So my friend Willem Larsen has developed this method for learning and playing story games which I'm in love with. You may have heard me refer to it, since I've been going nuts dropping mentions in forum threads, blog comments, podcasts, what have you. that's because I'm SUPER EXCITED about the method; it's revolutionized my play and my thoughts about design.
However, it's saddled with an awkward name that even I stumble with, and I think it may be causing people to glaze over a bit. That name is "Pedagogy of Play."
You'd think it would be a name I'd like--a word with Classical roots, lots of syllables, alliteration, y'know. I can see what Willem was going for with the name, but for me it feels a bit clinical or academic--and therefore really unsuited to the actual activity that it names.
With respect to Willem, I'd like to propose a new name for this play method: "Fluency Play."
This cuts right to the heart of the method: basically instead of trying to assimilate an entire body of RPG procedures and put them into action from the get-go, you start at the most basic level and work your way up. The aim is to have a game experience with maximum creative flow
, where the shared dreamspace is as unbroken as possible. So you only play at the level you're fluent
See, the thing about fluency isn't that you're an "expert" in something. People say "I speak fluent French," meaning they have a high level of mastery with complex vocabulary and grammar. But really, fluency means you're comfortable and fluid
in performing a skill. My baby girl is fluent in crawling but not in walking. You can be fluent
in asking "Where is the bathroom" (i.e. you can say it without thinking or flipping in a phrasebook) without being fluent in discussing the social impact of human sanitation practices throughout history. When you learn a language or anything
you can't digest it all at once--it's much more helpful to take things in small bites, waiting until you can perform the lowest level effortlessly, without a moment's thought, to move to the next level.
So applying this to games? You don't introduce all the rules at once.
You don't even introduce all the rules 'as you need them." ("Oh, you moved across a threatened square? Time to read the Attacks of Opportunity rules. . .") You introduce new levels only when the group is FLUENT in the previous level.
For instance, you might first do an intro scene for each character, with no conflict. Then
do simple conflict scenes, with a simple car draw or die roll. Then
run conflicts adding bonuses for traits. And so on.
Yes, this means not operating at first with all rules in play. Yes, this will change the results of the game ("Oh, if I had known I could escalate to Shooting, I would have handled that conflict differently!") But the reward is that everyone at the table is able to slip into a comfortable vibe and maintain creative energy, pushing themselves only as fast as they need to, until the "whole game" IS in play.
For instance, Willem worked out this methodology for use with Polaris
. We first did warmup games to practice speaking out in the group and building on each other's contributions, culminating in a game for imagining each Heart character together. We then introduced TWO ritual phrases, "But hope was not yet lost. . ." and "and so it was," for beginning and ending scenes. We ran, as I said, intro scenes with no conflict. We concentrated on building aesthetics and mood. That was the end of our first evening, and Willem introduced the session-ending phrase, "That all happened long ago. . ." And after building fluency at that
level, we were ready to introduce conflict phrases--but only the Mistaken vs. Heart phrases, "But Only If" "It Was Not Meant To Be" and "And That Was How It Happened." Only after becoming fluent in that
level would we move on to the Moons phrases. . .
I think Fluency Play is an exciting and largely untapped area to explore in design and play. There are some designs that have flirted on the edges of it, like Dogs in the Vineyard's
Initiation Conflicts and Burning Wheel's
modular systems to be added when ready. But the possibilities go far beyond. This could be the answer to the perennial issue, "these designs don't teach you the techniques to really play them well." It's definitely the answer to the odd-person-out, overwhelmed with options, who shrinks back into a corner and sighs, "just tell me what dice to roll." I found that in Polaris it not only helped teach the procedures, but resulted in a mesmerizing, shared-dream experience where we were all pitched to exactly
the same key and mood, almost beating one heartbeat and responding fluidly, fluently
to each other's input. And I utilized Fluency methods for my recent storyjamming workshop
and had wonderfully gratifying results. Feedback like "just enough structure," "great techniques," "I always wanted to tell a story but didn't know how." It works, and works well. I'd love to explore it further in this community. Any thoughts? Experiences?
PS. I'm not saying anything here that hasn't been said before, by Willem in his blog
(and on my couch), and by our friend Evan Gardner with his language fluency game, Where Are Your Keys?
I wanna give credit where it's due.