Matthijs Holter

Archive for the ‘Design notes’ Category

Design notes III – Dream scenes

In Design notes on November 14, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Dream scenes are very simple to play, I think. Obviously! I wouldn’t use rules that I find hard to follow. But I’ve seen others have problems with them, so they deserve a little explanation.

Here are the rules from the text:

You, the instructor, decide who’s going to do the diving. Set the scene as usual – describe the surroundings, who’s present, the atmosphere. You (or the group) should establish how the dive will be performed. Is the group using new, ground-breaking technology? Occult rituals? Drugs? Surgery?

Once the character – the dream diver – has dived in, the player should close his or her eyes. You describe a dream image that shows the dream diver’s surroundings.

Now the scene proper starts. One of the other player says what the dream diver should do in the dream. The diver answers what he or she sees happen in the dream – how the landscape changes, what other dream creatures do, etc. In other words, the dream diver never describes their own actions, and the other players don’t describe the dream.

There are three positions here, and they all have certain responsibilities and recommended techniques.

If you’re the instructor…

…you are providing the fertile ground and seed for the entire scene: The first image. This should be like an open question, like a surrealistic painting. Go for atmosphere. Conflict- or drama-oriented scene framing is possible, but beside the point – you don’t want to push for specific reactions; you want to put the dreamer somewhere they can explore.

Bad images: “You’re running down the alley, hunted by assassins!” “You’re standing in the Throne Room where the King holds a speech: <bla bla bla, long exposition and answer to some mystery>”

Good images: “You’re in a field of red flowers, surrounded by mountains. Each mountain is piercing a star. One of the flowers, at your feet, is unusual.” “The King speaks to you in a strange language. In his mouth you see a silver key, but his tongue is black with poison.”

You want a starting image that’s a springboard for random associations. That’s how you get to the other players’ dreams.

If you’re the dream diver…

…you have no responsibility. You are an empty vessel. You do not try to be creative. You accept everything that comes to you. When they ask you what you see, what happens, say what you see. Do not think. If you see nothing, say so. If you see something you do not want, or do not understand, describe it. It is not yours.

…there’s one thing, though: Whatever you see, try to describe it through your character’s eyes. If you (for some reason) see Michelle Obama, for instance, don’t use the name. Describe. Say that you see a strong and beautiful woman, powerful, dressed in wealthy clothes.

…things can happen that don’t make sense. Perhaps the Dreamer (the person whose dream you are in) seems to know things about your character, or even share experiences and memories with your character. Perhaps they know the future. Perhaps your character’s identity morphs and changes, or is lost. That’s all great! In dream scenes, boundaries are liquid and irrelevant.

If you’re one of the other players…

…you steer the dream diver around like an avatar.You tell them what to do, where to look, what to say.

…you do NOT EVER tell the dream diver what happens around them! It’s like being in contact with a deep-sea diver, with no connection except a noisy radio. You can tell the diver to pick up objects and inspect them; you can’t see the objects yourself. All you know, comes through the diver.

…you’re still in character! It’s your character telling the dream diver what to do.


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!

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.

Design sources and inspirations

In Design notes on March 10, 2010 at 5:44 pm

[Note: Links have been added.]

The game itself is a conglomerate of techniques and ideas from several gaming cultures and traditions. It has gone through many versions. It is possible it will always be in a state of flux and mutability, hard to pinpoint. However, one way to start is to try to remember the many sources of the design. These are in pretty random order!

Clyde Rhoer’s Silence Keeps Me A Victim (the game isn’t available anymore, I believe, but there’s an interview with the author here.) I have yet to play this evocative game; but I’ve used Rhoer’s dream technique as a central piece of the Dream scenes in Society of Dreamers.

My own Archipelago. The basic group attitudes of trust and responsibility and the focus on group processes is central.

Jonathan Walton’s Mwaantaangaand is probably where I first picked up the idea of having scenes represented physically on a board. I’ve later used it in different ways in other games; here it inspired the Ouija board mechanism.

Ritual ideas from Nordic larps such as those designed by Erlend Eidsem Hansen and Eirik Fatland.

Phil Hine’s Condensed Chaos – even though I don’t usually practise magic (?), the idea of using rituals from all sorts of traditions and sources reflects how I make games these days.

Ole Peder Giæver and Martin Bull Gudmundsens Itras By – the prime game of European surrealist fantasy.

Ben Lehman’s Polaris was the first game I played which really deconstructed the GM role and distributed it among the players.

Willem Larsens blog College of Mythic Cartography.

The situationist international and their psychogeography.

The ideas of dream researcher Jim Ashtrottle.

I’ve discussed the game extensively at and in real life, and it’s hard to remember what suggestions I ended up incorporating. I know it was Anders Nygaard (designer of the New Middle Ages) who inspired me to let the players create/explore the mnemosite as part of play, and Ole Peder Giæver (designer of Itras By) who said the mnemosite could be undefined to begin with. And, of course, the basic idea was a challenge from Øivind Stengrundet (designer of Wanderer).

I’m sure there are many, many more. But this will give you an idea of what sort of concepts the game is built of.