Thursday, November 27, 2008

News Dump!

  • The Fifth World now has its own Twitter account. With a game that lives on a wiki, I've put some thought into forums (including some special play-by-post tools), play-by-Skype tools, podcasts and other alternative means of publishing RPG's, and how we might incorporate other social networking sites. Have any ideas?

  • Look for "The Fifth World: Jimmy's Haunt" at Dreamation 2009. I'll have the Restless People out by then, v0.4.2 of the rules, and a custom-designed region of Morristown, NJ (where the convention takes place), including the local legend of Phoebe's ghost.

  • An idea to replace the "Questions" mechanic: Can the story itself have relationships that the players share in common?

  • Looking for a way to combine Blessings and Curses into one thing.

  • Starting a playtest campaign at GASP Game Days starting in December. If you live in Pittsburgh, we'd love to have you! This will become the first ever Fifth World campaign, so we'll test how the game works over long-term play.

  • Which sets a deadline for me to really revamp the character options by December 13. I'll have until December 21st to edit the document and get it all on the wiki after that.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

On the Schedule

Getting the obvious out of the way, Awe Kooda bilaxpak Kuuxshish of the Crow tribe, grandson of a Luo medicine man from Kenya, has become president of the United States. We finally got a shaman in the White House!

I apologize for that interruption, but I've had to deal with my condition lately. Anyway, with the public playtest now begun, the next big date looms on December 21. Then, we'll release:

  • v. 0.4.2, which will include an expanded, edited and generally smoother version of the rules already presented. I hope to revisit the Land of the Three Rivers, too, with some improvements to the oracle, spirits, blessings and curses available (see last post).

  • The wiki re-opened. I'll start adding material soon; on December 21, the new skin and functionality will all go live, including

  • The community site. Forums, blog, etc., and

  • The podcast. We'll include news, actual play, game advice, and more.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Big Day

I have to apologize for the lateness of my posting here. The hotel had a firewall that made it difficult to access the Fifth World, so I had to wait till this evening to upload the latest rules.

We ran the first public playtest at GASPcon 9. We ran the first pre-generated region yet; I hoped to cut the time down by removing the initiation process and jumping straight to the game. Against a stark white background with some professional printing, Dani Kaulakis' art simply arrests you visually. I had the region with the questions and inhabitants printed, high-resolution and full color on a full poster-sized map, along with character sheets printed out with the full relationships and blessings, a text introduction and even a family tree. I think in visual presentation if nothing else, I had nothing to hang my head over.

My estimation that the number of players would determine the length of the game proved true. With six players, we might still have made it all the way through, but when combined with the necessary rules explanations that a setting like this requires, we only got through the end of the second act. We had a strong story emerging, though: the intrigues of a boss and his ambitious younger nephew, a false-flag operation intended to start a war, and even a young child coming to grips with the truth about her sainted ancestor, and her own capacity for evil.

We also learned some things:

  • Particularly in a convention context, a one-page quick reference guide to the rules could help a lot. The Fifth World departs from the norm for role playing games to such a degree that players can't fill in the gaps with their usual expectations. That can make things difficult.

  • So far, everyone has agreed that the game has a lot of potential, works well, plays fun, and so on, all of which I've compared to calling a woman "handsome." Nobody's gotten very excited about it, which had me rather disturbed, but I agree with what Mike told me, that excitement about a game has to follow from exciting options for characters and stories. The Land of the Three Rivers already has a few: the Buzzard's Undertakers, the Hinneray's secrets, the Ordo Arcanum, to some degree even the blessings offered by Iron. But the game really offers only a small number of these. In the beta phase, we'll need to focus on designing really interesting and exciting blessings, curses and spirits.

  • Traditional role playing games sell adventures. Story games typically do not, because they typically involve so much "play now", at-the-table input to create the story that such a thing would not contribute, and in fact would undermine the whole point. The Fifth World won't ever offer packaged "adventures" like these, but it certainly can offer pre-defined regions, which I plan to include in the Land books. Just imagine what you could do with, say, a region based on Centralia.

Version 0.4.1 now sits on the wiki. I wouldn't call it a great text, but it has enough to start playing. So, for the first time in years, The Fifth World exists as a publicly available game worth playing!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Playtest Report

Just finished up an abbreviated playtest with a new player. We only got through character creation and one act, but he seemed to pick up what the game aimed for rather quickly. It continues to impress me that we keep coming up with really beta playtest issues in our alpha playtest, which reassures me that we've really got the major issues taken care of. The experience has convinced me to use a pre-generated scenario for beta playtesting at conventions, including GASPcon.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Playtest Report

Since the first playtest, I've spent a month rewriting a lot of rules, and writing up the first complete catalog of spirits, blessings and curses. We just finished the second alpha playtest. Consensus opinions:
  • Flowed much easier with rules changes
  • Feel came through much more

Questions (rather than riddles) helped unify the story thematically, despite a narrative split this time that divided us into two parallel storylines. The main points to come up in post-game discussion included presenting questions earlier in the game so they can provide a better focus (great idea—thanks, Brett!), and some discussion about whether a particular blessing worked. I can't tell you how proud I feel that at the end of our second playtest, we can already dive into something as nitty-gritty as the balance of a particular blessing! I consider that beta playtest material. It reminds me of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: you never run out of things to worry about, but the things you get to worry about says how well off you've gotten. Discussing particular blessings means we've gotten farther than I would've guessed. Hey, maybe I've got something here after all, huh?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Life in the Land of the Three Rivers

I think I've got something good after ruminating on Philosophy vs. Feel. Here's the latest version I'm working on for the "fluff" of the first land I'll be fleshing out, my own homeland, the Land of the Three Rivers (the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Upper Ohio River valleys). Tell me what you think, especially the Yinzers in the audience!

Making a Living

Agriculture has never worked particularly well on the Allegheny Plateau, and the heavy metals and acidity put into the soil by the Steel Giants did not make it any easier. For that reason, the gardens of the Seven Nations and the Union never penetrated south. Instead, the People of the Three Rivers rely on cattle to convert the vegetation of the land into food they can eat. Without agriculture to feed them directly, the cattle have become semi-feral, living in small herds of 20 or so animals and ranging freely. The People move with the herds, and intervene where they can to help defend them from predators. Herders divide out shifts to watch over the herd, but sometimes predators get through anyway. The People rely on the cattle for meat and dairy. Milking feral cows requires an immense amount of trust; the milkers have very personal relationships with their cows, and even then, the process involves a good deal of risk. Because of this, the People treasure the milk. They never "waste" it by drinking it directly; instead, they generally make cheeses with it.

This cornerstone of life shapes much of how the People live. They break in feral horses to use to better herd the cattle, as well as packs of semi-feral dogs. These dogs have interbred with the wolf-like eastern coyote and live in their own mixed packs of feral dogs, coydogs, and coyotes. But families of the People keep "alliances" with particular packs of these dogs; they may enter the family's camps freely and share food. In return, the dogs often help the People herd cattle and hunt deer.

Deer hunting provides the other main source of protein in the People's diet. Because deer hunting plays as important a role in their lives as their cattle, the hunters' ethos pervades their communities. When hunting deer with a bow and arrow, there comes a crucial moment when the deer and the hunter recognize one another. This evolved in conjunction with wolves, giving predator and prey a chance to collect themselves before the final chase. In this "conversation of death," a deer may stand his ground, and the wolves will back down; or, a sick, old, injured deer may stand and run away, the very thing that would ensure his death. The hunters of the People recognize this language, and the subtle body language whereby a deer starts to turn and give chase, offering the perfect shot for the hunter's bow. The People do not see any sport or violence in their hunting; they see, instead, a profound relationship that they share with the sacred Deer who gives its life for the People. Shamanic rites, performed by the Fathers, mediate this intense relationship.

The People set regular fires in areas and harvest small saplings for wood, practices which produce huge, old growth trees with a cathedral-like canopy and a wide, open understory perfect for both cattle and deer. In these forests, mostly women, but also children and the eldery of both genders, will gather wild plants, roots, nuts and berries. The People rely on these for both food and medicine.

Kinship & Settlement Patterns

Both the deer and the cattle require the People to stay on the move, so they live in small, nomadic families. These nomads do not wander aimlessly; they travel in a regular seasonal cycle, following the herds from one place to the next.

The family generally consists of an extended family, back to a common grandfather. The People trace their lineage through their fathers, so these families relate to each other as fathers, sons and brothers, with their wives and children. The People see the world as a single, complex family; all trace their lines, ultimately, to Grandfather Sky, the Overworld, and Grandmother Earth, the Underworld. But they also favor their closest relations; so, two brothers will side together against a cousin, two cousins will side together against a fellow clansperson, two clanspeople will side together against someone from a different clan, two men from the People will side together against outsiders, and so on. The People cite Papa Peter and Mother Mary as the common ancestor of them all, making them more closely related to one another than to outsiders. These fierce, nested loyalties allow the People to quickly muster a strong defense (as the Union and the Seven Nations often discover when they attempt to invade the land), but it also fosters a good deal of internal unrest.

The clans illustrate that the People do not consider species boundaries to carry much weight at all, and animals, plants, stones, places, weather and so on all relate to the People more closely than humans from another land.

The People typically live in a kind of tipi that they call a "haus" (pronounced "hahs"). They make encampments with several hauses clustered together. When deer become scarce or the cattle begin to move too far away, they pack up their hauses and, with the help of the horses, move on to a new encampment.

Social Organization

No authority higher than the family itself exists among the People. Each family follows the annual circuit as a sovereign and independent body, subject only to its own will. Customs and traditions unite the families, of course, as well as bonds of relationship, but what the families do together they negotiate, rather than obey.
Within the family, respect rather than authority generally reigns. Each individual has an enormous amount of autonomy, but certain persons within the community have earned respect and tend to hold greater influence over the group. These include:

  • The Grandfather, whose relationships generally define the family as a unit.

  • Elders. Even if not a Grandfather precisely, the People honor the experience of elders. These will typically include the grandmother, and perhaps siblings of the grandfather and grandmother.

  • The Boss. Not every family has a Boss, but if it does, he generally will hold a great deal of influence over his own family. A family with more than one Boss often splits from the rivalry. A Boss who also becomes a Grandfather holds an enormous amount of power.

  • The Father. Not every family has a Father, but if it does, he acts as the spiritual leader of the family. Families without a Father seek out those that do for ceremonies, healing and guidance. Some Families have two Fathers, and may allow a family with none to adopt one as their own. Like a Boss, a Father who also becomes a Grandfather consolidates a great deal of power.

  • Storytellers. Most families will have a storyteller. The People look to storytellers as keepers and sharers of wisdom, and value the teaching of their stories. This gives them considerable influence in the family; a well-timed and well-told story can change the entire debate.

  • Skilled persons. The People have a very meritocratic nature. Persons who prove themselves talented or skilled earn the influence and power that goes along with that. In questions about game, even Fathers, Bosses and Grandfathers will defer to the judgment of a proven hunter, however young.

Decision making in families comes from consensus, so one cannot order these roles by descending order of power. The decision the family will reach will depend as much on the nature of the question at hand, the specific arguments made, and the immediate context as the position of the people involved.


The People have a "Big Man" tradition that stretches back to the days of the Steel Giants, particularly the Great Boss Andy, who left many long-lasting gifts and feasting halls that still bear his ancient name, "Carnegie." The Bosses do not wield any kind of explicit authority; they cannot simply make commands and expect anyone to carry them out. Instead, they accumulate a great deal of social capital by giving generously, collecting on debts all at once to throw enormous feasts that no one else could arrange, and using such occasions to compete with other Bosses and impress their people, in order to collect still more social capital. Other Bosses focus on military success in leading raids against their enemies, and maintain their power by keeping the loyalty of strong warriors with gifts and feasts. In a post-monetary world where reciprocity has become the new economy, Bosses have become the new entrepreneurs. Though the nature of the game has changed somewhat, they remain as cut-throat in their pursuits as the entrepreneurs of the Steel Giants. Competition between rival Bosses often becomes fierce, and often violent.


The People of the Three Rivers call their religion Catholicism, but it varies greatly from the Roman Catholicism of their ancestors. The main religious figures, called Fathers (even when female), wear a black ribbon around their neck, with a white stripe painted in the front. They also wear a stole, a purple cloth worn around the neck as a badge of office. Fathers act as faith healers, spiritual leaders, ceremonial leaders and prophets in their communities. People become a Father by gaining a familiar spirit. This usually involves great personal trauma, most classically the Fathers' Disease, a deep malaise which will either drive a person to suicide, or attract the pity of a spirit who will heal the afflicted, and in so doing become a familiar spirit. This often afflicts those called to become Fathers, though sometimes youths undergo Holy Rites to become Fathers. Fathers enhance their ties to their allied spirits through the use of costumes and magical items. When Fathers appear, besides their collar and stole, they also wear an assemblage of animal parts, and go about painted in various mysterious symbols.

Ceremonies often involve trance dancing that can last all night long. The People long ago lost the ability to make accordions, which significantly changed the sound of traditional polkas. Played on drums, with gourds and the occasional guitar, the same beat takes on a percussive quality much like techno music. Fathers dance frantically to these songs all night long, until they slip into an ecstatic trance to enter the Dreaming.

Fathers also use water soaked with tobacco and certain psilocybin mushrooms to enter the Dreaming, but consider these inferior means of entry. Weak or inexperienced Fathers may have to call on plant allies like these; likewise, a Father who finds his strength sapped or faces a very difficult task might call on such allies; but for the most part, the people expect a Father to find his own way into the Dreaming, without demanding sacrifices from sacred plants.

Communion plays an important part in the religion of the Three Rivers. The people believe that everyone must have a guardian spirit, sometimes called a patron saint or a guardian angel. Without such a guardian, people do not have the strength to live through life. At age seven, in an initiation ceremony called First Communion, children spend several days alone, fasting, as a kind of cosmic dare: the child vows to remain there until a spirit takes pity on him and adopts him to become his guardian, or starves to death. After their First Communion, faithful people go on Communion later in life to seek boons from their guardian.

As their origin myth makes clear, the philosophy of the People of the Three Rivers emphasizes the mediation between conflicting extremes. They understand disease and misfortune as the product of excess in one direction or another. The rituals and practices of their religion focus on restoring balance and striking a middle way between extremes.


Spoken Language

The Pittsburgh English accent, or "Pittsburgese," may not have actually existed before people began referring to it. More an amalgamation of regional elements from Appalachian and Midwestern dialects, its reference in local media helped to create an in-group identity, and it thus became a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the fall of the Steel Giants, the need for such an in-group identity only became stronger, and the use of Pittsburghese became more pronounced.

The structure of Pittsburghese also underwent a major shift. As the People learned how to hunt and track, how to follow the cattle herds, and how to live off the wild plants, it became necessary for them to understand the personalities all of these things could take. The names for these things became verbs unto themselves. For example, the People came to use the term "deer" not as a noun describing a kind of animal, but as a verb that meant to behave or present oneself as a deer does. With this linguistic shift came a philosophical shift that emphasized patterns of movement and relationship, rather than objectivity. This proved crucial to the People's ability to hunt, track, and live alongside the herds of semi-feral cattle, or the packs of semi-feral dogs. Elders who have used this language throughout their lives eventually come to understand this as illustrating a personhood common to us all; humans, deer, cattle, horses and dogs differ not in their essential personhood, but in their patterns of movement and relationship. So a dog simply means a person dogging; a horse, a person horsing; a human, a person humanning. The Fathers say that when they shift their shape, they simply go dogging for a while, or hawking, or trouting. While shapeshifting seems like an impossible fantasy in the English of the Steel Giants, it makes perfect sense in the Pittsburghese of the People of the Three Rivers.

Body Language

But spoken language in total has become less central to the People of the Three Rivers. Growing up in close, personal contact with a steady, core group of people has made body language extremely potent. In fact, among one's oldest relations, the People can read each other's facial micro-expressions and subtle body cues so expertly that they can rarely lie to one another. They use these intuitively, by close awareness and long-standing relationship rather than a conscious understanding of the cues they read and a deliberate reasoning of their elements. Even among less related people, body language allows for the quick communication of emotional state and intent. This often proves absolutely essential on the hunt, allowing a party to move with almost superhuman coordination, exhibiting what an untrained, outside observer might mistake for something just shy of telepathy.

This makes spoken language something the People can use more sparingly. They see "small talk" as a key indicator that someone feels particularly nervous, and probably intends to hide some kind of deceit to do harm. The People do not trust someone who makes small talk.

Animal Communication

This body language also lies at the heart of the People's ability to speak with animals. Most everyone learns basic calls, howls and dances of the most common animals in the Land of the Three Rivers, and has some ability to both understand their meaning and to mimic them. They consider this the same as learning their own spoken language. And in fact, the People claim to have extended conversations with birds and animals, and that they learned a significant portion of their own spoken language from such sources. They also learn to read the body language of other animals, telling them their emotional state and intent as clearly as with other human persons. Hunters in particular consider this an absolutely essential skill.


At their Christening, children of the people receive a clan name from the Father performing the ceremony. The people have meticulously preserved these names from ancient times, names like Jack, Joe, Terry, Art, Peter, Franco, Roberto, Chuck, Ben and Bill for boys; Mary, Jessica, Sophie, Rachel, Annie, Nellie, Ally-kwippa, Willa, Gertrude and Elizabeth for girls. Clan names apply to ceremonies and rituals. In everyday use, informal nicknames prevail. After a child's First Communion, these nicknames almost always incorporate that person's guardian spirit; so, for instance, a boy with a jackrabbit guardian known for his quickness might have a name like, "Jackrabbit Quick." Fathers and Bosses always have that title in address, so if the same boy became a Father, people would call him "Father Jackrabbit Quick"; if he became a Boss, "Boss Jackrabbit Quick."

Friday, October 3, 2008

Philosophy vs. Feel

Our playtest from two weeks ago produced a coherent story, which impressed me enough on its own, but as far as a finished game, it fell short of the goal. Yes, it produced a coherent story, but it produced the wrong kind of story. Firstly, very little felt distinctly western Pennsylvanian about it; the Fifth World aims to produce a very bioregional game, and with this one set in the Land of the Three Rivers, that distinctive western Pennsylvania culture should bleed through. Secondly, as my brother keenly points out, it told a fairly typically Native American story. Specifically, the Native Americans we know today; if people have survived into the Fifth World, that happened only because we managed to work out a new Native American. Europeans have imagined themselves as the heirs of a dying Indian cultural world for centuries now, and I have a good deal to say about that, cultural appropriation, and how all of that applies to the Fifth World, but for now, I think I can safely sum up that living like an invasive species doesn't have much of a future left in it. At the very least, the Fifth World says so. The game should talk about the descendants of us, today, who have become native to the place they live. Such people wouldn't consciously espouse the so-called "neo-animist" principles of David Abram or Graham Harvey. Even if shaped by the world around them and funneled into those patterns, they wouldn't espouse them consciously. They would consider themselves good Christians, or good Muslims, or good Buddhists. The symbols and names of religious traditions persevere even after the entire substance of the beliefs have reversed themselves (compare the modern American Christian's preoccupation with gay marriage and the rich with Jesus' own teachings in the Gospels; yet, despite contradicting everything their god stood for and died for, they still call themselves Christians and say they follow Jesus—that distance makes the jump to animism seem small by comparison).

Did Gary Gygax set out to write a game that expressed Platonic and Cartesian assumptions of ontology and epistemology? Of course not! He did so, but only because he had no other philosophical assumptions to start from. He wanted to make a fun game about heroes having adventures; the philosophy in it came not from careful consideration, but from the lack of consideration. The Fifth World should present a fun game about heroes having adventures, but it should come from a different philosophical foundation. It took me a lot of time and effort to really understand that foundation, and because of that, it seems like the game revolves around that right now. It will take even more time and effort to move past that, and to take all of that for granted—just like Gygax took Plato and Descartes for granted.

This week, I've worked on a second pass on the Land of the Three Rivers, now a pastoralist society somewhat like the Saami, with Big Men called Bosses that evoke steel mill bosses, union bosses, and philanthropic robber barons like Andrew Carnegie, and shamans called Fathers that evoke the ancient traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. I listened to Stephen Vincent Benét's "By the Waters of Babylon" today, and while I could hardly disagree more with the "moral" of the story, I did enjoy the prose. I picked up Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias today as well, an anthology of ecotopian fiction edited by Kim Stanley Robinson. And not a moment too soon; with luck, this will help me break out of the deep theoretical mindset I've needed with the project so far, and get back to the higher level where players should operate, the level of "cool." I think we have a solid mechanic at its base. Now comes the hard part: using that to evoke a new vision of the world. As Michael Green put it in Afterculture:

America has always been a land of destiny. We have always looking forward to a rosy future, first by westward expansion, then via Tom Swift and his Electric Things, But the realities of ill-conceived ideals have finally caught up to us. The West was bought by genocide, Tom Swift left us with nuclear dumps and ozone holes. There are still official candidates for the Cool Tomorrow. There's the Bill Gates's Virtual World where everyone's on-line, and your home says hello—but no one's particularly interested except LCD manufacturers. Star Trek had the hum for a while, but cyberpunk science seems more plausible now. Becoming a dot com millionaire and retiring at 25 would be admirable, but behind every shining Epcot City the rain forests are burning, and we all smell the smoke.

The truth is that for the first time we are bereft of a positive vision of where we are going. This is particularly evident among kids. Their future is either Road Warrior post-apocalypse, or Blade Runner mid-apocalypse. All the futuristic computer games are elaborations of these scenarios, heavy metal worlds where civilization has crumbling into something weird and violent (but more exciting than now).

The AFTERCULTURE is an attempt to transmute this folklore of the future into something deep and rich and convincingly real. If we are to pull a compelling future out of environmental theory and recycling paradigms, we are going to have to clothe the sacred in the romantic. The Afterculture is part of an ongoing work to shape a new mythology by sources as diverse as Thoreau and Conan and Dances with Wolves and Iron John. The Afterculture is not "against" the problems of our times, and its not about "band-aid solutions" to the grim jam we find ourselves in. It's about opening up a whole new category of solutions, about finding another way of being: evolved, simpler, deeper, even more elegant. Even more cool. Even very cool.

Afterculture provided much of the original inspiration for The Fifth World, and it shares the same aspirations. But you don't get that from preaching, you get that from an alluring vision of the future, a world that's fun, a world that's cool, "even very cool."

Friday, September 26, 2008

Droppin' Names

I listen to a lot of gaming podcasts, including All Games Considered. I also live in Pittsburgh, and have the kind of passionate commitment to the place that only a zealous bioregionalist can. So when episode 86 dropped, complete with the bad-mouthing of the Burgh, I had to step in, and did, as the comments at the above link testify. But I certainly didn't expect Mark to remember the Fifth World's brief flirtation with publicity almost a year ago, thanks to Mick Bradley, which got us some notice on the now-defunct Gamer: The Podcasting, IDDfOS, and the Round Table. In the latest episode, if you queue up to 57:26, Mark reads my clever comeback in defense of the Burgh, and mentions the Fifth World. He even included a link in the notes. Thank you!

Unfortunately, the wiki has almost nothing in it at the moment, since I've spent all my available time and energy working on the alpha and making sure I have everything ready for the beta, which begins on November 1. But to anyone who got here via AGC, first, welcome; second, I must beg your patience. The Fifth World will eventually take the form of an open source game, both rules and setting, centered on the wiki. But I first need to put together a decent initial offering, something worth your time as a player, and possibly your time as a game designer, author, poet, artist, singer, or other artist. And there I find myself at present. That means very little in the wiki, and very little in general that I can really show for all my efforts. Thank you for your interest, and I hope you'll still have some in November when I'll have something to show for it! For now, this blog has most of what I can really show the world about the project.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Playtest Report

Just concluded the first real alpha playtest. We had four players, and the story quickly turned around my character, the ghost of a seven-year-old boy who died on his first vision quest after his baptism in the Mad Valley, so this insane little ghost boy tried to drive the other characters insane, ultimately killed two of them, and in the end managed to destroy the village. A bit of a downer, but a clear moral about the impact of pharmaceuticals in the environment even four hundred years from now (which created the Mad Valley that created my crazy ghost kid).

Overall, it got a pretty positive response. Rough, yes, as you'd expect of an alpha playrest, but we mostly focused on details, rather than the core mechanics of the game. I could hardly ask for better results! A clear story structure asserted itself even without a central GM or preparation, so that seems to go well. What did come up in our post-game discussion:

  • We'll try next time having more of the character decided outside of initiations, possibly even allowing for characters to be half-created before the game starts.

  • The beads and strings turned out to cause a big headache. Next time, we'll try a combination of a paper character sheet and poker chips.

  • Does the game rely too much on interpretation? Does that make it too much of a burden to play? I think that poses the main question for the playtests as we go forward. Tonight, it worked out just fine, but we'll need a lot more testing before I'd feel comfortable giving a solid answer to that question.

We've found two more local playtesters, and I'll experiment this week with MapTool to see if it might provide a useful platform for an online playtest, since I have a far longer list of playtesters who could play online over Skype.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Introducing the Fifth World in Forge Parlance, Revised

I tried this before, but we've done a lot of thinking and a lot of work since then, so as I go back to tighten the screws through the alpha playtest process, it seems worthwhile to go back again and clarify what the game really focuses on.

Concept: The Fifth World paints a picture of an optimistic, feral future, where humans once again live in an animist world of relationships based on the challenge to make yourself vulnerable and trust.

Synopsis: A world based on trust can get pretty scary. You can trust and make yourself vulnerable, but you have to hope that the Other—whether human or other-than-human—will reciprocate that trust, and not take advantage of you. Relationships build up from repeated encounters like that, and in The Fifth World, those relationships tell you everything you need to know about a person. Stories that matter, the kinds of stories that The Fifth World tells, come from a spirit of place, and follow relationships just like those

The Big Three

  1. What is your game about? Trust. Ingold (1994) describes the domesticated world as based on domestication, and the animist world as one based on trust, but that doesn't mean some shiny, happy utopia. Trusting means putting yourself at risk. It means making yourself vulnerable and putting yourself into a position where the Other can take advantage of you—and sometimes, they will. Relationships build up from repeated encounters like that. The animist world consists entirely of those relationships. A game, like a world, built around trust means the tension of deciding whether or not to make yourself vulnerable, while trying to guess what the Other will do.

  2. What do the characters do? In The Fifth World, only relationships matter. Nothing else even exists. Characters must tend to the various relationships that define them. Some relationships require more energy. Some will demand things that might damage other relationships. So characters must carefully choose which relationships to nurture and which to neglect, and how to budget their time and effort.

  3. What do the players do? The players alternate between playing the roles of their individual characters and that of the Genius loci, or spirit of the place, who fills in all the NPC's. Players receive rewards in the three different acts for introducing story elements, layering images, or resolving story elements, which drives all players towards the collaborative weaving of a coherent story.

The Power 19

  1. How does your setting (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about? The Fifth World happens after the collapse of civilization; that turning to the new world reinforces the regular cycles of nature, like the turning of seasons or years. By the same token, the feral humans of The Fifth World live amongst the legacies of a world that lived without a focus on trust or relationship. The world has mostly healed itself, though. Like extant animists, the feral humans of The Fifth World experience creation as an ongoing process, the world as a process they must renew each day. Thus, the setting underlines the dynamics of trust and relationship that the game centers on.

  2. How does the Character Creation of your game reinforce what your game is about? Characters go through a series of initiations. These initiations build up the relationships that define a character, by putting them into an encounter where they must choose to trust or not. These initiations at the same time build up a map of the region where the story takes place, rooting the character and the story in a definite spirit of place.

  3. What types of behaviors/styles of play does your game reward (and punish if necessary)? The basic mechanic of the game derives from the Prisoner's Dilemma. Axelrod (1984) argues that the Prisoner's Dilemma can help explain the evolution of cooperative behavior. In computer simulations, "tit-for-tat" almost always emerges, ultimately, as the winning strategy, thanks to characteristics like its "niceness" (it opens with trusting), vengeance (it retaliates when defected against) and forgiveness (it only retaliates once). So the basic mechanic should push players in that direction, with cooperation ultimately emerging as the most stable behavior.

    On a larger level, the scene economy breaks the story into three acts: in the first act, players receive rewards for introducing new story elements; in the second, for layering those elements on each other; and in the third, for bringing those elements to resolution. These should help drive these relationships and encounters towards a coherent story, relying on Scheub's (1998) concept of a story as a rhythmic layering of images.

  4. How are behaviors and styles of play rewarded or punished in your game? In individual encounters, player set stakes in the form of "Hopes" and "Fears." Trusting will allow a character to achieve his or her Hope, but makes him or her vulnerable to his or her Fear. By not trusting, a character can gain immunity to his or her Fear, but at the cost of his or her Hope. Mutual trust rewards both characters with their Hopes, but defecting allows a character to gain his or her Hope while inflicting the other character's Fear on him or her. So, defecting can give a character a short-term advantage. However, characters can only build up their relationships—their measure of long-term viability—in encounters of mutual trust.

    At the level of the scene economy, simple beads provide the incentive for driving the story forward. Players need those beads for gifting and to build relationships.

  5. How are the responsibilities of narration and credibility divided in your game? By relationship. Every scene happens at one of the places on the map created along with the characters. Whoever had the strongest relationship with that place plays the GM for that scene, or in this game, the Genius loci (spirit of the place).

  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?) The game intends for the place to hit close to home—places where the players live or have lived, or places that they love. The spirit of place carries with it an animist belief that stories come not from a purely human imagination, but from the land itself, and that humans simply partake in that imagination. Thus, the stories of those places the players live and love today continue to assert themselves even four centuries from now. So The Fifth World has an immediacy, rhyming with the stories of your own life and your own world, about the world your descendants might enjoy living on the same land.

  7. What are the resolution mechanics of your game like? Tense. An encounter puts two players in doubt, trying to guess what the other might do. Between choosing to trust or not and revealing that choice, players can enter a gifting cycle, offering beads. A player can accept those beads at the cost of flipping his or her choice to "trust," which could leave the gifting player with the opportunity for an encounter of mutual trust, or just provide the opening needed to exploit. Counter-gifting allows players to escalate gifts. This also provides a narrative tool for the back-and-forth of the encounter. Then, the players reveal their choices, and interpret what happened with their Hopes and Fears.

  8. How do the resolution mechanics reinforce what your game is about? The Prisoner's Dilemma challenges players with precisely the dilemma of living in a world based on trust.

  9. Do characters in your game advance? If so, how? Characters can advance by gaining more relationships, with more beads in those relationships, more blessings attached to those relationships, and more beads in their will pool. But this doesn't offer a clear-cut advancement, either, since relationships bring responsibilities and expectations with them, as well. It would seem more accurate to say that characters' lives become more complicated, or perhaps deeper, rather than simply advancing.

  10. How does the character advancement (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about? Advancement occurs as a matter of relationship, rather than individual traits or attributes. It comes from many encounters of mutual trust. But "advancement" doesn't mean accumulated power, so much as deeper relationships and a life more deeply rooted in relationships with place and the persons who live there.

  11. What sort of product or effect do you want your game to produce in or for the players? After playing The Fifth World, I hope players can appreciate the animist perspective as a viable and worthwhile one. I hope that at least some players will take inspiration from the future The Fifth World depicts, serving for deep ecology and bioregional animists just as Star Trek did for humanists.

  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. Dispelling those myths without falling into preaching requires a delicate balance, one that requires a lot of attention.

  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 biker gangs that turned their hogs in for horses and now 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.

  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—we just need to trust it again to repair that betrayed relationship.

  15. What are your publishing goals for your game? Make it an open-source game, using an online wiki. We'll publish some books, mainly as a convenience for players at the table, particularly a series of books focusing on individual lands (since the game's bioregional focus requires some significant changes for each land). I'd like to publish the rules as a podcast and as a CD. But ultimately, the game will primarily exist online, in wiki format, as an open source game where players can help improve the rules, and the stories they play become "official canon" for the world. I think that should make The Fifth World the first truly massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game!

  16. Who is your target audience? We might reach some traditional gamers and some independent/story gamers, but we'd rather pull in non-gamers. I hope to sell the game to intentional and planned communities as an outlet for collaborative, communal art that could help build social cohesion. We hope to attract people with an interest in anthropology or ecology.

  • Axelrod, R. (1984). The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books.
  • Ingold, T. (1994). From trust to domination: an alternative history of human-animal relations. In Animals and human society: changing perspectives, eds. A Manning and J Serpell. London: Routledge, pp 1-22.
  • Scheub, H. (1998). Story. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

White Smoke!

Giuli and I just ran the first alpha playtest. In the first playtest, you want to look for some very gross things, like, do the mechanics basically work? Can you get through a game? Does it have any promise whatsoever of genuine fun? Doubts persisted right up to the moment we started playing, and we have good news: it works!

With just two players, you can't expect much, and with neither of us investing much into the story, it fell a little flat. But even over such hurdles as that, the game pushed us towards a rather pointed tragedy, wherein my character had to live the rest of his life in the wilderness, alone, in order to pay for the debt of our son. And that came just from a first playtest and a minimum of investment in the story. Giuli described the mechanics as straightforward and simple, though I can see that we'll need to focus on guidelines for setting good stakes.

All in all, I feel very good right now. The Fifth World v. 0.3.1 basically works. Now, we can start putting her through the paces!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Time Ticking Away

We've arrived home from the PDC. We learned a lot, but geez, talk about exhausting. Ended up with no time to run the PDC Playtest Draft, though we did find some interested parties. We have precious little time until the beta playtest begins on November 1st at GASPcon, so I plan to finish the Oracle of the Point this week, have an alpha playtest draft out by Friday, and maybe even see if I can pull off some initial playtesting this weekend.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

PDC Playtest Draft Released!

PDC Playtest Draft

The first version of the new rules to see the light of day. I hope to playtest these at the PDC I'll attend this month. Several critical pieces remain undone, including a functioning oracle. This document runs an alpha playtest, meaning you really need me there to run it for you. The beta playtest—one where the document provides enough information for you to run it without me—begins Saturday, 1 November, 2:00 PM EDT, at GASPcon 9. That version will include a full land description for the Land of the Three Rivers.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Another Status Update

I'm scheduling alpha playtests for late August. For those of you in the Pittsburgh area, the Fifth World is scheduled for GASPcon 9, where I'll run the first public playtest, marking the beginning of the beta playtest phase. Right now, we have rules, but we need our first setting filled in to make them playable.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Status Update

Haven't posted here much because I think I've finally gotten enough together to begin writing a playtestable game. Look for v. 0.3 in June!

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Gift

I feel pretty good about the "game of trust" model, a lot better than I've felt about any of its predecessors. I have some trusted advisers who've promised me their responses, so I won't say I've settled on it entirely until I've heard what they have to say about the idea, but I have a strong suspicion that something like that will make it through to the end of the game.

Right now, though, the part that bothers me most of all lies with the betting. The mechanic needs some way for relationships to affect it, of course, and to work as a game, it needs to introduce some separation between the character and the player playing the character, but all the same, the notion of forcing a character to trust seems ... wrong.

While turning this over in my head, I realized that the mechanic worked, but the verbal understanding of the mechanic missed the mark. What I had here didn't involve betting to force trust—I had competitive gift exchange.

Marcel Mauss' classic The Gift needs a lot of updating in a lot of ways, but the general idea remains: we give gifts to gain one another's trust. Anthropologists describe the hunter-gatherer economy as reciprocal, but this viewpoint comes from a domesticated viewpoint, where we have dislodged economic activity, often at great effort, from its underlying social foundations. A key point of wild—and by extension, feral—human society points us to the social fabric (and, I would say, the ecological, as perhaps an even better term, in that it extends the social beyond the merely human) as the ultimate basis of everything else that goes on in life. Reciprocity rules their "economy" becomes their economy exists only inside their social network, and gift-giving earns trust.

So, when you bet three beads, you move three beads from your bowl directly into the Other's bowl. You make a gift of three beads. You'll have to describe what kind of gift you've given; since the beads represent "power," or the capacity for change and movement, the gift can take any number of forms. You could offer a gift of praise, a story, or simply attention. The Other can then either accept your gift, and turn over to trust, or he can return your gift. If he simply returns it, the exchange ends there, meaning he did not accept your gift. If he gives you back more beads than you gave him—if he returns four beads, instead of three—then he has made a counter-gift. Now you must either return four beads to him, make an even larger counter-gift, or accept the gift and choose to trust.

We will need to use the beads for other parts of the game to make this interesting, of course (right now, I look at the beads as "potential energy," that a character can use more fluidly, or store more permanently by investing it in a relationship, which may give the player enough reason to want more beads right there).

Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Game of Trust

I think I might have it! At first I thought I should make the Fifth World a game of awareness, and then I thought that it should follow a game of movement, but now I think it should follow a game of trust.

Despairing over how the lack of a core mechanic has kept me from going anywhere with the Fifth World, over lunch today I started to go over again with my wife what we really needed to accomplish with such a dynamic, and I began relating Ingold's take on domestication (1994). The usual gameplay mechanics of overcoming a challenge reflect the "domination" mindset Ingold identified at the heart of domestication. Any mechanic that comes down to counting successes means that you must succeed by domination, by overcoming challenges by force. Even if the game fiction maintains the typical beliefs of, say, a Cree hunter that deer offer themselves and that no violence occurs in the act of hunting, the fact that the hunter took the deer by gaining more successes than the deer says otherwise. It pats our fictional animist on the head condescendingly, while affirming that whatever he might believe, we know how it really happens. That doesn't relate us to an animist lifeworld, that just reinforces our cultural chauvanism.

But Ingold introduces much more nuance than the contrast of "domination vs. trust" might seem to infer. It does not simply demarcate "trust good, domination bad." Trust brings with it a nerve-wracking dependence. The hunter must trust that the deer will offer himself. To trust means making yourself vulnerable, and the fear and trepidation that comes with that. The Other might not reciprocate your trust; they may take advantage of you, or leave you helpless. The game mechanic should follow the challenges that appear in that life: the challenge of approaching the Other, each track drawing you closer, the building tension, and then, finally, the revelation.

As I described it, the moment of revelation hit me. We have a game just like that. Ready-made to become a resolution mechanic. Quick, easy. Other games have already used it. The prisoner's dilemma.

Two suspects, A and B, are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal: if one testifies for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must make the choice of whether to betray the other or to remain silent. However, neither prisoner knows for sure what choice the other prisoner will make. So this dilemma poses the question: How should the prisoners act?

We would want to skew this a bit. Take the example of hunting. Both hunter and prey must trust each other; the hunter must trust that the deer will offer himself, and the deer must trust that the hunter will make proper use of that gift, offering the correct rituals in thanks, sharing with all members of his community, and so on. If the hunter betrays that trust but the deer does not, he can take the deer and keep the meat for himself, or not share it out equally, or not give the proper thanks. If the hunter trusts but the deer does not, the deer lives and the hunter goes hungry. And if neither trusts, then the encounter never really happens at all.

When we had the gambling mechanic, some people said it needed some resolution behind it. What if characters bid to try to turn the other person to trust? You still don't know if they trusted themselves, or if they just want to screw you over. But you could bid your beads, or begin burning through your relationships, to compel that trust when you really need to (think of the energy invested in tracking, to gain greater empathy; or, if you need that moment of mutual trust to convince someone of your argument, the energy you put into persuasion or consensus-building). Then, once all bets come in, you have the dramatic moment of the reveal, when you find out who trusted, who betrayed, and who screwed over who.

At first, as in the Prisoner's Dilemma, this encourages betrayal. But you don't play once; as a resolution mechanic, the game requires an iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, where other players punish betrayers. The same play pattern emerges: you learn (usually the hard way) that you won't get anywhere without trusting each other.

Other games have used this to great effect; Diamant and its English cousin, Inca Gold, rely on the prisoner's dilemma. I got to play Inca Gold earlier this month, and it made for a rollicking good time.

I don't know if this mechanic entirely works just yet, but I have a good feeling about it--something I haven't had for quite some time now. What do you all think? Does it sound like something worth pursuing?

  • Ingold, T. (1994). From trust to domination: an alternative history of human-animal relations. In Animals and human society: changing perspectives, eds. A Manning and J Serpell. London: Routledge, pp 1-22.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Other Systems

Yes, system matters; hence, work continues on our own system. But from the beginning, I've had ideas about introducing The Fifth World in other systems. I don't know if we'll necessarily come up with a Fifth World "Campaign Setting" for all of these systems, but I've thought about them all.

  • D&D 3.5e. The Fifth World began in the context of a discussion about the OGL, but with the version change, we'll want to at least hold off on this to see how things shape up. Same goes for D&D 4e; just how much will fourth edition keep open?

  • Savage Worlds. I've had a lot of fun with The Savage World of Solomon Kane, and Savage Worlds offers a little bit more narrativism with bennies than you normally get from, say, D&D.

  • FATE. As seen in Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files, the favorite semi-traditional game of story gamers everywhere, I've borrowed a few concepts from FATE, myself. Would you believe our relationships began from some ideas of FATE's Aspects? And as I commented before, animism demands a fractal.

  • CORE. I've listened to The Dragon's Landing Inn longer than just about any other gaming podcast, so I feel a bit of podcast loyalty here.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Game of Movement

What do we mean when we call something "alive"? The very word biology means, in Greek, "the study of life," yet despite significant efforts, biologists have never managed to come up with a solid, scientific definition for life. The attempts invariably focus on the criteria for life, and the best shot so far points to homeostasis, organization, metabolism, growth, adaptation, response to stimuli and reproduction. Perhaps the pursuit has so far failed because it fundamentally looks in the wrong direction--in seeing the universe as a collection of objects, each defined by its unique characteristics--if "life" indicates not an object but a process, might we have some better luck at figuring out what we mean by it? We could not say "that is alive," but we could say, "that lives."

In Ojibwa, the word "bema.diziwa.d" comes closest to our phrase, "living things," and translates literally as "those who continue in the state of being alive," though we might more accurately gloss it as "those who have power." (Black, 1977) That really just moves the question, though, to what we mean by "power."

Since we talk about roleplaying games here, I should begin with mana. Before it signified a wizard's pool of magical potency in games, it existed as a term in Oceania, and few terms in the world have ever suffered as much abuse. Anthropologists forced it into a linear model of cultural evolution, casting it as an impersonal magical force that pervaded the world, and that magicians could manipulate. They saw this as the most primitive type of religion, eventually giving way to polytheism that concentrated that magical potency in a pantheon of gods, then monotheism which concentrated that power in a single god, and finally, at the apex of cultural evolution, the enlightened, scientific atheist, who understood the truth that the world operated according to impersonal forces. But that theory had more to do with the imagination of Western anthropologists than what Oceanian peoples meant by the term. To them, mana meant potency, or "power." They would describe a skilled craftsman, a capable chief, or a talented hunter as mana-ful. Mana meant something more along the lines of skill, potential, power, or capacity, than anything as mystical or supernatural as the ethnographers dreamed. Certainly, I, too, have greatly abbreviated the full discussion here, and the native concept has many nuances and complications, but I think, in general, I can stand by the statement that mana, in its original sense, has much more to do with the kind of power you'd find in your muscles than the kind of power your level blood elf taps in World of Warcraft.

Closer to home, the concept of "orenda" has a similar history, having at one point seen use almost as often as mana and for much the same purpose. J.N.B. Hewitt's influential 1902 article in American Anthropologist, "Orenda and a Definition of Religion" (Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1902), pp. 33-46) offered the word and its reference to a mystical, impersonal force pervading the world. But Hewitt offers a mistranslation at best; the better term, uki, exists in tension withutkon (sometimes also spelled utgon in English). Hewitt's elevation of "orenda" over utkon fundamentally breaks the traditional Haudenosaunee perspective, which put the two in equal tension. Uki benefitted life, while utkon described the impacts of the Trickster. Too often, when Westerners have noticed both concepts, they have simplified them into a Manichaean good/evil dichotomy. My own understanding seems to put them more in relation as things that promote ecological succession, and things that cut it back. A world of only uki would become a stagnant forest of nothing but towering old trees, while a world of only utkon would look, well, distressingly similar to the world civilization has left us. But a healthy world emerges from the interplay of both forces. Seneca forestry, for instance, often used fire to clear out fields, in a clear wielding of utkon, yet that created forests with varied successional stages, which maximized edge and thus maximized biodiversity.

But I see one process running through Oceanic mana and Haudenosaunee uki and utkon: change. We asked before, what do we mean by "power"? I think this short analysis points us towards a clear answer: the power to change, or the power to move. Oceanic mana seems to take a unitary view of change, while the Haudenosaunee concept of uki and utkon specifies change in one of two directions. No doubt other traditions would see change along other axes; might the Lakota medicine wheel chart change going out to one of the four cardinal directions, for instance? But we fundamentally, always mean change, regardless of the direction of that change. "Those who remain in the state of being alive" means "those who keep changing." To live means to change, constantly, to engage a changing world, to open yourself for the world to change you, and for you to change the world.

Before, I asked about The Fifth World as a game of awareness, but now I see that awareness just means one kind of movement (Noë, 2005; Ingold, 2005). Dan Moonhawk Alford described native modes of perception by pointing to "watching the dancing rather than the dancers — the dancers fade back- into the background as you just describe the rhythms and the motions of what is." Or, according to Alford's account of a conference with American Indians and quantum physicists:

After listening to the physicists and American Indians talk for a few days, it struck me that the way physicists use the term potential, or quantum potential, is nearly identical to the way Native Americans use the term spirit. They all agreed there was something similar going on.

Potential, spirit, life means change and movement. When we stop changing, we stop living. It has such an elegant beauty to it, and it really refocuses my efforts. The Fifth World should focus to become a game of movement.

  • Black, M.B. (1977). Ojibwa power belief system. In Fogelson, R.D. & Adams, R.N. (Eds.) The anthropology of power: ethnographic studies from Asia, Oceania and the New World. New York: Academic Press, pp. 141-151

  • Ingold, T. (2005). Stop, look and listen! Vision, hearing and human movement. In Ingold, T. The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. New York: Routledge, pp. 241-287

  • Noë, A. Action in perception. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Consulting the Oracles

I haven't played In a Wicked Age, though I'd very much like to, and all the more since reading Willem's actual play report on it, and seeing everything he accomplished with an animist oracle and a myth-map (to say nothing of some excellent ideas on how I can help my shy, timid wife bring out her inner storyteller). I've heard a good deal about the Oracle concept that Vincent Baker included in the game, and while listening to episode 3 of "The Game that May Be" (great podcast, by the way, no matter how much my inner E-Prime editor cringes every time I hear the title), I remembered what we did with the Statue of Liberty and the Anayok. We all know that every post-apocalyptic setting must feature the Statue of Liberty as a touchstone to establish how the setting relates to our current time, even when you set it in Las Vegas—or did only I catch that opening shot in the Resident Evil: Extinction TV ad? Well, we took our cue from one of Michael Green's images from Afterculture collection, showing a girl in a small boat, sailing away from a mostly-submerged Statue of Liberty. Imagine what the sunken city of New York would look like in four hundred years, with heaps of strange, red boxes jutting out of the ocean at all angles (the remains of rusted skyscrapers, many toppled over), and then this blue woman, up to her chest with the sea, rises up before you. We put a single hermit living in the observation deck shouting out prophecies, and decided that the Anayok called her the Water Oracle. Well, as I listened to Mick describing the Oracles of Liam, I realized, these ideas go together quite nicely.

Now I wonder what we could do with bioregional oracles. Every region could have its own oracle, that could use playing cards or tarot cards to dispense the stories that resonate through that bioregion. Perhaps we could even make adventures out of just going to consult the oracle in the first place. But I think this gives us another thing to include in our region books—which makes me think, more and more, that we'll end up with a fairly small core rulebook, and a series of nice, crunchy regional books.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Setting, Place & Character

For a while now, I've heard about the idea (often in Story Games) of players collaboratively creating the setting in which their story takes place. I love this idea. But The Fifth World began from a discussion of open source gaming, and how you really need an open source setting, not just open source rules. For a while, I thought, perhaps, as awesome as it sounds to have collaborative setting creation, it just didn't fit with this game.

Then I read Tim Ingold's "To Journey Along a Way of Life: Maps, Wayfinding and Navigation," which he includes as the thirteenth chapter of The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (this one appearing under the "Dwelling" heading).

There, in his typical fashion, Ingold challenges the idea that we navigate by "mental maps," drawing an analogy of maps to navigation as writing to communication. Like writing, maps follow from the "building perspective," an attempt to detach ourselves from an engagement with the world, to give us an impossible "god's eye view" where we can somehow, paradoxically, know the world without participating in it. Now, Ingold does distinguish between "mapping" and "mapmaking," along the same lines as one would distinguish between "speaking" and "writing." When we give directions, we map; we use that word, "map," as a verb here. We do something. We map something out for someone. When we make a map, we deal with a noun instead: we shift our focus from the process of mapping, to the relic of mapping, the map itself. Similarly, writing shifts our focus from communicating, to the relic of communicating, the form of the letter left behind.

But getting more to the point, the map shows us a region as a continuous plane, but this does not reflect our phenomenological experience. Consider when you yourself give directions: do you orient the lost person to a map, or do you tell them, "go down that way until you cross the bridge, then make a left and go up the hill"? In other words, do you give them a map, or tell them a story? Ingold contrasts wayfinding to using maps; we do not navigate by mental maps, but rather, following stories. We experience journeys as narratives, a continually changing landscape and an experience in our muscles and bodies.

We see this related directly in how traditional societies relate to place, as Ingold highlights. Australian Aboriginal songlines provide only the most well-known example. With maps, we plot a course from one location to another through space, all idealized concepts, detached from any necessary experience with the world (readers of David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous may recall his discussion of Euclidean space). Ingold offers a definition of a region as a matrix of places connected by paths. Places exist as crossroads of paths, as distinct nodes of story and human participation. Camp sites and watering holes mark some of the most important places in Australian Aboriginal regions. Paths connect these places, formed from many, many journeys between them. Ingold uses the example of one Aboriginal group that makes drawings of these regions, making circles for each place and drawing lines between them.

This gave me the perspective I needed to put together these two, seemingly conflicted, design goals.

Places make for a particular kind of character, with relationships all their own. Characters have relationships with particular places. Among Australia's Aboriginal people, many believe that a child's life comes from the place where he first kicks. The mother and father having sex gives the child flesh, but he doesn't come to life until that place gives him or her life. From Tom Brown and his students, we get the concept of the "sit spot," and its powerful potential for connecting us to place, which seems like a very similar practice.

Paths look an awful lot like relationships between Place characters, and give you stories of the journey between them. Such things could give you the fun parts of a "random encounter," without the absurdity of its, well, randomness. You might encounter difficulties getting from one place to another, but such difficulties would arise from the story of that journey; as you might put it in terms of the Aboriginal Dreaming, becoming the Ancestor, and reliving his journey, and thus remaking the world. It ties in quite beautifully to what we so often see as a paradox of tradition and innovation.

Take a set of places and the paths connecting them, and you have a region; a watershed, for instance. We can include rules for making your own regions and provide example regions. When you create your character, you can create a Place character he or she relates to. With some framing mechanics we'll get to later on, defining the setting for a scene at a particular Place will give some characters bonuses, and others perhaps penalties, depending on their relationships to that Place. You can publish the regions you make to the wiki, where others might decide to use them, just like the Town Archive for Dogs in the Vineyard, or the Oracles collection for In a Wicked Age, and we'll have rules for how to add new places to existing regions.

So you still can participate in a truly massively-multiplayer world, and still come together and collaborate to create a vision of your own region in the Fifth World, and find the stories of the Places that matter to you, and the Paths that connect them.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Four Candidates

Still no set decision on the core mechanic. I think I could really tear through the rest in short order, if only I could settle on an effective, evocative core mechanic. But at least I've narrowed it down to four main candidates. We've had discussions going on in several threads:

The Bet

The simplest (and original!) mechanic, this one assumes that each person has:
  • Some number of pools, representing different kinds of effort (Possibly Flesh, Breath and Word; possibly the four directions of the medicine wheel)
  • Some number of relationships

So, in the straight form of the bet, each person makes a secret wager of some number of beads from the appropriate pool, depending on the nature of the conflict. Then, the reveal. Whoever bet more, wins. The number of beads in the relationship determines how many beads you can recover, the rest you lose. That would model sudden decisions, like, did your arrow hit the target, or did you make that jump? In the iterative version, modeling things where you can escalate like fights or arguments, you could add more beads, and that stops when both sides stop adding beads. Once again, the person with the most beads bet wins; you get to take back a number of beads equal to your relationship, and lose the rest.

My thoughts on this. Does the escalation lead to a back-and-forth of one bead at a time? Does this really make for a game of awareness, or just overcoming an adversary?

The Mancala Mechanic

Andrew posted the best version of this that I've heard yet on the Forge, especially when combined with Daniel's earlier post in that thread. You have a starting configuration, and then, based on the appropriate relationship, you can either:
  • Add some number of beads to one of your pits
  • Remove some number of beads from one of their pits
  • Move some number of beads from one of your pits, to another of your pits

So, let's say you want to hunt a deer. You have 10 beads in your relationship with deer. So, you can add beads to one of your pits, remove beads from one of the deer's pits, or move beads from one of your pits to another of your pits. Let's say you decide to add three beads to one pit. 10-3=7, you have seven moves left. This can conclude in one of two ways:
  1. The encounter. The two sides match. Whoever moved last gets to narrate how the encounter unfolds, based on the previous narration. So if the hunter moves last to align the two sides, he would likely narrate that he takes the deer; the deer might narrate that he bolts away at the last moment. So, the encounter occurs, and whoever moves last gets to narrate the encounter unfolding on their own terms. Which means you not only want to reach that alignment, you want to do so on your terms.
  2. The escape. One side or the other runs out of moves without any alignment. No encounter occurs. I think madunkieg's suggestion of a "distraction pile" on the Story Games thread might work here: every escape adds beads to the distraction pile, which could hamper you in future encounters (perhaps you don't get your relationship beads to move; you get your relationship beads minus the beads in your distraction pile?)

My thoughts on this. Does a better job of modeling the idea of the encounter, and certainly Daniel's idea of starting configurations drawn out with cave art styles, even to the extent of posters, adds an exciting new element. Opens up the potential to either actively hide, or actively reveal oneself, by either avoiding alignment, or pursuing it. This might offer the best possibility so far. But where does the possibility to burn up your relationship for extra power come in? Maybe after you've exhausted your relationship's normal store for moves, you could begin taking beads straight from the string to buy more moves?

The Necklace

Inspired by Daniel Solis' discussion of gaming with necklaces (may require Story Games membership to view), this model uses different colored beads. These could differentiate between Flesh, Breath and Word, or between the four directions of the medicine wheel. For now, let's use Flesh, Breath, and Word for example's sake, but keep in mind that we could change the colors and dividing lines, too.

For relationships, you still have a string of beads, but now the kinds of beads matter. So, an encounter with a physical coyote would add a Flesh bead to your Coyote relationship; hearing a Coyote story would add a Breath bead; exchanging gifts with Coyote would add a Word bead.

So, you come to a particular encounter where you need Coyote. Let's say you want to coyote around the village perimeter so no one sees you. Now you use your Coyote string almost like prayer beads or a rosary; you make a quick plea to coyote to help you, thumbing off beads in some set pattern as you do. Now, look at the bead you currently have in your finger and thumb. That will give you your result. The third red bead in a row, right before a blue one, would give you 3 Flesh. If the village gets a 2 Flesh from, say, their Hawk relationship, your 3 Flesh wins. If you have a Breath bead, though, it won't help you; you need to coyote fleshly for this, so you have 0 Flesh vs. 2 Flesh. They spot you.

My thoughts on this. I like the free-wheeling dynamic of actually calling on other-than-human persons for help, but I see a lot of potential for abuse. To avoid that, and to keep it functional as a game, we'd need some kind of rules for keeping the exact form of the plea out of the player's direct control, lest every player figure out exactly how many words/syllables/lines/whatever that it will take to get the result they want. This seems to encourage players to specialize with variation. Sure, having all 10 of your beads with Coyote will help if you want to coyote about the woods all the time, but without some Breath or Word beads in there, how will you ever coyote up a clever plan, or coyote someone out of a deal? By the same token, you'd never want something like red, blue, yellow, blue, red, blue, yellow, because everything would have a power of just 1! You'd want red, red, blue, blue, blue, yellow, yellow, so you get the most out of each type. So it seems to me like you'd optimize for runs of 2-4 at a time, before switching over to a different type. Also, this mechanic seems to get us back to the problem of overcoming adversity, rather than approaching the other.

The Color Wheel

This one comes straight from Jared Sorenson, I've just spun it around to the medicine wheel.

So you have the medicine wheel, which gives you four different pools of differently colored beads. All the beads go into an opaque bag. First, you decide the nature of the conflict, whether it comes from the north, east, south or west. Then, you pull a number of beads from your bag equal to the number of beads in the appropriate relationship. For each bead you pull of the appropriate color, you have one success; the player with the most successes, wins.

So, consider an intellectual debate about the next tribe over. The conflict comes from the north, associated with intellect and wisdom. You use your relationship with that tribe, in which you have four beads. So you pull four beads from you bag. You pull two white (north) beads, one black (west) bead, and one red (south) bead. So you have two successes. The other player have six beads with the tribe, and pulls six beads from his pouch, but he pulls one white, three red, and two yellow (east) beads, so he only has one success. You win.

My thoughts on this. The idea of competing numbers of successes certainly fits into the general range of existing RPG mechanics, which puts me on the most solid ground of any of these alternatives. But it also recapitulates the notion of overcoming adversity, rather than approaching the other.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Game of Awareness

Reading Tim Ingold's The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, has forced me to re-evaluate some of my most basic assumptions about the animist mind. Most relevantly to the Fifth World, I've had to reconsider the atomic act of the animist world. In our world, everything comes down to conflict; beyond simply beating someone up, you fight off a disease, fight for your side of argument, fight the war on drugs, et cetera ad nauseum. But consider these:

  • When Tim Bennett & Sally Erickson came to Pittsburgh, we talked about the Fifth World a bit, and we discussed how consensus building might play into it. It defied the normal RPG convention, which the Fifth World still followed at that point, because consensus doesn't mean beating your opponent's skill check, it means aligning your perspective to match each other, so that you come into balance.
  • In his book, Ingold talks about the Cree experience of hunting and tracking. Tracking brings them into communion with the animal, but the kill itself takes place very quickly. The deer doesn't try to escape; it offers itself up to the hunter. Hunting does not involve violence. The hunter never tries to overcome the deer; rather, the challenge tests the hunter's awareness and empathy, to notice the gift at the crucial moment that the deer offers it.
  • Shapeshifting actually occurs among animist peoples. It does not happen "symbolically" or "metaphorically." Animists experience an actual shape-shifting. Now, we might look on and call it trance or dream, but from the experiential point of view—the only point of view that actually matters—they experience true shapeshifting. But this does not occur by overcoming some magical hurdle, or beating the right Target Number; the difficulty lies in the shape-shifter's attempt to align his or her senses, outlook, and feelings with that of the animal he or she shifts into. The ornaments, dress and mask all help towards that end, but the challenge lies in aligning his own perspective to take on a different perspective.

Modern RPG's evolved out of wargames, and since we conceive of the universe as constant struggle, those mechanics worked well. You'll even hear, quite often, the mantra that "story is conflict." But what if that just arises, like so many other things we take for granted, from our cultural expectations, and the basic conflict required for our way of life? What if story could also trace relationship, based not on conflict, but on the attempt to synchronize two parties?

In tracking, different modes of awareness mean a great deal. Owl eyes sacrifice focus for breadth, while focus sacrifices breadth. So we already have there an idea of "resource allocation," if you will, where the "resource" simply means your attention. And we have different kinds of awareness: the synaesthetic awareness of the Flesh, the imaginative and intellectual awareness of the wind, our internal awareness expressed as emotions mapped onto the landscape, and so on. I've found this already mapped, quite elegantly, in the medicine wheel.

What if the "character sheet" took the form of a medicine wheel, with concentric circles, that fundamentally mapped your character's current awareness, and the game's mechanics mostly modeled different ways of shifting that awareness? What if, instead of beating a target number, you had to synchronize your awareness with some Other? What if, instead of conflict, this game modeled awareness?

I do not know how to do that yet, so I welcome suggestions.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Rethinking Basic Gameplay, Yet Again

Well, Raccoon Creek had a lot to teach us about herbal medicines this weekend, but had few revelations to offer about the game. I'll accept that as a good weekend, though! I've started to pull together some ideas of basic gameplay, enough perhaps to try some very preliminary playtesting.

  1. The genius loci has three bowls of different colored beads, representing Flesh, Breath and Word (we use red beads for Flesh, blue beads for Breath, and green beads for Word, but so far, I see no reason why you couldn't use any distinctive marker you like instead).
  2. The other players have three bowls, and several lengths of string. The bowls, as with the genius loci, hold their own pools of Flesh, Breath and Word, which they get from the land; the strings hold the beads for their relationships, each string representing a different relationship.
  3. Offerings allow players to move beads from one of their pools to one of their relationships; so, for instance, observing or tracking a coyote represents an offering of Flesh to Coyote, so you can move one Flesh bead from your Flesh pool to your relationship with Coyote; an eloquent prayer to Coyote, on the other hand, constitutes an offering of Breath, and so on.
  4. Eating another person allows you to take their Flesh beads for your own; dreaming restores Breath from the land; listening to stories restores Word from the land, etc.
  5. So, getting down to the meat of it, how do you determine whether or not an action happens? You'll need to wager the appropriate kind of beads—you can make hidden wagers and escalating wagers.
    • Hidden wagers describe sudden, single actions: can you make that jump? In those situations, the two parties commit their beads secretly, and then reveal. Whoever has committed the most beads, wins. So if the crevice commits 10 Flesh beads, and the person jumping it commits only 8, that means that the jumper underestimated the distance of the crevice, so the crevice beat him.
    • Escalating wagers describe situations where one or the other party can escalate their effort: can you bring down that deer? Can you lift that rock? These begin with a hidden wager, but afterwards, both sides have the opportunity to invest more beads, until one or the other gives in. So, if the rock puts in 10 Flesh beads, and the lifter puts in only 8, he sees he can't lift the rock, so he tries harder—he puts in three more beads, for a total of 11, beating the rock's 10. The rock can't escalate his weight that quickly, so the lifter manages to lift the rock. Or, a hunter trying to bring down a deer wagers 10 Flesh beads on the initial shot, but the deer wagers 12. So, the hunter missed the initial shot, but he increases his wager with three more beads, bringing his total up to 13; the deer uses her last six beads to bring her up to 18. So the hunter chases after the deer, and the deer darts off as quickly as she can. The hunter puts in another six beads, bringing him up to 19. The deer has no more beads, so she begins burning through her relationships. The hunter continues to chase, and the deer becomes desperate. The hunter throws in some more beads, beating out the deer's wager; the deer has nothing more to throw in at this point. So the hunter takes the deer, after running her down.
  6. After you've determined the outcome, each player can keep a number of beads equal to the appropriate relationship; all others go back to the genius loci's pools for the land. So, the jumper tried to Hare across the crevice; he has a total of 8 beads in his relationship with Hare, and 3 of those take the shape of Flesh beads. He committed 8 beads to the jump; 8-3=5, so he can take back three beads, and gives five back to the land (of course, he also fell down a crevice, so that may seem like the least of his worries). The lifter Anted up that rock, and he has 6 of his 8 beads with Ant in Flesh, so of the 11 beads he committed, he gets 6 back, and 5 go back to the land. The hunter Wolfed the deer down, and he has 14 of his 22 beads with Wolf as Flesh, so of the 19 beads he committed, he gets 14 back, and 5 go to the land. So basically, your relationships—in quantity and quality—determine how much you can "safely" wager.

We'll try this system out some time this week, and let you know how it goes.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

I Should Have Listened to Willem

All this time that I've spent wondering about skills, I really should have just listened to Willem. He pointed me in the right direction a long time back. As he wrote in his latest magnum opus, "E-Primitive: Rewilding the English Language":

Animist languages seek to describe patterns of activity, and to connect similar patterns to each other. To separate the way of the coyote away from words describing sneaky behavior, destroys connection, destroys layering. In fact, to use the word "coyote" also means to "act like a coyote," or "to sneak." In fact, the word talêpês means most properly "to act like a coyote." ...

So, if you want to sneak around the village, you might coyote around the village; if you want to trick someone, you might coyote them; if you want to devise a clever plan, you want to coyote up a plan. And there you have Flesh, Word, and Breath, respectively: to coyote your Flesh would mean to move in a sneaky manner; to coyote your Word would mean to relate and speak in a sneaky manner; to coyote your Breath would mean to think and imagine in a sneaky manner. One of the points Willem comes back to focuses on restoring the "thickness" of our language; layering it with stories, meanings, and references back to our sensuous engagement with a more-than-human world. I think we could help push that goal forward just with a story-game character that uses "skills" like this.

Giuli and I will spend some time with the Raccoon Creek this weekend, and we plan to take some beads and see if we can start to work something out. I feel like this has given me another one of those big breakthroughs towards making the Fifth World really work, so hopefully next week, we'll have something to report!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Lurching Back to Life

Have I completely wasted my time since the last flurry of posts? No, not completely, though perhaps more than I'd care to admit. I have spent some time with some more traditionally rewilding activities, which I think I'll report on soon on Anthropik. And, I have (1) built up my RPG experience portfolio, and (2) practiced what I preach by beginning (and this past Saturday, resetting) a Savage Worlds campaign, using the Savage World of Solomon Kane setting: "Beyond the Elder Peaks." It involves the early history of Jamestown, and pulls the characters into the territory of the Allegwi; my brother plays a Jacobean super-spy that he described as "the seventeenth century Solid Snake" (from the Metal Gear video game series), so I think he's created a good mythical role model for himself there, and Giuli rolled up Virginia Dare, the original American rewilder. The movement from Jamestown into Allegwi territory ties in our cultural mythology as Americans, our origin myths like the Puritans, the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke, and Jamestown, the "Noble Savage," and even parallels my own family's travels, having once lived very near Jamestown, and then coming home to Pittsburgh. As mythology, I feel very pleased with it, and you can read more about that on the Obsidian Portal site if that interests you. As a game designer, I've enjoyed getting a chance to branch out and try something at least a little different.

But now I feel like I really do need to get back to the Fifth World, though I feel another round of heavy-duty research should come next. With this round, I picture the game's mechanics revolving around a bowl full of beads (the matter and energy, "life force," mana or orenda of the land, if you will), with players taking beads from it and throwing them back in, hopefully creating a gameplay occupied with questions of balance, and the conservation of mass/energy, and perhaps even some land-wide problems if the bowl becomes too depleted? But as I said, I want to do some research into questions of animist worldview before getting too far into mechanics. Specifically, I need to take a look at:

  1. Skill, specifically the concept of "mana," and similar concepts, which I suspect will provide me with my best basis for how to handle skill in the game.
  2. Awareness, and where that comes from. I plan to read a lot of Tom Brown on this question, and I suspect that this will tie in pretty strongly with the relationship system.

Some other game ideas I've come up with:

  1. A lot of story games include a collaborative setting creation system, which I find interesting, but how does that fit into the Fifth World as an open source setting? And, with so many pernicious, ignorant stereotypes, misconceptions and outright misinformation about "primitive" peoples, does such a system ask for those stereotypes to come on in, make themselves at home, and become glorified and entrenched by the game? I want the Fifth World to provide an experience to counter those stereotypes, not reinforce them. But what if we had cultures defined in the wiki where they could receive attention from anthropologically-minded contributors, but then we have mechanics for groups to collaboratively create their own villages and bands? I think that idea just might work out. I normally harbor deep suspicions about myself when I find myself doubting the ability of a group of people to come up with something good on their own; it goes against my anarchist grain. But I don't think this really questions people's ability to figure things out for themselves, so much as it questions our ability to really understand how thoroughly civilized thought has poisoned the well. I know I can't accomplish the goals for the Fifth World directly, it has to come from emergent play. So how can you expect anyone else to figure all of that out on their own?
  2. The idea of tracking relationships with beads on a string has really hit home with me. This will likely make it all the way to the final draft.
  3. Tracking skills according to angles on a circle doesn't seem to work very well, but I still like the idea of the character sheet primarily taking the form of a medicine wheel. Perhaps concentric circles, representing tree rings or the energy potential orbits of an atom, and perhaps combined with four rough quadrants, might give me a better direction.