Last fall, I conformed to a common stereotype about men in their mid-40s and apparently became obsessed with matters of religion. Its roots lie in my work on Shahida but that’s all politics and history, very little to do with specific religious content. Still, I did a lot of reading of and about Judaic, Christian, and Muslim texts, and I suppose it’s not too surprising that a lot of stuff went into the dark well at the bottom of my head and fermented.
So, long story short, I wrote three alpha game drafts, none of which is definitely titled yet, only one of which I’ve playtested, and which I strongly suspect are totally not suitable for presentation or discussion on the internet. Which ridiculously, I’m doing anyway right now.
First things first
These are not Story Games. They are arterially-spurting Narrativist, yes, but the whole connotation of the “story game” term is totally not applicable. That connotation, as I see it, is a cute little wind-up game which you sit down to and kind of free-associate into, and you move tokens around the table and stuff, and it spits back a fun little story for you. It will take care of that little task no matter what you say. Your job is to figure out how the currency works and at most, strategize about how to get a lot of the black tokens, or something of that sort. These are not like that. They demand commitment to the moment on the part of everyone playing, specifically, without reference to how things are going to go, without planning for the ending. Everyone has to read and know the rules; there cannot be a person who says, “Hey, look at this Ron Edwards hotness, let’s sit down and I’ll show it to you.”
Furthermore, not one of them will give you a blowjob. They are written much more in the frame of mind I was in when writing Sorcerer: a set of musical instruments. Which is to say, at least in terms of my ideal, the first electric bass, for instance. So that’s a real tricky aesthetic design goal: the consumer has to be skilled enough to understand what it can do when they see it, but it’s new, so they don’t really know they want this exact thing, but also has to really want it nevertheless. In other words, although they’ve never seen or tried an electric bass, they have to be musicians who will assess it in musical terms. Which adds up to a kind of arrogant take-it-or-leave-it presentation: (i) if you really want to try this for the right reasons, then it’ll work for you; and (ii) if you don’t, and you suffer and flail, it’s no skin off my nose. Not nice, but as far as I can tell, necessary.
The reason I went into all this is worth explaining too. Usually, my design process grows right out of successful play. I do X when playing a particular game, and then I say, “Hey, X really made that game work well,” and I manage to articulate X and make it the rules-basis for a new game. For example, the rules for scenes and conflicts in Trollbabe grew right out of the techniques that I found made Dust Devils work really well for our group, especially since they were so different from the techniques that worked well for us in playing Hero Wars. But these games or notes-for-games are different. Here, I was designing totally out of my comfort zone, combining techniques that I wasn’t sure that worked with others that were frankly utterly new – raw inspiration, stuff that really shouldn’t be let out of the workshop at this stage. I am completely ignorant concerning whether any given piece of the rules or the rules as a whole work at all.
So, OK, what are they?
1. The “red” game, which I’d love to call Estimated Prophet, or possibly The Stress of Her Regard, both of which are already commercially-important titles of other works, so I can’t. It’s about ordinary people who experience mysticism, revelation, and madness. It relies very heavily on a personal commitment to the concept of beauty. Overall it gives off a very strong whiff of Philip K. Dick’s Valis, but also allowing for some Matrixy or Akira-ish glowing zaps. The system includes making a collage, really, actually right there at the table. Scissors and glue and all that.
2. The “ophite” game, which is definitely the most ambitious of the bunch. I’m not even sure how to describe it … well, it’s mainly about coming of age and confronting death. Both playing it as an experience and the fictional content draw heavily upon semi-autobiographical comics techniques, being highly conversational and unconstructed, as well as combining embarassingly revelatory naturalism with free-floating visual weirdness whenever you feel like it. It’s also supposed to be short-form, at least potentially, meaning that a session might be as short as twenty minutes. And if that weren’t odd enough, it also requires learning a made-up religion and being honest about your own early religious observance (and boy have I found that people lie like rugs about that!).
3. The closest to a real title, Relic, which is about a church as an institution and the various soap operas that occur at different historical stages of its existence. You play it backwards, chronologically, using both a sanctified skull and a page or two of religious text as touchpoints. I was a bit stalled out on this one since I couldn’t seem to get away from its initial notes as a minor hack of In a Wicked Age, but then the Solitaire RPG Contest provided exactly the mental breakout I needed. You do have to put some writing time into the preparation, but after that, play is quite simple. It’s the only one I’ve tried and I used the experience for the examples.
I want to stress that none of them are about religious belief, which as I see it, is a huge non-issue which tends to blot out all the relevant issues about religion through its very non-ness. It’s kind of the opposite of the elephant in the room that no one will talk about; instead, it’s the elephant which is not in the room but which no one will shut up about.
What I’m hoping for
Feel free to discuss this material at the Adept forum. Essentially, I want responses straight from the heart. Whether it’s your reading of the current write-ups, any attempt at playing them, your thoughts on religion in RPG settings, your personal accounts and admissions regarding religion and role-playing, all I care about is your honesty. As long as that’s there, whatever you toss into this thread for those topics will help me a lot, and I hope to be able to provide interesting feedback that shows more about where I’m coming from with these … well, not games yet, “things.”
I really don’t want writing advice. These are not game texts yet and if any of them ever becomes one, I’ll write it from scratch and will need comments then. For now, these are design drafts, and I hope you can read them in that light.
Discussions about this material
The Forge: Three games about religion, [Ophian] A first actual session
Anyway: Hooray for religion
Esoteric Murmurs: Ed posting because God forbid I work on things I’m being paid to work on
B/X Blackrazor: Wherefore art thou religion? (another person’s take on the same issue)