In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The first interview is with role-playing game and media scholar Sarah Lynne Bowman. Her article in the volume “Jungian Theory and Immersion in Role-Playing Games” explores mainstream games such as Dungeons and Dragons and World of Darkness as means of individuating Jungian archetypes and Campbellian heroic journeys. She contends that the explanatory power of Jungian archetypes may be used to debunk the “escapist” moniker stamped on so many game-related activities.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner – When people are playing characters, sometimes they argue that they are channeling something outside of themselves, or that their character has its own autonomous existence. How would you describe and explain that?

Sarah Lynne Bowman – This question remains the most mysterious and, in some ways, unanswerable in any sort of solid, satisfactory way. Mystics have claimed to “channel” the voices of deities for millennia; the Bible is said to contain revelation given to the prophets directly from God. New age correlations include “channelers” such as Esther Hicks a.k.a. Abraham, Barbara Marciniak, Neal Donald Walsch, along with many others. On the decidedly fictional end of things, authors sometimes report the strange experience of their characters “taking on a life of their own.” Songwriter Tori Amos considers herself a vessel through which the songs, which are independent entities, communicate their messages. Role-players also report the strange experience of passively watching as the character “takes over,” particularly in deeply immersive experiences.

Of course, as scholars, we must always question the subjective nature of these reports, hence placing the word “channel” in quotes. Is the character truly channeled from somewhere else or was it present in the psyche the entire time, simply repressed? Is creativity some sort of vehicle for “channeling,” a natural function of the mind? Or does creativity open up a pathway to age-old archetypes and past-life experiences, as channelers such as Abraham claim?

Again, these questions remain ultimately unknowable, just as the nature of the divine — if it exists — is unknowable to our limited, mortal consciousness. However, the mysteriousness of our existence and our creativity inspires me to learn more and find parallels between role-playing and other phenomena. I find it fascinating that so many accounts exist describing the subjective experience of “channeling” an entity or a story; these accounts are also reminiscent of shamanic experiences in tribal cultures, where a religious official “becomes” the spirit of an animal or god in order to combat societal illnesses. Mike Pohjola recently connected shamanism with role-playing in his 2012 Nordic Larp Talk “How to Become a God” and J. Tuomas Harviainen has written on larp as ritual, so I am not the only one making connections between role-playing and ritual experiences.

The way Jung would describe the phenomenon of channeling ties into some of the theoretical principles explained in my article. We engage with our creativity through a process Jung calls active imagination, which allows us to delve into unconscious areas of our minds. Embedded within each of us through our genetic code is deep, symbolic material that bubbles up when we dream and make art. Much of this material is personal in nature, though Jung believed that some of the most potent symbols are universal, which he called archetypes. In his own personal imaginative journeys as documented in The Red Book, he would often encounter “entities,” such as Philemon and Salome. Having no real scientific explanation for these “dialogues,” he tried to explain them in a psychoanalytic manner. Therefore, Jung presents us with terminology and a model for understanding “channeling” that does not negate the power of mystical experiences, but rather tries to contextualize them in a more modern, universal, psychological language. By modern, of course, I refer to early twentieth century modernist thought, the roots of which inform so much of our current research, though we may not often learn the sources of these original premises.

ETYour recent book The Functions of Role-Playing Games deals with the many ways that role-playing culture is put to use, and how its participants engage with it. How does this piece about Carl Jung fit into that earlier research?

SLB – In Chapter 6 of my book, I describe how humans engage in childhood pretend play in a variety of ways, including creating imaginary friends and worlds. While not all children engage in these activities, pretend play does seem an instinctive and, perhaps, evolutionary evolved behavior. I then describe various theories to explain the adoption of multiple personalities in adulthood, including dissociative theory and psychosynthesis. Historically speaking, Jung worked under Pierre Janet, a pioneer in early psychological research and the originator of the term “dissociation.” While Sigmund Freud believed in a divided psyche that consisted purely of the undefined impulses of the id, ego, and superego, psychologists such as Janet, Jung, and Assagioli also believed that our minds contain multiple egos that sometimes battle for control within us. While this concept may seem extreme, most people can relate to the experience of having to perform multiple “personas” depending on the demands of our social roles at given times, as Erving Goffman explains. These personas are generally defined in terms of one’s social role — i.e. teacher, lover, daughter, etc. Jung also believed in the persona, but thought we harbor much deeper, more complex structures of personality that may wish to express themselves.

In terms of identity, dissociation is the process by which we “shift” from one of these personalities to the other. We may not be conscious of this shift; indeed, if we were conscious every time we adapted our personality to a given context, we would probably drive ourselves mad. Even people with so-called Dissociative Identity Disorder, who display extreme shifts in personality as the result of trauma, do not always perceive these transitions without outside assistance. Erik Erikson believed that individuals experience identity confusion in their youth and must establish a stable sense of ego identity in order to function in society. If we consider that each of us are inherently fragmented in terms of personality — some in more extreme ways than other — this sense of ego identity can never become a unified, monolithic thing. Instead, proponents of psychosynthesis and dissociative theory prefer to use the term Integrator to describe the ego. The Integrator learns to manage these various facets of personality and creates bridges between them, ultimately helping to merge them. In a role-playing context, the players  themselves can be viewed as the Integrators monitoring the efforts of each character from a somewhat detached state. The Integrator can always come into the forefront when necessary, pushing the character back into latency, a process that we colloquially refer to as “shifting out of character.”

In the book, I further describe the concept of archetypes and explain how they manifest in the races and classes of Dungeons & Dragons. The most common archetypal structure we see in role-playing games is the enactment of the hero’s journey, to use Joseph Campbell’s model: the call to adventure, the help of the mentor, entering the “belly of the whale,” the confrontation with the monster, the triumphant return to society. This structure is embedded within the format of the Dungeons & Dragons rule books and modules. The whole process of “leveling a character” is a mechanical representation of a hero taking on multiple hero’s journeys over and over again. That being said, Jung and Campbell both believed that the monster in these stories represents the darker aspects of the self that the hero needs to confront, conquer, and integrate. In that respect, we can move beyond the fantastical elements of these roots of role-playing games; fantasy becomes a metaphor for reality. Any sort of inner or external conflict becomes the monster that needs slaying, which is why psychologist Nathan Hook suggests in the Knutpunkt 2010 book, Playing Reality, that all role-players undergo their own personal hero’s journey, regardless of the genre. Similarly, other participants in my studies have insisted that each player is a “hero in their own story.”

In Jungian terms, these conflicts that we need to address narratively stem from the “Shadow” — the aspects of ourselves that we need to repress and deny in order to establish our sense of identity. Since much of the content of role-playing games arises from the participants rather than some external “author” such as the game master, this concept of the Shadow becomes more intriguing. Why do people play “evil” characters? Why do certain conflicts evolve between characters in terms of, say, relationship dynamics? Jeepform games in the Nordic tradition particularly play with Shadow aspects of the unconscious, such as inappropriate sexual fantasies, bullying, and infidelity. Jeepform games encourage you to “play close to home” so, necessarily, parts of your repressed psyche are encouraged to come to the foreground. The Shadow concept explains why people “enjoy” playing games such as Vampire: the Masquerade or even the Nordic Larp Kapo, which are both designed — in their radically different ways — to draw out the darker aspects of human nature in order to experience and examine them.

Even with a structured character that is uniformly distinct from one’s self-concept, any long stretch of immersion will begin to tap into deeper aspects of one’s own consciousness by necessity. The Nords have a term called the “Hollow Man,” where the character is too thinly defined and the player must insert parts of their own self into the story. I believe we always explore deeper parts of our personal psyche when we create characters, to greater and lesser degrees. I also think that we tap into essential, archetypal material, which explains how we are able to play characters with which we have no prior experience. I will never know what it means to be a queen, a magician, a goddess, or an immortal. I will never have those experiences in life, yet I have played them in games. One can always claim that media representations allow us to mimic what we have seen previously through these characters. However, if you consider that even in tribal cultures with little-to-no media exposure, individuals claim to channel these supernatural entities in ritual, that answer becomes less satisfying. A structuralist explanation posits that such expressions must be inherent to human culture in some way. A depth psychology explanation posits that such expressions arise from our collective unconscious, a part of our genetic linguistic inheritance.

ET – As a fellow film studies scholar, I am often asked about how my studies of “analog” role-playing games tie into contemporary questions of media studies? What does a film studies scholar learn about film from looking at role-playing games and gaming in general?

SLB – Well, first, I think that the “analog” nature of role-playing games is merely a formal and rather misleading distinction. While a game such as Dungeons & Dragons may be played in-person and in a small group, the original text is definitely a mass media product that has enjoyed widespread cultural influence. That product influenced the development of video games as we know them, as many of the earliest video games were attempts to recreate D&D dungeons. In addition, that product also spawned one of the most successful video games of all time; millions of gamers play World of Warcraft every day, the structure of which tightly follows the adventuring and leveling format of Dungeons & Dragons. For more on this topic, see Michael Tresca’s The Evolution of Fantasy Role-playing GamesJust as a film might be viewed by only one or a few people at a time, a role-playing game may be played in a small group. The mode of play enactment does not negate the mass media nature of the game product itself.

In addition, any reception scholar will tell you that fan behavior is subcultural in nature and, therefore, a worthy subject to investigate in terms of cultural studies. Many role-players initially find entry into these games through other generic fandom, including fantasy, science fiction, westerns, or even more “arty”/indie styles. As an ethnographer, I ask people to explain the inspiration behind their character creation. Many participants describe that the genre of the games themselves are based in existing media or that they as players have drawn inspiration from existing characters or themes from other media texts, a direct example of Henry Jenkins’ textual poaching. Instead of writing fan fiction, these players embody fan fiction. The co-creative, spontaneous nature of these games allows expressions of fandom to escape their original context and evolve into something far more eclectic and, in many cases, personal.

Just as film, television, and new media had to fight to validate their relative forms in terms of academic credibility, so, too, does role-playing studies and game studies in general. We are currently seeing a strong push in academia to consider games a serious and worthy object of study and the burgeoning field of role-playing studies is part of this wave, even if the game format is not always digital in nature.

ET – I hear you’re working on a new project about how social tension and conflict create larp culture. Can you tell me a little more about it?

SLB – Though my primary interest remains focused upon the internal, psychological processes that players undergo, the social elements cannot and should not go ignored. Aaron Vanek published an opinion piece in the 2011 Knudepunkt Talk book entitled “The Non-United Larp States of America.” In this article, Vanek claims that in America, we face a near-constant fracturing in our larp communities, where groups splinter and/or refuse to communicate and support one another. Because of this problem, larp as a practice suffers in terms of continuing player base and innovation. His paper represents a sort of call to arms to Americans to put aside differences and collaborate in order for larp to flourish. As a player involved in similar conflicts in my own larp communities, I felt personally motivated to investigate this hypothesis further. I wanted to see if these problems pertain to regional conflicts or happen in many larp communities. I was particularly interested to see if such conflicts emerge within the Nordic larp community, which appears so cohesive from an American perspective. I conducted approximately 30 semi-structured interviews with participants from various places in the U.S. and Scandinavia in order to investigate this question.

I found that splintering seems to occur everywhere, at least as was reported by my small participant base. According to Stephen Balzac, group psychologist and originator of the MIT Assassins Guild, these schisms in communities emerge as a natural evolution of group dynamics. Just as children test the boundaries of parental authority as toddlers and adolescents, according to Tuckman’s Model, individuals test leadership and group cohesion once they reach a certain level of investment in a particular activity. Some groups manage to weather this “Storming” period, leading to an even greater level of trust and productivity. However, many groups face dissolution or regression to an earlier, less collaborative state. Leaders — in this case, game masters or organizers — face particular challenges in this regard. Many game organizers do not have any formal training or experience in a leadership capacity. Even trained leaders may feel taken for granted or personally attacked, leading to clashes or “burning out.”

I also discovered several others problem areas contributing to conflict in role-playing communities. Intimate relationships predictably increase the level of emotional intensity in gaming groups, both in-character and out-of-game, which can lead to problems. The game master vs. player power dynamic can lead to abuses on both ends. Creative agenda differences and clashes within the play culture also contribute to strife. Most interestingly, perhaps, I studies incidents of “bleed,” a term more common in the Nordic community than in America, although many American participants intuitively understood the concept. Bleed is a difficult phenomenon to describe; in the past, theorists such as Markus Montola have defined it solely in terms of emotions. However, I decided to ask participants if they could recall incidents when their emotions, thoughts, relationships, or physical state outside of the game affected events within the game and visa versa, using Montola’s terms “bleed-in” and “bleed-out.” Difficulties with group dynamics may evolve in any organization, as Balzac suggests, but role-playing games add an extra level of complexity in the form of the narrative; not only do we have existing relationships and psychological states outside of the game, but we have other layers of relationships within the game world. This “layering of roles” creates a more complex tapestry of human interaction than is present in most other groups.

This concept of “bleed” helps us describe these experiences in neutral terms, as opposed to the all-too-prevalent and equally unhelpful accusation, “That player simply cannot separate fantasy from reality!” I believe that all players have the ability to separate fantasy from reality when entering the “magic circle” of play. As I mentioned before, we do not fully “become” the character for long periods of time; the player is almost always present and acts as a sort of Integrator when the character is allowed to “take the wheel.” Players sometimes describe the bizarre experience of complete identification with the character, but these moments do not last for long. However, these incidents can feel incredibly profound and cause confusion when we try to make sense of them later. If we can establish and articulate useful terminology such as “bleed,” we can help players to process these experiences in a more fruitful way. Sometimes, bleed experiences represent the most instructive and important parts of the role-playing experience. We should honor these moments and support our fellow players, rather than derogating or ousting individuals who experience negative emotions as a result of bleed.

Sarah Lynne Bowman received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. She is an adjunct professor at Ashford University and Richland College. She published The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity with McFarland (2010). Her research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to character enactment and narrative creation.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

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Here’s the first part of the event flow which, as I see it, is pretty much the game.  I’m seeing the system as a cross between the Sampats’ Mist-Robed Gate (for flashy ass-kicking abilities with similar game functions), Rob Bohl’s Misspent Youth (for the set scene structure and resisting authority shtick) and Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World (for the clearly laid-out set of guidelines for hard choices).

[Hi folks! I’m the playtester in brackets. Playtesting, playtesting – 1, 2, 3…]

What You Need:

Pencil
The Character Roster Sheet (or some graph paper made to look like one)
The Event Matrix Sheet (or some graph paper made to look like one)
13 action figures/dolls you feel attached to

Bag with some mixed 20 red/white poker chips in it (optional)
Computer with table- or spreadsheet-making program (optional)
Digital camera or laptop camera (optional)
Digital audio recording device (optional)

[The Roster Sheets and Event Matrices will be posted later in the week, when all the optional items will be discussed as well.  For now, let’s hit the gameflow.]

The Game

  • The Pre-Game
  • The March Ritual
  • The Past
  • Resisting the Adversary
  • Ruling Badly
  • Intrigue and Wariness
  • The March Ritual, Redux
  • Battling and Flashbacks
  • The Final Battle
  • Epilogue

The Pre-Game:

You play the Manipulator, the person whose hands skillfully maneuver the figures and who meddles judiciously in the plot.  The Manipulator is the sole decider and the main audience, so it only seems appropriate that they also get to determine the Outcome of things.  To play the game as the Manipulator, you need only perform the steps in the order described:

• Array all the materials listed above in a comfortable space that won’t be disturbed for several hours.

[I have chosen an under-used office in my parents’ house in Iowa.]

• Put on some dramatic music if it gets you in the mood. Preferably Wagner, but the possibilities are plentiful.

[I chose Adorno, actually. ‘Cause I don’t have any Wagner. Curious, indeed!]

• Select two action figures to which you feel strongly attached. These are the Protagonist figures.

Dirk de Silver

Botkin

[I have selected Mantor from Sectaurs (renamed as Dirk de Silver — a dashing name!) and Fugitoid from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (renamed as Botkin — has a bit of a robot-y sound and the -kin suffix recalls familial signifiers).  Both are relatively obscure but prominent in my imagination.]

• Abandon in your mind everything you know about the figure.  The only thing you know about them is based on the physical appearance of the figure itself. Digitally photograph them for your own records. You know nothing about them now, but soon you will know more.

[Done.]

The March Ritual:

We cannot go on without dramatically establishing the stakes of what’s going on.  Besides – most of the best modern stories start somewhere in the middle before going to the beginning.

• Place the selected protagonist figures on either side of the Character Roster in front of you.  Imagine that they are staring across a vast battlefield at each other, draped in dramatic military finery and looking grim but determined.  There armies are arrayed before them, but we cannot quite see who makes up its membership. Yet.

[Okay, so I’m liking the contrast between a silver-clad warrior and a gold robot.  It’s a cheap shot, but I’m picturing Dirk with a flowing purple robe to match his purple eyes standing on a precipice overlooking a battered mechanical palace.  Botkin meanwhile looks calmly from the balcony of the palace up at Dirk. I have an idea that Dirk’s forces will come pouring down into the canyon on horseback, whereas Botkin’s will be robotic and swarm out of the palace.]

• Stare into one of the figure’s eyes, bringing it closer to your face. This indicates to you to flashback to the Past.

[Given that his eyes at least have pupils, I do this to Botkin. See reenactment below.]

The author shares a moment with the figure. And its eyes.

The Past:

Now it’s time to think about the life of the two Protagonists before the Manipulator’s decisions inevitably forced them against each other.  Back in the days when they had a common enemy; when there was… the Adversary.

• Answer the following three questions for each protagonist and jot it down as shorthand notes under their names:  where and what is their Base of Operations? Why do their peers respect them?  What would they kill to protect?

[Alright: character generation time!  Dirk’s got long legs (though is without mount), so I decide to make him a kind of dashing free-booting cavalryman from some old aristocracy.  His Base is the Galloping Palace, a scarcely understood bio-magical contraption that’s effectively a mansion with legs.  Running with this line of thinking, I put down under Respect “He’s a superb rider, spokesman and strategist.”

For Kill to Protect, I put “His family lineage.”  A proper supernatural insect noble, right? Okay: onto Botkin. I can already sense the tension between the magic and the robot technology angles of this choice, so I’m going to put Botkin in the Adversary’s Mechanical Palace… as one of its robot servants.  Under Respect, I put “Downloaded Skills,” kind of like in The Matrix, and for Kill to Protect I put “His tender connection with the other robots.” So both Dirk and Botkin are in many ways both fiercely familial.  Sounds like a Romeo and Juliet story already!]

• Create an Adversary by choosing another action figure from your available supplies, preferably one whom you find intimidating or creepy.  This will become the Adversary.  Give it a name.

The Vanished King

[Hmmm… so many creepy looking figures in my collection!  I select the Blue Ghostling from the Super Naturals, because I really like the cloak/hologram fashion combo; reminds me of a perfectly Deleuzian body without organs. I name him The Vanished King, because he has no distinct shape under his cloak.]

• Answer the following two questions:  how does the Adversary keep others in line? What dark plan is he/she ready to unleash?

[The Vanished King calls forth lots of ideas for prospective abilities.  I decide that he has Possession as a means of Keeping Others in Line — he can inhabit the bodies of others and subsequently may be always watching within the boundaries of his empire. For his Dark Plan, I chose that he wants to plant copies of himself in the minds of many of his subjects, and has developed technology to help him accomplish this, since magic cannot.]

• And now select three additional figures from the initial pile.  These will be the Adversary’s minions, and can embody either legions of similar-looking figures or just a single, fearsome foe.  Each figure can be treated like an Ally, except they don’t automatically get a Resist stat.  That means each minion has a Weapon and a MegaMove, which you can decide on the spot or wait until a good idea comes along.  You have the option of selecting an action figure to represent a standard goon for the Adversary. These have no stats, and are mere fodder for the main characters to work through.

[Here’s a fun part: choosing Flunkies! I grab Spikor from Masters of the Universe and rename him Spinox, the Enforcer (Weapon: Stunning Prod, Mega Move: Pointed Embrace)].  I assume he’s the muscle of the Vanished King’s dystopian kingdom, breaking in doors and striking terror on the populace.  The other two are Sinuet, the Mind-Controller (Weapon: Hypnotic Eye, MegaMove: Psychic Evisceration — Bug-Eye from the Real Ghostbusters), and Botcruel, the Technologist (Weapon: Crushing Grip, MegaMove: Vaporpulse — Cruel from Robo Force).  Sinuet produces auto-consent and a waiting supply of informers, whereas Botcruel is the chief overseer of the mechanisms in the Vanished King’s palace (including Botkin).  Finally, I want the goons to be this faceless Grizzlor from She-Ra, ’cause he looks insane without a face.]

Spinox

Sinuet

Botcruel

Goon!

Stay tuned! To Be Continued…

Dirk De Silver, Brash and Fearless Warrior:

Botkin, Awakened A.I.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dirk de Silver:

Now that the Evil is vanquished, what now?

Botkin, Awakened A.I.:

“What now?” does not compute. Evil: eliminated

Dirk de Silver:

It doesn’t feel like much – winning.

Botkin:

No perspective. You’d certainly feel it if you did not win.

Dirk de Silver:

But what’s the point of fighting if not for the feeling?

Botkin:

Principles, perhaps.  Something to protect?

Dirk de Silver:

Me? I fought for freedom.

Botkin:

You fought for your freedom, I for mine.

Dirk de Silver:

So what? We just finish here, and then go our
separate ways in the world.  Abandon our responsibilities?

Botkin:

Better that than the alternative –
becoming what we just vanquished.

Overview:

The earth shakes as the troops roll out. Two war-hardened leaders stare across a battlefield and recall the times when they fought side-by-side.  Once a tyrannical empire had the land in its grip, imposing its will on the people.  Fortunately, the two heroes resisted, gathered resourceful allies, used their unique gifts to overcome the tyrant and his minions, and imposed a new, harmonious order on the land.  But the core differences between both leaders frayed their relationship; the power and responsibilities of ruling an empire were too great for their vulnerable natures.  They began to find fault in every action the other took, polarizing their friends and causing ever-greater disasters within their empire.  Finally, the empire was no longer big enough for the two of them — only one could rule.  Now their divided allies will summon down acid darkness, open up their hearts, and spill blood for a cause greater than their own:  a cause that – as they stare across the battlefield/graveyard-to-be – their leaders may no longer believe in, but now it’s too late.  This will  cause some to turn traitor, finding their own skins worth more than meaningless martyrdom.  Who would want to win such a battle, or even rule the shattered country remaining after the dust settles?

Perhaps only a tyrant.

Figurative Destruction is a diceless, solitary role-playing game that utilizes action-figures as cues for imagining an ultimate battle between two epic heroes now turned against each other by their opposing world-views.  It is intended to simulate the kinds of grand-but-simplistic imaginative play many of us practiced during our childhood, albeit adding enriched pathos for an older audience.  Though the game institutes a fairly strict dramatic structure, these limitations are designed to focus the player’s (forthwith known as the Manipulator) attention on making the hard choices needed to guide the tragedy toward its suspenseful conclusion.

Normally at this point, I’d be citing all kinds of books and movies that inspired this story arc, etc.  This time, however, I’d like for you to just decouple your imagination from all the media that’ll influence your play anyway.  Imagine instead the following scenario:  you’re a kid who has never been exposed to Marvel Comics and you receive a Wolverine toy.  It’s awesome – a kind of wolfish looking guy in a black cyber suit with long blades sticking out of his knuckles.  You begin to extrapolate: he’s a dark prince from a kingdom besieged by giant, person-sized maggot things.  He has created a cyber suit with claw-like exoskeleton extensions in order to survive in the new hostile environment.  His goggles pick up not only the signatures of his maggot prey, but also their spirits after he’s killed them, which is slowly driving him insane.  Thus he has been recently exiled to the far off Anvil of the Sun, an unspeakable desert that no one has survived. They’re sending him there tomorrow.  His name is now the Clawed Scion, and he’ll be ready to take his kingdom back.

See, neither of these two options for this action-figure’s back-story is more ridiculous or (in my mind) more correct than the other:

Name: Clawed Scion
Powers: Involuntarily Sense the Dead, Cyber Suit
Background: Psychic prince whose kingdom is under siege by giant maggots, but whose very means of fighting his enemies turns out to be his undoing, and is forced into desert exile.

Name: Wolverine
Powers: Adamantium Exoskeleton, Fast Healing
Background: Son of a 19th Century Canadian farmer whose skeleton is bonded with metal in the Weapon X super-soldier project and who then rebels and works for a paramilitary group of liberal mutants

In addition, my version of the Silliness is decoupled from the corporate-enforced, overdetermined Silliness of the backstory to be combined with Wolverine’s image.

Next post – The Rules!

(I’m somewhat writing this RPG in order, so bear with me.  The actual system’s on its way. ;-))

Preface:

When we were growing up in the 1980s, we might have been dimly aware of our being amidst a world boom in action-figures.  The success of the Star Wars franchise model combined with the 1983 deregulation of children’s television programming based on toys suddenly prompted toy and media companies to jump into bed together.  The spawn of their steamy corporate passion were both numerous and absurd:  a host of mediocre-to-terrible television programs designed specifically to market action-figures – molded acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) enveloped in colorful industrial acrylics and sealed with polyethylene “accessories” likely to be swallowed or lost in the couch cushions – to impressionable young boys from American suburbs.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe?  Mattel created the sci-fi/fantasy cartoon explicitly to sell the figures, which otherwise had ridiculous-looking bow legsVisionaries – Knights of the Magical Light? Hasbro’s crude response to He-Man, namely fantasy “G.I. Joes” equipped with holograms on their chests and useless staves.  Sectaurs?  Coleco’s modestly successful insect mutant figures with a nigh-unwatchable cartoon to match.  The list goes on: Army Ants, Dino-Riders, M.A.S.K.  … the list of recognizable-but-discarded cartoon-toy name brands number in the hundreds.  The most successful lines, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers, remain with us to this day, thoroughly insulated from the dark humor of Eastman & Laird or the experiments of obscure Takara engineers in the late 1970s that gave the toys their narrative appeal in the first place, but no less absurd than their unsuccessful counterparts.

The primary way the older brands (i.e. pre-1995) are to be interpreted today is through the lens of sarcasm and/or nostalgia.  Their sealed plastic is given an additional, incorporeal seal: that of a corporatized childhood, one that should be discarded as readily as it trapped parents’ wallets.  “Ha! Got you!” scream out the toy collections of today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings, “It was all a ruse – you bought the Raphael in Greek armor! The only way to make your money back in THIS system is to come up with a scam of your own.” Indeed, 1980s action-figures appear as epitomes of the Biblical false idol, ushered in by cheap Saudi oil and techno-militaristic fantasies but too ham-strung by ridiculous narratives to be taken seriously.  A dorky prince whose sword’s primary power is to inject him with testosterone?  Medieval knights on an alien world who embrace their shamanic totem symbol?  Genetically mutated anthropoid insect-people locked in a pointless struggle over a blasted desert?  Staring into the narratives behind these figures becomes a confrontation with the symbolic void.  We know their names – General Spidrax, Man-at-Arms, Shredder, Optimus Prime – but struggle with assigning them real pathos.  But yet…

But yet.

Opening up my case of action figures after not looking at them for a dozen years brought not a wave of post-scam revulsion, but of boyish love for the slightly smelly plastic.  Their visual and tactile qualities immediately recalled countless adventures played out on my bedroom and basement floor.  The Mercenaries of Bornbrom, ruthless slavers and transformed prophet-kings (this was Shredder, Ratar-O, and Scare-Glo).  There were the Eight Brothers (I had a lot of Ninja Turtle figures) whose attractive green skin caused women to faint, and Captain Megazoom (Space Usagi, pictured left) who would rule the galaxy as a debonaire emperor were it not for the stolid efforts of his enemies the Bodiless (who were totally invisible; I didn’t need to buy a figure for them).  I realized this wasn’t nostalgia for the figures themselves, but for the stories I was once able to tell with them.  There was a system to how I told the story; I didn’t get into role-playing through arbitrary means.  The tragic tale would have to unfold in a certain fashion, and this certain fashion is what I seek to replicate in Figurative Destruction – The Solo RPG:  how figures fight together, get separated by their inner natures and then fight again to their own foretold demises.  Aeschylus and Shakespeare meet Eternia and Prismos reloaded.

Scoffing at those who would simply gaze at their figures slowly accruing value in plastic boxes, I imbue the soulless with a soul, nurture it, watch it grow, and feel the pathos when the figures are returned back to the dark recesses of the toy box.  I creatively destroy and resurrect them, role-playing all the parts with new identities (only their color and shape remain more-or-less the same), powers, and plotlines.

And now so can you.

Reality

I spent the Wed. – Mon. around and including Easter weekend this year in Aarhus, Denmark for Fastaval 2010 as part of Julia Bond Ellingboe’s American entourage.  This was my first time in Denmark and the first time at a gaming convention quite like this one, and turned out to be life-changing in some ways.  Let me explain.

For the uninitiated: I am what is known as a gamer, a multivalent term also used to describe A) those who play video games and B) those who squirrel away their precious savings in casinos.  Gamers of my kind play tabletop role-playing games, as well as board games, live-action role-playing (LARP), card games, miniatures games and others I haven’t mentioned.  Gamers play such games locally with their friends, but then also tend to gather at assorted conventions – at GenCon and Origins in the U.S., for example – to play games and discuss their hobbies with like-minded individuals.  With the advent of the Internet, our ranks have swelled, though the hobbies gamers follow remain at the fringes of public attention.

For the (newly) initiated:  Most U.S. conventions running role-playing games use the following model of organizing game masters (GM), or those who arbitrate the rules and (sometimes) the fantasy world of experience:

1. A GM submits a game proposal to the convention in question containing vital statistics such as rules system, a quick plot summary, and number of players required.

2. The convention schedules the game, sight unseen.

3. The GM shows up, runs the game once or twice based on whatever notes they have at hand, and leaves the players with whatever impressions they might have.

4. The convention has the players evaluate the GM and scenario, largely to determine if the event actually ran and if the GM is an a$$hole or something.

Fastaval 2010, a 25-year Danish convention tradition held in a school allocated by the Danish government itself, runs VERY differently:

1. Scenario writers come up with a fully shaped, literary LARP scenario and submit it to Fastaval for approval.  Many of these games are increasingly written in the “jeep” form, a serious mode of boundary-pushing (and emotionally manipulative) role-play.

2. Fastaval approves the best scenarios, and then assigns GMs who are possibly not the scenario writers to run the game at least several times over the course of the convention.

3. The GMs run the scenario based on the precise scenario they were given.  The players micro-critique both the scenario and its game-mastering afterwards, providing quite possibly the best feedback in the world.

4. Fastaval has the players evaluate the GM and the scenario, largely to award the latter with Oscar-style prizes at the end of the convention.

So Fastaval is a gaming convention that takes its gaming as serious as a literary/performative art form, and thus evaluates it as such.  It deemphasizes the GM in favor of scenario writing.  And such attention to detail quite literally made me feel as if our hobby was the most special, future-oriented, utopian creation in the History of Humankind.  Seriously.

Other highly amusing cultural encounters included:

* The Dirtbusters, a LARP group whose real job was to clean up the messes we gamers made throughout the con (“fighting chaos”) while posting up pornography and occasionally taking over the Information Desk.  I got a CD of them singing by chance – no comment.

* A bar/café open for most of the convention, and not having to pay for drinks as a poor international guest.  This meant I spent a lot of time as a U.S. ambassador of the first rank.  I told the Danes we ought to pay higher taxes and adopt more social democratic features to survive – pretty representative, really.

* Being given a warning at the beginning that the Danes might be shy in introducing themselves to us, and then having the opposite problem:  some Danes wouldn’t leave us alone!  (Though we never met a single Dane we didn’t like).

* Rampant bisexuality. Yes.

* John TV and Fastamorgen, a TV program and newsletter respectively that covered the daily events of the convention for all to see.  People were very interested in getting this humorous overview, in fact.

* Living in a Danish house on the beautiful central Jutland coastline, but 2.7 km from the convention school and sans heat until the very last day.  But we couldn’t complain, for most of the Fastaval attendees simply slept on the floor of the gymnasium.

* Exploring the old city of Aarhus with Chris, Olle, Matt and Frederik, in which we painted Easter eggs and generally goofed around.

* A closing banquet with awards handed out for the best scenario in which we were all served by waiters named James (LARPers!).  Unfortunately, they followed this with fairly lackluster dance music.  If I ever return, I will volunteer to DJ this event.

The highly positive Fastaval experience, of course, would’ve been completely impossible without the support of so many generous and highly interesting people involved, including Matt Beisler, Julia Bond Ellingboe, Chris Ellingboe, Markus Montola, Olle Jonsson, Nathan Hook, Anna Westerling, Janne Petersen, Lars Konzack, Frederik Jensen, Frederik Berg Oestergaard, Frederik Axelzon, Troels Bording, Søren Hjorth, Tobias Wrigstad, Jonny, Jens, and many others whose names slip from my mind at the moment.  And Kat, of course, for whose mutual interest in gaming I thank every day of my life. 😉

Individual game reports can be found under Fantasy, where I usually list books read and movies viewed.  These games were good enough to list as works of art, I’d say.

(Dear Regular Readers of My Blog – Several momentous occasions within the last month have indeed not been chronicled in this space, including but not limited to:  our wonderful trip to London, Kat’s parents visiting, the Fulbright Berlin seminar and recent developments in my scholarly career.  I’ll get to them in good time, perhaps upon request.)

Fantasy

Now to the promised love, incest and cannibalism, which were themes of Kat’s role-playing experiences at Fastaval, if not mine as well.

The Journey (Frederik Axelzon)

A post-apocalyptic tale in jeep form resembling Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in its bleak atmosphere and intense, survivalist driven narrative logic.  Several disturbing moments (including casual cannibalism) drove at least one player from the room.  The game later won the Audience Award, which made me proud to have run it.

What to Do About Tam Lin? (Emily Care Boss / Julia Bond Ellingboe)

A combination of Judge Judy with old Scottish folk ballads.  Incest, infidelity and murder spice up the whole affair.  This faerie LARP was intensely popular among the Danes and Americans alike, and featured an innovative card mechanic that allowed the players to easily solve disputes amongst themselves (though it became a hassle in the court scenes – this came out in the Danes’ reviews).

Previous Occupants (Frederik Berg Oestergaard / Tobias Wrigstad)

A simple premise:  a young couple gets engaged and has sex for the first time in the same hotel room where an old man killed his wife 20 years earlier.  Will the past play out in the bodies of the present?  A jeep form game of love and murder designed to appeal to the American market.  It worked.

Behind Your Back (Cicely Balling, et al.)

Seven short stories of, among other themes, infidelity and cannibalism play out in a Sin City-style setting.  Kat played it and said it was intense.

Heartburn (Frikard Elleman)

A three-Act scenario, of which two Acts were played, involving couples dealing with incest and infidelity (you can see I’m making a point here).  Obsession and forbidden love drive yet another emotionally intense scenario.  Kat played in this one as well.

Epifani (Michael Sonne-Jørgensen)

A sci-fi thriller set on the SF Hitomi, loosely based on the design aspects of Ridley Scott’s Alien movie.  The author not only wrote the game, but designed the spaceship lighting and wrote the soundtrack.  An immersive experience in which Matt took part.

Passion Fruit (Nathan Hook)

A short jeep-style game about infidelity which involves the peeling and eating of a piece of fruit.  We tried it out and managed to tell a story of an entirely chaste-yet-powerful love, making it a memorable 1.5 hours.

Tales of the Fisherman’s Wife (Julia Bond Ellingboe)

A tabletop indie game classic that isn’t even officially released yet.  Players simulate a Japanese spirit story that divides a fisherman and his wife in infidelity with demons.  Our players quite literally said it was the most fun they’d had at Fastaval, to which I credit the system.  We hope to see the game in print (with my Filmography, to boot) shortly.

Sense and Sensibility (Anna Westerling)

We basically played out the plot of Jane Austen’s novel, scene by fateful scene.  I was so enamored with this game (I got to play Colonel Brandon, among other parts) that I felt like I’d read the book and gone through the ordeals of the characters in the same stroke.  Kudos to Anna and Janne for this engrossing scenario!

High Rise: A Long Way Down

Four people from different walks of life coincidentally meet on a rooftop to kill themselves.  An absurdist comedy that wound up killing off nary a character.  It seems that suicide is, indeed, a silly act.

Any of the above descriptions can be fleshed out upon request.  I love comments!