Friday, June 10, 2005

Bricolage and Continuity

AKA Bricolage Post #1

This is one things that Emily and I talked about this weekend.

In Chris Lehrich's excellent essay Ritual Discourse in Role-Playing Games (which, as an aside, could be regarded as a design bible for much of Polaris), he identifies the concept of bricolage. Much as I would like to make you go over there and read Chris's essay, which you totally should, I will quote from his definition here:

Lévi-Strauss's idea, in simple terms, is that cultures think like oddly artistic hobbyists. Imagine you have a basement full of stuff from which to build whatever you like. You have bits of old machines, things your neighbors threw out, scraps of wood, and tail-ends of old projects, as well as the taken-apart bits of all your old projects. Now you decide to build something, and you have some ideas -- aesthetic and practical -- about how that should be done; you are very skilled and talented, and can see possibilities in all sorts of things. But you do not have a Home Depot available, or you consider it "cheating" to go buy things. At any rate, you have to build the thing you're going to build from what you already have in your basement.

A nice example is a Rube Goldberg cartoon, though those are deliberately silly. You fly a kite, and the kite string pulls a lever, and this pushes an old boot, and that turns on your iron, and the iron burns some old pants, and smoke goes into a tree, and.... A brilliant example is the recent Honda advertisement called "the cog," which can readily be found on the Internet. The point is that one constructs an elaborate machine out of bits and pieces already owned.

Lévi-Strauss's point is that each object used contains its own history; that is, the iron has already been used for something and the bricoleur then gives it a new use. The iron, to focus on the single example, is a local source of heat; it can burn pants, or make a grilled-cheese sandwich, and of course can press a shirt. But it cannot be a refrigerator. And if, clever person that you are, you pull the heating coil out of the iron for some project that requires a heating coil, your iron now contains the history of its usage: it is now a heating coil and a heavy weight.

I think that this idea is desperately important to role-playing games, to a degree that has hardly been touched on by theorists, and I have been sorely disappointed with the discussions on the Forge about this topic, which have been largely isolated to trying to relate the idea of bricolage, in some arcane manner, to the Simulationist creative agenda.

This is deeply dissatisfying to me, because I believe that bricolage is a key element to all role-playing, because role-playing is pretty much art, and art's interconnection to other art is pretty durned important.

There is no way I will be able to summarize this in a single blog post. Millions of very smart people have devoted their lives to the study of reference in literature and haven't even come close to exhausting it. This is a starting point for discussion, a thing for us to look for, to help us see and understand our own games.

Back in the 1970s in the dawn of modern role-playing games, it was considered par for the course that players would and should move their characters from game to game, playing the same character in different worlds without any sort of excuse or justification. With the publication of serious canonical settings and also with a new wave of role-playing games fundamentally incompatible with each other, this practice has essentially died out, although it continues in an artificial and top-down form in the "Living ____" projects of the RPGA. There was a real feeling of interactivity between games. This was brought to mind recently by the reactions of the participant / observer / non-gamer in Ron's recent Trollbabe actual play. Check out the bit about her reaction to Trollbabes and Ghost Wolves.

Do you see that this is exactly bricolage, and further that it is fulfilling to same role of giving additional meaning to whatever is repeated? A character repeated throughout games gives meaning to the character, and that meaning is given regardless of whether or not the world changes around them. It is the same in ritual and the same in myth -- repetition gives power.

This is continuity in, I think, a truer sense of the word than it is normally used in geek circles (Rich, you can come bite my ass for that). Continuity in modern games is about making sure that everything lines up perfectly with everything else and that nothing is out of place, and that all things implied by previous play are, in fact, carried through. I think that this sort of play misses the point. Role-playing is enormously ill-suited to picky continuity fixation -- novels and TV shows are much better at it. The powerful continuity in role-playing games is that things that are important to us will be repeated, because we remember them, and that things that are not important will be forgotten and lie, easily contradicted, by the wayside.

What do I mean by "strength" or "continuity?" I mean something that you have an intuitive sense of -- you can clearly tell what is the right thing for it or the wrong thing for it without having to think about it at all. Essentially, your knowledge of this imagined thing has left the realm of conscious thought and entered the intuitive and the reactive parts of your brain -- where most real objects are. I think it is something like what Vincent means by "robustness of the game's fiction" in his recent posts about immersion.

This isn't just about character. It can apply to any content of the role-playing game. My Chorus setting has been used, in various forms, since I was 12. That's well over a decade of games. Only two characters in that time have managed to gain real weight and importance, and a third may be sneaking up on me, but the setting has grown and changed and shifted and been effected by all that play. Now it is living and strong -- I know all about the history 1000 years ago not because I wrote it down in a notebook once but because I have actually played it. And it shows.

So we have this idea -- if you keep doing something, if you keep reiterating it from week to week and session to session and game to game -- it gains power. But, speaking for myself here, I'm a lazy bastard. That sounds like a lot of work just to have powerful play. Surely, there must to some other route to this sort, which involves less effort on my part.

Oh, yeah. And its a biggie. We can steal.

To draw back to Chorus for a second, when I bring in a new element from some other art -- say, the Jabberwocky or Vecna or Inanna -- I am bringing all the the strength and continuity of that object with it into the setting. It makes it more real, more intuitive. We can draw on what we have read before, but also on what other people have made before us, and push it, sculpt it, make it our own and gain our own intuitions about it.

A lot of good games do this and encourage this. It is the primary draw of Rifts -- you can bring anything in. (Of course, you can do this in any game, but Rifts gives you permission to do so.) Sorcerer encourages you to draw on fiction for not only genre elements and color trappings, but also for situation and plot structures via the relationship map technique. PTA does some encouragement to steal from other shows, and more generally to adopt and take the language of television.

I want to see more games where you can do things like this -- move characters around, pull things in from literature, and make it all mass together into a bricolage.

Do you? Why or why not? How can we encourage this?

P.S. To those who are interested in the Big Model, I think that this is about a very interesting part of the Exploration level. Thoughts?

(stealth edit: AKA)


Blogger Ed H said...

It seems to me that this sort of thing was once much more common in RPGs than it is now. You could bring anything into Arduin just like Rifts. "Space Patrol" (later renamed "Star Patrol") from Gamescience included rules for Slaver Disintegrators, Federation Phasers, Starship Trooper power armor, and more, with no apologies whatsoever. When gaming was smaller and not on anybody's radar, people did this kind of thing all the time.

Of course, modern culture has a huge enemy of "bricolage" -- the concept of Intellectual Property. The Chanson du Roland could turn into Orlando Furioso without anybody worrying about property rights, but right now it's impossible to "bricolage" anything from modern culture without pissing off a lawyer somewhere.

The Creative Commons movement recognizes this as a problem and suggests a voluntary movement towards opening culture to become more reference-friendly, but very little of popular culture is Creative Commons-licensed (though Clinton R. Nixon has helped us out with his CC-licensed stuff!).

So, yeah. Reference, recycling, stealing the power of old art for new art, all good cool things and part of human culture for generations and millennia -- and now hopelessly legally encumbered.

4:09 AM  
Blogger Nathan P. said...


I think another good link for this topic is here, where Chris talks more about Bricolage and its applications for actual design.

Anyway. First off, I agree that bricolage is an absolutely critical process for role-playing, and that it's expressed in many forms.

Consider published, official metaplot. In a strange way, its a kind of top-down bricolage, right? It's a set of characters, situations, whatever, that gains power because it is iterated throughout every instance of that game, theoretically. Which leads to the split between pro- and anti-metaplot opinion. Some acknowledge the power of that metaplot and want to incorporate it and master it in their own games. Some reject that power, and prefer their own bricolage.

Another aspect. Maybe one reason that it's hard to draw "newbies" into games with huge, established settings is that they have nothing to bricole with. That is, sitting down to play PTA with pretty much anyone isn't that hard, because everyone knows, and knows about, TV shows. They have ample material to steal and incorporate. Sitting down to play, oh, the Wheel of Time RPG with people who haven't read the books - who don't have anything to steal from - is a lot harder. Those who have the background kind of become the cheif bricolers, and the rest just kinda tag along until that individual game has generated enough material for the rest to start incorporating.

My point is that I see bricolage happening throughout all aspects of roleplaying, not just in a given game or among a given set of people.

4:12 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Ed --

Two points about IP

1) Copyright doesn't cover nearly as much as people think it does. I think that much of the reason why people have such a problem with copyright is that they are victims of a vast corporate disinformation campaign about its powers.

To whit -- it is perfectly fine to write about phasers or star trek or the starship enterprise -- as long as one does not use script or stills or video or audio from the show outright.

Copyright only applies to substantial work.*

2) Role-playing is an excellent artform for bricolage, for many reasons, but with regard to IP because it is totally immune from prosecution via IP laws -- it is done in the privacy of your own home and uncirculated! So you can totally have Star Trek, Star Wars, Shakespeare, Dashell Hammit, Mickey Mouse and Madonna in your RPG game, and no one will mind.


* I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. I am merely an informed citizen making my understanding of the law known to a peer.

4:28 AM  
Blogger jhkim said...

Something you aren't explicit about is how bricolage is applied via working within an established framework of symbols, such as Tolkien's Middle Earth, or the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV Series, or Star Trek.

You don't need to mix-and-match for this to be bricolage. Simply taking the elements from Tolkien and using them differently for your own stories is itself bricolage. It forms a web of meanings and associations. So, for example, orcs in D&D are symbols which relate to Tolkien. The use of orcs in general is a commentary which generally either refutes or reinforces the original vision.

I see this in that I find my campaigns are much more successful when based on known elements rather than wholly original fantasy. For example, I just concluded the second season of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer campaign. It uses a host of elements drawn from the show as well as a number drawn from outside it. It is ideal for this since the setting is the modern world.

P.S. You're wrong about copyright, Ben. Copyright can in principle be applied to similar characters and settings. (cf.
Sid & Marty Krofft Television Productions, Inc. v. McDonald's Corp.

4:58 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Hey, John --

Uhm, how is that not in agreement with what I said? I mean, the talk is about substantial forms being stolen and used, not someone mentioning a phaser.

Regardless, such talk is probably off-topic to this post. I refer anyone who is publishing a text to the excellent Intellectual Property Law Server at

5:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay Ben, interesting stuff, but why should it matter to me, say as joe designer or as joe gamer? I think I'm lost on that aspect of what you are saying. People use familiar elements unconsciously, so why should any of this matter towards how I design my games or how I play in games? Help a confused polack out, cause I don't see the importance here...

5:20 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Nathan -- good points, all around. I must masticate them for a while.

John -- How is taking orcs from tolkein and applying them in your own stories not mix-n-match? I mean, you have some elements from Tolkein, and some from you. That seems to me to be a mix.


6:49 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Keith --

What are the concrete lessons from this to a player:

1) Don't be afraid to steal, it isn't bad. It makes your game better.

1a) Don't be afraid to steal directly, without trying to cover it up in some way.

2) Don't try to preserve the sanctity of a complete world vision -- let other ideas and people come in and play.

3) Don't worry about continuity, the important parts of it will come naturally, the unimportant parts will just hold you back.

For a designer:

1) Same #1 above.

2) When designing your setting, a great technique is to grab anything that interests you and massage it into your setting however you like.

3) When designing your setting, leave spaces that others must fill.

4) Introduce bricolage techniques? We would need to develop these first, of course.

Conspiracy of Shadows does #3 admirably well, so you're probably ahead of me and going "well, duh, this is obvious to us kids on the normal bus." In which case I just ask that you have patience with us short-bussies and maybe even try to help us out a bit.


6:53 AM  
Blogger jhkim said...

Ben -- You can call that "mix and match". It just seemed to me that what people were emphasizing was mixing different fictional sources -- noting Rifts and Arduin and Space Patrol as examples. That makes bricolage seem like the exception rather than a basic operation of RPGs. I think orcs in D&D is a much better example, because it shows how mainstream and central bricolage is.

P.S. Your original statement said that copying was fine "as long as one does not use script or stills or video or audio from the show outright." That's deceptive since even look-alikes such as McDonaldland or Battlestar Galactica can be sued.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

John -- okay, now I get you. Yes, that's an excellent point.


8:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

Looking at music, games, and stories all together, a great deal of enjoyment simply comes from seeing the variations and twists on a common theme. Two different bands, same song most likely equals two different songs. So yeah, I totally dig where the enjoyment comes from based on that.

A major issue particular to geekdom and gaming is that everyone wants to build an enclosed, all encompassing setting, and there is a pressure against people "polluting" it by rehashing or stealing.

But probably another, and valid issue as well is that this recurring cycle that builds meaning only works if it has meaning- otherwise its just a decoration. And, unfortunately, for many groups, they simply hope to Ouija board meaning into existance, afraid to put their hand in and shape it directly.

9:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thought-provoking as usual.

I say a resounding yes to Bricolage. I also agree with John about it being a bit more mainstream than your original post intended.

However, I'm not all the way with John. I'd like to see more games that invite the kind of consistency you talk about - and that provide explicit permission to the players and GMs to wholly borrow from other sources.

In particular, I think this can be accomplished by pushing the theory and tools of game prep, scenario prep, and character creation in the same way things like mechanics search and handling, apportionment of authority and meta-game positioning mechanics have been stretched by Indie design in the last 2 to 3 years.

I mean, Relationship maps are kick-arse for this, as are a lot of the ideas in Alyria (though those may be quite specific to that setting, not sure). Also, I haven't player Multiverser, but the way it's creator talks about it, it seems like that game has a whole lot to do with exactly what you're on about.


"Oh, it's you...

9:16 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Jason --

I am referring specifically to the relationship maps drawn from a novel, which as far as I know is unique advice to The Sorcerer's Soul. That said, Alyria has some of these tools in it, as well. I'm just trying to clarify what I'm talking about.

My intention is to say that these actions are fundamental to all role-playing games, everywhere. I'll probably have to justify that statement with a second post.

Chris --

I do not believe that an event can recur and not be given meaning. Humans are very much name-givers.


1:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

You're right, though I'd say there's some qualitative differences between the repetition of "the big bad guy blows up" at the end of every session vs. the archtypical stuff that Johnny-come-lately who's picked up a Campbell book points to.


Although- I could see a giant explosion by itself having meaning, such as the recurring theme in many Japanese anime which directly references the bombings from WW2. But, as I said, it's a matter of whether it's just a piece of Ephemera that gets repeated or something that echoes with the group.


1:35 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Chris --

This isn't necessarily about deep hidden meaning, just about the strength of the idea within the playgroup. If the bad guys always explode at the end of every session, it will become a known quantity. Players will set it up intuitively, make jokes about it, expect it to happen. It will become a thing for the group.


P.S. Then what happens if he *doesn't* blow up?

10:00 PM  
Blogger Nathan P. said...

How does the thought of bringing characters from game to game as part of bricolage interface with the claim that playing the same character over and over in play is an indicator of a frustrated or unfulfilled player?

12:39 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Nathan -- That's an excellent, excellent question.

1:21 AM  

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