Friday, February 27, 2009

Creation Stories & Character Creation

Every tradition includes its creation myth. In literate societies, the perception of the universe as a collection of objects raises the question of where those objects came from. These can offer meaning and become matters of dogmatic devotion, but they really offer little for everyday life, particularly in comparison to the role creation myths play in oral societies. Orality trains people to see the world as a process. That makes creation crucial, because it never ends. Creation becomes the chief occupation of all living things, and creation myths set the patterns that we continue to work out constantly.

I've had this on my mind as I've considered the One Map idea, character and region creation, and the problems with tone and direction that I've noticed with the game. I want the region creation to involve the recounting of the creation story—set that mythic tone right from the start. You should feel the depth of myth and history that gives rise to the region, gives rise to each place, and in the end, gives rise to each character. At the same time, it should emphasize that all of this has come down to your character, and it falls on you to make sure that it will all come down to your children the same way. The creation myth should set the patterns that play explores and recapitulates, and it should leave enough room that you could spend years exploring and recapitulating the various possible combinations.

I think I might use ritual phrases, the way Polaris does. The example of Polaris brings up another point about region and character creation, something that Willem wrote about recently on The College of Mythic Cartography: creation should involve warm-up exercises, and incrementally adding more complex rules (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). I've encountered some serious resistance to warm-up games when billed as such, but I think that warm-up games could sneak in under a different guise as part of the region creation. Maybe "Color/Advance" could play out as you describe your initiations, with the players on your left and right prompting you?

I have these as goals, but I haven't figured out how to accomplish them. If you have any ideas, advice, encouragement or other feedback, please comment!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

One Map

At GASPcon and Dreamation, I used a pre-generated region for the playtests, in order to get into regular play as quickly as possible. I do subscribe to the philosophy of Fred Hicks that character creation should play like a game unto itself, but for the purposes of conventions, sometimes compromises become necessary. Since I had a pre-generated region, I produced a map with all the information printed directly on it, invested some time into making it look nice, and had it printed at FedEx Office (the copier chain formerly known as Kinko's). At both cons, the map seemed like a big hit. It happened at Dreamation, too; plenty of people remarked on how unique and evocative they found the map.

In native cultures, that "native" part plays a big role. E. Richard Sorenson describes the sense of space in "preconquest consciousness", saying, "Geographic sensibility was simply affect relationships thrust out onto surroundings. Such geography was haphazard and rarely uniform. It fluctuated over time, from place-toplace and from individual-to-individual." (Sorenson, 1998)

In indigenous societies such as the Native Americans and also the Australian Aborigines, great importance attaches to the relatedness of a person to a particular named place. Such a person might introduce themselves by saying: "I am from this place, and my father's family comes from these mountains, and my mother's from this river." It is only after describing in some detail their relationship to that place, that land, that they can proceed with the business at hand. In Euro-American society, we are much more likely to introduce ourselves and friends by saying "what they do," their profession, accomplishments, and the like. We don't know where we are "from" very often; even if we own a house somewhere, we might not really be "inhabiting" that place with consciousness, or feel at home and rooted there. The Indo-European tribes have always been nomads, wanderers, emigrants and invaders. They invaded Europe, conquering and dominating the aboriginal civilization known as Old Europe, thousands of years before they set sail for the so-called "New World." It has been aptly said, that as the Euro-American descendants of the European invaders and colonizers begin to understand the true story of what happened, perhaps the time for the real discovery of America has now come. (Metzner, 1999).

That "real discovery of America" lies at the heart of the Fifth World. David Abram (1997) also writes powerfully about the centrality of place in the native sense of self, going so far as to claim that "[t]he local earth is, for them, the very matrix of discursive meaning; to force them from their native ecology (for whatever political or economic purpose) is to render them speechless—or to render their speech meaningless—to dislodge them from the very ground of coherence. It is, quite simply, to force them out of their mind."

Naturally, with sentiments like that, a map of the setting has to play a major part in the Fifth World. But the v0.6.0 game that I ran at Dreamation has other maps, as well. The character sheet really presents a relationship map in disguise (I use the term "relationship map" here in its most generic sense, not in the same sense as, say, Ron Edward's Sorcerer). You have a character built up from relationships, so your character sheet really just shows you one nexus in a relationship map. Putting all the character sheets together, you could draw a single map for the story.

I also took an initial step towards another dimension of the setting map in v0.6.0, an admittedly weak step, but an attempt to define each place as an affect, as Sorenson describes it. Abram (1997), Ingold (2005) and Sheridan & Longboat (2006) all discuss the differing assumptions about where imagination comes from. While we assume that imagination comes solely from the human brain, native cultures experience imagination as an ecological function, something that belongs to a place, and they get to participate in it while at that place. In other words, they do not make up stories; they discover them in the landscape.

I wanted this to become an important part of the Fifth World; by defining places with themes, a story moves across a landscape of not just geographical changes, but changes in tone and emotion. I don't think v0.6.0 accomplished that very well, but the movement across the map could still become a movement through the story. In fact, that kind of mirroring of internal and external seems to strike precisely the magical realist tone the game needs.

Biologically, you don't go too far wrong to call an animal a bit of soil ecology that wraps itself up in a skin so it can go for a walk. And when you die, you go right back to living as soil ecology. So, the setting map has places connected by paths; the relationship map has characters connected by relationships; and then you can have a theme map, with themes connected by transitions. In the modern viewpoint, these all need to have their own maps; people don't map to places, and neither map to themes. In the native viewpoint, people exist as places, which express their theme.

So, why not have everything on one map?

You don't need a character sheet—everything you would have on your character sheet already exists on the map. When your relationship with your sister sours, the path connecting your place to hers becomes difficult—which again, strikes precisely the magical/animist realist tone the game needs. Themes arise from the place, and apply to a character like issues in Primetime Adventures. The issue map could also help generate the story. In a collaborative game, you may not want to throw trouble in the way of other players, but blocked paths and conflicting issues on the map can do that for you.

In v0.7.0, I think I can work out the whole game on one map. I don't know if any other game could do this, but because of the native perspective that the Fifth World aims to recreate, I might have a chance at it after all. Ambitious? Definitely. But I don't think this particular game will settle for anything less.

Do you have any ideas, advice, encouragement or feedback? I'd love to hear from you—please comment!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lessons from Ganakagok

I haven't played Ganakagok, but I've taken some lessons from it already.

First, seat players in order of character age. That means that the game starts with the young people going out boldly, making mistakes, and generally wreaking havoc, which means that the elders have to step in and fix things. Pure genius, and I plan to just steal that part outright.

Second, the balance of good medicine and bad medicine that drives the game. This one I can't steal outright, but it drives home how the gameplay of the Fifth World has so far failed to really hit the notes it needs to. Gameplay should focus on the tension of living in a world of relationships; different relationships pull you in different, even mutually exclusive, directions. You need to spend a lot of time building up those relationships, because you burn through them when you find yourself in need, and you need to balance out the time, energy, and attention you give to each one.

How to achieve that with simple, elegant rules, well, there you have my present predicament.

I have tossed around the idea of Fate to balance Will; when you spend Will, it goes towards Fate, which goes towards complications. I know that isn't a good answer in itself, but it might give me a start. I don't know. I'd love to hear your ideas!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dreamation Report

Dreamation has been great. I got to meet some awesome people, especially Bill White, the designer of Ganakagok. First, I saw the gameplay in my two playtests veer towards grisly cannibalism. Giuli & I even discussed how often the game seems to trend towards things we really have no interest in promoting. In play, the Fifth World always seems to wind up as a typically savage, violent, post-apocalyptic world. Seeing Ganakagok in action, even just a little bit, gave me a glimpse of the alternative. Giuli's report on how her game of Brennan Taylor's How We Came to Live Here sounded like it really produced something powerful, meaningful and mythic from everyone's contributions, too. It all makes me realize just how far the Fifth World has to go. I'll continue the v0.6.0 playtests, but I've already come up with some ideas for v0.7.0, including some Fate mechanics to oppose Will, and possibly eliminating the character sheet entirely, to put everything on the map.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tweet, Tweet, Tweet

You may find it odd, given my day job, that it took me so long to jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon. Actually, I think of my day job as more of a reason, but be that as it may, I've finally made the jump into Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest. I have a Twitter feed for Fifth World updates, and because Twhirl makes it so easy to make updates, I make a lot of them. I make them much more often than I update this page. So, to give this a little life, I've added the Twitter feed to the sidebar. So, check there for all the latest news—or, if you have Twitter too, you can follow me for updates on how the game design goes. I'll still post here with longer form thoughts, and more regularly once I've achieved my goal of "v0.6.0 by 2/14" by Saturday, but for regular status updates, check the Twitter feed.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What's in a Name?

You would think that I'd have at least a few simple tasks; like names. Just a line on the character sheet and you're done, right? I wish! This is what E. Richard Sorensen wrote about names in "Preconquest Consciousness":

In these preconquest regions of New Guinea names were rarely binding. What one was called varied according to time, place, mood, and setting. Names were improvised, not formally bestowed, and naming (much like local language flexibility) was often a kind of humorous exploratory play. New names could be quickly coined, often whimsically from events and situations, with a new one coming up at any time. One young boy running in a peculiar way was affectionately dubbed ‘Grasshopper' It stuck. Another was called ‘Kaba’ (short for the prized embokaba beetle) because, during an episode of biting-mouthing play, a friend proclaimed his skin was as delicious as that savory beetle’s flesh. One girl was called 'Aidpost’ following her excitement about the first one in the region; another was called ‘Sleepgood’ by a new friend who liked sleeping with her. A boy from a distant hamlet in the south who tagged along when I went north to the new Australian Patrol Post fled into the jungle in crouched, zigzagging panic when an object he believed to be a metal house abruptly growled and moved. His name became ‘Land Rover’

Names were nicknames. They stuck for a while, then a new one came along. Only when the new (Australian) government began insisting that they use the same name for official dealings, especially in the annual census soon instituted, did formal names emerge. Otherwise, individuals responded to whatever name they knew they might be called.

But even this doesn't go quite far enough, because those informal names come and go so easily because they don't act like nouns at all: they're really verbs. As Willem Larsen wrote:

Because animist languages base themselves in movement/activity, you’ll commonly see the world in terms of verbs, and rarely (or not at all, depending on the particular language) in noun-entities. In Mohawk green also means herbs/greenery/grass; it describes a pattern of appearance, not an entity. In Mohawk, one points out a "hunter" by saying "ratorats," literally "he-hunts." Civilized languages innovated the professional class, thus labels like "Hunt-er," "plumb-er," "farm-er," etc. "He-hunts," "he-plumbs," "she-farms," etc. Notice the difference between calling someone an "artist" and saying that "they create art." Many of us can finally let go of civilized conceptions of success once we click into this thinking—"one day, I’ll be an artist/writer/tracker/hunter-gatherer." Do you make art? Do you write? Do you track? Do you hunt and gather? Only that can we honestly describe. "When will I grow up? When will I feel like an adult?" Do you do adult things? Do you do activity associated with "grown-ups"?

One famous Iroquois speaker, whose name we mistranslate as "Cornplanter," would correctly require us to call him in his native language "He-plants-corn." Your ear has probably picked up on all the Native American names that fit this model, and the few that don’t, which we can easily explain as a similar mistranslation.

In playtests, we ran into a problem where all the names led to confusion. In the new versions, names become boons. You have them in the context of relationships--the name your mother calls you, the name you hold in the tribe, the name you have in dreams, and so on. Hopefully, making names mechanically significant, making them speak to the kind of character you make and the relationships that character has, will both put names more in line with that traditional line of thinking, and make it easier to remember all the different ones you might have.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Playtest Report

Also posted to the Forge's Playtesting forum.

I ran a round of playtests on the previous iteration of the rules last November, which led to some rules changes which required work on an extensive catalog of spirits and boons, so I've gone back to writing for several months. Tonight, I played the first playtest with these new rules.


This is a GM-less game. More specifically, players take turns setting scenes, selecting where scenes take place on a central map. The character with the strongest relationship with the scene becomes the Genius loci, who plays NPC's for the scene. So, we're all equally players here. There was myself, my wife Giuli and my brother Mike who have both played previous iterations, and our friend Bill. Bill is a very traditional, gamist gamer, with a distinct predisposition against indie games in general. I specifically invited him to the table because of his unique perspective, but he came with definite skepticism. This is a subset of a regular D&D group; the remaining members were invited, but could not come. After tonight, all of them have playtested some iteration of the game (Bill was the last to try it).


I used the new "Quick Start" rules for character creation. Normally, the game involves rounds of initiations in which players build up a map of the region and their own characters simultaneously. The "Quick Start" rules simply give the characters those relationships. Even so, character creation still took over an hour. Admittedly, a good deal was spent on explaining the rules. As in some previous playtests, the repeated question, "To do what?" slowed things down (more on that below).

We played siblings in the same family, all part of the Coyote clan. My character, Father Dreaming Boar, was a shaman with a butterfly familiar, meaning he had ritual power and responsibilities to oversee ancestral rites and put ghosts to rest. My wife's character, Hunting Cat, was something of a generalized hunter. My brother's character, Bishop Angry Muskrat, was a sorcerer with a frog familiar that gave him the ability to transform people into frogs. He closed against his frog familiar in his initiation, meaning that he took advantage of the frog, leaving the frog feeling cheated. This became an important story element later on. Bill's character, Sneaking Elk, focused on his skills as a smith, and his ability to craft iron tools, including his own large iron sword.


  • Scene 1. Giuli set a scene that turned "Groundhog's Day" into an ancestral rite. I tried to learn what messages groundhog had brought us from our ancestors. Giuli played the groundhog and closed, so I misunderstood the message: "take 20 deer," instead of "take 10 deer."

  • Scene 2. Mike set a scene where he sought frog's counsel. Still angry from how Bishop Angry Muskrat cheated him, frog demanded in payment that he turn my character, Father Dreaming Boar, into a frog.

  • Scene 3. Bill set a scene wherein all the characters but mine (mine did not make much of a hunter, so I declined the invitation) went hunting for deer. Finding very young deer, they became concerned.

  • Scene 4. I set the scene at Winter Tahn, where the angry deer spirits have brought pestilence on the family, leading to a showdown between Father Dreaming Boar and Bishop Angry Muskrat. He tries to turn my character into a frog, while I try to have his character run out of town as a sorcerer. I get my stakes, but he fails his, so Bishop Angry Muskrat is driven from tahn.

  • Scene 5. Giuli sets a scene where a hunting party finds little game, and becomes a discussion about where things went wrong. Sneaking Elk and Hunting Cat decide that Father Dreaming Boar is wrong, since the pestilence continues. They'll take their hunting party out to the swamp to bring Bishop Angry Muskrat back.

  • Scene 6. Mike sets a scene wherein Bishop Angry Muskrat plots revenge, again seeking frog's advice. Frog demands that Angry Muskrat send a horde of frogs on the people; Angry Muskrat wants a good plan. Frog gets his stakes, but Angry Muskrat loses. So, frog tells him that Sneaking Elk is coming to kill him. Frog tells him to eliminate Sneaking Elk, then murder Father Dreaming Boar.

  • Scene 7. Bill sets a scene at a ford, where Bishop Angry Muskrat, expecting Sneaking Elk to come to kill him, encounters Sneaking Elk, Hunting Cat, and a party of armed hunters coming to find him. I introduce a dare, wherein a panther attacks Sneaking Elk. It becomes a three-way encounter, with the panther staking to eat Sneaking Elk, Sneaking Elk staking to tame the panther, and Bishop Angry Muskrat staking to turn Sneaking Elk into a frog. Bill and Mike get their stakes, but Giuli fails, so the panther doesn't eat Sneaking Elk; instead, Sneaking Elk tames the panther. But Bishop Angry Muskrat turns Sneaking Elk into a frog. Convinced that he is an evil sorcerer, Hunting Cat and the rest of the hunting party kill him. We rename the ford, "Frog Ford."

  • Scene 8. I set a scene where I try to pray to my patron saint, Saint Grey Coyote, for guidance. Instead, the ghost of Bishop Angry Muskrat appears. Bill then dares the story relationship with Groundhog to introduce groundhog and have him confess. Groundhog confesses that he bore a message not from the ancestors in general, but from Saint Grey Coyote, specifically. He is disappointed in his children, and he wants to kill us all. The ghost of Angry Muskrat and Father Dreaming Boar plan how they will defeat Saint Grey Coyote.

  • Scene 9. At Frog Ford, the ghost of Bishop Angry Muskrat draws out Saint Grey Coyote. Sneaking Elk stakes the restoration of his human form; I stake him leaving our family alone; Hunting Cat stakes setting things right between us and the deer. Saint Grey Coyote stakes punishing his children. Saint Grey Coyote fails, but while both I & Bill open, Giuli closes. Meaning that only she gets her stakes. Saint Grey Coyote puts things right between us and the deer, ending the pestilence and our immediate problems, but he remains committed to our destruction, and Sneaking Elk remains trapped in frog shape.

Table Dynamics

A long post-game discussion followed, and the game itself included a great deal of explanation and discussion about the rules. Little color or description; we remained focused quite heavily on the mechanics of play. This I found disappointing, but it may owe more to the nature of our group than the game itself. Our D&D games are similar. Even with the overhead involved, everyone reported having fun with the game, and while none of us considered the game complete, everyone agreed that the basics are tenable. That Bill, specifically, reported having fun with it gave me great reassurance.

Main Points

We had a very fruitful discussion, both during play and after, which yielded many ideas worth considering, but two themes emerged over and over again.


In this playtest, as in several others, the question at the beginning of "What am I doing?" proved a big stumbling block. Many playtesters have had a difficult time with the notion that the story is the goal, and the mechanics are tools to create it. In our post-game discussion, we discussed the possibilities for motivating mechanics, including goals tied to relationships that players could choose, with goals set to different scales. For a one-shot, only the story scale matters; for epic and cycle games, larger-scale goals could exist.

Number of Relationships

Since players need to keep track not only of their own relationships, but also (in order to use dares effectively) all other players' relationships, and since the story now has relationships, we quickly ran into overload. Shallow relationships rarely entered play at all. We all agreed that a smaller number of relationships, with a smaller number of boons (perhaps set boons which have specific effects) would be well worth considering.

v0.5.2 Published

The latest pre-release, beta, playtest rules version has come out. Once again, these remain incomplete, unfinished, untested, et cetera ad nauseum. I hope you enjoy them, but I make no guarantees. I've put them up under the open source principles of "Publish early, publish often" and "many eyes make bugs shallow."

If you try out the rules, I'd love to hear how it went for you. Playtest reports, actual play recordings, all have immense value right now. Please reply below with your experiences, or email me at

Teaching Storyjamming Games

Willem Larsen has had a lot of really brilliant things to say about indie game design lately over on the College of Mythic Cartography. I agree with him on a lot of this, so you can expect a lot of this to appear in the final Fifth World product.

And I should add, personally, I find it absolutely thrilling to see a tracker like Willem in the heart of the indie RPG design community. It makes me envious of the population of Portland.