Ritual In Game Design

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Background: I have been creating ritual spaces and experiences for groups from two to 20+ for about 35 years. I was for a dozen years a professional facilitator and ritual designer for a local non-profit specifically designed to help parents 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 own their own pain, fear and strength, and helping them heal and integrate 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. 

  • Habit ritual (brushing your top teeth first, putting keys in your right pocket, etc)
  • Superstitious ritual  (lucky socks, touching the roof when you cross train tracks, etc)
  • Massive social rite rituals (weddings, funerals, inaugurations, etc)

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 exercise, meditation, dance, prayer, or other places. I think we can and sometimes do get that level of whole brain-whole body experience from gaming. Ritual that I want to discuss in the framework of gaming is a personal or small group ritual with a set purpose, rather than habits or superstitions or rites.

Aspects of Effective Ritual

Ritual has a definite pattern, and if a part of the pattern is missing, the ritual will feel hollow, incomplete, or simply not work. To be effective, it needs to be intentional contained conscious creative action

Intentional

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 clearer Intention. Alice Is Missing, BFF,  Bluebeard’s Bride are good examples. Each of these has something way beyond “rocking good time” as the Intention. Part of the intention piece is discussing boundaries and content the players would like to keep outside the game, and how they want to use conversation tools such as Script Change to support a safer environment to do the work at hand.

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

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 the safety net to go into the deeper places. 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. Any game that is overt about the support of the players has at least some level of Containment. Bacchanal has it in stating that one should play with people one trusts. Death’s Door has it on page two, with vivid clarity. Games with clear ending conditions generally have better Containment than open-ended games. 

If Containment breaks down, the emotional content of the game spills over, bleeding 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. Containment in games is often 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 very carefully. Conversation tools (also sometimes called safety tools) only go so far, and if they don’t have actual opening and closing pieces, they might not serve on their own, but can help if the MC introduces them as part of the very beginning of sitting down to play and then makes a point of putting them away or turning them upside down to signal the end of the game session.

Conscious

Conscious — Participants have awareness that they will be entering out-of-normal time and space. This can be anything that gives the players a clear heads-up about where the game is going. Murderous Ghosts has this right on the cover. So does A Mending. Any game that depends on solid player buy-in to the concept is at least semi-Conscious.

Some of the biggest aids to this sort of Consciousness, after setting aside time and space, 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), maps, and specific dice requirements. The candles in Ten Candles and This Longest Night provide 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 in power” or “Illness 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 other games will help Consciousness.

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

Creative — Participants are not spectators; they bring their creative energies to bear. In gaming, this is often so very verbal. To bring 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”; shifting body posture, voice, or adding little character ‘tells’; even some mechanical procedures, especially fan-mail and other ‘I re-enforce your Creativity’ methods. People doodling character sketches can be Creative and keep their focus centered.

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 shot, too.

Action

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. Players are waiting for someone else to do something to continue the action, not feeling supported in moving things along. 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 was cool! That made me think about ___”, Action has broken down.

Shape of Ritual

Rituals that are effective have a certain ordered movement. Think of it as an hourglass, going from regular life to the point where things change in ways that impact everything, and then back out. The job of the host (whether it’s for game night at your house, organizing a protest action, running a podcast, calling a sports game, being the conductor of the New York City Opera, etc etc) is to handle the steps of the ritual event, so people can move into the non-regular space, have the intended experience, then return mentally and emotionally able to deal with the event AND the reverberation between the event and their regular life. 

  • Regular life doing regular non-event stuff.
  • Welcome – Hello, housekeeping issues like taking off your coat or shoes or washing your hands, acknowledging your Intent to take part, as this is your best opportunity to change your mind.
  • Gathering – Host lays out guidelines to establish the Container: this is where we’re going, this is why we’re going, this is what we’re here for, settle in, get ready, state Intent. Staying past here means you are taking part.
  • Journey Inward – Out-of-normal Activity to connect and focus Consciousness to Intent; can be as simple as “when last we met..” or more complex like singing or reciting familiar words, guided meditation, prayer, fasting beforehand, etc. Sometimes the host or celebrant is the focus of attention here, so the participants can leave their every-day distractions behind and be present.
  • WorkCreative Activity with Consciousness and Intent; can be meditative, physical, symbolic, mythic, energetic, usually expressive in some way, usually guided or directed in some way. All participants are in a different mindset from daily life, focused on the task or activity at hand.
  • 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 the community that was part of this ritual, sharing experiences or lessons learned, processing what was achieved or learned or remains to be done.
  • 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.
  • Regular life doing regular non-event stuff.

Ritual and Game Design

When we attempt to create games (or play them) with any consciousness about the real personal process, any desire to experience deep and possibly lasting insight or effect, 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 safe and trustworthy 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 a 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, drinks, 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. When that 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 things that carry from one game to the next, creating in-jokes and communal touchstones.

Ritual In Game Play

  • Welcome – Hang out/catch up/check in with each other, intro or restate Intent of game.
  • Gathering – Create the 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 keeping Conscious of Intent and boundaries, push your character deeper.
  • Work  Creative Activity, Consciousness of character and of addressing issues you bring to the Intent, including internal 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 cool moves, 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.

Ritual In Game Text

  • Welcome – Introduction of the game, Intent of the game, definitely only a page or two long; you’re just saying hello, thanks for coming, welcome to this game.
  • Gathering – Boundaries, safety conversations, and clearly stated themes form the 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, so that the reader going on this journey with you understands you intend to show them the way back.
  • 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, example 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 my first 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, and something I very much appreciate about Bluebeard’s Bride is how up-front it is on Intent and Containment.

Not All Gaming is Ritual

Sometimes the whole point is just to get together and hang out. Sometimes 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.

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