knutepunkt, self-portrait

Home from Camp Nerdly 3

It's Monday morning after Camp Nerdly 3, and I want to say how much I enjoyed the weekend.

I was there to run games, and I managed to run a game in every slot from Friday evening to Sunday morning.

I ran two games of "classic" or tabletop Ganakagok, one Friday night and the other Saturday night. The people who played in the first game were Paul Czege, his wife Danielle Lewon, Ryan Macklin, and Nathan Herrold (who I roped into the game, possibly against his better judgment). Ryan enjoyed the game a lot, Nathan had a bad time, and Paul was non-plussed by the mechanics, for reasons which he was not quite able to articulate. Danielle I didn't get a read on. I feel bad about this game, because it was supposed to be an indie-gaming birthday present from Paul to Danielle, and may have been the story-gaming equivalent of a salad spinner for them.

The reason I say I feel bad is because the warning signs of narrative incompatibility were there from the beginning: Nathan wanted his character to be an outsider, a non-Nitu quasi-Norse character named Sitt. This is never a good sign, because it signals a kind of alienation at the social level; in the future, I'll offer a stronger warning about the potential impact of such a choice.

But the other games were fabulous! The Saturday night tabletop game featured Travis Farber (who has run the game for his friends at home), new players Anna Kreider (of Thou Art But A Warrior) and Kit Kreider, and old Ganaka-gangsters Andrew Morris and Krista Evanouskas. The play got awfully intense at one point: Kit's character murdered the aging chieftain with a set of bear teeth, and Travis assaulted the generous poet who was the fiance of Anna's bold hunter-maiden. This infuriated the bold hunter-maiden, and Anna was incensed as well. But it made for a compelling story, I think.

And the Sunday morning jeepforged game was sheer pleasure. We had nine players, including Rob Bohl, Emily Care Boss, Joanna Corcoran, Patty Kirsch, Ryan Macklin, Chad Underkoffler, Jule Ann Wakeman, Jeremy Wakeman, and Rachel Walton (plus the Wakeman's infant daughter, but she just watched). They told a story about rival families and the struggle for leadership, and then hung out and debriefed with me to tell how to make it better. I think people really enjoyed it, and I'm excited to run it again at Dexcon next month.

I also ran Spirit of the Century and Trail of Cthulhu games, both of which were a ton of fun for me, and both of which ran very well. Spirit of the Century was "Rex Rich and the Warlord of Mars," which I ran Saturday morning in a short slot (2.5 hours) for Alex Vasquez as Martian rebel Tan-Gliil, Ryan Macklin as wealthy aviation entrepreneur Rex Rich, Kevin Middleton as private eye Max Mensch, Sean Leventhal (who'd played Tan-Gliil in a previous iteration) as hotshot barnstormer Jack Redstone, and Krista Evanouskas as intrepid girl reporter Lucy Lovelace. It was a rip-roaring adventure that ended at a nice "to be continued..." moment with Rex Rich and Dr. Einstein trapped on the flying city of Mars.

The Trail of Cthulhu game went extraordinary well. I was lucky that Shane and Ami Jackson, playing Berkeley sociologist Paul Taylor and Hollywood reporter Adela Rogers St. Johns respectively, were big Mythos fans who've taken walking tours of Providence to see H.P. Lovecraft's home there, and that Jeff Hosmer had a lot of fun playing young Robert Heinlein -- his favorite sf author -- as a die-hard rationalist who denied any evidence of the mystical. Phil Walton wasn't having fun playing Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg until we talked a little bit on a break and he realized he had to engage with the mystery. So he did, and found himself learning the secrets of "mental radio" and rescuing his wife from cultists.

Besides the games, I had an interesting time just being at the camp. I bunked with Alex, Kevin, and their friend Brian Slaski, and we found ourselves freaked out by this chipmunk/lemur hybrid we named "Peter Parker" for his habit of skittering around on the inside of our cabin's walls. Kevin snored like a fiend, driving Brian away, and I found him and Ryan Macklin wandering around the camp early the next morning. They had stayed up all night because Ryan's bunkmates snored as well (that's Chad and Buddha, as I understand), and I joined them as we wandered down by the river; Brian was excited to find a tree that looked like it had a sphincter. He took pictures.

I was Lord of the Kitchen for Saturday lunch, and I roped Sean Leventhal and Andrew Morris into helping me because no one else showed up; that seemed odd. I was a little at sea because I hadn't read the menu closely enough, so I started cutting up tomatoes and lettuce for sandwiches before I realized that they were supposed to be for dinner, and I only put on the non-vegan cream of mushroom soup, leaving the tomato risotto on the shelf. Oops!

So there were a few glitches, but overall I had a great time.
knutepunkt, self-portrait

D&D Summer Mini-Campaign

Just sent this out as an e-mail to some friends as well as to Penn State's GAPS (Gaming Assn of Penn State) listserv. I'm hoping this flies!

“Fourth Age”
A D&D 4th edition pick-up mini-campaign

This summer, come play a pick-up style mini-campaign of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. “Pick-up style” means show up if you can, grab a hero, and plug in to a loosely structured on-going story-line that you help create, using story-game techniques that give players control over the narrative. It’s an exciting blend of traditional fantasy role-playing and small-press “indie style” gaming. Check out for more information on what story-gaming D&D will be like.

We’ll play on Sundays from 2 p.m to 6 p.m., about every two weeks, starting with a world creation and character generation session on June 7.

The mini-campaign game dates are:

June 7 (world creation & character generation)
June 21 (the adventure begins!)
July 5 (our heroes face peril)
July 19 (the plot thickens…)
August 2 (is all hope lost?)
August 23 (the epic climax!)
knutepunkt, self-portrait

Scenes from a Pervasive Larp

(cross-posted to Story Games)

As one of the three Americans at Knutepunkt this year (the other two were John Kim and Emily Care Boss), I want to report back to the U.S. indie-gaming crowd (my people!) about the goings-on there. Long story short: had a great time, learned a lot, met good people, want to go back.

Knutepunkt (the "nodal point") is one of the names given to the annual Scandinavian larp conference that rotates its location among Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. It is an event originally intended to enable larp organizers in those countries to share their experiences and trade ideas about how to create a better larp experience. Its major effect has been to solidify (or maybe even reify!) the culture of the "Nordic larp tradition," which is centered on an ideal of "360 degree immersiveness" in the same way as the Forge scene is centered on the Big Model--i.e., it's the idea around which the conversation revolves, even when people are talking about something else. Through a fortunate historical accident, the lingua franca of the conference is English. Combined with the increasingly assiduous effort of the Nordic larpers to document what they're up to ("pix or it didn't happen" is a chapter in the book of essays accompanying this year's conference, a custom of several years standing), the effect is to make the Nordic larp tradition inclusive (anyone can play!), syncretic (not above borrowing from elsewhere...), and assimilable (...but we can steal from them, too). So, for example, inclusive: the Germans hang out with the Israelis at the Scandinavian larp conference, and I met a guy there from Brazil. Syncretic: there are folks speaking from the theatre tradition, and last year's book had an article by Emily laying out the basics of Forge theory. Assimilable: This is the intellectual home of jeepform, the experiential drama-centered freeform roleplaying design style that has recently begun to influence some folks here on Story-Games, and I understand that German larpers have begun to adopt some of the conventions of the Nordic tradition, even going so far as to name their annual convention "Mittelpunkt" (mid-point).

My excuse for going was to give a talk on the chapter I wrote for this year's Knutepunkt book, and I was eager to meet the scholarly sub-community that has grown up within the Nordic larp tradition. These are the folks responsible to a great extent for the International Journal of Roleplaying, for example. My talk was nothing to write home about: I had an hour-long slot that I combined with a Swedish scholar named Tobias who was doing a presentation called, "Are Larps Good for Democracy?" because I wanted to hear it, and I thought we'd get a bigger audience by joining forces. But there was actually very little conceptual overlap between my talk and his, and that meant that I wound up with only a very short window of time in which to talk about my ideas. This was good in a way, in that it saved me from having to talk about things that I'd proposed to talk about when I submitted the abstract but about which I was actually not all that prepared to discuss -- for example, I'd named the presentation "The Ironies of Roleplaying" because I thought I'd be able to get at some of the internal contradictions or tensions that shape role-playing (e.g., nothing's real until we say it is!) but that wasn't a focus of the talk. One young woman, a Swedish grad student with whom I talked later at a party, said a few times, "Tell me again how you mean ironies?" Anyway, I filled 15 minutes and then turned it over to Tobias. I was hoping for a muscular discussion from him about how role-playing enables or inculcates a sensitivity to deliberative democratic procedures (i.e., letting everyone have their say, avoiding a rush to judgment, reflexivity about decision-making) or something, but his talk was far more tentative, and the audience clearly wanted more: "What's special about larp? What's special about democracy?" This meant that we never got back to my talk. So, ultimately, through a couple of bad decisions on my part and the normal vagaries of audience attention, I didn't have enough time to do justice to the ideas about which I did have things to say. A few people pointed this out afterwards, albeit politely (that is to say, obliquely) and in an encouraging rather than blameful way.

So that was my contribution, but the other talks I went to were really interesting. I listened to talks by Wagner Luiz Schmit of Brazil (a psychologist) and Jesper Bruun of Denmark (a physicist) about using role-playing in education. Wagner talked about using RPGs to help underachieving students build academic skills, and Jesper talked about developing a role-playing exercise for an interdisciplinary museum program where students would take the role of 16th century Jesuits hashing out the relative merits of the heliocentric versus geocentric models of the solar system. I also went to a scintillating talk by art-house larper Johanna Koljonen on the fuzziness of the boundary between player and character, and how the two can sometimes "bleed" into one another. I heard a less scintillating but still engaging talk by a fellow named Gabriel from Interacting Arts, a Swedish group interested in pushing the boundaries of game and real life.

Besides the formal talks, I also got to listen in on some interesting conversations. I heard the jeepform crew argue about whether they were ready to publish a book detailing jeep methods, or whether publishing a book would in codifying jeepform have the effects of pinning it down prematurely, causing fights about the "one true way" to jeep, and aggrandizing themselves inappropriately. "We can't write a book about jeep," said jeeper Thorbiörn Fritzon. "We don't even really understand how it works." Thorbiörn was okay with the notion of a jeepform unbook, though.

I met the man who may be the most widely read person in the world in the area of role-playing studies, a Finnish academic librarian named Jiituomas Harviainen (who sometimes posts here on Story-Games). He is scarily intense, but in a cool way. Jiituomas says to me:

"In your chapter, you mention [Roger] Caillois, do you not? Which of his four types of play do you believe best describes role-playing?"

Shit! A quiz! Hedge, Bill, hedge! "Well, I was just reading an article where the authors say that while it has elements of agon and alea, it's mostly mimicry, but I don't know that I buy that. You know, I'd really like it to be ilinx, but I can't quite get there."

" is funny that you should say so. I have argued that ilinx underlies all role-playing because it is characterized by dislocation from everyday identity."

That impressed the hell out of me, given that I've participated in some discussions (and seen others that would have gained some clarity with Jiituomas's comment.

And on the bus ride back to the airport, I sat next to Markus Montola and he showed me the manuscript of the book he is editing along with his colleague Jaakko Stenros about "pervasive games"--all those forms of play where the edges of the "magic circle" of the game are hazy, like ARGs (alternate reality games) and so forth. There is some wild stuff in it, like the chapter on the Manhattan apartment that was refurbished as a Myst-like puzzle palace.

I also got to play some games! The opening game was called The School Trip and was sort of a parlor larp about a high school reunion where an unsettling event from years before got dredged up and, through the miracle of time travel, literally revisited. The scenario suffered from some incoherence, and there were some folks who were non-plussed by the date-rape motif driving the fiction. I enjoyed playing, though, and watching others play, but my favorite part was talking afterwards and trying to figure out how to make the scenario more pointed, so that player's choices about whether or not to change the past (and thus alter the future) would be more meaningful.

And I ran a freeform version of Ganakagok that went very well. The players created a tale of islanders adrift in a serpent-filled sea, who ultimately had to swim to the safety of a new, green isle on the horizon as their island of ice melted beneath them. One of the nice things about the game was where we played: the Knutepunkt organizers had created a space they called "the color box." The color box was a basement room with white cloth arrayed on the walls and lighting equipment installed so that users could adjust the color and strength of the light in the room. We started out with a deep blue to represent night on Ganakagok and moved through a pale purple for twilight and light gold for dawn. The atmospheric lighting was really a plus. I am going to tweak the rules and run the game again at Camp Nerdly, perhaps starting an hour or so before dawn and playing as the sun rises to try to take advantage of the atmospheric lighting of an actual dawn (rain date TBD).

Knutepunkt was an awesome experience. I met many others who really made me feel welcome and who were doing interesting things with their own games, and I'm looking forward to going to Sweden next year. I already have an idea for what I'll talk about...
knutepunkt, self-portrait

FW: RE: Eskimo Punk Ganakagok

Here's a delightful actual play report from a Ganakagok game:


>From: "Lorenzetti, Ralph (Jason)"
>To: "P. Mel White"
>Subject: RE: Eskimo Punk Ganakagok
>Date: Mon, 25 Jun 2007 15:45:21 -0400
>No recording. Two players a Zealous Skinner and a Nimble Penguin-Hunter.
>They both drew huge Good Med (~12) and small bad Med (~3)! But the
>Village got 3 good and 13 bad and the island got 8 good and 14 bad.
>We did a one shot type game with one turn per phase so dawn was coming
>We decided the greatest fear was starvation. They hunted (and got
>scarred). A Greedy Elder decided that these good hunters were too
>dangerous and tried to banish them. They went north to find a new
>crevasse with lots more food (fish swimming up from below). On the way
>back they met a group coming south to trade wives to their village for
>some of the food that they had caught. They negotiated with the other
>villagers in order to outwit their enemy. They got the wives and offered
>to show the other village where the new food source was. They went back
>to the crevasse and while they were fishing the women were kidnapped by
>cannibal ghouls!
>They hunted down the ghouls and fought them; they won, but one of the
>girls died.
>That ended the game...they had tons good fortune, their village was
>screwed though. And they were able to bring the island to an even
>medicine and we ruled that it had a slightly good ending.
>All said their Change-hopes involved people coming to lead them into a
>new era and a glut of food (mostly whales). So people showed up in boats
>(southerners) hunting a great pod of whales. Our two heroes married the
>girls (one married one and the other married two). And they joined the
>newcomers as great hunters and leaders.
>Their village was swallowed whole by a large ice crack.
>They really like the mechanic of the contest. Felt it was gut wrenching.
>They wanted to know how they could adapt it to other types of games.
>-----Original Message-----
>From: P. Mel White
>Sent: Monday, June 25, 2007 3:18 PM
>To: Lorenzetti, Ralph (Jason)
>Subject: RE: Eskimo Punk Ganakagok
>Cool! I'd love to hear all about it. Any details? You didn't record
>by chance?
> >From: "Lorenzetti, Ralph (Jason)"
> >To: "P. Mel White"
> >Subject: Eskimo Punk Ganakagok
> >Date: Mon, 25 Jun 2007 14:33:17 -0400
> >
> >Played a game of Ganakagok with two of my old gaming buddies. They
> >it.
> >
> >Jason
knutepunkt, self-portrait

Virtual Play

My brother Mel has been crazily creating a role-playing podcast called "Virtual Play" that features excerpts of actual play, usually in order to demonstrate some feature of a game or make some point about games in general.

You can hear me DMing in Episodes 1 and 5; I'm going to say that I'm a better DM with FATE than I am with D&D: hey, System Matters!

He also has an entire session of Ganakagok that he ran at his local game-store posted; it makes me very happy how well that game works.
knutepunkt, self-portrait

A Semiotic Square

I've been using the work of French structuralist Algirdas Greimas a lot lately; his work is central to "'Structuralist Alchemy' in KSR's Red Mars," and I even used it on the fly today to help me lecture. In my 400-level Advertising Regulation & Ethics class, I gave my students (there are four kids in the class) two pieces to read for today, excerpts from "oral histories" of work. The first piece was from Studs Terkel's Working (1972) and the second was from a similar anthology called Gig (2001). Both were by advertising executives, and despite being separated by about 30 years were similar in terms of what they talked about. Both John Fortune (Terkel's Working) and Josh Williams (Gig) were struck by the irony of how serious the business was when the work, at root, was inconsequential. "We're arguing about which way the bear dances around the cereal box," Fortune says. So this tension between the seriousness and the inconsequentiality is the first opposition in the semiotic square (which term I did not use in class; trust me). "How do these guys resolve this tension?" I asked them. And when we looked at the texts, we saw the concept of creativity popping out. So "creativity" is the complex positive term that mediates between consequentiality and absurdity; it's the rationale that allows these writers to manage the fundamental contradiction of their profession. But standing in opposition to the value of creativity for the individual advertising professional is the idea that social values like freedom and honesty are implicated in the work of advertising. For example, Josh Williams talks about an incentive program for electronics salespeople that essentially gives them a kickback for pushing certain manufacturers. Interestingly, both Williams and Fortune deal with the disconnect between their profession and their values by ignoring it.

It's interesting how much paying attention to these oppositions, contradictions, and complementarities lets you see.
knutepunkt, self-portrait

The Semester Is Dragging

I started teaching again this week; the Fall 2006 semester has begun! I've decided to start the public speaking class with "warm-ups": easy one- to two-minute talks on simple topics, like this:

Warm-Up #1 (We, Sep 6). Tell us who you are, where you come from, and what you want to be or do.

Warm-Up #2 (Fr, Sep 8). Describe a good movie, book, play, or performance you've seen, read, or heard.

We'll spend the whole next week doing similar exercises; by Friday, my expectation is that they'll be beginning to figure out what their bodies are doing when they're up there. I am struck by how public speaking is embodied cognition, thought enacted: the speaker is engaged in a physical performance as well as an intellectual one. So the familiarity with being up front that I'm trying to inculcate is the best first step. I have to say, though, I'm already seeing a difference between the two sections I have in terms of enthusiasm, energy, and overall seriousness.

I've been working hard on a couple of projects. I've gotten positive feedback on "'Structuralist Alchemy' in Kim Stanley Robinson's _Red Mars_" from two of my colleagues that I've asked to read it. That's a foray into literary analysis on my part; I use the semiotic theories of Algirdas Greimas, whom Robinson explicitly references in the novel as we watch a psychiatrist character analyze some of the other Martian colonists using Greimassian techniques. My analysis suggests that part of what makes _Red Mars_ work is a tension between myth and irony: the mythic hero-journey of John Boone is made ironical by its being located in the larger story of Frank Chalmers' murder of Boone, his efforts to negotiate a renewed but ultimately irrelevant Mars treaty, and his perhaps (but perhaps not) redeeming sacrifice during the failed revolution of 2061.

In the meantime, I've been working on "Ferment in the Field: Disciplinary Self-Reflection in Mass Communication Studies." This is what I hope will be the final revision of a paper I've been working on for a long time. Per the advice of the last reviewer to comment on it, I'm transforming it from a straight review essay to a critique of the sort of meta-discourse mass communication scholars engage in. I think the point will be that we need serious mechanisms or structures of "intradisciplinarity" in communication scholarship.

So if I can get those two pieces out by the end of September, I'll feel like I'm in good shape for my 5th year review. I also sent out a slightly revised conference paper to a journal, and called/e-mailed the places where I have had pieces under review since February/March. And I submitted a proposal to Academic Affairs to try to get them to nominate me for an NEH Summer Stipend of $5000. The proposal is called "Blogging as Epideictic Rhetoric: The Case of Intelligent Design on Trial," and would involve reading a ton of blogs on the Dover PA trial to see how attributions of praise and blame were located in more-or-less coherent systems of beliefs.

Last Saturday I went to Open Gaming at University Park to meet Mendel Schmiedekamp and play the demo of Jared Sorenson's Inspectres that he ran. I played Samuel Sanchez, a 60-year-old Ph.D. of parapsychology who worked for a branch specializing in exorcism. It was fun, and the system is elegant in its way. I like the "franchise die" pacing mechanism, where successful rolls may contribute to a pool of points that, once it exceeds a certain value, means that the mystery can be solved or the threat defeated. I noticed two things, however: spotlighting PCs is uneven (unregulated by rules, I think, except for how stress may mess up more active characters and thus let others come to the fore), and some players like it that way (not everyone likes the spotlight; some people prefer to be quietly but 'competently' in the background. I'm not sure what to make of this.
knutepunkt, self-portrait

A Random Entry

I added a page to Dave Younce's Abulafia wiki, based on the same idea I used in an article I sold to Dragon Magazine several years ago called "The Hero with 1d1000 Faces." Basically, I treated it as an advice to the DM kind of thing: in a hurry? need a quick adventure hook? Now there's help: the patented Random Adventure Generator!

As you might be able to tell from the table, the article drew upon mythologist Joseph Campbell's notion of the structural identity of myths and fairy tales to provide table of typical motifs for a villain, a victim, and the "mediation" (how the hero finds out about the villainy). There were a few other tables in there as well to add additional color (e.g., Roll 1d6+1 to see how many times you should roll on the Obstacles table, which included things like "A helpful object is far away").

The Random Fantasy Plot generator produces a single sentence in the format, "A VILLAIN MENACES a VICTIM, but a HERO LEARNS OF THE VILLAINY."

Now I see that there's a similarity to the Arts, Grace, & Guts Oracle (also on Abulafia, and the basis of Vincent Baker's new game), and that gives me an idea for a similar sort of game, where players play out the monomythic hero-plot, taking on the roles of hero, villain, victim, and helpers. It could be neat; you'd run through a ton of stories quickly, is the point.
knutepunkt, self-portrait

Three Stories

I want my first entry in this LJ to be about my wife, Lynn. We are both academics, but she is a far more successful one than I am. Whereas I am currently under a kind of academic probation because my rate of scholarly production is below what my institution expects (demands) and thus in danger of being fired in the not-too-distant future if I don't get on the stick, she is the winner of her college's junior faculty teaching award and will be awarded tenure handily.

I realize that it's possible to read a kind of resentment on my part as the subtext of the preceding paragraph, but that's actually not the case. I'm actually rather proud of her, and I'm beginning to recognize (after a tough, tough fight with her a few weeks ago) how inextricably interwoven we are.

One of the responsibilities of the winner of this teaching award is to give a speech to the freshmen (excuse me, first-year students) at her college's convocation, the opening ceremony of the academic year. Lynn was beside herself with the anxiety of giving this speech, but she sat down in the middle of the summer and wrote a speech. She wanted to talk about beginnings, she said, and to draw upon her experience telling stories as a children's librarian in Harrisburg in the early 90s. So her speech was essentially three stories: how Anansi the trickster won the sky-god's golden box of stories, how her kind-hearted aunt read an irate driver's flipping of the bird as a message that there's "one way to Jesus", and how a character in her favorite novel came to realize that "the questions are better than the answers."

As the day approached, she began to practice the speech in earnest. And this is where I come in. You see, I teach public speaking. And in listening to her speech, I was able to draw upon that experience to ask her, well, what are you really trying to say in this line, with this phrase. And so the speech, which was good, became great. The audience was rapt, she was beautiful, and I was proud and happy because I helped her.

A peak experience for her, and a happy day for me.

And that's how I want to start this.
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