12 May 2008

Stories about Story Games and their Story-Gamers

Weekend the last, I did it again. I ventured south and stopped in at Camp Nerdly 2.0, a role-playing and story-gaming conference that is held annually in NoVa, and which was co-founded by Expatriate Younce. You may recall that I attended teh Nerdly for the first time last year (and if'n you don't, see 5/8/07), which was a somewhat grandiose personal return to gaming in general. I was a D&D geek back in my early teen years, but lost touch with that community as I got older and committed more time to theatre, and other distractions. My best and oldest friends, however, still game regularly. They're good at it. Camp Nerdly is my opportunity to take a little time off from acting to visit them in their world and, uh . . . act.

The breakdown of my time is very nearly a progression from discomfort to comfort. The games I feel most at-home with are, naturally, those more focused on characterization, improvisation and storytelling. The ones I feel like a nerd who's out of polygonal dice in are those in which the emphasis is on . . . well, polygonal dice. And other devices and systems of applied conflict resolution. (Most of the other Nerdlians thrive on these, because they're wicked smart; if a game involves math, I tend to feel as though I'm trying to figure out my taxes.) The first game I played was called AGON, and involved a bit of such conflict resolution. Fortunately, Friend Davey was there to see me through the 1d12s (if I was lucky) and the interconnectedness of the players' rolls. Thereafter I played Valkyrie, a game in "playtest" (in development) that was mainly a team strategy game involving cards and quantity relationships. After that was a brief sojourn into a board warfare-strategy game called Memoir '44 (the success of which I very much owe to Davey again), and then another playtest, this one for an RPG based on Hamlet called, aptly enough, Something Is Rotten. The Upgrade was my first "jeepform" experience, which is essentially a role-playing game that takes after improvisational theatre, and the last game of the weekend was Zendo, a competitive deductive-reasoning game. So by-and-large, I progressed from incapability to comfort, insecurity to confidence. Rather like a rehearsal process.

I'm not sure I had the same profundity of insight this year as I had last, but I attribute that to there being less novelty this time around, less of a surprise in having had a good experience. I did spend some time meditating on the similarities between theatre and gaming, naturally, and found a few ideas that are helpful to both. One unexpected benefit, however, was to spend so much time playing with two old friends in such a way that we were often mentally working hard together. Think about it: When you see your friends, do you more often aim to relax and let go of strategy, or engage in complicated efforts at problem-solving. Both types of activity hold merit. I don't do nearly as much of the latter as I'd like, particularly with my buddies in NoVa.

AGON is a game set in mythic Greece, in which the players work as a team to complete some kind of mythical mission (think Odysseus), but also to come out on top, as the hero who accumulated the most glory (think Jason ["and the Argonauts," not "Morningstar" {although, you know what--think him, too}]). This game was run by Remi Treuer, who did a great job creating an engaging story and rolling with unpredictable players, though the mythos got a little bent in the process. (In this world, Kore [Persephone] and her mother apparently had some kind of resentful relationship causing spring weather when she descended to the underworld, and Orpheus was double-timing Eurydice with her.) I was way out of my depth with the system (which is relatively simple, but...you know...) but suffered more from having a pretty weak sense of the character I had designed for myself. I had meant for him to be a spy sort, a cunning lurker, and he ended up serving the game best by singing (of all things) most of the time.

In Jason Morningstar's Valkyrie, one plays a German dissident during the latter eccentricities of World War II. One does so for as long as one can, I should say, since there is the distinct likelihood that one will be investigated by the SS and summarily executed during the game. In fact, only Friend Davey survived the experience in the same avatar throughout. Again, I was a slow monkey on this system, but I certainly picked it up better than I did AGON, and the teamwork appealed to me far more than the blend of teamwork/glory-hounding. Plus the game makes for Nazis killing Nazis. That's, like, the universal equation. In spite of the thrill of succeeding to assassinate Hitler and create an uprising against the Nazi party, the game did ultimately lack much of an involved character-play or storytelling element, at least the way we played it. Not that I necessarily consider that a fault, mind. It was hella fun, and you could do it with a campier crowd than we determined conspiracists.

Thereafter, Clinton R. Nixon (whose name I must admit I envy) invited me to play Memoir '44, and I had immediate post-traumatic stress over every lost game of Risk I ever played. But when Clinton R. Nixon invites you to play something, only fools dare refuse. Let me tell you something: Risk is for little jerks who can't figure out the concepts behind checkers. (That'd be me; fortunately, Friend Davey was there with his able strategisms once again.) The best part about Memoir '44 is the way it weaves chance into strategy through its use of randomly drawn cards for available actions. I'm buying it. End o' story. (Though I may go for one of the less based-on-actual-human-tragedy varieties. So now: True end o' story.)

Kevin Allen Jr. is featured in ma' 'blogroll. If you've never yet been to The Mountaintop Lair of Alex Trebek, go immediately, and once there, shave your head in devotion. It. Is. A. DELIGHT. (If you're an utterly cynical geek [which I is].) I met him at Nerdly the First, and when I saw he was running a game that was a "hack" of Hamlet, I knew I had at least one time-slot permanently filled. Something Is Rotten was very much in playtest, so half of our time was spent in (fascinating) discussion of how to make it operate better as a game. There was actually some confusion on my part as to whether Kevin was aiming to actually make a game, or rather use gaming to gather ideas for a story he wanted to write. It hardly mattered. The playing was great fun for me, weaving in references to the play some times, and at others completely disregarding conventional concepts of the characters. For example, when I played the Hamlet-type, he was outwardly angry with the Claudius-type, something he could never do in the play. And at one point I jumped in as a yokel waiter in a diner, spreading the rumor that the circus (or, the players) were coming to town. I walked away renewed in my enthusiasm for the idea of blending improvisational theatre -- audience and all -- with gaming, which has been a topic of much musing 'twixt Youncey and me.

The Upgrade continued the trend of the improvisational, though this with less of a story-telling aspect, and more of an emotional and status-combat interplay. Clinton and Jason (Jason had also been in on playing Something Is Rotten, which naturally ruled) ran this game, which is modeled after reality TV, specifically shows that involve couple-swapping. The game is considered a "jeepform" one, which is a Finnish style of game that has the most in common out of any game I've ever played with the sort of long-form improvisation that Second City is famous for. J and C were assisted in the running by a couple of more experienced "jeepformers" by the names of Emily Boss and Epidiah Ravachol, who played ancillary characters and offered great perspective on how the game went when all was said and done. I could go on and on about this game, but the most significant experience of it for me was how uninvolved I made myself. This was owing to being AMAZED at what I was witnessing. Over the course of a couple of hours, I watched a large group of non-actors progress at amazing speed through stages of development as improvisational actors. By the end, something amazing had happened. People were no longer chasing punchlines, but feeling involved in their characters' struggles. We had a group scene with six people in it and boisterous action throughout, and as if by magic, everyone managed to pass the focus without interrupting, overlapping or lagging the action of the scene. DO YOU HAVE ANY CONCEPT OF HOW DIFFICULT THIS IS? I'm still reviewing the events in my head. I'm sifting through cause-and-effect, and believe I'm heading toward the conclusion that a relatively non-competitive game environment, if nurtured and given its own time, promotes communication. Profoundly. More on this . . . well, for the rest of my life.

My Nerdly excursion ended with Zendo, and that was fine. A little anticlimactic, but challenging and fun. It was interesting: Davey and Mark and I were planning to sort of huddle to ourselves over this (or another) game. But people became interested. By the end, there were some eight-to-ten people playing or watching (mostly playing), who had been drawn in by the camaraderie. My initial impulse was to resist this, to stick with the monkeys the scent of whose poop I recognized. But we're not monkeys, and Nerdly is all about making those new connections through games and teamwork. It seemed to me this year, for whatever reason, that Nerdly was less well-attended than last. That's problematic for me, because it's an event that is fun, cheap, accepting, beneficial and, ultimately, important. You can develop and expose your game there, you can meet new friends, etc. But what's really unique and important about Camp Nerdly is the way it improves seemingly everyone who attends. Everyone grows, opens up a bit, and learns. Never mind that it happens through gaming. Or, rather, take note. Games are good for you. I want to make Camp Nerdly live, and next year, if I don't have a career obligation that irrevocably conflicts, I'm going to run a game there.

More about it down the line. My thoughts about gaming as it applies to theatre require their own entry.

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