So I’m back from Peaky, the game writing weekend, after a few hours on site. I left at breakfast on the first full day, with a full refund and a lift to a train station, but still pretty dejected and out of pocket through trains. An organizational cock up led to someone not being assigned a bed at this residential con, and unfortunately they nicked mine. As it was the middle of the night and everyone apart from me and Roger seemed to be pretty merry or asleep, I tried to doss down on a sofa and cricked my neck. Unable to sleep – it gets cold down in the living rooms with no heating and no bedding, I wandered around the site until 6am when other folks got up. Still thanks to Graham A, Ali and Alison I got a good breakfast before I left, and thanks to the wondrous Andrew Sceats who lent me money and the excellent Martin Jones who really came through by driving me to a station I got a train home and was asleep by 1pm. I’m really upset about missing out on one of the two events I am doing this year for such a pointless reason – and it looks like with finances as utterly desperate as they are I might miss Consequences as well, which given my current annoyance/dejection/misery might be a good thing.
Anyhow this time we went with Graham W’s idea of writing a game about Romance. I think he means “romantic love”; Romance is of course a complicated set of genres, and I did not think we were going to create a Gothic Romance, or an Arthurian Romance, or any other “fabulous” tale. We took it as more Mills & Boone romance I think, but I missed some of this discussion as I was trying to locate my room in the absence of post it notes with names on the door, or room numbers etc :(
What Happened at Peaky…
Anyway we split in to two groups – Mo Holkar, Kath Banks, Tony Mitton, Nick Curd, Steve Hatherley and Graham W in one, who said they were going to do something more Nordic/Experimental (I doubt it will be more Nordic than me – they all seemed quite British! ;) ) and Richard Perry, Roger G, Natalie Curd, Elyssia and myself in the other. I was *very* happy with my group. I think the others produced 4, a “horror game that felt horrific” last year.
So I got to write with a bunch of people I really love writing with; all great game writers. Unlike the ‘Nordic group’ I’m not so invested in game theory – mainly because I don’t know much bar what Nathan has pointed me at over the years, but I figured if we were going to write a game about Romantic love it should be, well romantic ;) This is a fault I need to remedy – a lot of Nordic LARP seems to derive from Improv theory, but I have spent a few happy evenings reading the Jeep site.
The group stormed through some amazing ideas, and were creating a fine game when I had to leave. I would have offered to write a couple of characters from here but I don’t think that would work – you have to be present to actually know what is going down, in the frenzied writing of a Peaky freeform. So I thought I’d write my own game tonight. Sure no will will play it, but at least I will produce something from this utterly wasted weekend of misery. The one good thing was I got to see fat black cat and the other Upper Rectory kitty again, and the Arnolds and a few other friends.
Love In Theory
So first up – we are going to write a game about romantic love, so what do we mean by that? Romantic love is a culturally constructed state according to many psychologists; some historians claim it was a product of 12th century Western Europe, and that those cultural ideas shaped the experience of love for all subsequent generations. I have no idea where the truth lies – but I want to explore easily accessible pop culture versions of romantic love that we can relate to from personal experience, in a Western European (or North American) setting. So the Romantic love of Hollywood, fluttering hearts, crushes, infatuation, mad passion and star crossed lovers.
This kind of romantic love is like an artillery barrage; it devastates everything, but the real action of love is what follows six to thirty six months later according to psychologists, when the initial fireworks and fluttering gets replaced by the “she has so many faults but I love her” realistic kind of relationship love. Straight away, drawing on pretty mainstream psychological research, we have something interesting. While the Biblical era Greeks had four types of love, here it is suggested that eros, romantic love, may turn in to something more like storge after a relatively short time.
So let’s take this as a model. Of course you can emulate the wild being in love feeling later in a relationship – but it is distinct from solid relational love. The game we were writing at Peaky was about a growing relationship – the latter kind of love, or the transition from romantic love to relationship/security love. I joked that as we were starting with some characters in relationships that was like starting the larp in prison and ignoring the shoot out at the bank before hand; I’m not sure I manage to convey my point. (Neither group was actually interested in the psychology or history or cultural positioning of romantic love I think – Steve Hatherley said he would be in whatever group I wasn’t – maybe I just come over as too academic, but it gives me a starting point to explore raw human emotion in a larp). Of course you might just want to emulate the genre rules of cinematic larp, or literary larp – that would “feel romantic” too – but it would be like the difference between seeing a ghost and watching a ghost movie – the genre conventions are true to themselves, not the phenomenology of apparitional experience.
Now some people get hooked on the endorphins high of romantic love, and endlessly change partners, believing that because they way they love is changing, that is not “the one” and ending one relationship for another. I’m not suggesting that is always wrong – but I do think we can get addicted to the rush of romantic love. In our game therefore love can be both incredible explosively potent – but also fickle.
So I want to write a game dealing with couples falling in and out of romantic love. I need a model, so I will take the Jungian one – not because it is necessarily true, but because it is elegant and easy to map in to games. In this model romantic love is a kind of religious devotion – the other party takes on that quality theologian Paul Tillich reserved for the Divine; that which is the ultimate ground of our being. Our put another way, she is crazy about the guy and thinks of nothing else.
However the Jungian model suggests this almost idolatrous passion is false; based upon a lie. Just as the atheist philosopher Feurbach said we project our desires on to the Heavens and call them God; so in romantic love we project our own needs, desired qualities and aspirations on the object of our affections, imbuing the loved one with almost mystical virtues. So to really get in to the spirit of playing romantic love, treat the other as a goddess or at least a demigod. Ignore all flaws – ignore all human features – no scatological Swiftian revelation can break the divine spell.
Years ago my girlfriend Polly and I used to celebrate Valentine’s Day by engaging in little romances, lying to each other all day about our repeated infidelities (which were mythical) or plans to poison the other or our involvement in armed robbery or whatever lie came to mind – using the dictionary definition of romance,
Romance : something (as an extravagant story or account) that lacks basis in fact
To romance can mean to lie – the last line of Saki’s The Open Window uses it in this sense, and I only recently noticed that many of my friends did not understand why “romance at short notice was her specialty”. They probably don’t understand why someone might carry a torch for someone either, or act like a bit of a pill. ;)
So by the Jungian model it is easier to fall in love at first sight – you have very little to stop you endowing your beloved with any qualities you want, as you know nothing of them. They are a blank slate, often one with pretty eyes or a beguiling bosom. It is MUCH more rare to hear of people falling for their best friends – hence that horrible phrase “friend zone” – but unless something dramatic happens you can’t fall in love (i.e.. lie to yourself about) someone you know really well. ;)
Now this may all seem rather cynical, and anyway I’m well known for regarding psychodynamic models as pretty much nonsense. So why use it? Well because the model sort of works, and provides a framework. The full Jungian model has a woman possessing the shadow-man – her animus that she projects on to the beloved male. You can read about the animus and anima, those anthropomorphic archetypes that lurk in our unconscious here. So it’s a Just-So Story, but one that works; if we want a romantic game that feels romantic, we can play with projecting the players’ anima/animus on to another player.
Before we start to discuss how to do that, maybe we should consider if it is desirable, ethical, or useful. Do we actually want players to fall in love? And is it even possible to manufacture love? The answer is of course yes – and we have a strong commercial history of selling pretty clothes and make up by claiming it will provoke love – and family cars too – and pretty much everything else come to think of it.
However anyone who has kicked around larp circles know couples who met in game – however you meet plenty of tabletop roleplayers who met in game, or stamp collectors who met a ta convention, or squash players who met down the court. The fact people with common interests sometimes fall in love is not exactly surprising or interesting. However, have you ever fallen in love in character, and then been confused by your feelings after the game, finding yourself angry or infatuated with or just hung up on something the other character said? It’s Bleed – when emotions in game bleed like ink over the page, and cross over out of game. Emily Care Boss coined the phrase in 2007 – I guess It’s American Freeform not Nordic originally, but it’s well known in other contexts. I recently did some work looking at couples who played lovers in Hollywood films – and fell in love on set. This is Bleed. The role has become an out of character truth; the characters were in love, now the players are.
So we can have a little moral panic about how easily it would be to manipulate someone’s emotions: or the dangers of falling ion love with inappropriate people in games, or of screwing over our own relationships. Now I am rather unlovely – no woman is going to fall for me in game; but I also understand the phenomenon from my days back in the psychotherapy community. It’s pretty much what the Freudians call Transference/Countertransference – it is worth just looking at that link quickly.
So as a young therapist they tried to teach me methods to ground myself, and dismiss any inappropriate relationships that emerge. Teachers so likewise. Nordic larpers acknowledge bleed, and spend time de-roleing, reverting to normal, so they do not carry the bleed too far. Still it is easy to fall in love with someone through a game- and the Jungian model gives us a powerful clue why – you know you are not dealing with the real person, so you can project your fantasies on to the character much easier, and that crosses to the player.
Except I think that is a nonsense. Some of you may have done some Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which includes the Hot Cross Bun model. I believe, following William James and a centuries worth of experimental psychologists, that notion of personality and self based on essentialist principles – you have a set of factors that are stable and describe you – may be flawed. An awful lot of experimental evidence suggests that you change peoples thinking by modifying their behaviour – getting them to play a role causes them to change who they are, because they become how they behave.
Now this is a whole different essay – and has pretty profound implications for roleplayers, many of whom now finally understand why they became a bearded dwarf and always carry a battle axe and a ten foot pole to the office. ;) Jokes aside though, acting out a role is a pretty good way to cause changes in thinking. Praxis leads to devotion, not vice versa by this model. You do something, like smoke, and that causes you to think like a smoker. You act like a bully, you will become a bully. Of course most larpers will de-role. Or get thumped. All this will be socially contextualised. Falling in love however – can that really happen, just because you are acting like you are in love?
Yes. It happens in Hollywood, it happens in games, and it happens in nightclubs. You know those creeps in the PUA** community? They learned tricks I learned from a psychologist, like get a girl to buy you a drink and she will like you – because she bought you a drink, so she must do. It even happens in lab studies.
So how do you test love in the lab? Simple – set up a speed dating event. We know the base percentages of how many couples want to meet afterwards. Now get them to engage in touch, eye contact, footsie during their speed dates – to act as if they are already in a relationship. the numbers go through the roof – add dim lighting, mood music, tell to hold hands and gaze in it each others eyes and you end up with happy couples falling for each other.
Add to this the rollercoaster effect. You are better off taking a date to a horror movie, a rollercoaster or a quick run through the bad part of town chased by rabid wolves than a romantic laid back meal. If their heartbeat is raised, they are way more likely to be attracted to you and date/cop off with you.
Enough! If you want to know how to exploit experimental psychology in an attempt to get less single – and can handle the ethical issues – buy a copy of Prof. Richard Wiseman’s 2012 book Rip It Up. LARPERs may sometimes do it by accident – I may be able to write a game which uses all the findings of experimental psychology and Madison Avenue to cause at least some of the players to fall madly in love with each other – in fact I may well try to do this for next Consequences. If all the players are single, and give informed consent like those in Wiseman’s speed dating experiments then ethical issues may be a little simpler.
For this weekend, let us assume I want to write a game where the players DO NOT fall in love with each other. This was roughly the point I was at when we set off in our groups last night – after a fairly sharp retort from Steve Hatherley I guessed they wanted to avoid theory of this sort, and stick with Nordic Larp theory, and my group did not seem enthused by the few brief references so I aimed at trying to get us to emulate a genre narrative, by talking about favourite love films in my occasional interjection and little contributions.
Now through mischance I’m stuck at home, 100 miles from the action, and while my weekend is ruined I can at least try and work on writing a game that 2is a romance game that feels romantic”. I have already decided NOT to make the players fall in love (until Consequences – and those who have played Romantic roles against me may now realise why I play avoidant or awful partners in romances, just to be safe – no one will fall for me, but I might fall heavily for you after all – so the more lovely you as a player are the more my character will prove evasive or crap in a romance!)
Anyway – how do I write a game based on my theoretical musings? Let’s design a game to do one thing – High School dating – passionate, desperate, secret and highly social, filled with gossip, backbiting and status plays. This is a very rough first draft…
A LARP for 5 to 8 players of any gender mix.
Setting: High School. Most people experience romantic love the first time there? I’m thinking Grease as inspiration – Summer Nights and all that jazz. High School Romance just works. You could set it wherever you want; but I want the love affairs to be examined through a friendship (and enemy network). Love affairs can at this age be status plays I guess – so we want a group of people who know each other well, interact daily, and most importantly don’t fall for each other, at least initially. Yes – the loved ones in this game of love are not going to be played by players, or referees. They will be abstracted as posters on the walls.
This is NOT to stop the players falling in love with each other. It is to make it about being in love, and projecting your romantic fantasies (or animus/anima) on the other person: but you don’t really know that person, and in this game we are dealing with the falling in love bit – when the poster reciprocates, it is seen through the discussion between the players. The poster itself remains quite passive. :)
Set Up: Firstly you need some big bits of paper taped to a wall or similar to represent the BELOVEDS. There are two less BELOVEDS than players. Some players are not going to end up with one of these high status wallflowers ;) Each BELOVED have a name, a gender, and nothing else. Peter, Male will do. The genders should be roughly those of the desired gender for the player characters – so if you have 2 Female heterosexuals, 2 females lesbians and 3 gay men you will have 5 BELOVEDS, and maybe 4 should be men, one female. People may of course choose to change their character’s sexual orientation in play as they realise they are bi or straight or gay or whatever. It’s High School, it happens. IT is also quite permissible to play a closeted character, and engage in romance for public purposes with an opposite sex character before changing and going for a same sex character. I’m going to use heterosexuality mainly in examples when writing, but seriously, it is not important in the game. I’m not trying to not be inclusive, I just tend to be by being straight use heteronormative terms reflexively so I may as well acknowledge this failing now…
Tape the BELOVEDS far enough around the walls that they are not next to each other – players have to move from end of the room to end to be next to them – spread them out. Write a word describing where in the school they are usually found in each – that area by the poster is now that area in play. So CANTEEN, GYM, COMMON ROOM, BEHIND THE STANDS, BY THE LAKE, IN THE LIBRARY, OUTSIDE THE SCHOOL GATES, OUT OF BOUNDS etc, etc. When a player approaches a poster they are going to that part of the school, and should roleplay accordingly.
Character Creation: Give each player a cardboard heart in a different colour, and some bluetack to stick it to a poster later on. They will have 5 in total, so cut out plenty from brightly coloured card, but they only get one per scene.
Now give each character a character sheet – I’ll write a few pregenerated ones, or you can design your own, if you want to play close to home and base it on yourself at school, or invent a fun character. You need a couple of paragraphs of public knowledge, which say what all the kids know about you. Write this, add a name, then introduce yourself by reading your paragraph out loud.
Now write a another paragraph, with hidden stuff about you – important, scandalous, interesting or scary stuff. Stuff worth gossiping about. Keep it realistic for the setting – you might be guilty of burning down a barn, or have had an affair with Mrs Smith the Piano Teacher – but avoid “am a serial killer” type OTT secrets. Believing you are psychic is fine. Your dad having an affair is fine. Your mum being the President is probably not. ;)
Your best friends will know this stuff, but no one else. Decide who your best friends are from the other CHARACTERS – NOT the BELOVEDS. Write their names on your character sheet, but DO NOT discuss it. Your best friends may have chosen you back – or may have chosen someone else. It doesn’t matter – High School is like that. Resist the temptation to discuss this before the game starts. Everyone know reveals who their two best friends are, and goes off with them and reads them their Hidden Stuff paragraph.
Setting Up The Beloveds: Each of the BELOVEDS now is assigned something which makes them stand out. Each player chooses something in turn, and writes it on a BELOVED, until each BELOVED has a Status. Start from this list –
TEAM CAPTAIN, RICH DADDY, HEADMASTER’S CHILD, DRAMATICS STAR, FASHIONISTA, STUNNING LOOKS, AMAZING BODY, SHY BUT BEAUTIFUL, SO MATURE, OWNS A CAR, BAY BOY/BAD GIRL, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, PUTS OUT, MUSICIAN, LEADER OF THE GANG, GEEKY GENIUS, STRAIGHT A STUDENT.
That’s just to get you started. The BELOVEDS are the students everyone wants to be, or be with. Each has one of those status. Now you need to add
One Intriguing Fact about each. Start with which ever players have not got to assign a status to a BELOVED, and let them make up the first two, and write them on any BELOVED; one each. Then carry on with players taking turns until every BELOVED has an Intriguing Fact. To be an Intriguing Fact it must NOT follow on from the Status. So you can NOT say the Team Captain “is under consideration for a Manchester Utd youth team place”. You could say “has a aunt popularly reputed to be a witch who feeds the pigeons each day in the market square”. Intriguing Facts are by definition TRUE – and help make the beloved’s fascinating.
and then the next player in order starts with
One Thing they like – Again this should not follow on from the Beloved’s Status, or the Intriguing Fact. The Team Captains with the Witchy aunt might like pigeons – but that is too close to the aunt who feeds them. He might like cricket – but Team Captains often do. So he has “a passion for Astronomy, and often goes up to the old Observatory on the hill at night alone”. Go for interesting things, with plot potential, not “candy floss” or “big boobs”.
till each BELOVED has been assigned one, and then
One Thing In People They Despise – There are no limits on this section, but players who know anything about other characters may well use this to make sure that other characters who are say dog breeders will have a real problem with this character who “despises animal lovers”.
Finally, keep going in sequence, give out postcards for each BELOVED’S Secret. Secrets can be dramatic, trivial, or just a way to their heart. Somehow the player who assigns the BELOVED’s character has found out the secret – but the BELOVED does not know they know. The cards are bluetacked face to the poster, until the Secret is revealed. Two characters will not know any BELOVED’S Secret. This is intentional.
An Outsider whether they know a secret ot not may now snoop by looking at one of the other BELOVED’s secrets – they may know one or two secrets, but Outsider’s are ignored by the popular BELOVED kids so learn more by just being able to spy more without being noticed!
My Secret Crush: Each player now records which of the BELOVED they have a secret crush on. They may not immediately pursue that BELOVED, preferring to aim for another easier to date BELOVED, but there is a record of who they liked at the start of the game, and at the end players compare notes. It is very likely they will have changed their minds…
The Aim of the Game: Is to fall madly in love and have it reciprocated. BELOVED’s offer their affections to whoever has offered them at least three hearts, and more than anyone else. No one may offer their heart to another player until Scene 3. Hearts not used in a Scene are lost.
We are now ready to begin the game itself .
A group of chairs in the centre of the room represents the playground. Each scene occurs on a Tuesday, at lunch break, one week apart. The game represents a month of High School, with a final scene which discusses “Where are they know”. Each Scene last exactly 25 minutes till the lunchtime bell goes; the GM’s should time it and ring a bell to mark time out..
The players start in character chatting over lunch. They may tell each other secrets about BELOVEDS or each other – but if you treacherously betray someone’s hidden information, you can’t do it in front of them! Build Improv style on what other players say; don’t block, say yes. However in this game, you are falling hard for someone, and your job is to not admit it, but to subtly mention the BELOVED you are infatuated with about six times! Act a bit swoony – the real test of your roleplaying here is can you play at being in love at High School convincingly?
Now the Hearts – to put a heart on a poster, you must go and interact with them. However you are very nervous, so you must take a friend with you, to witness your attempt at wooing. It can be really subtle, like offering to carry their books, or standing open mouthed and staring and giggling at ten paces from the poster,or flexing your muscles and working out just across from the poster. If your friend thinks you act appropriately High Schooler in love trying to impress a popular kid, you may put a heart on the poster in Scene One. In later Scenes you need to show you have something in common, or explain how the two of you woo the BELOVED by somehow playing on their fascinating fact, like, dislike or status. After Scene 3 you need two friends to be involved in helping you win them over.
OR If you can tell a GM the Beloved’s Secret, and explain how you are playing on it, you can put a Heart on without a friend. Only one heart per scene, and a different way of winning their affections based on their secret each time is required.
You can also remove a single heart from a poster, by spreading (vaguely true) malicious gossip or secrets about the lover. You need a friend to accompany you again; call a GM over, march over to the poster bold as brass and whisper why that Beloved should never be trusted and is an awful person – and GIVE A GOOD REASON.
Then go back to mooning around, gossiping, or trying to find out more about a Beloved.
At the End of A Scene: Write a new sentence about yourself on your character sheet. Tell your two best friends, even if you now hate them because they have spread your story all over school. Everyone who placed a heart on a BELOVED can write a new sentence on the poster which becomes true about that BELOVED “Johnny will never race cars again after his elder brother was in that smash up” or “Mary has a real thing against Catholic kids (like Jim’s character)”#
Additional for End of Scene 3 & 4: If anyone has three hearts on a BELOVED and no one else has, write “Going out with X” where X is that characters name. To prevent them winning at the end of the SCENE 4, the others will have to plot to break them up and remove a heart. This requires at least 2 characters co-operating, and as the player will add another heart, you will need at least two plots to end that relationship. If it is the end of Scene 4 it is already too late.
Any characters (NOT BELOVED’s who don’t have hearts being cardboard cut outs) who swap hearts in Scenes 3 or 4 are now going out. They break up if one player declares it, and you can tell them secrets or try and break them up, but it is a player choice. Being in such a relationship at the end of the game is a minor victory for both players, if the other players agree in a simple majority vote they appear to be in love ;)
Scene 5; This scene is much shorter. Each character has a chance to speak about where they are twenty years on, and what life did to to them. Each other player then adds a single factor comment to that picture, which the player must acknowledge as true, and then they wrap up. This can often be funny, or tragic, or just poignant. Did the High School relationships last?
A Final Note
I dashed this off in 3 hours on my own, so it is a mere fragment of a Peaky team writing game, and therefore a bit pants. Still it is probably quite different to the proper well written games, and allows me to participate a little even though I am banished home by a cricked neck and lack of a bed. :) It does illustrate my style of writing though – start with the big picture, identify what I want the game to do, then aim at doing one thing well. I’ll be interested to see how my musings on romance in games compare with what came out of Peaky…
** If you don’t know what the PUA community is don’t worry. Your life is better for it.