2019.50: be kind, rewind
Posting this a little later than usual because I was at a week-long training in Kristin Neff and Chris Germer’s exceptionally research backed methodology of Mindful Self-Compassion, a secular framework for deep inner compassion. It’s an individual practice, but with our paleolithically social nature ends up being all about the mechanics by which we interact and interpret our relationships with others.
And holy moly does that draw bright lines to tabletop rpgs and larp.
May I be kind to myself
The core idea of mindful self-compassion is this: what if you innertalked with yourself as you would to a dear friend going through a tough time (can you see the relational nature yet?)
There is a beautiful mantra at the heart of the practice:
This is a moment of suffering
Suffering is a part of life
May I be kind to myself
This is a triptych of three reminders: mindfulness (see things clearly, even the suffering), common humanity (suffering is a part of everyone’s life), and self-kindness (nuff said).
Because each person resonates with different methods, our teachers, Chris Germer and Sydney Spears, taught through experiential exercises. This way we’d be empowered to directly sense which practices resonated and which fell flat. For five days, I experimented. I roleplayed, sometimes solo in activities that felt like filling out the character sheet for the already-so-self-compassionate version of myself. At other times, we were in duos or small groups with instructions that felt like freeform larp of the indie-est kind.
Take this one:
Guided by the workshop leader, one person closes their eyes while their partner visualizes them as a child. First, prompts draw you to imagine childhood joy. In the second half—again, just looking at your partner’s face as they sit with eyes closed—you visualize all their life’s struggles. Then you switch. At the end, you discuss & debrief.
Now that is a tiny little larp. One designed and scientifically validated to foster connectedness to the dyad’s common humanity. I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like this come out of an itch.io jam.
What games embody this?
Inspired by his experience, I took the following question to the internets:
Facilitated well, the simple act of playing rpgs/larps brings people together, but let’s take it one step further:
❤️ What games have explicit mechanics that kindle love, compassion and connection between folks at the table?
😊 What games leave you feeling warm fuzziest?
And the internets bore fruit. Juiiiiicy roleplayfruit. (Thank you all who replied!)
Let’s get cozy
🐍 A Cozy Den, by Kira Magrann, is about half-human, half-human, lesbian snakes “denning up” for the freezing winter, with gameplay centered on negotiating life in a close space. This quote from the rules says it all:
A big point of conflict is what cozy means to each Lesbisnake. With some needs that are similar and some that are different, how do they compromise and make a space that is cozy for all?
It uses the Powered By The Apocalypse system, but with moves like “Arrange the Den” and “Nap,” and threats such as “No one can decide what movie to watch.”
🍄 Moose Trip, also by Kira, is literally about a group of moose (goose, geese? moose, meese?), who just ate psychedelic mushrooms. The engine of the game is describing your current “mushroom feeling”. Example:
You are floating and looking down at yourself. “What do you love most about yourself?”
How could you not feel closer to your friends after all playing this game?
🦊 Golden Sky Stories, by Ryo Kamiya, has players tell heartwarming stories of magical realist Japanese countryside, reminiscent of My Neighbor Totoro.
You play henge, animals with the power to take human form, with verbs that are non-violent, just like Cozy Den. “Alluring,” “Oracle,” “Fox Fire.” Poetic! Even more evocative are the additional powers you can choose by accepting “Weakness.”
And what do you do? You gather Wonder and Feelings by creating bonds with others, and can inspire Dreams. What a delight!
Just reading it brought me back to the childhood wonder I felt reading The Little Prince. It still sits on my shelf.
you are androids (and also varied archetypes of trans experience) swapping body parts at an underground club. Swaps are represented by colorful ribbons that you tie/untie from each other. It’s intense, tender, and my favorite game I played this year.
I love how a mechanic of exchanging body parts models the primal community concept of interdependence.
🐟 Deep Love, by Jason Morningstar, a game about a relationally complicated foursome exploring the oceanic bottom in a “two and a half ton iron ball” (of FEELINGS). Over four dives, different pairs of characters are plunged together in the dark, hot depths while the remaining two run through a checklist of technical questions (oxygen! pressure! heat!) and ask what weird uncharted creatures they see through a narrow viewing window.
Just like A Cozy Den, there is no great external or interpersonal conflict here—everyone loves and likes each other—but intimacy is explored not in action verbs but more structurally through the setup of the relationships. For example brilliant inventor Otis is in love with marine biologist Gloria, but it’s not reciprocated. Her character sheet reveals that she sees him as a tragic & lonely figure, and includes this CRUEL instruction (oh Jason, how could you):
What can you do to be kind and encouraging to Otis?
There’s another neat exploratory tool, moving towards the lyrical. The pair on the surface must draw the sea creatures described by the duo in the depths, with a twist:
They should keep the divers in mind as they sketch—perhaps each fish is less scientific illustration and more emotional metaphor.
I love this dynamic because words are oh so limited. Changing medium changes what you can express. Sometimes you really do want people to dance about architecture.
🧜♀️ The Underwater People, related and also by Jason, has you larp a support group for underwater creatures—mermaids, swamp monsters, even the god of the sea—who used to be underwater and miss it terribly.
I absolutely love this game. It’s a great example of how people take their behavioral cues from context. Players arrange the space into a support circle of chairs, with a separate table of refreshments, and enter the space greeting a “host”, just as you would in a real support group. All of this gifts players (I imagine even fairly new ones) with a clear idea of what kind of moment-to-moment actions are appropriate, and also the appropriate level of kindness and support.
The other engine of the game is that each player has a need, from mermaid’s need for adoration to the swamp monster’s self-hating desire for pity, and that need is given to another player who then seeks you out.
💔 183 Days, by James Stuart and Sara Williamson, is about a relationship with a time limit, asking the question: “If you could see the future, and change it / not change it, what would you become? How do you live with that?” (author’s words)
Sam can see the future. Dylan can see many possible futures. Tomorrow, they go on a date. Their relationship lasts 183 days
We’re getting more freeform here, but also more intimate as it’s a two-player game. I can’t say too much about this game as I don’t have the cards (but have ordered it and eagerly await a chance to read it!), but I find that two-player games of love like this one create fairly direct (positive) bleed for me—warm and pleasant if I have a certain level of intimacy already with the other player.
And this game knows it: one of the first cards instructs you to stare into each other’s eyes for 4 minutes.
🥺 I’ll end with Your Dead Friend, by Jeeyon Shim, which I want to let speak for itself:
You are taking a walk with a friend the day before they will die. You know they will die because you keep getting transported back to this day, over and over, and today is the day you decide you’re going to give up on trying to divert their fate by warning or dissuading them from what will happen. You are going to savor the time you have and enjoy looking at the trees and the birds with them. You are going to say goodbye.
It’s a lyric game which I have wanted to play since I first read it, and creates connection with a different, ritualistic approach. There is poetry. There’s a ritual phrase that initiates play (or reinitiates it if the time loop resets). You breathe together, creating physical synchronicity. To end the game you say “I Love You.”
These are powerful, perhaps even sacred moves.
The veil between game and life
These games offer such different but related tools to create warmth and connection between players, and I’m just scratching the surface. Of them I’ve only played Underwater People, so this is a critical analysis based on reading them alone, and I can’t wait to try them to see how they feel.
There is, however, a rhyme to how I’ve listed them out. I wanted to start with the game that had the most explicit moves, that created connection via verbs, and track from that place the messy path to the lyrical, with a pit stop along the way to games that push folks together via their overall structure.
And let’s face it: the very form of larp and roleplaying games connects people. Done in a safe way, the simple act of choosing to get together with friends and play together is incredibly bonding. When a group of friends invents a world together, they are joined in an almost parental relationship with it. They become a family, raising a Creation together.
But some games have a thinner veil between play and life. In this article for First Person Scholar, Sharang Biswas writes:
In Just a Little Lovin’ (JaLL), players embody queer individuals in the ’80’s trying to comprehend the AIDS epidemic . Beat Generation casts the players as the artistic, musical, and literary luminaries of the ’60s . The two games discuss complex queer issues, from loss and how it forges friendship during the AIDS epidemic in the former, to the role of queer art in resisting the status quo in the latter. Both LARPs synergize game mechanics and game narrative to enhance feelings of queer community, and encourage camaraderie and social support among players.
Both JaLL and Beat Generation recreated historical worlds and characters relevant to modern politics and to a relatively queer player base (indeed, one participant of JaLL had grown up in New York during the 80’s AIDS epidemic). By doing so, the games perforated the player/character membrane. All kinds of bleed were encouraged to ooze in, including feelings of friendship, camaraderie, and emotional support—explicit themes in both LARPs—leading to what Jonaya Kemper terms “emancipatory bleed”, or bleed used to uplift marginalized identities .
This all leaves me with a question: what creates more connection, games that are explicitly cozy and warm, or games that take players through intense hardship together?
Going even further and perhaps coming full circle with the beginning of this letter, Sarah Lynne Bowman and Kjell Hedgard Hugaas propose a framework for Transformative Role-Play:
We propose that although transformative effects might occur—and certainly do occur—by chance or as a result of intuitive choices that designers and participants make, we can seek to maximize the potential of such impacts through intentional design, implementation, and post-event integration. We argue that designers and players who wish to maximize the potential for transformative impacts should consciously and transparently focus on the following goals throughout the entirety of the process:
- Establishing a clear vision explicitly detailing the desired impacts,
- Providing environments that feel safe, and
- Offering structures and resources for post-event integration at the end of play.
We are barely scratching the surface! I’d like to see more play at this boundary.
What other games exist in this space? What part of this space would you like to explore (or see explored)?
Take one breath in for yourself. Now take breathe out for someone you love.
I’ll leave you with a transition back to the other side of the veil: Kristen Berman and Dan Ariely’s “No Small Talk” cards, which I’ve experienced and can say are fantastic. From the Wired article about it:
Usually dinner parties involve two social co-ordination problems. The first is arrival times: if everyone arrives at different times, the party always seems to be in flux - “getting going” or “dying down”. The second is one of conversation topics: no single person will take the social risk of talking about complex personal issues with mere acquaintances. The alternative is surface chat that makes no lasting impression on anyone.
To help combat the problem of co-ordination, we added one simple variable to this dinner party - rules. 1) Show up between 7:30-8pm. If you can’t make 8pm, don’t come. 2) Absolutely no small talk. Only meaningful conversation is allowed. These rules eliminated some individual freedoms in favour of better outcomes for everyone.
By establishing a common rule for behaviour we created an environment with a new set of social norms that redefined peoples’ best interests. And everyone was happier. As added proof, two dates came out of the evening. Perhaps meaningful conversation also makes us more attractive?
There’s so much more I want to write about this, but I think this letter is long enough already! ‘till next week my friends.
Be kind to yourselves!
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