Thursday, October 30, 2008

Playtest Report

Just finished up an abbreviated playtest with a new player. We only got through character creation and one act, but he seemed to pick up what the game aimed for rather quickly. It continues to impress me that we keep coming up with really beta playtest issues in our alpha playtest, which reassures me that we've really got the major issues taken care of. The experience has convinced me to use a pre-generated scenario for beta playtesting at conventions, including GASPcon.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Playtest Report

Since the first playtest, I've spent a month rewriting a lot of rules, and writing up the first complete catalog of spirits, blessings and curses. We just finished the second alpha playtest. Consensus opinions:
  • Flowed much easier with rules changes
  • Feel came through much more

Questions (rather than riddles) helped unify the story thematically, despite a narrative split this time that divided us into two parallel storylines. The main points to come up in post-game discussion included presenting questions earlier in the game so they can provide a better focus (great idea—thanks, Brett!), and some discussion about whether a particular blessing worked. I can't tell you how proud I feel that at the end of our second playtest, we can already dive into something as nitty-gritty as the balance of a particular blessing! I consider that beta playtest material. It reminds me of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: you never run out of things to worry about, but the things you get to worry about says how well off you've gotten. Discussing particular blessings means we've gotten farther than I would've guessed. Hey, maybe I've got something here after all, huh?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Life in the Land of the Three Rivers

I think I've got something good after ruminating on Philosophy vs. Feel. Here's the latest version I'm working on for the "fluff" of the first land I'll be fleshing out, my own homeland, the Land of the Three Rivers (the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Upper Ohio River valleys). Tell me what you think, especially the Yinzers in the audience!

Making a Living

Agriculture has never worked particularly well on the Allegheny Plateau, and the heavy metals and acidity put into the soil by the Steel Giants did not make it any easier. For that reason, the gardens of the Seven Nations and the Union never penetrated south. Instead, the People of the Three Rivers rely on cattle to convert the vegetation of the land into food they can eat. Without agriculture to feed them directly, the cattle have become semi-feral, living in small herds of 20 or so animals and ranging freely. The People move with the herds, and intervene where they can to help defend them from predators. Herders divide out shifts to watch over the herd, but sometimes predators get through anyway. The People rely on the cattle for meat and dairy. Milking feral cows requires an immense amount of trust; the milkers have very personal relationships with their cows, and even then, the process involves a good deal of risk. Because of this, the People treasure the milk. They never "waste" it by drinking it directly; instead, they generally make cheeses with it.

This cornerstone of life shapes much of how the People live. They break in feral horses to use to better herd the cattle, as well as packs of semi-feral dogs. These dogs have interbred with the wolf-like eastern coyote and live in their own mixed packs of feral dogs, coydogs, and coyotes. But families of the People keep "alliances" with particular packs of these dogs; they may enter the family's camps freely and share food. In return, the dogs often help the People herd cattle and hunt deer.

Deer hunting provides the other main source of protein in the People's diet. Because deer hunting plays as important a role in their lives as their cattle, the hunters' ethos pervades their communities. When hunting deer with a bow and arrow, there comes a crucial moment when the deer and the hunter recognize one another. This evolved in conjunction with wolves, giving predator and prey a chance to collect themselves before the final chase. In this "conversation of death," a deer may stand his ground, and the wolves will back down; or, a sick, old, injured deer may stand and run away, the very thing that would ensure his death. The hunters of the People recognize this language, and the subtle body language whereby a deer starts to turn and give chase, offering the perfect shot for the hunter's bow. The People do not see any sport or violence in their hunting; they see, instead, a profound relationship that they share with the sacred Deer who gives its life for the People. Shamanic rites, performed by the Fathers, mediate this intense relationship.

The People set regular fires in areas and harvest small saplings for wood, practices which produce huge, old growth trees with a cathedral-like canopy and a wide, open understory perfect for both cattle and deer. In these forests, mostly women, but also children and the eldery of both genders, will gather wild plants, roots, nuts and berries. The People rely on these for both food and medicine.

Kinship & Settlement Patterns

Both the deer and the cattle require the People to stay on the move, so they live in small, nomadic families. These nomads do not wander aimlessly; they travel in a regular seasonal cycle, following the herds from one place to the next.

The family generally consists of an extended family, back to a common grandfather. The People trace their lineage through their fathers, so these families relate to each other as fathers, sons and brothers, with their wives and children. The People see the world as a single, complex family; all trace their lines, ultimately, to Grandfather Sky, the Overworld, and Grandmother Earth, the Underworld. But they also favor their closest relations; so, two brothers will side together against a cousin, two cousins will side together against a fellow clansperson, two clanspeople will side together against someone from a different clan, two men from the People will side together against outsiders, and so on. The People cite Papa Peter and Mother Mary as the common ancestor of them all, making them more closely related to one another than to outsiders. These fierce, nested loyalties allow the People to quickly muster a strong defense (as the Union and the Seven Nations often discover when they attempt to invade the land), but it also fosters a good deal of internal unrest.

The clans illustrate that the People do not consider species boundaries to carry much weight at all, and animals, plants, stones, places, weather and so on all relate to the People more closely than humans from another land.

The People typically live in a kind of tipi that they call a "haus" (pronounced "hahs"). They make encampments with several hauses clustered together. When deer become scarce or the cattle begin to move too far away, they pack up their hauses and, with the help of the horses, move on to a new encampment.

Social Organization

No authority higher than the family itself exists among the People. Each family follows the annual circuit as a sovereign and independent body, subject only to its own will. Customs and traditions unite the families, of course, as well as bonds of relationship, but what the families do together they negotiate, rather than obey.
Within the family, respect rather than authority generally reigns. Each individual has an enormous amount of autonomy, but certain persons within the community have earned respect and tend to hold greater influence over the group. These include:

  • The Grandfather, whose relationships generally define the family as a unit.

  • Elders. Even if not a Grandfather precisely, the People honor the experience of elders. These will typically include the grandmother, and perhaps siblings of the grandfather and grandmother.

  • The Boss. Not every family has a Boss, but if it does, he generally will hold a great deal of influence over his own family. A family with more than one Boss often splits from the rivalry. A Boss who also becomes a Grandfather holds an enormous amount of power.

  • The Father. Not every family has a Father, but if it does, he acts as the spiritual leader of the family. Families without a Father seek out those that do for ceremonies, healing and guidance. Some Families have two Fathers, and may allow a family with none to adopt one as their own. Like a Boss, a Father who also becomes a Grandfather consolidates a great deal of power.

  • Storytellers. Most families will have a storyteller. The People look to storytellers as keepers and sharers of wisdom, and value the teaching of their stories. This gives them considerable influence in the family; a well-timed and well-told story can change the entire debate.

  • Skilled persons. The People have a very meritocratic nature. Persons who prove themselves talented or skilled earn the influence and power that goes along with that. In questions about game, even Fathers, Bosses and Grandfathers will defer to the judgment of a proven hunter, however young.

Decision making in families comes from consensus, so one cannot order these roles by descending order of power. The decision the family will reach will depend as much on the nature of the question at hand, the specific arguments made, and the immediate context as the position of the people involved.


The People have a "Big Man" tradition that stretches back to the days of the Steel Giants, particularly the Great Boss Andy, who left many long-lasting gifts and feasting halls that still bear his ancient name, "Carnegie." The Bosses do not wield any kind of explicit authority; they cannot simply make commands and expect anyone to carry them out. Instead, they accumulate a great deal of social capital by giving generously, collecting on debts all at once to throw enormous feasts that no one else could arrange, and using such occasions to compete with other Bosses and impress their people, in order to collect still more social capital. Other Bosses focus on military success in leading raids against their enemies, and maintain their power by keeping the loyalty of strong warriors with gifts and feasts. In a post-monetary world where reciprocity has become the new economy, Bosses have become the new entrepreneurs. Though the nature of the game has changed somewhat, they remain as cut-throat in their pursuits as the entrepreneurs of the Steel Giants. Competition between rival Bosses often becomes fierce, and often violent.


The People of the Three Rivers call their religion Catholicism, but it varies greatly from the Roman Catholicism of their ancestors. The main religious figures, called Fathers (even when female), wear a black ribbon around their neck, with a white stripe painted in the front. They also wear a stole, a purple cloth worn around the neck as a badge of office. Fathers act as faith healers, spiritual leaders, ceremonial leaders and prophets in their communities. People become a Father by gaining a familiar spirit. This usually involves great personal trauma, most classically the Fathers' Disease, a deep malaise which will either drive a person to suicide, or attract the pity of a spirit who will heal the afflicted, and in so doing become a familiar spirit. This often afflicts those called to become Fathers, though sometimes youths undergo Holy Rites to become Fathers. Fathers enhance their ties to their allied spirits through the use of costumes and magical items. When Fathers appear, besides their collar and stole, they also wear an assemblage of animal parts, and go about painted in various mysterious symbols.

Ceremonies often involve trance dancing that can last all night long. The People long ago lost the ability to make accordions, which significantly changed the sound of traditional polkas. Played on drums, with gourds and the occasional guitar, the same beat takes on a percussive quality much like techno music. Fathers dance frantically to these songs all night long, until they slip into an ecstatic trance to enter the Dreaming.

Fathers also use water soaked with tobacco and certain psilocybin mushrooms to enter the Dreaming, but consider these inferior means of entry. Weak or inexperienced Fathers may have to call on plant allies like these; likewise, a Father who finds his strength sapped or faces a very difficult task might call on such allies; but for the most part, the people expect a Father to find his own way into the Dreaming, without demanding sacrifices from sacred plants.

Communion plays an important part in the religion of the Three Rivers. The people believe that everyone must have a guardian spirit, sometimes called a patron saint or a guardian angel. Without such a guardian, people do not have the strength to live through life. At age seven, in an initiation ceremony called First Communion, children spend several days alone, fasting, as a kind of cosmic dare: the child vows to remain there until a spirit takes pity on him and adopts him to become his guardian, or starves to death. After their First Communion, faithful people go on Communion later in life to seek boons from their guardian.

As their origin myth makes clear, the philosophy of the People of the Three Rivers emphasizes the mediation between conflicting extremes. They understand disease and misfortune as the product of excess in one direction or another. The rituals and practices of their religion focus on restoring balance and striking a middle way between extremes.


Spoken Language

The Pittsburgh English accent, or "Pittsburgese," may not have actually existed before people began referring to it. More an amalgamation of regional elements from Appalachian and Midwestern dialects, its reference in local media helped to create an in-group identity, and it thus became a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the fall of the Steel Giants, the need for such an in-group identity only became stronger, and the use of Pittsburghese became more pronounced.

The structure of Pittsburghese also underwent a major shift. As the People learned how to hunt and track, how to follow the cattle herds, and how to live off the wild plants, it became necessary for them to understand the personalities all of these things could take. The names for these things became verbs unto themselves. For example, the People came to use the term "deer" not as a noun describing a kind of animal, but as a verb that meant to behave or present oneself as a deer does. With this linguistic shift came a philosophical shift that emphasized patterns of movement and relationship, rather than objectivity. This proved crucial to the People's ability to hunt, track, and live alongside the herds of semi-feral cattle, or the packs of semi-feral dogs. Elders who have used this language throughout their lives eventually come to understand this as illustrating a personhood common to us all; humans, deer, cattle, horses and dogs differ not in their essential personhood, but in their patterns of movement and relationship. So a dog simply means a person dogging; a horse, a person horsing; a human, a person humanning. The Fathers say that when they shift their shape, they simply go dogging for a while, or hawking, or trouting. While shapeshifting seems like an impossible fantasy in the English of the Steel Giants, it makes perfect sense in the Pittsburghese of the People of the Three Rivers.

Body Language

But spoken language in total has become less central to the People of the Three Rivers. Growing up in close, personal contact with a steady, core group of people has made body language extremely potent. In fact, among one's oldest relations, the People can read each other's facial micro-expressions and subtle body cues so expertly that they can rarely lie to one another. They use these intuitively, by close awareness and long-standing relationship rather than a conscious understanding of the cues they read and a deliberate reasoning of their elements. Even among less related people, body language allows for the quick communication of emotional state and intent. This often proves absolutely essential on the hunt, allowing a party to move with almost superhuman coordination, exhibiting what an untrained, outside observer might mistake for something just shy of telepathy.

This makes spoken language something the People can use more sparingly. They see "small talk" as a key indicator that someone feels particularly nervous, and probably intends to hide some kind of deceit to do harm. The People do not trust someone who makes small talk.

Animal Communication

This body language also lies at the heart of the People's ability to speak with animals. Most everyone learns basic calls, howls and dances of the most common animals in the Land of the Three Rivers, and has some ability to both understand their meaning and to mimic them. They consider this the same as learning their own spoken language. And in fact, the People claim to have extended conversations with birds and animals, and that they learned a significant portion of their own spoken language from such sources. They also learn to read the body language of other animals, telling them their emotional state and intent as clearly as with other human persons. Hunters in particular consider this an absolutely essential skill.


At their Christening, children of the people receive a clan name from the Father performing the ceremony. The people have meticulously preserved these names from ancient times, names like Jack, Joe, Terry, Art, Peter, Franco, Roberto, Chuck, Ben and Bill for boys; Mary, Jessica, Sophie, Rachel, Annie, Nellie, Ally-kwippa, Willa, Gertrude and Elizabeth for girls. Clan names apply to ceremonies and rituals. In everyday use, informal nicknames prevail. After a child's First Communion, these nicknames almost always incorporate that person's guardian spirit; so, for instance, a boy with a jackrabbit guardian known for his quickness might have a name like, "Jackrabbit Quick." Fathers and Bosses always have that title in address, so if the same boy became a Father, people would call him "Father Jackrabbit Quick"; if he became a Boss, "Boss Jackrabbit Quick."

Friday, October 3, 2008

Philosophy vs. Feel

Our playtest from two weeks ago produced a coherent story, which impressed me enough on its own, but as far as a finished game, it fell short of the goal. Yes, it produced a coherent story, but it produced the wrong kind of story. Firstly, very little felt distinctly western Pennsylvanian about it; the Fifth World aims to produce a very bioregional game, and with this one set in the Land of the Three Rivers, that distinctive western Pennsylvania culture should bleed through. Secondly, as my brother keenly points out, it told a fairly typically Native American story. Specifically, the Native Americans we know today; if people have survived into the Fifth World, that happened only because we managed to work out a new Native American. Europeans have imagined themselves as the heirs of a dying Indian cultural world for centuries now, and I have a good deal to say about that, cultural appropriation, and how all of that applies to the Fifth World, but for now, I think I can safely sum up that living like an invasive species doesn't have much of a future left in it. At the very least, the Fifth World says so. The game should talk about the descendants of us, today, who have become native to the place they live. Such people wouldn't consciously espouse the so-called "neo-animist" principles of David Abram or Graham Harvey. Even if shaped by the world around them and funneled into those patterns, they wouldn't espouse them consciously. They would consider themselves good Christians, or good Muslims, or good Buddhists. The symbols and names of religious traditions persevere even after the entire substance of the beliefs have reversed themselves (compare the modern American Christian's preoccupation with gay marriage and the rich with Jesus' own teachings in the Gospels; yet, despite contradicting everything their god stood for and died for, they still call themselves Christians and say they follow Jesus—that distance makes the jump to animism seem small by comparison).

Did Gary Gygax set out to write a game that expressed Platonic and Cartesian assumptions of ontology and epistemology? Of course not! He did so, but only because he had no other philosophical assumptions to start from. He wanted to make a fun game about heroes having adventures; the philosophy in it came not from careful consideration, but from the lack of consideration. The Fifth World should present a fun game about heroes having adventures, but it should come from a different philosophical foundation. It took me a lot of time and effort to really understand that foundation, and because of that, it seems like the game revolves around that right now. It will take even more time and effort to move past that, and to take all of that for granted—just like Gygax took Plato and Descartes for granted.

This week, I've worked on a second pass on the Land of the Three Rivers, now a pastoralist society somewhat like the Saami, with Big Men called Bosses that evoke steel mill bosses, union bosses, and philanthropic robber barons like Andrew Carnegie, and shamans called Fathers that evoke the ancient traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. I listened to Stephen Vincent Benét's "By the Waters of Babylon" today, and while I could hardly disagree more with the "moral" of the story, I did enjoy the prose. I picked up Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias today as well, an anthology of ecotopian fiction edited by Kim Stanley Robinson. And not a moment too soon; with luck, this will help me break out of the deep theoretical mindset I've needed with the project so far, and get back to the higher level where players should operate, the level of "cool." I think we have a solid mechanic at its base. Now comes the hard part: using that to evoke a new vision of the world. As Michael Green put it in Afterculture:

America has always been a land of destiny. We have always looking forward to a rosy future, first by westward expansion, then via Tom Swift and his Electric Things, But the realities of ill-conceived ideals have finally caught up to us. The West was bought by genocide, Tom Swift left us with nuclear dumps and ozone holes. There are still official candidates for the Cool Tomorrow. There's the Bill Gates's Virtual World where everyone's on-line, and your home says hello—but no one's particularly interested except LCD manufacturers. Star Trek had the hum for a while, but cyberpunk science seems more plausible now. Becoming a dot com millionaire and retiring at 25 would be admirable, but behind every shining Epcot City the rain forests are burning, and we all smell the smoke.

The truth is that for the first time we are bereft of a positive vision of where we are going. This is particularly evident among kids. Their future is either Road Warrior post-apocalypse, or Blade Runner mid-apocalypse. All the futuristic computer games are elaborations of these scenarios, heavy metal worlds where civilization has crumbling into something weird and violent (but more exciting than now).

The AFTERCULTURE is an attempt to transmute this folklore of the future into something deep and rich and convincingly real. If we are to pull a compelling future out of environmental theory and recycling paradigms, we are going to have to clothe the sacred in the romantic. The Afterculture is part of an ongoing work to shape a new mythology by sources as diverse as Thoreau and Conan and Dances with Wolves and Iron John. The Afterculture is not "against" the problems of our times, and its not about "band-aid solutions" to the grim jam we find ourselves in. It's about opening up a whole new category of solutions, about finding another way of being: evolved, simpler, deeper, even more elegant. Even more cool. Even very cool.

Afterculture provided much of the original inspiration for The Fifth World, and it shares the same aspirations. But you don't get that from preaching, you get that from an alluring vision of the future, a world that's fun, a world that's cool, "even very cool."