Matthijs Holter

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.

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