrase for beginning and ending the play session
   Begin with a Meeting IaWA first scene procedure, again

Narration

   First Time, Describe IaWA principle for introducing characters
   Add One Detail IaWA methodology for describing brief but evocative actions
   Status guiding principle for character interaction, from Graham Walmsley's Play Unsafe

Conflict

   "Oh No, You Don't!" ritual phrase for initiating conflict
   Draw a Card method for deciding advantage
   Negotiate post-conflict bartering over outcome, based on advantage

Now, notice that the "conflict" bundle leaves out a bunch of steps. That's because i was pressed for time, and wasn't sure how far up[the complexity level we would get anyway. Since the cards were for me and all my instruction was oral, I could get away with that, knowing the procedures well enough that I could add them in as needed. Turns out I did add in "Draw an extra card for best Interests," and DIDN'T actually use "Negotiate." That's the way the fluency cookie crumbles. It's very adaptive and serves the needs of the moment.

Other techniques that I didn't explicitly mark out: "Zoom In," Begin with a meeting," "Add one detail," "status." The first two I definitely DID, framing that opening scene. But I decided not to call attention to it, in the interests of time based on how the evening was going. And the second two are great scaffoldings on which to hang narration, but the players were doing fine without them so i skipped it. Tons of status relationships and "just enough" narration emerged naturally, so why interrupt game flow to waggle my finger about it? Again, adaptive.

One thing that's important for the teaching angle (if you want folks to be able to do it without you present, or at least without you leading) is to mark out the techniques with some kind of memorable signal. I used sign language (a technique from WaYK), since that was best for a campfire at dusk. In an indoor setting the index cards would form their own markers. I'd probably actually use both if I could help it, and get people to repeat the word and sign for reinforcement.

So how's that look to you, Jason? I'm sorry the Where Are Your Keys site is confusing for you. It's a tricky thing to learn online since it's conveyed best by playing it--hence all the instruction on the blog is in video. If you go to the section, Learn WAYK Now! there's a walkthrough, with videos to watch in order that are the next best thing to playing it with Willem or Evan. Meantime all I can say is, it's nothing more or less than learning by doing. Picture, say, 4 people sitting at a table, with objects in front of them, like a pen, a rock, a stick, and keys. You say and sign basic things like "What's that" "That's a rock." "Whose rock?" "My rock," etc. adding in new words and concepts only as fluency develops. So once you've mastered "what" and "whose," you can tackle things like "can I have it?" or "do you like it?" Very much the same thing that one does with fluent play of a roleplaying game, in a different context.

Peace,
-Joel
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Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.
Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #5 on: October 08, 2009, 04:13:43 AM »

Thanks, that's exactly what I was curious about.  I appreciate you taking the time to lay it out.
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Joel P. Shempert
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« Reply #6 on: October 08, 2009, 08:14:26 AM »

Cool beans. Any impressions or observations?
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Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.
Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #7 on: October 09, 2009, 04:12:43 AM »

My impression is that you are systematizing procedures that must happen anyway, no judgment implied.  I like the idea of atomizing the various techniques for clarity, particularly the social ones. 

The WAYK videos appear to be teaching English to someone who already speaks English. 
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Joel P. Shempert
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« Reply #8 on: October 09, 2009, 09:20:25 AM »

My impression is that you are systematizing procedures that must happen anyway, no judgment implied.

You betcha! This is really more about recognizing the processes and being intentional about them, than it is about building anything new.

The WAYK videos appear to be teaching English to someone who already speaks English. 
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Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.
Joel P. Shempert
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Posts: 484


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« Reply #9 on: October 09, 2009, 12:40:02 PM »

Whoops! Hit "post" too soon! REDO:

My impression is that you are systematizing procedures that must happen anyway, no judgment implied.

You betcha! This is really more about recognizing the processes and being intentional about them, than it is about building anything new. This enables us to bring every player along in the process and, as I said, enable them to duplicate it for themselves.

The WAYK videos appear to be teaching English to someone who already speaks English. 

Actually, they're teaching American Sign language. But that's only the first step. Once you've learned the signs and welded them to English, they then act like a bridge to other languages. Want to learn Chinese? Play a round of WAYK in English until that set of signs is second nature, THEN play a round in Chinese using those signs. Which is exactly what Jake Richmond and Ben Lehman did with Evan awhile back (You can see an excerpt of the English-language portion in the "Technique: Obviously" video).

But in any case, the main relevance to gaming is, I think, the general learning-process principles WAYK espouses--Be obvious, group concepts conceptually, repeat techniques until they're second nature, and so on.

Peace,
-Joel
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Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.
JoyWriter
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also known as Josh W


« Reply #10 on: October 10, 2009, 04:13:58 PM »

Isn't lunatic fringe enabled by obviously though? In other words, because you see over the shoulder of who you are responding to, a few people doing the obvious response to that statement, you get cues how to respond. Feeding back in a case where the object is creative is a bit different, or is there a place for that kind of cue in this? Is there some component of obviousness in what people are being asked to create? It's easy to say "yes, because we're creating something shared", but there's a danger of moving those techniques from the concrete (the domain of "Where are your keys") to the abstract/symbolic one, because of conformity of thought and that kind of thing.

So I'm not just putting FUD on this though, I'll try to spread that out a bit; if I'm not mistaken WAYK uses physical objects and relationships between present people to build a functional basis in language. This creates patterns of talking that are pretty fixed, by virtue of their obviousness. Expanding that fixedness into relationships between things which are not present means requiring people to take as obvious all kinds of symbolism and stuff, a stance that many psychologists (or are the psychiatrists? I can't remember the difference) actively work against; "Is there another way to see that situation?" etc.

People who are trying to say the obvious are thankful for the help of others, people trying to express themselves can get annoyed at the second guessing.

Whereas I think everyone playing, all the time is a good principle that you might be able to work with, providing you make it easy for people to leave the game space when they want to.
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