Bleed

Bleed

Thinking about that Montsegur 1244 game from the con this weekend. I’m suddenly feeling a little self-conscious and intrigued by what Nathan Paoletta and Jason Corley were saying about the varying levels of engagement at the table.

The tl;dr (so you don’t have to read 200 lines of me gushing) is that I was super-wrecked during and after playing Montsegur 1244 and I may have been the only one at the table going through that.

I don’t know how else to ask this. Is it weird to have that happen? To have one player at the table engaged at a completely different depth than everyone else? Maybe we need to unpack “weird” in that sentence, too. Let’s try (pick one or more): uncomfortable, distracting, impolite, confusing.

Further complication: table full of strangers. Further further complication: table full of dudes.

I say “depth” rather than “agenda” or “stance” up there because I don’t know that they’re on the same continuum. I don’t want to talk about emotional investment vis a vis gamism, nor do I really think it’s as simple as actor/director.

This is larp shit and I don’t have the vocabulary for it. My recollection of the blow-to-blow play decisions I was making was that I was striving hard at being directorial, looking for emotionally charged moments and imagery. But of course every time I came up with something (my character, a mother, just standing quietly with her estranged husband staring at their dead baby; finally figuring out what Phillipa fears most is death, so she starts screaming when the fire reaches her), that just further pushed my own buttons.

Anyway, not looking for therapy or advice at all. Just want to talk right now about what it’s like when there’s uh… wide emotional variety at the table. It seems like it could be as detrimental as major agenda disconnects. But maybe not! It didn’t seem, from where I was sitting, to be nearly as rough sailing as sitting at a Fiasco table with a player frustrated that he can’t calculate his encumbrance.

0 thoughts on “Bleed

  1. Oh.

    Um, I must pull a Brand on this one and be like OMG THOUGHTS will talk more later.

    Because this is a real thing and complicated but I’m at work so…

    Sub?

  2. I would like to hear Brand’s real thoughts.

    I have been wrecked in every game of Montsegur I’ve played. I’ve been in games where people definitely got different things out of it. Most notably one friend whose focus became driving the emotional catharsis of other people rather than his own, so his decisions in play reflected that. He felt a little removed from it all but derived a lot of satisfaction nonetheless.

  3. I ran a game recently where, at the end of it, I felt touched and engaged. But one of the other players needed hugs because they were choked up and close to being in tears. I was taken aback by that, initially, because I just didn’t realize the different impact during the game. So yeah, totally happens. I didn’t feel afterwards like it was detrimental, as long as we were all cool with each other (and we were all dudes but also friends).

  4. Kimberley Lam and how do you think that was received at the social level? Like, I know there’s not really a zeitgeist but I think there’s still a vibe. Was it “weird” (see above) in reverse for everyone getting wrecked that there was one player going no deeper than pushing others’ buttons?

    I’m concerned, in the abstract, that that would feel bad-disruptive.

  5. I am interested by how big a deal this is to you! Not because you are wrong (because you are not) but because I feel like I’ve had a number of experiences where I was emotionally engaged/bleed-y out of proportion to other people at the table (in either direction), and that it doesn’t seem weird to me that it happens, maybe?

    I think in tabletop it may be that we see less demonstrable evidence of emotional engagement than we tends to be able to in larp, perhaps? I know that when you said you were wrecked at the end of that game I was a little surprised, because I didn’t see much difference in your play from beginning to end, you know? 

    In my experience, sometimes I have a surprisingly deep engagement in my character and I get some bleed from that almost independent of the actual content of the game. That’s basically why I wrote Annalise, because I had a character experience in a one-shot that that game was unsuited to exploring, so I wrote a game where I could explore it.

  6. Well. 

    I’m a 46 year old reasonably mature male adult. I’m practiced at (at least) faking the male adult part. Which includes keeping your shit together in public, among strangers.

    Like…emotionally, I’m totally fine with my experience. Intellectually, I’m curious about matters of etiquette and propriety. And that third part, don’t know what it is, is all oh gawd was that weird? It was weird, wasn’t it?

    (If I’m being honest, I’m relieved that I could both have the experience and not inflict weirdness on anyone else at the table.)

    Utterly unsurprised about Annalise. It sure reads that way.

  7. Paul Beakley, I feel you, man.  I haven’t had this happen as many times this year as I did last year but I was in a whole different place last year than I am now.   #NewMexiCon  was an emotional ride for me.  One of the most incredible games I had was a Swords Without Masters that I played with Aaron Feild.  I am pretty sure that I had what you are describing happen during this game and during the Clay That Woke game I played with Paul Czege.  

    To shortly answer, I do not think it is strange for there to be differences (even really large ones) between the emotional connection (i.e. depth) that players have at the table.  I think out of all the words you offered above that confusing would be closest to the mark.  It is entirely possible that you could be impolite or distracting (particularly in a heightened emotional state) you can also bring an amazing piece of yourself to the table.  For us guys that can be downright terrifying.  But it builds an experience that sticks with you.  That you chew over.  That has changed you inside as a person.  It is one of the reasons we play the games we do.  If you were really not looking for an emotional ride then I wouldn’t imagine you playing the games you do.  I would put forth humbly that your emotional engagement with the game did not detract from the enjoyment of others.  It is entirely possible that it wasn’t even detected by them.  But the fact that you found that place in yourself and brought it to the table probably made the game BETTER.  

    Be happy to unpack anything here if you think it would be helpful.

  8. I think that a well-written and/or a well-run game can push a ton of emotional buttons. But the majority of games I’ve been in – the vast majority of games – when things started to get too intense for the characters, players often insulate themselves from their characters to avoid letting character emotion drive the player.  

    It’s an easy shift to spot as GM, too – players shift from first-person to third-person when describing character actions when they’re trying to step back.

  9. Christian Griffen I can handle “taken aback.” I think if I was taken aback at someone’s out-of-(my)-scale emotional response to a game, I’d probably be well okay then, you do you.

    I don’t have the bad dude circuitry that compels me to attack weakness.

  10. While I can’t speak for anyone else it wasn’t bad-weird for me and I didn’t get the sense that anyone had a negative reaction to it. My concern after was whether he got what he wanted out of the game, and he did. He did note that it might not be a game he would play again or often because he felt it pushed him strongly towards that directorial mindset and that can be a creatively tiring thing to play.

  11. I made a joke in one of your recent posts about only playing “games that make me cry”. It was a joke because it’s literally not my thing. I don’t understand it.

    Can you (or anyone) explain like… how you get invested this much? I can’t really fathom it and it’s so outside of my play style that it confuses me whenever I hear about it. I want to understand!

  12. You are correct, Paul Czege.  It was one of many extremely powerful emotional experiences at the table I had last year.  I think The Climb (the LARP run and created by Jason Morningstar) was probably the most pronounced of those.  Something very large broke inside me after playing that game.

  13. Curious about matters of etiquette and propriety <- yeah, this. So, here's a thing, we didn't use an X-card in that game, nor does it have any procedural structure for making an overt signal to the other players about your emotional state. I guess you could use cards to take narration away from someone else if they're going too hard, or something like that. But any/all navigation of emotional state was social. And, like, I've played a couple games now with Jason Corley , and remember feeling like he was in a pretty strong directorial stance and setting up other characters, I think (like I was); I know Eric Mersmann pretty well and he seemed, I dunno, "midrange" maybe? Making strong character choices, maybe not 100% invested. I haven’t played with you or Ara Kooser before, so I didn’t have a gauge, just tossing stuff out there that I thought was interesting and pushing the narrative along.

    If there was more overt signaling, could we have aligned our investment/bleed/whatever more closely? Should (say) Jason and I been checking in more? Would that have even mattered? I think the game telegraphs the potential for bleed strongly enough that it was on the table as a possibility.

    Just thinking out loud here!

  14. Yeah, I would say I was about 80% invested. Not to criticize, but my experience can be summed up as I felt like I threw a few options for how I thought it would be interesting to have my characters explore their stories with others out and they never really “caught” for whatever reason, and because of that the choices I was presented with seemed like easy ones. Which is fine!

  15. I feel like getting differing emotional responses is pretty normal in most of my games.

    I play with a pretty large group, with a relatively homogeneous presentation (mostly male, mostly white, mostly straight, mostly middle-class, mostly educated). In virtually any game we play we get a remarkably diverse level of emotional response. And, yeah, it can lead to a lot of disruption. It’s one of the reasons I probably would never play Montsegur with my home group. There are a couple of those guys whose reactions would be so difficult to reconcile with my own that it would take me out of my preferred emotional zone and sour the whole thing.

    That said, I trust them enough to say that if I presented the game and said “this deals with some pretty heavy emotional stuff, and won’t really work if you aren’t either open to an emotional response or willing to just let other people have their own emotions, and if that’s not going to work, then maybe don’t play,” the people who would be most likely to disrupt me would opt-out.

    My one session (which Kimberley Lam was also in) had a pretty wide range of responses, both in terms of actual emotion and depth of experience. Kim’s response was very much visible/external. Other players seemed really internal, but nonetheless affected. I moved a little to “director” stance, but mostly just to set up conflicts for myself so I could externalize my emotions, and because I find that I can appreciate the responses and performances of other players better from that stance.

  16. My experience is postmortem discussions are important for emotionally intense games. People are likely to have a need to talk about some stuff outside the in-game context.

  17. Aaron Griffin, I have played games for years and never had the emotional reactions I had to games I played last year.  At least for me, it’s not something I can plan on.  It’s just something that happens.  We all build walls up around our emotions.  It’s part of becoming an adult.  But every now and then something happens at the table (or in life) that illustrates just what a shitty job you have done making those walls.  That hurt just waltzes in and sits down on your couch and makes itself at home like it was the easiest thing in the world.  It’s terrifying.  It’s frustrating because you are telling yourself “Get a grip, man!  It’s just a game!”  Maybe it’s part of getting older, I have no idea.  All I can say is that it happens and there’s no controlling it.

  18. Larry Lade, I would say it varies.  I’m a hardcore introvert and the last thing I would probably like to do afterward is talk about it.  Some processing is required before that happens.

  19. I’ve been thinking about different levels of engagement a lot over the recent years. I actually think that’s pretty much a normal occurrence: one of the players might be tired or distracted, someone might be needing the escapism a bit more, someone may not be as invested in a particular game but still participate because their friends want to play it, and so on. I think that a game needs to accommodate this, either by giving different roles to players based on this, or by still working fine if some players just roll dice and others really get into the narration (and/or emotion).

    In my designs, Anima Prime is an example of the latter: conflicts still work if some players just put in little effort and roll dice while others narrate fancy stunts or character passions and reap benefits for that. Meridian is an example of the prior: some players will have secondary roles that they can either stick to, to have smaller parts to play, or they can choose to move up to playing a more central character if they’re so engaged.

  20. Aaron Griffin Okay, some thoughts on how I got to that place:

    * There is literally no mechanical anything to Montsegur 1244. So scenes are worked out entirely socially. You can’t blame the dice. You don’t have mechanical uncertainty letting you off the hook. I’m not saying freeform induces bleed, but I’m saying traditional mechanical procedures (probably) inhibit it because of the imposed mechanisms. I’m willing to be proven wrong on that. I probably will be.

    * The game is framed for maximum emotional manipulation. It’s structured around acts, and slow-but-continuous investment. The first act is just kind of open-ended playing: here’s Phillipa, she hates her mom (why?) and gets along with her sister (why?) and is pregnant. Then the second act, the fictional screws are tightened a bit: you make scenes about what it’s like to live under siege, and how the characters react to that pressure. And the third act is all about whether you’ll capitulate and convert to Catholicism, run away, or burn for your Cathar beliefs/identity.

    So it’s not wiiiiide open. You don’t frame scenes where you charge madly down the mountain and defeat the besiegers against all odds. The game doesn’t care about that. It cares about characters under pressure.

    * There are constant ongoing social cues from the players egging on the drama and tragedy. “Wow, heavy!” is an emo high-five and I think taken as a yes more such dark so drama.

    I speculate — and JFC this is only a speculation, put away the hatchets — that settling on a stance in a game like this probably happens at the crossroads of emotional safety and creative curiosity. I was cool with wading into unsafe waters and I was curious about how that’d feel (so, no, I wouldn’t have X-carded myself out of that).

    OTOH it definitely felt like the investment snuck up on me. I’m a dad, I love my kid, putting kids in actual peril is dicey but fictionally killing them for the feels (which, let’s be honest, I did all convention long) moved me to a new space.

    So, man, I don’t know what to tell you. I think you can strive toward deep investment if the whole table is on board. Consequently I think when GMs try to do it on their own, that can slide into deeply shitty territory. Subject matter matters. System, or the lack thereof, matters.

  21. I ran one game where a character’s situation got a little too close to a player’s situation. That particular player experienced a lot of bleed and really struggled with some stuff. It ended up causing the game to fall apart because it wasn’t handled particularly well (by myself and others).

    It’s not weird or necessarily disruptive for players to have different amounts of emotional investment but if the discrepancy is too great it can cause dissonance.

  22. I’d also like to add that I kinda admire people who allow themselves to have these kind of experiences in games. It’s interesting that games can do this but I tend to avoid the games that might have an impact on me. Props to anyone who can allow themselves to be open enough to have a deep emotional response.

  23. About having “pushing other people emotional buttons” at these games: if we are not talking about disruptive behavior (that is totally another thing, the difference is very noticeable quickly by everyone), it’s something that these gemes need to work
    Pushing your own emotional buttons is empty, playing is something you do with other people. You feel your character, but you have to act to engage the other players too.

    Someone can be so immersed in his own character to be unable to “help” the other players getting there by pushing their own buttons. By the other hands someone can be so intent into pushing other people’s buttons to the point of separation from his own character (this is the side I tend toward to) but if they are still engaged in the game and do their part  the game still works.

    The game works if people playing it do their parts (not “part” in the sense of “acting” but in the sense of “this is what you do in this game”), and this something at the Social Level (I could go Big Model all  day about this stuff, sorry…).

    The emotional, personal engagement is… personal. It impact on the game only as much as it change your social behavior. It can be the reason you play, and the difference between enjoying a game or not, but the only things that counts in the social activity “game we play” is what you do and say, what you “share” in common with the others. 
    A very engaged person that it’s too shy to let it show and a totally not-engaged person can do the same things and so have the exact same effect on the game. The important thing is: do your part. Play the game.

  24. The PC Sheet is a psychic osmotic membrane.  While projecting in game, there is a tendency to think you’re emotionally “safe” due to the F-word (“fiction”), i.e.  that you are free to do and feel things that are seemingly disconnected from your own actual experience.  But…  There is no such thing.  Whose head did your ideas come out of?  Yup.

  25. The conversation has really moved. Skip this if you don’t want to hear me talk about An Instance Of Playing Montsegur.

    Here are the mechanics in Montsegur-As-It-Was-Explained-To-Me that put me in director mode:

    * Multiple characters. That right there is essentially enough to make bleed not possible. Amiel reacted to the horrors of the game by pitching tantrums and hating all the Blessed (they called him a demon and said he was in hell, “what a bunch of pricks” was his response).  Shifting gears from him to Corva was easy because they were so different.

    * You pick a character almost immediately to be a “main character.” I picked a guy who seemed interesting at first, but to produce good friction with his boss, played by Ara Kooser , I made him a bit world-weary. People let him be world-weary so he stayed that way. He wasn’t an interesting “main character”. But that didn’t matter because the only thing “main character” status gets you is that you are guaranteed a finish in the flames, in the arms of the Pope, or if you’re lucky, an escape. Since those are arranged as the interesting outcomes in the game, dying early (with the exception of staying on as a vengeful ghost) is absolutely a director-level choice and not a character one – it is boring to die in Montsegur in any other way than the flames.  A much more interesting character for me was Corva (sp?) the mom who had lost other kids, watching one of her daughters lose her kid. I played her as old-school-Shakespearean melancholic almost to the point of a personality disorder (advising her child not to name the grandchild until she’s sure it’s going to live, etc.) In the end her decision was more interesting: to let her daughter give herself to oblivion to end her grief even though my character had chosen to live. I sort of played her as a grief-worshipper, like Constance in King John.  But again, people spotted me this, let her be that weird grief-worshipper. The coolest part was when Eric Mersmann was like “yeah, your husband’s fucking pissed about that”. But it was late in the day. As it turned out there was no reason she couldn’t have been a main character, but on the other hand this wouldn’t have made mechanically any difference.

    * When Paul Beakley ‘s character (my character’s daughter), lost her child, Paul set a scene in which he (and Ara Kooser ‘s character) stood over the small body. Paul explicitly said “nobody says anything” and Ara nodded. I didn’t know whether that meant Paul was proposing an idea to Ara and Ara liked it or if Paul had the power to say that and Ara acknowledged it. To me it seemed directorial no matter how it was analyzed. “Oh, this is a game where I can say what other people say and do” I concluded. This fit with the aesthetic of having many characters. (Hey, by the way, for the last eleven years I’ve worked in the child abuse/neglect field so analyzing this scene dispassionately is really easy for me, that might be a relevant fact for ya. )

    * The story cards are random and you don’t have to play them. So not only is it somewhat unlikely that your story cards will put your characters in the vises necessary to squeeze out interesting emotional beats, even if they do, whether you play them or not is completely up to you. I came out pretty confident that nobody (maybe except Eric Mersmann ) got what I was trying to do with Corva’s history of grief and losing kids, but that was okay because this game isn’t set up to where everyone can express that by the end of the game except at the social level (“hey did you like what I did with X”).

    All in all I don’t see where Montsegur could ever produce bleed for me. The mechanics provide a really solid blockade against that.

  26. Fascinating! 

    EDIT totally got where you were going with Corva, and it was excellent. It also made me feel like Phillipa was completely emotionally isolated. I wanted Corva to join her daughter so bad, and reconcile that relationship, but it was denied to her.

    Having dad also blow her off at the end was, I think, when I snapped.

  27. It took me a few moments to remember but this has totally been a thing for me in LARP but not as much in tabletop. Add me to the ‘at work add thoughts later’ line

  28. I agree with Jon, all my experiences of high emotion while RPGing have all come from LARPs. I get too comfortable when I’m sitting down looking at a piece of paper. It’s like I’m at work!

  29. I really liked that scene in the cave! It was really sweet.

    Yeah, the main character/other character thing was rough for me, and I think is one of the parts of the game that shows some age. We in-play drifted it, right? I think at the beginning we thought we had a stable of characters and then realized that technically we were supposed to pick one as our “main” character, but by that point we had all already put all of our characters into motion, so it was an arbitrary distinction.

    The scrambling-to-incorporate-new-info moment, that was an apparent thing that I saw other people do. Interestingly, I think that, for whatever reason, I didn’t actually have much of it come my way. Maybe it’s because I was trying to frame strong scenes for others and left my characters as pretty obvious outlines? I don’t know!

  30. Yeah, I think my perception of the whole thing is different because I spent the third act with a giant sad target on Phillipa’s head.

    I’m loving that we’re getting a little debrief in now. It’s a good technique and I need to refine it for live play.

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