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Left Coast

Entry updated 8 November 2018. Tagged: Game.

Role Playing Game (2005; rev 2011; vt Left Coast: The Short Story Edition). Steve Hickey Games. Designed by Steve Hickey, with input from Avery Alder, Simon Carryer, Ron Edwards, Craig Hargraves, Zed Lopez, Manu, Dan Maruschak, Mike Sands and Ivan Towlson.

Independent Game in which those playing improvise scenes from the life of "Jane P Richards", a Scientist at the University of California in the late 1960s and early 1970s with a secret Identity as a male author of sf (see Women SF Writers).

What is real? What is human? And how, if at all, do the answers to these questions connect to the creative imagination and to the depiction of Inner Space in science fiction? The influence of the early death of Philip K Dick's twin sister Jane (December 16, 1928-January 26, 1929) on the life and work of one of the most important figures in twentieth-century Genre SF has so informed the many Critical and Historical Works About SF about him as to become as much a mainstay in the mainstream understanding of his oeuvre as escaped Androids, reality-altering Drugs and the freewheeling fusion of Humour and Paranoia to the Metaphysics of Perception. "It is Jane-in-me-now, the anima or female principle, which is the lachrymose side, which is ailing and now seeks hospitalization," wrote Dick in great despondency in an Exegesis entry of 1975, part of an 8,000-page manuscript left by Dick of which around 15% was assembled as The Exegesis of Philip K Dick (2011), edited by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem. This was, according to Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (1989) by Lawrence Sutin, during one of many painful interludes in Dick's obsessive search for a precise intellectual understanding of the origins of a personal Religion that first appeared as a series of (possibly manic, but nonetheless incontrovertible) visions over the course of February and March of 1974. "We know that, whatever be our organism's personalities, our mental states have their substantive value as revelations of the living truth," wrote William James (for whom see the entry on Psychology) in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), "and we wish that all this medical materialism could be made to hold its tongue." American psychiatry in the wake of World War Two tended to focus on persuading patients to conform to societal norms rather than on emphasizing self-acceptance – Dick used the "tests" favoured by the former approach as a source of Parody in several of his works – but Dick's second therapist, a Jungian focused on the creative personality, was very interested in the circumstances of Jane's death, and in Dick's recollections of an imaginary friend from childhood with dark hair and shadowy eyes called "Jane". "Jane must live on in a vestigial existence in me on this side," Dick's entry in the Exegesis continued, "but be beyond on the other side."

The decision, then, to flip the Gender of the protagonist of Left Coast: The Short Story Edition, a Role Playing Game based on the life of Philip K Dick of the sort sometimes referred to as a "story game" due to its focus on an emergent narrative over numerical rules or conditions of victory, is not only canny but thematically appropriate, and all the more so for being set during the late-1960s, early 1970s-period in which the twin-fixated themes of Genre SF novels such as Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) had begun to give way to the split-personality dynamics of the California-set Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (written 1970-1973; 1974) and A Scanner Darkly (written 1973; 1977), the latter of which was adapted for the Cinema by Richard Linklater as A Scanner Darkly (2006). The details of Dick's religious experiences informed the depiction of the Vast Active Living Intelligence System and that of the Alien probe heralding the arrival of the (young, female) Messiah in VALIS (written 1978; 1981), collected with The Divine Invasion (written 1980; 1981) and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (written 1981; 1982) as The VALIS Trilogy (omni 1989). It is to the credit of Left Coast that the complex of themes around Dick's conception of the contrast of the idios kosmos [an idea of "personal consciousness" derived from Gnostic thought] with the koinos kosmos [the "shared social consciousness" of a degraded material reality] is rendered as playable without reducing the author's beliefs to ridicule.

The details of the game's set-up are integral to its outcome. Two-to-five players begin by choosing one of their number to play "the author" Jane P Richards, an academic whose Pseudonym for publishing stories in SF Magazines is "J Philip Richards", while another person is nominated to embody "the weird" aspect of Jane's creative work that is about to upend her real-life existence; remaining players create two sets of supporting characters, the first connected to the (as yet undefined) weird conspiracy, and the second representing ordinary social pressures. The player representing "the weird" selects one from a pile of character-cards (supplied as print-outs in the game's appendix) inscribed with a "secret" that inspires them – examples include "you possess a second Alien personality" and "you can detect hidden messages in Communications" – while every other player aside from "the author" chooses a single character-card from a pile unaffected by the weird conspiracy, such as "you are a powerful and hateful critic of the author's work" or "you are so fascinated by Jane that you are going to become her". Players fill in blank spaces on the cards they have selected by defining their character's relationship to the author and by answering questions on how the character is likely to prove a problem for the author; prompts such as "pot dealer" or "demanding Fanzine publisher" are provided for those unable to improvise a response.

Players then select an element of everyday society and Politics that Jane might be in the process of dramatizing, such as fear of Communism, the civil rights movement or protests against the War in Vietnam – the Dystopia in Dick's novel VALIS (1981) concerned "Ferris Fremont", a thinly-veiled version of Richard Nixon (1913-1994), as yet the only American president to resign the office – or to broader movements in human Sociology such as Feminism, Sex or Ecology. A "setting chart" divided into four quadrants reflects the pressures different supporting characters might exert on Jane: the "social" quadrant is for family and friends, "trouble" for anyone who stops her writing, "money" for those who apply financial pressure on Jane, and, not least, "weird" for anyone whose behaviour seems to defy rational explanation. Players add details to the relationships between supporting characters, choose a supporting character to be a fictionalized version of a person from the story on which Jane is working in secret and then enter the title of the story into the "money" quadrant of the setting chart.

The set-up procedures to Left Coast are fairly intense, not to mention paper-heavy, and might take anywhere up to half-an-hour to complete, but are designed to supply the specifics necessary to the smooth running of play thereafter, T S Eliot's famous dictum about one's not being able to be universal without being particular being, perhaps, even more true of Fantastika than of other forms of story-telling. The "shared imagined space" aspect of Left Coast relies in part on techniques discussed over online forum The Forge – for which mode of Game Design see the entry on the Role Playing Game Archipelago (2007; rev 2009, 2012) – but its gameplay proceeds scene by scene in a manner reminiscent of the "laid back" dialogue-heavy vibe used in The Big Lebowski (1998) or, indeed, A Scanner Darkly (2006). Scenes begin with "the weird" player describing the mood of the City in which Jane lives – likely to be Los Angeles or San Francisco or some other conurbation on the west coast of California – and "the author" player expressing what Jane is doing; those personifying supporting characters then relate how their characters enter the scene. The dramatic contents of these encounters and conversations trigger "conflicts" in which Jane demonstrably wants things to go one way and events show every indication (through the actions of the supporting characters) of not doing so; the player of the author must then (a) state clearly what Jane hopes to achieve and (b) roll dice to resolve the conflict, with any "5" or "6" on a die being allocated toward either Jane's "success" in resolving the conflict or toward an "additional effect", such as adding details to the story that she is writing.

Jane begins play with five six-sided dice and gives one of these dice up at the end of every scene: this has the effect of restricting the length of play (to five scenes) and increasing the likelihood of "the weird" interfering in Jane's life the longer the game goes on. Anytime a player thinks a scene should end, they knock on the table; a second knock from any player ends the scene. When all the author-dice have gone, players decide whether to continue with the story (by adding another five dice) or to end the game. Outcomes may be unresolved or Jane may end the game by being committed or arrested or by moving somewhere else to escape the weirdness.

The fecundity of these rules combines with what seems a genuine affection for the life, work and sensibility of Philip K Dick to produce a game capable of intimating what it might have been like to be an sf writer in late 1960s California; it is, however, the interpolation of gendered social realism into the Postmodernism of a specific person and locale that lifts Left Coast beyond homage and into a deeply science-fictional capacity to connect emotional truth to societal change.

A longer version of the game in which players each personify an sf writer at a Convention is in development. [MD]

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