Conventions Tabletop role-playing

When the Dark is Gone

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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ˜‰ 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.

34 replies on “When the Dark is Gone”

I am not surprised that QoT reckons this is her kind of thing. It very definitely isn’t mine, though; while I have no objection to playing characters who are, to some degree, broken (aren’t we all, aren’t we all…), I have no desire to play them in a setting where their brokenness is the main focus of the character, or to play characters whose brokenness is their main raison d’etre.

That said, this has allowed me to crystallise what I don’t like about such characters, and I suspect future freeform casters may appreciate my being able to be clearer about that πŸ˜‰

So, interesting write-up but not an experience I’ll be seeking out any time soon…

Interesting; I’ve often struggled to explain that, while I enjoy having lots of angsty situations happen to me, I don’t want to play an angsty *character*, meaning someone who basically wallows and broods over how terrible things are – I’d rather have the ability to respond and react to the situations and thus change them. I think the brokeness aspect would be better from my point of view if the point of the game was to overcome it, rather than uncover more of it, which is what it seems to be…?

Yes, the point of the game (if there can be said to be one) is to mutually overcome the characters’ brokenness – that’s made explicit to the players. It is emphatically not intended to be a wallow-fest.

Mm, I wouldn’t want to play such a character for a lengthy game, but this only lasts a couple of hours (which I should have said somewhere in the above), so to me that makes it more do-able. I would approach it as an extended character workshop exploration experiment rather than as a game per se, I think.

My own issue here is that I am hesitant about the GM-less style.

If a game is too GM-led, it can get frustrating as players feel they can’t influence things, but are mere puppets. This is extremely frustrating and tends to lead me to a certian amount of rebellion or outright leaving, not a good sign.

On the other hand, if it’s too far the other way, I tend to stand around wondering what to do. Games that are entirely player-led seem to be all player vs player, which I don’t really enjoy, and I end up deciding it’d really be best for my character if I just left entirely… Personally, I find this GMless style of game too far down this route. I don’t know what to do, and hate feeling I’m being pressured to be spontaneously creative about the world, and anyway I really wanted something to happen that I could react to and explore. But then, I really enjoy exploring worlds, pushing buttons, and figuring out what the heck is going on. I tried play by LJ type online RPGing, and got similarly bored and frustrated when the only plots were those we all made up.

I suppose it’s a question of personal preference over where the balance point should be. My feeling is that these sorts of games would be for me more of a pre-game tool to generate ideas to help me write the real game later πŸ™‚

Having said that, I’d be willing to give it a go, especially the ‘When The Doctor Has Gone’ variant, although I’d probably feel the need to spend prep time writing down scenes and plot ideas beforehand (thus shifting work from GM to me, grumble). Actually, how far does the player-led thing go? Would it be possible to run a slightly more GM-involved game – e.g. the therapist having already written down a series of scene starters to prompt the players with, and suggested responses if they get stuck? I’d personally actually rather have the GM get involved and offer suggestions if I’m starting to get bogged down or unsure what to do next.

Ah yes – I think I’d basically prefer it if the “Create the event(s) which occurred in the magical world that you have repressed” bit was actually already written by the GM, along with the seed memory, and actually a bit more with the GM ‘what does the room look like’ questions, probably phrased more as suggestions (e.g. “I think you said last session that you remembered that the room was full of golden harps, laid out in neat rows? Is that what you still remember? Can you remember any further details?”).

I can’t think off the top of my head why that shouldn’t work, although I think it would slightly undercut ‘s intentions (as I understand them). Having nothing at all coming from the GM means that the players are wholly in ‘lean forward’ mode – they can never just relax back and let themselves be entertained. Which is demanding… but it means that whatever happens is an authentic emotional experience, rather than a second-hand one.

But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work of course, it just turns it into a slightly different kind of game – maybe a better one, for some players.

(In my session I don’t think the players did feel bogged down – I was meaning that, when a GM might think they’re bogged down, they aren’t actually, they’re just feeling their way towards the next piece of expression. There were a few occasions where I thought “normally I would say something here to move things on”, but bit my tongue, and it turned out the player was just pausing for thought and was about to say some more interesting stuff which I would have cut off had I acted on GM impulse.)

[Moved this reply to here as it seemed to make more sense that way.]

If you decide to run the Doctor Who version, I’d be interested in trying it out. You could come over and run it? Although I think I’d appreciate a list of suggestion seeds or scenes – just as something to fall back onto as a starting point if I’m not sure what happens next! Maybe a card variation – if I’m actually hesitating because I’m panicking and can’t think of anything, hold up a ‘help!’ card, and let someone else make a suggestion, possibly even another player taking over the narrative rather than the GM to try and maintain more of Frax’s intentions?

I’m not really into Dr Who, so I wouldn’t run that one. (I have pondered another version, though, with , called When the Dog is Gone – this would be about the Famous Five human characters. Either Timmy has died, or (more interestingly) he never actually existed – he was an imaginary friend that they mutually invented to take the blame for the trouble they got into.)

One nice pressure-relieving thing about the narrative during the game is that it can naturally be quite tentative, because the characters’ memories are explicitly patchy. So in general players pass short snippets around the group rather than any one person having to do an extended spree of creation. If you (as a player) would like there to be an enemy figure but can’t at the moment think of a good one to invent, you can just say “and then we were kidnapped by that horrible person… what were they called? – you know, the one who starved us…” and then one of the other players who’s feeling a bit more inspired can pick that up with “Ah, you mean Amulos the Undefiled, the brass-bearded warmonger – yes, he was a real beast. Was it him who made you cut all your hair off?” (etc) So that can sometimes function in the same sort of way as a “help!” card would. But yes, in general I think cards like that would be fine – their presence might give players confidence even if they never ended up getting used.

That could work; I was just thinking of a setting I’m quite familiar with (and Doctor Who has in fact had several characters left with their memories wiped, which is convenient). Although think I might actually prefer to use Narnia – or maybe the Harry Potter universe πŸ™‚

Your example of passing things along if stuck sounds good to me.

Maybe have three stress balls or toys on the table?

Two for the player currently speaking: one for ‘I’m stuck, please step in’, another for ‘This is a deliberate IC pause/wobble, please don’t try to step in/only step in if it’s intended as an IC derailment/re-direction’.

One (or even a box of them) for any of the other players to pick up & fiddle with, to indicate they’d like to take over, but are waiting for a suitable prompt/comment so that they don’t interrupt the current speaker.

I guess a partial equivalent of that would be to use a mutually known background, eg. Narnia etc – which variation is ‘approved’ by the existing rules, because of not privileging the GM’s knowledge of the world above the players?

That’s a fair statement of preference, but those changes would make it a completely different game.

WTDIG is a psychodrama, like De Profundis. The GM doesn’t have a creative role, they have a facilitation role. Also the players are not adversarial by default, although I don’t see a problem in PCs taking sides against each other in the ensuing discussion. They’re unable to make the other side “lose” in doing so.

I wrote about my experiences here… although it’s rather long and rambly.

Yes, this is true, and I think I’d like to give it a fair try as it’s supposed to be played. I suppose I’m trying to think of a way of addressing my concern that I’ll get stuck and feel pressured to be spontaneously creative at a time when my mind has gone blank and thus panic and feel like I’ve ‘failed’ – do you have any suggestions for a way to address this without spoiling the premise of the game? I think just some kind of signal to another player (rather than the GM) to take over the narrative or make suggestions about what they can remember would be helpful, as well as simple assurance that it’s ok if I flail and can’t think of anything, that won’t spoil things for anyone or lead to anyone thinking I’m rubbish or uncreative (including me)!

simple assurance that it’s ok if I flail and can’t think of anything

I think that should be a standard part of the preamble for these games, along with the conversation about what material shouldn’t be included and ‘no physicalling’ etc. I guess in the game I ran it was implicit, but it would be better to make it explicit.

do you have any suggestions for a way to address this without spoiling the premise of the game?

Collaborative storytelling games will always have an element of asking a player to improvise and contribute on demand. On the other hand everyone is a contributor–the other players are your support mechanism, not your judges. So in the nicest possible way I’d just say you need to get over your anxiety and have fun. The only way you’re going to “spoil the game” is if you worry about it and in doing so cause the other players to worry (OOC) about you and break immersion.

Besides, the facilitator in WTDIG is the one who ensures that people get a turn speaking and should also be there to support you if you don’t feel able to contribute right there and then.

Probably best you play with players you’re comfortable around though–as others have said, I would think twice before playing it with a bunch of strangers.

Well, I’m a big fan of getting over my anxieties and having fun. I do this by researching things, convincing my rational brain that it’s safe, planning strategies for what to do if things go wrong beforehand, and reminding myself at all times that the control is mine: it’s always my choice to jump off the trapeze platform, or dive deeper, or play a game that runs close to the bone.

I’m not asking in this case to change the nature of the game, or of my contribution to it; all I’m doing is the researching step, by making enquiries into how a safe space is created for this game. The other players are my support mechanism – yes, indeed; so I need to know that they’ll act that way. What’s wrong with asking these questions now? Isn’t it better to do so, and deal with my anxieties now, than have them hit in the middle of the game and not have a plan for dealing with them? I know that asking yourself ‘what *is* the worst that can (reasonably) happen?’ isn’t everyone’s way of dealing with things, but it works pretty well for me! πŸ™‚

I suppose I’m asking about it because this is a game designed to provoke an emotional response. Games like that can be really rewarding, which is why I’d really like to play WtDiG – but can also do the most harm if things go wrong. This means that I need to protect myself and make sure I have an out, and I’d rather that out wasn’t simply to leave the game if I’m struggling, although I will keep that in mind as an option.

And yes, taking the precaution of playing with people I feel comfortable around would probably go a long way towards mitigating the risks!

Read your link.

The ‘is this a real roleplaying game’ debate is one I periodically see and am annoyed by; I could probably make a good case that D&D isn’t a ‘real’ roleplaying game, but I’m not sure it would be a very useful definition.

The lack of purpose apart from having the therapy session is interesting, although I think I’d rather talk a bit more about this; as a player I’d like to see some sort of progress/resolution, however nebulous, else I tend to end up feeling somewhat unsatisfied – was this a problem for you? Did you feel it made a difference whether or not your character made any kind of progress?

Actually, I’d like in general to have more discussions before games about what the *player* goals are, which may be a simple ‘I want to have fun’, or maybe ‘I want to form an emotional connection with my character’, or even ‘I want to cackle madly about world domination, speak the line ‘I already have’ in response to the phrase ‘you’ll never get away with this’, and ultimately fail but escape to cause trouble another day’.

I’d like in general to have more discussions before games about what the *player* goals are

Yes — I think the discussion down in the comments to that post of ‘s, about differing player goals in A Taste for Murder, highlight the value of such discussions.

as a player I’d like to see some sort of progress/resolution, however nebulous, else I tend to end up feeling somewhat unsatisfied – was this a problem for you? Did you feel it made a difference whether or not your character made any kind of progress?

The point of the game was to have one fully immersed therapy session. I wasn’t expecting to be cured at the end of the session, nor was I expecting to make progress at all. I just played a character attending the session. And the session did resolve, by definition.

In this game a set of characters enter a room, talk about their shared trauma, and then leave. As a consequence we may know more about each character and their relationships, and each character may leave with a different perspective from the one they had when they came in. Or they may be unchanged.

They certainly are good for that. The players in this session came up with a really interesting world, some great NPCs, plenty of atmosphere and incident, which could easily be turned into a basis for a more conventional RPG or for a fiction.

But of course, you’re right, lots of players don’t much enjoy just spinning stuff off their heads like that. In Haunted House I’ve tried to kind of split the difference between the two extremes, in that each player can create as much stuff as they want to, but they don’t have to: and the GM is still responsible for managing their exploration of it. So that might be a bit of the best of both worlds (or it might fall miserably between two stools :-).

I have both played and run WtDiG and enjoyed it immensely both times – it was a compelling, engaging and emotionally intense experience, and yet was done without the need for lengthy prep, which I appreciated, especially when I was the Therapist/GM. That said, I am a big fan of improvisation, and I love the dynamic where someone just takes your idea and runs with it – or you take theirs and do the same. I also found it was more interesting *not* to have an established or approved background because it meant that the reality of the other world was more fluid, and the characters could and did disagree as to what the situation or story was, without there being any sense as players as to “but this was what actually happened.”

To me, the only real weakness of the game is that it isn’t one I’d personally be willing to run (and to a lesser extent, play) with complete strangers or even distant acquaintances – I’d want to have a fairly good sense of what they are like as players, in terms of how they’d be likely to react to what could be intense or triggering situations in-character. And I do agree that it isn’t a game for *doing* things in the sense of “Here is a plot, we must solve it!” way, rather seeking catharsis in a “Let’s break our characters open and try to fix them, a little.” But I also tend to read for character rather than plot!

I think it was me that said ‘you just watched us get on with it’, and it was meant as praise – you poked our characters in just the right places to nudge things, rather than directed things as a ‘normal’ GM would. I’m not sure I’d be able to run it without sticking my oar in much more, but I intend to try at some point!

It wasn’t you I was thinking of, but perhaps everyone felt the same way πŸ™‚ thanks!

I felt it was really good for me to bite my tongue a few times, mm. And I hope I will remember to try and do so in more ‘normal’ games as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.