Sunday, December 2, 2007

I love deadlines.

"I especially like the whooshing sound they make as they go flying by." So sayeth Douglas Adams. Yes, I once had aspirations of v. 0.3 coming out in time for Dec. 21, being exactly 5 years now until the Fifth World actually starts. But that's simply not going to happen.

But, my brother & I are planning on going to Origins next year, and I'd really like to be able to run some kind of Fifth World game there....

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Limiting Relationsips

In the Thirty Theses, Dunbar's Number comes up a lot. Dunbar noted a correlation between neocortex size in primates, and the size of the social groups they formed. Applying that principle to humans, the mean limit for humans came out to something like 150, and sure enough, historical examples abound. With populations less than 150, egalitarianism holds sway, but when populations surpass 150, cognitive "cheats" like laws, government, or stereotypes become necessary to keep things running.

A few important things to note about Dunbar's Number that often get lost. First, 150 gives a mean. Some people might have their limit at 149, and others at 151, or even 100 or 200. Neither does this impose a hard limit. Even if your own limit stands at 150, you can still know 151 people: it just stretches your limits. You've stretched your cognitive capacity. The more you surpass that limit, the more shallow all of those relationships must become. Illustration: "I Got 9,000 Friends on MySpace."

So, to reflect this, shouldn't the Fifth World have a limit to the number of relationships a character can have? Press beyond that, and you get a cap on the number of relationship points you can have, per relationship--maybe a maximum of 30 at the limit, then after another interval it drops to 20, then 10. Of course, 150 wouldn't work, that would give you far too many relationships for just a game. 15 wouldn't give you enough. What would make a good limit?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fifth World Magic: Etic & Emic

Anthropologists talk about the differences between etic and emic perspectives. The perspectives of outsiders looking in on a society, we call emic perspectives, while the perspectives of insiders about their own society, we call etic perspectives. The Fifth World game aims to immerse players in an animistic world, so etic perspectives reign supreme. But we, the players, have an emic perspective of the Fifth World. Bridging that divide poses the main design challenge of the Fifth World. Let's take a look at this with one of the most difficult points to really "get": magic.

We think of magic as almost the opposite of reality. We refer to magic "tricks." We call them "illusions." We see a coin pulled out from behind someone's ear, but we call it a "trick," because the magician had the coin in his hand. But as I wrote before when I tried to define animism, animists believe their senses. No one ever came along to tell them that they shouldn't; since their senses provide them with the only experience they have, and because they inhabit a universe of verbs and relationships, the idea of pursuing an "objective" truth simply doesn't come up. The magician pulled a coin from behind the boy's ear. We saw it. Explaining the sleight of hand just explains how they worked the magic; it doesn't change what we all saw. Nothing ever could.

One of the authors who most inspired me in this project, whom I've already quoted several times, began as a magician. David Abram visited many animist societies, to study their medicinal practices. They accepted his sleight of hand as having some magic, and taught him some of theirs in return. The Spell of the Sensuous brought together those experiences, along with phenomenology (Abram has trained as a professor of philosophy), to begin to come to what animism, and magic, really means. In an interview with Scott London, he explained:

London: Where do they draw the boundary between magic and reality?

Abram: That boundary is not drawn in traditional cultures. In indigenous, tribal, or oral cultures, magic is the way of the world. There is nothing that is not in some way magic, because the fact that the world exists is already quite a wonder. That it stays existing, that it continually keeps holding itself in existence, this is the mystery of mysteries. Magic is the way of the world. It's that sense of being in contact with so many other shapes of awareness, most of which are so different from our own, that is the basic experience of magic from which all other forms of magic derive.

We don't believe in magic, so we don't experience it. But consider these possibilities...

  1. Spells. Humans can talk to animals. We do it all the time. Hunters mimic bird calls and animal calls, and we can understand those calls, too. Some animist languages learn new words from animals and birds. In Koyukon, birds really do speak, because their calls have become meaningful words in Koyukon, and because those words have the same meanings as the bird calls, the birds do not simply speak gibberish, either. Koyukon can carry on conversations with birds, rather easily. Singing spells often amounts to no more than this. At other times, such "power songs" harmonize with the environment. Any two rhythms played at the same time tend to harmonize, so by repeating the song, it harmonizes with the rhythm of the world around you, and the rest of you harmonizes with the the song you sing--so your entire body moves in time with the rhythms of wind, water, animals, etc. around you. That can allow for some clearly magical feats of dexterity and luck as you move at the precisely perfect moment, no? And then, some songs might even play with the function of the human brain itself. Chanting "om" vibrates the skull in just the right way to activate a particular corner of the brain. Other frequencies, other rhythms, have other effects.
  2. Trance, Entheogens, Dreams and Shapeshifting. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the power of "thin slicing." Hunter-gatherers spend their lives gathering enormous, expert knowledge about the land they live in. If the people in Gladwell's book play a cognitive kazoo, then these rituals put on a full, neurotheological symphony honed by thousands of years of shamanic tradition. Rather than occuring as an accident, animists have developed traditions to actively cultivate this potential. A shaman experiences a trance of going into the wild, meeting Deer, and asking how many his tribe can take in the autumn. We might understand this, etically, as a means of accessing his capacity for "thin slicing," his mind putting a recognizable image to voice the knowledge he's pieced together unconsciously from wide-ranging observation, knowing subconsciously how well the deer herd has done over the year, and how many kills that can safely translate into. But more importantly, how does that relate to the shaman? Does that mean he didn't meet Deer, or have you simply focused on the minutiae of how he met Deer? To understand feral humans requires a shift in your thinking; you cannot think of this shaman as an ignorant savage who simply doesn't know as much about the neurological function underlying his experience as you do. You could explain this to him, and he really wouldn't care that much; remember, he also thinks you act like a bit of a fool for spending so much time focusing on such silly details, rather than believing in your own experience.

Story Structure

How to pace and structure a story keeps coming up as a theme. Ran keeps looking for games that end, rather than go on forever with continual growth (like World of Warcraft, or really most MMORPG's). They want to see games with victory conditions and endpoints. In story games, you hear more about older gamers who don't have the time for sprawling campaigns anymore (I can certainly relate to that), something that people can play in a single evening and put away. And the beautifully anarchist notion of overthrowing the GM, while something I react to with a visceral negativity, poses a challenge I nonetheless find impossible to refute. Top that off with my general distaste for the conservative nature of most heroes (heroes always react to villains' schemes, never doing anything proactively on their own), and you get this...

Characters have stated goals. Goals associate with specific gains: moving a trait or skill around the medicine wheel, for instance, or gaining more relationship points in a particular relationship, or maybe earning a particular blessing, etc. You might have nested goals, too. Say I put down the goal, "Marry Kateri." Which would come out to getting the blessing, "Marriage" from my relationship with Kateri. But I'll need to accomplish several things to do that. I'll need to earn Kateri's love (perhaps, store up 30 relationship points with Kateri?), and then I'll need to convince her parents that I can make a good husband (20 relationship points with both prospective mother- and father-in-law?). Perhaps the father belongs to a particular secret society, and won't allow his daughter to marry anyone who doesn't belong to it. Now I have to earn initiation into the same secret society. Finally I get all the permissions I need; now, I need to get through the long, complex marriage rites successfully. So the marriage presents a nested goal, with many sub-goals built into it.

Other goals might seem more straight-forward, like "Learn Eagle's Alarm spell." That just means I need to increase my relationship points with Eagle by observing Eagle, following Eagle, interacting with Eagle, perhaps even shape-shifting into Eagle's form, so that Eagle will teach me his Alarm spell. Then, whenever an eagle sounds an alarm, I will understand it, and I will also have the ability to alarm eagles, or others with eagle magic. That goal I can fulfill simply by trekking out into the wild and observing Eagle.

Characters can challenge each other with goals. Those goals always have relationship point rewards: fulfill this goal, and you will earn relationship points with the person who challenged you with it. So a player might offer the goal, "Accompany me on this trip to go visit the woman I love who lives in the next village over." Fulfill that goal, and you'll gain relationship points with the person you accompany.

The Genius Loci plays a character, too, remember, and the land has goals, as well. The land might have goals like, "Let the deer herd replenish," or, "Get rid of the new wolf pack that's starting to move in from the west." The land fulfills those goals through the people that live on it--usually, the player characters, specifically. The Genius Loci can challenge other characters, too; most often, that comes in the form of dreams. Feral people respect their dreams deeply, and if they dream of something, they go and spare no effort to do it, because they see their dreams as one way the land communicates with them. But such challenges usually involve a bit of subtlety and indirectness. If the land wants to get rid of an encroaching wolf pack from the west, it might give a dream of a strangely-shaped rock to a member of the Coyote clan. He recognizes the rock, and knows that he can find it on a mountainface to the west. When he goes to find it, he discovers a wounded coyote, thick with pups. True to his totem, he helps the coyote, who then survives and has her pups. Wolves and coyotes do not get along, so by strengthening the coyotes, the land has quite effectively turned up the pressure against the wolf pack--and the human from the Coyote clan may never even know what he did.

These goals can make story structure. A single session might have all the characters pursue one, simple goal. The Genius loci could not even prepare anything in advance, simply come to the table and set up the other characters in the land and fill in their reactions as the players pursue their own goals, with the story thus supplied by the players. And if you do have the time for something more, maybe pursue a second goal next. So you can always leave off, with the story feeling fulfilled; and you can always pick up the story and play it out a little further by adding more goals.

Emergent Play & the Sole Purpose

I listened to Master Plan #18 today, and I completely agree with Ryan on the subject of emergent play. Really, all the stuff I've written on Anthropik has dealt with the "emergent play" that civilization's rules create, and the things I admire about the kinds of tribal societies that inhabit the Fifth World don't come from their explicit rules. They don't tell you to share like we do. Generosity arises from "emergent play" that comes from the way tribes work. While explicitly stated rules always get broken, whether a society's laws or the rules of a game that inevitable get house-ruled, what any system really accomplishes comes from its emergent play.

Everything in the Fifth World has to serve this one purpose: to create an emergent play experience of living in an animistic, feral world.

Fifth World Magic

I can't find a lot of things I still like about v. 0.2. The one thing that does stand out in that regard lies in the magic system. We based the magic system on the way magic works in actual, animist societies. The mechanics will have to change, of course, but that basic concept will stay.

  1. Spells. The English word "spell" comes from the German for "bird song." Characters sing spells in the Fifth World. They learn spells from specific spirits, so each spell ties into a specific relationship, so the effectiveness of the spell derives from the strength of your relationship. Spells can summon allies of that spirit (for instance, learn the Howling spell from Wolf, and you might find yourself able to summon the local wolf pack to your aid), or communicate with those spirits in other ways; they might also help the singer fortify himself or his friends, by inspiration or even by psychological trick (for example, chanting "om" creates a frequency of vibration that plays on the back of your brain). For ethnographic examples, also see icaros in South America.
  2. Trance. The best part about trance in v. 0.2 came from how deadly it seemed. You could easily get yourself killed, and that worked exactly the way it should. Trance gives you access to the axis mundi, and the ability to go into the Overworld or the Underworld, or move about in the spirit world. That access does not come easily. Trance techniques give that kind of access precisely because they so closely emulate death. The !Kung concept of n/um parallels other cultural ideas like chakras and Kundalini, and even Pentacostal notions of the Holy Spirit, so well that I can hardly resist playing with them. But trance will remain the main way to gain access to the spirit world, and it will remain a harrowing adventure in its own right.
  3. Entheogens. When I thought of what made v. 0.2 unique, the entheogen rules came up first. They probably still need a lot of tweaking, and will definitely need work with new mechanics, but yes, The Fifth World will still offer a magic system based entirely on the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Set and setting will continue to play crucial roles in how that works. And these rules will still emphasize your relationship with the plant spirit you've asked to escort you into the spirit world, so abusing that relationship will just put you in a very vulnerable position towards an angered plant spirit, right when you move onto his turf. Like trance, using entheogens will involve no small amount of mortal danger. Some entheogens form addictions. Others nearly kill you when you use them. All in all, you don't see a lot of recreational drug use in the Fifth World for precisely these reasons.
  4. Shapeshifting. Shape-shifting acts like a trance in many ways. It takes role-playing to its most psychological extreme, where empathy and ecstatic experience converge to so completely align human perspective with other-than-human experience that the human shapeshifter experiences the projection of his consciousness into another form. Observers might simply see him collapse after a frenzied dance mimicking the motions of an eagle, but the shape-shifter returns with tales of how he flew high above, and saw things only an eagle could see.

Defining Animism

I find I still have a difficult time really encapsulating what animism really means in a succinct way. It took me a long time of digesting Ishmael before I could really put those ideas easily, either. Now I find myself working to digest David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous and Graham Harvey's Animism: Respecting the Living World. This will eventually become a big, essay-length piece for Anthropik, when I manage to complete that digestion. In fact, I've already posted earlier attempts, like "A Brief Summary of Animism."

At the beginning of Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram discusses a bowl of rice left out for "the household spirits." Intrigued, he watched it carefully, until he noticed a grain of rice begin to move. As he looked closer, he saw an ant underneath, carrying away the grain of rice. At first, Abram had the same reaction most of us would have: "Ah, the silly savages have mistaken simple ants for supernatural spirits!" But as Abram thought about it more, he realized he sat in the middle of a jungle. The whole earh beneath them pulsed with ants. Why had they not completely overrun the cooking areas, the huts, and everything else? Because the human community and the ant community had established a boundary between their worlds, and the ants respected that boundary because the humans also respected that boundary. The daily offerings honored that boundary. The ants took the rice offering, and left the human community in peace. The animists had not misunderstood the nature of the ants; we have misunderstood the nature of spirits.

Abram writes:

To be sure there has always been some confusion between our Western notion of "spirit" (which so often is defined in contrast to matter or "flesh"), and the mysterious presences to which tribal and indigenous cultures pay so much respect. Many of the earliest Western students of these other languages and customs were Christian missionaries all too ready to see occult ghosts and immaterial spirits where the tribespeople were simply offering their respect to the local winds. While the notion of "spirit" has come to have, for us in the West, a primarily anthropomorphic or human association, my encounter with the ants was the first of many experiences suggesting to me that the "spirits" of an indigenous culture are primarily those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form.

The best summation of animism I have to date goes like this: animism means believing your senses. I mean this in a very deep sense, as in the philosophical inquiry of phenomenology, which Abram goes into in great detail. Think about it. You press your hand against a tree. What do your senses tell you? They tell you that the tree pushes back. You feel that. But we filter our senses through our brains, including our cultural assumptions. The tree doesn't act like a person, so the tree can't push back. So we quite effectively don't feel it. But even so, if you blank out your mind, press against a tree, and try to simply feel without thinking, you will feel the tree pushing back.

Now, sure, we know that it would have to, given Newton's third law of motion. And I can say that the sounds of the wind passing through the branches of a tree have no meaning, while the sounds of the wind passing through your larynx do. But if animism means believing your senses, then this breaks down. People talk to each other. People exchange gifts. People relate to one another. But ultimately, these things only have meaning because of empathy. Sounds pass through your larynx, and I can interpret the meaning you intend for them because I know how I feel or think when I make those sounds. We exchange gifts, and it creates a relationship between us because empathy lets me know the feelings you give to me with your gift, because I know what feelings I try to share when I give gifts. Well, the tree makes sounds out of the wind passing through its boughs, and it leaves many gifts, crucial and wonderful gifts that keep us alive. It relates to us. What separates the tree from a human person? Simply whether or not we share our empathy with it. In the case of the human person, we all agree that we should share our empathy. But our culture tells us that trees "are not" people, that that characteristic belongs only to humans. But remember, animists also think in terms of verbs and relationships, not nouns and characteristics. For them, personhood does not act like a noun, statically defining categories of things; rather, it acts like a verb. When wind passes through the tree's boughs, if we can find meaning in it, then that meaning exists in those sounds, just like it exists in the sound of human speech. When we exchange gifts with the tree, we relate to it. The tree acts like a person. If we really believe our senses, then we have to conclude that the tree acts as much like a person as any human in our lives.

The same goes for so much else in the world around us. When Irving Hollowell asked an Ojibwe elder if all the rocks around them "are alive," the elder answered, "No, but some of them are." The ones that act like persons; the ones that give gifts, the ones that communicate, the ones that relate. Which means that the very same thing can act like a person now, and not act like a person later. In a verb-denominated universe, that makes perfect sense, and that difference poses just one of the reasons why quantum mechanics make so much more sense in native languages.

I wouldn't call this a good definition, either, but for the moment, I don't have anything better than this. I'll continue digesting it. In a lot of ways, The Fifth World as a whole comes from my need to figure out how to communicate this.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Core Mechanic

Fascinating how I've gotten this far without mentioning how the game works, don't you think?

Actually, that crucial question remains somewhat up for debate. We have ideas, of course, but nothing yet solid and awesome enough to take the cake.

The v. 0.2 game just used a bunch of six-sided dice, and mechanics rather blatantly taken from Legend of the Five Rings, one of my personal favorite traditional RPG's. And while the earliest dice date back to the Pleistocene, we have plenty of modern games that use dice, too. Lots and other, more complicated systems that essentially boil down to exotic dice do not help evoke the feel of the Fifth World, even if they might seem like perfectly plausible Fifth World gaming apparatus, because we have them, too.

I kept coming back to moncala; moving colored stones from one location to another seemed like a very evocative mechanic, though I couldn't come up with anything solid. One of our advisors (I'll remain vague, since I don't know how many of my compatriots want to have their participation made public) made a great suggestion, which right now leads the pack of possibilities.

Characters have some number of pools (perhaps Flesh, Breath and Word; perhaps the Wise Compass relates white:north:phlegm::black:south:melancholia::red:west:blod::yellow:east:cholia; perhaps we expand this a bit more and combine both ideas here), with tokens (beads or colored stones, ideally). Resolution follows a gambling mechanic. You put forth some number of tokens from the appropriate pool. Maybe you need to beat some unknown number, say, to jump across a river. Or maybe you try to shoot a deer, so you and the deer both put stones forward. Whoever puts forward more stones, wins.

I want to add a bidding war to this. We get some incredibly exciting play at games like Munchkin, because it gives everyone so much opportunity to escalate. It provides a mechanic like the one nature itself uses to avoid violence. Animals don't fight over everything; that would result in very fast extinction. Rather, animals engage in ritualistic escalation, from low growls to baring teeth, to rearing up on hind legs, to thumping chests, perhaps even to charging before they commit to actual violence. You see the same thing from feudal Japanese samauri, actually; they didn't necessarily always duel. A good stance could settle a duel without bloodshed, if a winner obviously emerged just from that. Likewise, the escalations animals go through give both sides ample opportunity to back down, so whatever they fight for generally goes to whoever wants it more. Likewise here--you always have the chance to back down.

The challenge lies in budgeting your energy. I think it might immediately predispose the game towards all-out, climactic encounters where players burn through everything they have. You can burn through your relationships for extra power, you can utterly destroy yourself for one moment of glory. Essentially, you can achieve almost anything if it means enough to you. The problem comes from having to budget your energy. If you spend it all to take down the deer, how will you carry it back to camp?

The Medicine Wheel

This idea owes a lot to Willem Larsen. First, his "Breaking the Spell" series on the College of Mythic Cartography really brought home for me the importance and relevance of the medicine wheel for rewilding. Of course, we needn't only consider the strictly Indian forms of the circle; Jung pointed out all kinds of Eurasian mandalas that not only operate with similar symbols, but often use the same directions and colors, amazingly enough. The white:black::north:south, red:yellow::west:east compass keeps popping up. Certainly, the concept of living inside of a circle—the circle of the horizon, the circle of the sun across the sky, the circle of the moon waxing and waning, the circle of the seasons, or any number of other circles in the natural world—provides an important difference between wild (and feral) cultures, and domesticated cultures.

  1. Breaking the Spell: Rewilding
  2. Breaking the Spell: Rewilding Your Ability to Reason
  3. Breaking the Spell: Reality Therapy
  4. Breaking the Spell: The Village Philosopher
  5. Breaking the Spell: The College of the Round Table
  6. Breaking the Spell: The Reason for Riddles
  7. Breaking the Spell: The Wise Compass

Willem wrote more on the wise compass in "Another Take on the Wise Compass," and "More Wise Compasses." I kept on turning in my head how to do this. I have a germ of an idea, but I don't know if it really works in practice.

The character sheet primarily draws a big circle, with north, south, east and west marked off. It marks off degrees, and perhaps ranges for particular benefits. Your skills, attributes, or traits form radii in the circle, and as they advance (or degrade), they turn around the circle. Facing different directions means different things: pointing east might mean that you just learned a particular skill, while pointing west may mean you let it atrophy. I particularly like the idea of putting this together with tokens like stones or beads to form four pools in the corners, so as you play the game, you have these ritual markings out before you, moving stones from one part of the medicine wheel to another. Going back to the challenge of making an evocative game, this feels like playing the game would seem like a shamanic divination. It still orients characters towards relationship, I think, because we still don't say anything about the skills or abilities that you "are," but rather, the way you face. A compass tells a relationship between you and the earth's magnetic field, not an absolute, cosmic principle of north. North on a different planet points in an entirely different direction, doesn't it? I can see this working well with general character statements like traits in Dogs in the Vineyard, or aspects in Spirit of the Century, and then those statements rise, peak and set for a character as they turn around the compass, providing a bit more dynamism to a character than either of those games normally provide.

My concerns here take a more practical bent. I thought of perhaps using push-pins to pin a character sheet to a small sheet of cork, and then use other push-pins and string to handle the traits, but that seems like a lot of work. Even using paper strips like hands on a clock can present too much difficulty. I love the feeling it evokes, but how can I simplify the execution?

That Which Relates

So, how do you put that on a character sheet? Other RPG's have done a fine job of taking the literate worldview for granted; how can a story game give a player an experience of a verb-denominated reality? Firstly, animism not only suggests, but flat out demands a fractal like FATE's. Everything exists as a person: communities, lands, cultures, plants, animals, weather patterns, rocks, knives, clothing, you name it. Secondly, the importance of the relationship system to defining a character helps. But I don't think that gives us enough all in itself.

After all, how does a character run, move something heavy, etc.? If we see the self as "that which relates," then what can we say about skills and strengths? Here, we've reached the first of several walls I haven't yet figured out how to scale. I have some ideas, but I don't know if they entirely work.

My original idea dwelt on how people relate, and I came up with three aspects: the Flesh, the Breath and the Word.

  • The Flesh refers to the Merleau-Ponty sense; as David Abram described it, "the mysterious tissue or matrix that underlies and gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity." Our capacity for sensuous awareness and interaction.
  • The Breath would then speak back to the etymological roots of the word "spirit," embracing our ability to relate intellectually and emotionally. Animists saw breathing as the animating force, the "wind within," that united us with the same, exterior winds that animated other breathing animals, tree boughs swaying in the wind, dust on the ground, and everything else around us. It presents us with the imminent mystery of something palpable, powerful, and yet completely invisible, the potent prescence of the present. Importantly, animists do not see intelligence and emotion as purely human activities; rather, they take place as ecological activities, like the wind, happening between persons (human or otherwise), that persons can take part in and share in.
  • The Word comes when Flesh forms Breath, and it provides the social context of relationship, the ability to give one's word and to honor that word.

We have another idea floating about now, but that one will need its own post. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on these.

Philosophy on a Character Sheet

Look at a D&D character sheet. Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Wisdom, Intelligence, Charisma. You also have skills, with each one derived from one of those base attributes. The character exists as a distinct object, defined by these attributes. He is strong, or he is intelligent. Or, consider the character sheet from White Wolf's World of Darkness. The 3x3 grid offers something more nuanced and sophisticated, but still deals in describing a discrete object. Even the trait-defined characters of Spirit of the Century or Dogs in the Vineyard share this; in fact, by stripping it down to only this, they really help lay bare the foundational, philosophical assumption common to them all: we inhabit a universe of objects, and objects have given characteristics. They "are" a certain way.

I've written this blog in E-Prime, just as I have and will continue to write the Fifth World in E-Prime. It helps create that evocative experience previously mentioned, though this probably has one of the most subtle impacts. I doubt many would even notice the lack of "to be." But it still strikes to the very heart of the difference between literacy and orality, and their effect on the way we think. Mark Willis' overview provides an excellent summation of the research on literacy, orality and thought, but to summarize, because orality makes all communication a social event, it primes the brain to see the universe as a collection of relationships. By contrast, since writing turns communication into the analysis of a collection of objects, it primes the brain to see the universe that way, too.

For instance, American Indian languages typically use very few nouns at all. Instead, they rely more heavily on verbs. Presented with a photograph of dancers (and notice that even here, I describe it as a "photograph of dancers"), the literate mind first notices the dancers, and the dancers happen to dance. The oral mind first notices the dancing, and the dancers who happen to dance. As one Pueblo Indian described it:

To illustrate, he described the experience of getting water at the communal well. “In English, it meant to me the Pavlovian thing. You hear the words, run to the buckets, get them, go outside, get to the pump, get the water and then you bring it back.

“Now, here’s what it means in Tewa. Aah-paah-ii-meh (ah pa HI may). ‘Aah’ is purity and clarity. ‘Paah’ is light. ‘Ii’ is awareness. ‘Meh’ is movement. When I went to get water, I became the activities I was doing. I became purity … clarity … light … awareness … and movement.”

When quantum physicists and native language speakers got together, the quantum physicists quickly found out that this kind of linguistic difference not only made quantum physics more understandable, it made it downright self-evident. Quantum physics seems almost completely unknowable, not because it goes beyond human intellect, but because it clashes too directly with the paradigm literacy puts us in. To an oral mind, quantum physics makes a lot more sense.

In A Theory of Power, Jeff Vail put this quite succinctly:

The networks of connections, not the elements connected, appear to constitute a more accurate map of reality. Consider this a critical paradigm shift: the connections, not the parties connected, may best represent our world. Take the seemingly simple nature of this very book. All of our senses confirm that it “is” a solid object, with little mysterious about it. Another of our models of reality represents its composition as that of a web of billions of atoms; nearly entirely empty space speckled with clusters of sub-atomic particles. Other models exclude the concept of a concrete “particle” entirely: quantum mechanics provides us with a model of reality without fixed particles at all, using instead a nebulous web of constantly changing energies and waves of probability. These energies and connections may represent all that actually exists! The connections, the power-relationships between perceived “entities” make up the world around us, not the illusion of particles. This concept of the connection, and the power-relationship it represents, extends to our genes, our culture and our technology. It wields great power over all areas of our lives. Our thoughts, desires and self-perceptions, our very identity, stems from this enigmatic web of connectivity.

This brings us back around to the main point Graham Harvey hit upon in Animism—animism simply means treating as a person whatever acts towards us as a person. Because in animist cultures, "person" acts as a verb, rather than a noun; it describes something you do, not something you "are." Persons communicate. They exchange gifts. They observe rituals. It doesn't matter what shape you currently take: if you act like a person, that makes you a person. We do not exist as discrete objects with a particular "personality" made up of our innate characteristics; the best description of our self comes down to "that which relates."

Putting this into a character sheet can do more to express that than a hundred more pages of description, though. Written down, the differences can seem almost trivial. The difference doesn't hit you until you experience, until you've had that experience of glimpsing, peaking, momentarily experiencing what it feels like to live in such a different universe. We'll get more to how we intend to do that next time.

The Relationship System

So far, I've talked about a lot of goals, theory, and big concept type stuff, so how about something crunchy now. The word "relationship" comes up in my answers to the Power 19 below more than a few times, and with good reason that I'll have to devote another post to, later. So the mechanics for relationships plays a pretty big role in the game. They provide the primary means of defining a character, after all.

A character's relationships always relate to someone else: another human, a community, a land, an other-than-human person, a tradition, etc. These others have their own agendas, philosophies, likes, dislikes, etc. When you honor a relationship (do something that other approves of, do something nice for the other, give something to the other, honor the other, etc.), you gain a relationship point. When you dishonor that relationship, you lose a point.

Now, the part where this becomes interesting. Other players can challenge you. Let's say someone insults you. You could shrug this off and walk on by, which would make things easier for you. But you have a Badger totem, and Badger has a very beligerent attitude. Another player challenges you--wouldn't Badger want you to punch that guy in the face, rather than just walk on past? Now you can either burn one of your relationship points with your Badger totem to ignore the challenge and walk on past anyway, or you can gain a relationship point with Badger by clocking the guy.

Players familiar with the FATE or FUDGE systems will undoubtedly recognize the similarity to aspects, which provided an obvious inspiration here. But FATE and FUDGE reinforce that literate worldview found in most RPG's, wherein we "are" concrete objects, made up of particular characteristics. The relationships in the Fifth World offer a similar mechanic, but they play back into the animist view of the self as "that which relates." These still act as flags, but they shift the definition of self from an inviolate object, to a nexus of relationship.

You can burn relationship points for bonuses in the resolution system, or you can use them to obtain blessings (think of things like Feats in d20, or advantages in some other games). So the powers and abilities that make your character more powerful come from your relationships.

Relationship points can determine things like who will go with you on your adventures, who you might marry, and so forth. When relating to a community, we call relationship points "standing points," and they accumulate to allow you initiation into the community's secrets, or you can burn them to call on the community for help. When relating to spirits, we call relationship points "favor points," and they can offer some of the widest opportunities for greater power.

Creating an Evocative Game

Deadlands takes place in the "Wierd West," a mixed setting of Western motifs with magic, undead and fantasy. But in playing the game, players use poker chips, rather than wierdly shaped dice like most RPG's. And in Dust Devils, a more traditionally Western story game, players use poker playing cards to determine who gets narrative control. These things evoke the setting. They put the player in the setting by the very act of playing the game. I don't know exactly why the best examples of this come from Western games, though.

With The Fifth World, I try to share a vision of what the world could become. That includes a view of human nature, a view of the world, and an animistic experience of the land as a living, breathing person. Of course, I've tried with varying degrees of success to communicate these ideas, or really these feelings, in a more straightforward, academic way before on the Anthropik Network, and in particular, the Thirty Theses, but I know that I've failed to a considerable degree in really sharing the feel of this vision. People still don't get it.

That gives me one of the big reasons I work on The Fifth World, hoping that I can share this vision better through a game than through writing. In a game, I can evoke the feel of the world. That gives me my ultimate goal: to create a game that shares this feeling about the future. But to do that, I need to evoke that feel, not preach it. And that means making a game as evocative as Deadlands or Dust Devils, or maybe even more so.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Story Games

I owe Mick Bradley (of Harping Monkey fame) a good deal for introducing me to story games. One of the last episodes of the Round Table podcast provided a really great introduction to story games (season 5, episode 1), one that really inspired me and made me realize that the ideas underlying story games really dovetailed with the same ideas the Fifth World espouses, and that made me realize that I had to make the Fifth World a story game.

What does that mean, though?

Well, I certainly wouldn't call myself any kind of expert on the matter, but what I've come to see as the defining points of story games include:

  • Narrative focus. The game focuses on telling a story. That sets it apart from the power fantasy of RPG's, where you try to advance your character. Failure and tragedy arise in story games intentionally. Players have some distance from their characters, so the character's failure can still come about as the player's success.
  • Dispersion of authority. The GM doesn't have a monopoly on the imaginative reality of the game. Other players have ways of controlling the story, so the story really does become a collaborative product.
  • Story mechanics. The game mechanics don't just provide your stats and strengths, they tell your story. This probably makes up the most important point about story games: the rules don't just "get out of the way" when the story begins. You define your character in narrative terms. You make a character by telling his story.

Introducing the Fifth World in Forge Parlance

Emily K. Dresner-Thornber's two-part article, "The Crunchy Bits" (Part 1, Part 2), talked about the importance of being able to define your game succinctly. So, accepting that challenge, I came up with this concept statement:

The Fifth World tells local epics about feral humans in a living, animist world, centuries after the collapse of civilization.

And a synopsis:

After the collapse of civilization, humans became feral out of necessity. They rediscovered magic, tribal lifestyles, and eventually formed syncretic, feral cultures. Life in the living world can seem idyllic comparatively, but it requires constant renegotiation of the human place in the world against competing human and other-than-human powers. The players tell the stories of the shamans, scouts and braves who step up to safeguard their people and ensure their future.

The Big Three

  1. What is your game about? The Fifth World tells local epics about feral humans in an animistic future. The game talks about the relationships that make up the life of a particular land, both human and other-than-human.
  2. What do the characters do? The characters pursue the aspirations they set for themselves, protect their communities, prove themselves, and negotiate the place of the human community in a more-than-human world.
  3. What do the players do? The players help tell the epic of a particular place, and the human and other-than-human relationships that make it up.

The Power 19
  1. How does your setting (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about? The Fifth World comes after the Fourth World, our world. It reclaims the post-apocalyptic era as something to look forward to, rather than a desperate time. But that always casts a shadow over the Fifth World: they live amidst the ruins and constant reminders, still dealing with the consequences of what happened when humanity didn't recognize the more-than-human world living around them, didn't honor those relationships, and didn't listen to the particular epics of the land.
  2. How does the Character Creation of your game reinforce what your game is about? Characters develop along a lifepath, by filling in how they've related to their communities and their land.
  3. What types of behaviors/styles of play does your game reward (and punish if necessary)? The mechanics try to create a kind of ecology, with a constant give and take. Take too much without giving back, and you'll quickly find yourself falling apart. Yes, you can burn your relationships for an added boost, but in the long term, the only reliable source of power comes from those relationships.
  4. How are behaviors and styles of play rewarded or punished in your game? Players have all the rope they need to hang themselves. The mechanics never come in and explicitly reward or punish. Honoring a relationship by acting in accordance with the person you relate to will strengthen it, but you can burn through that relationship, as well. You'll need to always give back more than you take, if you hope to become more powerful.
  5. How are the responsibilities of narration and credibility divided in your game? Most players have a limited number of characters, perhaps only one. The Genius loci plays all the land, which includes all other characters. That doesn't mean that it necessarily falls to the Genius loci to come up with the plot, though; the other players should drive the action by pursuing their goals, leaving the Genius loci simply with reacting, or perhaps pursuing his own characters' goals.
  6. What does your game do to command the players' attention, engagement, and participation? (i.e. What does the game do to make them care?) You might (in fact, you probably should) make the land of the game the land you live in or the land you love, so the epic you tell repeats the stories of the same land you live in, as part of, dealing with the same themes that occupy the land now.
  7. What are the resolution mechanics of your game like? Playing the Fifth World should feel like a shamanic divination. Your character sheet takes the shape of a medicine wheel. Resolution comes from budgeting colored beads representing your different kinds of relationships and means of relating. You don't need to worry about the chance of a die roll; you need to worry about budgeting your strength across many different fields. You can consume everything you have for one climatic encounter, but most of the time, you'll need to balance the needs of the moment against the need to conserve your power.
  8. How do the resolution mechanics reinforce what your game is about? The budgeting creates an ecology of energy, give and take, relationship with the world around you. You'll need the rest of the world to replenish your energy, and whenever you use that energy, it goes back to the world.
  9. Do characters in your game advance? If so, how? The primary means of advancement lies in building up stronger relationships. No clear-cut, quantifiable metric exists to compare who has advanced more than who, but all of a character's opportunities to grow stronger come out of his relationships.
  10. How does the character advancement (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about? Advancement can only come through greater relationship.
  11. What sort of product or effect do you want your game to produce in or for the players? With luck, playing the Fifth World will give players a glimpse of what the world looks like to an animist.
  12. What areas of your game receive extra attention and color? Why? Most of us have a preconceived notion of primitive cultures as lacking in cultural refinement, knowledge, medicine, technology, and so forth. Trying to play the Fifth World with this misconception will lead to disaster. The Fifth World derives a good deal of its content from real-world anthropology and ethnography, so it won't work with the Hobbesian misconceptions most of us harbor about primitive peoples.
  13. Which part of your game are you most excited about or interested in? Why? The "cool" factor. The jungle tribes of Texas that hunt giant beetles to turn their exoskeletons into armor or shields; the bike gangs that turn to horses and hunt elephants across the fields of South Dakota; the tribes exploring the heart of the verdant evergreen forests nestled amidst the razor-sharp peaks of an ice-free Antarctica. That element fires the imagination. It banishes the idea of life beyond civilization as "solitary, nasty, brutish and short," and excites people with the adventure of creating a new, tribal future. In the 1960s, Gene Roddenberry used Star Trek to excite us about a glitzy future where technology fixed everything for us. I want The Fifth World to excite us about a future that works: for us, and for the rest of life on earth.
  14. Where does your game take the players that other games can’t, don’t, or won’t? To their own human nature, beyond their domestication. Other games take the stereotypes of primitive life for granted, which means that we keep looking outside ourselves for something to come along and "fix" us. The Fifth World has the audacity to suggest that we don't need fixing at all, that human nature already ennobles us, strengthens us, and unites us with a living world that we don't need to conquer, rule, or even steward. We belong to it.
  15. What are your publishing goals for your game? Make it an open-source game, using an online wiki. We'll publish and sell some books, which will provide a convenience for players more than anything, but the heart of the game will sit online.
  16. Who is your target audience? We'd like to pull over some gamers, but we'd rather pull in non-gamers and people who've never played RPG's before. People with an interest in anthropology or ecology.

The Story Thus Far

I wrote "The Fifth World Manifesto" almost a year and a half ago, and the first public version of the game appeared at almost a year ago, on 21 December 2006. Mick Bradley at the Harping Monkey really helped get the word out about it when he started a thread there, from whence it got some mentions on Gamer: The Podcasting, and even set off a little exchange between myself and Anim5 on International Detective Dragons from Outer Space. Wii reviewed v. 0.2 for, and I have to admit, I can't really argue with his summation, and that has a good deal to do with why nearly a year has gone by now with so little news about the Fifth World.

After an initial scramble to try to get our ideas down on paper and out there to begin the wheels of open source innovation a-turning, we realized that that approach wouldn't really work. Who wants to put that effort into a game that doesn't really exist yet? Wii's review brought that point home: putting out an incomplete game won't get you an open source crowd working on it, it will just spoil the reception when you really do have a working game. Everyone will just associate it with the perceptions the incomplete, embryonic form inspired. So we took the work back behind the scenes. There, work has progressed slowly and methodically.

Even so, the open source ideal lies so close to the heart of the Fifth World, that keeping it secret just seems wrong. So instead, today I thought, why not start a design diary? I don't need to put an unfinished game out there in the wild, but by letting people know how it's going and the ideas I have in my head at the moment, we can still involve you in this process.

Hence, this design diary. Expect a slew of postings soon to bring everybody up to speed with some of those ideas we've worked out in secret over the past year.