Farewell, Story Games Seattle!

After 8 years and over 600 meetups, I’m shutting down Story Games Seattle.

Lots and lots of people have been a part of Story Games Seattle over the years. So many people and so many great games… and some terrible ones too, because that’s the risk you take when you sit down with strangers and try to build something wonderful together, on the fly. But more on that later.

I’ve done event organizing all these years (whether that’s running Story Games Seattle, or at cons like ECCC or Go Play NW) because, of course, I want to play, but also largely out of a sense of community service. I wanted to give people a chance to try story games and play with people they might not have otherwise met, because I genuinely think sitting down and seeing that you are more creative than you thought, and likewise that total strangers are more interesting than you would have guessed, is a fundamentally good thing. It’s good for humans. It makes us better people.

But organizing is work. People want different things, whether for selfish reasons or because they naturally have their own idea of what would make the perfect event. As the organizer, you get to deal with all those conflicting desires. And even when you are sitting down and playing a game, you are on duty. One eye is watching the room, one ear is listening to make sure everyone is having a good time and that nothing is going off the rails.

A huge part of the job, I’ve always thought, is to protect the fun from the trouble. To deal with problems that arise in ways that let everyone else stay focused on the joy of gaming. That means that part of being an organizer is, ironically, hiding the difficulty of being an organizer and making the whole thing look easy.

“What are you buyin’? What are ya sellin’?”

Somebody commended me once on being so clever to host events that would promote my own games. I think I recoiled with something like horror and blurted out “oh if this ever became just about my games I would quit in a heartbeat.”

When you’re a designer who makes games and you’re running events that are about playing those exact kind of games, there’s always a potential conflict of interest. I’ve never wanted any of the events I’ve organized to be about promoting my own games, though of course the two are inextricably linked. I love it when people play Microscope, etc., of course. And the games I make are good fits for Story Games Seattle, because not only are those the kind of game I like to play, they are direct reactions to what I’ve learned at Story Games Seattle. They are built to address the problems we see at the table all the time, whether that’s creative participation or clear and easy instructions. So it’s very natural that they get played a lot, even if I don’t pitch them.

Is it for me to tell people *not* to play too many of my games just because I’m running the event? No, that’s not in my authority either. But I think about it. It’s a fine balancing act, and one that probably no one is worried about except me.

Gaming With Strangers & Expecting the Unexpected

For all the years I ran Story Games Seattle, I would show up at the specified time and place. Whoever else showed up, I would game with them, and we’d see what happens.

Which is a pretty weird arrangement if you think about it, particularly when the games are ones with high creativity, high investment and involvement, and potentially very serious subject matter: examining the human condition, tragedy, and societal issues.

Every week was a surprise waiting to happen. I never knew who I’d be gaming with or what we’d be playing. Before the event someone could ask me “What are you doing tonight?” and I’d say “story games!” But the honest answer would really have been “I DON’T KNOW!” I’ve been doing this for 8 years and I don’t know what’s going to happen, because it is, by definition, unknowable. We’re going to make something together none of us can predict or control. In Microscope Explorer I talked about the “leap of faith” players make when they play these kind of games where the creative content is generated by the people at the table, in the moment, because you never know what you’re getting into when you sit down to play. Story Games Seattle was that in spades.

Attendance was always unpredictable. Even when the average headcount was consistent week-to-week, *who* would show up was completely random. I would joke that we never had the exact same crew two weeks in a row: not actually a joke. I don’t think it happened once in eight years.

And if even I don’t know what’s going to happen, how brave then are the people who show up, the people with so much less experience than me who have truly no idea what they’re getting into?

That’s one of the two words that I keep coming back to when I describe the people I’ve encountered at Story Games Seattle. The other is kind. Brave and kind. Brave to show up to leap into the complete unknown, whether it’s their first time or they’re coming back to game with total strangers again and again (which might be even braver, because now they know they don’t know what’s going to happen and they know they can’t control it). And kind because that’s the secret sauce of story games: being interested in other people at the table and being curious about what they are thinking and have to say.

That’s right, the secret ingredient to being a good player is not creativity, it’s empathy.

If I have one regret (and I probably have several, naturally) it’s that there’s a lot we’ve learned from playing week after week that I haven’t shared. I would tell the people who were regulars that they were some of the most experienced story gamers in the country, genuine pros, but modestly they wouldn’t believe me. We’ve been on the cutting edge of gaming science and exploration, but I haven’t reported enough of our findings back to the homeworld. Over the years I’ve started writing a ton of posts that I never finished. Instead I focused on baking what I’ve learned into games I’ve designed, to demonstrate by example instead of just talking theory. That seemed like a better way to pass on what I’ve learned, but in a perfect world with unlimited time and energy I would have done both.

    Ben Robbins | March 29th, 2018 | , | show 9 comments