Monday, January 30, 2012

Dungeons and Dragons

For those of you who have been wondering: yes, the Roleplaying Class (also known as Creative Interactive Storytelling) has officially started!

I cannot begin to tell you how much fun it is. No, really, I can't. I walked into the classroom the first day of the semester, and it was filled with people I knew I was going to love. We just had to say the word "roleplaying" and the class filled up in no time - we even had a waiting list! We ended up with 14 people, including me (in a weird place between being a student and an instructor - officially, Dr. Sobol is the teacher, and I am the Game Master of the course).

It took us one look to count the Doctor Who T-shirts in the room; it took us 10 minutes to get to the first arrow-to-the-knee joke. We had dice ready in our backpacks, and rulebooks, and sonic screwdrivers; we spoke a language that left everyone else slightly baffled, but we understood each other just fine. I felt right at home; it has been a while since I last ran a tabletop RPG, but I felt like I finally found my people. Five minutes, and we were laughing together. And we had not even started playing yet.

That was for the next class. Seven of the fourteen came with D&D characters ready, and we jumped right in the deep end, into the world of dungeons, dragons, and critical hits. I made up a short campaign that would last three sessions (about four hours altogether). Every beginner in the class became an "apprentice" next to one of the experiences gamers for the first class; two days later, they took over the characters, and kept playing.
It was, all in all, an amazing experience. I had no clue how I was going to run a game with 13 people in it in such a short time; also, it was an issue of trust, and playing with strangers is always more of a challenge than playing with friends. Add to that the fact that I had never actually played D&D before - in Hungary, we play M.A.G.U.S., which is pretty close to D&D, but still not the same. But whatever doubts I had and however nervous I was, the moment I said the opening words to the story, I knew I was going to be fine.

Because I am playing with great people, that's why! The group was well rounded in its own way (for those of you who speak D&Dese: all Neutral and Chaotic with the occasional Good), and included a bunch of fun characters: an elf sorcerer and his (occasionally fluorescent) cat familiar, Mr. Squiggles, who totally stole the show and got his own backstory; a dwarf rogue with two pistols and a Sean Connery accent, excellently played; the only two humans in seven, a fighter named Ironfist and his bard companion, Trevor, who quarrelled like an old married couple; the only girl in the group, a rogue half-elf who liked all things shiny; an elf druid generally labeled as "the hippie", the healer and the brains behind the whole operation in his own quiet way; and another half-elf rogue, pretending to be a noble.
Take this team of misfits, lock them up in an inn and a snowstorm over a mountain pass, toss a Shadow Wight at them, sit back, watch the show. For those of you who don't borrow Dragonlance monsters on a daily basis: Shadow Wight is a nasty little thing made of shadows that sucks on the Charisma of people while making them see their own darker self and scaring them into a catatonic state; and the best part is, its victims forget about the attack as soon as it happens, and if he drains a human, only leaving the empty clothes behind, everyone else will forget they ever existed. Kind of makes investigation hard, if there is no one missing...

My little team of 13 made a splendid job of the whole story: there was suspense, mystery, ingenuity, and an epic fight on top. And of course, we had to stop every once in a while to roll around on the floor in fits of laughter.
(My favorite moment came from the elf druid: "Shut up and let me concentrate, all of you. I am going to speak Dwarven. Here we go. Beer. Beer, beer, beer. Beer. Long, red moustache. Beer. Beer, beer. Really rough sex. Beer.")

The first three sessions of D&D were good for a number of things: for one, they allowed the group of random classmates to turn into a team that can work and have fun together; they needed to have the challenge to face to learn how to pay attention to each other, and how to solve anything I can throw their way by acting as a team instead of a bunch of lone wolves. And they did really well with that.

Then, of course, there was the storytelling aspect of it (it is still a storytelling class, after all). Once the adventure ended, we spent a whole class going over the story we created together. We sat in a row, and tossed an apple at each other; I told one part of the story of our glorious adventure, then tossed the apple to somebody else, who continued and ran with it, and so on and so forth. At first, everyone was a little shy from narrating the story instead of playing a character, even though they had to do it in the first person; just by calling it "storytelling performance" instead of roleplaying, everyone, even me, was out of their comfort zone. That is, up to the point when, in the middle of well-improvised inner monolgues, the bard took over, and yelled "Shit, Ironfist, I thought you said we have money!!!". And suddenly, something clicked; we finally realized at the same time that this was exactly the same as playing a character in the game. And from that point on, all through the rest of the story, "decent" turned into "awesome". All the people who are not professional storytellers or even storytelling students displayed a wide range of natural talent in recounting their own adventure, solely based on their roleplaying experiences and personal creativity.
Sky is the limit!

As the class goes on (we are going to start playing Changeling: the Dreaming this week, to sample another kind of roleplaying experience), I am having more and more fun. It only took the group a week to suggest playing outside class; we got together today for a Sunday afternoon gaming session, just for the heck of it (complete with pizza and a whole bunch of deliciously unhealthy food). I turned the Hangover into a D&D adventure, and the little team of gamers aced the whole thing! They took my half-cooked adventure idea, and turned it into epicness, complete with humor, self-sacrifice, CSI: Forgotten Realms style investigation, and a great fight scene in the end! As usual.
We played in the school cafeteria (a nice quiet place on a Sunday); people kept stopping to take a look at what we were doing. Some recognised the dice and the character sheets, some didn't; but I guess we were loud enough to make it pretty obvious that whatever we were doing, it was fun.

Because, people, playing games is important, now more than ever. Playing them with a group of great people instead of a computer screen is even better! And if said games happen to involve a lot of spontaneous storytelling and adventures that you will talk about for weeks to come, you really found one of the best ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.
I am not even going to mention getting university credit for the whole experience...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Grimm Year 2012

Guess what? Project Grimm is officially online!

Check out our brand new blog here:

Project Grimm

for videos of European storytellers performing Grimm tales in various languages!

Happy Grimm Year, everyone!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

MOTH Story Slam - Creative Competitive Narcissism

After we bounced off the three-blocks-down queue waiting for the last Moth Slam in New York City in December, we smartened up and reserved tickets in advance for the first one in January. I only had two weeks to spend in New York, and I was not going to miss the Moth twice. We have heard and talked so much about it in class, I owed my inner storyteller to go when I had the chance.

The first MOTH Slam of 2012 was titled "Rebound" - my friend Kata and I braced ourselves for a healthy dosage of breakup stories. And the cold. Having tickets suddenly felt like an extremely good idea the moment we spotted the long line of people waiting to get in - and the much shorter line for smart (paranoid?) people like us.
The venue was a nice bar called Southpaw in Brooklyn; by the time everyone filed in, it turned out to be able to house about 300 people, and some of them even had a place to sit. The best part? The whole audience seemed to be the exact age group that is almost impossible to lure into a storytelling event under normal circumstances: young people between 18 and 35(ish). Everyone was loud, cheerful, excited and very, very hip (in fact, the whole setting looked like a hipster bomb had just exploded in it, which is probably not all that surprising in Brooklyn). Everyone got drinks, settled down, and many even dropped their names into the bag, including yours truly, who did not buy a ticket to the event to not get a chance to tell.
Finally, the host of the evening showed up on stage; veteran MOTH-fans probably know him by his name, which we did not manage to catch, so we cheerfully nicknamed him Hagrid, and decided after 5 minutes flat that he was the best part of the show. Loud, sarcastic, wicked, and a lot of fun, he carried the whole thing successfully through the evening, being a jerk equally to everyone when he needed to be and being nice when we were not looking.
The slam works pretty much how slams usually work: you put your name in the hat (bag), ten names are drawn, and you have five mintues to dazzle the audience with a 5-minute true(ish) personal story connected to the theme. Three goups of judges were hiding in plain sight in the audience with big scoring tablets to reward you points for the experience. They had funny names.
It soon turned out that we were right about the theme: it did bring in an awful lot of breakup anecdotes, as well as a few stories abour dodgeball, go figure. It was abundantly clear after the first two tellers that we were dealing with professional slammers here: the stories were well told, hilariously funny, unique in their own way. The audience cheered and applauded whenever there was a pause (and not just because Hagrid bellowed instructions to them to go "batshit crazy", please). Also there was no filter on whatever one wanted to talk about; we were all grown-ups there, and far, far away from the delicacy of the fairy tale world (insert air bunnies there).
When the third slip of paper was drawn from the bag and Hagrid's face grew long with alarm and confusion, I was already half out of my seat. When it comes to reading names out loud, "What the f***" usually translates to "Csenge Zalka"
And I was right.

Slamming stories is a lot of fun. Especially to an audience like that. 300 people well into their first drink, instructed to go batshit crazy; a reflector in my face (I could do without that, but oh well) and no clue what I want to talk about. Yup. Personal stories have never been my forte, since I have only started telling them a few months ago, and I have performed a total of 3. Rebound was not an easy topic either; I did not want to talk about breakups (nothing funny there), and had very little else to talk about. But I was on stage, and it was already fun before I opened my mouth.
I ended up talking about how you sometimes need to spend time away from home if you really want to appreciate your own culture. It was kind of a rebound for me: when I get fed up with stupid things and stupid people that are probably the same everywhere in the world, I go abroad, and from there I only see what's cool about Hungary. So I told people a few little anecdotes about how people react when I say I am Hungarian; and then ended up talking about how the kids I tell stories to showed me they are cool and exotic from their point of view. It was over before I relaized what was happening, and I was ushered off the stage, with more clapping and cheering.
I got the lowest scores of the evening (6.8, 8.0, 7.6), but it didn't really matter; the point was standing on stage and being part of the MOTH experience, and mainly having the guts to do it. Now the only thing that was left was to sit back and enjoy the rest of the evening.

Hagrid labeled story slams with the award-winning expression "creative competitive narcissism". Truer words have never been spoken. All the stories were fun, and the overall atmosphere of the event made us forget about time, and the cold outside. We enjoyed tales about boyfriends, breakups and booty calls; traumas from elementary school (who doesn't have those) and kickball. Our favorite (as far as Kata and I are concerned) was a guy called Bernie, who told us an adorable story about trying to sound smarter than his ex-girlfriends new guy. He almost won the slam, and we cheered our throats raw at the end. He was the best of the evening. The worst (apart from me with my scores, heh) was a woman who told us about her time as a teacher in Europe; somehow it just sounded... wrong. Her story came down to "European people are weird and they do things all wrong... everything is about Christmas with them, can you believe it?! And at Christmas, they sing songs about Jesus. How depressing. And they said bad things about Russians, which upset me, because I am Russian, my great-great-grandparents came from the Ukraine. I am proud that I am an American." Maybe she was doing it for purpose, but no one was entirely sure about it. Or maybe Europeans are just too sensitive about that stuff. Still, we had a great time quoting her as we walked home.

All in all, the whole Slam was an absolute success; at least now we know why people talk about the MOTH all the time. And why they stand in lines in the bitter New-York-in-January weather, and catch a cold and go back to Tennessee with a head full of snot. (Oh, maybe that's just me)
This was the very first event of the 13th MOTH year. Here is to hoping there will be many, many more, and that we will get to go to a whole bunch of them!

Happy New Year, everyone! :)