My Life with Games (part 16)–Designing A Flower for Mara

I’m going to cheat on this entry. The Designer’s Notes for A Flower for Mara pretty much tell the whole story. So I’m going to copy them here.

That’s not the only reason why. A Flower for Mara comes from the depths of my pain when my mother died suddenly. (If you wish, though, you can read A Mother’s Passing elsewhere on my blog for the story.) I’m already baring enough of my soul, with more to come. I’d rather not walk through those times again, if you don’t mind. Even reviewing these notes is more than I care to consider at the moment. Let this be evidence that putting down your flower doesn’t mean that the pain goes away. There are still scars, and when the conditions are right, sometimes they still hurt.

Sometimes they still bleed.

On July 19, 2003, at 11:30 p.m., my mother passed away. It was a shock to all of us. She was not ill; she had shown no indication of any problem. She was working outside that afternoon and, around 2:00 p.m., was stung by two yellow jacket wasps. She wasn’t feeling well and called my sister, Elizabeth. While on the phone, she collapsed. My sister hurried over and found her unconscious. The paramedics could not revive her and, after several hours spent in intensive care, she died. She was only 51 years old.

That wasn’t the first time that death had entered my life. In the first six months of 1997, five people who were close to me suddenly passed away. Among them were my Grandpa Anderson and my Grandma Ben-Ezra. Cancer took them both.

Nor was it the last. In 2006, I helped bury Hannah, the three-year old daughter of a co-worker, dead from a congenital disease. A week later, I stood at the grave of William, a sixteen-year old boy from my church, dead from brain cancer.

These are just some of the griefs that I bear, the flowers that I carry for Mara. Writing this game is part of how I am putting them down.

A Flower for Mara actually started as somebody else’s idea. Back in 2004, Ben Best, a coworker and friend of mine, was working on a screenplay, and he wanted my opinions on it. On the surface, he was telling a ghost story, but underneath, it was actually about a man named Caleb struggling to maintain a good relationship with his daughter Zoe and move on after the sudden loss of his wife. I really liked the concept, and I had lots of opinions. One of them was a name for the wife.

Mara means “bitter”. Seemed like a good, symbolic name for a story about death. (By the way, “Caleb” means “faithful” and Zoe means “life”.)

After we worked on the idea for quite some time, Ben gave me the right to run with the idea in exchange for his taking one of my ideas. I really appreciated his generosity in doing this.

But now what? I wanted to be able to tell this story, but I’m no screenwriter. For a while, the Mara project was going to be a play, because I figured that this was something that I might actually be able to accomplish. My friend, Raquel Mutton, actually wrote up a draft of the play, since she writes better dialogue than I do. We looked at possible stagings of the play. We talked to a couple of people about performing in it. But, generally, the project languished. It didn’t even have a proper name.

At this point, I was exposed to some of the writings of Nordic LARP designers. Live-action roleplaying had never really appealed to me, but their approach was so very different from other LARPs that I was fascinated. Slowly, LARP-like ideas began to creep into my ideas for this play. What if the audience was greeted at the door by funeral attendants, as if they were arriving for a funeral? What if the play actually spilled out into the audience, thus drawing them into the action? My favorite idea was that, at the end of the play, the characters would put flowers on Mara’s grave. Then, if anyone from the audience desired, they could write a grief of their own on one of the flowers that were at the tables and then go up and place that flower on Mara’s grave.

Yeah, like anyone but me would do that.

The project continued to fail to go anywhere. Every so often, someone would say, “Hey, we really should do something with that Mara play.” And that would be it.

Then, in the summer of 2007, I stumbled into Jeepform LARPing, which is a particular type of Scandinavian LARPing. Jeepform is narratively focused for only a few players. I was fascinated. Then a small idea wandered into my head, “You know, this would be perfect for the Mara play….”

I’m not really a playwright. But I am a game designer. So why not play to my strengths?

Much of the structure of the game I actually drew from the original script, which played out over the course of a year. If anything, I needed to remember that the extensive conversations that formed the script weren’t necessarily relevant for the game. Then we playtested it in early December 2007.

It was beautiful. It worked better than I would have expected.

Of course, there were tweaks that I needed to make. The biggest was the formal relationship mechanic that arose from an email conversation with Jason Morningstar, and I made other adjustments following a discussion with Jeeper Tobias Wrigstad at Forge Midwest 2008. But the core was solid.

At last, I had completed the Mara project.

I’ve never visited my mother’s grave since we buried her. I tried, once, but I couldn’t find it. It was hidden beneath the snow, and it eluded me. That’s okay, though. It reminds me that the grave is not the end of the story for my mother; that Jesus will someday call her forth from her grave, and she will come to His call.

But this means that I’ve never placed a flower on her grave. I think that this book will suffice.

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