Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cool Ideas

In my last post, Willem suggested something really cool. In Dogs in the Vineyard, you create towns ripe with moral quandaries for the Dogs to judge (and thus, suck them into one moral dilemma after another). You do this by using a step-by-step template that plays along with the Christian view of sin: all sin begins with Pride, Pride leads to Injustice, etc. For each step, you introduce the problem. So, what Pride lies at the root of this problem? What Injustice did it lead to? And so on.

You have an animist equivalent: all problems begin with unmet obligations. Unmet obligations lead to people feeling taken advantage of. People feeling taken advantage of leads to withdrawing their help. Withdrawing help leads to mutual resentment, and mutual resentment might lead to violence. So, for example, some hunters take 21 deer, when they agreed to only take 20. The deer feel taken advantage of, so they withdraw their help. The people go hungry, so they begin to resent the deer. How long will this go before the humans and the deer start escalating their resentment to violence?

The poem offers a really good framework for this, too. What obligation has someone failed to meet? An obligation between persons? Between families? Between villages? Between peoples (as in the preceding example, between the human people and the deer people)? Then, just like Dogs, we escalate: how does the other group feel taken advantage of? What help do they withdraw? We can do this around the table, so we all have a hand in escalating the situation.

Now, I think players only have so much patience for "set up" time, so I think this option might mean eliminating the cycles by which we'd previously created characters from places. But we could introduce characters quickly, who we flesh out in play, and they get to unravel this whole mess. Just like Dogs, you've escalated past the point where simple measures would solve the problem. You've got mutual resentment and all kinds of unrecognized obligations. How do you fix that situation?

I also looked at John Harper's Lady Blackbird again recently. My brother ran Spirit of the Season last week, and it has me really excited about FATE. It reminded me of how simple and fun the game played. Lady Blackbird seems even faster and simpler. It made me wonder about simply designing The Fifth World as a simplified FATE game. I've heard good things about Chronica Feudalis lately, too, and it does much the same thing. That idea especially appealed; perhaps, instead of my misunderstanding of the term "roleplaying poem," I could follow John Harper's lead, and simply design a single-page, front and back, beautifully laid-out game.

And yet, I ultimately came back around to the ideas I'd started with, with coins for power and players pursuing their ambitions. I share these as unequivocally cool ideas—but I think this will work better. I told myself years ago that I'd know I finally had a good system when I stopped bouncing around all the time, and when the ideas I came up with started to focus on details instead of the most basic elements of gameplay. Dare I hope that I've finally reached that point?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Putting Debt in the Fruitful Void

A lot of Story Games got started with disaffected World of Darkness players. They loved what the "Storyteller" games promised: games about story and character, and all those things. But they didn't really get that. The Storyteller System just provided another game about combat. That disappointment led to some of the first indie games, which began with ideas like "system matters," that stressed designing a game to fulfill a goal.

In that context, the idea that Ron Edwards and Vincent Baker started working towards back in 2005 seemed revolutionary: the Fruitful Void. Ron Edwards said, "Without such 'fruitful voids,' perhaps envisioned as what you get when you show a person seven of the eight corners of a cube, a rules-set is no fun. It's just a full cube; you can look at it, pick it up, mess with it, and nothing happens except it stays a cube." Vincent Baker said, "There's a trick to designing games, which I'm trying to tell. Ron says it's to leave the eighth corner of the cube unmade. I say it's to make a whirlwind."

In short, what you leave out matters just as much as what you put in. Most often, people use Dogs in the Vineyard as the example, I think in part because it does provide an excellent example, and probably in part just because Vincent used it in his post. You'll note that Dogs doesn't have any kind of "Judgment" or "Faith" mechanic. Yet, everything in the game—town creation, stakes, raising and seeing, escalation, fallout—it all points towards that. The game centers on judgment and faith. It doesn't need to address them directly—in fact, it makes the game more strongly focused by not addressing them directly, because everything else in the game already pushes you in that direction.

Yesterday, I worried about what role debt should play in the game, now that it no longer makes sense as a mechanic. Willem Larsen commented, stressing the importance of debt, and saying, "I would rather play archipelago-style and just presence the debt relationship in my story through setting."

I started to wonder how I could point players in that direction without preaching or mechanics—because, without something pointing them in that direction, what would make it come up more often than anything else?

And then I remembered the Fruitful Void.

The Fruitful Void of the Fifth World, the undefined center, should deal with Debt and Obligation.

I talked to Giuli about this earlier, and realized that I had to make the challenges harder, so that you need help. I thought of a new twist: you don't get to reduce obstacles by how many heads you get, but by how many heads you get over the obstacle. So, if you want to try to earn an Achievement with six coins on it, and you get seven heads, you can take one coin off the top. That would make it very hard to get started on an Achievement, but each success makes the next success easier. You might get the final, winning blow by yourself, but you'll know that in the beginning, you needed help.

I thought about a mechanic about people you owe, like if you help someone, they owe you, so you can force them to help you at some point later on. But I hate rules that force you to do something. In fact, I wonder now if this works better by leaving it undefined: if you get a reputation for not helping others in return, maybe they won't help you, which will make it awfully hard to earn the Achievements you want. Just like cooperation in the real world.

I don't know if this whirlwind has really built up enough force, though. Do you have any ideas of how other ideas could push play towards debt and obligation? I'd love to hear them!

Rethinking Debt

Since introducing the concept of Debt, it has gotten a very mixed reception. I think the narrative economy works, but I don't know if it really works to think of it as Debt.

At first, I enjoyed challenging the conventional notions of debt, and moving players more towards a feral conception of debt—as something ambivalent, rather than negative, as something that creates relationships and obligations and thus ties the world together, rather than simply a burden. But I haven't gotten that reaction; more often, I've simply gotten confusion.

With Debt and Trouble, the economy had a nice balance: causing trouble got you into more debt, and you could reduce your debt by solving troubles. It worked nicely. Trying to Achieve something, though, makes that pool look less like debt, and more like strength, ability—I keep coming back to the oft-abused "mana" as the best term, in its original Maori sense, as "impact-ful," or efficacious.

I've often thought about representing strength in games, and I think I've put my best ideas into the Fifth World already, even before I started thinking of the economy in this fashion. On the one hand, you have your pool of strength; on the other, you have your "bandwidth," or how much you can pull from that at once. So, you have weight lifters who can tap all their strength at once; you also have endurance athletes who can tap their strength continuously. You also have other kinds of strength, like willpower. You might have an impressive ability to resist a single temptation (high "bandwidth"), but if you've used up your reserves by resisting many different things all day long, you might succumb to something you'd otherwise resist easily. This allows both for the possibility of getting overwhelmed, and getting worn down.

In the Fifth World, you have your pool of coins, and you can use as many coins as you have words in your Name. I like that, because it gives you a lot of complexity with very simple rules.

But it doesn't really have much to do with debt at this point. I see three alternatives here. First, I could abandon the whole idea of Achievements, and go back to debts and obligations, and try to find better ways of fleshing those out. I fear what that might mean for the feel of the game, though. As I said, I didn't change people's conceptions nearly so much as I sowed confusion. Would a game all about debts and obligations make the Fifth World feel like a terrible place to live?

Second, I could scale up. Instead of dying when you pass an arbitrary threshold (which I never felt entirely good about), you die when your Debt surpasses your "Mana" (I don't feel entirely comfortable with that term because of its specificity to a single tradition and how much games, anthropologists and pop culture has abused it, but I'll use it provisionally for the moment for convenience's sake). You reduce your Debt by fulfilling your obligations, and gain Debt when you get the help you need to earn your Achievements. Those Achievements give you more "Mana," and take time away from your obligations. Those details may need more work, but you get the idea: your character has two pools, and you have to worry about the balance between them.

I worry that this makes the game too complex. In his design notes, included as an appendix in Ganakagok, Bill White talks about earlier versions of the game that had complex mechanics for determining what the people needed, meant to urge players to do things like go hunting, or acquire other provisions. That complexity didn't help the game. The current game relies on a tarot deck that originally came out of that problem, but the game now doesn't really deal with that kind of resource management. Instead, it creates the space for mythopoiec roleplaying. I worry that doubling the complexity of the game like this could have the same impact on the Fifth World, as the early resource management mini-game had on Ganakagok.

Third, I could let go of the whole concept of Debt. Yes, it plays a crucial role in tribal life, but does the Fifth World really want to get into the details of day-to-day tribal life, or does it want to present bioregional epics? Does it want to provide a taste of bioregional animism, does it want to excite you with visions of the future? To quote Michael Green in Afterculture, "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."

Maybe I can afford to let go of the notion of Debt in the game itself. An obsession with realism all too often leads to clunky, difficult games. The Fifth World doesn't necessarily aim to realistically simulate day-to-day life in the feral future, it aims to excite us today with visions of the kind of future we could have. So, the game should focus on that kind of story. Dropping debt doesn't imply that it doesn't matter to the people of the Fifth World, it just means that it doesn't relate to the bioregional epics that this game tells.

I often worry that I worry too much, that I analyze until I paralyze myself, that I spend so much time thinking about these problems that I never get around to sitting down and solving them. Then I worry that I haven't thought it through enough. In this case, does Debt represent something so important that I can't abandon it? Or has it become more a distraction than a goal, and so, something that I really need to leave behind? I don't know; I've gotten too close to it to really tell. What do you think?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Trouble or Obstacles?

I started thinking tonight about the wider implications of my "Causing Trouble" idea. I think it works well as a mechanic, but what does it say about the Fifth World? It seems to present the world as a place filled with trouble, trouble that our heroes must go out and answer. That can work, but it certainly doesn't jive with the pseudo-utopian feel I want to convey. It seems to lead me straight into the trap I've feared most: designing a game that inadvertently undermines the point of the setting.

It seems to me that the twist that separates a utopian setting from a gritty one might ultimately come down to something as simple as whether your characters reactively face problems that someone else created, or whether your characters proactively pursue ambitions that they themselves have set.

The rest needn't change that much. Achievements count more, based on how many Obstacles you put in your way. For each coin, you narrate one more obstacle you face, and you can reduce those obstacles just like you might have faced Trouble before: invoke your Name, cast your coins, and reduce by one for each one that comes up heads.

This would also make for characters with lists of achievements of varying strengths, which reminds me somewhat of Gifts in Ganakagok. Those Achievements should replace Memories, in that case, and their value tells you how many coins you can re-cast when you invoke it.

I started thinking about the ways you might use this, and the versatility made me feel good about the idea. For example:
  • Achievement: Slay the ogre! Six obstacles:
    1. In one bitter winter, my desperate uncle ate his child, my cousin.
    2. He became an ogre, a cannibal addicted to human flesh.
    3. Human flesh gives him supernatural strength.
    4. When they discovered his crime, the family tried to kill him.
    5. He got away.
    6. He has lived on his own ever since.
  • Achievement: Marry the beautiful maiden. Five obstacles:
    1. Her father hates me.
    2. Her mother doesn't mind me, but she won't stand up to her husband for me.
    3. She loves me, but I can't bear to make her choose between me and her father.
    4. Her father discovered our secret love, and forbade me from seeing her anymore.
    5. Now, her father has started trying to arrange a marriage for her to someone else!
  • Achievement: Restore the irradiated lake. Five obstacles:
    1. In ancient days, our ancestors created light from glowing rods.
    2. You cannot see the magic fire in those rods, but it burns forever, and it boils the skin away with a magical disease.
    3. Our ancestors knew how to start those fires, but not how to put them out.
    4. In desperation, they sank those rods in the lake.
    5. Their magic fire continues to burn, though, and it has turned the lake and everything around it into poison.

I think these three quick examples show some of the strengths of this idea. Firstly, it can cover everything from a good old-fashioned monster-slaying quest, to a romance story, to trying to restore an irradiated lake. Secondly, the obstacles can provide so much more context and depth to these challenges.

I can also see different ways of apportioning the value of such achievements. Perhaps you want to get a new Name from it, or perhaps some special effect. Set aside one point for the Name, and one point for the effect. If you had a five-point Achievement, you could turn it into a three-point Achievement, with a Name and an effect.

You could also have an overall "Prestige" score, totaling all of your Achievements and Names. Age should count somehow, as well. I don't know what I might want to do with this yet—perhaps nothing at all. The idea of competing for Prestige occurred to me—you could even give extra Prestige for helping others gain their Achievements, which would make the optimal strategy one of cooperation—but even then, I think that might undermine the tone of the game.

The idea of "Prestige" did remind me of Flow in FreeMarket. I despise transhumanism passionately, but despite that, I can't help but notice that the more basic premise of a utopian setting pushes me into a space somehow both similar and opposite to that game. In FreeMarket, "Flow" essentially means prestige—what the more technologically-intoxicated call things like "social capital." You use Flow to create things, which in turn gives you more Flow. The similarity makes me think I've hit upon something. Despite our almost totally opposite settings, we both face the basic question of how to tell stories in a more-or-less utopian future, and that might ultimately come down to something as simple as whether your characters reactively face problems that someone else created, or whether your characters proactively pursue ambitions that they themselves have set.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

In Media Res

A thread started on Story Games about starting games in media res, or, "in the middle of things." This has particular interest for me, because I've tried to design the Fifth World to tell bioregional epics. The Wikipedia entry on "epic poetry" provides a list of criteria you'll find, more or less, in any discussion of what an epic means. I have my praepositio and invocation at the beginning. Like John Milton in Paradise Lost who turned the Greek Muse into the Christian Holy Spirit, I use the invocation to ground the epic by identifying the muse as the Spirit of the Place. The use of epithets requires a little more thought, but at present, I think having to invoke your name to start using the mechanics helps bring that element in. I'll admit, I still don't have a good idea on how to bring in more enumeratio. But for the moment, I have the problem of starting in media res more in mind.

From the playtests so far, I feel confident that the basic approach to story structure does work. Fluency play means introducing each rules element, one at a time. As an extension of that, you can control the pacing of the story by introducing rules elements in a deliberate order. I definitely need to tweak that order, but I feel confident now in the basic premise. Specifically, we consistently found that the coin-flipping mechanics came up too late in play. Many of the ritual phrases and so forth refer to that implicitly by costing coins, but without the coins in use early on, you have little idea of what kind of price you pay.

What if the very first scene had you confronting Trouble and flipping coins? You could begin in media res. Later, when we introduce the Memory mechanics, you can use those to establish how we got to this point. This would introduce the coin-flipping mechanics at the very beginning, and add the other ritual phrases later on.

I think this would definitely change the tone of the stories, too. It would make the stories fundamentally about confronting Trouble. I think I like that emphasis, since it also gives more room for players to cooperate. The current framework sometimes allows for the game to end in some clever consensus, which works especially well when characters end up with what they wanted, but not in the way they expected to get it. This approach, though, does seem to give gameplay an essentially player-versus-player quality. I think beginning in media res, with Trouble mechanics, would make gameplay essentially cooperative, about our heroes working together to solve the Trouble facing their people. I think that dynamic could work very well. I'll need to whip up a version of the poem that does that, and see how it plays.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Wrap It Up

In improv theater, knowing when and how to end a scene often poses a problem. Often, a show has an emcee who solves this problem by simply deciding when a scene ends. In traditional RPGs, GM's control all aspects of pacing: they frame every scene and determine when every scene ends. Collaborative storytelling means liberating players from GM's and GM's from their obligations—and that means exploring other ways of figuring out when a scene ends.

This came up in playtesting. We had some scenes that had a hard time finding their focus, and as a result, would ramble on for far too long. We need some way to signal when to wrap it up.

In literature, every scene has a specific purpose, and the scene ends when it has fulfilled that purpose. In a story game, though, we may not know a scene's purpose until we've finished playing it, so how can we know when it has fulfilled that purpose? More importantly, how can we know in that moment, that a scene has finished, with all the other things we have to keep in mind in play?

I've decided to take a page from a Norwegian game called "Until We Sink," which itself seems to follow the model of most plays. In "Until We Sink," a scene ends when two characters have left. This means that one character can't arbitrarily end the scene prematurely, but by the same token, one character can't keep the scene going, either. When the first person leaves, it probably signals to the others that this scene should end soon, sending that "wrap it up" message to everyone playing. As with so many other parts of the game, I'll have a ritual phrase to indicate this, which should help to give it some additional weight.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rules Are Made To Be Broken

I try to keep this blog in E-Prime, so writing that title pains me. Yet, that old slogan fits my topic today too perfectly to pass up. It seems to me that one of the primary functions of a rule in any RPG lies in the opportunity to break it. Who can break it, and when, becomes one of the primary means of defining a character.

I considered adding an idea to the playtests at GASPcon, but decided to try the simpler version without it first. I considered making several cards, allowing each player to choose one for his or her character. Each would announce a particular character trait, and with it, a specific rule that the trait allowed the character to break. So, for instance:
  • Ungrateful. You can have 12 Debt before you die, instead of just 10.
  • Contrary. Using the ritual phrase, "I have never heard of such a thing" costs you no Debt.
  • Wistful. Choose a Memory. You can use it twice in this game.
  • Famous. You have a bonus Name.

I don't know if it would fit into the poem, and part of me worries about including a list like this. On the other hand, it offers so much more room for people to define unique characters that I keep coming back to the idea.

When combined with an idea like Trouble, it presents even more opportunities. For instance, you could incur one more Debt to attach one of these to a Trouble. So, you take on four Debt. You take three coins of Trouble, and put them on a new Trouble called "Wandering Mercenary," with "Famous" attached to it. The person who eliminates that Trouble becomes "Famous," so he can gain another Name because of that victory.

I don't know if this idea will work, but it seems to open up enough opportunities to warrant playing around with it to see where it might go.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Causing Trouble

Consistently, the playtests so far have revealed a dearth of situation. People complain that they don't know where to take their characters. I included a step in character creation where, after you introduce your character, we go around the table, and each person tells you something that you want from their character, that their character won't give you. I thought this might provide some good opening tension—even if it might wind up pointing play into a player-versus-player mode—but that just didn't happen.

So, I find myself going back to an older idea, and finding a better place for it now than it had when I first conceived of it.

Right now, you start with some amount of Debt, based on your age. This reflects what the Land and the People have provided to you over your life. Older characters have lots of Debt; younger characters, much less. You use your Debt to accomplish things, so young characters may need to get more Debt. Thematically, it seems to make perfect sense that you'd get more Debt by causing Trouble. So, you can take as many coins of Debt as you like, if you put an equal number of coins into Trouble. Older characters, with plenty of Debt already, could get rid of their Debt by settling Trouble. Which also happens to present precisely the dynamic I'd like to see: older characters cleaning up the messes that younger characters start.

When adding Trouble, you write down something that Troubles the People in a central area, perhaps a sheet of paper in the middle of the play area. You put at least one coin on it. You can put more coins on it, to make that Trouble more troublesome. In play, characters can confront that Trouble. They invoke their Names, which lets them throw coins from their Debt equal to the words in that Name. For each head, they can return that coin, and one coin from the Trouble, to the bowl. So, you can work off your Debt by solving Troubles.

Yet, you can only get more Debt by causing Trouble somewhere else. When you start the game, you get a starting Debt based on your age. I think you should probably introduce some starting Troubles, too, with coins equal to your starting Debt. Since zero Debt makes you ineffective and cut off from the world, you can't really ever solve all the Trouble in the world: you can only solve some Troubles, some of the time, and try to arrange your Troubles in a way you can live with. I think that in itself says something powerful, especially in a pseudo-utopian game.

This has the added benefit of letting players guide the game in a direction they want. Giuli and I have both noticed, with some irritation, that a disproportionate number of our playtests involve cannibals, for instance. It makes sense: they fit so well into the tropes of post-apocalyptic fiction. They violate the positive vision of the future that the Fifth World drives towards, though, and that really gets at the heart of the design problem the game needs to solve. We don't want to lecture people about why the Fifth World won't involve short lifespans, raging cannibals, or high infant mortality, but how do you get people to move past those stereotypes otherwise? A Trouble mechanic allows us to define the problems we face. With it, I can introduce my missing brother, who went hunting and never returned, but instead became a wild man (see the part about "Bigfoot" in this blog entry from April). Or we can add the curse sent upon us by Deer, because someone killed a deer violently.

Conflicts between characters lead us into player-versus-player games. Conflicts left to emerge collaboratively may trend towards stereotypes. But letting people establish Troubles may mean that we can guide a game in a specific direction, with the kinds of conflicts that we at the table find interesting and meaningful.

It also has the added benefit that we can actually play a cooperative, GM-less game. Everyone at the table can work together to eliminate the Trouble.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I've taken lessons from Ganakagok already, but only on Saturday did I get to play it. Bill came to GASPcon 10 to run it, and I made a point of getting into his game. I walked away with a book and a card deck; I hope to run it this weekend, and at the next regular GASP Games Day.

Something kind of magical happens in a game of Ganakagok, it seems. Bill's designed the cards so well that you could really believe in their divinatory power. So often, you get just the right card, that you might swear that someone rigged the deck. I think this involves more than just a common Barnum effect, where people naturally interpret a vague, general statement as something eerily specific, though that no doubt plays a part. Rather, Bill's designed the deck so well that the kinds of situations that the Nitu face come up in it regularly. More than just sufficiently ambiguous meanings, these cards have just the right punch and context to really make them matter.

Much of the game revolves around the interpretation of those cards. When we roll dice, we roll to see who will get to interpret the cards, and what consequences will follow from that struggle. That gives the game a definite momentum. Each interpretation builds on the last; the game gains a forward motion as we rush towards its climax.

Bill's called this the "Mythopoietic Edition," and I think he has picked just the right word for it. He's designed a game that really does seem to create myths, consistently and reliably. He calls it "a quasi-Inuit Silmarillion" (referring to the poetic elven mythology that J.R.R. Tolkien invented).

Issues of cultural appropriation do arise out of this, and while I, too, cringed at phrases like, "primitive and icy," overall, I admire how Bill has handled the situation—particularly upon reading his most recent blog entry, where he advised people who have enjoyed the game to donate to the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association.

While the cards you draw will create a different world with each game, you can never get very far from the stars disappearing from the night sky, and the inevitability of the morning. Though the world you've known differs from one game to the next, that world always comes to an end. Your character stands out as a protagonist because you recognize this earlier than most others. You have your hope for what the change could mean, and your fear for what it might mean. You have the balance of Good and Bad Medicine in the world, amongst the People, and for yourself. Ultimately, this game really digs into how we cope with inevitable disaster. The real world lets you take your pick:—global warming, peak oil, mass extinction, et cetera ad nauseam. In this game, the coming change—the Morning—has definite positive aspects, as well as negative. You almost certainly won't succeed in having more Good Medicine than Bad for the world, the people, and all of your characters. Even one will give you a challenge. So this change will include some amount of tragedy. Yet it doesn't need to mean unmitigated tragedy. As much as this game deals with fear and resistance to change, it also deals with embracing change, and finding hope in it. For that, I think Ganakagok has some pretty powerful, good medicine for us all. It leads you through a myth all about how the world will change, and how we deal with the need to face that reality—pretty much exactly what we all need right about now.

Monday, November 16, 2009

GASPcon Playtests

GASPcon 10 expanded to three days, adding two RPG slots on Friday. I ran one of the two Fifth World playtests of the convention on Friday night. I wound up with a bit of an "all star" playtest group, including Jenn from the Trapcast, and "Mr. Teapot" Nick Wedig, designer of House of Masks, which won Game Chef last year. Ironically enough, the fourth fellow at the table—the one I didn't know—gave some of the best performances.

We returned to the Point. I must assume the Ferryman met a cruel end, since we now had a tribe living there who thought that the portal to the Underworld there required human sacrifice. They had taken Jossiah the Healer, and wanted to learn his secrets. So their chief assigned a teenager named Hawk Necklace to become his apprentice. My character, Sleepy Watch, had failed to protect Jossiah, so he enlisted Paws, who took the blame for that because of their uncanny physical similarity, to help him rescue Jossiah. Paws lived in exile in the ruins of Oakland. The panthers had returned there, and allowed no one to approach, but Paws had become kin to them.

Paws and Watch received the help of the people just for trying to fight the other tribe off. They even gave them their magical weapons (the last remaining weapons made of metal). Hawk Necklace met them while looking for someone his people could sacrifice in Jossiah's place, and hatched a plan to sneak Paws and Watch in as prisoners. Watch challenged the chief, and managed to kill him. Watch considered the tribe cannibals, so he ate the chief's ear; but, they didn't actually practice cannibalism, so the gruesome scene simply had the effect of frightening them with his apparent madness.

The slaying of their chief put their village into chaos. A new chief arose, concerned primarily with saving his people. He considered a war on the People of Watcher, Paws and Jossiah a task that could give them the purpose they needed. They looked for ancient propane tanks in Oakland, with which to burn the forests there to the ground and send the panthers back into the Underworld.

After slaying the assassins sent after them and learning of this plot, Jossiah enlisted the aid of the whole village in retrieving these tanks from the old tunnels. Watch kept solitary guard against their enemies, now overconfident with pride. When the enemies came, the panthers fell upon them, but Watcher made a sudden movement against one of the attackers, provoking a panther who scarred his face.

In the tunnels, the enemies swarmed the people. Paws stabbed his spear through one of them, and into a propane tank behind him. They all exploded, consuming most of their enemies. Those that remained mistook Paws for Watch, and began to scream, because the boy who had killed their chief could unleash a firestorm with the strike of his spear.

In the end, Paws returned to the village, and Watcher went into self-imposed exile among the panthers. Just as they had both initially desired, they switched places. Their appearance spread a legend about a boy with magical powers and incredible strength, who could even appear in two places at once. Hawk Necklace left his old people and joined a new people, and Jossiah found hope that the next generation might not always seem less wise and less strong than their ancestors.

The second playtest on Sunday afternoon I played with some of the folks responsible for GASPcon. That one I'd have a harder time recapping from a fiction angle. We had a lot of interruptions, and because it involved some of the folks responsible for GASPcon, exhaustion overtook the game and we ended early. But I still got a lot out of this game especially because of Todd. Todd has taken a real interest in the setting, and he's given me a huge number of really great ideas. Possibly more important than anything, with a project like this, you can easily lose your bearings, and you end up with very little sense of the quality of what you've come up with. Todd gave me a much-needed touchstone to gauge where I stand with this.

In previous iterations, at this point in the playtesting, I'd start to re-evaluate the most basic parts of gameplay. Now, not so much. The poem seems to work for getting into play immediately, helping keep the story's progression on track, and setting a different mood for each round by controlling which rules everyone has access to at that moment. I need to work on the progression of those rules, and as I'll write in some upcoming articles here, I've come up with some different rules to try out. But right now, I expect to bring a game to Dreamation that will look a lot like the game I ran this weekend, and right now, that alone feels like a triumph.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Playtest Report #2

I got to playtest the Fifth World for the first time around a table on Saturday. My brother, Giuli and I played. I felt really good about the story that came out. I played a football star who wanted to live forever; Mike played the Ferryman, the heir of the character I played in the previous playtest; and Giuli played a character inspired by Nausicaä, who wanted to restore the toxic forest growing up out of the ruins of the Waterfront in Homestead. Actually, that location requires some elaboration, actually. A steel mill once sat down there. The Battle of Homestead happened near there, where Pinkerton soldiers attacked striking steel workers. Today, a large shopping complex sits on the site. The appropriation of so much of the world's biomass to build places like that, and the sprawling suburbs around them, have concentrated much of the world's biological wealth in those areas. In the Fifth World, once all that material finally gets to rot, some of the most vibrant forests grow up out of the cellars, washing machines and cars of suburbia. In this case, it sets its roots into soil filled with heavy metals from the old steelworks. I suggested a story of domination: domination of the steel workers, domination of the earth by the steel mill itself, domination through consumerism, and in the Fifth World, a place angry at humans because it has seen so much of humanity's worst qualities. Mike went for the complete opposite story: freedom bought with great sacrifice, like the labor movement bought with in the Battle of Homestead, or the life of the forest bought despite the heavy metals in the soil. Giuli went with that, and her character tied into that story because she wanted to heal the land.

Mike made the Point more of a sacred garden, as opposed to the terrifying otherworld from our last game. In the fountain, an abnormally large oak tree grows, with its roots reaching down into the secret fourth river that flows underground. When my character, the football star, wanted to live forever, the Ferryman told him to swallow an acorn from the tree whole.

Through the various rounds, my football star became more belligerent, since he thought he'd become immortal. He got married to Giuli's character, and the Ferryman told him he could cleanse the forest so important to his new bride by eating the poisoned fruit there. Since he would live forever, he had nothing to fear.

He died, right there.

The elders of my character's village accused Giuli's character of assassinating their star player; she submitted herself to their judgment to keep the villages from going to war. They executed her, and buried her next to my character, in the toxic forest she loved so much.

Next came the rounds with the memories, which worked out perfectly. The action had reached its climax, so now we went back, before, to see why it had all happened. The real climax of the story came later, even though, chronologically, it had happened before. My character remembered his grandfather dying, and telling him a story that I took from Paul Radin's Primitive Man as Philosopher, about a Ho-Chunk boy who wanted to live forever. He died, and grew into a tree—because only trees live forever. That acorn I had eaten before, what the Ferryman promised would give me eternal life? It sprouted. Its roots went deep, deeper than all the other plants, and sucked up more of those heavy metals than any of them could. So, I lived forever—and cleansed the forest.

Giuli asked why her character had to die, too. My character had wanted her admiration; despite all the women who fawned over me, I wanted her to notice me. In her epilogue, we found out why: I had sacrificed my human life to cleanse her forest, so she became a tree, too, so that my sacrifice wouldn't mean spending eternity alone.

The poem's structure paced it out perfectly, even when the other players worried that we'd reached the climax too soon. It created a beautiful, moving, poetic, mythic story really anchored in the land. I felt very good about that.

Like the playtest before, players raised some concerns about not having enough material to start with. I wanted to make character creation a part of play, rather than something that happens before play. I still suspect that I just need to press for stronger desires, but I'll definitely have to keep in mind that it may need some way of generating more pregnant starting situation.

In both games, the mechanics didn't kick in very often. That may also need some more work; or, it might work just fine right now. Who says that the mechanics need to kick in all the time? Maybe "leave them there unless you need them" makes for a perfectly viable strategy.

Another interesting thing to note: in both games, we had three players, and it took just over two hours, making for just over 40 minutes per player (I've measured time per player because I think, with the rounds, that how long a game takes will work as a function of number of players). If that continues to hold, then a game with six players would take four hours—one standard convention slot, precisely. Of course, I'll need to test other size games to see how that ratio holds up. I'll also need a much larger data set to say anything with confidence.

I haven't playtested nearly as much as I would like so far, but I think I can take this to GASPcon without too much worry. I've billed it as a playtest, so nobody should expect a finished game. All the same, the problems don't seem to break it entirely, either, and playtesters have even had fun with it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Playtest Report #1

I just finished the first playtest of the new rules, with Dan Maruschak and my wife, Giuli. It had all the roughness you'd expect of a first playtest, but the momentum I'd hoped seemed to work out. The second hour of our two-hour game got into pretty fun stuff; I got to play a hermit, Chiron-like ferryman, alongside a traveling trickster figure and a woman from a tribe beginning to encroach on forbidden, sacred areas. It ended quite satisfactorily, with my ferryman falling prey to one of the trickster's ruses in the Land of the Dead.

So, the momentum of the game seemed to work out well. We had some rough spots getting started, especially establishing motivations and figuring out what people wanted to do. We had some speculation that the game might have a little too much structure right now, and that the game mechanics might undercut the goals in some ways.

I can't say that any of this makes me want to immediately rewrite the game (though Giuli had some really scathing things to say about it after we finished the call). I want to playtest it a few more times to control for some other possible factors, so I can make sure what arose tonight from the game, and what arose from other factors in play. As rough as it seemed in play, I still feel rather optimistic about it all, because I had braced myself for much worse. They call it "playtesting" and not "playing" for a reason, after all!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Web Inspiration

I hope to relaunch on December 21, along with making the first rough draft of the rules available for public playtesting. For the website, I want to set up a wiki/forum/blog site, with those three aspects operating seamlessly with one another. Thing is&mdfash;and I admit to this with some shame, as a professional web designer—I feel completely lost as to the direction to take it. What should it look like? Feel like?

So, I'll ask you. What would you like a Fifth World site to look like? Do you have any examples of sites you like that you think I should take inspiration from? Let me know soon; December 21 only seems far away if you don't have to start blocking out how the work will have to happen to meet it as a deadline!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

RIP, Claude Levi-Strauss

The name "Claude Levi-Strauss" haunted my college years. I majored in anthropology and computer science, and for the former half of my time, it seemed that no matter where I went, the Frenchman's name followed me. You simply cannot talk about anthropology in the later half of the twentieth century without talking about Claude Levi-Strauss. He died on October 31; they buried him earlier today. He would have turned 101 at the end of the month.

I don't always agree with everything he wrote, of course, but Levi-Strauss had an immense impact on our appreciation of native traditions. People like me, who look to those traditions for examples of a human life well-lived, owe a great debt to Levi-Strauss. Like so many, I devoured science fiction in my youth; really, I loved the stories of wise aliens, whether benevolent or horrifying, who nonetheless had mastered that seemingly arcane secret of how to make a living in this world without destroying themselves. Without Levi-Strauss's influence, even before I ever learned his name, I might never have realized that such examples literally surround us, right here on earth.

I finished my rough draft the same day he died, and I cannot deny the influence his life and work had on this project.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Rough Draft Completed - Now Looking for Playtesters!

I started working on the Fifth World three years ago. Tonight, I finished the rough draft. It has changed immensely over the years and gone through several major revisions, but I have a confidence in this one unlike any previous iteration. I think the final product will have, at the very least, a family resemblance to what I finished tonight. It takes the form of a 154-line, 1,289-word poem, written in heroic couplet, in ten sections. You read the poem as part of play; the poem sets the stage and introduces the rules, one element at a time. I use that to also pace the story and drive an escalation towards climax. Then it ends with a round of epilogues and questions.

I'll introduce it publicly for the first time at GASPcon 10 in twelve days.

Twelve days means I need to get in a LOT of preliminary playtesting. This will require a very vigorous schedule, so I'll need as many playtesters as possible. I do intend to publish once I have a worakble product, so your time will garner the juicy reward of a printed playtesting credit. This version I can run over Skype, so if you want to volunteer, but don't live in western Pennsylvania or don't have a lot of time available, we can probably play online over Skype. I hope to start as early as tomorrow, so if you'd like to join in, please comment on this post.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Storyjamming @3RB

I presented "Storyjamming" at the Three Rivers Bioneers Conference last week. I ended up interacting a lot with the audience, which worked well for that presentation and the audience I had, but it doesn't work very well for online presentation. So, I recorded again at home from my notes, and made a slidecast with my slides.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Future of Science Fiction

Clive Thompson wrote an article for Wired (a publication I normally avoid as assiduously as The Economist) on why he says that ""Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas." To the Best of Our Knowledge (which I do listen to) dedicated an episode to exploring that question, talking to Ursula K. LeGuin and George R.R. Martin. I enjoyed that discussion, and it reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson's stirring and thought-provoking introduction to the anthology of ecotopian fiction he edited, Future Primitive.

"Science fiction is a collection of thought experiments that propose scenarios of the future. All science fiction stories carry within them implicit histories connecting their futures back to our present. They are historical simulations, which start at the present and then state if we do this we will reach here, or if we do that we will reach there. It's a mode of thought that is utopian in its very operating principle, for it assumes that differences in our actions now will lead to real and somewhat predictable consequences later on—which means that what we do now matters. Science fiction is play that helps teach us how to act, like the wrestling of tiger cubs.

"This, at any rate, is the utopian view. Science fiction also expresses the hopes and fears of its writers and readers, who have mostly been inhabitants of the urban industrial nations. Thus science fiction has presented us with countless images of urban industrial futures: Trantors and Metropolises and spaceships, those cities cast loose in space. All these images, endlessly reiterated, have come to form in our imagination a kind of consensus vision of our future. Poets are unacknowledged legislators of the world, and to a very surprising degree what we have been legislating with our poetry is existence in great industrial city-machines, with people as the last organic units in a denatured, metallic, clean, and artificial world.

"We are beginning to understand that this imagined future is impossible to enact, and is an artifact of an earlier moment in history. The megacities currently on Earth today serve not as models for development but as demonstrations of a dysfunctional social order. A whole range of sciences now emphasize how inextricably we are part of a larger biosphere, enmeshed in our world like jellyfish in the sea, taking it in with every breath and every meal. The biosphere is our extended body, and we can no more live without it than we could live without our kidneys or our bones. The old paradigm of the world as a machine is being replaced, in modern science and in the culture at large, by a more accurate and sophisticated paradigm of the world as a vast organism, complexly interpenetrative in ways not previously imagined. The world is not a machine we can use and the replace; it is our extended body. If we try to cut it away we will die.

"And there is no reason why we should want to lever ourselves out of nature into machines, even if we could. Over the millions of years of our evolution, we grew bodies and minds that crave certain kinds of experiences—walking, throwing things, contemplating fire, dancing, sex, talking, spending most of every day outdoors, etc., etc. Only in the last part of our long history have we shifted away from lives that gave us these satisfactions, and the "sublimated" pleasures of industrial existence cannot replace them.

"Worse, industrial existence cannot save us from the coming environmental crisis; indeed, is is part of the problem. In all likelihood we have already overshot our environment's carrying capacity, yet the world population will double before it stabilizes, while many vital resources are already being depleted. At the same time, however, our technological ability is expanding tremendously, as is our understanding of how social institutions affect our problems. We are gaining great powers at the very moment that our destruction of our environment is becoming ruinous. We are in a race to invent and practice a sustainable mode of life before catastrophes strike us.

"So we are in the process of rethinking the future, of inventing a new consensus vision of what it might be. This is happening all across contemporary culture, in a great variety of forms, with names like the environmental movement, green political parties, deep ecology, the land ethic, landscape restoration, sociobiology, sustainable agriculture, ecofeminism, social ecology, bioregionalism, animal liberation, steady-state economics. All these movements contain efforts to reimagine a sustainable human society.

"Science fiction is part of this work. Of course there are many science fiction stories which still invoke the mechanistic world view, using the old futures like tired stage sets. But the science fiction responding to the latest advances in contemporary science is beginning to look different, less "hi tech," more various. All manner of alternative futures are now being imagined, and many of them invoke the wilderness, and moments of our distant past, envisioning futures that from the viewpoint of the industrial model look "primitive." It's not that they advocate a simple return to nature, or a rejection of technology, which given our current situation would be nothing more than another kind of ecologic impossibility. Rather, they attempt to imagine sophisticated new technologies combined with habits saved or reinvented from our deep past, with the notion that prehistoric cultures were critical in making us what we are, and knew things about our relationship to the world that we should not forget. These science fictions reject the inevitability of the machine future, and ask again the old questions, What is the healthiest way to live? What is the most beautiful? Their answers cobble together aspects of the post-modern world and the paleolithic, asserting that we might for very good reasons choose to live in ways that resemble in part the ways of our ancestors and of the primitives that still inhabit corners of our planet. These visions are utopian statements of desire, full og joy and hope and danger, re-opening our notion of the future to a whole range of wild possibilities."

In the episode of To the Best of Our Knowledge I linked to above, Steve Paulson asks George R.R. Martin about the problems besetting science fiction today. He said, "What happened, I think, that social changes of the last fifty years has made the future something that we no longer want to go visit the way we did when I was a kid." I agree, up to a point. I think, on some level, no one really buys the old, urban, industrial "consensus future" that Robinson writes about here—for the same reasons he outlines. I disagree that we no longer want a vision of the future. I think people want a vision like that more than ever. But we want, in the words of artist Michael Green, a vision of "a future that works," not endless repetitions of the same technophilic fantasies. We want to visit a future that puts us back in touch with our humanity and a more-than-human world, not indulging pathetic "transhumanist" fantasies about some pseudo-religious Singularity. We want a future we can believe in and look forward to.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fluency Play

Joel Shempert has given Willem Larsen's "Pedagogy of Play" (Parts 2, 3 & 4) a new name: "Fluency Play." I rather like it. He's posted about it both in a thread on Story Games, and in a blog post. He provides a nice summary of what it means, too: "...basically instead of trying to assimilate an entire body of RPG procedures and put them into action from the get-go, you start at the most basic level and work your way up. The aim is to have a game experience with maximum creative flow, where the shared dreamspace is as unbroken as possible. So you only play at the level you're fluent at."

I've posted a good bit about "fluency play" here before, under the old, alliterative name. I like this term, and it does my heart good to see people responding to it, at last. In the thread, In the thread, Hans Otterson noted that it seemed like a way of hacking existing games. I can certainly understand that view. After all, games up until now have generally expected you to learn all the rules at once, sit down, and start playing. If fluency play can happen, it must then happen by hacking existing games to suit it—as Willem & I experimented with Polaris, or as I & Sean Nittner experimented with Mouse Guard. That said, I took Willem's description as a call to designers to design this into their games from the start. The version of The Fifth World that I'll soon start playtesting will have this. Reading the rules will form part of the game itself, and that will add rules, bit by bit. I look forward to playing other games that take this approach, too.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

RPG's in the Mainstream

I listen to a lot of gaming podcasts while at work. Sometimes, I run out, and have nothing to listen to, which can sometimes make for a very long day. I don't know if I'd say that I like Fear the Boot, which seems to stand astride the RPG podcasting world like D&D stands astride the RPG world, but I still listen to them. Very often, they aggravate me, but I generally don't bother saying anything because it really doesn't matter. In episode 163, they talk about how or whether RPG's might ever become "mainstream." I don't know if this topic matters any more than the others, but it provides me a good starting point to make some points that I think do have enough relevance to warrant the time to type them out.

Now, I have a hard time keeping everyone's voices straight sometimes while listening, and I listened to the episode several hours ago, so I hope you'll forgive me if I don't even attempt to attribute these points to one or the other of the hosts, much less get the wording quite right. You can listen to the episode itself for such details. However, the discussion raised some of the expected (snobby) points: that RPG's can't go mainstream because people don't want their entertainment to challenge them intellectually (which thankfully, another host repudiated by pointing out the increasing intellectual sophistication of films, TV shows with years-long plot arcs, and video games of both staggering technical complexity, and philosophical depth—like BioShock's treatment of Rand's Objectivism, or Fallout's ethical issues), and that people don't want entertainment to actively engage them. They want something to entertain them, allowing them to remain passive. Since the hosts addressed the first point in the show itself, I'll leave that point lie. The second one speaks very much to something that I've written a great deal about: the importance of participatory folk art.

I reject wholesale the notion that people want passive entertainment. That said, we have no shortage of people trying to sell passive entertainment, precisely because they can sell it. Before you can sit back and passively consume it, they have to make it: whether "it" takes the form of a movie shown at the theater, a DVD, a CD, music on the radio, a book, a symphony, a play, or any other "medium". That makes the art an object, which someone can sell to you.

If you play your own music with friends, who profits? If you tell stories around a campfire, where does that leave Hollywood studios? We have a culture which sees the world as a collection of objects, and looks for art as objects. It values the ephemera left behind from an artistic performance, but rarely values the performance itself. Least of all we value participatory folk art, the art done without any audience whatsoever, save one's fellow performers. Playing music at home, or jamming story.

And yet, in spite of that, we see participatory folk art nonetheless continue, like the stubborn weed that keeps poking its head heroically through the cement, reminding you that no matter how many times you pave it over, living soil lies underneath, life preceded you here, and it will prosper here long after you've gone. Kids invent freestyle rhymes on street corners, old time players get together to jam for no one but each other, and geeks roleplay.

You hear some people say that the tabletop RPG can't out-compete the computer graphics of an online MMORPG. As one of the Fear the Boot hosts in this episode said, we want visual entertainment. And yet, World of Warcraft has by far the biggest audience of any MMORPG, and it also has some of the worst graphics. Why do people play? Pay attention to what they talk about. Transferring to a different server, where a friend plays. The guild they belong to on this other server. The people they play with on a particular server. They don't play for the graphics, they play because in an increasingly isolated world, they want social connection most of all.

I think people yearn for more active, more social pastimes. So why haven't RPG's gone mainstream? Well, have you ever tried playing D&D? My wife compares it to math homework. RPG's emerged from wargames, among geeks, and that meant they emerged with a very complex mathematical system. We need to face the fact: RPG's appeal to a particular set of not-entirely-normal people. I would even go so far as to say that your traditional RPG has a design that appeals most of all to someone somewhere on the autism spectrum.

I think indie RPG's or story games actually could become mainstream. But, having grown historically out of RPG's, we try to sell them to RPG players. And yet, the very people who would most likely pick up an RPG like D&D have self-selected themselves as the very group that would least respond to a story game. If we sell to them, then yes, we'll always seem like a very small niche. Not to put too fine a point on it, but selling a very social game to a group where many have taken a liking to the activity precisely because it caters to an autistic condition, even if very mild, and the rest of us, to a large extent, mimic that behavior even if we don't have any such problems ourselves, doesn't seem like the best idea.

Many people who get to play a lot more story games than I do have reported how they've had a much easier time finding people happy to try these games among the general populace, than they have among RPG players. This does not surprise. Neither does it surprise me that, for one of these "uninitiated," they respond far better to a game like A Penny for My Thoughts or even Polaris than D&D.

RPG's remain a tiny niche hobby because the traditional RPG simply does not appeal to most people. Most people do not consider math homework fun. I do think RPG's could go mainstream, but not the "traditional RPG" we currently have. I think, one day, story games could compete not just with Monopoly, but with TV shows or films. But that won't happen until indie RPG designers begin to understand that even when that happens, they still won't get much more of the regular RPG market than they already have.

I do plan to take the Fifth World to some gaming conventions when I have it ready. In fact, I'll release the new public beta at GASPcon in November. But my big marketing push doesn't rely on reaching out to the RPG fans who will probably always like my game least of all. I plan to take it to ecovillages, intentional communities, permaculture design courses, nature awareness schools, and people like that. I think they'll enjoy it a whole lot more than RPG players.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Fifth World Movies: Origin

Plenty of people have pointed out the thematic and aesthetic similarities between Origin: Spirits of the Past, and another Fifth World-inspiring movie, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, some even going so far as to call it a "rip-off." I think that stretches too far, unless Nausicaä has a monopoly now on all post-apocalyptic ecotopian anime now. In some ways, Nausicaä seems like a much superior film, but I can't help but admire Origin's ambition. It tries to do a lot, and I think it does accomplish it—though it does require you to meet its challenge and really think about its themes. Otherwise, they seem a lot like plot holes.

Origin begins centuries after a civilization-destroying apocalypse, in which a genetic engineering experiment goes out of control. The plants shatter a good part of the moon, and rain down on earth, creating a sentient Forest that can move quickly and violently. While the human survivors begin to rebuild their lives, two characters that awaken from a cryogenic sleep have a harder time adapting to the new life, and seek out ESTOC, a device that will "return everything to normal," (and by "normal," they seem to mean that brief anomaly of civilized life)—by vaporizing all life with volcanic eruptions, and allowing life to start anew.

The protagonist of the story, a boy named Agito, follows in his father's footsteps by becoming "enhanced": tapping into the Forest's power to become a bit of an eco-superhero. You get a few scenes reminiscent of anime like Dragonball Z as Agito shows off his powers, but it comes with a price. Agito's father ended up becoming a tree, losing his personality completely to "the Forest consciousness." In his quest to save his girlfriend (the last of the two characters from the past to awaken), Agito risks using his power to such an extreme that he might follow in his father's footsteps in that, too, but in a matter of days, rather than decades.

Ultimately, the film ends with (what I personally felt as) a powerful statement about human kinship with a more-than-human world. But certainly, that takes a unique perspective. Like I said, the film can certainly seem challenging, and what I consider its strengths, to some, seem more like plot holes. As one Amazon reviewer put it, "The problem is, the plot makes no sense: presumably the whole living-in-harmony-with-Forest thing is symbolic of living in harmony with nature. But since the Forest was mutated by humans, wrecked the world, genetically altered the survivors and keeps civilization in a stagnant stranglehold, it's about as unnatural as you can get. And the alleged bad guys just want to switch the world back to its pre-mutant-plant state when man and nature were in balance... meaning that the Designated Anti-Nature Bad Guy is actually the Pro-Nature Good Guy."

This argument rests on an assumption that I'd consider extremely pernicious, but we've all heard it so many times that I think few of us would recognize it. William Cronon certainly would, though. I actually saw someone tweet a link to his 2005 essay, "The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature," just earlier this week. In fact, if by "wilderness," we mean "some place where humans don't have an impact," then no wilderness has existed for thousands of years. But of course, that distinction only makes sense if you first accept that humans have a unique uniqueness in the world. Otherwise, humans belong to "nature," and Origin deals with shifting from an ecology where humans dominate to an ecology where humans participate.

Those themes resonate through The Fifth World, too. Origin does it with really captivating, fluid animation, and some beautiful, haunting music. I often listen to Kokia's "Cyouwa Oto" to "get in the mood" for working on The Fifth World. Like so many others, Origin presents a much harsher future than The Fifth World, but it still presents some very evocative images and sounds, along with resonant themes, that it can still help inspire you with the right tone.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


So, Bill said something pretty smart yesterday (he does that a lot). He said:

...make the mechanics instantiate setting, so that the rules of the game are the rules of the world. Then players will make sure that character behavior reinforces the intended social dynamics of the "setting." Where did we have the conversation about making the mechanics mirror a gift economy? *Do that*; that's awesome.

I can't find that discussion, either, but it sent me back to some of my old notes. In an earlier version, I tried to break everything into relationships, but that became too much book-keeping. But luckily enough, the very defining characteristic of a gift economy lies in not keeping such records. You don't have a quid pro quo arrangement. You just have your generalized debt.

According to Martín Prechtel, the Mayan word for "human" means "person in debt," as in, indebted to the land and your parents and your community and the other-than-human persons who give up their lives so that you can keep on living. In Soul Hunters, Rane Willerslev talks a great deal about the balance of debt that Yukaghir hunters incur when they go hunting, and the attendant fear that if they become too much in debt, someone may come to collect on that—making them or their families sick, or possibly even dying.

I think the gift economy itself could pull in that tension of trust that Ingold wrote about, that I've referred to before. You have to contribute what you can, and just trust that the rest of the world will do its part and give back to you. Nerve-wracking? Absolutely. Which also makes it great for the kind of tension that a fun game comes from.

Debt in this sense has the nice aspect of forcing you to balance. Too much debt, and you risk losing what you hold dear. But without any debt at all, you lose your connection to the rest of the world, your agency. This could bring the game back around to something played with coins (and I do really appreciate the twist of coins representing debt). Players can stack up adversity from a central pool of coins, and it takes that many encounters to resolve that adversity. Those coins go into a different pool, from which players can reward each other for "selling" their issue, like I'd worked out before...

...except that totally does not work with debt. Why do I have more debt from making you look good? Shouldn't you get debt from that? You owe me for making you look good? I "sell" your issue, and you acknowledge it by ... taking some debt for yourself? It all seems terribly backwards.

I thought about making characters spell out what they fear losing. Maybe you have to put "My life" somewhere on the list (and how much you value your life could say a lot about you: two coins? Five?). If you have that much debt, someone can take that many coins away from you by making you lose something at that level. I like keeping the game very simple to play, so I don't know if that adds up to too much book-keeping again.

More importantly, what does debt do for you? Why would you want debt? I guess I've come back around to the question of the resolution mechanic (argh!).

I don't want randomizers because animists don't consider the world a random place. They consider the world full of persons who respond to our pleas and our requests. I wonder if I've hit upon a fundamental contradiction here. On the one hand, if you build that into mechanics, you strip players of any choices they can make. On the other hand, if you leave it entirely up to the players, then your characters have no impact on what happens. I think I've playtested both extremes, and I didn't like either one.

I feel like I've run around in circles here. I think I need to hear other people's ideas to clear my head here. Sometimes the strangest thing, just a little phrase, unplugs something. It's happened often enough with this project! What do you think of this debt concept? Does it prompt any ideas for you?

Monday, August 24, 2009


I listened to some interviews from GenCon on some podcasts today: Judd Karlman on Theory From the Closet and John Wick on Bear Swarm! They left me doubting what I should do. Do mechanics focused on what you perceive really tell the kind of story the Fifth World should tell, or have I once again so over-thought and over-analyzed the situation that I've gotten tangled up in a bunch of fancy novel ideas, and lost track of what the game needs to do? Maybe I should just look to an existing ruleset like FATE, and focus my efforts on bringing the setting to life in an evocative way—like James Gurney's Dinotopia, or Will Huygen and Rien Poortvliet's Gnomes.

Or do you think this looks more like over-thinking and over-analysis? Maybe I just doubt myself chronically. Maybe I just like to sabotage myself (I think I've seen a bit too much evidence for that one lately, actually). I don't know. I just have a big wad of doubts and confusion tonight. Any ideas?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Latest & Greatest

I finally have some time to work, and not a moment too soon. I just sent in my registration to run two playtests of the Fifth World at GASPcon X. I actually hope to help really bring a significant indie presence to that con this year, but more on that later. For now, I need to get a set of working rules, so I can get to playtesting! I watched Ten Canoes, and it occurred to me that a post pulling together everything I hope to achieve here might help me focus my efforts.

After reading Nørwegian Style, I took some inspiration from Matthijs Holter's game, Fuck Youth! which introduced me to the idea of reading the rules as part of play. I like that idea. It plays into the "pedagogy of play" idea that Willem & I have spent so much time experimenting with. It also reminds me of oral tradition, where you have a combination of very rigid, conservative structure, along with extemporaneous restyling, because the structure allows, even demands it. Having a recitation involved as part of play, with play taking place in response to the reading, gives you that combination.

So long as we have something we need to read, why not make it beautiful? Why not use that to set the tone? I want to give a new meaning here to the term "roleplaying poem." I also like the idea that Paul Tevis used in A Penny For My Thoughts, making the game rules themselves an in-setting artifact. I imagine the rules written as this poem written either now or perhaps a generation from now, trying to evoke the new world, copied by an order that mimics Dark Age monks who add illuminations, as well as their scholarly commentary in the margins, making it look almost like a medieval Talmud. That could provide a vehicle for presenting the different regions, too; the poem differs slightly in different regions, and this isolated brotherhood sends out the call for their members to collect these regional variations, along with notes from their field work, and send them back to the order's headquarters. I always had the notion of an anthropologist's field notes stuck in the back of my mind, actually; and it seems like it might fit into the idea of showing a setting, like James Gurney's Dinotopia or Will Huygen and Rien Poortvliet's Gnomes.

But that will come later. To start playtesting, I need that poem. How to write it? For local variations, I'd love to make it bleed local poetic traditions, maybe even reflect some of that "rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told" that David Abram writes about (1997:274), though I have my doubts as to whether I can really rise to that challenge. But hey, I made this open source for a reason—precisely for those parts I knew I couldn't achieve on my own! For the first iteration, I think I'll go classical—as in the classical epics. Open with an appeal to the muse—and just like John Milton turned the muse for Paradise Lost into the Holy Spirit, I'll look to the genius loci for my muse (a touch I really appreciated at the beginning of Terrance Mallick's most recent film, The New World).

If someone of our age wanted to write a great epic, what would they choose expect iambic pentameter, trying to echo the rhythm of Shakespeare? Naturally, I'll need to write it at least in e-prime—and e-primitive, as much as possible.

The poem will start off with the creation story—a quick, poetic overview of how the Fifth World came to pass, and hitting on the major themes. Then, it starts creating characters, around the table (sunwise, or clockwise, though that will vary by region—for instance, the Haudenosaunee dance counter-clockwise), from youngest to oldest. I don't want to talk too much about the rules here, especially since I want to leave that much open to adapt on as I write.

Hmmm, have I set enough restrictions for myself here?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Revisiting a Wicked Age

I've spent a lot of time lately in my other life, working up to the point where these two finally intersect. It looks like I'll soon get a chance to playtest Microscope with the Myth Weavers (or at least some subset of them), and then, I'll have to start shifting into high-gear again with Fifth World development. But for the moment, I still have a more relaxed RPG schedule (which fits nicely with a more hectic everything-else schedule—as a quick example, I've moved and had minor surgery just in the past week). But I just finished playing two chapters of In a Wicked Age, and it's reminded me of everything I love about this game.

In a Wicked Age more-or-less invented the idea of oracles, something Willem riffed on last year (parts 1 & 2), and now, I have an even deeper appreciation for what he said then. The Three Rivers Oracle needs improvement: it lacks the right balance that Willem talked about.

But not just with the potential for oracles to seed a game with elements of a meaningful story, the game itself drives in a particular direction. Rather than dreaming of a character and then saying what that character would or would not do, we first establish "Best Interests"—the things your character wants—and in play, we explore to discover what kind of person would want those things. Robert E. Howard especially brought a strong streak of that kind of existentialism to sword & sorcery. Think of Conan, and how much the original stories define him in terms of his ambitions, lusts, and desires. In play, you wear each other down over time, driving, typically, towards a thunderous climax. My brother noted early on that In a Wicked Age usually results in myths or folktales.

Perhaps just as important—at least to me—when played right, In a Wicked Age thrives on sensory details and lush description. Between this and the oracles, it focuses play on finding the story. We discover the type of character who would want these things, rather than "make up" a character and then extrapolate her desires. We unravel together how the statements from the oracle weave together, and flesh it out with sensory details that move us towards a common dream. In a Wicked Age still involves a lot of story that we make up, but it has a lot of story for us to discover, too.

We played with the default oracles for once—The Unquiet Past in the first chapter, and The God-Kings of War for the second. We might even play again sometime during the week, simply because everyone wants to know what will happen next. Sometimes it seems with all the oracles available, not many people play the default oracles anymore. I think I could use more In a Wicked Age in my life—but then, I could use more storyjamming in general.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Characters with Personality

The very first version of The Fifth World, the version we do not speak of, included MBTI types as part of character creation. Now, coming back to the medicine wheel and using Carl Jung's psychological types as the most stripped-down and generic of wise compasses, I can't help but feel like everything old has become new again. I don't know if the game has room for the extra dimensions of the full MBTI, but I've always thought that the emphasis on balancing opposites in Jungian psychology gave it a good ecological tone. Daniel Noel points to Jung as a valuable starting point for an authentic Western shamanism.

In the last version of the game, with the Prisoner's Dilemma, we wound up with a system that left little room for your character to influence it. My brother once despaired how the game left no place for the fearsomeness of his fearsome warlock to effect the outcome. The color beads mechanic offers several different ways to influence that. Now, I wonder about ways to keep track of that with a minimum of bookkeeping.

Jung's compass plots personality against two axes: one representing how you perceive the world (ranging from sensing to intuiting), the other how you make decisions (ranging from thinking to feeling). You'll always dominate in one; perhaps you perceive more than you judge, or vice versa. So your favored mode of perception (or judgment) would dominate. Jung called this your superior function. Then, you have your favored mode on the other axis: your secondary function. Your tertiary function sits on the other end of that same compass, and opposite your superior function, you'll find your inferior function.

So, someone who senses most of all could have thinking as a secondary function. She'd have a little harder time feeling, and a much harder time intuiting. Jung would represent this with a compass tilted slightly off-center, so the superior function points up, and the secondary function rises a little higher than the tertiary function. What an elegantly simple design for a character sheet!

I haven't decided entirely what to do with it, though. I see three possibilities: really, one of two options, and then the possibility of combining them.
  • Fill your bag with beads according to your functions. So, you get 12 beads colored for your superior function, ten for your secondary, eight for your tertiary, and six for your inferior function.
  • Add two successes for your superior function. Add one success for your secondary function. Subtract one success for your tertiary function, and subtract two successes for your inferior function.

The first means that most of the time, you'll pull your superior function most, and your inferior function least. The second means that you can always count on your superior function, and you'll always know that your inferior function will pose a challenge. The combination would really emphasize your choice: it would make your superior function very superior, and your inferior function very inferior. I think the combination might push it too far, losing that balance I like so much in Jungian psychology.

The last version had names and deeds that you would add up to make a reputation. Reputation never amounted to much in play, perhaps because counting up names and deeds required so much bookkeeping, but I liked the idea of names having mechanical significance. I still like it. I've taken great inspiration from Unconquered [PDF], Jonathan Walton's excellent hack of Exalted. There, the number of words in your name matches your Essence. I wonder if that could make a useful way of keeping track of something like "level"? Maybe, whenever you pull beads from your bag, you can pull a number equal to the capitalized words in your name?

I've also decided that this version needs to move more of the interesting parts of the game from setup to play. So, this version will have more character and setting creation as part of play, rather than something done before play. I have in mind a mechanic where players can add a story about the place where a scene takes place, perhaps something like the "flashback" mechanic in 3:16. That story would work like free-form traits in some other story games; it could give you more beads to pull, or additional successes. To emphasize the locality of these stories, perhaps you can use them once per story, and once additionally in a scene set in that place. Or, perhaps taking part in a scene set in that place recharges it. Perhaps you write down these stories on your medicine wheel, putting them in one of your four quadrants. Maybe, like the "weaknesses" in 3:16, a story associated with your inferior function has to feature your weakness, failure, or humiliation; maybe it works as something that others use against you, rather than something you use yourself.

We also had a problem finding motivations for characters. A lot of that probably comes from the as-yet largely undetermined setting. With an open source setting, I expect motivations to proliferate as the setting gets filled in more and more. But even so, that problem still reveals a weakness in the system. So one part of character creation that I plan to keep in the "warm-up" phase puts a spin on "see-me." After a brief introduction giving us a very rough outline of your character (since we'll really define these characters in play), we take a round around the table, and each player will put out something that your character wants to get from their character: love, respect, acknowledgment, forgiveness, apology, etc. So right from the beginning, we'll have player characters who all want something from everyone else. That seems like a great way to start the story!

All that, and a final game that only uses pieces you could quickly and easily gather, with things you could already have at home, and play effectively around a campfire.

Yes, I realize this has gotten a bit rambly, but I have a lot of ideas pouring out now, so please excuse the lack of structure here. I'd love to hear what you think.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Roleplaying Poetry

So, why have I spent my time blogging these ideas, rather than writing rules and playtesting? Well, I have to wait a bit. Willem has gone on a little trip, so the Myth Weavers will have to wait until he gets back before we playtest Ben Robbins' game, Microscope. I want to play The Fifth World's history! When we finish, I'll have the story of how a globalized history fragmented into bioregional histories that we can only speak of in the plural. I'll have lots of good ideas, great scenes, and a breakdown of major periods will pass through.

See, I got Nørwegian Style last week. As I'd hoped, the book has proven full of great ideas to inspire the kind of play I want from The Fifth World. It did leave me with the disappointment of learning that "roleplaying poems" don't actually come in poetic form. They just provide short, intense play. But, I've taken some inspiration from an experimental and somewhat incomplete game called Virtue as well, to consider some other possible meanings of the phrase, "roleplaying poem."

Nørwegian Style had other ideas for me, though. The first game in the anthology, Matthijs Holter's Fuck Youth!, includes reading the rules as part of play. In fact, reading this game moved me all by itself.

That night, I had one of those wonderful, sleepless nights, the kind where you can't sleep because the ideas just keep coming, each one more exciting than the last.

Naturally, not everyone in The Fifth World thinks of the collapse of civilization the same way. I thought of an isolated order of monkish scholars maintaining a library, partly inspired by the monks of the Dark Ages, partly homage to A Canticle for Liebowitz. The book you hold in your hands never breaks character. It presents itself as something like, "The Fifth World, With the Commentary of the Scholars of the Distant Halls." "The Fifth World" here refers to well-known, old poem. I can imagine an introduction that begins says things like this: "It seems that every land has its own version of this poem. We hear of performances lasting hours, or even days, though the text itself cannot possibly last this long. Many scholars, after studying the text and witnessing oral performances, believe the poem provides a framework for storytelling, rather than a text entirely unto itself."

I can layout the book like a Talmud: the poem itself on the inside, with commentary, explaining the rules in simpler language but written like the interpretations of these monks, in the outer margins. Like Holter's game, you read the poem as part of the performance—and here I get to why I've hit a snag in writing the game. It needs a good pedagogy of play and good warm-ups that help tell the creation story. This becomes even more important if you have to set scenes at places you know. Our Microscope game will give me historical periods that every land goes through; that gives a structure to the creation stories, and a structure to developing the places where you set the scenes.

I think reading the poem will help set the tone, create a good flow for the game, and establish a good pedagogy of play all at once. It also makes the book interesting in and of itself. That one I'd keep short, as the most generic version of the poem, kept by the monks. It would end with an invitation, asking his brothers to record the versions of the poem in other lands and send them back to the library for study and preservation. That neatly sets the stage for a series of land-specific books, like, "The Fifth World, as Recited in the Restless Land." It would include the different variations (like bead colors) relevant to that land, but also include notes and illustrations for the brotherhood about life in that land.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Little Close to Home

I started a thread on Story Games asking folks what they'd look for in a game about exploration. I got a lot of good suggestions from that thread, but, at the risk of seeming like I just have an interest in patting the backs of people who follow my blog here and comment after yesterday's post thanking Michael Wenman, I really got a great suggestion there from Bill White. He wrote:

I think there was something powerful in The Fifth World's transformation of a modern landscape into a post-urban one. It's like that old Talking Heads song: "Here was a parking lot; now it's all covered with daisies." Make that a part of play: lay out a roadmap of the place you'd like to see transformed and have one output of play be alterations to the modern landscape. Another output of play then becomes integrating these newly defined zones into the post-urban politico-spiritual economy.

I could've jumped out of my chair when I read that. Yes! That totally captured what I wanted from the game. It captured what had excited me so much when I first saw Michael Green's Afterculture, that consideration of a future where the world has become magical—as Michael Green would put it, "cool"—again. A re-enchanted world, a world once again recognizably more-than-human.

So, now I wonder, what if you had to set every scene in a place you knew? Then, you had to tell us what that place looked like 400 years in the future? It seems like it could fit well with a mechanic built for awareness, where you have to spend points to add details to the scene.

I feel pretty excited about this. What do you think?