• Game Design and Ritual

    by  • October 16, 2012 • Essays • Comments Off on Game Design and Ritual

    I have been creating ritual for groups from two to 20+ for about 25 years. For 12 years I was a professional facilitator and ritual designer for MotherWoman, a local non-profit specifically designed to help women (and increasingly men) access and process the full range of emotions that arise in parenting, especially those that are frightening, uncomfortable, most deeply buried, and that stem from old wounds. Taking people into the darkest places of their psyche, allowing and facilitating them as they face and acknowledge their own pain, fear and strength, and helping them heal, integrate new insight, and return to the regular world is something I do well. The issues brought up in gaming may not be less than those brought up in parenting, but they certainly are not more.

    I’m sure we all have an idea of what a ritual is. We all partake of several every day, to larger and smaller degrees.  Ritual that I want to discuss in the framework of gaming is not habit (brushing your top teeth first, then the bottom), not superstitious behavior (always cracking your knuckles once before turning on the computer so as to avoid blue screen error), and not massive social rites (weddings, etc.) I want to talk about the more private, personal or small group ritual with a set purpose.

    Why this matters

    When we attempt to create games (or play them) with any consciousness about the real people we are playing with, or any desire to experience deep and possibly lasting insight or effect for ourselves, we are, to some degree, performing ritual. If we neglect a portion of the ritual process, we run the risk of actual emotional damage. I’m not saying we can’t design and play games that challenge and push and pull, I’m saying if we are going to design and play such games, we need to do so consciously. There are clear steps and stages in ritual, and they form a container for the events within. Given a container, amazing things and astonishing play can happen.

    First, take a minute to examine the ritual already existing in what we do. The primary thing is time. We set aside time to do this thing which is out of our ordinary daily life. We may even have a steady, habitual block of time dedicated to gaming. Depending on personal habits, we may have an habitual space or room we game in, and we may clean it, pull in chairs, set up props, or other things to change it from its regular purpose or refine its purpose to the work of the evening. The next big thing is food. In your group, what are the food rituals? Do you divvy up who brings what? Can you just count on one member to always bring the beer/chips/bread? In our group, cooking and eating food together is an important part of the experience. In others, it’s the break to order pizza mid-way through the evening. Some groups have cookies that get ritually handed out as spiffs by the GM. We gather together the ritual tools we will need for the task: paper, pens, dice, tokens, chips, etc. Sometimes there’s one person holding all the responsibility for all of the above, sometimes it’s shared around. It doesn’t have to look smooth; sometimes part of the ritual is the irritating scrabble to find supplies, “What have we got to drink around here?” or waiting for the habitually late member.

    Then there’s a second section to examine: what we do in actual play. The act of filling in or pulling out a character sheet is ritual. Some games make this very explicit: the KPFS character begins with “get a piece of paper. write ‘i kill puppies for satan’ across the top” This is a different approach than many, which start with “Write your character’s name at the top”, and the act of restating “i kill puppies for satan” helps to cement the notion that one is now in a different, non-standard time and place. When that KPFS sheet gets brought out in subsequent sessions, it acts as a reminder of that first dramatic step out of regular time and space.

    Other things we do in play that we could consider ritual are the dice rolls or other conflict resolution devices, the way that attention is more solidly given to people in turn, referring to previous sessions notes, and the now-standard ‘finger wiggle’ which means ‘fan-mail for you’, even if we have no tokens and even if we are not playing PTA.

    There are certain definable elements that transform a conversation or a social gathering into a ritual:

    Intentional – There is a purpose for the gathering. This goes beyond the “it’s game night” surface purpose. Games in which pushing people into new and unfamiliar or uncomfortable emotional territory is an up-front part of the design have Intention. Examples are KPFS, Dogs in the Vineyard, Bacchanal, and Death’s Door, Apocalypse World, Polaris, and perhaps They Became Flesh. Each of these has something way beyond “rocking good time” as the Intention.

    If the Intent breaks down, the game doesn’t go deep and stays at the “it’s game night, let’s pound on things” level. Which is fine, sometimes. Also, if the Intent breaks down, the point of the game is unclear and there’s a lot more confusion about why the characters are doing what they are doing, even if the game is rolling along. It’s as if there is no motive at the heart of the game other than “solve this problem.”

    Contained – There is a definite opening, middle, and closing, with the opening and closing holding space for the middle. This container is what allows people to go into the deeper places. It provides the safety net. I explicitly Do Not mean that no one will be emotionally triggered or even wounded, I mean that they will be supported into and out of the experience in ways that foster positive integration of the experience.  Using a concrete thing as a marker of Containment is common and easy; a candle, a song, an object passed from person to person, a ball of string, a reading or a description of entering and leaving ritual or game space.  Anything that can be easily repeated at the end or shows a distinct change in state (lit/unlit, open/closed) to define the space and time in the middle will help Containment.

    Contained means for each session as well as for the campaign. Polaris does this beautifully with the ritual lighting and snuffing of the candle, and also the “And so it was” and goes so far as to flat-out name it as ritual phrasing. Any game that is overt about the support of the players has at least some Containment. Bacchanal has it in stating that one should play with people one trusts. Dogs in the Vineyard has it in the ‘structure of play’ section, where it solidly and completely supports the GM and players. Death’s Door has it on page two, with vivid clarity. Games with a closed-loop style, with clear ending conditions, may well generally have better Containment than open-ended games.

    If Containment breaks down, the emotional content of the game spills over into regular life. Part of the containment process may be the hanging out for an hour or two after the game, but if that hanging out is spent on decompressing and it still feels tense and awkward and painful, you’ve probably had Containment breach. This is different than the decompression after larp – that is part of the containment, and something that should be considered to have its own ritual structure, with a way to open the space to decompression, exercises or methods to process the experience, and a way to close the debriefing. possibly with a system in place for follow-up processing. Containment in games is generally much harder to do on a tight time schedule, and no surprise there; if you’re doing a 2-hour one-shot of a game that drives people towards difficult emotional content or dilemma, watch your Containment carefully, and consider aiming for 100 minutes of game play and 20 minutes of containment and wrap-up.

    Conscious – Participants have awareness that they will be entering out-of-normal time and space. This can be as simple as a well-written, well-understood piece by the author giving the players a clear heads-up about where the game is going.  Any game that depends on solid player buy-in to the concept is at least semi-Conscious. This is especially important in larp where you are actually physically in a different place – if you know at least roughly what to expect, you have Conscious buy-in.

    Some of the biggest aids to this sort of Consciousness are props. That can be a soundtrack made for the game, some sort of decoration the GM brings to the table (I particularly remember a broken wine glass on a sheet of paper that had a splash of red watercolor and some burnt matches setting the tone), or specific dice requirements. The setting cloth and bowl of dice for 1001 Nights are great for this. So is the map in Fiasco. The Polaris candle provides both a focus for Consciousness and a good Containment marker.

    Also at issue here is the Conscious part of the player. If you come into a game saying “Ok, I want to deal with issues around fatherhood in this campaign” or “This kick-butt chick is how I’m dealing with my issues about women today” or “Rape scares me deeply. I’m going to possibly face that coming up in play, and I’m aware of that”, you’ve got Consciousness. Hopefully you have combined it with Intent and selected a game that will help you in your goals. Being aware of where the game falls in relation to the spectrum of game play between strong individual player-character authority over the fiction (as in Dogs in the Vineyard or Apocalypse World or 1001 Nights) and negotiated authority over the fiction (as in Polaris or PsiRun) will help Consciousness. Knowing the play style you are looking for will also help; if I’m looking for an immersive experience of 1001 Nights and I sit down to play with someone who wants to plow through the stories to “win” the game, I might be disappointed.

    If Consciousness breaks down, it can result in clashing players, because one has Consciousness about the game and has not been clear with the others. It can result in players feeling blindsided by a game or GM that they were not expecting. It can result in characters that are stereotypes and stock tropes instead of full characters with depth and weight. It can result in the Intent of the game being derailed.

    Creative – Participants are not spectators; they bring their creative energies to bear. In gaming, this is often so very verbal. To bring more of the ritual aspect forward, bring in anything physical. Standing up and demonstrating “So, I’m standing here, and the guy’s down on the floor like this” is great. Shifting body posture, voice, or adding little character ‘tells'; even some mechanical procedures, especially fan-mail and other ‘I re-enforce your Creativity’ methods are all good. The old idea of character sketches can be great as a Creative aspect. If you play at conventions and the GM stands up while running for a group of seated players, that creates some Containment and Consciousness as well.

    If Creativity breaks down, you get rampant digression of the “so, how’s that new lawn mower of yours” type. The players are not showing up for each other and not taking part in the joint creative process. Digressions that are spin-outs of the game, further detailing of the scenes, adding backstory, may add to Creativity, but may break Intent and may distract from Consciousness. Creativity can also be broken when there is too little room for the players to enact their Consciousness, and too little player, scene, or game flexibility. The final breakdown of Creativity is players being heavily railroaded, but by then everything else is usually shot, too.

    Action – Something happens, either during, or as a result of, the ritual, either externally or internally. Ritual and gaming are not passive. Action ‘during’ can be authentic movement, various physical activities used in ritual, writing, and physically releasing an object or a piece of writing are examples in ritual; in gaming, think writing, the energy that flies between players, the described action, and the physical and emotional responses of the players. In Action as a ‘result’, it might be anything from thinking deeply, to writing a letter to a congressperson, to confronting a parent, to quitting smoking. Most importantly, in both cases, Action shows up in the reflection, motivation, and shift in how one is in the regular world. When someone emerges from a game or session thinking differently about some aspect of themselves or the world, especially if it comes from having touched something deep and it alters their basic understanding and behavior, Action has been fulfilled.

    If Action breaks down, the players do not engage. Described action is flat, players are physically lax, and nothing seems to be moving about the game. One or few players may feel as though they are pulling the game along by strength of will. If no one comes away from the game saying “Wow, that made me think about ___”, Action may have broken down.

    I will happily give examples of contained and uncontained rituals and/or games if there is a need or if asked, but I think they distract from this particular essay.

    Game design, ritual, and the brain

    When we are in ritual space, there is a neurological “spillover” that happens, and often this results in a ‘shiver’ or some similar physiological reaction. Some people can get that from meditation, dance, sex, or other places. I think we can and do get that level of whole brain-whole body experience from gaming. In our regular life, we are operating on a few levels at a time, usually the literal/physical level most strongly associated with the left brain. When we pull in more right brain levels, such as symbolic and mythic, our brains are more fully engaged. From a review by Tamar Frankiel and Andrew Newberg:

    What we recognize as mystical experiences is also a result of built-in operations of the brain. Our autonomic nervous system has long been recognized as having two modes, sympathetic and parasympathetic characterized by d’Aquili and Newberg as producing states of arousal and quiescence, respectively. Whenever one of these is intensely engaged we have “hyperarousal” or “hyperquiescence”; if one goes to the point of “spillover,” it erupts so as to activate the opposite system (which would normally be dormant). Unusual events occur in any of five states. For example, hyperquiescence (for our purposes HQ) may produce a feeling of oceanic tranquility, while hyperarousal (HA) creates a sense of “flow” with high alertness. The spillover of HQ creates HQ/A, which may produce a sense of absorption into an object or symbol, while HA/Q may produce an ecstatic or orgasmic rush. The furthest excitation of both systems, HQ/HA, creates a mystical experience described by d’Aquili and Newberg as Absolute Unitary Being or AUB (25-27).
    Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg. The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999. ix + 228pp

    Ritual has a definite pattern, and if a part of the pattern is missing, the ritual will feel hollow, incomplete, or simply not work. It’s an X or hourglass shape, and it flows like this. The intensity of the experience builds and deepens towards the middle, Work, then eases again as the experience moves to release.


    • Welcome – Hello, housekeeping issues, Intent.
    • Gathering – Guidelines to establish Container, this is where we’re going, Intent.
    • Journey Inward – Out-of-normal Activity to connect and focus Consciousness to Intent; can be singing, drumming, guided meditation, prayer, fasting, often internal.
    • Work – Creative Activity with Consciousness and Intent; can be meditative, physical, symbolic, mythic, energetic, usually expressive in some way.
    • Return – Incorporate experience back into Intent; how did the work leave me changed, look more at the bigger picture, make Conscious connections with Actions that may be indicated by the experience.
    • Celebration – Reconnecting with community, sharing experiences or lessons learned, processing.
    • Release – Conscious recognition of returning to regular time and space, make sure everyone is fully ready to return, Intentionally ending ritual and releasing Container of time and space. Often there is food shared here, as it builds community and helps ground people in the physical, present world.

    Game Play:

    • Welcome – Hang out/Catch up/Check in with each other, intro or restate Intent of game.
    • Gathering – Create Container by getting out tools, sheets, etc, and by discussing or restating boundaries, recap last session. This is where the players decide if they feel safe enough to push themselves.
    • Journey Inward – Begin play, light scenes keeping Conscious of Intent and boundaries, push your character deeper.
    • Work – More intense scenes, deeply Conscious of character, addressing issues you bring to the Intent, addressing personal issues – what do you learn about yourself in this space? This work can be in different scenes for different people.
    • Return – Lighter scenes, resolution, experience allocation, resource management, changes in character concept as a result of play, plans for next time.
    • Celebration – Share experiences, rehash, and hang out.
    • Release – Check out, make sure everyone is fully ready to wrap-up, pack up tools and open Container, stretch, eat, schedule next session.

    Game Text:

    • Welcome – Introduction of the game, Intent of the game, definitely under a page long
    • Gathering – Boundaries, Lines, Veils form Container; this is where this game can push you, this is how to keep yourself safe so you can be pushed. In writing the game, it’s a good idea to mention how to open the Container up at the end at this stage as well.
    • Journey Inward – Out-of-normal Activity to connect Consciousness to Intent; setting and character design, mechanics.
    • Work – Creative Activity with Consciousness and Intent; how you play this game, support for the players, conflict resolution, experience allocation, resource management, where the buttons are and how/when to push them, maybe actual play descriptions.
    • Return – Recap rules and how they support play, actual play descriptions, any play aids.
    • Celebration – Actual play if relevant, pre-made characters, “what I hope you get out of my game”, which touches back to Intent and is as close as the designer can get to sharing experiences with the player.
    • Release – Thanks, designer’s notes, acknowledgements, ads for other games.

    Notice that, in Text, I listed the Container right at the beginning. In a game that is intended to push people towards a deeper experience, having that up front is critical. I think our Bacchanal game would have been smoother with the Container of “play this with people you trust” in the first two pages instead of the last two.

    Not all gaming is ritual. Sometimes the whole point is just to get together and hang out. Sometimes the gaming is the excuse to have a regular social date with friends. There is plenty of gaming that doesn’t need this sort of attention, or needs only light, passing awareness. A lot of great gaming can happen when the Intent is hanging out and having fun, the Container is just the presence of the players and whatever tools they want, Consciousness is just that everyone’s on the same page as to what game is at hand, Creativity is all good, and Action is simply that everyone leaves feeling like they had a great time, and all of it is not even done consciously.

    Some gaming creates well-integrated, lasting emotional effects without intentionality on the part of the designer or players.  Gaming can bring people closer, and drive them deeper, just by giving them a place to explore.  This can happen in any game. My point in writing this is to raise questions and perhaps provide language about how we can approach gaming on a different, more intentional level, and do so in ways we all come out feeling richer by it.



    Meguey Baker has been playing RPGs since 1978. Her most recent game is Psi*Run, a game about people with psychic powers and amnesia, released in 2012. She is currently working on Miss Schiffer's School for Young Ladies of Quality, a game about bold adventurous women scientists and explorers in the 1890s. Meg is also the mother of three sons, a sex ed teacher, and a textile conservation specialist.


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