Jessica Hammer on the road from Deities & Demi-Gods to Nobilis, Community and Co-GMing

I knew this interview with Jessica Hammer would be amazing because I e-mailed her asking about what topics to discuss and her first response blew me away.

As a girl growing up in a religious community with strict gender roles, my childhood memories of gaming don’t involve much play. I used to lie on my bed on long Saturday afternoons, with the golden late-afternoon light pouring through the windows, reading Deities & Demigods and the Dragonlance setting books and Desert of Desolation, fantasizing about what I might do if I could get beyond the daily constraints of my life.

That said, I can see a direct through-line from that experience to what I love so much about Nobilis. For me, Nobilis is all about remaking the mundane into the mythic. It’s about applying wild logic and precise insight to the world we know, because everything in Nobilis is a way to talk about what we believe about reality. It has the same dreamy, imaginative sensibility as those long afternoons did. And, of course, the deities and demigods are baked right in.

I love the idea of starting on Deities and Demigods and transitioning into Nobilis if we get there.

I broke my toe in fourth grade. While I was in a cast, my mother loaded me up with Bulfinch’s Mythology and Robert Graves and some book about Egyptian myths that I can’t recall. In school, we spent half the school day studying the Bible or practicing Hebrew. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” I read, and delved into the tenth-century commentaries just like the big kids. At home, I started to understand what “other gods” meant. These weren’t just grand adventure stories. They were something people had, sometime, somewhere, truly believed. They’d told and retold these stories, developing new layers of meaning each time, using them to organize and define their lives. They’d done the same thing I was doing in school – and, hard as I found it to imagine, they believed just as deeply as I did.

This was the same year I actually got to play Dungeons & Dragons. A boy from down the street invited me to his gaming birthday party, which involved us making high-level characters and  defending our keep against wave after wave of ridiculous monsters. I went home with his copy of Deities & Demigods and the gaming bug; I kept them both. I had never heard of Nehwon or of Elric, of Aztec mythology or of the Chinese pantheon. I’d sneak downstairs late at night to look gods up in the encyclopedia, never sure which ones would prove to be real. Law and chaos, fire and rain and love and war – people everywhere seemed concerned with the same things. Even the gods of fictional lands spoke to me.

What I spent the most time imagining, though, was how to kill a god. Which one would I prefer to fight? What level would my character have to be? Laid out as they were, with stats and powers, they seemed both immense and painfully limited. They weren’t the all-seeing God who kept me locked in long skirts, the God who demanded I never sing in public, the God the boys thanked for not being born a woman. No. These gods could die, and in my fantasies I killed them over and over again.

Did you ever play that game where you killed gods?

No, I never did. That’s because fourth grade was also the last year I played D&D. When we all came back to school the next fall, the boys decided I couldn’t game with them anymore. I wouldn’t have a chance to play again for a decade. By the time I had another group to play with, I wasn’t interested in killing gods anymore.

What stuck with me was the way gods expressed human concerns, how they told a story of what life was about, how their very existence structured the everyday. I think that’s why Nobilis speaks to me so deeply. Nobles made that understanding concrete and literal, and connected it to modernity. It gives me a metaphorical way to talk about what the world is like, and a way to imagine what it could be.

I shouldn’t be speaking in the singular here, though. For all that I have a deeply personal connection to Nobilis, my relationship with the game is deeply entwined with my relationship with my community. My husband and I have developed a creative partnership around the game over the course of half a dozen LARPs and multiple tabletop games. Our entire gaming group builds out the shared world we originated with new characters, concepts, and stories. At this point, I don’t think there’s anyone who knows everything that’s happened in the world we’ve made; we just keep expanding its fictional boundaries.

We’ve all influenced the way our group plays, but one of the things that’s most important to me is how we create a new Familia, a group of Nobles who are all mystically related. For us, a Familia is an argument. It makes a case for a way to categorize and organize reality – and the great conflicts between Familias are actually conflicts between different ways of seeing and valuing reality. For example, the very first Familia our group ever created was built around the concept of “that which is beautiful because it is impermanent, and cannot survive without changing.” The Powers of Wind, Dawn, Fame, Memory, Inspiration, and Decay were at once living, breathing characters with their own personalities and foibles, and personified symbols whose actions embodied ideas about how we handle impermanence, beauty, and change in our culture.

That’s how we make myths at our table.

Your story reminds me of something. I was living with a practicing Orthodox Jew (I’m a non-practicing Jew). I was showing him around the small town where I had spent my undergrad years and everywhere we went were people I knew from tabletop RPG and LARP gaming. After leaving a bar where the bartender had gamed with me for years he said, “That is a very interesting community you have created for yourself.” Was that disapproval in his voice or was that just my guilt? Eh, doesn’t matter.

Either way, he had a point. I never found my sense of community in the temple and I did make it for myself in the act of creating myths with friends.

Did you find community in that manner through gaming?

I’d actually say the opposite: growing up Orthodox showed me the kind of community I wanted to create with games. It also prepared me to exist in a culture that was quite ready to treat me as a second-class citizen. (“Go make me a sandwich” isn’t all that different from what I learned in yeshiva!) Finally, it showed me that just as I could build an authentic Jewish practice that didn’t rely on gendered oppression, I could also create my own communities around games.

The community I grew up in was close-knit, loving, and connected. People would drop in and out of each other’s houses; they’d celebrate joys together and help each other through tough times. My father ran a Talmud class; every Saturday afternoon, his friends would come over to eat cake, argue about current events, and study together. My mother made sure that we had positive social relationships with community members of all ages, from “aunts” and “uncles” down to caring for young children. Together, my parents helped found our community synagogue, which ran out of our basement for almost a year.

There were great, specific lessons for gaming communities in particular. For example, I’ve been specifically inspired by the practice of observing Shabbat. Shabbat is holy, dedicated time. It’s not an accident that my memories of community are often linked to Shabbat. As a result, I’ve always made a point of setting aside time that’s dedicated to growing my gaming community and deepening our relationships with one another.

Even what I think of as “good gaming community” is conditioned by my upbringing. To me, community means deep, loving, mutually committed relationships around shared practices and values. I know some people like con gaming, but it doesn’t interest me. I want to be an intimate part of people’s lives through gaming, and vice versa. The friends from my gaming group helped me mourn my father’s death, organize my wedding, and deal with serious health issues. We’ve found each other jobs, helped each other move, lived in each other’s apartments, held each other’s hands through heartbreak and through joy.

They’re among the most important people in my life, and I love making things with them. Our community values include creativity, not just kindness – we always want to be creating something new! It’s such a joy to invent communally with people you love, trust, and admire.

I could probably write a book about what I learned about building community from growing up Orthodox – and from leaving the Orthodox world. Maybe I will someday!

Could you talk about that transition between the little girl with a broken toe and a copy of Deities and Demi-Gods to the adult participating in a community through Nobilis-driven myth-creation?

The short answer is that I learned to build communities the way that I did because I didn’t feel that I had any other choice. I wasn’t at home in the Orthodox life I was supposed to have, but the lives I saw in the modern world didn’t make sense to me either. I wanted a sense of rich connection, depth, meaning, shared practice, and shared values – and I also wanted to live my own life. If I wanted both those things, I’d have to figure out how to integrate them for myself.

The same’s true for role-playing games, though in a much less painful way. I wasn’t happy with the games I had the chance to play in, so I decided I’d have to run (and design!) my own.

A couple of the critical milestones along the way:

– Learning to co-GM with my partner, Chris. We wanted to be able to run games in a way that reflected our creative and intellectual partnership. That slowly led us away from heavy prep to a much more improvisational style of play. Eventually we realized that these techniques meant that our players could contribute just as much as we could. While we wouldn’t describe the games we run as GM-less, since we do a lot of coordination and editing, what started as a shared creative endeavor now includes everybody who comes to our table.

– Moving to New York. Our friends like to mock us for interviewing them before they became a part of our lives, but it’s actually kind of true. Chris and I didn’t know anyone when we came to New York, so we advertised online for people to join our gaming group. We were shocked when we were deluged with responses! We winnowed by email, then met people for coffee, and invited the most wonderful people we encountered to become a regular part of our lives. I still feel lucky every day about who we found.

– Hosting our first seder. Until my late twenties, I’d been going home for Passover every year. Finally, Chris and I decided it was time to host our own, and we invited our dearest friends to join us. Working slowly through the prescribed text, we asked challenging questions, analyzed concepts, and shared stories about our lives. We tried to approach it with a sort of radical vulnerability, a willingness to bring our whole selves to the seder table. It was a revelation. That first seder became a model for me in how to engage in Jewish practice, how to connect with a community, and how to relate to stories.

Co-GM with your partner! That is amazing.

How do you split the GM’s responsibilities between the two of you?
Do you take groups into different areas when folks split up or does one take the lead and the other takes peripheral NPC’s and scenery?

I’d love to hear more about that.

How Chris and I co-GM has evolved over time. We built a lot of our techniques during play, but we mined other sources where we could. For example, we spent two years studying and performing improv together, which gave us a shared set of skills to draw on. It was also really helpful to get feedback from our group after every game session, so we could practice in a focused way and iterate as quickly as possible.

The way we divide responsibilities shifts from session to session, because that’s what it means for us to play responsively. There are a few constants, though. For example, each of us will choose a theme or plot element for which we take primary responsibility. For example, “The prince of Rugen has been excommunicated.” Or “Several characters have children – let’s have that be a thing.” It’s our job to look for opportunities to introduce that theme or plot element, which might mean incorporating it into NPCs lives, framing scenes around it, or suggesting to players how their own interests might connect to it. We share responsibility for finding ways those plot elements overlap. For example, the prince’s excommunication might mean a character can’t have their child baptized. Each time the other person introduces something relating to their chosen element, we see if we can build on it to incorporate ours.

We absolutely take advantage of there being two of us when we split the group. Whoever has fewer players takes them into the other room and we run in parallel for a while. We’ve occasionally done some fun things with that, like having one group shout “BOOM!” as loudly as they could when they triggered an explosion, and making the other group react without knowing what was going on. When the groups come back together, our improvisational style means it’s easy to react to whatever they were up to. It’s one benefit of building story structures, not plans.

The best thing about co-GMing, though, is that I know someone’s got my back. If I’m having an off day, Chris can take the lead, and vice versa. Our players can step up, too! We all trust each other to help create good play. It’s one of the benefits of building a community of players over more than a decade, and of consciously working to improve our skills together.

What techniques do you recommend for a duo looking to co-GM for the first time (let’s assume they have GMed before)?

There are a lot of techniques that a pair of potential co-GMs could use, but I’ll choose three things you can start with: one general technique, one prep technique, and one table technique.

Before you start to play, you should get to know each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. If you’ve played with your potential partner, that’s a good start, but you’ll want to take some time to explicitly discuss your impressions so that you know you’re on the same page. For example, I’m great at creating problems for the players, but I sometimes want to keep creating new problems when it would be more fun for everyone to let things resolve. Chris, on the other hand, is great at creating closure, so I know that I should trust his judgment on that front.

Another way to do the same thing is to read books or watch movies together, then discuss them. The goal of the conversation should be to get a sense of what your partner finds satisfying, dramatic, interesting, and fun. You can also use the things you’re reading or watching to practice your shared storytelling skills. “What would have happened if …” is a great game to play with them, because you can get a sense of how they might respond to things the players do – doubly so if the two of you take turns inventing possibilities.

When it comes to prep, your goal should be to establish a loose shared structure within which you can improvise. One good technique is to define what the opening scene will be, and to each choose a threat or issue that you will be responsible for weaving into the session. For example, “We’ll start with the characters being summoned to Lord Entropy’s court to receive custody of a prisoner. I’ll be in charge of the prisoner causing trouble for them from inside their Chancel, and you’ll be in charge of their enemies within the court using this against them. Let’s take five minutes to brainstorm about possible issues we can each raise if the players aren’t taking the initiative.” Note that I really mean five minutes – overpreparation is the kiss of death for co-GMs.

It’s also useful to have a goal for the session, such as “By the end of the session, they’ll have to take a politically or magically meaningful stance about how to treat their prisoner.” You have to be careful with goals, though, because it’s easy to treat your goals as more important than what the players are contributing. The best session goals are open-ended, so that you can use them to give shape and context to player choices rather than to reject those choices. I think of the session goal as an interpretive frame to help the players see what they are doing with a given narrative situation, so that they can make conscious play decisions about it and so that everyone stays on the same page for the duration of the session.

Finally, at the table, there’s a very simple technique that will wildly change how you co-GM: hand signals. You’ll want a signal that means “Pass me the lead,” a signal that means, “Take the lead from me,” a signal that means, “I’m contributing something quick, I’m jumping in for one second but keep going,” and a signal that means, “Hold back, let the players go.” These hand signals will let you quietly manage the creative flow between you two without constantly having meta-conversations about who gets to do what. Your players may even joke about how you two seem to be telepathic!

Knowing your partner, prepping a loose structure, and using hand signals will get you a long way!

Thank you, Jessica for being patient with this process and offering so many fascinating ideas all at once.
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