Friday, December 11, 2009

Sentience, Sapience, Story

Where did "story" come from, functionally?

On this blog, I try to stay focused on things directly related to OCS. For most readers, this post might seem tangential and academic. But for me, it is part of the center of why I care about narrative.

Sentience is often defined as the ability of an organism to subjectively perceive ("sense") its environment. Here, I want to take a systemic, functional approach, and to instead define sentience as the ability of a system to respond and adapt (albeit imperfectly) to its environment.

I realize that by this definition, sentience can be applied to many unexpected things. Social institutions, perhaps. Ecosystems. Every living species, certainly. No subjective "consciousness" is required to respond to an environment, only some linking mechanic between environment and adaptive response. Theoretically, on some level, every sustained system in the universe requires this trait, because it is this very trait of adaptability that allows a system to fill an environmental niche in the first place, and to adapt as the environment changes. I call this force "systemic creativity".

The predecessors of humanity were certainly sentient by this definition. When the last ice age began to recede, our rodent ancestors stepped up and evolved to forest- and plains- dwelling primates. When changing environments created a niche for soft but clever tool-users, homo habilis and erectus evolved to fill the niche. These social creatures were undoubtedly the most brilliant of animals, and yet, they were not human.

It was another million years before homo sapiens rose and replaced (read: extinguished) its competitors. Homo sapiens; a new kind of mind, a new kind of sentience. Dictionaries define sapience as a synonym of wisdom, as the ability of an organism to understand, to judge. For our purposes, sapience will be the ability of a system to create its own pseudo-input, to simulate environments that are beyond the purview of immediate reality. Most species only adapt via evolutionary pressure, and then only because that pressure is present and immediate. A species cannot plan to evolve, cannot make any preparations unless the triggers of evolution (usually, either massive death or reproductive advantage) are present in the immediate environment. It seems that humans are uniquely able to pretend that the environment is different than it really is, for example by foreseeing a predictable future that has not yet come to pass. This can be seen as a subclass of sentience, a systemic extension of the ability to (still very imperfectly!) react and adapt to environment. So far, I think we have only witnessed only this kind of sentience in the human system. This imaginative extension of sentience is what we will call sapience.

All abstraction, all language, everything that makes us uniquely human can be seen as the result of this ability.

From this perspective, the human mind is a self-programming learning machine equipped with sophisticated simulation software. As discussed above, one can reason that this resulted from an evolutionary pressure towards the ability to make probabilistic appraisals of future events. Still, this may be the evolutionary reason for the ability to simulate, but it is not how the imagination works. No, for how could life encode the abstract temporal concept of "future" into the double helix? For that matter, it hardly seems likely that genetic code would prenatally restrict its hardware to simulating only realistic probabilities. With the blunt tools of DNA at its disposal, it seems more likely that life would treat the ability to simulate as of a single piece; fundamentally, such an engine could not separate a probabilistic appraisal of a future event from the most fantastical imagining, or from a false memory, or from the feverish hallucination of dreams...

Like Prometheus' fire, life gifted to humans the strange power of prophecy; to predict one day what may happen the next. Just like fire, prophecy carried with it its own destruction. How strange it must have been to the first humans, who "saw" (imagined) the first spirits. Before psychology, before even the explanations of organized spirituality, how did humans perceive their ability to synthesize pseudo-sensation? How did they explain the ghosts of their own minds? Was it a switch, to suddenly turn on, or did our imaginations slowly grow more vivid. Were the first People stoned to death for their madness, by their own neolithic mothers and fathers?

Whether it happened quickly or slowly, what began as an evolutionary pressure to predict the future became a fully integrated ability to simulate possibilities beyond immediate reality. It was the total integration of this ability, I think, that finally transformed the primate homo sapiens into Human People. Once we had the ability to simulate alternative realities, to imagine, we couldn't help but apply it to every facet of our lives. We applied it to playful behavior, and imaginative play was born. We applied it to divergent thinking, and occasional creative solutions became the steady march of innovation. We applied it to communication, and with that, we had access to abstract language. We applied it to our daily experience, and for the first time, we could imagine the existence of a "self", of an "other". This was the birth of "I" and "Thou", and before it, how could we have been called "human"?

At their most basic level, all of these abstractions are stories. I think that stories are the explanations that we use to tie our vast experiences (including these ceaseless pseuo-sensations, our simulated, imagined experiences) into a somewhat coherent whole. We call this our "worldview", our "identity", and we create it every day by the stories we tell. Collaborative storytelling, including storygames and Open Circle Story, are regulated systems of shared fantasy, wherein we come together to link our simulation engines via communication and create a common story and shared meaning. Talk therapy can be conceptualized as a specific kind of collaborative storytelling; when it works, it is the scaffolded restructuring of an individual's narrative framework, so that they learn to create meaning on their own and with others in a way that is more personally satisfying.

Within the next century, I want to see human sapience modeled by computational systems. I want to see humanity chart its own mind. I want to know, pragmatically, how external agents and systems can influence narrative to affect the transformation of our identities and behaviors towards more functional states. From my own experiences, it is my feeling that collaborative storytelling has a role to play in this journey, though what that role is and where I am supposed to fall into it are anybody's guess.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Elevator Speeches

I thought of this blurb/elevator summary this morning. What do you think of it?

Open Circle Story is a collaborative storytelling game that entirely replaces simulation with social contract. In the tradition and philosophy of storyjamming, Open Circle is like a meeting of Gamemasters or authors, creating and exploring worlds together. This game makes excellent training for a group of people who want to work on their GMing and their improvisational character portrayal skills. You can read more about it at

Saturday, December 5, 2009

OCS/Traditional Hybrid: Our First Session

A month ago, I posted about my conflicted relationship with traditional gaming, and how storyjamming eventually brought me full circle to try to find a way to bridge what we have learned back into the traditional gaming experience.

This Sunday, we put that goal into practice. I want to tell you a little bit about it from my perspective.

Karl, Jono, and I "gamemastered" collaboratively. This was a lot of fun; our extensive experience of Open Circle Story-jamming together really paid off. Throughout the evening, we created a much more immersive social world than any one of us could do alone. Player-characters frequently dealt with 2-3 NPCs at a time, many of whom were sometimes at odds with each other. I think that for the players, many of whom are still novices at this sort of thing, a large part of the experience was enjoying Karl, Jono, and my relaxed but well-practiced improvisation. Indeed, one of our goals going into this was further exploring OCS as an audience-participation performance art, wherein we nurture increasing involvement and confidence from participants over time.

We introduced this as an ancient Briton type story, something like a dirty Arthurian legend, but we made it clear that our vision was rough and that mostly we intended to respond to players' initiative in authoring the world. The story began at Lusk, the northernmost center of civilization in this place, a land in decline and under the threat of spreading fairy rings, mushroom circles.

Besides we three jammers, eight players and one observer attended. Experience varied greatly along both the trad. gamer and OCS-jammer axes. We had one 100% novice, some with decades of experience, and everything in between. This is a much larger group than traditional RPGs normally function with, and it was an interesting special challenge. We were somewhat prepared for this by Dramatis, the RPG system we chose to use: a system designed by Tyler Walls and myself, fine-tuned by Tyler over this last year, with some similarities to the prose descriptive quality (PDQ) system and more similarities to Ogre Whiteside's "Bridge System". This system streamlines many things while emphasizing dramatic, cinematic conflict, so seemed a perfect fit. A veteran storygamer can create a character in like 30 seconds using this system. It took us maybe an hour and a half to get rolling, which is longer than I hoped for pretty impressive given the size of the group and the fact that everything was created right there.

We were also prepared for this by some resources that we'd jammed up on notecards the day before the game. Each card bore an idea of a relationship to another character. Every player received two of these cards, even before they'd started character creation. They got to choose which of their two cards they placed on their left, and which on their right. The card on their left described something about their relationship with the character of the player to their left, etc. If we hadn't run out of cards, we may have given each player 3 cards so they could discard 1. As we handed the cards out, I advised players to talk about their cards with their neighbors as they chose which side to place them on, and to work out what kind of relationship that various arrangements implied, and by extension, what kind of characters they were. In this way, characters were created within the context of relationships.

Here's what the cards said:

1) Anything you can do, I can do better.
2) I can control you.
3) I need to help you succeed.
4) I must protect you.
5) You are my brother.
6) I fear you.
7) I see in you a part of myself that is painful.
8) I feel you control me.
9) I admire you.
10) You need my guidance, though you may resist it at first.
11) I owe you a big favor, even if you don't know it.
12) I know you are better than I.
13) You know something that I need to learn.
14) You have something that should be mine.
15) You serve the same master.
16) You are secretly family.

From that base, players started coming up with strong character concepts in collaboration with each other. After explaining the simple starting mechanics of Dramatis (choose 3 words or short phrases that describe strengths or skills of your character, basically), we GMs basically left the room to chat amongst ourselves while the players rocked out on characters. With such a large group, a player might not have a clue about the character of the person sitting across from them, but they were linked into the network via their neighbors.

Jono, Karl, and I agreed beforehand to somewhat differentiate our roles as GMs. Jono is taking point, being "in charge", filling what is normally thought of as the GM role in RPGs. He's hosting and arbitrating rules and setting up situations and playing NPCs. The heaviest weight is probably on him. But, he has Karl. Karl is jamming with Jono, creating and playing NPCs to enrich the story, playing around. Karl excels at humor, flavor, and disorganized inspiration, so he's great at this role. I'm taking a back seat in some ways, but my role is also very rewarding. My eye is always on the bigger picture, on character development, on the questions that are central to the story. I wrote a lot of notes to players, helping them ask interesting questions and guiding them towards interesting character interactions. I'm also heading up a lot of the subtle character adversity. I think that for all of three of us, this arrangement felt very natural and stress-free. Jono and I have both lamented about what we feel are the unfortunate stresses of GMing before, and it felt like a wonderful accomplishment to have such a fluid and enjoyable experience creating an exciting game for the players. I can only speak for myself, but I'm betting I had as much fun as any of the "players", and that's a first for me in the GM role (a role which I have often filled since I was eleven).

As characters continued to jam, I began circulating and talking to players about their characters. Mostly, I asked questions and helped them distill meaningful parts of their relationships and histories. Right now, I'm learning about socratic questioning and clinical assessment in my psychological training, and I've been thinking a lot about how that relates to this, but that's a story for another day.

I also took notes, to help myself understand how these characters were unique. In preparation for this game, Jono, Karl, and I had also jammed up some of the major archetypes that we expected to appear in this kind of story. Our reading of informed some of our conceptualizations of archetypes. We formulated the questions that we would expect to be raised in the narrative arc of each of these archetypes.

After interviewing each player about their character for a few minutes, and offering narrative guidance here and there (I gave a player an extra trait for adding the fact that he was a legion deserter, etc), I retreated to chat with Jono and Karl for a few minutes about the various characters and how they fell or didn't fall into the kinds of narrative archetypes that we'd drummed up. Below are the archetypes we had before we started playing. Obviously, things began to shift dramatically once we "went live", especially when we discovered that our group did not have a strongly indicated "Paladin/Hero" or "Lancer" (the two most important figures in the classic hero's band, whose lack we will have to think about some more as faciliators), but these resources were nevertheless invaluable to us at GMs, in terms of having quick starting points about what kinds of challenges were character-appropriate to throw at many various PCs. Over the next week, I (especially) need to spend some more time with my notes on characters and these archetypes, to generate a clearer vision of the questions that we should be asking characters through play.

Not all of these archetypes were meant for the PCs, of course. They only need to fill some of the roles. One of the big advantages of conceptualizing with such archetypes is that it can help us guide less experienced players to find a niche in the narrative that really belongs to them. It can be difficult or contrived for players when they feel they have to compete over narrative niches, or don't really have any idea where they belong in the story.

If you're playing in this game, you may want to exercise caution in reading the next section. There's no "spoilers", per se, but this kind of analysis of play can sometimes feel like it slightly diminishes dramatic oomph.

The archetypes we jammed up:

The Paladin (the Hero)
1) Seeks to right the wrong that is being directly or indirectly committed by the villains.
2) Maybe seeks to avenge the death of his old master, secretly killed by his current master.

1) Set up rivalry or clash of needs with leader.

1) Can he reconcile his superior ability with his lowly status? (So GM should put character down but give him opportunities to shine).

Big Guy
1) Vulnerable to powerful NPC that outclasses him and has it out for him. For once, he needs help from others.

The Guile Hero
1) Can you spiritually guide the group even though you're not ready?
2) Can you grow enough yourself to overcome the Mastermind?

1) Can he find/create the key before it's too late?
2) How will he cope with the mumbo jumbo?

1) Can she take care of herself, or does she always need others?
2) Will she choose her comrades or the other forces that vie for her attention?

Barbarian/Noble Tribal
1) Can he accept the new way of things?
2) Will he add his strength to his allies?

1) Find a bit of security and peace (probably through righting a personal wrong, getting justice). So GM's job is to make his life insecure, hectic, chaotic, and poor.

1) Innocence + Faith vs Magician's tool... martyr... the only one who can save us.
2) Will the Mastermind be surprised and destroyed by him?

1) Explore the relationship between inner/outer balance. As GM's we draw attention to inner or outer, opposite what the player is focusing on.

1) mostly silent... beyond conflict... only speaks when he can echo a character perfectly back on itself.

1) Can he fill in for the King who was destined to be (though he was meant to be a Lancer and free)? Should he? Will someone relieve him?

The Beast
1) Can it regain its place in the natural world? Can it be healed?
2) Can it tamed (to become the Blackguard)?

The Dragon
1) Why is it here?
2) Why must it be dealt with?

1) Can they transform the world?
2) Why are they trying?

The Mastermind
1) How will he turn the protagonists in on themselves?
2) How will he neutralize the Guile Hero and through him the Magician?
3) Why is he blind to the danger posed by the Priest?
4) What gives him the power to tame the beast?

Overall, I think almost every one of us (that's TWELVE of us, in the first session) walked away feeling satisfied, creatively energized, and excited for more. It was a subtle beginning; no huge payoffs yet, but I think that may be the best thing with such a large, mixed group. There are things I need to work on and think about before next week (Why does character monogamy seem to be paired with explicit character questions and goals? How can we further help some players continue to transition from audience to full participants?) , but all in all, I'd say our first experiment with OCS-gamemastership was a success beyond what we could've hoped for.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

[OCS Scenes] Saint Mary's: Chess


Saint Mary's is a tale that grew from our questions of disempowerment, of bullying, of youth. This is how I heard it told.

It seemed like everyone was older and taller than Elmo, and he didn’t know anyone.

“Welcome back St. Mary’s!” read the banner that spanned the width of the dining hall. Elmo slipped through the double doors at the front of the hall. I don’t want to be here. One month, his dad had finally agreed. One month, and they’ll let me come home.

He thought about making his way over to the punch table in the center of the hall. That was a good thing to do when you didn’t know anybody, right? Didn’t adults cluster around drinks at parties? Cocktail parties, thought Elmo. One huge freaking cocktail party.

Instead, he slid past the gathered circles of loud, older teenagers, towards the dimmest corner of the room. He sank back into a sofa crammed up against the wall there, relieved. From there, Elmo could watch the room. He was more comfortable studying them, unobserved. My new classmates, he thought. Charmed, I’m sure.

“Do you play?” came a voice from his left elbow. Elmo hadn’t noticed the boy. A blond kid stood against the wall, smiling, half-concealed by thick, tied-back curtains. A moment ago, he’d probably been sunk into them entirely.

“Do you play?” the boy asked again, as Elmo took him in. He had striking features, a graceful frame. Maybe two years older than Elmo. A golden child, no doubt, even though his greased-back hair and patched jeans tried to hide it. I thought they had a dress code. Elmo realized he hadn’t answered, and that he had no idea what the boy was talking about.

“Um, play?” He asked quietly, not breaking eye contact.

The boy moved suddenly, dropping into the sofa opposite Elmo’s, and slapping his hand on the table between them. “Chess!” he exclaimed. “The game of knights and kings! The only game fit for men!” Elmo had just noticed that the table was one of those chess-board-coffee-table affairs, but the boy didn’t slow down for him. With one hand, he started sliding open the drawers and pulling out the pieces inside. The other hand, he held out to Elmo.

“Peter Tyrone Fields,” he said. “And you're new here.”

“Uh,” said Elmo. “Yes. I am.” He slowly took Peter’s proffered hand. “Nice to meet you, Peter.”

Peter squeezed, hard, still smiling widely and setting out chess pieces with his left hand. “Oh, no, it’s Petey, please. My loyal sycophants all call me Petey.”

Elmo said nothing as Peter deliberately ground his fingers together. He only tried not to flinch. A moment later, the boy let go, and glanced down at the chess board.

“Why, you haven’t set up your pieces! Here, let me help you.” He began to lay out Elmo’s pieces for him. Elmo noticed that at least half of the hand-carved pawns were missing, replaced by buttons and pennies, and that one knight was actually what looked like a slightly crumpled paper crane.

“It must be hard,” continued Peter, after Elmo refused to fill the silence. “A lot of the students here aren’t very nice to newcomers. I’m not sure why! I guess they just don’t like you. Myself, I’ve always had a great fondness for you new kids. Your move.”

Elmo didn’t like this bully, and didn’t know why he’d been targeted. He liked even less that several others had started to gather nearby, watching. Elmo got the feeling that they were here for spectacle, and he hoped that didn't mean bloodsports were in order.

So he said, “I don’t want to play Chess with you, Peter Fields.”

The kids watching (there were more of them already) were surprised, but Peter seemed to take it in a stride (though Elmo thought the glint in his eyes might've turned a little more evil with the challenge). “Kiddo, I told you, I have a special fondness for new kids. That’s really why I want to play chess with you. I like you.” Peter had kicked up his feet on the sofa now, and hooked his hands behind his head. A contemplative look came into his eyes as he continued, “You seem like the book-y kind, so think of this as a pop quiz. If you get an A, you won’t be spending so much time in toilets or lockers this semester. I always find battles that matter more exciting, don’t you?”

Elmo was silent again, glancing down at the board. He reached out towards one of the pawns, and paused in mid-motion, fingers an inch from the piece.

“What if I walk away?” he asked, though he already knew the answer.

Peter’s eyes glittered with excitement, “Why, then you’ll find out what our audience is hoping for.” His voice was soft, but his grin was feral.

“So, you’re saying, if I lose to you at a single game of Chess, then you’ll torment me for the rest of this semester-”

“At least!” interrupted Peter.

“Right, at least. And if I win, then you’ll leave me alone?”

Peter became serious for the first time, before he answered with slow deliberation. “Scout's Honor,” he intoned.

Elmo looked at him directly again, his own face was barely more than a child’s face but as just as serious. He reached down and picked the pawn up from the table. “Then let’s play, Petey.”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Where the Magma Meets the Sea: Arrogance and Humility

If you check this blog more than occasionally, you may notice that our posts tend to change over time. Mine tend to change a lot within the first week of their publication.

When I write the First Draft of a post, I realize that my words will enter the infosphere and affect others. In my life, I am trying to learn to live softly, and I know that I have many passionate opinions and a strong voice that can make that difficult. So, I strive to write with humility. On the First Draft, I almost never succeed.

I don't publish it right away. I give it some time, wait until I can see it clearly, come back to it, and post it when I feel like it's tempered. This is the Second Draft, and it's definitely better than the first. "I've got it!", I think, and I post it.

Now, usually, this is the right decision, but not for the reason I think. It's the right decision because at that point, I've come as close to authentic humility as I can within the echoey halls of my own head. It's only when my dear friends and readers read the post, and start telling their stories and asking sincere questions that my perspective widens those few extra inches and I'm able to see my way to the Third Draft.

Usually, in the Third Draft, I manage to complete my transition away from the cultural forces of "truth" and "directives", away from arrogance, and towards personal story. I think I'm at my best when I'm telling stories that are about me, but to get there, I sometimes have to work through countless hours of training in polemics, debate, and formal academic communication.

Anyway, for me, this blog is the place where the magma meets the sea. Like Storyjam, it is both personal and social, neither diary nor oratory. I hope that we can keep being patient with each other, so that together, we can keep telling and refining the beautiful things out of the complex chaos of the Stories That Are Us.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

OCS Methods: Core Warmups, Johno's Story

Count to Twenty:

We begin with laughter, jokes, and off topic banter. Our minds wandering across our daily tasks and weekly events. Finally Julian breathes deeply as he sits in his chair. Silence falls. I quiet my mind, and heart. "One" I find myself saying, shortly followed by a "Two". To twenty we count, sometimes slow, other times with blinding speed. I close my eyes and feel the numbers wash over me. I listen for the cues, the signposts, of a mind at work. Sometimes I begin to hesitate, ~should I voice the next number?~ In unison Karl and I say "Seven". It begins again. I follow my heart and intuition. It says speak, and you shall be heard. It says listen, for others need be heard. With my senses open I follow the story of our numbers, heeding the tale that my companions tell. "Nineteen" says Julian, followed by silence. It is my time, "Twenty". Our story is told.

Word Popcorn:

Cow, milk, white, dress, socks. The words flow from one mouth to another. Without shame or regret, we speak our minds. A smile, a snort, a laugh. These are the only comments made. Freeing my filter I let my speech take life. For some time we speak, one word at a time, letting our creative spirit guide us to some unknown location. A collaborative jumble of different concepts and themes. Ahh, the feeling of fresh story in its unadulterated form.

Word at a Time Story:

Word Popcorn, instant gratification. Satisfying, yes, but always leaves me wanting more. Karl says "Darth Maul" and immediately I find my thinking ~yes, this is a story~. With little hesitation I say "was", and Julian picks up on my verbal cue. He sees the story developing, and the lightbulb shining brightly above my head. "a" he says, a simple word, but also a vital sign that we have successfully switched from our random association to something more meaningful. "Darth Maul was a good Jedi" we begin, one word at a time the story is crafted. Short and sweet, the perfect Word at a Time Story. Paying careful attention to what we are creating, the stream continues, the tale unfolds. It flows faster now, our goal more clear as the end nears. "Jar Jar Binks, Darth Maul's careless but effective cohort, lassos Leia around her legs and pulls her to the ground." Delicious Word at a Time Story, how I love ye.

We now find ourselves focused, in tune with each member in our group. Our stories were mere numbers, words, and phrases, but the end result is the same. Together we create something more than any one of us could do alone. Together we bring story to life, feeding off the creative energy we have pooled. Collaborative story, what would I do without you?

Monday, November 16, 2009

OCS Methods: Core Warm-ups

OCS Methods Table of Contents:
Core Warm-ups <-- You Are Here
Play Obviously
Dear Diary
Hand Signals
Popcorn Scenes
Story Map
Character Scenes
Practice Craft

OCS Core Warm-ups
We do these core warm-ups every OCS session. We usually spend 15-30 minutes here, but groups new to focused improv may need to spend longer at first. We do these in this order every time, because each step prepares players for the next.

Count to Twenty

In Count to Twenty, we warm up our focus, quiet our distractions, and center on being able to hear with our hearts and respect each other.

The host begins by saying "One". Then, the group is silent, attentively listening. When it feels right, someone else says "Two". If multiple voices speak up to say "Two", and so sound together, then the game is reset and someone says "One", again. The goal is to count to twenty without interrupting.

Sometimes, we try to "game the system" by counting swiftly on our own or trying to fall into a simple pattern (like counting around the circle). Even as veterans, we sometimes try to fall back on more subtle "systems", to avoid the intense authentic and intuitive focus that Count to Twenty calls for. In these cases, we gently remind ourselves of the purpose of this exercise and begin again.

Sometimes, anxiety gets the better of us. If we've had a really hard week, or are new to OCS, we might find ourselves rushing, repeatedly speaking at the same time as others, and laughing nervously or freezing up. Sometimes, we'll notice this happening to others, and that can bring up our own pain and fears. If this happens, slow it down, breathe, and listen. Working through that anxiety and distraction is the point of this exercise. Those who learn how to Count to Twenty know how to quiet their hearts, listen, and play softly. Occasionally we may spend twenty minutes on this exercise alone (though five minutes is more typical), and that's okay, as long as we arrive at a place of gentle focus. If we can't center enough to Count to Twenty, it's probably a sign that we are unable to center enough to storyjam together.

As more experienced jammers, we sometimes try variations by increasing the number goal to 25 or 30, by playing with our eyes closed, or by trying to predict who is going to speak next (I like to look around the group and imagine lights over each player's head, including my own. The brighter the light, the more my intuition is telling me that it is for that person to speak next). We also try synchronized counting to ten or so (everyone says each number together), with no rhythm or leader.

When we first assemble, it's normal for us to come from a place of stress, avoidance, frantic speech, nervous laughter. This simple game gives us permission to begin being open to each other, to put our defense mechanisms away.

Word Popcorn

In Word Popcorn, we shake up our basic creativity, learn to play obviously, and let ourselves be unashamed.

The host begins by saying any word. The player to the host's right listens attentively to the word, and then speaks their own word that most immediately comes to mind. The player to the right of that player listens, speaks a new word, and so forth around the circle continuously.

We often feel exposed when first trying this exercise, though warming up enough with Counting to Twenty helps. If we're feeling guarded or are beginners, a natural response is to protect ourselves by "over-thinking" our contributions, to use our brains instead of our hearts, to come off as clever, to depreciate our own or others' contributions. When we succeed at the purpose of word popcorn, we enter a space where we are focused on quickly, naturally, and intuitively responding to the words of the person before us, without shame, judgment, planning, or thought.

Humor often becomes endemic to Word Popcorn, and that's fine with us as long as it emerges naturally out of performing the exercise authentically. We practice the idea that trying to be funny is usually not the best way to be funny. We usually play Word Popcorn for about ten minutes, but sometimes it feels good and right to play for as long as twenty or more minutes.

Word at a Time Story

Often, we organically transition out of Word Popcorn when the free association spontaneously becomes prose. One of us will say "Clouds", and instead of responding with "Dragons" or "Rain", the next person authentically responds with the word "covered". From there, if we're listening carefully, we'll realize that "Clouds covered..." is the beginning of a sentence, which is the beginning of a story. The next player might say "the", and the next "western", and the next "slopes", and so on. Other than the shift to continuous story, this game plays identically to Word Popcorn.

Partly because of the influence of comedy improv, we sometimes have a tendency to approach games like Word at a Time Story with an initial intention to create wacky non-sequitur humor. When we're warming up for Open Circle Story, this is the opposite of our intention. Instead of trying to say the unexpected and throwing the next player off balance, we try to key into the group narrative and to say the most intuitively obvious thing.

We succeed at Word at a Time Story when we're attentive and in the moment, and yet also hold in mind a clear vision of the scene so we can better reincorporate the larger arc of the plot as it forms. When we're successful, we create logical, simple stories that make sense, regardless of whether they are funny or interesting.

Sometimes we use variations on Word at a Time Story, like Oracle, wherein one player asks a question and the other players answer it 1 word at a time. Other variations include Word at a Time haikus and Line at a Time songs or poems.

We usually take ten minutes or so to tell two or three Word at a Time Stories, but if we're struggling to put together a simple, cohesive story in this exercise, it's a sign that we need to prepare more before we move past warm-ups. We take the time we need.

Sometimes, we notice that some or all of us are repeatedly getting lost and confused by the story. In this case, we remind the group to Play Obviously (to Keep it Simple and Stupid), and we keep working at Word at a Time Story.

Sometimes, we notice that some or all of us are blocked and are having to force contributions. In this case, we fall back to Word Popcorn until everyone is opened up.

Sometimes, we notice that some or all of us are making jokes, anxiously laughing, and that we're having trouble focusing. In this case, we fall back to Count to Twenty until we're ready to center. We might even decide to play a more simple game, like a board game or cards, if even centering seems unattainable. Often times more relaxed activities will allow us to let go of anything that may be troubling our mind, thereby freeing our thoughts and letting us focus more on the circle.

When we have many beginners with us, we may spend much of our session "warming up". Even when we're veterans, we still have much to do to master the essential storytelling skills of listening and jamming softly, and working on those skills is an excellent use of our time. We know that it's better to take the time we need than to push forward and find ourselves frustrated by the crew's inability to engage fluently with the challenges of the more complex stages of OCS. If we push forward and leave even one person behind, we're asking for interpersonal conflict, and ultimately for them to drop out of our crew.

Thanks to Willem Larsen for being the first to formulate much of the original discussion on the pedagogy of play.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Dragons I've Dumped (The Dungeons I've Deserted)

This is one of my stories, of how I came to be here.

Back in my middle school years, the "popular" kids called me "king of the nerds". I don't think this was intended as a compliment, but you know, you take what you can get.

In those halcyon days, I spent my lunch hours destroying my friends at Magic: The Gathering and DMed Dungeons and Dragons every Saturday night, all night. Back then, I could reign in a group of 6 or 7 of my rambunctious teenage peers, run an exciting hack and slash about The Adventures of Harly's Mercenary Team in Mount Dread, and (with the demonic power of a gallon of Mountain Dew) stay awake for ten hours or more until the rising sun signaled the heroes to adjourn until another week. Needless to say, Sundays were a wash, and I may have compromised my ability to ever have children. But it was worth it!

It was also stressful as hell. At the time, I thought that the unarticulated stress which I felt when GMing was just an implicit part of the game. Certainly, some of it was the jungle of adolescence, the raw experience that could only be processed through the illumination of the telling of my own stories. But though I didn't realize it at the time, part of the stress was also a symptom of the method of Dungeons and Dragons: of the story engine (a term coined by Jake Richmond) that runs that particular system of collaborative narrative.

That engine goes largely unexamined by most traditional gamers. In some places, the assumptions behind that engine are lampooned as inevitable idiosyncrasies of gaming (much like my perception of the stresses of D&D when I was a youth). I'm very sympathetic to this viewpoint; after all, it was only after a decade of frustrated effort and good influences that I managed to figure out a little bit about what those assumptions were, which ones I liked and which I didn't, and how I could design alternatives which met my needs better. I ruined more than my share of woodblocks.

I struggle, now, with how to talk about the relationship between traditional games and the kind of story games that I create and play. I don't want to say that OCS is a better a game than Dungeons and Dragons, or Rifts, or Mouseguard, or any other game.

In fact, as much as I enjoy Open Circle Story, I've come to realize that there are certain things that it just doesn't quite do on its own. There's a thrill to the roll of the dice, to those high-stakes moments when, story arc be damned, life, limb, and legend are all on the line. There is something to be said for good blow-by-blow stunting, for high-flying action sequences, that OCS (with its systematic focus on essential relationship over irrelevant action) only rarely delivers.

This, more than anything else, has given me the grace to remain open to traditional RPGs and hack-and-slash mechanics. The question of this relationship came to the forefront very suddenly within the last few weeks, in conversations with my core crew (Johno and Karl both come from even more traditional gaming backgrounds than I do) and in talking with my old game design partner, Tyler Walls, who remained with more traditional designs when I started working on storyjam structures. From those conversations, an idea began to form.

In OCS, the entire crew shares the singular task of harmonizing with each other and deepening/advancing the story. We strive to hold very lightly to the (valid) distractions of personal social advancement, of protecting specific character(s), of escaping real-life worries. We can never rid ourselves of these distractions, but we can learn to recognize them and hold them lightly (the easier to let them go) when we tell collaborative stories. Ideally, when we OCS-jam, we serve only two masters. We are concerned with 1) a harmonious group dynamic and 2) the power of the narrative arc. Like a good gamemaster.

Like a good gamemaster! And there it was, the connection that powered our newest idea. When we OCS-jam, we have no GM. We are all fully responsible for the story, so in a sense, we are all GMs; that is, we all serve what a good GM serves.

When I next post on this topic, I'll talk about how we ran a more traditional RPG with, instead of a gamemaster, the improvisation of 3 OCS-jammers at the helm.

Guidelines and Standards

Over at GoPlayPDX, Willem Larsen authored a set of guidelines for authentic interpersonal communication.

My friend Joel Shempert told me an evocative little story about how forums are like crowded town squares, where everyone is shouting to be heard. Blogs and personal websites are more like hearths, or campfires.

This is our campfire, and we'd love to share it with you. We do ask that you honor our little customs, though they may look strange to you. We borrow these from Willem's guidelines, adjusting only for context:

For every post or comment you make, please pause for a moment before you click "post", and ask three simple questions of it:

1) Did I Tell my Story?

2) or, Did I Ask a Question?

3) Did I Interpret other posts Generously?

What does this mean, more specifically? Every post should either ask a Question, or Tell Your Story.

Asking a Question means sincerely making a request to hear someone else's Story of how they experience the world.

Telling Your Story means doing this for others, speaking from your own experience on what works for you, what doesn't work, what you felt, seen, heard, and what conclusions you've made.

Interpret Generously means interpreting other posts by assuming as much intelligence and compassion as yourself, in the person who wrote it. Of course, if what someone else wrote still doesn't make sense to you, you can always Ask a Question so that you can more fully hear their Story.

We see these guidelines as a kind of self-check for adult conversations. Sometimes we get off track without realizing it; these guidelines exist as much for you to guide your own conversations, as they will for the blog admins to remind you when necessary.

Things that fall squarely outside of these guidelines: unsolicited advice ("you should do this, not try that, think differently, have this conversation somewhere else, etc."), telling someone else's story ("people will think you're stupid if you do that, you have fear issues, nobody will think that game is fun, etc."), and asking an insincere question ("do you actually think that would work? that sounds terrible, why would anyone play that game? etc.").

If the admins see you struggle with incorporating these guidelines into your comments, we will hold off on approving your comment and try to contact you with a simple reminder so that you can find another way to tell the story you want to tell.

Conduct yourself as a guest here, and you'll do fine.

Authors and Admins!

From you, we ask for all the same respect as above, and a little extra.

So you have a great idea, and you finally get a chance to sit down and write it out. You spend twenty minutes, or an hour, or three hours, and finally, it's done! What's next? Post the damn thing, right?

As tempting as it is to get your great ideas out there right away, I ask that you don't. Instead, here's what I suggest: save your work as a draft (using the "save now" button at the bottom of the new post page) and walk away. Digest it. Think about if you're really telling the story that you want to tell. Give your admin friends a chance to take a look at your draft and maybe offer some feedback. After all, the internet is a big, scary place, and our little safety net of fellow authors is the only thing between you and a ravenous void of embarrassing backpeddling.

If you write a long, in-depth article, maybe it's best to break it up into two or three "chapters", and post those over the course of the week. If you think you might be coming off a little strong, maybe you can pull it back and rewrite certain parts from a place of humility. It's just like a soft loaf of homemade bread; when you take the time to sit with your post, it'll rise to a new level, and the outcome will be that much fluffier.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Goal #2: How We Came Here

We believe that pretty much all communication consists of stories.

So, I want to tell you a tale about the way we OCS-jammers tell stories, and how we came to this, and why.

Like any good epic, this one has multiple interconnected levels. Yes, there are the tiny, seemingly insignificant, but essential struggles of the protagonists (that's us!), and there's also the immersive world, the social environments that smelted us as surely as iron in the forge.

We've got a couple posts in the works right now. One is mostly about how I (Julian), left the traditional gaming village of my youth to learn about the great big world of narrative, and about how my mind still turns to home. This culminates in our current thoughts about an OCS/traditional game hybrid, that we plan to start testing with a group of players within the month.

The other is a take on the historical basis of traditional RPGs, and a critical look at the implicit assumptions of RPGs that we all once (and most of us still do) believed were the only way to play. I want to flesh out some of these assumptions because the story of Where We Came From helps us to craft the story of Where We Now Live.

It's usually easiest to talk about new things in comparison to old things. As we try to talk about the stuff that OCS is made of, I expect us to often fall back on contrasting it with traditional RPGs, with improvisational theater, and with freeform role-playing.

I hope that gradually, we can move beyond these comparisons, and learn to talk about what OCS is, not what it's not.

Finally, some food for thought for my crewmates aboard this sturdy vessel:

How did we come to OCS?
Why have we stayed?
How has it changed us?

"But I've never storyjammed before!"

It is common to be daunted by the task of improvising story, many beginners spend their first sessions merely listening to the more experienced jammers craft tales. I was in this very same position when I participated in my first session of serious storyjamming. But it is important to remember that we all tell stories everyday.

Every time you explain how your day went, or relate an experience you had, you are telling a story. Sometimes these are true stories, where you use actual facts to guide your narration, and other times they are false or doctored stories. Things as simple as a conversation, and as complex as a trial are stories of their own sort.

Like a child learning to speak, we learn to tell better stories. We hone our skills, listening to the stories in each day, applying our whole body and mind to the telling. We hold ideas lightly, listen and speak to our peers, and express our imagination. Our reward is the sweet gift of story, in whatever form it may come.

Goal #1: So you want to jam a story...

First, you need a crew. If you're lucky enough to live in Eugene, Portland, Seattle, or somewhere else that storyjammers abound, then it shouldn't be too hard for you to connect with some like-minded story tellers who are willing to give Open Circle a try.

As you probably know, there are many different ways to create collaborative story. Storyjamming is a particular philosophy of collaborative storytelling, while OCS provides a specific set of methods to facilitate your experience of learning and play. The best way to pick up OCS is to start observing and participating with an experienced group.

More often than not, that won't be possible, so one of our goals in this blog is to teach OCS. That is, to communicate the structures and examples that'll help jumpstart a novice crew in their path towards becoming fluent and fluid OCS-jammers.

I think our first foray into this will be an attempt to paint a rough picture of what a session of OCS looks like.

Faerie Tales image

I photoshopped a little something something for OCS yesterday.

Julian calls out:
Inside the pages of this story, not even the faeries know what you'll find.

Johno calls back:
And with the turning of each page, another mystery revealed in your mind.