I spent last week mostly playing and running games, in the company of some excellent people, and it was great! Most of them were of the prepless and/or GMless style that I’ve been increasingly interested in in recent years. I’ll probably spew out some more thoughts here about the others shortly, but I wanted to pick up on When the Dark is Gone first, as I think it’s especially interesting.
Here’s the game’s blurb:
“Imagine the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They visited a magical land, fought battles alongside talking animals and centaurs and won a war against a powerful and evil enemy. Then they returned home, no-one would believe them and they were back to war time rations and maths homework.
What does that feel like?
How do you live with the memories of what you saw?
How did Edmund deal with the fact that Aslan was tortured and killed for him? How did Susan and Lucy deal with watching Aslan die, even knowing he was later resurrected?
Did Edmund drown his sorrows in alcohol and drugs, did Lucy vent her repressed rage by being violent towards her loving husband?
Did they end up in therapy?
The players in this game are all Clients in a real-world, modern day setting undergoing group therapy. They all have serious psychological disorders which are damaging them and those closest to them. Everyone has come to the therapy session as a final attempt to get their lives back on track.”
First I should declare that When the Dark is Gone was written by Admiral Frax, who is a friend. But I don’t need to be kind about it for that reason 🙂 You can download it as a PDF, free, from here on the Black Armada site.
It’s prepless – the game background and characters are entirely devised by the players, during the first hour or so of the session. It’s not GMless – the GM provides guidance during this development phase, and plays the role of the Therapist during the remainder of the session. But it’s a very different kind of GMing to the usual.
Traditional GMing is, I think, strongly performative and to an extent controlling. You create a gameworld and unveil it for the players to explore; or in less trad games (like my own Haunted House) you pick up on their ideas and shape them into a whole. Either way, you have a special responsibility for, and ‘ownership’ of, the session. I’ve done stacks and stacks of GMing down the years, and I relish this aspect, and enjoy the challenge of providing and shaping entertainment for players. It’s rewarding in its own right, and also affirming of my capabilities.
But GMing in When the Dark is Gone is almost entirely egoless. At the end of the game the players were saying how they’d enjoyed themselves, and I said that I’d also enjoyed GMing it. One player said words to the effect of “you didn’t have to do anything, you just watched us get on with it!” and at first I was a bit taken aback by this. (Because I felt that I’d actually done some useful stuff.) But I quickly realized that actually this was (inadvertent 😉 praise – for that player at least, I had made my GMing role invisible. In the same way as a real therapist seeks to avoid their clients transferring emotions onto them, the WtDiG GM should (I think) seek to avoid their contribution to the session being recognizably influential.
The other quite unusual thing about WtDiG is that, once the creation phase is done, the session takes place entirely in character, as it becomes a de facto live-action game. Even for the GM, all one’s interventions and reactions must be in character as the Therapist. There are no rules calls, no out-of-character questions, no saying of “My character deos so-and-so” or even “I do so-and-so”, etc: just straight improvised in-character speech and action. We took a couple of comfort breaks, but the players seemed (afaics) to stay in character through those as well. This might sound difficult, but I think actually once we’d started it was easier to stay in character rather than to break the atmosphere.
I won’t talk about the details of the session and of the world that the players generated, etc, because that’s all proper to them rather than to me. (If they’d like to, of course, that’s great.) One change I made (after discussion with Frax beforehand) was: the rules suggest asking the players at the beginning of the session to say if there’s any material they would rather not have occur in the game. I instead circulated them beforehand asking them to tell me any such material privately. I then turned those responses into a list, added some things of my own, and scrambled them. It’s a small change, but I think worthwhile so that people don’t have to talk in front of the group about what they’re not comfortable with.
When I first read through the WtDiG document, I was struck by what a terrifically interesting idea it was, but I wasn’t at all sure if it would ‘work’ as a game – or even if it actually was a ‘game’ at all. Frax’s design notes are worth reading – she specifically intended it to bring out emotional responses in players, and to maintain full immersion by avoiding the need for conflict resolution. I thought this was tremendously conceptually ambitious and well worth trying, but (to be honest) right up to the start of the session I was trepidatious about how it would go in real life. Particularly because the game doesn’t allow for the usual sorts of GMing fixes that you can use to wrestle a struggling game session back onto the rails. I was, frankly, nervous about my lack of control.
Well, I needn’t have been, because the session went really well (from my pov, although the players will have their own opinions of course), and everyone got into it quickly and smoothly. The one GMing tool I had – that of asking questions – I used minimally and (hopefully) in more or less the right places. One of the things Frax stresses is not to dive in too soon if things look bogged-down, but to wait and give players every chance to find their own way out. This was difficult! But I think the experience was quite salutary. I’m going to take some lessons back from it to my GMing of more normal kinds of game. I don’t always have to be so hands-on controlling of the flow; players can be trusted more than I sometimes do.
Anyway, I found it a really enlightening and thought-provoking experience, as well as an entertaining and enjoyable one. So I would recommend anyone who likes the sounds of the idea to give it a go. And hopefully this post will be another little helper in raising the profile of When the Dark is Gone, which I think deserves to be brought to greater attention.
Edited to add: I should have said something about timing. It was pretty much an hour for the prep phase, two hours for the therapy session, iirc.