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.