Thursday 4 August 2016

The Truth About Sappho: First Examples

Ana is late. Everyone else has already started eating by the time she turns up, unapologetic. Ryan gets up, bustles around getting her a glass of wine, a plate of food. She nods to the others and tucks in without saying thanks. This is just her way.
Note: Tonight, Ryan cooked a lasagne, using fake mince for Ana's sake. Although the top was ever so slightly burnt and the lasagne sheets were a little crispy around the edges, everyone agreed that it was a lovely meal, because although none of his friends will ever say, they are afraid to hurt his feelings in any way, as if they have an unspoken shared belief that even the slightest criticisms will be too much for Ryan to bear, that he has been hurt enough already.

No one talks for a while, and conversation is perfunctory until Ana – last to start, first to finish – is polishing off her plate and says,

So are we still going to do this game thing?

I think so, says Simon.

It's the whole reason we're here, isn't it? says Sarah, through her last mouthful of lasagne.

– Ana stares at her wineglass, holding its stem between finger and thumb but not lifting it. Do we really have to?

– Ryan, elbow on the table, presses his fingers to his temples. What's the problem? he says without opening his eyes.

No problem, says Ana. It's just lame. 

No one says anything for a moment, the only sound Simon's knife and fork clicking against his plate.

Are you scared of something? says Simon.

No, says Ana, lifting her glass and drinking half the contents in one go. Don't be silly. 

Sarah says that it's a silly thing to be arguing about, and that it doesn't matter if it's lame, they're doing it for me, and let's not fall out over this because it's not about the silly game, it's about doing something I would have wanted, and Ryan agrees, and Simon says nothing, and Ana is silent for a moment and then says,

It's not like he'd know.

Which is a very good point, because I am not there. They aren't really doing this for me, and not wholly out of respect for my memory, because frankly I wasn't all that, really, and already, I've been gone barely ten days and the next thing you know they'll have attributed miracles to me. Already none of them can bring themselves to say my name, except when they really have to, and then with hesitation, as if saying a sacred and secret name, the grief in their breasts not wholly unlike holy terror.

Let's not fool ourselves, here, says Ana. This is because we're sorry he's gone and we don't want him to be gone and we're doing this stupid bullshit game because we want to hang on to him longer and Christ he drove me mad when he was alive, but I really really really want him back just as much as the rest of you and this. Is. Not. Going. To bring. Him. Back. 

No, says Simon, after something of a pause. No, it's not. But you know what? It's got his voice all over it. It's... – he puts down his fork and gesticulates like a fairground Gypsy mystic with a crystal ball – ...contradictory and infuriating and way too clever for its own good and it does this thing where he thinks he's crystal clear and you still can't tell what he's on about and –

He realises he is talking in the present tense, and stops, dead.

I want to play it, he says. It reminds me what he was like. 

Ana nods.

OK. She acquiesces now, satisfied at Simon's admission.

So, dishes cleared away, pencils, paper and a bag of glass beads Simon got from a cupboard in his house, they arrange the game, sitting around the dinner table. Simon and Sarah on one side, and Ryan and Ana on the other, men and women alternating wholly by accident.

OK, says Ryan. How does this thing start? 

Well, first we have to make up our characters, says Simon

OK, says Sarah. How?

Well, first, you have to introduce yourself. Come up with a name and an idea. 

How do you do that? says Ryan.

OK, says Simon. Say, I, um, want to play a character called, well, called Simon. OK? Hi, I'm Simon. I want him to be like me, only younger. Like I was when I was 21. And maybe better at some things. I'm good at cycling. I have to list two people who I love and one person I hate. Except if I can't think of anyone, I don't have to list them straight away. 

Well, this is disappointing. Still. You have to start somewhere.

You don't have to list them straight away? says Ana.

No. Like, someone might come up in the story, and you can decide that they're your friend or enemy. 

I'm completely lost here, says Ryan.

Tell you what, says Simon, let's start over. These are the things you have to write on the paper: At the top you write your character's name. Which doesn't have to be your name. But it can be. And then below that you write, “I am...” and you say something about yourself, anything you want. Below that, you write, “I love”, and write down the names of two people who matter to you and under that “I hate”, and write down the names of someone you can't bear – 

How do we know who they are? says Ryan.

You make them up. Or you wait until the game starts and pick a member of the supporting cast and write their names down. So you don't have to name anyone to start with if you don't want to.

So can I say I hate your character? says Ana.

Yeah, says Simon.

Gonna do that now, says Ana. She writes “I hate Simon” on her sheet.

Don't ruin it, Ana, says Sarah.

Simon takes a breath and visibly calms himself.

Anyway, under that, you write a secret your character has. And you tell everyone the secret. 

How is it a secret? says Ana.

What? says Simon.

If you tell everyone, how is it a secret? 

It's not your secret. It's your character's. And your character isn't you. 

But you said – 

I'm just playing someone called Simon. It's a character, like a fictional character, with my name. It's not me. It's someone I'm playing. 

Who happens, Ana says, to have the same name? 


So it's OK for me to say I hate your fictional character? Of the same name as you?

Yeah, it's OK. Anyway. 

Anyway, says Ryan.

Anyway, says Simon. At the bottom of the page you draw two boxes and label one of them “You” and one of them “Me”.

OK? says Sarah.

And you have eleven points, right. And you divide them up between “You” and “Me”.

Why? says Ryan.

Well. The “Me” points are about how much you care about yourself and how you assert yourself, and how you advance yourself, and that might be at other people's expense. And the “You” points are for how much you care for other people and how you might do things for them at your own expense.

Can I put them all in “Me”? says Ana.

You have to have at least three in a box, says Simon.

Gotcha, says Ana.

I don't get why they're points, says Sarah.

This is the important part, now, because it's the most gamesy part of the game.

So, says Simon. So these points, right, the game calls those Resources. So times come up when we're making these stories when we'll need to decide a plot point, right? When we'll have to set stakes? Got me? 

The others look at him blankly.

OK, say someone tries to do something in the story and the other players or the supporting characters that nobody controls want to stop that. So suddenly something is at stake. Right?
Still blank.

OK, so say my character and Ana's character are in a fight, right?
Well, that's easy, says Ana. I'd fuck you right up.
But what if I cheat? Or something falls on your head? 

So we use these points things?

Yes. We have to decide who gets to describe what happens next. 

So if I win, my character wins the fight?

Maybe. If you win, you get to choose whether you win or not.
So if I wanted to lose, I could lose?

If this seems to be difficult to grasp right now, don't worry. Simon grasped it, and if he can, you should be fine.

Note: Ana actually understands perfectly, and is being deliberately obtuse. The fact is that the game scares her. Not the part with the silly little glass beads and the risks and the sheets of paper, because when she was younger, although she never admits it to her friends and only ever once admitted it to me, she used to enjoy playing Dungeons and Dragons, which is a far more complicated game than this, and you would have sheets covered with magic swords and numbers for how clever you are and how strong you are, and partly, Ana is embarrassed by this. Mostly, though, it is because she soured on it, because even though she played for years, and got herself a ninth-level Magic-User, none of the boys took her seriously, especially because they kept asking her out and didn't take her repeated no as final. 

Later she realised that actually, all the boys she was playing the game with thought they were being imaginative when in fact it stunted the imagination, because nothing destroys the magic of a dragon like knowing how many hit points it has, or exactly how many coins are in its hoard.

You can understand why Ana is resistant to this.

So we both take a Risk, right, says Simon. “Risk” with a capital R. So we take a Risk and risk some of the points we have down there. And because we're fighting someone and we're doing it at someone's expense, we have to risk our “Me” points.

It might be good to represent the Resource points using counters of some kind, like those glass beads you can get from IKEA that are for flower vases, which, come to think of it, is a thing I should have mentioned at the start when I told you that you didn't need anything apart from your friends; still, never mind.

So we take the points – yeah, do it now – and we don't show each other. And we reveal how many we bid at the same time. Like, on the count of three, maybe.

Like Scissors-Paper-Stone, right? says Sarah.

Yeah, says Simon, only with numbers.

[We appreciate that some people call it Rock-Paper-Scissors, but as long as you know what we're talking about, we consider the precise nomenclature to be unimportant, only the point that both players in a game of Scissors-Paper-Stone or Rock-Paper-Scissors or whatever you call it reveal their hand at the precise moment, sometimes at the count of three, which is a thing we advise you do too, because in the long run it saves arguments, and no one wants to fall out over a game of Scissors-Paper-Stone (or Rock-Paper-Scissors, either), although people often do. You'll have plenty of opportunity never to want to talk to your friends again as the game progresses, and really this is the least of the reasons you'll have to quarrel, if you're playing the game as intended.]

Everyone seems to be following this part.

So, this is the clever part, says Simon, holding out his fist with the little beads in it. When you reveal, the winner is the one who risks the most, but then throws away his or her own stake and receives the loser's stake.

Simon and Ana reveal. Simon put three in, Ana five.

So now you won. 

Yay! says Ana.

So I lose the three points. They're gone. And you only get back what I bid. So you return three points back to the box and lose the extra two. 

What happens if we draw? says Ryan.

Um, not sure, says Simon. We'll work that out. Anyway. When everyone's had a turn setting the scene, you figure out who wins, who's the person with the most points on their sheet. And they end the story. 

The problem with a rule text is that it is never as much fun as playing the game itself, and it never should be. A rulebook is a thing that is crafted. It's like a chair. It might be beautiful, it might be a work of art, but you still have to be able to sit on it. It can't read like a physics textbook, because it's for fun. Or possibly therapy. But not for work. But it cannot be so beautiful it obscures the rules.

They begin to play.