Blurring the Lines: De Profundis: Letters from the Abyss (2001) by Michał Oracz - PDF

Homo Ludens 1(9) / 2016 Blurring the Lines: De Profundis: Letters from the Abyss (2001) by Michał Oracz Aleksandra Mochocka Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz Abstract: Being

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Homo Ludens 1(9) / 2016 Blurring the Lines: De Profundis: Letters from the Abyss (2001) by Michał Oracz Aleksandra Mochocka Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz Abstract: Being an expansion of a presentation given at the DiGRA 2015 conference, this article discusses De Profundis by Michał Oracz, a Polish role-playing game from 2001, as an innovative project rooted in previous experiments of the Polish role-playing games community. Albeit generally recognised as an RPG, the game merges the features of the pervasive larp and alternate reality game with the more traditional forms of role-playing. The game is discussed as blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality, and destabilizing the magic circle of play, as well as merging the presentation of operational rules with what could be recognised as a game session. Keywords: magic circle, New Style, game session, role-playing games, life action role-playing, alternate reality games Homo Ludens 1(9)/2016 ISSN Polskie Towarzystwo Badania Gier 2016 1. Introduction Upon its publication, De Profundis: Letters from the Abyss was marketed and generally recognised as a role-playing game.1 Created by a game and graphic designer Michał Oracz, it was originally published in Polish as De Profundis: listy z otchłani by Portal Publishing (Wydawnictwo Portal) in The game was translated into English to be published by Hogshead Publishing the same year. Other translations followed; Edge Entertainment was responsible for the Spanish edition in 2002 and the French one in 2010, and Krimsus Krimskrams-Kiste for the German edition in In 2009 the second (expanded) Polish edition was released, followed by another English translation, published as De Profundis: Cthulhu Gaming on the Edge of Madness (2010) by Cubicle 7 Entertainment. The first edition is going to be analysed here as characterised by specifically innovative approach to game design, namely blurring the boundaries between a table-top role-playing game, pervasive larp, and an alternate reality game. The fragments quoted and analysed in this article have been taken from the 2001 English edition. Unless specified otherwise, all translations are mine. The article is the expansion of my presentation submitted to DiGRA 2015 conference. De Profundis is heavily influenced by the works of H. P. Lovecraft. The rulebook is written as a series of letters in which a first-person narrator explains the tenets of the game. The general idea is to observe the reality, look for some imaginary traces of the uncanny, extract and explore them, and put one s experiences related to the process down, preferably in a series of letters that should be exchanged with other players. The players can constitute a Society, akin to a traditional role-playing party, or the Web, an open group of indefinite range, where they can encounter anybody (Oracz, 2001a, p. 9). As follows, both the rulebook and the gameplay are epistolary. The choice of structure a series of letters, in which the first person narrator who introduces himself as a game designer presents his experiences and explores his thoughts is reminiscent of the tradition of epistolary novel, the diary, and the metanovel. 1 For example, the blurb of the English 2001 edition calls it GM-free role-playing game of modern and 1920s horror in the style of H. P. Lovecraft. Aleksandra Mochocka Blurring the Lines: De Profundis: Letters from the Abyss (2001) 149 The game s relationships with the aforementioned genres brings up the subject of the tension between reality and fiction, as well as the question of the artifice, that had already been debated in literature. The epistolary fiction tends to lay bare the subjective basis of all cognition (Nünning, 2008, p. 57), and reading diaries, actual or fictional, published or unpublished, private or public we tend to fashion a double response. First there is the feeling of the voyeur, peeping around pages as if they were curtains, searching out the secret thoughts and life recorded on the private page. But then comes the troubling response: suppose this text is contrived, the writer lying to the reader, writing a life as one would like it rather than as it is (Duyfhuizen, 1986, p. 171). In the metanovel, in turn, the central conflict between fiction and reality is reproduced within the structure of the novel itself (Lowenkron, 1976, p. 346). Consequently, De Profundis seems to be a very literary role-playing game, both directly related to Lovecraft, and following an established tradition of metafictional literary genres that focus on their own ontological status (Waugh, 1984). The basic premise, namely the exchange of the letters, situates De Profundis in the category of asynchronous multiplayer games (Tresca, 2011, Kindle, chapter 4, section History ). In playing-by-mail, the oldest form of games belonging to this category that had originated from playing chess, players sent their decisions or turns via postal mail to an opponent, who in turn would send his response (ibid.). As technology advanced, so too did play-by-post gaming, evolving from postal to , from to web, from web to persistent browser-based games (PBBGs) (ibid., chapter 4, section Introduction ). However, playing-by-mail games and PBBGs, as Tresca (2011) discusses them, are usually set in a secondary universes, clearly separated from the everyday life of the players (e.g. magic kingdoms), who take on fictional personas (e.g. dragon slayers) in the game. On the contrary, in De Profundis the players choose one of the three options: Next we must choose the characters we are going to play, whom we are going to act out in the game. For we can play: ourselves; an investigator taken from Call of Cthulhu, old or current; or a character taken from a story by HPL or another author (Oracz, 2001a, p. 10). 150 Homo Ludens 1(9) / 2016 ISSN Polskie Towarzystwo Badania Gier 2016 Hence, the first option directs the players into merging their assumed persona with their everyday life identity. The underlying idea of De Profundis is to blur the distinctions between everyday reality and the world created in the course of the game, and this option is one of the tactics facilitating it. As it will be presented in the course of this article, while displaying some features typical of games, De Profundis was a highly innovative, one of a kind project, stemming form the experiments undertaken by its author and the other members of the Polish role-playing community.2 2. New Style games and the Polish role-playing games scene De Profundis: Letters from the Abyss is a representative of the so called New Style of role playing games publishing of late 1990s and early 2000s. The New Style series of print rulebooks started with The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen: A Superlative Role-Playing Game in a New Style: Devised & Written by Baron Munchausen by James Wallis, published in 1998 in the traditional A4 format yet with an atypically small number of 24 pages. The British company which released that game, Hogshead Publishing, had diverted their focus from their flagship product, the classic Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, to something decisively different: a roleplaying game completely out of the norm which D&D established and every game since has followed (The Alexandrian, 2015), an arguable RPG (Harrigan, Wardrip-Fruin, 2010, p. 3). The atypical, concise publishing format highlighted the change in approach to the idea of a roleplaying game core book. The success of the game led to the publication of a series of innovative rulebooks, with Pantheon (2000), Powerkill (1999), Puppetland: A Storytelling Game with Strings in a Grim World of Make-Believe (1999),3 and Violence: The Role-Playing Game of Egregious and Repulsive Bloodshed (1999) being other notable examples of New Style games. The Extraordinary Adventures 2 In this text I am going to focus on Oracz and his contribution to the project, the Polish role-playing games scene in its broader context being a subject of my further research. 3 Prior to the expanded print version put on the market in the New Style series, Puppetland had been published online in Aleksandra Mochocka Blurring the Lines: De Profundis: Letters from the Abyss (2001) 151 belonged to the category of story-making games that combine narrative elements with standard game features including competitive play, a clear ending point and a winner (Wallis, 2010, p. 69). As Wallis has it in relation to the story-making games, the crucial point in their design is the intergeneration of the rules and the game structure, resulting in a coherent package (ibid., p. 79). This could be said about the New Style games in general. The designers strived not only to fit in with the requirements of the already existing genre by supplementing new settings or new game mechanics, but also to significantly change the idea of role-playing. The English version of De Profundis was published under the aegis of Hogshead; its original version had been developed in the creative milieu gathered around Portal magazine. Some of the most crucial innovative features of the game had been, actually, already present in other Polish projects. Specifically, as to blurring the boundaries between the game and reality, Oracz observes that: De Profundis was not an idea out of its times. Working on the game, I didn t absolutely feel that I was creating anything innovative when it came to [this issue]. At that time some very sophisticated larps and dramas had been already organised in our country (lasting for months, sometimes), where the players totally erased the boundary between themselves and their characters, or simply played as themselves, with some fantastic elements added as a skeleton of the preliminary sketch of the story. Playing ourselves, playing here and now created a very strong effect, to say the least (in Mochocka, 2015). A discussion of various psychodrama techniques (psychodrama understood here as a game played for fun, not a therapeutic session) included in Appendix B of the rulebook (a reprint of an article from Portal) had originated from Oracz s participation in such projects. The article states that in order to play psychodrama, we need no world description, character sheets, rules or scenarios ; also, there is NO GAMEMASTER here. There are only players. And, at the same time, each of them has something of a GM in them as they create another bit of the story (Oracz, 2001a, p ). Techniques such as, for example, interweaving descriptions with dialogues, limiting the gameplay in time (one hour being the recommended scope), setting the action against empty landscapes, creating symbolic scenes, evoking the sense of insecurity and confusion in the players, and providing ambient music are recommended (ibid., p. 30). It is explained that: 152 Homo Ludens 1(9) / 2016 ISSN Polskie Towarzystwo Badania Gier 2016 we needn t worry much about coherence, credibility, and realism, and our heads are filled with hundreds of books, films, ideas, associations and such. During a psychodrama session these veins of gold become uncovered in strange ways, often surprising to ourselves. Yes, it is improvisation, but each of it[s] elements results from the abilities of more than one person (ibid., p. 31). To sum up, innovative as it was, De Profundis followed a well-established tradition of the experimental approach to role-playing in Poland. On the other hand, however, as Oracz admits it (in Mochocka, 2015), the publishers were conscious of their target, which generally consisted of decisively less avant-garde players, and toned down certain aspects of the game, specifically the ones that, as Oracz (ibid.) recalls, reflected his interest in Schechneresque dark play ; for example, a section on activating imagination via dedicated exercises was not included in the game eventually. Here comes the question of the play between the author and the receivers: De Profundis makes an impression of a sincere and intimate address to the reader, yet that did not result from some exceptional trust, as it was simply a technique I adapted (and put into perspective, a very undeveloped one) (ibid.). The artifice was hidden behind fictional sincerity. The game, outstanding as it was, got the Diana Jones Award nomination in 2002; to quote the recommendation: Out of Poland comes a roleplaying game that expands the definition of what a roleplaying game is, and what an RPG rulebook is. This free-form, Lovecraftian game runs by correspondence. Rather than adapting tabletop RPGing to play-by-mail, De Profundis re-invents the roleplaying form to match correspondence-style play (The Diana Jones Award, 2002). As has been already stated, De Profundis is a New Style game, and some of New Style games clearly belonged to a category which Wallis calls story-making games (2010, p. 73). The underlying design principle in their case is, as Wallis has it, is that they: do not create a fully-fleshed story [...]. Instead, they provide the pieces of the story s skeleton and the rules for assembling it. The players interaction with the game builds these pieces into the framework of a story, while the players imagination and improvisation simultaneously add the flesh of the narrative, bouncing off the prompts and inspirations provided by the game engine (ibid.). Aleksandra Mochocka Blurring the Lines: De Profundis: Letters from the Abyss (2001) 153 De Profundis fits in with these requirements, as there are very specific rules and prompts for building up the story, making the core book closer to the role-playing scenario or adventure module, while the story itself is much more open for the players decision than traditional scenarios or modules. What could be also pointed out here is that the recurrent features of New Style games are playing with fiction and authenticity as well as blurring the boundaries between the game world and the actual world. The play with authenticity is already present in Baron Munchausen. Much in the tradition of the budding 18th-century novel (Martuszewska, 2007), the designer s name is concealed under the guise of the editor, while Munchausen himself is granted the authorship on the title page of the game. As Wallis says, explaining the status of the rulebook, it: is written not by me but by the Baron himself by charming coincidence, I discovered the long-lost manuscript of the game that my ancestor John Wallis, a games publisher in the late 1700s (true) had commissioned from Baron Munchausen (not quite as true) (2010, p. 75). A similar device is utilised in Violence, allegedly written by Designer X. When it comes to the erasing or loosening up the boundaries between the game and reality, both Violence and Powerkill are highly metafictional. Applied to literature, metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality (Waugh, 1984, p. 2). In games, metafictionality could result in self-conscious and openly stated interest in the relationships between game mechanics, game world, game culture, and gameplay (Mochocka, 2007). New Style games renegotiate the genre conventions and focus the receiver s / player s attention on the possible out-of-game impact of the in-game decisions, discussing the ethics of role-playing games. In other words, they 1) point to the fact that players decisions can have consequences going beyond the magic circle of play4; 2) destabilise the magic circle they are meant to create by 4 The concept originated from Huizinga who wrote about the spatiotemporal separation of play and ordinary life, and has become one of the most discussed [ones] in 154 Homo Ludens 1(9) / 2016 ISSN Polskie Towarzystwo Badania Gier 2016 drawing attention to the interrelationships between the game and the actual world. This merger between the game world and the actual world and the focus on self-conscious gameplay stays also at the foundations of De Profundis. 3. The rulebook, the rules, and the game session The English edition rulebook is very short, contained on 32 pages of the A4 format altogether, with a glossy full-colour cover. The cover art by Dennis Detwiller evokes the sense of instability and psychedelia enhanced by the title and the headline: A game of mind-warping horror (in the style of H. P. Lovecraft ) created by Michał Oracz. The rulebook itself is black and white, with small copperplate illustrations, most of them positioned as a kind of initial capitals. The illustrations look as if they were taken from an old encyclopaedia; they feature collages of body parts, landscapes, people, and scientific instruments. They are fairly abstract, and have no direct connection to the fragments of the text they accompany. Such a hiatus between the verbal and visual texts that seem to be totally disjointed, adds to the uncanny, dreamy atmosphere of the vintage copperplates, and leave the reader / player at a loss as to their meaning. De Profundis is focused on a very specific type of experience, and with an overtly articulated ambition to be innovative and ground-breaking ( Please, do not mistake it for a play-by-mail game. Can playing a PBM game make one insane? [Oracz, 2001a, p. 5]). What makes it truly game studies (Montola, 2012, p. 48). What follows, it could be defined and understood in a number of ways; specifically, some contemporary scholars insist that the magic circle is isolated from its environment, albeit its boundaries could be breached or penetrated, while the majority see the boundary of play and non-play in terms of transformation or filtering rather than in terms of isolation (ibid., p ), in agreement with the interpretation suggested by E. Goffman, who understood the magic circle [as] a social and cultural structure that contains endogenous meaning within, and selectively filters and transforms exogenous meaning to endogenous meaning (ibid., p. 51). By virtue of its transformative powers, the magic circle of play offers the players its protective quality (Myers, 2010; as cit. in: Montola, 2012, p. 52). In the case of role-playing games, the special status of the magic circle of play allows players to experiment with identity alteration (Bowman, 2012, p. 32) in a safe, liminal space (ibid., p. 54). For a thorough review of the positions on the magic circle, see Montola 2012 (p , passim). Aleksandra Mochocka Blurring the Lines: De Profundis: Letters from the Abyss (2001) 155 exceptional is the fact that the rulebook could be perceived both as the game manual and the game instance (Björk, Holopainen, 2004). It merges the presentation of operational rules with what could be recognised not only as a recording of, but also as a game session per se. Despite the disclaimer that it should be Read and interpreted only as a game (Oracz, 2001a, p. 2) it also encourages the players to breach the spatial, temporal, and social boundaries of the magic circle, what can situate it in the category of pervasive games, as recognised by Montola: A pervasive game is a game that has one or more salient features that expand the contractual magic circle of play, spatially, temporally, or socially (2009, p. 12). To provide some examples: In De Profundis we don t declare to the Game-master that we are going to do a library search. We go to a real library ourselves to look for vague comments and hints [ ] (Oracz, 2001a, p. 7). Sometimes I think I no longer live in the real world, but in some other imaginary place, as if taken out of our fantastic and sometimes frightening games. Now you have decided to cross the line too and see everything differently (ibid.). In other words, in De Profundis, unlike in virtually every role-playing handbook, you won t find a ready-made conventional world, created or established for the purpose of the game. There is no established canon of binding fiction, such as bestiary [...]. S
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