Matthijs Holter

Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

Design notes II – The characters

In Design notes on August 31, 2010 at 12:30 pm

In Society of Dreamers, when you create characters, each player makes two cards for each of the following:

  • Gender or sexuality
  • Nationality
  • Age
  • Occupation

Then, you get everyone’s cards together, making four stacks. (So my “Age” cards are in the same stack as everyone else’s).

After this, you draw one card from each stack to make your character. You’re allowed to trade one of your cards for a new one.

So what does this mean for the game?

This has some interesting effects. First of all, it allows the group as a whole to define the potential characters for the game. (If there’s one thing that I really like about this game and Archipelago, it’s how they handle group input by making each player’s contribution part of a greater whole, something greater than the sum of the parts. It’s a transcendent mechanic, I think you could say.) Even if some players have ideas that diverge strongly from the group’s, those ideas will be… assimilated into the whole. And in defining this potential, the players are already creating the setting; by coming up with ideas, looking at others’ ideas, and forming these fragments from other players’ brains into a whole – a character. We’re already performing magic here.

The second thing, which is pretty obvious, is the removal of self; the loss of control. I can not decide what my character will be like. I can only affect the decision in a limited, statistical fashion. Right from the start, as a player, I have to accept that I am not in complete control of anything.

The third thing, which is one of my favorite tiny bits (and something that would never have happened if I hadn’t run this through so many iterations), is the option to swap only onecard. Notice how this is very different from just throwing your entire character out. It’s a trick! It makes you feel like you’re in control: If you decide to swap one card, you’ve implicitly accepted all the others. You suddenly feel like this character, which is completely random, is something you chose to play.

This acceptance has an important by-effect: Other players are now free to play on all your character traits. If you didn’t swap away “transgendered”, or “dirt poor”, or “too young to be significant”, that means you’ve accepted that others can use those traits – as counterpoints, as challenges, for touching scenes. It means you didn’t shy away from the difficult parts of your character. They’re there, on the table, for everyone to see.

(I didn’t just come up with “transgendered”, by the way. A lot of games get characters with interesting genders or sexualities. I think it’s just a result of players trying to come up with something original instead of just “male” or “female”; I like it a lot, since it’s another aspect of liminality – being on the border between things we usually see as very separate, transgenderedness resonates with the bleed of dream into reality or vice versa.)

Some do’s and dont’s

The common thing to say in all creative exercises is “don’t be original”. Trying to come up with something Weird And Different can make your ideas stilted and contrived. However, in creating character cards, this doesn’t really matter much. Even if you write “Transgendered” on a card, the other cards making up a character might be “British”, “Office worker” and “34 years old”. Having something that makes the character colorful is only cool.

However, do try to balance it, at least 50/50. Don’t only make “interesting” cards, and don’t only be “realistic”.

You might want to push against the norm. If your group usually plays only male characters, here’s your chance to make sure someone plays a woman – fill out both gender cards with “female”. Or if they’re usually always about social realism and no conflict, fill out the occupations with “enthousiastic soldier” and “secret assassin”.

Make sure the nationalities you pick are ones that the group has at least a little bit of knowledge about – or associations to. Don’t pick “Bulgarian” if nobody even knows if that’s a real country. Definitely pick nationalities where you can picture some land- or cityscapes in your mind!

Old photos

In Inspiration and vibes on August 23, 2010 at 9:43 am

It’s wonderful to see these pictures from an age that’s so close, but just beyond reach. Countries that aren’t all that far away from where I live, but where they speak languages from a different language family, follow religions I don’t follow, read books I’ve never heard of. A lot of the people in these pictures probably had jobs that no longer exist.

Still, they’re going for a swim with their friends; hanging out in the shade of a tree.

Any of these people – any of them – could be used as a character in Society of Dreamers.

Russia in Color, a Century Ago
Hungarian Amateur Photography, starting in the 1900’s
People of the Imperial Russia (a big page with lots of pics; you can see the Flickr photostream here instead, if you want)

Design notes I – Rituals

In Design notes on August 21, 2010 at 5:39 pm

(This post has been edited to add the section “Doing it right and doing it wrong”. Thanks for the tip, David!)

There are opening and closing rituals to the game. They’re there for several reasons – each has a function.

You know at the circus, how there’s sequins and weird costumes? How the ringmaster announces everything in an outrageous accent? How they always pretend at least one stunt almost went fatally wrong? And you know it’s all fake. But it still has an effect on you.

The rituals are like that. They’re not really about anything – you’ll notice they’re not really part of a belief system. But they give you a feeling of being part of a magical gang, your own little society. And they give you an expectation of things to come.

Having an opening and closing ritual contains the gaming space. They’re very strong demarkations of when you’ve actually started playing – stepped into the world of play. In Society of Dreamers, there’s no milling about and wondering whether the game’s started or we’re still just chatting. No: We get down, and we get serious. We are no longer in the normal world of social affairs – we’re starting a ritual.

The banishing rituals are a trick that gets you just a little uncomfortable – or, at least, they work that way with me. They imply that some spiritual danger exists. Once the rituals are there, if you don’t perform them, you implicitly open yourself to Bad Influences. Players who go into the game thinking the rituals are silly, say afterwards that next time, they’ll be using them.

The visioning ritual is there to create a bond between the players, and to give their inner dreamers, their subconscious – if you believe such things exist – the message that we’re all connected; we’re all creating this together; this will shine.

If you were to pin these rituals to a specific tradition, I guess you could call them chaos magic. The visioning ritual is based on something by Phil Hine. Do you need to believe in anything to perform them? Do you need belief, for the rituals to have an effect? I don’t think so. I don’t much believe in Father Christmas, but I can still sing songs about him and pretend (with the kids) that he gives us presents. That’s part of what makes it Christmas, after all.

And the rituals are part of what makes your gaming group a Society of Dreamers.

Doing it right and doing it wrong

It’s easy to do it right when you know how. But it’s easy to get uncertain if you’ve never done things like this before – rituals in a game setting.

First and foremost, the right attitude is important. Don’t make it into a bigger thing than it is – we’re just people walking, shouting, talking, visualizing things. We’re not occultists or firm believers or actors or whatever. At the same time, don’t make a joke of it, or try to get it over with quickly. If you don’t want to do the rituals, don’t do them – you’ll miss out on an important part of the game, but you won’t ruin anything. Performing them badly because you’re not sure of what you want to do will have a negative impact on the game. Speak the words clearly, take the time needed, don’t try to fake anything that isn’t there.

Second, be aware that everything has an effect. Maybe it’s just because we’re humans and like things to open and close – but if you do the opening rituals without the closing one, chances are at least someone in your group will feel uncomfortable about it, possibly hours later. If you’ve started it, make sure to end it formally with closure.

Third, whoever’s in charge of the rituals – as in, reading the script – should use their natural authority. Steady voice, head held high and still, no fidgeting, speak calmly. You’re the focus of the group while this is going on; it’s not your person that’s important, but your composure.