• Play boldly – Let yourself be vulnerable

    by  • September 10, 2012 • Essays • 3 Comments

    Role-playing games can be powerful. They can make you feel, think and change. To get those kind of powerful experiences, you need to be bold. Bold enough to act and not pick the safe path. Bold enough to let yourself be vulnerable and to let yourself be moved by the expedience.

    This a philosophy me and the rest of NordNordOst plays by and I’ll try to share it with you.

    Don’t be overprotective

    As players, we want to play it safe. We want to protect our characters, our ideas, and ourselves. To some degree it is natural and healthy, but it is easy to become overprotective. That affects the game in bad ways.

    It creates games where players don’t do anything that risks their characters. Games where the characters don’t care, because caring about something can be used against them. Games where the game-master keeps a choke-hold on the story, killing off every initiative. It creates players that censor themselves because of what others might think.

    Being overprotective leads to games where nothing really happens, good or bad, because no one takes any risks. It is a land of bleak boredom.

    Stop being overprotective. Trust your fellow players. They wont hurt you; they will give you an awesome experience.

    One time I faced my fear and decided to trust my fellow players was at a LARP. I had created a kickass ranger, scarred and full of hate. My plan was to run around in the woods and be a cool lone ranger. Then I got captured and my kidnappers wanted to make my character a slave. Oh crap? My first reaction was that I wanted to protect myself from this thing. I wanted to protect the character from harm, I wanted to protect my plan for the LARP, and I wanted to protect myself. How would people see me if I played a slave? Would it suck to play a slave?

    I knew the group that captured me; they were good players. We discussed out-of-character what to do and they would have respected my decision if I didn’t want to. But, even if it wasn’t the LARP I imagined, it had the potential of being really cool. I decided to trust them, and let my character become enslaved. I made the right choice. I had a great time and eight years later I still play the same character. I made the bold move and let myself be vulnerable.

    Play Boldly

    You decided to play boldly. How do you do it? First step, stop being overprotective. But how do you play boldly? You do stuff that feels scary.

    Get your character in trouble. Make mistakes. Go ahead with the cool idea even if you are not sure how to pull it off. Fall in love with your enemy, betray your friends, challenge your father, lose your faith!

    But it is not just about the character. It is about you. Be bold and let yourself be vulnerable as well.

    If some subject feels scary, approach it anyway. Play the sex scene even if you are blushing. Do the thing you wanna do, even if someone else thinks you are a bit silly. Dare to deal with serious subjects. Go beyond your comfort zone.

    That is scary. Playing boldly doesn’t come naturally. It is about reaching the point when hesitate “Oh! I got this thing I want to do. But…” There is that small scared “’But…” followed by something that sounds scary. Tell that “But…” to shut up and do it anyway.

    There is no need to take it too far. It should be scary, but safe. It should be like taking a roller coaster ride. Scary, but fun.

    At times playing boldly will turn out badly, but it wont turn out bleak and boring. By challenging yourself you will evolve as a player. Doing the scary thing will help you learn no matter if the result is good or bad. That will lead to more awesome games in the future.

    Let yourself be vulnerable

    Doing scary stuff is hard, but it’s not just about what you do. Letting yourself be vulnerable to others is even scarier. Then, you are not in control.

    Let me use an example. We were playing Apocalypse World, I was playing The Brainer, Sundown. A lonely telepath and an awkward teenager that never been kissed. Filled with desire and a longing for love. During one scene an NPC grabbed Sundown forcefully and kissed him against his will. I chose to play Sundown as vulnerable. After the kiss Sundown was awestruck, scared and off balance.

    It was not just that Sundown was emotionally vulnerable. From an out-of-character perspective, I knew that I was also left vulnerable to the GM, and that the GM might use Sundowns reaction against me in play. I felt emotionally vulnerable as well. Playing out all that half-forgotten teenage insecurity is embarrassing.

    But I still chose to play vulnerable. I could chosen that Sundown didn’t care about the kiss. Or that he did care, but stayed cool and levelheaded. Choosing the vulnerable alternative was scarier, but created a more powerful scene and story.

    That is often the case. When something happens, reacting to it in way that makes you feel vulnerable and/or opens up your characters vulnerabilities is often the most powerful way to act. It gives the scene emotional impact and drives the story.

    By “vulnerable”, I don’t mean you should play a sad puppy that cries every time something bad happens. Anger, arrogance, lust and pride are vulnerabilities too, even if our cultures see them as cool. But don’t just choose the cool options. The vulnerabilities our cultures see as weak; like fear, embarrassment, sadness, and insecurity are also great tools. Don’t be afraid to use them. To be weak is scary, but it creates fantastic play experiences for yourself and others.

    Being vulnerable also lets other players be cool. At the LARP Weave of Fate there were powerful spirits that could hold you to any promise you made. Of course, this had the effect that all players watched their tongues closely around them.

    I, as a genre savvy player, could have chosen to be extremely careful of what I said to them. Instead, I chose to play vulnerable. I chose to have my rash character not always pay attention to what she said and chose to have her tempted to bargain with them. This gave the spirit players a chance to snare a mortal and bring their powers into play. They got to be cool. For me, being snared was an awesome expedience as well.

    Trust is the key

    How do you get comfortable enough to do play this way?  Well, there are two options. Both require trust.
    The first way is to trust the other players. You need trust them not to hurt you, even if you let yourself be vulnerable.
    The second way is to trust yourself. If you can think, “I can take care of myself, and I trust that I’ll will be okay even if I chose to take this risks.”, then you can still be comfortable enough to let yourself play boldly and be vulnerable.

    How to help others play boldly and be vulnerable

    This play-style can be infectious. If you leave yourself open and vulnerable, others will feel braver and step up to play more boldly. If you set a good example they let themselves be more vulnerable as well. If you are brave enough to be weak, they will be too.

    You can also help others be more bold by challenging them. Throw them something challenging and see how they handle it. This must be done with care, because you should not push people into situations they don’t want to be in. You remember that I wrote that it should be like taking a roller coaster ride? Challenge someone else to be bold should be like asking; “Hey, wanna come ride the roller coaster with me?” But it should never be like pushing them into a roller coaster cart against their will. Challenge them, but give them a chance to gracefully decline and back off if they don’t want to.

    Closing words

    Play boldly. Let yourself be vulnerable. If you do, the games you play will become more awesome. I promise you that.


    Thanks to Brianna Sheldon for help with editing.



    Elin Dalstål is a game designer, larp and convention organizer living in Luleå, Sweden.

    3 Responses to Play boldly – Let yourself be vulnerable

    1. avatar
      September 12, 2012 at 05:43

      My god this article is a pitch-perfect version of everything I’ve been thinking about gaming recently. Thank you so much for these ‘words to game by.’

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    2. avatar
      September 24, 2012 at 18:41

      I love this article (sorry I am a bit late to the party here!) and it typifies my preferred style of play. However (as with all things) it is not always something I remember to do.

      So I wanted to let you know that this weekend I was RPing with some great friends and remembered to play my vulnerabilities in a fantastic game of bad relationships put under external stress. It was some of the most powerful gaming I have done in ages and I am so pleased I remembered your advice.

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      • avatar
        September 25, 2012 at 00:09

        I’m do damn happy to hear that. To be a positive influence on other people gaming experiences is really an honor, especially when your not at the gaming table yourself.

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