Learned Behaviours

When training in any particular martial art, having previous training in another school can be viewed as a problem. A lot of the skill is training your mind and muscle memory to react in a predefined ways, to think and respond to situations in a very particular way. Most styles have different ways to respond. After all, there is no single “right” way to fight. What you need to do is act in a way that is not only suitable/right for you, but also that whatever you do is done in a way that builds upon everything else that’s happened including your prior action.

Chess provides another example of this same phenomenon. A lot of chess is studying sets of moves and gambits, and then using what you’ve learned in a tactical and strategic manner. Learning to play against an opponent is a matter of learning how they play, and what moves do/do not work against them. It’s part of why computers can beat people in chess: They have no defined “style” and simply use whatever they think is the best move in any given situation. It’s impossible to lure them in to traps or prey upon some inherent tendency to act in a particular way. I’m sure I’m overly simplifying the situation, but at least allow me that this is descriptive of a facet of chess.

I think there is a pretty heavy tendency among gamers to similarly self-indoctrinate. Those who have long years of gaming tend to come up with a lot of thinking/acting patterns that constituted the activity of gaming. Through the experience of play we’ve learned to say “this is how I game/this is what good gaming is.” We are heavily trained to act in certain predefined ways in order to get “good game” and as such will instinctively act in those fashions when playing.

Breaking out of those behaviours takes time and effort and is something that has noticeably happened as our group has played Fiasco. The first few times we played we used the playset elements not only to frame the initial situation but to frame the entire story. Where the relationship between two people was partners in crime we invented the crime we were about to commit, and not a crime that had been committed and so set the current situation. When we played the Alaska set with the detail “What happened in the bay” we came up with a scene that took place in the bay and then played that out in the game.

In essence, we were using the mechanics for initial setup as a way to script out our story ahead of time. I think this comes directly from the nature of our indoctrinated gaming behaviour: Look for story, follow it. This is the kind of gamers we are, and it’s how we have learned get our satisfaction. I like knowing that something meaningful and interesting is going on in a game I play; over the years I’ve better enjoyed games where the action is predicated on a meaningful narrative. I was also indoctrinated in the belief that players left to their own devices care less about story and more about being able to do crazy destructive things because they think it’s cool, that the only way to get that narrative is if someone is making sure that it happens.

I don’t think I was alone in these assumptions, or in the behaviours I had built up to address them. When we took on Fiasco my first instinct was to create the story and then play in a way to fulfill it. We played safe in the knowledge that no-one could mess up the story because we had agreed upon it ahead of time, and as such we were guaranteed at least a nominally satisfying story. At best we were playing at “Right to Dream” creative agenda: having an experience where we satisfyingly reinforce and reaffirm the nature of our characters, the world and the story by play. At it’s worst, we railroaded ourselves.

Even though I think those early games were satisfying and fun (the whole point of play) I think it totally missed the point of Fiasco. When you play as defined in the book the most you know is that the initial framing creates a situation that is teetering on the brink of collapse, the Tilt injects more tension, and the aftermath will mostly be about how people are brought low by what has passed. Even in other GMless games that do put more structure on the story arc Hell 4 leather, Grey Ranks, etc) they still tend to leave the actual character of those scenes wide open, instead offering a much larger meta-narrative that frames the specific story that comes from the game. The idea is: if you put characters in to interesting situations they do interesting things. Let them do those interesting things and you’ll end up with stories that you never would have created to begin with.

The more we’ve played Fiasco, the less tenaciously we’ve held on to these prior behaviours. Recent games have flowed to whatever conclusion they come to naturally. We create a fraught situation at setup, and then we play driven and engaging characters without sweating whether it’ll be “a story.” We’re even getting to the point where we frame individual scenes without presupposing what happens in them: Saying “here is what’s going on” without saying “here is what’s going to happen next.” It’s fantastic: By letting go of previous training and playing the game the way it wants to be played we are creating stories rather than just playing them. I look forward to seeing what happens next.

2 thoughts on “Learned Behaviours

  1. My learned behaviors as they relate to games like Fiasco were already in place – the interesting thing for me is watching the rest of the group adapt to the form at hand.

    This is not to say that I’m somehow better at gameplay like Fiasco or Zombie Cinema because of all the improv and acting training I’ve had. I’m not. And in some ways, the need to perform for other people that is a learned behavior for me can trip me up and put me in my head (an improv term for overthinking a move or response to the point of unnecessary delay) instead of letting me just play a game. But upon viewing the structure of a storytelling game, I instintively break down the long form, figure out the beats and queue up my bag of tricks that every improviser has in the back of their mind.

    Your experience with martial arts training and my experience with performance training differ immensely. It makes sense that a fighting discipline would suffer from past training. It is something that is learned with a pinpoint, accurate focus with skills that require repeated practice to master. Improv and acting training embrace all experiences within a person’s lifetime. It informs their ability to create characters, make interesting scenes and recognize patterns in interscene gameplay. Improv students are encouraged to absorb everything and watch everything. Actors – especially those that follow Stanislavsky’s Method – learn the art of observation, investigation and mimicry and put it into practice with every role they’re cast in. We are instructed to leave ourselves open and vulnerable to those whom we play out our scenes with. Our learned behaviors as performers are to watch, learn and adapt; to unburden our minds and lay bare our souls. The cacophany of story elements, characters and relationships that spills forth out of that inelegant mess can be overwhelming sometimes.

    Honesly, one learned behavior that gamers could take from improvisers and actors is to learn how to warm up into their game session. Even a basic conversation on topic (like we did with Misspent Youth at GenCon) can get everyone focused and ready to play a game.

    With all that being said, I believe that participants in storytelling RPGs have a far higher success rate in creating interesting, organic, entertaining narrative than your average improvisers or scripted actors despite all their training, practice and innate talent. I realize that statement will get feathers ruffled, but the longer I play these games the more I am convinced of this fact. For people whom no rules exist except that which is determined by the roll of a die, almost anything is possible.

  2. I think using the playset selections to define the story for a couple scenes can be a plus, especially if the story is going to be unusual or the players are unfamiliar with the game or each other. Knowing the broad strokes of the initial action can allow players to focus on other things: defining their characters, getting the mood right, figuring out the social cues.

    But you’re right that the game isn’t meant to be pre-scripted. I’m always acutely conscious that I have only four scenes that my character is guaranteed to be in, so if I want to play to find out what happens to them, I need to hurry up and get past what I already know has happened.

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