Blackout poetry is often lumped together with cut ups as a non-authoring solo technique. The goal in this posts is to demonstrate how to use black out poetry for solo play, and give enough pointers for you to be able to give it a go yourself.
Firstly, non-authoring solo. This is a style of play that seeks to minimize the amount of details in your game that come from your own imagination. An author has to create every element of a story themselves. A non-author gets given those details by (in our case) the oracle. An authoring oracle may give you a result such as “Increase + Merriment” which you could interpret as someone staggering down a street with a bottle of wine and singing a funny song. A non-authoring response would give you the full description of the scene, complete with the details. The non-authoring soloist should only have to be concerned with how their character acts and reacts, not with having to world-build as they go.
Non-authoring techniques include cut up solo, book walking, using an AI GM, game books, and blackout poetry.
Cut up solo has you take a text, preferably in the genre that you want to play, and you cut it into snippets of 4-8 words in length. You then jumble these up and then try and put random snippets together for form sentences and paragraphs of GM description.
In practical terms it is much slower to play this way that rolling for a few words on a spark table, and imagining what they mean, but those snippets come with a wealth of descriptive details that you may never have come up with on your own. Humans have an ability, or flaw, of seeing patterns where they often do not exist. This comes into play and helps you put these random word groups together in a way that you can read them.
You can do minor edits to aid readability, but the essence should be all from the text. Your input is limited to trying to find the snippets to answer the question or that advances the story.
Below is a short example of cut up play using A Thousand Nights and a Night as the source.
saidthe host // replied. “Wilt thou // “Be quick and // and pardon mythis man’s past doings. // the Prince, we setreplied //”Allah bless thee and aid // one worthy of it” ,
I see myself as being dragged from a prison cell and made to kneel before a wealthy-looking name (our host) and an opulently dressed young man that even I recognize as one of the crown princes. Why have I been brought, or what they want from me, I have no idea about.
They replied, “We // within the door, so // is full of pain; // and with him were // one worthy of it, // grievous torments, and dragging // dove and the Nubian
I haven't edited this passage because I can imagine both men trying to talk simultaneously and tripping over each other. My character still being somewhat dazed and confused. I let them continue while I try and work out what it is they want of me.
studded with pearls and jewels // spread
itthe coat in the sunshine // and he took it and
Now I am beginning to understand. This is a set a thief to catch a thief. The Prince has been robbed of a coat and the Prince's daughter, Princess Dove, and one of her handmaidens. They seem to be in some fear or awe of the thief and feel like the thief is almost worthy of the Prince's coat and the hand of the princess!
I find cut ups too slow to play an entire game. I am also not averse to interpretive orcles. What I find to be my happy place with cut ups is to not try and build sentences and paragraphs, but to try and construct a three line mini-poem, that looks a little like a Haiku, but without the structural constraints.
If I read it as if it was a poem they become very evocative and I find them easy to visualize what they are trying to depict.
An example of a Faku is this, using three of the cut ups from the example.
within the door, so
is full of pain
If you ignore any context you may have already from reading the example, that little verse is really striking and much faster and easier to play off of, for me at least.
This method is a distance cousin to cut ups. Take a book or text source that fits your genre and your trusty d6. When you need the GM response you roll one and count on that many pages, then roll again and count down that many paragraphs, then start skim reading looking for a good response.
You do not need to limit yourself to just one book, you could have a stack of setting books or the entire collection of Elric novels, then use a dice roll to pick a book and then roll for page and paragraph. You would just need bookmarks to hold your place in each book.
I copy & paste text into Word to build texts that may not have a natural page number. I used the scripts from Top Gun and Top Gun Maverick when I wanted to be an F16 pilot, and I found that Death Metal lyrics are good for Mork Borg style games, Prog Rock for a more noble-bright feel, and Gangster Rap for cyberpunk.
Movie scripts are particularly good if you want to hit a very specific niche. The following example is taken from my rules for Elemental, using the Top Gun scripts.
Example: I do not want this first mission to be a simple fly out, spot the wreckage, and fly home. So I want some inspiration. I roll the first die and get two, and the second gives 4. This is pages 26-50 and 12 pages from the start, so page 37. The top of page 37 gives me an iconic scene from the first film.
– I can’t reach the ejection handle!
– Watch the canopy!
Goose… Oh, no!
Sir, let go of him.
You’ve got to let him go, sir.
– How are you doing?
– I’m all right.
– Goose is dead.
– I know.
You fly jets long enough, something like this happens.
What do I want to use? I decide that Trigger, my wingman, suddenly has a catastrophic failure. The first three lines are heard over my headset, and he needs to eject. This poses a number of questions. Do I proceed with the mission? Does Trigger eject safely? I have chosen not to use the rest of the scene text, so just because Goose died doesn’t mean Trigger is dead. What will my orders from the carrier be? What caused the failure in Trigger’s F-18? Many of these can be answered with the yes-no-question tool. Did Trigger eject safely? I roll one and a 3, which is a “Yes, and….” Yes, Trigger got out safely, and I got a good position on where he will splash down so I can radio that back to the rescue helicopter.
I have very little experience of doing this, and it does not excite me. I think this is because I enjoy the GMing side of solo play as much, if not more than, the playing. I will often GM a scenario for my virtual character.
If you search online, there are herds of soloists and D&D players that don’t know that they are soloists who want AI to run games for them.
I know people had some success with AIDungeon, but I get the impression that chatGPT has blown AIDungeon out of the ballpark (is that a proper phrase?). I am not the best person to ask about AI stuff, let’s move along…
I am British, so game books for me mean Fighting Fantasy and the proper Steve Jackson. Choose Your Own Adventure came along much later in my memory.
The game book offers a rich and immersive gaming experience where you do none of the world-building. What they lack is the open world and freedom of path that true RPGs offer. These are truly non-authoring, but the question is, are they truly roleplaying?
And so finally to the main event.
Blackout poetry originally involved taking a found text, typically a newspaper, and redacting the text to leave only the words of your poem.
That is not much use to use as roleplayers because we want the black out poetry to tell us things we don’t know, not make it harder to say what we already know.
There are three methods I use. The first uses an online tool. https://blackout-poetry-generator.vercel.app/
I have pasted in up to 15k words and had the tool do the redacting for me without problem. I do not know what the upper limit is. In the image below the text is The Devil in Iron by Robert E Howard ( a Conan story).
If this is the first scene of a new game I could take the first paragraph and use it to imagine the scene. The unredacted words read:
the knife gesture for feared knife not saw-edged disembowel with stroke. man him the isle.
In non-authoring solo I want to look for the facts, and then create a scenario that fits the facts. We know that there is gesturing with the knife. That the knife is straight-bladed, that someone is disemboweled with a stroke, and someone is an islander. A scenario that fits, as an opening scene is that my hero stumbles upon a showdown between the knife wielder, who is doing a bit of knife play to show off their cool and prowess, and someone who looks foreign, in my imagination when I think islanders, I think Icelanders, so looking like a viking. As I watch, the knife wielder flicks out a single stroke and disembowels the viking.
That fits the facts as known and serves as an opening scene. I can now turn to the game rules, or ask more details.
The second paragraph gives me:
The fisherman that the past, their, Vilayet time broadly apish arms chest loins low and his knife
Vilayet relates to the Ottoman Empire, so it gives an idea of dress style and the text gives the build of the knifeman. At this point, the GM would say, “What do you do?”
I am not interested in getting involved in a fight that doesn’t concern me, but am also concerned that I may be an inconvenient witness. There would be loads of questions I could ask a GM, did the guy look like he was alone, does he look in my direction, does he make eye contact?
So we turn back to the blackout page.
The next section did not offer any obvious answer so I scroll down a few paragraphs and get to this section.
The word that jumped out at me was ‘race’, the full text I have here is:
race is along the since immemorial broadly but face all the clothing.
I can imagine a knife man giving chase, and me fleeing though what is maybe a poor part of the city, with washing lines stretched across the streets, so I am flinging clothing left and right as I feel. At this point I have no idea where I am going or how far behind the knife man is.
And so the cycle continues.
How you read the exposed words will change how you visualise the scene, and which paragraphs you choose will change the words you have available.
You do not need to be online to do blackout. You can take a marker pen to any printed page, please don’t black out your kindle screen, blacking out until you hit an interesting work, then carry on until you hit the next interesting word and so on. This way you get to reveal the adventure hidden in the original text. The goal should be not to create a few random words you can interpret, but to build enough of a sentence for it to be read as the GM contribution.
A blackout sheet is a piece of paper or card with slots cut into it. I have seen them as small as a credit card or business card, and as big as an 8.5″x11″ RPG rulebook. You lay this over the page and line it up so words appear in the slots.
Mine is the size of a bookmark, and I turn it sideways to use for blackout and vertically to use a a bookmark. I made it myself with some cardboard and a craft knife.
Black Out and Word
I use Word 365 as my word processor. This gives me two ways of doing blackouts. The first is with an overlay image. Take your graphics program of choice and make a wide-colored rectangle. Then, overlay that with some white rectangles. Now save your image.
Insert your image into Word, and using the Format Image tab, set the Wrap Text option to In front of Text. Now use the Color option and Set Transparency Color, and click in one of your white rectangles. This will make them all into see-through windows. You can resize your image to make it as wide as your page and then drag it over the text.
Another alternative is to use a Macro.
This is the macro I created for myself. It selects from 1 to 7 words and turns the font color to white. it moves on a couple of words (1 to 3 words) and then repeats to the end of the document. While it is more of a whiteout, it does save a lot of ink if you want to print them. You can use the macro on any text you can get into Word, either opening a PDF in Word or downloading text from the web. I do a lot with public domain texts, and this will cycle through a big book in half an hour.
Sub Blackout() ' ' Blackout Macro ' ' Do Application.EnableCancelKey = xlErrorHandler Selection.MoveRight Unit:=wdWord, Count:=Int((6 * Rnd) + 1), Extend:=wdExtend Selection.Font.ColorIndex = wdWhite Selection.MoveRight Unit:=wdWord, Count:=Int((3 * Rnd) + 1) Loop Until (Selection.End = ActiveDocument.Content.End - 1) End Sub
Blackout poetry is a lot faster than cut ups for me, but it gives a similar level of detail. This is especially true when using a market pen and paper text and hunting for the cool words in a document. It has the flexibility to work online, on screen, and on paper.
I still use Faku verses when I am doing anything with cut ups, but blackouts are very mobile and can also be used to construct those little verses, which is what it was originally intended for. I am just not sure my use of blackout poetry is what they originally meant.
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