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.