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Author Topic: [The Dreaming Crucible] Trauma and celebration  (Read 1617 times)
Joel P. Shempert
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« on: May 25, 2011, 11:45:46 PM »

Trigger warning for rape and sexual abuse of children.

In the thread Poison'd: cooperative pirates, and fleshing out NPCs?, Ron addressed my struggles with hitting I Will Not Abandon You play in that game, and contrasted it with the clear IWNAY ethos of my own game of adolescent trauma fairy tales, The Dreaming Crucible. He said,

I would be greatly interested in reading about your experiences in playing the Dreaming Crucible, especially those which resulted in grim endings and how they came about in contrast to those which resulted in happy or maturation-type endings.

Well, sorry Ron! I set out to address your request, and ended up zeroing in on something more focused and personal about a set of play instances. Following this discussion I'll look toward doing a followup thread that compares and contrasts a swath of play, like you were asking. And so:

I played two sessions of The Dreaming Crucible recently, which both demonstrated powerfully the value of I Will Not Abandon You in play. The first was at the Portland area's Gamestorm Convention, with Lisa, a stranger, and Drew, a casual gaming acquaintance. I blogged about it here; to distill down two basic points from that post: 1) I found that when I presented the IWNAY principle, the players positively lit up (in contrast to a previous game at the same con, where the players merely politely nodded). I felt from that reaction that this play would be vulnerable and rewarding, and that we built an instant bond of trust. From that I speculate that the very act of explaining IWNAY can function as a sort of "trust test" by gauging the enthusiasm of the reaction, especially valuable in the unpredictable social situation of a con game. And 2) I made a spontaneous decision to put some personal material into the game--namely, playing an approximation of my own angry, condemning father from my childhood, as an antagonist--and it resulted, within the safe space created by that trust building, in a very personal and moving exploration of some close to the bone issues. I cried; we hugged, and friendships were formed and deepened.

*                              *                              *

So, Lisa was excited about her discovery of this new kind of "storytelling game"--though I hasten to add, as I said to her, that I call Crucible a Storytelling Game as a non-exclusive and overlapping label with "roleplaying game;" I feel that "storytelling" best captures the thrust of this game but don't want to make it an identity politics pose or anything. Anyway! So she bought the Crucible and ran it with her sister, and shortly thereafter she invited me over to play The Dreaming Crucible with a curious friend.

This second session with Lisa and her friend Alex was once again personal and moving. I noticed in the previous game that the most emotionally raw moments came at the beginning and end, in the scenes with the Hero's broken family, with the Faerie Quest being a welcome relief from that and lighthearted by comparison. So I resolved in this game to bring the pain and fears of the real world into the Faerie journey as much as possible. I also realized that the game is less emotionally engaging when one portrays the Faerie Nemesis as an impersonal force or brute beast, as in another con game with other players. Thus I decided to make the Nemesis very personal, to make them a character rather than a force.

In this game Lisa used the Seed A girl sits in the passenger seat of a car, dreading the return of her uncle from the liquor store and played the 14 year old HEROINE--I think her name was Susan--whose creepy uncle Rodney was out of work and living with the family, in a shack behind the house. Her parents were longsufferingly tolerating him "until he gets back on his feet,", and whenever they were away he would pressure her to  "have a drink, loosen up, learn to party, bring your little friends over," and so on. While relaxing in the park with her two friends and sharing her troubles, the earth shook and started swallowing everything in the park up into a massive sinkhole (Dark Faerie POWER: "insatiable hunger"). Her guy friend was sucked in, while she and her girl friend escaped, and found themselves still seemingly in their town, but deserted and ghostly.

They met a tall, nasty goblinish fellow who claimed to be the "caretaker" for the garden of King of Endless Hunger (the Faerie NEMESIS, created by me with the Seed A creature of pure stone, residing in a lonely place and nursing an ancient hunger). As he taunted them, it became clear that the "garden" was the city and the "crop" was its inhabitants, which the King preferred to consume when properly "seasoned" with emotions like fear and despair. The caretaker was confronted by Parthas, a wanderer from another world who had also been drawn into this shadow realm and sought a missing friend. This was Alex, playing the Companion with the Seed A brave, merry elfin lad, quick to make friends and eager to meet any danger.

I brought a new Power to bear: "The Pale Shadows," and the friends were hounded by ghostly whispers and apparitions of those they knew from the real world. Susan was lured to the counterpart of her own house, and to her bedroom, where the door closed and locked behind her, cutting her off from her companions, and she was assaulted by the shadow-form of her uncle.

I introduced this as a formal Peril, which means placing some Dark stones from the Power along with Light stones from a trait of the Heroine's into a bag, and presenting it to the Heroine player to pull a stone. If she draws a Light stone, she describes overcoming the Peril happily, but if she draws a Dark, the Dark Faerie player describes her passing through the Peril painfully and to her detriment.

Lisa drew a Dark Stone. I had a sudden sinking feeling as I realized I had just set Susan up to suffer horrible brutality, and now I was going to have to follow through. Without IWNAY, I could have never done it. I would have had to soft-pedal, or subvert the outcome into a not-defeat, or even stop playing. But I'd made a pact with Lisa and Alex to go to difficult places if that's where the story led, and not turn back. I knew what I had to do. The other players got up and refreshed their beverages while I sat there, preparing myself. When they sat down again, I spoke:

"Susan's shadow-Uncle pins her down, his form solid and etherial at the same time, as he flows all around her, his spirit-breath hissing in her ear. It's clearly rape, and she screams and screams, while he surrounds her, inhaling and drinking in her terror and sorrow, until...well, until she stops screaming."

There was an air of solemnity as I narrated. Lisa occasionally nodded an "mm-hmm," or "yes," affirming and accepting my input as the right thing to say, even as it was hard to say and hard to hear. I looked steadily at Lisa, with occasional glances at Alex, to make sure everyone was OK with what was happening. The mood around the table seemed to be "no, we don't like it, but we support it as the true and authentic thing to say."

Indeed, I had a duty to say it. the Dreaming Crucible's play principles are "Say What You See," "Live in the Moment," and "Lift One Another Up." If I flinched from describing this scene I wouldn't be saying what I saw. I'd be failing to treat the dream as a real thing with life and integrity. And I wouldn't be living in the moment; I'd in fact be forcibly wrenching myself out of the moment because what was happening in that space was too horrible to bear. And finally, I'd be failing to lift Lisa up, failing to honor the input she gave at the very beginning when she chose her Seed and fleshed it out in response to my questions. Lisa created Susan and her abusive fuck of an uncle, and I needed to honor, indeed celebrate what she saw and shared with us.

Celebrate. That sounds like such a wrong word to apply to what happened. But I'll stand by it. We DID celebrate, in a grim, heart-wrenching way, by surrendering to where the story led. I think my phrase "until she stops screaming" impacted us all strongly at the table--haunted us, in fact. It was exactly the right thing to say. And I celebrate that, much as I'm still shaken by what I narrated.

This scene fed wonderfully into the game's climax: Finally swallowed up by the earth, Susan confronted the King of Endless Hunger, a gigantic stone head, in his underground banquet hall. I played the King really heavy, delighting in the broken spirit of this girl who whose suffering would be so delicious to consume. But Lisa described Susan standing her ground: she refused to cower or quake, and faced him, chin up, dismissing his taunts, ready for the worst. The King was furious--his meal had been "seasoned" with defiance and hope, and the feast was spoiled! "Have you not been broken, tormented, humiliated?" he bellowed. "Why then do you not despair?"

"I don't know," said Susan. "I just don't."

It was beautiful, perfect. Susan was finding the strength to be a survivor in the face of her trauma, not overturning it or brushing it off, just being strong in spite of it. And then she turned the tables on the King, showing him that his own hunger was caused by a lack in himself, and causing him to revert to inert rock, in harmony with itself and the world, desiring nothing. And all the souls the King had consumed were freed.

*                              *                              *

Returning to her world, Susan found the courage to confront her parents and tell them she wanted uncle Rodney out of the house, and to strike up a relationship with her guy friend, now restored from the King's gullet. It was interesting that the trauma of the prologue never quite reached the point of actual abuse--the abuse happened in Faerie, through a shadow-proxy, but was no less real. It made the whole game more coherent, the middle of a piece with the beginning and end. It made the Journey mean more, and Susan's personal victories feel more earned.

After the game we retired to the living room to talk and decompress, and let the emotional tension dissipate a bit. After Alex and I left, Lisa tells me she talked with a friend to decompress some more--the incident was hard to take, even if she accepted it as right. She's shared with me that it might've helped if Alex, through the Companion Parthas, had offered more comfort in the fiction following the rape. As it was, Alex's input was a bit tentative--this was the first time he'd roleplayed in any form, and I'm honored that my game was his first--and he didn't really offer much response to the incident. This highlights a really important function of the Light Faerie role, which the text doesn't much address: providing emotional support when things turn ugly.

All in all, it was perhaps the most intense roleplaying I've ever done. I'm glad I did it. I'm glad I found a safe space where I could. If you'd told me ten years ago that I'd facilitate a game in which I describe the rape of a teenage female character with a female player, I couldn't imagine that resulting in anything dysfunction, hurt feelings and broken relationship. Now I look at it as one of the most precious acts of friendship in my life.

Peace,
-joel
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Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: May 26, 2011, 12:17:54 PM »

Whoo!

I'd read your blog account of the first game, and I'll tell you, it bugged me. It's because the account was so oriented toward personal therapy, not toward the production and enjoyment of fiction. 

But that second one is the right-on exact stuff, I mean, of the sort that you and I have directly and indirectly been discussing for a couple of years now. You and the others honored the material and made something good.

Maybe it was necessary for you to go through the first in order to get to the second. If so, then I'm sure glad you stuck with it.

Best, Ron
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Joel P. Shempert
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« Reply #2 on: May 26, 2011, 02:54:47 PM »

That's a good observation, Ron. I think I did need to go through the one experience to get to the other; I still have a fondness for the first, but it plainly was not as narratively or artistically rich as the second. I don't think it was creatively barren, though, or pure therapy--more likely my post is distorting it because that's the element I focused on. But yeah, going through the first game, with its pretty blunt and obvious emotional impact, definitely paved the way for the richer experience of the second.

As you reference regarding our couple of years of discussions (and really, going on 6-7 years of discussions overall), arriving at fulfilling, Story Now, "I Will Not Abandon You" play has been quite a long journey. I think if I'd started that journey a good five years sooner I'd have arrived at my present position a lot quicker, simply by dint of having much more free time to play lots and lots of games. As it is, my transition to functional Story Now began shortly before my Halcyon days of unfettered play time began to close off. So the rate of the play-reflection-recalibration-playagain cycle has slowed progress, but I'm happy with how it's gone. :)

A quick note on the merits and flaws of play-as-therapy: I do believe playing games this way can and should be able impact us personally and show us truths about ourselves, but not at the expense of the fiction-making and fiction-enjoying. It might be a fine line, but I feel that, for instance, putting my father into the game as a spur of the moment decision, without intending to craft or direct play toward a therapeutic moment, was still squarely in the realm of honoring the fiction. It was only in retrospect that I realized how close to home play was veering, and how personally affecting it was.

It's a line I walk, though, for sure. I do have a tendency to be like the narrator in Fight Club, going to "group" hoping to get a good cry. I'd like to think that more often then not, if I Do get my "cry" (literally or otherwise), it's because I've earned it through the fiction.

Peace,
-Joel
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