Emily Care Boss talks about Jeep Form

I wanted to talk to Emily Care Boss for a while and finally we got an interview about Jeep Form that hit its stride.

Emily, what drew you to Jeep form?

Finding Jeepform was like coming home to a home I’d not realized I’d lost. I’ve had that reaction, creatively, once or twice at other times in my life. Those involved art, community and music. This one involved intense psychological play.

Back in the day, I remember fighting a losing battle trying to maintain that “there weren’t just 3 creative agendas”. This was before they were call creative agendas–is that possible? I put my oar in the water for psychological exploration as a thing that people were looking for. It’s not, it’s not a technical agenda (http://www.lumpley.com/comment.php?entry=36). It’s not really accounted for by narrativism, simulationism…

Oh, why am I opening long emptied cans of worms? Let’s just say that especially as I started writing Breaking the Ice, and my other romance games, the interaction between the player and the played was on my mind. Little did I realize it would be the key to the third romance game, Under my Skin. When I ran into the Jeeps Tobias Wrigstad and Thorbiorn Fritzon at Ropecon in Finland in 2007, it was love at first sight–I fell in love with jeepform whole hog. Couldn’t get enough. I think I played 4 games in the next two days, and lapped up the history and whole approach that they had. Everything about it was novel and pushed new boundaries: the live style of play, the meta-techniques, the social realism of the settings, the hardcore emotional stance. Even their approach to design. Damn, I’ve never seen anyone ream their own play and design like I did while hanging out after playing some of those games. Tobias in particular is brilliant and unrelenting in his pursuit of quality. That terrified me, honestly, but inspired me too. I’ll never be that cutthroat in matters of design–no, cutthroat is the wrong term, it’s not about competition. I’ll never be that brave, is, I think the better term.

It threw out so many assumptions: the need for quantitative mechanics, the need for things to be done once and then fixed evermore, the opaque nature of play as it seems now without use of meta-techniques like the inner monologue or flasbacks/flashforwards. And most insightfully, the distance between player and character. Bleed, as I called it off-hand in a presentation, and which came to be an important way for people to think about the style of play.

Is there a good link for folks to read Jeep 101, so that we don’t have to waste time here going over that?

There are quite a few now. I wrote about the differences (technical really) between jeep and larp. Lizzie Stark, another conquest of the Jeep, wrote a great intro page. She nails it. And the Jeepform page itself, of course, is a great introduction into the style. It’s is a bit hard to wrap your head around the differences until you’ve played it, really, but all these descriptions are accurate. It’s just a sideways step from what most people have experienced as the norm. Fair Game: Why jeep does not equal larp http://www.fairgame-rpgs.com/comment.php?entry=141 Lizzie Stark: Jeepform for Noobs http://lizziestark.com/2012/09/17/jeepform-for-noobs/ We go by Jeep http://jeepen.org/

I bet that Ron or Vincent could talk about how psychological exploration is encapsulated in between some parentheses or brackets in a diagram about blah-de-blah. I never had much of a head for GNS Theory. Moving on! Was there a moment of play that inspired that reaction of coming home and if so, could you talk about it?

It was really immediate, even though I was bolluxed and confused and felt very unsure of my live play during the first Jeepform I ever played (The Upgrade!).  Flirting in character was fun. The flashbacks were a revelation. Playing this lying character, who really did fall for her new-match -would-be-mark, but then got *dumped* when it was revealed that she and her brother had cooked up their “relationship” to get in with the tasty partners available through the reality show that frames the game.

But here’s where I knew there was no turning back. I said I’d played 4 games, and then couldn’t figure out what he fourth was (the others were The Upgrade!, The Mothers, and Doubt). Now I remember, and that was maybe the moment.

One night, after the convention, we went to the home of a wonderful Finn. He hosted us at his apartment and shared his sauna with us. (A comfortable, utilitarian but *damn hot* sauna, common to all on his floor in the building.) He told us about the concept of the spirit that is part of the steam. Forgive my paraphrasing, it was inspiring, through the language barrier. Then we played. A completely improvized, musical based system. The closest we have would be Ribbon Drive. For this, we took a best of cd of Elvis, and played through tracks (randomly? in order? I’ll never know). The initial story was two young people, gone Sid and Nancy, on a self-indulgent and self-destructive criminal romp across country. Falling in love with eachother and outlawry.

We each took turns, telling our part of the tale. In character and descriptive, but mostly from one person’s perspective each time. The young girl runaway. The young man she met. The story of his abuse at the hands of his father. The hot passion she felt for him. The seduction of violence, and the freedom and seeming empowerment of embracing crime.

And while one of us was narrating, a song would be played and the others of us would hum and sing along. Heartbreak Hotel. Don’t be Cruel. To the final song, Return to Sender, with the first person narration (by Tobias, of course) of the girl being strapped into the electric chair and losing her life.

I just don’t have words to describe how playing that felt. The music, the impact of the story. The freedom of the outlawry of this play. And the singing. When you play an rpg, you get feedback all the time: from the dice, from the fiction, from what your fellow players say and do, what they laugh at, what they cringe at, what makes them excitedly grab the dice from the table or launch deeply into character. But that singing was something special. It was a kind of support and feedback that envelopes you. Did I mention that T&T had spent much of the weekend singing, especially in the (amazing) saunas of Ropecon? Did I mention that I spent much of my childhood singing, in various choruses and choirs, and that my primary spiritual practice is bound up with music, song and dance? And I’m sure I didn’t mention that one of the other moments when I just felt, again, like I’d found *home*, was a moment when I found a whole group of people singing and dancing around a pagan bonfire, under the night sky?

Yeah, that.

Emily, I think there could be disagreements between Jeep form folks and the System Matters folks. Are there places where you see differences in design (and maybe play) philosophy and places where you see similarities?

Differences, shmifferences. The goals are very similar, but, yes, the roads there are pretty far apart. These are groups of folks with great, differing design aesthetics who come from some of the same principles and end up with vastly different games.

Story first: It’s a tenet in jeep design to find the story and fit the rules you use to support and craft that. Sounds a lot like System Matters, doesn’t it? The fact that part of the Jeep design scope is the emotional experience of the players (in a more well-rounded, we’re dealing with humans here who cry, yearn and bleed kind of a way) sets it apart from the tabletop Forge diaspora/Story Games set. But then, within that second group, there’s a huge variety of design.

Temper your Tools: Once you have your story vision, craft the tools that do the job, then test them in play and redesign based on this. It’s a shorter arc (at least as I’ve seen it) among Jeeps than in the indie tabletop community, but there is a commitment to testing and refining that is shared. It’s a natural ethic to have, when you’re preparing something for others to use repeatedly. It’s harder to get this kind of thing done in the design of larps–most convention larps are one & done–but perhaps this is something that is common to the larger game design community.

Don’t Flinch: Moving role playing games out of the primarily wish fulfillment realm is definitely something both camps share. This does set both apart from other game design communities. The Jeeps state it most boldly: “No Dragons”. Eschewing fantastic elements as distancing tools, that soften the harder edges of experience, is rejected. Now this does have a pragmatic role: since the games are played live, with no complicated mechanics and little narration, it’s much easier to hew closely in the fiction to what your players are actually doing. In story games there is more freedom to fly free from these constraints. (And, honestly, the room is there in Jeep and freeform too, as Bill White’s _Ganakagok Jeepforged_ shows beautifully.) But the Jeep camp has made an aesthetic choice to move away from non-realist elements. When they break from it, it’s for a specific reason and the choices made are strong. (Play _Previous Occupants_ sometime, it’s a ghost story, but has this crushing tension that is terrifying, and you haven’t played horror rpg until you can have someone literally tap you out and take over your role to “possess” your character and have it do horrible terrible things that you do *not* want to face.) And just because the tools of the fantastic are in the indie tabletop, narrativist, Forge descendant toolbox, doesn’t mean they need be used (think of _Grey Ranks_, _Carry._ and _Clover_).

Differences in play: I’ve found different things are issues & emphasis, based on our foundational play experiences. This may not be universal, but in the Nordic circles (which include Jeep) there is much more emphasis on play that protects the bubble of flow that is sometimes, problematically, referred to as character immersion. It’s kind of a holy grail there, and even in Jeepform which throws out so much of the baggage that had built up around larp play (in Jeep you use metatechniques, encourage transparency with respect to what is happening to and by the characters, predetermined storylines are standard, costumes and props are minimal and symbolic, play is mobile and discreet: scenes are set and cut as in a play, giving you moments outside of the character to think and regroup, etc.) Yet, when I’ve played with Europeans, there is still this underlying resistance to breaking out of character to discuss what will happen in a scene. Techniques are used to subsume that into the play experience. For example, Telegraphing involves making it clear from an in-character stance, what you want to occur, or what is happening. So rather than saying “And then my character gives you a cup of coffee”, instead the player would pick up a cup (or mime it), make the gesture of handing it to you and say “Here, you look like you could use a cup of coffee.”  The goal is to keep that seamless interaction, and when scenes are cut, to quickly flow on to the next to maintain it.

In playing with US and Canadian folks, some of whom do plenty of larp play, though few had done Nordic style freeform before the Jeeps brought it over, I don’t find the same hesitations or resistances. It’s analogous to slipping in and out of character at the table. Picking up a handful of dice to roll doesn’t break the flow of my understanding and identification with a character in tabletop. Maybe if the process is long and involved or ends up giving unreliable or frustrating outcomes it would shake me out, but it’s not a problem. The same with stepping in and out of character, laughing out of turn and then getting serious again, responding to someone as their player and then being back to looking at them as their character again. And even going deeply into character, crying, laughing, falling in love–and then breaking out again to mind some part of the real meta world, and then going back again. It can be done. At the deepest emotional drifts I’ve experienced, I didn’t want to have to deal with the meta-game issues, but it was possible.

This is likely not universal, of course. But it was surprising to encounter it.

Has your experience with Jeep effected your most recent tabletop RPG design and/or play?

It committed me more deeply to looking at what’s really needed to play an rpg. There are lot of conventions of play that we take for granted in tabletop rpg: dice, stats, skills, social/combat resolution, etc. Jeep puts you into situations that are compelling, challenging and hard to navigate, all without the mediation of abstracted mechanics. It’s a real eye opener. Now, I don’t believe that you should throw out abstract mechanics. The strengths of jeepform are that it embraces certain limitations. There is a saying of sorts, “No table, no dragons” in Jeepform, which means that you stand up and play out what your characters do, and in that you do things that they could do. Without fantastical threats that aren’t a part of real human interactions. So play in jeepform (by and large) revolves around the stuff of human life. Love, aspirations, despair, betrayal. No need for sword stats or strength abilities.

But leaving all of that out does, again, limit what you can claim as your territory for story. Like the conventions of “lit fic”, it’s a compelling field, that’s little tapped in rpgs so well worth exploring, but it is a limitation. What I like from Jeepform is the freedom it brings. Instead of looking at game design and being tied to what people generally think of as “the way you do it” (eg represent your characters and world through numbers which can be weighed out against one another to resolve conflicts), it’s clear that that is just one way to do it.

In a new game I’m working on, called Compass, I’m taking some fundamentals of Jeepform, improvised system gaming I did in the past, and totally embracing dragons. The game is about groups of people who explore their world on quests or expeditions for their home village. The world creation is shared, so it takes a lot from the current indie gaming tradition, but it’s free of task or conflict resolution, allowing players to pick from several hard outcomes if they engage in combat. You are mostly lead by the creative input of the others, similar to improv games, but united by the collaboratively created setting. And the system include tricks to jumpstart your imagination, while keeping the amount of preparation down to the minimum. It won’t look like a Jeepform game, but what I’ve learned from Jeep is certainly in there.

I guess one of the best lessons I’ve taken away from Jeepform is the stricture to “follow the story”. To pick design elements that support the emotions, the atmosphere and the dynamics that a given story would have. To align the player with the story through the mechanics you use. Things like having a (semi-)scripted play for players to act out, in _Doubt_, a game about actors losing their relationship as they act in a successful play together. Or in _Drunk_, where you play out the fallout of alcoholism in a family, with certain events taking place, timed by taking a swig from a bottle. It’s just water (most likely), but it still puts you in mind of the central theme of the game. Another is in _Previous Occupants_, a ghost story, where players become possessed by others playing ghosts, who actually tap you out and get to take over your role, until you tap back in and take back your “body”.  These are obvious metaphors, but many other techniques are used (like bird-in-ear where a player receives directions on how to act, or flashbacks, or re-playing scenes) all of which have strong effects on play, that can be adopted based on the feel of the story you’re playing. It’s not tabletop, but I recently helped Matthijs Holter write a system intended for players to assemble their own ways to play. It’s called Play With Intent <http://playwithintent.wordpress.com/>, and it’s equally good for emo or dragons, your pick.

How would you introduce a tabletop RPGer to Jeep if their favorite game experiences were:

Moldvay D&D?

Ars Magica?
Dogs in the Vineyard?

Those are good, very hard questions.

Let’s see. I’m going to take some points to start with. The person has 1) expressed interest in trying something new in role playing and 2) they are open to playing out scenes & character actions live. Given those, let’s look at what kinds of Jeepform, or nordic (and now American live) freeform games might be of interest to someone who has loved playing one of these tabletop rpgs. I’m going to start with the latter two first, since they are a bit easier.

Ars Magica?

For someone who loves Ars Magica–wait, for anyone I was talking to, I would first sit down with them and talk and (most importantly) listen to them about what made their favorite gaming experiences what they were. For AM, were they enthralled with creating a world? With the intricate politicking between normal mortals and mages, or between mage and mage? Was it the long, complicated experimentation with magic, and it’s application that made this their favorite game?

If it was the world creation or the magic creation, I think I would write for them a Jeepform or American freeform more properly, based on the Silmarillion. And create a game where they get to sing up the stars, crash the first oceans into the shores of the first land, and take the hand of the young peoples they place on this land to thrive and grow. In the meantime while that’s being work on, I’d run  Bill White’s Ganakagok Jeepforged, which is a freeform version of Ganakagok, a story of tribal folk dealing with the end of their world. Some players take the role of the people, some of the ancestors, some of the stars and forces above, others the world and the changes themselves. Each team of players creates their version of the mythology inspired by a custom set of cards, and played out in scenes where the people face changes and challenges set by the others. Another game I might run for them, if the appeal was the idea of playing in period, would be Growing Up, a jeepform by Anna Westerling, in which you play out the Jane Austen novel, Sense & Sensibility.

If their answer was the politicking, I’d point them to games like Luke Crane’s Inheritance, a parlor larp set at a Viking feast, or Julia Ellingboe’s larp The Anthropophagy Society, where you must argue why you should be voted to join the group, or become the main course in their annual dinner, or the jeepform game The Mothers, set in a new mothers support group, which is not as supportive as it’s cracked up to be.

Dogs in the Vineyard?

For players who love Dogs in the Vineyard, these are the games I would try them on: Previous Occupants by Frederick Berg Olsen and Tobias Wrigstad, a ghost story with possession represented by players literally tapping you out so they can take your role and speak as a ghost occupying your character’s body; and The Man in the Long Black Coat, by Kat Jones, a game inspired by Bob Dylan song, set in a small town full of conflict and hypocrisy where a stranger comes to town bringing judgement and possibly redemption. Okay, on to the really hard stuff here:

Moldvay D&D?

If people love Moldvay over all, I would expect them to be looking for puzzles to pry apart, and to expect to have a tremendous amount of agency over the choices they would make. I think I would try them on Play With Intent.  This is a freeform game written by Matthijs Holter and myself which puts all the various tools of jeepform, freeform and even takes from improv theater, and tabletop play, to let you pick a set of techniques that you will use to craft the story of your own choosing. There is no embedded expectation of deep dark emotional play here, although if that is what you want, the tools are there to help you create that. It also embraces a desire for adventure, the system includes three example takes on play, one of which is “Action–Drama!”. This gives you a set of technques and warmups that will help you play out an action adventure story. The puzzle here would be putting together the tools for the tale, rather than GM crafted mysteries of environment and battle. But having a GM appropriate in this game (though more optional than in many jeepform or live freeform games), which might make them feel at home as well. Another suggestion of course, would be to re-fit The Upgrade! to be Edition Wars! and see if players upgrade from their beloved Moldvay, 3.5 or to something else from 4e*.


Given the bleak, post-apocalyptic nature of the setting of Rifts, these players might enjoy The Journey. However, I’d have to explain that what they are getting into would be the darkest, most dire aspects of that terrible failed state of a situation. And if what they are looking for is intricate set up, and complicated play, I’d give them a challenge and run Lives, Deaths, Births, which is a jeepform by Martin Brodén and Tobias Wrigstad, where the players craft many scenes of many lives, strung together by themes picked by the GM.

(*This suggestion stolen from Epidiah Ravachol.)

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, Emily.

One thought on “Emily Care Boss talks about Jeep Form

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