The Spanish Inquisitor

Ron Edwards (part 2 of 3)
May 21, 2008, 11:39 am
Filed under: Ron Edwards

This is the second segment of a three-part interview with Ron Edwards.

How did you arrive at the term ‘Story Now’?

As you know, I think that role-playing is a medium and that the medium can serve differing agendas at a very large, pervasive scale. Originally I used and adapted some terms that were already in the existing debates about “why” to play. That was in 1999, when the very idea of talking about differing agendas was taboo in the subculture. Over time, as this idea became more palatable (such that today it is called “obvious”), the issue became, not what was happening, but how to talk about what was happening. So the rather clunky terms needed to become teaching terms.

If we focus on the agenda and “genuinely” create a story together, then the term has to distinguish the activity from “role-playing with story involved somehow,” which is too general and not very useful. To achieve that focus, I distinguished among the following three things. I’d like to stress that all of them are functional, but they are not, and cannot be, the same.

Story Before = preparing a sequence of events with revelations, confrontations, and in many cases pre-set outcomes, in order for others to experience it and brush it up a bit with descriptions as we go along. Alternately, using a certain amount of improvisation about those things, but limiting authority over that improvisation to one person who has pre-set how things will turn out.

Story After = playing without much focus on story-type issues (revelations, confrontations, consequential decisions), but interpreting the events of play as having been like that, and preparing for the next session as if such a story had occurred.

Story Now = playing with full attention to generating revelations, confrontations, and consequential decisions as inspired events during play itself, and as the actual point of play. This way, no one knows beforehand how things will turn out nor even what they will mean in the most visceral, casual sense of “meaning” something.

In other story-based media (prose fiction, theater, film), the actual creation of the key parts is invisible to the audience. The most visible parts are the finished story itself and, to a lesser extent, the effort that went into its presentation. The group dialogue that has developed within the larger sphere of role-playing is very different — that moment, or moments, of creation are the actual experience. In Story Now play, whatever split-second occurred in William Shakespeare’s head when he, or whoever, decided that “Macbeth’s wife urges him to murder Duncan,” is now attenuated and experienced at a group, social level.

So is this something like collaborative fiction? Group storytelling?

I think that group creation of stories in this way has been generally unsuccessful — writers’ groups and similar. In fact, I think such efforts have almost always been wretched. The difference in what we now have, via role-playing hobby, is that processes and routines — rules — keep the process from devolving into competition and power-trips over the story-in-progress, partly by having things happen and moving on.

The principles that make this work can be found in other artistic media, specifically music. Musicians can make a song together, but they don’t do it by simply all playing whatever-whenever and negotiating is-this-OK as they go. That’s cacophony. Instead, even the most improvisational musicians accept particular constraints and create the song, not confined by those things, but with them. Another useful analogy comes from standard competitive card or board games, in which things like turn order, roles relative to one another, authority over what happens, ending conditions, and consequences of choices are extremely explicit.

So putting all of this together, I am saying that Story Now is composed of (1) the content dynamics associated with fiction; (2) the social dynamics associated with playing music; and (3) the procedural dynamics of card/board games.

To apply this to Spione in particular, I found that once the principles I described were nailed down, then long-held assumptions about role-playing which are considered definitional (“playing one’s character,” for instance) turn out to be artifacts rather than rock-solid necessities. That’s why Spione is Story Now, but not, or no longer, easily called role-playing.

What is the purpose of this new designation?

It isn’t new, actually. It dates back to 2003 and that Narrativism essay, and was in casual use before that. It’s only new as a label. I started using it on the covers of my books in 2006, with It Was a Mutual Decision, and Spione is the first to feature it as part of the title.

As for purpose, it’s branding, but I also needed to use it for accuracy. The activity of Spione doesn’t use characters, narration, or really any structure that’s like existing RPGs. It has all those “story now” features I describe above without using role-playing, as we currently know it, as a starting point. Therefore it would be quite wrong to call Spione a role-playing game, because that would mislead role-players into buying something they might not want, as well as slot it into a commercial niche that would exclude any number of people who might be interested. It’s a book with a little game or activity included, and that thing is only really describable as Story Now.

Part of your promotion for Spione included an event at the Stasi Headquarters Museum in Berlin. What was that like?

It was probably too ambitious for such an early step in the process. I gained a great deal from it, and in essence, it was the final playtest that led to some key rules changes in the game. Taking the entire trip into account, I had a wonderful time meeting people, exchanging ideas, learning a great deal about the Cold War experience in their eyes, and playing games.

As a Spione promotion event, it was mixed. I was walking into a bit of a mine-field, as the German community of role-players was extremely riled up about any number of my viewpoints, whether real or imagined, and so the game was not really the focus of everyone’s attention. We dealt with a lot of those issues through discussions later, so I wish we’d started with that the evening before. Still, the participants’ good will was real. It was fantastic of them to have traveled to Berlin, and their attention to the game and their comments turned out to be incredibly helpful to me.

I know I could have done a better job of introducing play to them as a group, and there were certain stumbling blocks they encountered which I did not explain well. Teaching Spione is very simple but one must understand what needs to be taught. Now, eighteen months later, it’s much easier for me, but this group of people was unlucky enough to be my means of learning how.

It so happens, by the way, that Europe was in the grip of a horrendous heat wave that summer, and especially that week, and the Stasi HQ Museum is no more air-conditioned than anywhere else in Berlin that’s not tuned to American sensibilities. You might not know that Chicago’s latitude is the same as Rome’s, so Berlin is about the same as the middle of Canada! This is not a culture that does well in stinking, sweaty, brutal, can’t-breathe heat, and the room was pretty much Hell. It was really, really cool to be in the Stasi HQ for this event, but our enjoyment of that fact was limited by discomfort.

Holy mackerel. So, howw was the event structured? What did participants/attendees do?

I organized it to be something like a laboratory class. I introduced the topic briefly, then divided people into small groups and passed out materials. I outlined the initial steps, and everyone did them, then I explained the next step, and moved into play. Then I circulated around answering questions. After a while, we basically went into a feedback and questions session.

I think that was a pretty good model. I can tell you now how I’d do it a lot more effectively today. First, I’d begin with a more general and provocative claim. To a German audience, that might be something like whether East Germans benefited from unification or not, or about the Nazi origins of the BND (the West German espionage agency which still exists today). To an American audience, it might concern calling into question whether Stalin actually was set to invade western Europe in the late 1940s, or I might challenge the notion that the U.S. “defeated communism”. I might put up a big chart of the spy agencies in Berlin and answer any questions, without any lecture to begin.

Then we’d proceed as before, but I’d save the introduction to spying as an issue and dramatic situation for later in the process, right when the relevant characters get generated.

I’d also know better how to deal with some pitfalls of play that need correction. For instance, during the procedure called Flashpoint, one can actually dictate how another person’s character reacts to a given situation — but that decision is then back under the primary player’s control once the next round of Maneuvers begins. I messed that up badly trying to explain it in the heat (no kidding) of the moment, and I probably ruined that whole group’s interest in the game…

Next installment: distribution, the Wiki, and Lulu.

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