• Back to Basics: Normal Life as Fantasy

    by  • June 6, 2012 • Essays • 8 Comments

    The group sat dressed in their nice comfy clothes in the dark basement. Lucy looked up from her character sheet at the Game Master. “Ok, I’m going to sink my teeth into it and begin to feast!” The Game Master, Deborah, nodded. “Make a Savour roll.” Lucy smiled, this was one of her best pools. “Three over the target!” Murmurs and nods of support were voiced. “Three sustenance for my character. This burger is amazing!” she cried as her fangs gleamed in the light. The other vampires wished they sometimes had Lucy’s luck at enjoying their meals in the game.

    Ok, maybe this is a bit of a strange idea I’ve presenting here. I mean, normal life is normal, why would any of us want to pretend to live it, except to get to the points where the exciting and amazing things we could be doing in our roleplaying? That’s one viewpoint.

    The other is that maybe there is a number of things we can enjoy that are very normal. Let me give an example from a game I ran. Quite simply, I was lauded for a meal I ran. Not what happened at the meal, but simply the presentation. All real foods that exist, but most of the players had never tried them. You could see some of them close their eyes and inhale through their noses as if they could smell the aroma of the different dishes mingling. I mean, just because it’s “normal” doesn’t mean it is normal for everyone or even if it is, that it isn’t something they wish they couldn’t experience more often.

    So let’s look first at some reasons for bringing such things to the table:

    1. Remembering the sensations and feelings of something lost or rarely experienced anymore, as in my vampires roleplaying scenario above.
    2. Getting to experience things you haven’t had a chance to that you wish you could, or are curious about.
    3. Seeing places/things/etc… you might not have even known were in existence till they were brought up. There’s a magic to discovering something actually exists that I’ve seen light up players’ faces over and over again (and I know has done the same for me).

    Let’s deal with points 1 and 2 first. I’m putting these together for multiple reasons, but the overwhelming one is that roleplaying as a hobby is a group effort. Everyone brings something to the table. We all have our own way of perceiving life. Sometimes when you get a bunch of different, but somewhat overlapping ideas about the same thing, you get a clearer (if not more true-to-life) image. Maybe someone remembers more of what things smelled like, another what they tasted like… this goes for things you haven’t experienced personally either. Even bringing one more person to add their perspective just gives a greater sense, though it may be false, of truthfulness to the topic at hand. This isn’t true always, there is obviously the situation of too many cooks adding spices to the pot, and that person who has such a wildly different view that it is difficult for others to understand their viewpoint.

    On 3, this is one of the greatest joys I’ve ever had running games, no matter what it was. It applies equally to total fantasy and realistic settings also. Sometimes you have an experience that most people, or maybe the people just where you are, haven’t had the chance to try. Giving them the chance to experience through your senses what it would be like can be an amazingly rewarding experience for both the one describing the situation as well as those imagining it. On the describer’s end, they have to delve into what they loved and hated about it. Try and regain every nuance that might add to the listener’s enjoyment. On the listener’s end, they get to see something new and perhaps amazing, have to listen and pick up the careful changes of tone even for meaning.

    I don’t think I’m really advocating anything radical here, just bringing some of the magic that you’ve actually experienced in real life to the gaming table to share with your friends. We all have experiences that are outside what those we play with might consider normal, and that is a positive thing! This sort of technique has value, and it never hurts to have another tool in the box when adding to our shared gaming worlds.



    I am a young trans woman living out in a small town. I mostly game online, as I can't find players for meatspace. I write, most often prose, and consider myself passing good at such. I have a recent surge in my interest in feminism, though it has always been there. I love to read, play video games on occasion, and be outside.

    8 Responses to Back to Basics: Normal Life as Fantasy

    1. avatar
      June 6, 2012 at 19:05

      This is a really good observation, and it goes along with some of the best advice I’ve ever heard: to be a good artist, you have to actively try to perceive everything, in both the objective and abstract sense, because the more you take in, the more you put out. This completely applies to storytelling and roleplaying, particularly if you’re running the game. This is the stuff that tends to stick with players for a long while.

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      • avatar
        Melody Haren Anderson
        June 7, 2012 at 11:37

        I’ll say I agree completely with the mentioned advice. A long time ago, I realized I sometimes noticed myself perceiving the world in ways which weren’t common compared to those around me. And it wasn’t that I saw different things, so much as I saw more, saw things in layers (I’ve been thinking about how to respond for a time here, and the language I want to use still eludes me in places, so I apologize).

        I like to think of myself as a creative person and someone who can appreciate art. I write somewhat, but I’ve also studied for a time under a local metal sculptor. He provided me with both materials and access to the tools that would allow me to work on my art while in high school. A variety of torches (he was a welder and pipefitter by trade, and this was a sideline and thing he did for the love of it), sandblaster, different tools for polishing, and others I just wouldn’t have had the money for then as I was in high school, and still don’t have the money for now. He taught me some techniques, like how you could bring out colors of many sorts in steel by heating it up to different temperatures. But he didn’t teach me what I’ve come to call the artist’s eye (which applies to more than just the visual).

        The piece I was most proud of was a unicorn I made. He told me he wanted to see something really impressive, and I looked through the metal he had for something that spoke to me, and then I found it, a hunk of steel that said “I am a horse.” It didn’t look much like a horse at the time, and he said he couldn’t see it. “But the important thing is you can see it, so bring it out so I can see it too.” The horse section was beautiful, though to this day I know I could have done better with the mouth. It was a horse to the shoulder, with one leg raised in a noble walk. I sandblasted one side to get a dull gray finish, and polished the other. I took a pair of strips, and worked them down to a tapering point, then used a propane torch to introduce a prismatic pattern of color deep in the metal.

        It had him mildly awed. He had tried to not do more than occasionally glance at it during the creative process, but he smiled and told me it was everything I had told him it was and he could see it. Though… “That mouth looks a bit odd doesn’t it?” Not quite a flawless victory, but I’ll take it.

        My point is, I’ve wondered if the artist’s eye can be taught, or if it’s something you just have or don’t. I have no answer there. To be honest, I wouldn’t know how to teach it if I tried, as it is something I come to naturally and without thought.

        • avatar
          June 8, 2012 at 18:33

          I love this story. You hear that about sculptors; they look at a piece of stone, wood, metal, whatever, and already know what it’s going to be. I’ve never been a sculptor myself, and I love paintings and such, but whenever I go to an art museum, its the sculptures that I find the most compelling. It’s true of all of them, but I’m fascinated by the ancient ones–they’ve got that tangible presence, and by examining it have this immediate physical connection to someone from thousands of years ago who, under some inspiration, poured all this love and labor into an enduring work of art.

          As to the artist’s eye, I think it can be taught to anyone with a desire to develop it. Principles of design can be taught very objectively–for traditional art, you’ve got your color theory, line of movement, etc.–though they take a lot of practice to grasp, but when you start applying these principles over and over, you start to see them show up in everyday life everywhere.

          That’s why art is so great, honestly–it can be really difficult at first, but once you’re past the initial hurdle, so long as you keep paying attention to everything like that and never stop practicing, it just gets better and better.

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    2. avatar
      June 7, 2012 at 18:47

      I’d also love to add #4 as a huge payoff item for those of us that socket in characters, or aesthetics, or who socket emotionally in game:

      The ability to experience something that you personally can/have experience in life through the filter or mental model of another person or situation. The taste of fresh figs tastes like one thing to me, Mo. The experience of eating them might be different to the character I am playing, and the engagement of the normal-via-the-other-I-have-assumed can be satisfying in itself, or be contributive in enjoyment and add depth (for me and for you) to the game we’re playing.

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      • avatar
        Melody Haren Anderson
        June 8, 2012 at 01:00

        Hmm, that’s interesting. I wonder if that could be considered as something of an intersection of the others with some added qualities. Something to consider.

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    4. avatar
      June 28, 2012 at 09:05

      What an interesting essay. Thanks Melody!

      Re #3, I usually try to do the same. As a GM, I like painting vividly descriptive scenes – a marketplace on Tékumel, the throngs of people of different ethnicities converging on the gates of a medieval Middle Eastern city, details of costumes and weaponry etc etc. As a player, I was taught to include as much description as possible.

      I love it when my fellow gamers are engaged by my descriptions – but it’s an awful downer when their eyes glaze over and you get either “TMI” or “stop hogging the limelight”!

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      • avatar
        Melody Haren Anderson
        June 28, 2012 at 09:26

        I am very glad you enjoyed this essay. I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes we ignore the simple elements that give so much. It was something of a note to myself as well as to others. We can all use being reminded of these things at times. ^_^

        I love what you say you do. I mean, that’s just beautiful and exactly what I mean! The TMI or hogging the limelight is something I often worry about, but luckily I’ve never been told I do too much. It is a fine line that changes from group to group as to how much is too much.

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