This post originally appeared in Hebrew in Play in Theory, an Israeli group blog discussing tabletop games. Recent posts have discussed issues such as realism, whether there exist objectively good games, GMing for children, what the purpose of a game system, player and character decisions, free tickets for GMs at cons, and RPGs as art.
How You Ho
By Adi Elkin, 8 October 2014
It’s funny to see an expression you used with yourself, and occasionally on remote message boards, become the definition of an entire genre.
The conventional definition among the RPG community for a Ho game is a game that emphasizes emotion, drama and relationships, and deemphasizes tactics, battles and statistics. I love Ho games very much, and not just because I came up with the expression: in my opinion Ho games are the heart of the hobby. Tactics and battles, computer games have plenty of. But drama and emotion are the unique strength of roleplaying games, and what lets us be in another place, for a brief moment.
And this is exactly the problem when people come to design Ho games. The accepted and most natural thought is that Ho means immersion. With all due respect to immersion, it is not Ho. Ho requires, in addition to identification with the character, also being able to move the world. The drama moves between the character and the story, which feed each other. Immersion fixates the players in their characters, whereas our goal in the Ho game is not to experience the world as the character, but to emphasize the feeling. The people who feel are the players, and when they’re stuck in their characters, their options to create drama are more limited.
Ho doesn’t mean difficult content, either. In fact, the automatic connection between Ho and horrific rape plots disturbs me. Difficult content is an especially easy way to stir the player’s emotions, but it’s also cheap and superficial, not to mention irresponsible in some cases. In other cases it instead cause the player to engage in suppression and emotionally disengage from the plot.
Another serious problem with difficult content is the need for acceleration: the more we put brutal murders and incest in the game, the further up the threshold of stimulation goes. Imagine a news editor, who has to deal with at least one article per day about a rape or a murder or a traffic accident. The first time, the editor will be shocked, and maybe also the second or third time, but afterward, the editor will treat these stories with the same intensity as an electric bill. I’ve been there, I’m talking from experience. At one point I even asked that they stop giving me the traffic accident page to edit, because it’s boring.
So it’s true it’s a game, and the tendency is usually toward exaggeration, but our world is sufficiently exciting and stimulating even without carving up women and severing heads. Practically all of us have experienced unrequited love, the feeling of failure, the mirth of unusual achievement, fights with our parents, a friend who betrayed us and a terrible feeling of loss. That’s the material our life is made up of, and that’s the material the Ho games are made of, with just one difference: the plot.
In our life, sadly, there’s no plot. The love of our life who left us because of a misunderstanding won’t come back to us in the third act. It’s not guaranteed that we’ll be able to get our revenge on our asshole boss who made our life miserable at work. And we if invest all our effort in a new and original creation, it’s not certain we’ll succeed. In fact, most likely, we won’t. Our life, how sad, is a journey from one anticlimax to another. The Ho takes all these familiar human emotions and brings them safely to catharsis.
And so, Ho can take place in any place where there are humans (or humanoids who have been defined as having human-like traits), regardless of whether this is a fantasy with dragons and dwarves, a tough science fiction world or our world. As long as there are human emotions in the package, it’s possible to turn them into Ho. The classic story of the farmhand who goes seeking adventure to prove to the people in his village that he’s not the loser they say he is; the smuggler with the spaceship who’s grown tired of his life and is looking for a place of safety; the magician’s rebellious apprentice who has trouble adjusting herself to a world of discipline and rigid laws; the modern police detective who tries to find balance between the bosses and their politics and his desire to find what the strange signs he found at the murder scene are. A hackneyed, cliché story or an original one – it doesn’t matter. Maybe we’ve never been farmhands or detectives or magicians’ apprentices, but we’ve experienced dare, fear, and desire to find our place in society. We know how to play this.
There are five basic rules for successful Ho:
1. Let yourselves be. Ho needs to take place in a safe, non-judgmental environment, which makes it possible to show feelings. I would have a very hard time doing Ho while the rest of the party is joking around, or alternative interested in awesome feats for their characters and look derisively at my decision to play a poor girl with -2 dexterity and no powers. Not all players in the group have to be committed to Ho – it’s not for everybody – but they have to be accepting of it in others.
2. Don’t interfere. We’re human, and as long as we let ourselves be (see point 1), Ho erupts by itself. The trick is not to interfere with it. Let us remind ourselves of the old story about a generic fantasy party where two characters slowly started to get close to each other. After a few sessions of initiation attempts from both sides, the opportunity was born: the party took shelter at a farm, and the two characters were alone in an old barn. The GM did not know anything about the romance brewing under his nose. And right at the moment the characters were about to declare their love for each other, the GM sent them an NPC old woman with cups of tea. The Ho evaporated without a trace.
3. Navigate carefully. Remember what I wrote before about immersion and why it’s not required for successful Ho? It’s because the successful Ho players must keep checking their pulses and know when the scene has concluded and it’s time to cut it and move on, or when it’s time to go out of character and cause drama for the benefit of all. The same is true of GMs. Seeing the party Ho with itself is a heartwarming sight, but the Ho could disappear within a moment and the conversation would become as tiring as political arguments on Facebook.
4. Don’t be realistic. Sticking to pedantic details on the theory that it would make identification easier doesn’t necessarily lead to Ho scenes. Our lives are pretty boring, most of the time. That’s why we play RPGs. Entire scenes of brushing our teeth, arguing with the tax assessor, and discovering we’re out of toilet paper will be yawn-worthy. And the goal, after all, is to elicit real emotions using our fruitful imaginations. Don’t be afraid to be larger than life, just remember, everything in moderation. See above on difficult content.
5. Know your limits. Playing with feelings is like playing with fire. Pardon the cliché, but sometimes you can get burned. There are people who aren’t made for having romantic relationships around the table, and there are people who will be uncomfortable with abusive or unequal relationships (I once had a character who enslaved the entire party and sold them into slavery – those were the days). You must constantly listen, understand when you’ve crossed a line and retreat carefully. And if someone steps on a sensitive spot of yours, gently signal to them that they should take one step back. This delicate balance will keep the level of Ho exactly where you want it to be.
I’ve played many RPGs in my life. Not all were Ho. Some had a little Ho, and others had too much, even for me. But the games where the Ho was well-made and in the correct amount, those are the games I will remember for the rest of my life. And that’s worth a lot.
English translation provided by Alon Levy. He is a mathematician by profession. Originally from Israel, he’s lived in Singapore, the French Riviera, the Northeastern US, and Canada, and now lives in Sweden. He has been LARPing for four years, almost entirely in the Northeastern US, and has written or co-written five LARPs, three of which aim squarely at Ho.
He writes, “many of the topics brought up on the blog are active discussions within the Intercon community regarding LARPs. A good number of LARPers do it for the feelings, and would appreciate the concept of Ho as applied to LARPs. I think that with Nordic influence, there’s a tendency toward more immersion, while at the same time certain kinds of plots can only happen if writers go in the other direction: imagine a LARP that takes place in four hours but tells a story that stretches over far more time, so that character development is more natural. This article especially interested me since it treats Ho and immersion separately, and makes it easier to design games that aim at Ho even while dealing with subject matter that requires time skipping, non-freeform mechanics, and other immersion breaks.”