Wednesday, September 13, 2017

GAMESPELL; A Theory of Gamestyle by J.E. Becker

 What is Gamespell?

Gamespell is not a game system or setting but a method of playing a tabletop roleplaying game…what we would call a “style of play.” 

This style of play will not appeal to every sort of rpg gamer but shall be as meat and drink for those who crave such a gaming experience. 

These latter are the gamers who, we are often told, “take things too seriously”; those strange role-players who seek an immersive, vicarious experience from their fantasy gaming that is similar to the rapture of an engrossing film or book. They want to try, in as much as within their power and can be safely managed, to “be” in the game they are playing., to make the game and the tale within the game as “real” as possible.

Quite simply, they wish to enter the fantasy world. Not forever...not for real...just for a little while, as realistically as possible.

Attend any movie theater and if there is a good or great film playing, you will observe reactions among the audience. People may be scared, on the edge of their seat, or even crying or sitting in saddened silence, mesmerized by the vicarious life they are watching upon the screen. Likewise, a reader with a gripping book is equally mesmerized, caught up, like the moviegoer, in a story that they know is fiction, is not “real”, and yet their real emotions are engaged in the tale into which they have submerged.

There is no reason that a fantasy role-playing game experience cannot be almost or as engaging if those who enter the experience together are willing and committed to letting it be so.

Beer and pretzels gaming and the ensuing hilarity and campiness that results from rpg-playing as pure goofiness is a beautiful and fun pastime for friends and a time honored method of play. Every gamer can enjoy such playing.

But there is another, more vicarious gaming experience to be had, one where those who cooperate in the setting of atmosphere , plot and characterization can be as players upon a stage, allow the story and the atmosphere to carry them along for a few hours to a place where halting the game and rising from play is not unlike awakening from a dream or a relaxed and pleasant state of mild hypnosis such is experienced when listening to music, watching a great play or film or being enfolded in the pages of a beloved fantasy novel.

This is the experience which Gamespell is meant to aid and facilitate.


Gamesmaster, you are tasked not only with the preparation and conducting of the adventure but also its presentation in an atmosphere suitable for the Gamespell. 

Little need be said to an experienced Gamesmaster about how to prepare a dungeon or adventure, but now you will be working as much to create a mood or ambience as you will in running the adventure.

Many things will aid you in this…music , art, props, lighting, even fragrances.  These we will examine presently.

But the chief thing to realize as a Gamsepell Gamesmaster is that you are not to be what is prominent in the game session; it is the fantasy world and experience that should stand out in relief to your troop.

You are not there to crack jokes or speak unendingly but to be the medium between the players and the fantasy environment and non player characters they encounter. Humor and joking is fine and always in order, not to mention serving as a much needed relief from the heroic and high fantasy themes of Gamespell, but let the Gamesmaster’s humor be given vent through well acted non-player characters and subtle underlying themes built into the adventure.

Players should perceive your brief descriptive narratives as a disinterested voice that speaks as little as possible except when you are acting as a non player character, in which case by all means you should enter the role and have as much fun as everyone else is having—in character. Because as the players are to “be” their characters, so you are to be something other than yourself for a little while.

The Gamesmaster should make certain every player has a copy of these guidelines before playing so they know what to expect and also, be certain they desire this sort of game. 

You will rely upon diverse elements and not lengthy narrative description to impart the fantastic vision you want your game to be for yourself and everyone present. It will be necessary enough for you to give descriptions when these elements are not sufficient and to answer the inevitable questions that arise in play, but that is why you should curtail any unnecessary talking so that your voice is not omnipresent. You will be relying mostly upon your players’ imaginations; you are not there to make them see what you see but to let them see what they can envision within their own minds, both collectively and individually.

One of the most important features of Gamespell is that the rules and mechanics of the game you are using fades from the forefront and the story and setting become prominent.

For this reason, there is to be absolutely no arguing about rules during the Game. 

Time should definitely be set aside before or after the game to clarify rules or straighten out differences, but during Gamespell, as much recourse and reference to books as can be avoided should be avoided or handled in the form of a note to the Gamesmaster should it prove absolutely necessary.
Players who agree they want to play a Gamespell style campaign will therefore accept without explanation the decisions of the Gamesmaster during play and not make lengthy appeals to rules books. 

This does not mean a player will always be wrong or disallowed to express questions and perhaps help the Gamesmaster past a misunderstanding; what is mean is that during actual play the above principle should be observed by all.

You will understand from the onset that players and GMs who enjoy rules lawyering , as it is called within the hobby , will realize here and now that they do not wish to play Gamespell. And while these are fellow brothers and sisters of our craft and hobby with whom we can enjoy playing games outside of Gamespell, for purposes of this gaming style , it is well they do not want to play, for it is not gathering a group of willing players that is usually the bane of any aspiring gaming group but achieving the right concord concerning game style. No stones are being cast; the desire is that players who enjoy a particular table style will be matched with a gaming group that delivers this to them.

Note however, that this rule of acceptance of the Gamesmaster’s choice of how to proceed during play when a mechanic rule is in question does not mean we are to assume he or she is right about the matter in question, only that rules discussions will take place before or after a Gamespell session, not during. The Gamesmaster, as always, will be expected be using a set of rules and a setting that is familiar and to be amenable to admitting any mistakes in interpreting the rules.

Because of the “No Gametalk Rule”, as it is called, it will happen occasionally that a player’s character or the party is affected, seriously or even drastically, by the Gamesmaster’s decision when he or she proceeds with an incorrect interpretation or faultily remembered rule .  In Gamespell, however, there is a remedy for this situation, that being the mitigating principle of Poetic License . If, in out of session discussion it is determined that the GM was wrong and the course taken created unfair or damaging consequences to any character, the story is simply altered to undo, as much as possible, the deleterious effects. Thus, if a character died due to a rules error on the Gamesmaster’s part, when the next session resumes, that character is alive. If a magical item was lost, or a friendly non-player character offended and estranged, or whatever the case, all is undone and the next session of Gamespell begins with things set right; it is not important to this style of play if a story changes after the fact, only that the illusion and immersive experience of play during a session is maintained as much as can be done.

If the Gamesmaster is not to speak endlessly or give unending narrative or description, how, you may ask, will players “see” the fantasy realm and respond to the game?

In answer, the Gamesmaster is to make use of ambience, props, visual and auditory art, and the players’ own imaginations.

The Gamesmaster does not need to describe with long narrative what the characters discover upon being conveyed to an Elfin Kingdom or Enclave—he or she can play a specially chosen and prepared piece of classical or medieval music in a soft light setting while passing around or holding up an image that either shows or evokes the Elfin Kingdom in a manner that will impress it upon the imagination of the player.

Players are asked to let go, to listen to the music, and to “experience” the image and the sounds together and form in their own minds. For this reason, it will not be uncommon for there to be many moments of silence during Gamespell, wherein the particpants attempt to truly feel and visualize the game world and what is taking place there by means of a meditative disposition which makes the enjoyment of a piece of art or a selection of music an integral element of play . At times, it may be that players will close thier eyes and listen to an entire sing or instrumental piece as they see with thier mind's eye what the piece evokes.

At other times, suitable music is played in the background during normal play. Imagine listening to Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel as the characters browse a village Bazaar...or a dark and brooding piece of Wagner as they approach a dragon's mountain, accompanied by a painting of one of Larry Elmor 's dragons. The power and grandeur of music and art, and thoughtful silences amidst  character role playing, become effective means of creating the Gamespell. It is no longer incumbent upon the Gamesmaster to paint the world with his or her own meager words-- in such an atmosphere, the players' imaginations will do that work instead.

Thus, the Gamesmaster does not seek to place any certain image in their minds; he or she may simply play a suitable classical piece while showing the players a color image of Botticelli’s Primavera  It is not assumed that the players are actually seeing exactly the scene they behold in the art piece, but rather that this is an evocation of the feeling from what their characters are actually seeing.

At some point, the Gamesmaster will ask them to close their eyes and “see the Elfin Kingdom.” At this time, brief suggestions and bits of description can be offered as the players visualize in their own minds what their character is experiencing. “See the stately elves, smiling at you as their viols and harps fill the glen…see them dancing in the treetop houses…merrymaking and soft song with the smells of a midsummer’s feast…you stare transfixed as an Elf Lord and His Lady approach you…you may open your eyes.”

At such a point, the Gamesmaster would now speak as the Elf Lord or Lady. If desired, one of the players can speak from a prepared piece of dialogue provided by the Gamesmaster., portraying the Lord or it becomes them. The Gamesmaster would take over the character once the players begin interacting with the non player character, but a regular feature of Gamespell can be the most suitable players introducing a non-player character or monster and then resuming playing their character as the Gamesmaster takes over.

As you can see, visualization, letting go and seeing, if you will, a “movie of the game” in your mind is an important component of Gamespell. The desired effect is that by use of soft lights, a quiet and private playing space, perhaps candles or oil lamps , mood altering music and imagery, players will become relaxed and the characters, story and setting will be more suggestively impressed upon their mind’s eyes.  This is, in fact, how movies and movie theaters and plays are designed to draw you into them. And this is exactly what Gamespell attempts to do: that is, create a drama stage or movie theater atmosphere in a game table environment, in as much is possible, so that the same sort of transport can occur during your adventure, in a shared fantasy world that is experienced both individually and collectively.

Even though during the visualization process each player sees in his or her own mind something completely different and unique to their own psyche and how their psyche is filtering and interpreting the visual and auditory elements, there is still  enough of a shared element that it will feel as though everyone saw the same thing. And play will proceed from that basis. The Gamesmaster is actually letting the player’s imagination do the work , and for the player, it is more relaxing and pleasant to experience this than have to try and digest a wall of repetitive narrative that leaves as many questions as it does answers.

Everyone who is playing Gamespell is attempting to evoke for themelves and every other player the feeling of Being There.

In light of this fact, it should be most apparent that it is not only the Gamesmaster who avoids silly banter and superfluous description but the players as well. This is governed by the ageless roleplaying principle of staying in character, or, to be more memorable, “In Persona Dramatis.”

Jim, who is playing the role of Felhaus the Fighter, does not say “Felhaus lights a torch” but speaking as Felhaus, Jim says “I shall set a torch to burning, that by its flame we might see this buried place.”  Angie, who is portraying Drumina the Cleric , does not say  “Drumina casts her healing spell upon Felhaus to heal the goblin damage” but speaks in the voice she imagines to be of Drumina, and says “Felhaus, good knight, ye shall be healed by the power of the Goddess, behold, I cast my healing upon thee.”

It is by these acts of small drama, and staying in character, that the players will immerse themselves in the game and create a much richer experience that is, it is hoped, will be almost akin to a spell. The story is the spell…

It can be easily seen that out of character banter, such as talking about your day at the office or the factory, or interrupting the game to discuss politics or a movie you saw is definitely not fit for a session of Gamespell; that would be somewhat like if we were all seated in a movie and right during an intense part of the film someone behind us began loudly talking, breaking the spell.

Thus the party, as well as the Gamesmaster , will endeavor to avoid as much as possible such Player Talk and be committed to Character Talk instead. And with regards to Character Talk, players may be as free as they wish for they are acting out a play of everyone's making.

We are conditioned socially to feel embarrassed or silly about individually expressing ourselves this way, especially now that we are adults. And yet, socially, we don’t look down on actors or musicians or artists when they let go, not when we are getting to experience someone else’s imagination. If we should see someone shedding a tear at a movie, we don’t say “Don’t you realize that no one really died here? That’s just an actor and this film is fiction.” Somehow we feel, most of us anyway, that that is perfectly acceptable. But if a group of gamers lets go and pretends to be their characters and to “see” and share a fantasy setting, well, this is somehow different to many. It is our position that, in fact, it is not so different, or needn't be among gamers. 

It is not necessary that everyone be real acting talent during Gamespell, but it is important that can let go and be their character.

For this reason, it will be beneficial if at the beginning of a session of Gamespell if the Gamesmaster sets the modd by dimming the lights, playing an appropriate music piece, perhaps a piece that become the theme of the fantasy setting, and gives the players a chance to let the world outside wash off their shoulders. The Gamesmaster may then say something to this effect; “Greetings, Mighty Heroes. Rest for a moment as you see the world outside of this room fading away. You have entered the world of (the setting). You are no longer Jim—you are Felhaus, the warrior of renown. You are no longer Angie, but you have become Drumina the Priestess of Ardrahna, Goddess of the Namonites. You are no longer Chris, but you are Isilthris, Master Magician. Til we break this Gamespell. What is your wish?”  Or set up the introduction piece from here. 

In addition, each player may have an illustration or figure that is set forth prominently to depict their character and everyone should focus upon seeing and hearing each other in these roles.

Players should feel comfortable enough in their group to then let go and speak as their character. Due to the descriptive nature of role-playing, it will sometimes be necessary to state as dialogue what, in a real setting, one would simply do, but even fantasy worlds have their limitations. As In Dramatis Persona is already an understood rule for people who have agreed to gather for Gamespell, the Gamesmaster should not try to force this during a game. Sometimes it will be inevitable that something must be said or asked not in charcter. But every Gamespell group will find their own creative ways to interact so as to preserve the principle of Character Talk and No Game Talk  as much as possible.

For obvious reasons, these kind of observances are more likely to be lost in larger groups. It is recommended that a Gamespell party consist of three or at most four players plus the Gamesmaster: this keeps everyone off the sidelines and is much easier to manage under the guidelines suggested here. However, larger groups may work well enough if everyone gets into the spirit. 

A closing word about props. Props are most essential to Gamespell. Music, prerecorded dialogues, art, handmade maps, poems , weapon replicas, potion bottles, scrolls, portraits, sound effects…all are in order for the resourceful Gamespell group and all, not just the Gamesmaster, may take hand in providing crafted props, though the Gamesmaster reserves the right to guide these contributions in a manner that does not conflict with setting or game rules. Some groups would not mind, perhaps, if players were permitted to write a page or two for each session to read, accompanied by music, to their fellow party, bits of background or some such like. Learning to seamlessly move between such moments will be something that develops over time… soon, awkward silences will be replaced by a group rhythm and pace will become natural.

The choice of rules, setting and the use of miniature figures and table top terrain models is a matter of group taste Rules for movement and combat should be simple and understood by all so as to facilitate their quick resolution without Gametalk as much as possible. Some may find it refreshing to leave these behind during Gamespell, perhaps replacing them with larger , lovingly crafted figures which are merely visual in nature and meant to evoke game mood, not necessarily strictly tied to rules of movement. For example, in addition to six or seven inch tall representations of the characters which are either crafted by the group of printed from images and affixed to heavy card stock on both sides, the Gamesmaster would also have pieces prepared for non player characters and monsters. If Drumina, Felhaus, and Isilthris have met a minotaur and are engaged in battle, the minotaur figure is set on the table purely to help create a mood, not to be moved about during battle. Figures like this Wraith, pictured below:

It was crafted using a plastic dollar store skeleton from a package of four, a cloak from an old doll,  foam board particles for the base, and a stick to hold it upright. It is nearly seven inches in height. My inspiration was from the South American paper mache and cloth dolls of folk tradition. Gamespell would benefit greatly if such crafting and props became a hobby of the players involved and everyone who could and wanted to contributed to the props.

This concludes the general rules and guidelines for Gamespell. Now you have only to find likeminded players to whom such a “serious” game appeals. Not that the game should always be serious.-laughter and fun are vital parts of every roleplaying game., and everyone should be free to offset the more sober scenes of a Gamespell session with levity and humor; only seek to be creative in doing so In Dramatis Persona.

Does Gamespell work, you ask? Absolutely, if you can let go and as a group of players collaborate in a little magic. I will never forget playing a game many years ago in a darkened room with six other players and having our playing pieces on the table cast in a relief of shadows in the flickering light of candles as I told them that in the ruined dungeon they found a rotting bed whereupon lay the skeletons of what appeared to be a mother and child. They were the remains of the wife and daughter of the wizard who had once been Master if that place. An eerie and solemn hush fell upon our group and it felt like we were there. The child's skeletal wrist was encircled by a bracelet which was meant to be a clue to passing another barrier in the dungeon and as GM I had intended the party to take it. But so great was the Gamespell at the moment that when the party's Thief went to remove the bracelet, the player running a Cleric suddenly said "No, you shall not desecrate the dead. Thus is a tomb, we shall honor it as such." I looked at the player and was spooked by the emotion in his eyes,  realizing at that moment that he was a father to a daughter of the age of the wizard's dead child. At one point in the game, the Thief attempted to sneak back to the room unnoticed after the party had moved on. I diced to see if the cleric noticed since the player had been suspicious of this happening and had warned the Thief against it. The dice indicated that the Cleric did indeed see the Thief's attempt and he went and blocked the passage, drawing his weapon and warning that in the name of his deity he would rightfully punish any desecration with attack. The Thief declined the Cleric's offer and the party had to go on without the bracelet. While things didn't go as I as GM had planned, the dramatic scene was far more satisfying for everyone as the other players watched this unfold with serious interest.

So immersive was that scene that it had gotten through the player's conscious mind and into his emotions. I had not deliberately attempted to create this effect; somehow the music, the soft light, the props, and our imaginations had combined in a strange but engaging alchemy of role-playing. I did not then refer to this effect as Gamespell but the atmosphere I was wanting to experience even back then was essentially what this essay describes. The hope that such magic moments can be shared by your gaming group is the reason I have shared these thoughts with you.

The best of gaming to you!

Post Script: I will be producing an illustrated PDF of these guidelines in the future. These guidlines may be printed and distributed freely for non-commercial purposes. If there are any questions, comments or feedback, please feel free to address them to me via the comments section of this post. Thank you! Humble apologies to Latin, I need to edit this post again! 

Disclaimer: I assume no responsibility for irresponsible or unsafe use of these guidelines. Candles are potentially dangerous and should only be used by adults with care. In no instance should weapons be brandished or employed as anything other than as visual props: no sharp or real weapons should be used. Hypnosis of others and self hypnosis are complex and potentially mind altering excercises and should not be practiced by anyone without the oversight of a licensed professional. Gamespell is not intended to be a hypnosis session.

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