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.


Willem said...

Paths and Places! How cool. I look forward to hearing more...

WorldWithoutToil said...

And of course, this region has a genius loci (by which I mean the real use of the word, not the GM standin you use) and so has a will. It would have it's own relationships not only with neighboring regions, but with tribes, animals, plants, and the like. I like. Hell, I could even see these as PLAYABLE characters, if done right.

As for story lines, The parts of Exalted that deal with the wyld could be of inspiration there. Since the wyld in that setting is an ever-changing environment, physical measures of distance mean little. But while places may vary greatly in how far apart they are, they have a consistent number of events that occur between here and there. I loved that aspect of the setting. You would say that "bob's castle is about 15 brief narratives away." It kinda makes travel more of a ritual.

Don't forget, setting wise, that the hills that were blown up, ramped and leveled to make way for railroads and highways will still remain so, even after the highways are overgrown and the rails are scavenged for metal. These paths will still be the easiest ways to cross difficult terrain. Route 66 may still mean something, even this far in the future.

Jason Godesky said...

World without Toil, your comment actually sparked an idea. I don't know if it would work, but of course, the term genius loci means "spirit of place."

Should Places become playable characters? So the "GM" would change according to where the scene takes place.

And not to worry, we'll keep in mind the impacts of civilization. Paths will naturally take the easiest routes. But I don't know how much that will change from the way things used to go. After all, yes, Route 66 will still flow more easily than the alternatives even after all the asphalt has broken up and washed away, but Route 66 began, in part, from the National Old Trails Road, which itself combined the Santa Fe Trail and the older National Road, which followed older trading paths dating back at least to the Fort Ancient culture. That just provides one quick example, but most of our interstate highway system follows trails that Americans have used since long before Europeans came to these shores. And in the Fifth World, Americans will still follow those paths!

Giulianna Maria Lamanna said...

I'm a very shy person, and my shyness has greatly effected both what games I agree to play and how much I enjoy those games. The thing is, I'd like to use story games to make myself more outgoing, but if a game pushes me too far in that direction, I'll just retreat back into my shell. This concept of a different person playing the genius loci for different areas might work well for a campaign of outgoing players, but it intimidates me. It's enough that I have to figure out how to play one character convincingly -- now, additionally, at some point I'll be asked to play every creature in a place? That's a little too much for me.

I understand that a revolving genius loci democratizes the game, but maybe there's a way to adapt this concept to accommodate shyer players like me?

WorldWithoutToil said...

sure. Not every player would have to have to have a location they played. If you don't want a turn at the GM side of the table, simply don't. It's more of a possible option.

IN fact, it's probably wise, because when a person plays the GL, their character kinda goes into support mode. The player or players who decide not to do that become, by default, the "main" characters.

I did a revolving GM experiment once where the party was traveling through each others dream sequences. When the party was in a certain character's head, that player was the GM. I coached several of the newbies on their adventure plans, but I got to focus on playing the antagonist to the hilt during those sessions. That was one of the best sequence of games I've ever played.

Willem said...


just try what i use for shy players (myself included, at times): story juice!

aka red, red wine. :)

Warning: we did get hangovers after overdoing one night. Show restraint!

Willem said...

Also, I forgot to mention:

You would say that "bob's castle is about 15 brief narratives away." It kinda makes travel more of a ritual.

Really, really cool. Hmmm.

Jason Godesky said...

Actually, I think now that might give you all the advantage your character needs when a scene happens in your Place: you get to narrate all the other characters there. We've all known games where the GM runs a character; I think the GM changing with each scene would curtail the usual abuses that go along with that, though.