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Sunday, 19 September 2010

The shape inside the bone

One afternoon, many years ago, Oliver Johnson and I were talking about Tekumel. Oliver had heard me talk about my Empire of the Petal Throne sessions, but he'd never played in that campaign. Taking the big colour map of Jakalla, Oliver laid it on the floor and said, “So tell me about this city as if I were looking down on it from outer space.”

That was how we began one of our best games. In a few hours we had somehow dredged up, inferred and/or mutually created the background of Oliver's character, Jasper Faze, and how he came to be orbiting Tekumel even though there are no other inhabited worlds in its universe.

At one point Jasper beamed down to the city. When an ionic storm prevented his swift return, we began to suspect his ship's computer was not wholly reliable. Accidentally offending against the Jakallan code of etiquette, Jasper became embroiled in a struggle. A crowd gathered. "I use my anti-gravity belt to rise above them,” Oliver said.

We hadn’t discussed equipment at all, but obviously he had to have an anti¬gravity belt or he couldn't have mentioned it. “You rise above the crowd and drift over their heads in a sweeping arc. The breeze is carrying you towards the seafront.”

"I'll engage the thrusters to correct my course.”

"No effect. Worse, as you pass over the quayside you realize you're losing height.”

Jasper complained to the ship's computer, only to find that it was unable to broadcast power to his personal equipment because of the necessity of sustaining the ship's shields during the ion storm. The prime directive to protect the ship was one Jasper had issued himself. Naturally, he could not now change it because the computer could not verify his identity until he was back on board. He went down in the sea, was picked up by a prison patrol boat—and so on from frying pan to fire, and worse, throughout a very enjoyable afternoon's session.

We had learned a lot about improvisation just by doing it. For one thing, we discovered that the important rules aren't the ones written in the book (which we didn't have to hand, nor any dice) but the rules that derive from the nature of group storytelling. Like the thing with the anti-grav belt. We saw straight away the fun of trying to thwart each other's intentions without actually blocking—or, alternatively, to take an idea in an unexpected direction. To stymie without refusing and to outdo without competing.

I came across Keith Johnstone's book Impro a few years later. Johnstone describes improvisation techniques that he uses in theatre to free up people's creativity, both as actors and as writers. I liked especially this quotation from the Tao Te Ching which also sums up how I believe narrative should emerge from a role-playing session:
The sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practises the teaching that uses no words. When his task is accomplished, the people all say, "It happened to us naturally." I take no action and people are transformed of themselves.
I regard this as all-important in any discussion of what has been called 'narrative' rolegaming because often people assume that the term implies authoriality. There is no doubt that one of the referee's possible roles is as author of part of the narrative. When players seem to be having trouble getting inspired, I might drop in a surprise of my own devising or (better still) let something appear randomly. But it's always important not to break the suspension of disbelief by seeming to have steered the narrative—and, in fact, it's less fun for the referee himself as well.
Carl Weber, writing about Brecht, says: "...the actors would suggest a way of doing something, and if they started to explain, Brecht would say he wanted no discussion in rehearsal—it would have to be tried "
Quite right too. Articles about role-playing are such a frig. Same with articles about writing. Just do it...

That's what goes wrong so often with character generation. As soon as players start to think about what's needed, they start to get authorial. Then they think, “I mustn't come up with anything boring.” So you get players saying, “We're ever so creative in our games. Like, I play a mutant sponge with an IQ of 197 who is strapped to the head of a crocodile from the New York sewers. Bill is a Babylonian priest who was kidnapped by Venusians but who led a slave revolt that caused Venus to become a molten wasteland, but he escaped in a time machine to an alternate 1960s where he became a superhero. And...”

Tedious. My heart sinks at the thought of refereeing such a game. It's just an explosion in an ideas factory. Imagine a novel written that way. Those people should try actually playing—they'd see that the real possibilities come when your character fits within a context. Drama, in fact, is not about character description (ie, what is so-&-so like), it is about character interaction (how does so-&-so relate to other characters).

Anyway, I reckon Keith Johnstone and I agree that theory is over-rated. We're impatient to do the deed, to get in there and make it happen. That's why this book isn't a lot of high-faluting dramatic theory — it's all practical advice, with plenty of examples.

We were talking about character interaction. Johnstone gets right to the heart of it with a long chapter on 'Status'.
"Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner's," I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal... Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance.
I'm interested in status as one of the main motors of narrative. It's especially important on Tekumel, where every slight nuance of status is crucially important. Keeping the status differences between players small, as Johnstone recommends, ensures there is an ongoing struggle for face. If I am a noble army officer and you are a street sweeper, our interaction is likely to be stilted and sterile. If we are Yalunequ and Mashmirek, clan cousins of very nearly equal status, every meal, every transaction, every comment becomes a subtle war.
One status relationship that gives immense pleasure to audiences is the master-servant scene. A dramatist who adapts a story for the stage will often add a servant...
Yes, good point, Keith. But the master-servant thing is delightful to audiences. It's less interesting from an internal perspective. That's why, when you find master-servant relationships in games, one party (usually the servant) is often an NPC. The relationship is played to the rest of the group as audience, for comedy value.

I have played servants, but I think the only way for this to be personally rewarding (I mean, to the extent that you can inhabit the character rather than just playing them) is where the power relationship between the characters is not as clear-cut as it seems. An obvious example is a bound demon, genie or sandestin. On one level it's the inferior partner, the servant that must do as it's told. On another it's a powerful, cunning and malicious entity that the master knows he must command with care.

More subtly, a servant character could have advantages denied the master. (These should arise because of his servant status or they're not interesting. A servant who just happens to be a brilliant assassin is a yawn; one who is streetwise and wily where his pampered master is naive—now, there you have something to work with.)
When Eskimos believed that each piece of bone had only one shape inside it, the artist didn't have to 'think up' an idea. He had to wait until he knew what was in there—and this is crucial. When he'd finished carving, his friends couldn't say, "I'm a bit worried about that Nanook in the third igloo,” but only, "He made a mess getting that out!" or "There are some very odd bits of bone about these days."
Yeah, okay, Keith – enough about status. Now, I can't remember the context of the quotation above (it was probably from the 'Spontaneity' chapter) but I choose to regard it as Johnstone addressing the question of creation – specifically, the tools of creativity. Many people worry about dice, for example. “Does the use of dice destroy the purity of our role-playing games?” they say, though what they really mean is, “I feel that dice mark me out as a gaming nerd whereas I'd rather be thought of as an improvising artist.” (Ah, I see... it is still all about status. You are wise, Keith.)
Anyone can run an avant-garde theatre group; you just get the actors to lie naked in heaps, or outstare the audience, or move in extreme slow motion, or whatever the fashion is. But the real avant-garde aren't imitating what other people are doing... they're solving the problems that need solving, like how to get a popular theatre with some worthwhile content, and they may not look avant-garde at all.
The avant-garde. Oh yes, we know what that means in a role-playing context. It means setting great store by all the tricks and theories that supposedly will make us better role-players, but then not actually doing any real role-playing. Or fretting over nonsense like the use of dice, as if it mattered.

Dice are not the problem. Why? Because the system itself should be almost irrelevant. It's just a last court of appeal for players or referee to appeal to when inspiration or credibility fail. So, I use dice in my games but I prefer the sessions where dice are not needed. Nonethless, I see no stigma in saying to a player, “I wonder what the innkeeper thinks of what you've just said?” and then rolling dice to decide. When I'm refereeing, I like to be surprised too—and I like the players to know that this isn't just a story I'm telling them.

Would I use tarot cards, or the I Ching, or suggestions drawn from a hat? Not if it was obtrusive. But you can use anything, can't you? The music that's playing on the hi-fi (especially effective if the players don't notice the connection), the book titles on the shelves, the opposite idea to the one you first thought of. There are some odd bits of bone about, and that's no bad thing.
Many teachers get improvisers to work in conflict because conflict is interesting, but we don't actually need to teach competitive behaviour; the students will already be expert at it, and it's important that we don't exploit the actors' conflicts. Even in what seems to be a tremendous argument, the actors should still be co-operating and coolly developing the action.
Now, I can't agree with you here, Keith. This is back to the authoriality issue. Players aren't interested in the 'story', you see. Story is what happened in restrospect; character is all that matters to them. To get the most out of role-playing, you shouldn't be thinking, “What should my character be doing next?” You just do it. You should be channelling the character, not merely writing their lines. So players have no responsibility at all to treat each other a certain way. If a player says to me as referee, “I spot someone in the street who I used to know,” I think they must be bored with playing and they'd like to referee. If they say, “I used to stammer as a child, until I fell off the temple roof that time,” I think, fine, it's their past and they ought to know; I'll work it in. But if one player says to another, “I hear you just bought a falcon,” there's no onus on the other player to accept and add. He's perfectly entitled to speak in character and simply say, “No I didn't.”
Very often an audience will applaud when earlier material is brought back into the story... the reincorporation does give them pleasure. They admire the improviser's grasp, since he not only generates new material, but remembers and makes use of earlier events that the audience itself may have temporarily forgotten.
The serendipitous placement of this quotation (I'm reproducing them here in the order they occur in the book) inclines me to treat it as a reproach. Keith is reminding me that the rules of narrative creation still apply, even though I am saying I want no truck with authoriality. But I did say earlier that I allowed some authoriality from the referee. He does have responsibility to maintain the narrative (even if he's not consciously creating it) and one of the main things he should avoid is blocking. So, replying to the player-character with the stammer by saying, “You were never on the temple roof,” is a bad response. In other words, the rules of improvisation don't strictly apply between players, because the players inhabit the story. As the protagonists, they only “co-operate” to create the narrative in the sense that two real-life people arguing in the street are co-operating to create a fight. But those rules of improvisation do apply between a player and the referee, which is the interface where mutual narrative creation actually occurs.

I have to digress for a moment because, of course, you can break any rule once you have learned properly how to use it. So, when I said the referee should not block that player-character, there are ways to do so and still make it work. I could say (in character as a clan elder who happens to have overheard): “You only pretended to stammer to get out of lessons, you wretched boy. And you didn't fall off the temple roof at all, you pushed your cousin. He broke his wrist!” It isn't blocking because the player has the opportunity to take it either as what really happened or as an unfair and inaccurate view that others have of him. But this does remind me of a golden rule I would never break, which is that the player has complete authority for what his own character is like. It would be bad faith for me, as referee, to say, “You could have saved your cousin but you deliberately decided not to.” That’s the player’s decision alone.

I hate it when the referee makes value judgements about my characters, too. Who is he? He's not a player character, he's just the bloody referee. For all the power he has over the narrative from above, he has no right at all to intrude himself into it like the omnipotent narrator in an early Victorian novel. That's why I don't like the term 'game-master'. Master? Master of what? Bollocks. He's not a master of anything, he's a referee.

Sorry, Keith, I got a bit carried away. What do you reckon?
If I say, "Make up a story," then most people are paralysed. If I say, "Describe a routine and then interrupt it," people see no problem.
Now, that's certainly a good lesson for referees. Too often, of course, they write out the whole damned scenario and then the poor players are left desperately trying to claim participation (and inject some interest) by breaking routines, but the referee just won't allow them to do it. This is known as thatching, after our "cherished" former prime minister who famously would brook no contrary point of view. A lesser form of the same dictatorial approach is when the referee refuses to indulge the player-characters' concerns. That is, the referee decides that the campaign has a direction and a theme which is not the direction and theme that interest the player-characters. It's always more rewarding if referee and players can approach the session with an open mind.
You have to trick students into believing that content isn't important and that it looks after itself, or they never get anywhere.
You're right, Keith. Like those sessions where the players sit around waiting to be entertained. Everything feels blocked. I ask them what they want to do and they say, “Dave hasn't planned anything.” Then someone goes home at 10.30 and the game session is formally wound up. Suddenly, one of the players wants to go shopping for a sword: “I'll do it now so as not to disrupt the next game.” The other players tag along. He is about to buy a fine sword, but one of the other players wants it too. They argue, the sword is snatched – one of them cuts his hand. Another player calls the police, who say, “Unregistered duels on private property are illegal; you're under arrest.” The two characters who were squabbling are marched off to jail, now realising that the third character has stitched them up to get the sword. They swear revenge. But first they must escape...

At three in the morning the players finally go home. Why didn't they have that adventure hours earlier, during the 'session'? Because they thought they had to create the content. But it was waiting inside the bone all along.
* * *

I wrote the article above, which was inspired by
Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone, for Paul Mason’s classic RPG fanzine Imazine. You can get Impro here, and back issues of Imazine are available here. The reference to diceless RPGs dates the article, which appeared in 1999. At the time, dice-free gaming was the latest fad of the "too cool for rules" set. (Actually, for all I know it may still be.)


  1. This is an absolutely fascinating article.

    Thank you for sharing, as it echoes marvelously with the (unfortunately rather petty) argument I had with an individual who attempted to goad me into a diced v diceless argument.

    Also: I, too, have found that the best gaming I've ever had comes from the players unplanned interactions with each other and our fiction. Pre-planning encounters and situations honestly isn't any fun- I've only ever run a pre-published adventure once and it was a drag.

  2. Gosh, you were on a mission with that one Dave. The art of improv is not just useful for refereeing, it's indispensable for creating any character in fiction –the old think of a character and see how they react in such-and-such a situation.

    It's easy for the players; they only have to have their heads in the one character, the poor ref has to jump between characters.

    I'm with you on the dice thing for refs; the players will recognise that you are not omnipotent, and letting the Lady make the choice for you can make the narrative flow twitch in ways that surprises everyone.

    You still haven't convinced me not to have an underlying plot that happens simultaneously, though.