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.

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