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.


Willem said...

I have no idea. :)

But I do want to respond to your (possible?) critique of "story means conflict".

I think that POV works (that story means conflict) if you look at conflict as the innate tension in balancing relationships. Where does one's body end? If my beloved but impulsive brother killed the sacred white elk, and the Elk Chief comes to my door looking for the killer, because I help them and the Elk people mentor me as guides and protectors...

holy shit. what do i do.

You know? Conflict, to me, means resolving conflicting relationships. This even extends to Owl Eyes and Cougar Eyes: how do I balance the need to stay aware and relating to a bigger picture, while at the same time relating to the smaller details, and the subject of my hunt?

One way or another I find a balance through sincerity and ingenuity, or I commit to one and lose the other, or I lose them both by hesitation and not choosing.

Shit, you know? Rewilders run into this all the time: if I leave the city, I leave my friends, but if I stay in the city, I slowly die inside.

i feel sure i've said something relevant here but i couldn't tell you exactly what. :)

Willem said...

please erase the second sentence above. you offered no critique of 'story means conflict' and i don't know why i said you did. :) bedtime + internet = hallucinations.

Jason Godesky said...

No, Willem, you had it right: I did suggest that story may not necessarily mean conflict. And I see your point. I guess what I really have in mind has less to do with story as conflict, than the question of how you resolve conflict. We normally think of "overcoming" an obstacle, but I think what we see here points to an idea of conflict resolution that has a lot more to do with synchronization, than overcoming an obstacle. I see a lot of difficulty in synchronization, too, so that doesn't make stories easier or more flowery. Synchronizing your point of view with that Elk Chief, for instance, could involve a great deal of travail. But it certainly changes, well, "the name of the game," doesn't it?

Jason Godesky said...

Some forum threads I started to solicit advice on this:

Trying to get trackers' opinions from

Trying to get game designers' opinions from Story Games

Jason Godesky said...

Correcting link to Story Games discussion

Jason Godesky said...

And now on the Forge.

WorldWithoutToil said...

I'd like to re-introduce the idea that moving your awareness around the medicine wheel could cap the number of beads you can bid. So if your focus was more on flesh at the moment, you could bid more in the initial hidden bid on flesh tests than you could on word tests. In this way aligning your awareness to the task at hand gives you a greater opportunity to succeed. But since your awareness is elsewhere, others might be able to surprise you with tests in areas you aren't paying attention to at the moment.

As to a mechanical idea on consensus vs. conflict, I'll give that some more thought. That's really interesting and really a stumper form a mechanics point of view.