Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: Barrow Keep and Nurturing Volatility

Preliminary Note:

This is a report on the second and final session playing Richard Ruane's Barrow Keep.

You can find links to the Barrow Keep playsets discussed in this post here and here.

On Saturday, Richard Ruane finished giving us a tour of Barrow Keep. As usual, I have edited a recording and you can watch it here.

I’m struck by the variety of scenes we covered during play. We begin with some interrogation, move into a banquet with less-than-pious pilgrims, experience a heist that turns south, and then end up with a meeting with a goblin ambassador (which Richard gives a distinctly feline appearance). The session ends with our group talking about Richard’s approach to role-playing games, and there are a number of observations in the post-game debrief that are worth considering.

Barrow Keep aims to put characters into volatile situations and then leaves the players free to determine how they want to deal with the dilemmas, which inevitably have social and cultural implications. In retrospect, I’m struck by the nuanced style of play that this encourages.

To give you the spoiler first: It turns out that a band of goblins is interested in taking back a relic which the pilgrims (temporarily residing at the Keep) are carrying with them. Back in my role-playing youth, the set-up, approach, and outcome of this scenario would have been much simpler and would inevitably have resulted in some type of grand fight with the goblins, no doubt leading to more physical confrontations. In our case, the machinery of the game was more complex. To begin, none of our characters were wedded to the Archon in command of the Keep, and we each had slightly different political angles that we were working.

To add spice to the stew, Richard gave the goblins a unique look and a set of mysterious motivations tied to an ancient history that we were only vaguely aware of. I would mention in passing that fantasy games are swiftly moving to give groups like goblins a more weighty, meaningful culture that is enriching the games. Such groups might still be treacherous, even villainous, but if so, their antagonism is given a background and meaningful momentum. Even if the cogs of their mental life are not fully revealed, you nonetheless sense that they are planning, thinking, and reacting in ways that are open to analysis. This, in turn, gives the players around the table more to consider and more possible courses of action, each with their own moral and cultural valence.

I enjoyed the climactic closing scene with the goblin ambassador. Richard didn’t feel like he had to reveal or explain all the pieces of the puzzle he had laid out. We never discover what exactly the relic is that we are carrying to the ambassador. There is a sense that there are weighty further chapters that will develop the continuing relationship between Barrow Keep and the goblins. And there were some curious NPCs in the Keep who were involved in their own missions which we never fully figured out. These freely floating strands (and Richard’s restraint as a GM) added to the weight of our game play and contributed to the sense that we were characters acting within a living world.

I recommend listening to some of Richard’s closing remarks. He has some incisive comments to make about his approach to role-playing. For example, his philosophy that a role-playing game should provide "the foundation of a story to be told" is advice that will improve the character and quality of gaming at your table. His point is that GMs and players are often shackled by the idea that characters are either living out a story or creating a story. The result is that the group forecloses the surprises and unexpected curves that can open up a more layered, vibrant, and organic form of play.

It might be useful to talk about Richard's form of role-playing in terms of Roger Caillois’ idea of ilinx, which is the term he uses for the kind of play that creates an experience of vertigo. Ilinx is what happens when there is a kind of shock or genuine surprise injected in the midst of play. To be sure, role-playing games rely on mechanics and expectations which order and direct the conversation and events, but games can also allow for those spaces for ilinx to be created. Now, if you are playing with the idea that you are creating a story--as opposed to laying the foundation for a story to be told--you will tend not to leave space for the creation of ilinx because stories inevitably impose a narrative ordering on events.

Richard and his Barrow Keep offer a bounty of instruction for GMs, players, and designers. I appreciate the way in which he inhabits his NPCs and makes them come to life through some simple tricks with body language and phrasing.

And his concept that games should create volatile situations for characters to resolve is another golden nugget of wisdom. Note that much of the catalyzing agents are waiting there in the characters themselves. Character playbooks, for example, push every player to think of a couple key NPCs who are friends, rivals, or acquaintances of their character, and these elements then get fed into the scenario pack which serves as a kind of alchemical alembic to get those volatile reactions moving. It is a rich and dynamic approach to roleplaying, and you can see the payoff by watching a few parts of our session.

The Road Ahead:
Next month, we will venture into The World of Professionals, a Dungeon World hack created by Ryan Windeknecht. That game will delve into issues of virtue and professional ethics through the medium of another fantasy role-playing game.

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