Monday, August 26, 2019

Hieron and its Consequences

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I should also note that there are things that might be considered spoilers for
Twilight Mirage and aspects of Hieron and Marielda. I’m a bad judge of what people think of as spoilers, though. It’s mostly in broad terms. Skip the sections that begin "Much later in the show we'll find out," "One example of consequences," and "An example: there is a moment in" (and the 3 following paragraphs) if you don't want later-season specifics; in general if you're very sensitive to that kind of thing, maybe come back to this.

Ignorance and Consequences

In episode 12 of Autumn in Hieron, the first season of Friends at the Table, a player does something I’m still in love with. In the decade and a half I’ve been playing tabletop roleplaying games it stands out as my favorite moment of tabletop roleplay of all time.

There are plenty of contenders. It’s hard not to give that to the time a Bard in the game I was running performed a song (in real life) for a potlatch festival for her character’s Sweet 16. Or when a player incapacitated another and then died falling off a building (three times) while trying to break back into the room to add their ear to a necklace. It’s hard to place it above inventing a gym bro to date a football bro in the middle of the tragic horror apocalypse game Ten Candles, or another Ten Candles game where Cathy (like, Ack! Cathy) rolled a half-dozen successes (and kept narrative control) on the last roll, or any moment when a player I’m GMing for lights up for the first time, suddenly understanding the appeal of what we’re doing.

There are even moments in other Actual Play podcasts, like Adventure.exe or The Adventure Zone or The Film Reroll or Interstitial, when character and world meet to bring about a decision that is inspired, surprising, and inevitable.

None of those, though, had the same impact on me as the decision to feed a Word Eater "ignorance."

*****


Friends at the Table is an Actual Play podcast about critical worldbuilding, smart characterization, and fun interactions between good friends (at least that's what they say at the top of most episodes). It started in September of 2014, with episode 12 happening in December of that year.

At this point they've run three seasons (plus one mini-season) of Hieron, a post-post-apocalyptic, post-Fantasy world where orcs are archivists obsessed with patterns, the world is a palimpsest of the gods' failed experiments, and the cancerous nothing known as the Heat and the Dark looms.

Between those seasons they've also explored a science fiction universe inspired by cyberpunk, mecha anime, and labor called the Divine Universe. They create all of this fiction by playing tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeon World, Blades in the Dark, Follow, and a number of other systems where they "play to find out what happens" live in front of microphones, then edit and release it on a weekly basis.

I started listening sometime late in 2014 and have continued to since. Just as they are approaching their fifth anniversary, they are also wrapping up the world of Hieron. For both sentimental and topical reasons, then, I'm focusing on the Hieron seasons of the show for this essay. To that end, I've relistened to all of those seasons in the last month or so. It's all still incredibly compelling.

*****


So: Word Eaters turn out to be what made goblins into what they are. You know goblins, probably. Little green humanoids, barely capable of language, fodder for adventurers, obsessed with trinkets. Loose anti-Semitic stereotypes, in the case of most Fantasy fiction. In Hieron, they howl in the distance. They also invite the players into a cozy home and let them read books, drink tea, and rest. They are people, some more dispossessed than others.

While resting with one of the friendlier goblins, the adventurers find out about Kindrali (also known as "He Who Remembers the Day," which becomes relevant two years later). They seek out Kindrali. They find him. He is a little off. Quick to resort to sarcasm and smirks. They find him again. Kindrali is a decayed corpse, who happens to be in the same room as the false Kindrali they are talking to. They put two and two together.

In a typical session of a tabletop roleplaying game, this is a very well put together fight. The GM has established an NPC that can give some color to the world while remaining unreliable. The players find him on good information, and then have something to go on after. A battle is had and won despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

Instead of that action, a single word is said.

*****


My latest relisten helped me realize that there are two things that Friends at the Table does particularly well, especially when it comes to Seasons of Hieron. One of those I won't get into until after I finish the story of the Word Eater. The other, which I'll develop alongside that story, is what I think the GM and the players do best. They build critical worlds with aplomb, characterize themselves impeccably, and have genuinely funny social banter. One of the other things they focus on, though, is dramatic irony.

Regularly, the players will know things their characters don't. They play through this. The characters make choices that are against their own best interests, because the characters don't know any better (even though the players do).

Based on what they've produced, this seems to be an internal guideline - play into dramatic irony. But I appreciate it mostly as one aspect of a broader commitment. The stories they tell are deeply committed to consequences.

*****


Much later in the show we'll find out that Word Eaters are something like incipient gods. Or, at least, that the gods were made in the same fashion. "Nothing flinched" and then there was Samol, or Hieron, the world and its avatar, one and the same. Samol’s desire to see the world full of life birthed Severea, and his desire to provide for people birthed Samothes.

The pantheon of five are rounded out by Galenica, who was birthed of the desires of people, and Samot, husband to Samothes, who stole Severea’s name when he was a Word Eater (emissaries or avatars of that same Nothing that flinched) and then apologized. Samothes and Samot then had a son, Maelgwyn, who became Samothes by murdering his father in attempt to birth a new god out of the experience of regret.

Whether Word Eater, desire, or absence of nothing, each of these gods are the speech act made material. Instead of simply doing by saying – as in an officiator declaring "I now pronounce you man and wife" effecting matrimony on two individuals – they are by saying. At the beginning of Spring in Hieron, the final season in this world, one of the players spends a few (in game) years hanging out with Samol. They develop an inside joke about how boring it was to be the first thing in the world. The refrain of that joke is simple: "There was no one to talk to."

Samol never says, to the best of my recollection, that he spoke Severea and Samothes into existence. But this is a podcast, where nothing happens unless it is said aloud. And it’s a tabletop roleplaying game, where the Lumpley Principle rules: "nothing happens, in the fiction of role-playing, unless someone says it and it's heard by others," to quote the gloss from The Big Model wiki. Hieron can’t be anything other than a speech act, because it’s a recorded conversation. And Samol is Hieron, and Samol made gods of his desires and of a Word Eater.

Whether a Word Eater or a God birthed of another’s desire, speech acts (“speech ontos” seems a little pretentious even for me) are fickle. They eat "regret" and become tyrants, obsessed only with reshaping a world-eating cancer into a productive force. They focus on the concept of a storm and blanket the world in ice. They steal the names of cities, causing civil war.

This Kindrali that the adventurers encounter is in some ways the most fickle of all. He stole the city’s name and was unsatisfied, consuming more and more words. Which is another reason it is poetic that he ends up being dispatched by just one word.

*****


I wrote a very long version of the following argument about a half-decade ago. I present it in a truncated form here for two reasons. The first is that I want to make it clear what my convictions are when it comes to these sorts of games. The second comes at the end of this minor section.

Tabletop roleplaying games are at their best when there is a dialectical tension between the GM and the players. The GM rules the world. She sets up situations, guides the players through them, plays the people they encounter, and enforces the rules. The players take control of one person within the world, embodying them to the best of their abilities. When they press hard enough, the world breaks.

When they push even harder, though, there is a synthesis. The players take over the vestigial roles of the GM. This is a relic of the history of these games that I don't need to get into. But they become, rather than co-authors in the creation of a story, its cooperative owners. The person who runs the game - usually the one with access to the books (the capital, so to speak) - is dispossessed of their control, becoming nothing more than someone who can adapt to the new norm, get reeducated according to it, or wither away. The stakes are a little lower than real life, so the players probably don’t have to literally take The Coup’s advice.

These games start in social interactions: friends come together to hang out and have an activity to participate in while doing so. They become commodified by way of rulebooks, social capital, and the simple fact of organizing time outside of wage labor. When they really work, though, the commodity is overthrown. People go from loose hangouts to structured, commodified hangouts, to hangouts they are truly equal in. And they hopefully learn to better relate to each other because of the game played.

That second thing? It’s the thing that Friends at the Table does so well – focusing on, embracing, and exploring consequences. That’s the way to play games into their own little revolutions.

*****


Here's the story: after visiting the friendly goblin Mee Kosh, The Great Fantasmo (the Wizard, played by Nick Scratch), Throndir (the Ranger, played by Andrew Lee Swan), and Hadrian (the Paladin, played by Art Martinez-Tebbel) scout out some caves to find Kindrali. They do. He talks to them. They discover the corpse of Kindrali in the same room. The impostor Kindrali, a Word Eater, prepares to devour them. The Great Fantasmo leans into this false Kindrali and summons up his memories. He says one word.

In play and as a podcast, this involves Nick Scratch describing things his character is feeling, remembering, and projecting. Things like being a young academic, full of fear at his new surroundings and the impostor syndrome that develops from it. Worry at how people think of him. Misery at the prospect of failure. Horror at how he used to feel all these things.

In this same moment, Nick Scratch is actively characterizing The Great Fantasmo. The Wizard is cocky and self-assured to the point of absurdity, a miserable traveling partner. He is bookish in the most infuriating way possible, obsessed with learning what is right without doing anything. He is a small-minded man operating with all the tools to pretend he is as open-minded as they come. He is insufferable, and his player knows this. So his player calls upon all his small-mindedness, his pettiness, his jealousy, his insecurity, and banishes a potential god from existence.

*****


An example of consequences being a driving principle of play in Friends at the Table is the situation being described. The GM set up an encounter. It’s a big fight that caps off a portion of the adventure. The GM almost certainly spent time drawing up a sheet full of hit points, moves, character motivations, and an imagined scenario in which the players eke out victory. This disappears once it becomes clear what The Great Fantasmo is doing.

The play is too compelling, the fiction too interesting, to revert to what was prepared. It is to Austin’s credit that he recognizes this; many GMs would not. The consequences are entirely too cool to dissolve back into a discussion of how much damage one person does, regardless of the lost hours spent preparing those hit points.

Other examples abound throughout the show. In the first season of the Divine Universe, COUNTER/Weight, a player gets a girlfriend by failing a bunch of rolls in a row, only to succeed at the one that matters. It’s important because she flirts through it. Autumn in Hieron also has a moment where a character dies in combat and can only come back to life if she promises to kill Death’s son, one of her only friends. She does. Three times – he is, after all, Death’s son.

There is also the way that Austin sometimes handles failed rolls, like the one Keith (who plays Fero, the Druid, and the character who hangs out with Samol during Spring) managed in Winter in Hieron when trying to convince Uklan Tel, an orc who might be the most accomplished academic in Hieron, to make a difference. The failure leads to Uklan Tel agreeing and throwing himself into field research. Two (real life) years down the line, that field research (in Spring, which is set over ten years later) ends up with him semi-inadvertently providing materials to help an apocalyptic cult give body to an undead god-dragon in order to hasten the end of the world.

Twilight Mirage, the second season in the Divine Universe, has as many examples as the rest (though I’m boiling each down to one apiece). One that might not seem like a consequence is the last fifteen (or so) minutes of the final episode of the season. The player characters check in with Gig Kephart (also played by Keith), a livestreamer in the post-Utopian titular universe. They answer a handful of canned interview questions in ways that are wholesome, humorous, and tear-inducing.

It’s not like the consequence of mechanical failure that lead to Uklan Tel, or the strength of roleplaying(/flirting) in mechanical failure that lead to a girlfriend, or the consequence of figuring out character alignment that lead to the death of Death’s Son. It’s more about how roleplaying can lead to a compelling world with fascinating people in it and how, left alone to do their thing, they can become consequential.

*****


The moment The Great Fantasmo banishes the Word Eater comes out of two specific moves in Dungeon World. The first is Art Tebbel's. He asks "what here is Evil?" He has a quest, established in a much earlier episode; he cannot suffer an evil thing to live. The GM confirms that this Word Eater is evil. Because of that, he can't leave. His fellow adventurers must make a choice: split the party and leave, or support him. This move is used effectively throughout much of the rest of the Hieron seasons, especially in developing a complicated and beautiful relationship with another player's character.

The second is a Spout Lore roll by Nick Scratch, where he attempts to learn about the Word Eater. Scratch rolls a "mixed success," which means he learns something "interesting but not useful." The interesting fact is that the Word Eater is very old, the eater of the word that lead to the goblins becoming what they are. Before they became "goblins" they were citizens, co-creators of the city that Throndir is from. They were people, not monsters. And this Word Eater was one who ate that knowledge and continued to eat more and more.

Nick Scratch, the player of The Great Fantasmo, takes this "interesting but not useful" knowledge and runs with it. This specific Word Eater isn't content to consume regret and live forever instrumentalizing cancer. It wants more. So he gives it a new word, wrapped up in the context of himself, the character. In so doing, he establishes The Great Fantasmo. He turns subtext into text; the insufferable academic turns into a rounded-out human being (elf), with all the pettiness that involves. And he wins a fight in a tabletop roleplaying game without having to indulge in hours of rolling to hit, rolling damage, rolling to avoid damage, rolling to figure out how to do damage, and on and on.

*****


If you’ve never played in or run a tabletop roleplaying game, the importance of establishing consequences might sound like a truism. Even if you have, it probably does. What I appreciate about Friends at the Table – among many other things – is how it clarifies that it isn’t something that just happens automatically. Like gender, it’s a choice you regularly make and perform.

Consequences are hard. They can be about rewarding good play, thinking beyond what the players are doing, punishing failure in interesting ways, or making the stakes of the world clear. All of these things help shape an interesting fiction. They can also be about how we relate to each other.

Because the most regular consequence, when playing roleplaying games, is alienating your friends. Things go great until they don’t, and then the group dissolves.

It might be in a moment that upsets or triggers another player and doesn’t get worked through, and so ends up contributing to a toxic environment. Or it might be the consequence of failing to properly organize the game in the first place, leading to its slow and (seemingly) inevitable dissolution. Which leads to lost friendships, which leads to lost opportunities to think through things or to collaborate on projects. Or, at a basic level, to enjoy the company of others.

Turning the reality of consequences into themes, as Friends at the Table does, is a helpful way of imagining (or remembering) what consequences actually are. They’re failed rolls, in the sense of fucking up a social situation. They’re roleplaying too well, in the sense of being who you are at that particular moment too insistently, for good or ill. They’re moments of social beauty, when you’ve set up social situations to include people who make you want to cry because they are so good at making and doing things in this terrible world.

Fictionalizing the broad reality of consequences won’t suddenly make a listener understand something that they refuse to. Especially if they have material reasons not to, which are too easy to imagine under white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. But sometimes fiction pushes you in new directions, whether you want it to or not.

*****


The resolution to The Great Fantasmo whispering "ignorance" into the Word Eater's ear is both immediate and long-term. Immediately, the players and the GM have a moment of shock and appreciation. Long-term, Kindrali becomes a character in the mini-season of Marielda, the Word Eaters are recast as potential gods, and the whole religious structure is changed.

Around the same time as this is happening, the other group of players is on a boat. One jokes about undead pirates. A whole ontology is birthed out of that joke. Play is respected, whether it is in character (like Fantasmo's) or out of character (like the joke about zombie pirates). The whole point of an Actual Play podcast is that it isn't a story. It's a storytelling exercise that gets modified by randomization.

Which brings us to the end of this story and this analysis. Which means it’s time to talk about the other thing Friends at the Table does especially well.

**********


Fiction, Produced by Deconstruction


Here are two questions: why should you listen to people playing tabletop roleplaying games, week by week? What is it about this method of telling stories that works?

For the first, I can’t exactly say that I do. I tend to take long breaks and then catch up. Following an Actual Play podcast week to week ends up being a chore for me, as I try to remember things over the play. I end up listening in big chunks – whole seasons or arcs, ideally – sporadically. I’m also not spoiler-averse and don’t have a tendency (or material requirement) to keep up with the conversation, which helps. (Thus this behemoth of an essay, primarily about something that happened on Friends at the Table five years ago.) The release schedule has more to do with the "podcast" element than it does the "actual play," given that podcasts are business as well as art.

To the question of why do it at all, there’s a fairly obvious answer. It’s fiction. Friends at the Table is very good fiction. Themes of labor and organization co-exist with a deep sadness and frustration with the world, are shot through with joy in victory and play, and shine through in a genuinely felt world full to brimming with people. Most of whom have very good names. Perhaps you enjoy fiction? This is one way to do so.

But then, despite a number of attempts, I’ve never been able to stick with fiction podcasts. I’ve listened to a hundred or so episodes of Welcome to Night Vale (it was a weird week), a dozen or two of Strange Horizons, a handful of episodes from various Escape Artists properties, and even some of The Writer's Voice from The New Yorker. Each had their merits (some more than others), but they ultimately ended up reminding me that my brain simply doesn’t work in that way. In a very specific environment I can enjoy audiobooks. There’s something about listening to someone clearly read something off a page that immediately blanks my mind.

It even happens in Actual Play podcasts, if I’m being honest. Friends at the Table will occasionally have intro speeches – generally by Austin, playing one of the NPCs – for instance. Or The Adventure Zone will have extended descriptive sequences that are pre-written. I have to struggle to pay attention when that happens, which is very unlike the rest of the listening experience for those podcasts.

Which leads us to the second question. What works, here? There are the specific answers we’ve already addressed: strong play that leads to compelling situations with interesting resonance; structural choices that emphasize the strengths of the genre. There are also the things we’ve touched lightly on, like critical worldbuilding that uses existing tropes in new ways that undermine their racist origins, enjoyable banter among friends, and more.

All of these are procedural. They’re points about the process of the fiction, rather than the content or its themes. This is important, because what Actual Play does – and what Friends at the Table does particularly well – is to collapse form into process. It is deconstructive, even deconstructionist. The creation is the act of creating.

So what works about this method of telling stories? It’s that they don’t just tell. They show. And not like the CIA-approved maxim. They show how the decisions are come to, what is left to chance or whim, what is painstakingly crafted ahead of time or after the fact. They tell a compelling story while showing how it is made compelling.

An example: there is a moment in Spring in Hieron when Hella Varal, Lem King, and Adaire Ducarte fight a bone dragon. It’s a bravura sequence. Adaire, the Thief (played by Janine Hawkins), comes with a plan to hogtie this animated dragon corpse. Lem, the Bard (played by Jack de Quidt), makes a beautiful mess of everything while still being helpful. Hella, the Dark Knight (fka the Fighter, played by Alicia Acampora), carries the combat. Until she dies. Almost.

Near the end of combat, there is another moment. The players have succeeded so many times, only to fail. They’re fighting a dragon. That failure has to mean something. Hella is given a choice: keep a ring and get killed, or let it go and live. The dragon has been fighting for this ring the whole sequence. It’s clearly important. Plus, Hella’s girlfriend is literally the god of Death. She’s come a long way since she killed the previous god of death’s son. And the rules say you roll when you get killed. You have, roughly, a 15% chance of being totally fine; a 40% chance of getting a bargain to stay alive; and a 40% chance that your character truly, irrevocably dies. There have been a handful of these rolls across the years, and no one has failed.

The act of listening to how that gets decided is very constructive. Alicia acts in seven different ways, despite only having two options – to roll or not to, to grab the ring or not to. She works through narrative framing (obviously the hero grabs the ring to spite the dragon), character framing (Hella has been carrying this ring on her person for over a decade without thinking about it), social framing (if the GM declares this ring important, the player should obviously protect it), fictional framing (Hella’s dating Death, getting stomped on can’t possibly be that bad!), more fictional framing (the cancerous nothing they know as the Heat and the Dark is almost certainly at play and far more powerful than the Queen of Death), and more. The rest of the people on the podcast talk her through these moments, offering their opinions, providing context where they can. It’s fraught.

As I recall, Austin Walker suggests the possibility of a break, Jack de Quidt reinforces it, and Austin ultimately enforces it. They break (for five minutes, according to the published audio; who knows what that means) and come back. Alicia makes the decision she makes, and it helps clarify who Hella is at this moment, what her priorities are, what the world will continue to look like, and what the endgame of this final season in Hieron is going to look like.

I feel like it is important to reiterate here: this is all part of the text. I’m not recounting what I think must have happened based on the fictional events that transpired. I’m recounting what I’ve listened to a couple of times now. This is the fiction.

The fiction is also the history of Samol, Samot, Samothese, Severea, and Galenica, and the adventures of The Great Fantasmo and Throndir and Hadrian and Hella and Adaire and Lem and Ephrim and Fero, and the lives of Red Jack and The Lardwulf and Uklan Tel and Lenny Lenova and the Sage of the Sands and Emmanuel and Walligan Upchurch and Hedy Braum and many more. It’s the reconfiguring of Marielda and the updating maps of the world as the apocalypses come and go, and it’s the story of the development of community in the Last University and Velas and Rosemerrow and The New Archives.

It’s a Fantasy world (post-Fantasy, post-post-apocalyptic), in other words. There are a profusion of proper nouns that gain resonance only once you’ve experienced the world in which they’re set. But unlike Tolkien or Martin or Brooks or Kingdom Hearts, the way this world is told isn’t as set in stone. Or more accurately, the way the world is told includes all the deliberation, the consequences, the ignorance of people figuring it out in real time.

There are things that are supposed to grab you in a narrative. The flow, the pacing, the excitement. Crafted things. Big fights. Consequential moments. And there are the things that tend to grab me: strange choices, awkward characterizations, moments of resistance. Actual Play podcasts at their best manage a synthesis of these two kinds of taste.

What happens at the end of that (alleged) five minute break is incidental. No matter how Alicia chooses, the fact of getting to hear the choice being proposed and then made is fascinating.

What’s important is how the discussion around that break, the break itself, and the consequences of it are all part of the recording. It’s all part of the text. Remember: playing into dramatic irony – things the players know that the characters don’t – is, as far as I (a fairly avid listener) can tell, a principle of the show. The actors are alienated from their characters. The listener is alienated, because of that, from the fiction. It’s all very Brechtian. Except that it ends up producing tear-jerking, laugh-inducing, cathartic moments, just like the best bourgeois fiction.

This is what it comes down to. Friends at the Table manages to straddle that line between being deeply critical of the stories we tell because they make us feel good under the particular, deeply immiserating, iteration of capitalism we currently live under, and telling those same stories very well. It does this by actively deconstructing the stories as it tells them. Other Actual Play podcasts engage in the same deconstruction, by the fact of their form, but don’t engage with consequence the same way.

So, to ask again: why should you listen to people playing tabletop roleplaying games, week by week? What is it about this method of telling stories that works?

For the first: you shouldn’t; as a recent Variety article makes clear, the podcasting business is currently being gentrified. A platform-capitalist takeover is happening, the same way it did the web a decade and change ago. Unless you’re committed to engaging with the fringes and opposing that gentrification.

And for the second: if you’re interested in good fiction, and you’re interested in one process by which it’s made at the same time, you have something to look forward to. If you have a familiarity with tabletop roleplaying games, even better. Hearing a story be actively deconstructed as it is produced continues to be a thrill. Even five years after I started listening.





PS: Lord Ephrim, the Baron (fka the Immolator, played by Andi Clare) is also an incredible character and I regret not having space for him in this. So I just want to shout out Andi: like everyone else on this podcast they are an inspiring roleplayer, and if there’s one episode of Friends at the Table to listen to it’s episode 9 of COUNTER/Weight, where they drive some incredible scenes.