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[Clover] Fairies are not easy to spot

Started by Ron Edwards, August 27, 2009, 07:55:55 PM

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Ron Edwards

Hello,

A little while ago, Ben Lehman participated in an activity in which you were to handcraft something neat and send it to five friends. Ben aparently knows how to arrange text on both sides of a standard sheet of paper, cut it, and then put the pieces together and staple them so you have a cool twelve-page booklet. Not only do I think this is a fantastic skill in its own right, and am in love with that particular form factor, but I was one of the five recipients. The content of the text is a surprising and progressive role-playing game, progressive in the sense of possibly moving and re-orienting current thinking on the activity. It's called Clover.

Clover has a fixed setting and a single protagonist, a five-year-old girl of that name in her local neighborhood. It's a pretty experimental game, claiming to be playable not only solo, but by any number of people up to about five. I dunno about the solo play, although modern life does actually permit talking to yourself in public. Maybe I'll put a cell phone headset on and try the solo version one of these days. So far, I've only tried the twosie version, in which one person plays Clover and another plays everyone else. The father character player is the main other one, because he or she acts as a kind of GM-like figure as well as playing the dad. Or if I can explain this right, the dad's "voice" is present throughout play, whether or not the dad character is present in the current scene.

There are some other quirky features, like playing the fictional time of day as starting at the same time as the real time of play, which reminded me of Puppetland (and which Tim Koppang and I were forced to ignore given that we play in the evenings). Or like having the dice rules be uber-vague because frankly it doesn't matter what you use as long as it's at least one die. But I don't want to talk about the quirky parts, it's the real core and content that struck me as actually, genuinely re-orienting about the hobby procedures themselves.

The first and main thing concerns the source of adversity in play. The best way to illustrate it is with an example.

Dad player: You're in the back yard. There's the tree, there's the patio, there's the

Clover player: I look for fairies in the tree! Is it difficult?

Dad player: Why yes, that's very difficult. [which means, roll dice, with a high value needed to do something difficult well]

The point is that the Clover player is the one deciding whether play might go to the dice, with the question. There are a number of questions to use, like whether it's dangerous, whether it's scary, and others. But the dad player is the one to say whether that particular concept applies. The net effect is that Clover faces plenty of problems, but whether and how they appear is generated very differently from what I see in most games proposed and/or baked at the Forge. Typically, I see (and I include my own games) absolutely savage levels of imposed adversity from one player to another. Look at the Ronnies if you don't believe me - they're a physical and emotional abbatoir, all three rounds. Here, adversity is scaled very far down to Clover's perceptions and immediate experiences based on what she feels like doing at the moment, and there's literally a parental authority which provides grounding for those perceptions - but cannot itself impose adversity from the ground up.

Second, and this is related to the first, is that the game is literally defined as being about an idyllic childhood. This means no molesters, no kidnappers, no monsters ripping off your best friend's mommy's skin, none of that stuff. Idyllic doesn't mean devoid of life-lessons or fear or problems - it's not the Barney game - but it does mean that no one is at the table to take this protagonist and try to rip into the core of her being with an emotional meat-hook. The setting itself is full of hints to the adult reader, including the complete absence of Clover's mom (it is mandated that she cannot even be mentioned), what seems to be an adult-teen romantic thing between two NPCs in the neighborhood, some family dynamics among friends which aren't drastically wrong but still a little less happy than Clover's, and similar. But these are all way over Clover's scale of perception and responses; they give the players good cues to work with in terms of character actions and dialogues, but not to impose problems for Clover herself.

Third, and progressing from the previous two points, I am astounded to find that one of the most creatively/emotionally challenging Story Now Premises I've encountered happens to be, "You are a happy child. How do you live such that that is the case?" Holy shit. For both the Clover player and the dad player, and given the way they must interact by the rules, this is a stumper. Since you play entirely in the moment, non-analytically, there's a chance for answers and glimmers of answers to appear. I confess that I probably can only answer this question via play itself; to try to do it verbally and more analytically, I'd probably just gape and shrug.

Full disclosure: Tim and I kind of screwed up the rules when we played, and only doped out the question procedure toward the end of the session. This is no big deal, just a learning curve thing, and given how much we'd done right, we both instantly saw how cool the correct conflict-framing rules would be.

In our game, Clover hunted for fairies, cadged her buddy out to play, found he was no good at fairy-spotting, found she wasn't all that good at knight-jousting, got him stuck in her tree (with dad to the rescue), and generally enjoyed her day. Play ends with her telling her dad about what happened, which is a neat way to subtly discover why she's a happy kid by her lights. In our case, Clover emerged as curious, a bit pushy, full of ideas, and eager to go the extra mile. I liked her, and in fictional terms, wished her well.

Play was surprisingly akin to Nicotine Girls, considering the strong differences between the games, especially in terms of all the features I've outlined. It wasn't really about resolution, because the enjoyable and heart-stopping stress of mandated rolling in Nicotine Girls was totally different from the curiosity-driven, teamwork-based and ultimately optional rolls in Clover. It was more about dreams and their importance to young people, and how they relate to learning things. I think, sort of, anyway.

I don't know whether Ben has made the game available more generally, but I hope he does.

Best, Ron

Ben Lehman

Hi Ron! Thanks for posting this, and playing. Since you told me that you played, I've been looking forward to seeing this post. I have a bunch of random thoughts, and also want to write a bit about the process of writing the game, the reasons why I wrote the game, and what the future of the game is probably going to be. I also have a bunch of random thoughts based on your post which I'll just type in random order.

Let's do history first.

So the "five things" meme works like this: for five basically random people (the first five respondents to your blog post), you agree to make a hand-crafted thing, specifically for them, in the next year. (there's a whole thing where they have to then do it, chain-letter style, but that's crap and I deleted it from my use.) For me, I got Ewen Cluney, Jess Hammer, Lukas Myhan, Joe McDonald, and Chris Chinn. Clover is the thing I made for Ewen (in fact, he's got a cameo in the game). After I made it, I liked it so much I asked his permission to distribute it to a few other people (I figure since I made it for him, it is, in a way, his), which he granted and further told me that I can do whatever I want with it so long as I keep him up to date. So I made a handful of extra copies and sent them around to people who I thought might be interested in playing it. (there's more complicated history here involving Little Game Chef but we'll just let that lie for now.)

Clover is based on Yotsuba&, which is a Japanese comic about a happy five year old girl and her friends (based on in the same sense that Polaris is "based on" The King of Elfland's daughter, or Bliss Stage is "based on" Gunbuster.) Ewen and I both really like the comic, and as soon as he responded I knew I was going to have to write a Yotsuba& game for him. Yotsuba& is a fun and funny comic, but I think that there's also really interesting social stuff going on with it, particularly in the English translation and its reception by an American audience. I remember one generally excellent and well-written review of the comic which ended with (not an exact quote) "Just try hard as you're reading this comic to forgot that it runs in a magazine targeted at 18-25 year old men."

Which, right there, just about encapsulates our fucked-up attitude towards men and children. Male interest in kids is assumed to be based in perversion. That's fucked. Why shouldn't men be interested in stories about kids? Why shouldn't men be interested in kids generally?

But this is my culture, and as a late-20s unmarried guy who likes kids a lot and wants to have kids, this is where I am. We don't really have a strong model for male interaction with little kids, particularly little girls. Even fatherhood, to say nothing of being an adult friend, is basically compromised. We're going to have to make it up as we go.

There's also the issue of childhood, which is of course related but separate. I'm not going to try to get into the cultural issues at stake, but as for childhood in fiction I think it's a lot easier to delve into pain and suffering and horror, or to elevate children into an idealistic "little angels" state than it is to confront childhood as it is and ask ourselves what we ought to be getting out of it in the first place. Thus, Clover is kinda a challenge to myself (and anyone else who plays it) to get away from the face-ripping and get into, well... You know, I'm running up into the exact same language barrier that you were, Ron. I can't think of a way to convey that interaction. I'm just gonna let it sit.

So, anyway, that's the why of writing the game. It all sounds very sociology and tight-nosed, but that's what analyzing creative process is always like. In play, and in design, it's smooth and intuitive.

As for the future of the game, I'd like to develop it. I think that I'll probably have to bump it up to 28 pages + cover, simply because the game is really bucking against the pamphlet size right now and I think that further development is going to add a few bits. I've been thinking also about a couple of supplements for the game, probably each one a 12-pager, one about playing after bedtime (with slightly more imaginative / magical content) and one about vacations, but that's long way off. I'm not going to go through an "ashcan" or open playtest stage: I'd rather work with a small group of people and know exactly who has copies of the game. That said, if anyone reading wants to play the game, write to me at taogames@gmail.com with a bit about why you want to play and your address and I'll make and mail you a copy. It may take about a month, though. (I would consider this a commitment to play the game. Usually I say "try to play," but given the flexibility of # of players, you don't really have an excuse.)

Having played the one player version, I'm thinking that it may need to go. It doesn't have the spark that multiple players have. It's kinda fun, but not really really fun. Looking at the successful one player games (How to Host a Dungeon, Smoke Dream, and Hikokimori), I think I see why: there's not really a source of creative input from the game itself. Basically, I'm faced with the following choice:
* Abandon the one-player mode.
* Change the rules of the game to better accommodate one-player mode, either by forking the rules (1 and 2+) or adding rules to all versions.
* Accept that the one player mode is not as fun, but leave it in anyway, with a warning that it's not as fun.

I'm probably leaning towards 1 or 3, simply because I don't relish adding a passel of new rules to the game, which I like a lot as is. It's also possible I was just having a bad day when I played it last..

---tangent---
I've done two of these pamphlet games (Clover and XXXXtreme STREET luge), now, and I'm really beginning to become a huge fan of them. They compress a fair amount of game into a small space, but not such a small space that you're tempted to write utter fluff. There's just enough room for a real game as long as absolutely no word is out of place.

Anyway, the upshot is that as a mini-endeavor thing I'm happy to do the following: If you write a game like this, I'm happy to convert it into a print-and-staple format if you send me a PDF. If you have InDesign, I'm happy to share my template with you (it's really stupid, it'll take you no time to figure it out). And if you finish a game and want me to, I'm happy to host the print-and-staple PDFs on my website (or include a buy button if you sell copies.)
---end tangent, back to Clover---

Okay, that's the broad swath, here's some random thoughts and questions.

It's funny that you mention Nicotine Girls, as the character Laurel might well be a Nicotine Girls character, depending on how you frame the class conditions of Clover's neighborhood and her relationship with Mac. I think that there is most definitely a relationship between the two games.

It's really interesting to me to see the different ways that you interpreted the rules, versus my intention. It's not, like "oh no you're playing wrong" because it's honestly a characteristic of the format: a game this size is basically the length of medium-sized poem, and similar to a poem its meaning is pretty open to interpretation by the audience. That said, I never imagined that the Clover would ask her Dad if something is difficult / easy / scary. I thought of that as strictly a question that Dad would ask Clover or her friends. I guess I just see difficulty as a necessarily internal thing. If you don't, though, I don't think it really breaks anything to have it go the other way around. Either way difficulty (or ease) necessarily involves action by both involved players.

What sort of internal questions to you end up using? This is one of the places where I'm really not sure I explained the game well enough.

What were the procedural problems with the questions? How were you handling them initially?

Did you find that asking Dad three questions, right off the bat, was a little creatively taxing? I definitely found that in my one-player mode. I'm thinking of dropping it to two + 1 per extra player who has a character present.

I feel like I want to ask a question about you being a new(ish) father, and your relationship to the game, but I can't formulate it. If you have anything to say along those lines (here or privately) please do.

yrs--
--Ben

Arturo G.

This sounds really interesting.

Was the faery theme something you (Ron and Tim) came up with? Is there any lead to the kind of themes, dreams, hopes or daily life things that could become interesting? Or is it just something that simply appears when you are in the situation and following the rules?

Ron says there are cues to work with in terms of character actions and dialogues, but not to impose problems.  Isn't there any conflict arena inherent on the setting?

tonyd

I'm really interested in this game, and not just because I'm the Dad of a 6-year old girl and live down the street from Ben, though that's part of it. When Ben described the game to me, my first reaction was "my daughter would love this!' Ben's reaction was "I never thought of that." If I can score a copy, I'll have to see what it looks like before I consider actually playing it with my child. I also find it interesting that the game apparently uses mechanisms to actually address the question "shall we roll dice?" in the context of play. That's pretty cool.
"Come on you lollygaggers, let's go visit the Thought Lords!"

Elizabeth

I would really love to play this with my daughter, who loves Yotsuba, or with anyone at all, because it sounds wonderful.

Jake Richmond

I just remembered that someone (Lukas maybe) gave me a copy of this at Gamestorm. I had completely forgotten about it. I remember we passed it around at the Friday night dinner, and I read most of it. But I don't know what happened to it after that. Crap.

Ben Lehman

Hey, Arturo, I'm going to try to answer your questions, although I don't quite get some of them.

The fairies thing is not in the book. Ron and Tim thought it it up in play. It's not at all out of keeping with the theme of "an energetic a five year old girl," though. The fictional content in the book is an introduction to Clover, Clover's Dad, and Clover's friends: Aaron, May, Rose, Sarah, Laurel, and Mac, and a brief overview of the places in Clover's neighborhood and how you get from one to the other. That's it.

So I guess it's closer to "appear when you're in the situation and following the rules." I'm probably just saying the same thing my way, but: the faeries are a creative contribution, in line with the theme, color, setting, characters and situation of the game, much the same way that that any creative contribution in a role-playing game works.

Likewise, I'm not really sure what you mean by "conflict arena." There are four things that you can roll for (to do well at difficult things, to do poorly at easy things, to be brave at frightening things and to be disinterested in an activity.) But, as Ron demonstrated, the way you get to a roll means that there's a certain degree of cooperation involved in this, and also rolling is ultimately not a huge part of the game (the interplay of Clover asking her dad questions about the environment vs. her dad asking her questions about her thoughts, feelings, and experiences is the core of the game).

Quote from: Arturo G. on August 27, 2009, 10:52:43 PM
Was the faery theme something you (Ron and Tim) came up with? Is there any lead to the kind of themes, dreams, hopes or daily life things that could become interesting? Or is it just something that simply appears when you are in the situation and following the rules?

Ron says there are cues to work with in terms of character actions and dialogues, but not to impose problems.  Isn't there any conflict arena inherent on the setting?

Ron Edwards

Hiya,

I'll reinforce the point about the fairies - we were not playing in a magical setting. There weren't any fairies for her to see. The fairy-thing was merely Clover's viewpoint of what she was doing, and if she succeeded in the roll, I think Tim would have interpreted it as Clover diving fully into her imagination at the moment. (And I'll be a little bit of a git and insist on the spelling I'm using; Clover wouldn't know an "ae-" faery from her elbow.)

Ben, you're going to laugh at this, but Tim and I played the way you're describing for 90% of the session. However, we found it clunky. I, the Clover player, found it jarring to consider whether something was hard or whatever, because it popped me out of the actor-stance Clover zone which was making the game work so well for the two of us. It seemed to make mountains more sense for Dad - or rather, the Dad player who was involved when the Dad character wasn't there - to have the authority over judging the proposed activity.

Best, Ron

Arturo G.

Thanks for the answers.

They make sense for me. I think I got it. And it make me more interested.
I'm also intrigued by that "certain level of cooperation". Specially after Ron's clarifications.

Ron Edwards

I am not certain about Clover as a game to play with kids. I'm not saying it's wrong, or "playing wrong," or that it wouldn't be fun. But I don't think that's where the game's strengths lie, thematically or experientially. That's a personal take and open to comparison with others' interpretations, but I recommend getting and knowing the game instead of extrapolating from the play report.

The mechanics themselves might be well suited to such an interaction, but I think instead of playing Clover (character and game), I'd port some aspects of the mechanics to a more external character like an animate toy or imaginary animal. Plus I think it'd have to have its own setting, which might take quite a bit of thought. Who knows, I could be wrong about all of this, but there's my take at this moment.

Best, Ron

Ben Lehman

Like, Ron, I think Clover is not really an appropriate game to play with a little kid. But I'm not a parent, so if you think it'd work with your kid, that's cool.

yrs--
--Ben

Callan S.

QuoteThe point is that the Clover player is the one deciding whether play might go to the dice, with the question. There are a number of questions to use, like whether it's dangerous, whether it's scary, and others. But the dad player is the one to say whether that particular concept applies.
I think in regular RPG's you sometimes see a player suddenly decide something must be hard for their character to do, without anyone elses input on the matter at all. You don't have to have someone else to be adversity, you just need someone to steer you to the adversity that's already in your own head. But more often you get someone pushing the adversity that's in their head onto someone else ("It's obvious you can't do that!") who doesn't have that adversity in their head at all. Gnashing of teeth, etc etc.

Does the dad player have to assign it a difficulty? Can he just waive it? I'm kind of wondering if he could bypass that sense of adversity.


Quote from: BenWhich, right there, just about encapsulates our fucked-up attitude towards men and children. Male interest in kids is assumed to be based in perversion.
It is! You should be interested in hobbits, which aren't at all like children! ;)
Philosopher Gamer
<meaning></meaning>

Arturo G.

Quote from: Ron Edwards on August 30, 2009, 05:42:56 PM
Tim and I played the way you're describing for 90% of the session. However, we found it clunky. I, the Clover player, found it jarring to consider whether something was hard or whatever, because it popped me out of the actor-stance Clover zone which was making the game work so well for the two of us. It seemed to make mountains more sense for Dad - or rather, the Dad player who was involved when the Dad character wasn't there - to have the authority over judging the proposed activity.
Hi Ron,

I can easily see how to reverse who asks the first three questions. But for the fourth question it sounds a bit strange. At the end of your session, was Clover player asking if "she wanted to come along" to Dad's player?

It sounds like a powerful question for Dad's player to steer the story, create focus or introduce a potential for adversity in a subtle way.

Ben Lehman

Hi, Arturo.

In the new version (which you should have once it makes its way through the vagaries of international mail), I have replaced the "internal questions" line with a "special questions" line. So now the questions can be asked by any player, as is appropriate and comfortable to them. We'll see how that works.

yrs--
--Ben

Arturo G.

Hi Ben,

The rules just arrived today. A cute small thing.

The previous question to Ron arose when I was comparing what I was reading with what Ron said. But if the rules have changed or are stated in other form, then the question should be different.

So, any player may ask Clover's player.

But may also Clover's player ask the special questions to Dad's or friend's players?
If that would be the case, my problem would be about the fourth one that starts with "would YOU like...", because it would not be easy to rephrase as a question to Dad's player.

Another doubt, the fifth question... does it mean that the only possible answer is yes?

BTW, the "doing poorly and try again" section is simply clever.