Experientialist Play

Tod's picture

In talking about CORE and GMing on Twitter, I realized that the word "Experiential" is rarely present in the discourse. I think Narrativism has subclasses in it, and "Experientialism" is one of them. Another word for it might be "Phenomenological GMing" but that's an even tougher mouthful. The Experientialist GM is concerned with the Affect that play has upon you, and within you.

This is something that roleplaying does that no other artistic medium can do – to place you literally within a character, so that you not only “identify” with them, but emotionally resonate with them whenever dramatic actions are undertaken: The dice in your hand and the mechanical odds at the table literally echo the contingence of the hero's plan; the fictional stakes resonate on both levels.

Clearly there is more than one type of Narrativism. Because yes, I am interested in producing a narrative arc - that's why I tend to use the Harmon Circle, and wrote all that stuff about arcs in the DTGMG - but if you look at CORE Micro you don't see that, do you? That's because the pertinence of Narrative Arcs is GM-specific (or perhaps setting-specific). “Narrativism” can be about arc, but as a catch-all phrase for games it's very broad: it can just as easily be about theme, or style, or genre emulation, or author stance, or The Human Condition(TM).

The way I run, the intention is for the feelings and phenomena that arise within you to give purpose and direction to the decisions you make as a Player in the "Writers Room." So while my medium is the fiction itself, my actual goal is to evoke, convey, amplify, and interact with dramatic & meaningful emotional states in the real world. In you.

To put it another way: Although I obviously consider Arc to be important, the Experiential Affect I produce inside my Players' heads is even MORE important. If ever I must choose between breaking the Narrative Arc and breaking your immersion or emotional state, that's not even a choice. Your emotional state wins every time. It's one of the key reasons why CORE is so minimalistic and flexible: to allow the Story to turn on Meaning rather than rails or utter randomness. But note that CORE - certainly in its Micro edition - does almost nothing that says "This is how Tod does it." It doesn't "create" what I'm talking about. What it does do, however - what it was actually designed to do - is allow me to do Experientialist Narrativism with the absolute minimum friction.

DeReel's picture

I can't see the difference between Experientialism in one playstyle or the other. The intercreation, in RPG, improv, improvised music or other medias, both uses and changes the participants' affects, like the action-reaction of the ball on children's hand when they play pass.

Tod's picture

You're not wrong, of course. But I'm using the word as jargon here, and it's an oblique reference to "Experientialism" both as a philosophy and a body of hypnosis technique pioneered by Milton Erickson.

I'm describing the GM stance I use, which is -- yes "narrativist" -- but focused firstly and technically on (i.e. uses techniques deliberately designed to facilitate) the practitioner-prompted but other-guided experience and exploration of internal phenomena such as emotional affect and symbolic projection. It is absolutely an "auteur" approach in that it demands that the GM perform at a level which is not only different from the Player's stance (very common in trad games), but substantially more didactic than it appears. It shares some performative traits with "illusionism," however since it's Player-guided and emergent rather than prescriptive, the "illusions" are there to facilitate rather than "protect" a plot or anything. I have nothing to "protect" but your state of immersion and investment in the shared imagined space.

You are not, however, expected or required to ever worry about mine.

I am like a "guide" who "knows the territory" (ie has your trust) but we're actually going inside *you*, and I'm doing more following than leading. It just doesn't look that way.

Erickson himself was an exemplar of pragmatism, patience and close attention, all evident in his practice of therapy and hypnosis. The key elements of his method (as later codified by the organization that carries on his name) include four main skills: Observation, Validation, Cultivation, and Challenge (all of which I'm sure you can recognize immediately as being directly applicable to GMing), combined with six "core competencies": Tailoring, Utilizing, Strategic Thinking, Competency, Destabilization, Experientiality, and Naturalness. These are a bit more oblique but again, I'm sure you can see the applicability to the art of GMing.

The purpose of all this is to generate Psychic Content, which is basically "bleed encapsulated" -- emotional or symbolic components of real (even if inexpressible) significance that can be reincorporated to bind the Player's inner phenomenological experience ever more strongly to the character's, and to the gameworld.

Silmenume's picture

Hi Tod,

I am fascinated by the direction you are moving. Without hijacking your thread (I may make another thread to discuss some ideas) I will simply state that I've been playing what you are describing nigh on 30 years. The "point" of play is to have an personal and "intense" emotional experience. I've even employed the term "experiential" as part of arguments for Sim back on Story-games and is employed in one of my first posts here. I don't know if I have anything to offer but if you have any questions feel free to ask.

I wish you nothing but success with your current venture!



Paul T.'s picture

...why Forge discussions eventually dropped this line of reasoning, concluding that matters of immersion were too subjective to really speak about in this sense.

At least, it seems fairly unrelated to Creative Agenda.

That doesn't make it not worth exploring, of course. How much 'meta-level' interactivity do we desire in our games? There are strong arguments for different levels of engagement in this sense, and they all create very different atmospheres, feelings, and levels of empowerment/agency.

Tod's picture

Good to hear from ya!
All good questions.
I think you know I'd be the last to suggest there's *anything* that *must* be normalized across all games or tables. I'm a "let a million flowers bloom" kinda guy.

In this thread I'm examining my own actual practice.
The end goal might be writing a book about how to do it one day.
If I did write that book, I'd be very surprised if it appealed to anything more than a niche-within-a-niche audience.
Then again, as Jay's comment proves, I'm not the only GM who runs this way. There are peer practioners out there.

Anyway: my research in related fields - screenwriting, hypnosis, NLP - has given me words and concepts for talking about it that modern RPG discourse didn't.

Tod's picture

The OODA Loop of a Player is just like IRL:

The Trad GM has a corresponding loop:

The Experientialist GM runs a constant asynchronous loop:

inside all the others.

Thanuir's picture

Just a note that «narrativism» as used here has very little to do with «narrativism» of GNS theory. Probably the people who know GNS theory already figured this out, but just pointing it our for the potential casual reader.

I think the priorities outlined here - to create a particular emotional experience or an experience within a particular continuum - is quite widespread. Some examples are lots of experimental Nordic larps and their descendants, horror GM advice about how to scare one's players, lots of GM advice focusing on creating a particular mood and hated non-player characters or plot twists and so on. There is probably a lot of fruitful exploration of techniques to be done there, too.

webtech's picture

indeed, but there is no single definition of "Narrativism" -- and if you think about it creatively, you see that there could not possibly be one.
Just as there is no one way for a book writer to be effective, it is a matter of style, topic, values, voice, and approach.
Ron Edwards and I have talked about this, in the consults you can find on youtube.