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.