Mental Blocks

#7. Is there an RPG genre you sort of like but gives you severe mental blocks? What do you like about it? What are your mental blocks?

I love this question because it’s so obviously personal to Paul Mitchener’s experience. This is how I did #indiegameaday so I appreciate where he’s coming from.

Eloy Cintron had a really good answer about transhumanism, and I kind of echo his sentiment on it. But! I think it’s more because I have yet to see a system really tackle the interesting questions of the genre: Eclipse Phase has fascinating material but is totally trad in its approach (even the Fate version) and Freemarket has a fictional setup that I find hard to connect with. Or maybe it’s that the Freemarket system doesn’t hook into the questions that gnaw at me about transhumanism. I’m working on a post about fruitless voids and I’ll swing back around to this topic later.

So! Transhumanism isn’t quite my answer. No mental blocks, not really, just no good tools yet.

I think my answer for #7 will be: Heart-warming.

When I was between games about a year ago, I put together a list of things I wanted to run and let my players secretly dole out “votes” (everyone got 3) in any way they wanted on that list. It’s good, it’s democratic, everyone’s basically happy with the outcome.

One of the games on the list was Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine. This damned game has been haunting me for years, in large part because its procedures are so strange. I have no precedent to fall back on and I can’t really read how it plays, even when its fans provide great AP talk.

What jumped out at me in my voting process was that a) it didn’t get any votes and b) two of my four voters both said “heart-warming sounds like a great break from the grim and the dark.” Fair cop: I can do grim and dark and heavy in my sleep. It’s easy, the drama is right there on the surface, it’s naturally and easily intense.

I have no idea how to wrangle heart-warming.

Let’s just say, for the purposes of this conversation, that it’s a genre. I know it’s not “really” a genre under most definitions, but you can add it to nearly any other genre so it’s a big Venn circle. Heart-warming fantasy, heart-warming space adventure, heart-warming exploration, etc. (Maybe not heart-warming body horror or heart-warming espionage.)

My mental block, per #7’s question, is this: How do I keep everyone on the correct tonal page? Everyone, in this case, includes me.

My gut says it’s because nobody, me included, is comfortable expressing soft emotions like friendship and care and concern and love at my table. The funny thing is, some of my favorite fiction provides a great model for heart-warming play! It’s not like I don’t know how The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet carries off heart-warming space adventure. I get it. Lots of affirmations and reaffirmations of friendships, honest sharing of worries and insecurities, less focus on plot development and more focus on emotional revelations.

All that stuff is so hard at my table. But you know what? I’d totally take a swing at it in a convention setting, with strangers. Somehow a con table with a big X card and A-game-bringing superstar players is a much safer space for me to spool this out than my highly curated home group, which has been meeting in some form in a nearly unbroken string for, jeez, 20 years at least. I don’t even think it’s been the same people. But pitching this stuff at home is hard for me. Even when I’m being told point-blank they’re up for it.

A good part of my “mental block” is that, since I’m not practiced at working and exploring the heart-warming subgenre, there’s no small bit of fear there. What if I can’t resist the siren song of high-intensity melodrama? What if my players start tugging toward a plot arc and I can’t nudge them back toward their emotional arcs? My players, like me, are so untrained in this mode of play that I’m sure they’d feel maybe crippling uncertainty about, you know, how to proceed. When you have an economy driving you toward things, you just need to do those things and the game runs itself. When you have a clear premise, you drive toward the premise. Even if we used a game that leveraged clear emotional arcs (like Chuubo’s, which really is perfect for this), there’s the great yawning unknown of what happens when you feel actual feels, and those feels don’t have anything to do with blinding rage or smoldering vengeance or idealistic fervor.

So that’s my answer.

0 thoughts on “Mental Blocks”

  1. I have some notions in this front.

    First, I think heartwarming doesn’t pursue emotional arc instead of things-happening. Rather, the only way to do what you are trying to do is through affirmation, bonding, honesty.

    Second, small stakes. Smaller. In IIEE terms (blast from the past!) you need to be hung up more on the first I than anything else: “do I do this?” Not “will I succeed?”

    That’s for starts.

  2. I felt like heartwarming was really mysterious too, but immersing myself in slice of life anime really helped. The problems are small or personal, and they’re solved through working together and caring about one another. Stephen Universe and Adventure Time were good for this too. But I hear you. It’s still scary to think about playing a game without big problems to solve or action to goose the excitement levels.

  3. Small but interesting stakes! I hear you both. I think that’s just a matter of selling my players on coming up with something and trusting that it’s okay that it’s small.

    I think an early squirmy/uncomfortable reaction to Mouse Guard continues to haunt me on this. Even though the stakes are big, there was a disappointing “mice, really?” reaction from one of my players. He’s very good but he’s also judgy about stuff like that. I’m (perhaps unfairly) projecting his attitude on the small personal stakes question. “Should I ask this girl to the prom? Really?” or “How can I help my aging parents while renovating my home, really?” or whatever.

    (Plot twist! This is the same player who, much more recently, was all-in on heartwarming as a break from grimdark. I’m dumb and insecure.)

  4. Dunno if it helps, but last time I ran Golden Sky Stories, the premise was “the players are tasked with helping a ghost transition via helping his lifelong friend to forgive him”. You need to have big stakes, but proportional to the characters themselves. What’s a big deal to those characters?

    Then sell it, which seems to be the worry you have. Follow up: in the situations you describe, were you yourself sold on the idea that these situations were meaningful?

  5. The selling is of the process itself, not of the actual ideas. Selling my players on the very premise that the characters will pursue needs that can’t be achieved through violence.

  6. One of the best games of golden sky stories was about a small girl who had no money and was trying to figure out what to get her grandfather for his last birthday (she had overheard her dolls talking about how grandfather was not going to make it another year). Had the whole town of there at the end. Start with love and then add conflict.

    If I ever get to play chuubos, my character is going to be a small child who wants to become immortal after their dog dies. It’s really an arc about coming to terms with one’s own mortality.

    I’d do a road trip if chuubos was on the table, Paul Beakley​!

  7. Nicholas Hopkins since I had to cancel Dreamation, I’ll be doing NMCon. I’ll commit here to putting Chuubo’s out there as a “let’s figure this out” pitch.

  8. I think getting a game group that has been playing together a long time to “shift gears” with each other, and help each other do that, is a huge undertaking and there really isn’t a game text out there talking about it. (“Just play the right game!”) It’s very challenging. I definitely have had mixed results.

  9. Jason Corley I’m glad it’s not just me! Sometimes I feel like I’m taking crazy pills all alone, especially given how easy-peasy it is for me to mentally/emotionally/creatively shift gears in a con setting.

  10. One-shots can sometimes be lower stakes. I feel like I didn’t know how to do this until I played Ribbon Drive and a few other things about that speed, which showed me that the kind of play I suspected was possible was actually possible. Now it’s one of my favorite modes of play. The downtime phases of games like Bliss Stage and other games (even Blades, potentially) is another good place for it to show up. Have a scene where a couple characters are just hanging out and doing something innocuous.

  11. Tony Lower-Basch​ ran a lovely session of Chuubo at the last Dreamation. He nailed the tone, and was great at pulling us back when our individual tones drifted.

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