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.