Storyjamming with “Archipelago”, 2nd Edition

I recently had the opportunity to jam story using the Archipelago story game, written by Matthijs Holter. We played two sessions over two nights.

I still endeavor to introduce storyjamming to players who have never done it before. I believe collaborative storytelling can really enrich anyone’s life, and make more personally relevant stories than Hollywood or other media. I had at least five players who had never played a “story game” before, for a total of 8 players (!!).

I always have an experiment going for every game I run. Most importantly, I want every step of game play to feel like fun, including “learning the rules”. To maximize fun and most quickly learn the fundaments of game play, I have an array of tools I use.

In the past, I had a series of warm-up games I consistently used, specifically (in this order) “Firing Line”, “One Word at a Time”, “Color, Advance”, and “I see you”. These games have a downside in that they don’t necessarily relate directly to the setting or story, unless you have a creative way to make them relevant. I’ve gotten positive feedback from players, but still I want every moment of play to contribute to the shared story.

I love Archipelago because the ritual phrases offer an alternative way to ease into a game and gain confidence setting scenes (such as “Try a different way”, “More details”, “That won’t be so easy”).

I realized that most importantly to me, I want new players to feel confident and comfortable creating fiction; in the back of Archipelago Matthijs lists several principles of good Archipelago play (such as “Yes, and…” and “Accept input”).

I made five major decisions to accelerate play, group cohesion, confidence in contributing in the shared fiction, and learning the “rules” of Archipelago.

First, I gave all the ritual phrases hand signs (taken from ASL), that made it easier and gentler to interrupt another player’s flow to get “more details” or “try things differently”, and modeled memorably using the ritual phrases.

Second, I created two other ritual phrases, “Help”, to support the “Ask for input” principle. New players don’t know how to quickly get rescued from a creative block, and tend to freeze up and stress out. “Help” worked amazingly; everyone had an easy out, all they had to do was make the ASL hand sign  for “Help” and other players jumped in to rescue the moment. Also, I used the ASL hand-sign “Finish” to indicate the end of scene.

Third, I ran “I see you” for everyone’s character. All the players remarked on how vivid their shared vision of each other became. They really enjoyed this part. Formerly stereotyped, cardboard characters became rich and mysterious, everyone wondering how they would fare in the story. Already interesting characters acquired even more depth.

Fourth, instead of a destiny “statement”, we all created destiny “loaded questions” to answer, and per the rules, once answered, that character’s story finished. I did this inspired by the Jason Morningstar and Matthijs Holter partnership Archipelago games “Last Train Out of Warsaw” and “Love in the Time of Seith”. The players really loved this too; it really heightened the mystery and anticipation of the game to an extraordinary degree.

Five, I allowed “secondary players”, much like the Moons in Ben Lehman’s “Polaris”, that had no role other than to play bit parts and help with the setting. The WAYK game’s “Lunatic Fringe” technique inspired this. I also allowed “paired” character ownership, so that players could tag team for one character and retain a lot of energy and comfort with play.

Things I’d change for next time:

Less characters, more secondary players.

Each player can choose more than one destiny “loaded question”; players had a difficult time choosing one due to the rich variety of questions that other players wrote, so why limit it?

Change the process of “I See You”; rather than saying “I don’t see it” and ending the game, use Archipelago’s “Try something different” and keep going. Go two or three rounds around the table, until the player says “Finished”.

The Language of Rewilding

Because of my recent radical change in how I make my living, I have now arrived at the extreme end of the philosophy that I began toying with over a decade now. When I first began learning traditional living skills and native-to-place relationships (at the time, at Tom Brown’s Tracker School, back in 1995), I thought language had little or nothing to do with this path. I saw the work on this path consisting of action, not talk. Skills, not discussion. A knife carving into wood, an antler point twisting flakes off the edge of an obsidian flake, not conversation and reflection (and music, and feasting, but more on that for another time).

Cognitive scientists are more and more confirming the everyday empirical evidence accumulated by anyone paying attention; that how we talk about things drives how we think about things. What you won’t hear from scientists quite yet, but I will happily share, concerns the everyday practicality of language. If we can talk about a thing (say, tracking) easily, we can collaborate on it and improve it easily. If we can only talk about a thing with difficulty, we will collaborate and improve with difficulty. Anyone who has ever improvised a technical jargon for a hobby or past-time knows this.

Yet this understanding doesn’t just apply to new coinings for particular tools or methods for niche activities (say, the equipment and techniques necessary for paragliding). This doesn’t just involve technical jargons, but our ability to talk about the world in useful ways.

How we talk about time, space, agency, roles, and relationships, in modern languages such as Chinese, English, French, Russian – does this support richer lives, on a human (rather than industrial or hierarchical) scale? Does this help us understand root causes of social problems, and move towards healing? How does the Hopi concept of Manifested/Unmanifested time, for example, change the richness of relationships in human/wild communities, as opposed to the Indo-European concept of Past/Present/Future?

When I say “richness”, I mean viable human wealth, not the material kind, but the kind that sustains generations of human beings in a web of relatedness to the living community around them.

You can imagine the implications of losing over half the world’s remaining 7000 languages within the  century, as you think about these issues.

A skilled flintknapper can make amazing lithic tools, such as arrowheads, every bit as beautiful as one you would find still anciently lying in the earth. Yet the language for speaking about this act, making that arrowhead, and giving it as a gift for the food of the animal’s body, we cannot reproduce in English, without tremendous insight and effort.

I don’t say it cannot be done (neither Edward Sapir nor Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed the misnamed Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, crafted by linguists in the mid-twentieth century, proposing that language limits thinking; rather they believed that language drives and powerfully influences our ability to think about the world). Instead, I say our language provides an enormous impediment for us to wrestle it into saying something meaningful, against the coding of all its grammar and idiom. It wants us to think (and therefore do) what will perpetuate and generate the world we see – the “civilized world”.

Don’t waste my time. The past is the past. We are all one.  Be a winner, don’t be a loser. Let’s evolve to the next stage of human progress.

What on earth do these things even mean? Note how you can barely tell whether a Christian fundamentalist, a Buddhist, or a pagan New-Ager said these things. I stand in awe of the ability of English (and other modern languages) to keep us thinking the same old things, revolution after revolution.

At the very least, we have a tremendous amount to learn from non-Indo-european (and non-“civilized”) languages, in order to wrestle these issues in our modern mother tongues. Indigenous languages represent an unbroken tradition of human brilliance (what did indigenous “rocket scientist”-type minds do 30,000 years ago? or today, in the indigenous communities where they still live? certainly not just build a more effective friction fire kit, or knap a better arrowhead, but far more than our modern minds can imagine).

For this reason, I’ve dedicated my adult life to helping revitalize endangered languages.  Along with my partner in this endeavor, I’ve made it my goal to turn around the world endangered language crisis within the decade. I look forward to the day when I can turn my attention to other issues, but for now, I can’t imagine more important work than the work of helping to revitalize the indigenous soul, around the world.