(originally published at Boundary Crosser)
It’s mind-boggling to me that I’ve been playing role-playing games for 20 years now – about two thirds of my life – but when I stop to think about it, it’s really not that surprising. I was the kind of kid who had a very active fantasy life. Each of my closest friends and I had particular, specific make-believe games we’d play when we were hanging out together. With some friends, the more creative ones, I had several – but I remember there was almost always at least one. Without some level of shared fantasy, I had trouble feeling close to other people. With Noah it was usually some kind of secret-agent thing. Jennifer liked to play the older sister and make me do her bidding. With Ryan, we’d do whatever we felt like that day – it could just as easily be cops & robbers as an exploratory visit to Planet X.
My friend Dave was one of my closest friends as a kid, and it was pretty devastating for me when he moved from Pittsburgh to Buffalo. I think we were probably about ten years old. He and I used to do what amounted to freeform Dungeons and Dragons together, so losing him was what made me investigate the real thing. I quickly became discouraged by the sheer number and scope of the rules, which led to some disastrous gaming sessions in Middle School. Where was all the fun, the magic?
I found it in Vampire: the Masquerade, especially once I began LARPing. Soon I was also playing Changeling: the Dreaming, which soothed my soul as a bullied, academically gifted outcast in high school by letting me reframe my situation as being like a spirit of creativity surrounded by mindless drones. Like all of the Classic World of Darkness games, Changeling and Vampire both contain a great deal of real-world occultism and the existential angst that comes from being a misunderstood free thinker. It’s no accident that when I ran back into Dave in our early 20’s, both of us had already been LARPing for quite some time. In high school also related very strongly to works such as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Orson Scott Card’s classic Ender’s Game,and Frank Herbert’s equally classic Dune. All four books might be easily summed up by the words of Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
I first learned of the idea called alchemical gaming several years after high school, around the same time that Dave and I reconnected. I had gone to what I thought was the college of my dreams, studied what I thought was the call of my heart, and ended up being too distracted by computer games to actually go to class. I had wanted to take a year off in between college and high school, but my parents feared I’d never return to school. They were right: I still haven’t. But that’s because I’m working on something much more important. And it’s an idea I first thought of when I was working on some books for White Wolf, another way I was ignoring my studies while pursuing my dreams instead. The idea is simple: What if, by playing a character who has certain characteristics like confidence or vulnerability or joie de vivre, a person could actually rewrite his or her own personality? My friends and I use the word “alchemy” in the metaphoric, Jungian sense, rather than the literal sense – alchemy is the Great Work of transforming your personal lead into gold.
I saw this at first as an ideal way to help people with social anxiety like myself, and now that there’s much more research into role-playing studies, it turns out that many gamers have intuitively realized that gaming is good social practice. But it is also far more than that. Over the past 40 years or so since Dungeons & Dragons was first released, researchers have found that gamers also use role-playing as a motivator to learn new things, as a safe space in which to explore issues they might ignore in their real lives, and even as a way to take a vacation from their usual roles and identity.
Or as Whitney “Strix” Beltran put it so succinctly, role-playing gives us access to mythological archetypes in a culture that has no longer has many organic ways to access them. Immersion into a character is a liminal space, within our normal consciousness but distinct from it, much like going on a vision quest or other shamanic journey. But because there is no audience, there is also no choice but to participate, which is why the process transforms communities just as it does individuals.
In Nordic and some American LARPs, gamers speak about “bleed” – the term used for when a player experiences emotional release or spontaneous, unexpected emotional reactions from an in-character situation. This can be because the situation was upsetting or triggering for their character, for themselves, or more often both, because a person’s character will always represent whatever ideas and skills that player finds most compelling or interesting at the time. But the term “bleed” itself implies it is something that happens to us, rather than a process we can consciously direct. And my own experience, as well as that of the people I’ve interviewed about theirs, strongly suggests that progress is far more dramatic when done deliberately.
If you don’t know what you want to work on, but you feel like this system might be a good idea, that’s great. Ask yourself a few questions: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up and why? If money were no object, how would you spend your days? What activity makes you feel both happy and fulfilled, or like you’re being your better self? Or what thing about yourself have you always wanted to change? These are good places to start for goals to create a character around, but always remember that the character needs to be one you think you’ll have fun playing. Without that, you won’t be able to immerse yourself in the character’s personality and you’ll get nowhere with your goals as a result. The purpose of this system is to add a small additional layer of nuance to your roleplay, not to dominate it with heavy-handed lessons.
If you’re still having trouble figuring out what goal to build your character around, think about past characters you’ve played. A few years ago, for example, I noticed that my first few Vampire characters were wanderers or loners who were good at performance, gathering knowledge, and magic or the occult. I thought this was just an expression of my real-world interest in those things, but now I believe this was my unconscious mind trying to tell me, “Hey! Stop watching so much TV and go back to reading, writing, and practicing magic like you did when you were younger!” Your unconscious will frequently try to send you messages through characters this way, just as it sometimes will through a favorite quote, book, song, or film. The trick is in learning how to listen to it, which comes with time and practice. You can always ask your close friends what patterns they see in your usual character choice, because that’s a blind spot for many people that should be pretty obvious to those who know them well.
There are four basic types of characters a player can use for alchemical work:
1. The Ideal Character
Ideal characters, in my experience, are probably the easiest way to do alchemical work in a game. This is because they’re entirely self directed – input from the storyteller or GM will help, but is completely optional. The idea is a simple one: Create a character who is good at the things you’ve always wanted to get better at. These could be your strengths, weaknesses, or a combination of both. Because LARP is a safe space where you’re surrounded by fellow geeks, you’ll have a much easier time trying to be more outgoing or practicing your marginal singing skills without the usual fear of judgment should you fail. Just as in improv theater, Failure Is Okay in LARP (as in life, but it takes a while to learn this). Ideal characters are generally best for learning new personality traits. You can also use an ideal character as an aid in real-life situations where you feel a lack of confidence, by getting into character when you’re doing something that your character is better at than you are.
2. The Motivation Character
Motivation characters are a special subset of ideal characters, but are a bit more formalized. They work best for people who sometimes have trouble with follow-through on their goals. Create your character like an ideal character, but circle the skills that relate to your real-world goal. Write up a contract with either yourself or your storyteller, promising that you won’t spend experience points on those skills until you’ve actually developed or improved them in real life. If your storyteller is open to helping you, her or she may ask you to give a small demonstration of your martial arts or public speaking skills (for example) before letting you spend said XP. Motivation characters are generally best for learning new skills or improving on old ones.
3. The Catharsis Character
Consider this a more advanced technique for after you have a bit of experience with alchemical characters. It will likely happen to you unexpectedly when playing an ideal or motivation character, via emotional release or “bleed”. That’s fine and to be expected. But deliberately confronting what Jungian psychologists call your Shadow – the parts of your personality you prefer to forget about or ignore most of the time – can be both disturbing and potentially dangerous. When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
Still, if you have a long-standing fear or emotional blockage, building a character around it and watching that character’s eventual destruction may help you to integrate some of those darker aspects of your personality, or to transform them into something you feel more comfortable with. As a result, catharsis characters are best for facing fears, prejudices, or mindless assumptions. ALWAYS INFORM YOUR STORYTELLER IF YOU ARE PLAYING A CATHARSIS CHARACTER. Otherwise, you may appear to be a disruptive player if your character is getting other players’ characters into a lot of trouble seemingly without reason, and your ST also won’t know about the very real possibility of emotional complications from playing a character like this. Consider yourself fairly warned.
4. The Archetype Character
If you want to combine two or all three of the character types above within one character, don’t worry – it’s been done before, and after a little practice, it’s easier than you might think. The simplest way to do it is to create your character around a particular archetype. For example, imagine a person who wants to learn more about stage magic, wants to become more confident, and also notices that he can be manipulative and unreliable sometimes. To work on all three of those ideas simultaneously, he could create a character around an archetype such as the Trickster, who has all those characteristics since all archetypes have both light and dark aspects. The archetype character feels tricky at first, but it’s also potentially the most valuable because it can show you the value of balance and the fact that real people are far more complex than simply being “good” or “bad”. And even the so-called negative aspects of the Trickster would be an asset when trying to dodge bullets or avoid capture.
There are certain pitfalls to avoid in this type of work, but luckily there are also some simple ways to mitigate them. Bleed itself is one. If you find yourself spontaneously laughing, crying or even filled with rage, try to roll with it if you’re able to. It may take minutes or longer to figure out whether this comes from in- or out-of-character emotion, but spend enough time and you’ll always learn something about yourself from paying attention to emotional release. If it’s too painful for you, though, you have every right to step out of the scene, take some deep breaths, and wait to step back into character until you feel ready. Because this process is self-directed, no one else can tell you how to get what you need, so pay attention to your body’s physical reactions and to your mind’s mental and emotional ones in order to figure out what you should do next in this situation.
Focusing too much on the goal rather than on the process can also be a mistake. Even if you feel like you were thwarted this game at every turn, you can learn a lot about yourself from looking at why your plans didn’t work out the way you wanted them to. Whether the individual game occurred for you as easy or challenging, fun or grueling, you will notice that insights or new ideas will tend to pop into your head following an event. I believe this is because shifting your normal persona into the unconscious mind gives it unprecedented access to your worries, concerns, hopes and dreams, so that it can help find solutions to them that are waiting for you when you return to your normal self. It sounds absolutely batty, schizophrenic even, but it does actually work.
What can help the most with processing an intense alchemical gaming experience is a technique from Nordic LARP called debriefing. The way a debriefing works is a bit like the standard eat-and-chat sessions at the local diner or family restaurant that every LARPer has experienced already. The difference is in what the conversation talks about. I suggest asking six questions that everyone needs to answer for themselves, though they only need to share with the group if they feel comfortable doing so. Although alchemical gaming is mainly self-directed, debriefings can be very helpful for STs to learn what themes their players might want to see in future plotlines. Especially if the ST is comfortable with helping players to better themselves (in whatever way the player considers “better”).
The suggested debriefing questions are below, but don’t feel obligated to use all of them. If the response from most people present is a groan or a bored look, skip that question and try a different one. Numbers 3, 4, and 5 are the most important, so I suggest at least touching on them during any discussion, even a more unstructured one. A debriefing should always be optional, but anyone who comes to one needs to agree to confidentiality so that everyone can feel safe to talk about whatever they’re working on. STs: Metagaming the information from a debriefing or using it against another player in any way is an inexcusable breach of the trust makes alchemical gaming possible in the first place. A single warning is reasonable, but a second offense should result (at minimum) in disciplinary action against the player and no more invitations to debriefings. This process is for mature, reasonably self-aware adults, and all it takes is one gossip or drama queen to spoil the web of trust.
- What do you feel worked particularly well this game session, and why do you think it worked so well?
- What do you feel didn’t work very well this game session, and how might it be fixed or changed in the future to make it work better?
- What did you learn about yourself and your personal goals this session, and how did it make you feel?
- How did you help another player or group achieve their goals this session, and how did that make you feel?
- Name something that you failed to accomplish this game session. How do you feel about that, and what changes will you make to prevent this from happening again?
- What was your favorite moment from this event? Describe it as vividly as you can so that everyone else can get a taste of what it was like for you.
It should hopefully be obvious from these questions that one of the group benefits of alchemical gaming practice is an increased sense of community, closeness, or belonging, and a heightened emphasis on role-playing as collaborative storytelling rather than a competition. This tends to increase everyone’s fun, which in turn makes achieving goals even easier. Jane McGonigal talks at great length in her book Reality is Broken about how most people are far more inclined to make important life changes for the sake of a game than because they’re “a good idea”: Games are meaningful work that we choose. Building your character around a goal adds a little meaningful work to any game, which is why it can be so valuable.
If you’re a player at Dystopia Rising: New Jersey or Pennsyltucky and would like to take part in an experimental debriefing group for alchemical gaming, please contact me on Facebook about joining the groups I’ll be starting soon. If you do have interest, I suspect that you’re one of my favorite kind of players: The ones who know the goal(s) their character is built to address, but aren’t quite sure how to achieve those goals in real life. My name is Jason Louis Feldstein and we probably have several mutual friends on Facebook already. Please help me work on elevating gaming from an art form to a spiritual or self-help practice, just as White Wolf helped elevate it from entertainment to an art form back in the 90’s. The time is now for this much-needed evolution. I will eventually be publishing a book on this topic, but first I need beta testers for the system. Please let me know if you’re interested in helping.