Impressionist role-playing

Photo: .christoph.G./Flickr (Creative Commons)

Photo: .christoph.G./Flickr (Creative Commons)

Re-reading some of the games on this site for another post I’m working on, I stumbled over Matthijs’ “Qualia”, a Game Chef contribution I’d completely forgotten about. It seems it was inspired by an improvised, short session I ran at HolmCon in 2006. I remembered taking some notes from the session, where I tried to formalize some of the procedures used, and looked it up on the old web forum we used to frequent. Here’s the translation:

Impressionist role-playing

– Lasts between 20 minutes to a couple of hours at the most.
Emotion, intuition, empathy, collaboration and mood takes precedence over rationality, planning, considering, competing and coherence.
– There is no conflict system. You don’t prepare scenarios in a traditional sense. It’s not important that there are conflicts or goals in the game. The aim is to, together, create moods and chains of association with both traditional and more experimental role-playing methods. It’s a kind of a role-playing jam.
– You agree on some mood or theme you’d like to bring forth or create allusions to.

bob_dylan_desire600The game master says: «I’d like to play a game slightly inspired by the Bob Dylan-record «Desire»: Romani, tarot cards, Northern Africa, starry nights, wind in the palm trees, golden jewelry. The players present their suggestions and associations. You agree on something.

– The players are by turn asked to describe their characters, in reference to the theme/mood you agreed on. When the next person describes her character, she’ll also tell us if she is somehow related to or connected with some of the other characters.

Håken describes Fatima, who every day sits on the beach baking bread. Magnus describes the English pilot who’s lived here for ten years, since his plane crashed during the second world war. He eats Fatima’s bread. Matthijs describes Fatimas father.

– There’s a game master, who on one level directs the game fairly tightly, and on another level gives the players almost completely free rein. He sets things moving, but listens to the players all the time. Sometimes, he’ll establish the scene, at other times he’ll ask the players: where is your character now? What is she doing? What does she see? What are you thinking? The game master has sort of a privileged function, but uses it to inspire and kickstart his fellow players. The guideline is what feels right then and there, and whatever whims and fancies strike the players.

The game master says: Fatima had a dream tonight she wishes to share with the pilot. It’s up to Fatima to relate the dream. The game master says: A card comes blowing along the beach, landing next to the pilot’s hand. What does it look like? The game master says: you find something by the plane’s wreckage. What is it?

– The game master makes sure everyone gets to participate, or that they’re happy in their passivity. This requires attention and empathy.
– The game master and players will often dwell on details.

Photo: Antonio Chinotti/Flickt (Creative Commons)

Photo: Antonio Chinotti/Flickt (Creative Commons)

A crab moving in the sand. The sparks from Fatima’s fire, ascending towards the sky. The smell and sounds from the ocean.

– This kind of dwelling is a challenging part of the method. It will primarily be brief (in real time). You don’t want long monologues from the game master, but rather activating the players and grooving together.
– The scenes are spotty, not necessarily connected, based on whim and associations that happen during the game. They’re first and foremost related to theme and mood, not action. Characters can also be replaced as warranted. The same player doesn’t have to control the same character throughout the whole game.
Accepting the ideas of others. You’re mild, accepting. The players are encouraged to take initiatives in the fiction. They don’t compete for attention. Trust the game master will help distribute attention and steer the improvisation to shore. If a player says something it will more likely than not be true in the fiction. What the characters do is accepted and used. What the players say is accepted and integrated.
– The game master distributes control over secondary characters and other elements in the game world after his own discretion and the needs of the fiction. One player could be asked to describe the dreams of another character, control some of the people in the other character’s memories, or be asked to create and control secondary characters as the need arises.
– You don’t address things outside of the game. The players are in an imperturbable dialogue with the fiction and each other, nothing else. This is kind of a collective meditation/visualization. The intensity the game format requires also causes it to be a relatively brief experience in real time.
Free association. If an occurrence in the game, a dialogue or description gives the game master an idea, he should try to chase it and see it through immediately.

Fatima’s father is talking to Fatima about her mother. The game master cuts to the same beach 20 years earlier. He describes Fatima’s mother, recently bathed, dressed in a silk gown on the beach. He asks the player Barbro, who just showed up, to portray the mother and ask what she says. Fatima’s father speaks with Fatima’s mother about Fatima’s grandmother. The game master cuts to a new scene on the beach, 20 years prior to this again, where Fatima’s grandmother is speaking with Fatima’s father. Barbro is asked to play Fatima’s grandmother.

– The players are also encouraged to associate freely, but their narrative rights are not as wide-ranging as those of the game master. The idea with having one guiding director is to preserve the harmony of the game.
Cut tightly. Even though the action is dwelling and slow, the singular scene will often be brief. The game master manages this, and cuts to new scenes whenever he feels it’s right.
Surprising angles. The game master is open for new thoughts on the content of play, in addition to using traditional techniques like time jump, player control over secondary characters, dream sequences, cut scenes and tight cutting.

Fatima’s father is resting in the hammock. It strikes the game master there must be many smells around him. He instructs Matthijs (who plays Fatima’s father) to briefly describe some of the smells in the hut. He asks the other players to make short statements about associations Fatima’s father has as he notices the various smells.

– The game master ends the game in a fitting way whenever it feels right.

Suggested experiment: play an impressionistic role-playing game with a soundtrack. Try to let the story and moods work in harmony with the record. It should probably be something without lyrics, or with words the players don’t understand. The challenge here will probably be the music not responding in accordance with the player’s actions, and the shifts in tempo on the album might crash with the tempo in the game. Worth a try.

Revisiting this nine year old text was sort of interesting. I didn’t work more in this direction, at least not in a structured way, but I think I’ve internalized some of the principles and methods. Some of it seems screamingly obvious, some methods and ideas very traditional. I don’t know. It was nice to see again.

The post fostered some interesting critique and feedback on the webforum back then, all in Norwegian, alas.

2 thoughts on “Impressionist role-playing

  1. Pingback: My games | Snarglebarf

  2. Pingback: A Cold Collation of Links and Things | GAME OVER

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