Beyond Words

A person’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence their heart first opened.

Albert Camus

On the night of the 11th of April 1981 the area around my primary school in Brixton erupted in long-simmering violence. “TO THINK THIS IS ENGLAND!” screamed the front page of English newspaper The Sun. The poet Linton Kwesi Johnson describes it best:

Five Nights of Bleeding

Madness, madness
Madness tight on the heads of the rebels
The bitterness erup’s like a heart blas’
Broke glass, ritual of blood an’ a-burnin’
Served by a cruelin’ fighting
5 nights of horror and of bleeding
Broke glass, cold blades as sharp as the eyes of hate
And the stabbin’, it’s
War amongs’ the rebels
Madness, madness, war

Night number one was in Brixton
Sofrano B sound system
‘im was a-beatin’ up the riddim with a fire
‘im comin’ down his reggae reggae wire
It was a sound checkin’ down your spinal column
A bad music tearin’ up your flesh
An’ the rebels dem start a fighting
De youth dem just tun wild, it’s
War amongs’ the rebels
Madness, madness, war

Night number two down at Sheppard’s
Right up Railton Road
It was a night name Friday when ev’ryone was high on brew or drew
A pound or two worth of Kali
Sound comin’ down of the king’s music iron
The riddim just bubblin’ an’ backfirin’
Ragin’ an’ risin’
When suddenly the music cut –
Steelblade drinkin’ blood in darkness, it’s
War amongs’ the rebels
Madness, madness, war

Night number three, over the river
Right outside the Rainbow
Inside James Brown was screamin soul
Outside the rebels were freezin’ cold
Babylonian tyrants descended
Pounced on the brothers who were bold
So with a flick of the wris’, a jab and a stab
The song of hate was sounded
The pile of oppression was vomited
And two policemen wounded
Righteous, righteous war

Night number four at the blues dance, abuse dance
Two rooms packed and the pressure pushin’ up
Hot, hotheads
Ritual of blood in the blues dance
Broke glass splintering, fire
Axes, blades, brain blas’
Rebellion rushin’ down the wrong road
Storm blowin’ down the wrong tree
And Leroy bleeds near death on the fourth night
In a blues dance, on a black rebellious night, it’s
War amongs’ the rebels
Madness, madness, war

Night number five at the Telegraph
Vengeance walk thru de doors
So slow, so smooth
So tight and ripe and – smash!
Broke glass, a bottle finds a head
And the shell of the fire heard – crack!
The victim feels fear
Finds hands, holds knife, finds throat
Oh, the stabbins and the bleedin’ and the blood, it’s
War amongs’ the rebels
Madness, madness, war

My school was shut pretty sharpish – the van you can see burning in the main picture was very close by – but some of us managed to escape the clutches of our parents and sort-of nearly join in. When we were caught, the white kids were let off and the black kids were put in the back of a van and driven away.

When I moved to Cheltenham to live with my father – a not unrelated event – I found myself somewhat alienated from the other children by my attitude and my accent. I remember the look on Mrs Evans’s face when she realised I couldn’t hold a pen, nor read or write more than a few words. She was almost as ashamed as I was.

I stayed in at break times. Pretty soon, I was reading and transcribing whole sentences, though I never did learn to hold a pen properly. The first book I read under my own steam was Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stephenson. Or it may have been The Lord of the Rings; I’d recognised the word ‘Frodo’ along with one or two others when I first picked it up, but for large stretches I was pretending to read it in the hope that pretence would become reality. Bit by bit, it made sense. Paragraphs became pages and pages arranged themselves into chapters. I loved it.

I moved to 'Nam... Chelt'Nam.
I moved to ‘Nam… Chelt’Nam.

I was kind of into roleplaying games by that point, mainly through the pages of White Dwarf, a hobby magazine published by Games Workshop. Finding people to play them with was a challenge. I reeked of BO and struggled to look anyone in the eye. I tended to content myself with the Fighting Fantasy series of books published by Puffin, though I did play the odd game of Dungeons and Dragons or Call of Cthulhu.

I must have been at secondary school when I first read A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium by M John Harrison. It may have been in two parts; I’m not sure. I remember that it filled most, if not all, of an issue of SF magazine Interzone and that I found it difficult to follow what was going on.

It was only on rereading a later version of Harrison’s Viriconium sequence (Fantasy Masterworks, Gollancz, 2000), that I realised I’d been waiting to remember A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium all along. There it was: the scene in the public toilet of a tea-room in York in which Viriconium itself is disproved.

Readers that want to believe in the story rather than in its author can feel alienated by this approach. I found it to be truthful: everything around me was an admixture of truths and lies. Even I was a story. Disorienting as this realisation was, I recognised it as an opportunity to begin my own narrative.

This is why I love roleplaying games. More recently, I’ve come to understand it’s why I love role-playing games with implicit narrative, light mechanics and an improvisational agenda. Some of these operate a ‘broadcast’ model, in which one person orchestrates the game on behalf of the others – a ‘Storyteller’ or Games Master (GM) – while others try to equalise the creative input of those playing through shared narrative processes. Some games try to balance both approaches.

Those I like most tend to be termed ‘surreal’ in their approach; some parts feel real, some imaginary; others symbolise greater truths. It doesn’t matter too much to me if the game has a GM or not, or labels itself a ‘story game’ or as part of the Old School Renaissance; what matters to me is the generosity of spirit of those taking part. Trust is everything. I like the approach taken to this issue by the Nørwegian Style, a movement prevalent in the roleplaying scene in and around Norway until a couple of years ago.

The Society of Dreamers by Matthijs Holter (2010), a game in which a troupe of nineteenth century parapsychologists hunt for the truth about autonomous life forms living in people’s dreams, contains a guide to the Nordic Dreaming style of play. These are the best strategies for open-ended roleplay I’ve encountered. Directive number two reads:-

  • Your idea is a starting point that the group will grow into something larger, better and different. Throw it out there! Do not try to find the best idea.

And, number three:-

  • When it’s been said, it’s true. Do not try to retroactively change what others have described.

And so on. Each of the ten guidelines – they’re not commandments, even if they do contain some of the force of moral truth – accents the necessary acceptance for collaborative play. The roll of ‘instructor’ passes between those playing the game. Scenes are framed via each instructor’s response to the other players’ combined engagement with a bespoke Ouija board then dramatized via the interplay of characters created during the game’s prologue.

“Do NOT be tempted to skip the childhood and youth scenes!” Holter advises. “They are vital to the game.” The game’s story arc is based on those two or three simple images in whose presence the characters’ hearts first opened.


Holter designed the resolution cards for Itras By, another game from Norway by Ole Peder Giæver and Martin Bull Gudmundsen (English translation 2012, Giæver & Gudmundsen with Jimi Thaule and Magnus Jakobsson). A dreaming spider goddess has set her city adrift in streams of subconscious thought. “The road goes not outwards, but inwards,” the authors tell us. “The landscape is that of the imagination, dreams and ideas, draped in recognisable garments – the big city.”

The setting is beautiful: every sepia echo of the 1920s and 30s is here, the age in which old became new, faith became doubt and dreams became reality. The truly great thing about the game is how it manages the impasse between creativity and resolution. Holter’s ‘chance’ cards offer eight outcomes to actions taken by characters in Itra’s City, ranging from, Yes, and… the character achieves more than she expected, and Yes, but… something unrelated goes wrong for the character, to, Help is needed… from someone outside the scene, and Yes, but only if… the character makes a sacrifice.

Illustration: Thore Hansen, Kathy Schad
Illustration: Thore Hansen, Kathy Schad

Where the ‘chance’ cards connect narrative resolution to the actions taken by characters in the city to the creativity of the people playing them, the ‘fate’ cards offer the opportunity to transform the game. They require quick-fire improvisation on the part of players. The card Nemesis, for instance, might invoke an arch-enemy of one of the characters, while Cut Scene jumps three hours ahead in time, depicting that temporally connected but disjointed feeling so common in dreams.

The influence of this continuous-yet-revelatory approach to narrative in roleplaying games has been felt even in those games that remodel the experience of the old school RPGs of the 1970s and 1980s – games like Dungeons and Dragons (1974) and science fiction mainstay Traveller (1977).

The game DayTrippers by Tod Foley (2015) marries traditional roleplaying techniques to in-game attempts by an auteur Games Master to harness the ‘psychic content’ of her players and then structure the narrative accordingly. She’s looking for unconscious tells on the part of her players so that she can improvise story elements that make the game more meaningful for them.

Features of the Old School Renaissance – rulings, not rules, player skill rather than character abilities and a human-sized scale to the action – are used to relay opportunities for epiphany back to the players. Characters are betraying aspects of players’ personalities of which they may have been only partially aware.


The reality-hopping in DayTrippers obscures a deeper truth: you need to believe in the people playing the game as well as in the game itself. There’s an interstice at the heart of its approach to story-telling, one which at first glance doesn’t seem to be answered by its random tables, its ‘run-sheets’ and its essays on surrealism. What fills this gap? You do. The authorial voice is shared between the players differently: one person is doing the ‘heavy-lifting’ but she relies on the players to furnish the means.

The game is capable of modelling anything from the Golden Age of science fiction to the New Wave of which authors like M John Harrison were such a mainstay in the 1960s and 70s, but only catches alight at the interpolation of its players.

The games mentioned here – The Society of Dreamers, Itras By and DayTrippers – have this in common: they recognise that many of the most important moments in our lives are neither linear nor explicable. Their gameplay offers the fullest opportunity for creativity: being more than real means being rooted in the reality of the human psyche.

“A concept is a brick,” says French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. “It can be used to build a courthouse of reason, or it can be thrown through the window.” GMed or not, old school or new, games like these go beyond words.

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