Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mouse Guard

In The Way of the Human Being, Calvin Luther Martin writes about the experience of "the skin of the earth," and uses moving, poetic description to tie together traditional stories, the first-hand experiences of American Indians, folk tales and myths, to reveal a common understanding that so much of what we call our "humanity" has to do simply with the experience of the world in our own bodies. That, far from a simple exercise in anthropomorphism, every animal experiences the world in a way that we might call "human." Yes, differences stand out. But so do the similarities.

For Rane Willerslev, those differences matter as much as the similarities. In his ethnography of the Siberian Yukaghirs, he also writes about the Yukaghir experience with other animals, and strange encounters where hunters go, as Martin might put it, past "the skin of the earth," to a world where elk experience themselves as humans. Willerslev makes his case with phenomenology and philosophy, but comes to much the same conclusion: the relativity of the human experience as less a unique feature of our species, and more the experience of any animal in its own body.

I plan to write a long article on anthropomorphism and animism later this year for a new web magazine called Toby's People, so I don't plan to write it all out here, but suffice to say that, with certain key caveats observed, stories of anthropomorphic animals may mean more than a simple flight of fancy: they mean what an anthropologist might recognize as the difference between an etic perspective and an emic perspective, between the view of an outsider looking in, and someone on the inside describing what he takes part in, lives in, and participates in. Biology excels at the etic perspective; so-called anthropomorphic animal stories try to deal with the emic perspective.

"Somewhere within its borders we unveil the very deepest powers of this aboriginal land, of possessing it in one's blood and brain, as Scott Momaday knew we must. Somewhere we must cross over—to where it possesses us." (Martin, 1999:46)

I enjoy a good RPG. But even more than that, I see in them the potential to regenerate oral tradition, to find stories rather than "make them up," the really important stories that create kinship and tell us something about the land we live in, stories that, once we learn them, give us a new appreciation and a deeper sense of belonging for the land we live in, that help make us more native to our home. Let's face it, a good RPG takes time, not just to play, but to learn, plan and prepare. If I can get that from it, I consider that time quite well spent. And if I don't, I don't know what I've spent that time for.

Which gets me to this: I love Mouse Guard! I haven't gotten to play any Burning Wheel games yet, but this game has a lot of powerful stuff going on: the mouse-world, the prominence of the seasons and the weather, and grand, medieval epics that unfold not in some imaginary fantasy world, but right here, in this land, just out of sight. Most importantly of all, it re-enchants the land we live in, lets us see the magic and adventure of where we live, here and now.

I've started getting together a Mouse Guard game, but it won't happen in the same Mouse Territories as the comics. No, we'll have "The Tales of the Black Forest." Besides the medieval references to Germany's "Black Forest," long ago, people called Cook Forest—one of the few remaining old-growth forests in the eastern United States, and a place that means a lot to me, personally—"the Black Forest."

As it happens, it seems I have a few things to learn from Burning Wheel, too. It turns out that it already beat me to the punch of "cool-down games," including using them to hand out rewards. I can see a really good, three-step process, like the storyjammer's journey, already nascent in the rules.

I haven't even finished reading the book yet, so I may have more to say about all this, but for now, I'll just end by saying that I haven't felt this excited about a game in quite some time. Thank you, Luke Crane!

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Fifth World in Forge Parlance, One More Time

I've done this exercise a couple times already. The "Big Three" and the extended "Power 19" provide a tool for helping focus a game design. After all the rambling thoughts I've written up lately, from maps to narrative economies to "The Storyjammer's Journey," I've put a lot of ideas into play here. I tried taking a crack at some rules, and found myself overwhelmed by all of it. So I think I need to take a step back, try the Power 19 once again, and see if I can pull all of this in a little tighter.

Concept & Summary

See Emily K. Dresner-Thornber's two-part article, "The Crunchy Bits" (Part 1, Part 2)


Four hundred years after the fall of civilization, humans thrive in feral tribes, by basing their lives in webs of relationship rather than technical mastery. You play the people who keep those relationships strong.


Four hundred years after the fall of civilization, humans became feral out of necessity. The old ways no longer worked. They rediscovered magic, tribal life, and became native, deeply rooted in the place they lived. They live in a more-than-human world, defined by their relationships with other persons—whether human or otherwise. They enjoy a more peaceful, healthy, carefree life, but that world of relationships requires constant participation. It requires them to continue the work of creating the world every day. You play those people.

The Big Three

1. What is your game about?

The Fifth World tries to give its players an experience, however brief, of animist life—life in a more-than-human world, defined by relationships with other persons, whether human or otherwise. That means both the wonder of reawakening to a living, vibrant world, and the kinds of challenges faced by someone living in a world defined by relationships.

2. What do the characters do?

Each character belongs to a particular place in a very special way. Characters owe responsibilities to those places, and must work to keep a healthy balance of connections, relationships and resources flowing. The characters live in a dynamic world, one that requires their constant participation to continually renew itself. A hunter helps the land renew itself by taking the right number of animals and no more; a storyteller helps the land renew itself by telling the right stories in the right season; a gardener helps the land renew itself by planting the right plants together at the right time; a shaman helps the land renew itself by performing the proper rites in the correct fashion, and so on.

When things don't go so well, when a hunter takes one too many animals, or a shaman fails to perform an important rite, misfortune may fall upon the people. The players take the role of those characters who step forward to correct those situations, and put the human community back into proper relationship, whatever that may require.

3. What do the players do?

The players hunt story. The story already exists in the landscape; tracing over that, tracking it across the landscape, the players find the story, and in so doing, discover the bond their characters have with one another, and with the land.

That sounds very flighty and high-minded, but the region—the system of places and paths connecting them—establish a setting map, a relationship map and a theme map simultaneously. The story really does already lie in the landscape. The themes recapitulate aspects of the creation story, and the story unfolds with the changing of the places and paths

The Power 19

4. How does your setting reinforce what your game is about?

The Fifth World focuses on the lives of feral human communities living in a post-civilized world. They face challenges left over from civilization, the challenge of negotiating a space for the human community in a more-than-human world, the challenge of keeping the world in a dynamic balance between mutually exclusive pressures and interests, and the regular, inter-personal challenges that arise inside any human community.

But the game also presents a hopeful vision of the future. These communities face challenges, but they also have the skill, strength and wisdom to face those challenges. They live dynamic, vibrant, rich lives, rather than the impoverished desperation more common in the post-apocalyptic genre.

The people of The Fifth World live in such an animist world. They experience the world as an ongoing process, knit together by competing and changing relationships, and thus, something that requires their constant participation. By the same token, as a feral future rather than a prehistoric past, the people of The Fifth World also have the example of what life in a world of objects entails. The distance from that life has allowed them to encode that in myths and legends that try to understand what happened.

5. How does the Character Creation of your game reinforce what your game is about?

Character creation also means region creation. That alone sets a strong initial tone that these characters belong to a particular place. The game defines characters and places in terms of their relationships. The actual nodes themselves matter much less than the connections that bind them. Character creation also takes an iterative approach of initiations, once every seven years, reinforcing the idea of creation not as a moment in time, but as an ongoing process of shifting webs of relationship.

6. What types of behaviors/styles of play does your game reward (and punish if necessary)?

  • Recognize adversity as an opportunity.
  • Recognize opposition as a gift.
  • Play generously.

7. How are behaviors and styles of play rewarded or punished in your game?

Recognize adversity as opportunity. To win, players need Will, which they can only unlock from the land by spending Fate. So, the game rewards players for choosing to face adversity. Adversity frees up the resources the players will need in order to win.

Recognize opposition as a gift. In order to get freed Will, players must act in accordance with another player's theme. That means giving that player the chance to express her theme. So, a character might have a theme of protecting a child. Another player could act in accordance with that by threatening the child—so, giving the player the opportunity to express her theme, by protecting the child from harm. The player with the theme gets to decide if the other player deserves the reward or not, so the game asks players to recognize opposition as a gift, and adversity as an opportunity.

Play generously. Since players can only give freed Will to other players, and can never take Will themselves, the game creates a dilemma that appears again in the core mechanic, based on the Prisoner's Dilemma. In both cases, you have to make the risk to trust the other player, and hope they'll do the same for you. Mathematically, the Prisoner's Dilemma has an optimal solution: "Tit-for-tat," which begins with cooperation, punishes each defection once, and quickly forgives and goes back to cooperation as soon as possible. In both cases, selfishness seems like a good choice in the short term, but as the game goes on, it punishes selfish play, because all the other players know not to trust you, and ultimately, without the trust of the other players, you'll quickly become ineffective. So in the end, the short-term temptations of selfishness only underline the importance of trust and cooperation in the long term.

8. How are the responsibilities of narration and credibility divided in your game?

Players take turns setting scenes. The Genius loci plays all the other characters in the scene, including the landscape, weather, and even chance. Who plays the Genius loci depends on where you set the scene, and who has the strongest relationship with that place. So, narrative authority moves around the table, with creativity in the scene and relationships on the map mixing things up.

9. What does your game do to command the players' attention, engagement, and participation?

Players should play The Fifth World set in their own place, populated by their own possible descendants. Character creation recapitulates the creation myths, from the geological and historical forces that created the land you live in, and stretching out into the future of your place and your descendants. It might focus on how your descendants deal with the consequences of your actions, or simply how they live with the same land you live in now.

Themes give each player the opportunity to weave things she cares about deeply into the story. The "warm up" phase draws players into the story, while the "cool down" phase encourages players to think about the story and its impact afterward.

10. What are the resolution mechanics of your game like?

The resolution mechanic comes from the Prisoner's Dilemma. Everyone involved sets stakes, and chooses to either Open or Close. If everyone Opens, everyone gets their stakes. If everyone Closes, no one gets their stakes. If some people Open and some people Close, the people who Close take advantage of the vulnerability of the people who Open, so they get their stakes, and the people who Open lose their stakes. So, Opening leaves the possibility that everyone will win, but makes you vulnerable; Close guards against someone taking advantage of you, but also limits your chance of succeeding.

11. How do the resolution mechanics reinforce what your game is about?

The Prisoner's Dilemma puts the player into the same basic dilemma of a traditional animist, as Tim Ingold described in his essay, "From Trust to Domination." Living in a world defined by relationships and trust means living with the tension of possible betrayal. By the same token, as Axelrod describes in The Evolution of Cooperation, the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma explains how and why people trust each other and cooperate.

Since relationships can stand Open, Closed or Uncertain, and that status sets how the Genius loci acts with that person, players can also decide to make short-term detrimental decisions in order to improve relationships. Making yourself vulnerable in a hostile relationship makes the other less hostile, though you must endure the first attack (Open against a Closed relationship, and you'll lose your stakes, but the relationship will shift to Uncertain). By the same token, betraying a trusted friend can shatter that relationship (Close against an Open relationship and you'll get your stakes, but the relationship will shift to Uncertain). So, players can also choose to suffer short-term setbacks in order to open up relationships.

12. Do characters in your game advance? If so, how?

Characters do not advance in The Fifth World, but they do change. In fact, how the characters change—and how the land changes with them—really lies at the heart of the game.

13. How does the character advancement (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about?

"Advancement" doesn't really exist in the real world. Change does, but "advancement" implies a single, linear scale along which one constantly improves. The world just doesn't fit into such a narrow concept; to become better at one thing, you must necessarily become less good at something else, and the changes we undergo might make us strong in one sense, but at the same time, weak in another. "Advancement" asks entirely the wrong question; we should ask, how does this person change over time?

14. What sort of product or effect do you want your game to produce in or for the players?

After playing The Fifth World, I hope players can appreciate the animist perspective as a viable and worthwhile one. I hope that at least some players will take inspiration from the future The Fifth World depicts, serving for deep ecology and bioregional animists just as Star Trek did for humanists.

15. What areas of your game receive extra attention and color? Why?

Most of us have a preconceived notion of primitive cultures as lacking in cultural refinement, knowledge, medicine, technology, and so forth. Trying to play The Fifth World with this misconception will likely not work out very well. The Fifth World derives a good deal of its content from real-world anthropology and ethnography, so it won't work with the Hobbesian misconceptions most of us harbor about primitive peoples. Dispelling those myths without falling into preaching requires a delicate balance, one that requires a lot of attention. Showing, rather than telling, seems key to this. I'll need to present the cultures of The Fifth World in a non-traditional way; I've taken some inspiration from Willem Larsen's ideas, as well as James Gurney's Dinotopia and Will Huygen and Rien Poortvliet's Gnomes.

16. Which part of your game are you most excited about or interested in? Why?

The "cool" factor. The jungle tribes of Texas that hunt giant beetles to turn their exoskeletons into armor or shields; the biker gangs that turned their hogs in for horses and now hunt elephants across the fields of South Dakota; the tribes exploring the heart of the verdant evergreen forests nestled amidst the razor-sharp peaks of an ice-free Antarctica. That element fires the imagination. It banishes the idea of life beyond civilization as "solitary, nasty, brutish and short," and excites people with the adventure of creating a new, tribal future.

17. Where does your game take the players that other games can't, don't, or won't?

To their own human nature, beyond their domestication. Other games take the stereotypes of primitive life for granted, which means that we keep looking outside ourselves for something to come along and "fix" us. The Fifth World has the audacity to suggest that we don't need fixing at all, that human nature already ennobles us, strengthens us, and unites us with a living world that we don't need to conquer, rule, or even steward. We belong to it—we just need to trust it again to repair that betrayed relationship.

18. What are your publishing goals for your game?

I have some different ideas for publishing The Fifth World. The project began with the concept of a truly open source game—both rules and setting—so the publishing and business plan will have to work in accord with that goal.

19. Who is your target audience?

We might reach some traditional gamers and some independent/story gamers, but we'd rather pull in non-gamers. I hope to sell the game to intentional and planned communities as an outlet for collaborative, communal art that could help build social cohesion. We hope to attract people with an interest in anthropology or ecology.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Mike Sugarbaker Explains Storyjamming in 10 Minutes

Story Games: How to Play Them and Why, by Mike Sugarbaker from Substance on Vimeo.

The Storyjammer's Journey (Index)

I've written lately about the experience of storyjamming and how it compares to the "rites of passage" outlined by van Gennep, and the "hero's journey" described by Campbell, inspired by Rane Willerslev's Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Since this involved a number of posts, this provides an index for that mini-series.

  1. The Storyjammer's Journey: Introduction
  2. Ritual Phrases: Ritual phrases and their use in games
  3. Separation
  4. Liminality
  5. Re-incorporation

Ritual Phrases

We encounter ritual phrases all the time, both sacred and secular. Any Catholic recognizes a meaning beyond what the words, "Peace be with you," communicates to the uninitiated. We all rely on ritual phrases when faced with the enormity of death, and the insignificance of anything we can say in such situations. Jews have a codified phrase: "May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." The rest of us goyim often fall back to a more secular ritual phrase, like "I'm sorry for your loss," or with somewhat more religious inflection, "She's in a better place." We don't really mean what we say by these things, at least not fully; we really mean, "I want to offer you some kind of comfort, but I know I can't do much for you." Faced with another's grief, we rely on ritual phrases because they excel at the very thing we need at that moment: they give us something to say when we don't know what to say. That, in itself, says something; it confesses our inability to address the situation before us in the usual manner, instead relying on a vocal gesture towards something less easily defined. We point towards common experience, the context of our shared usage of that phrase, and all the meaning that it has accrued from all the times we've used it before.

As a student of permaculture, and as the kind of bioregionalist who looks for stories and language written in the landscape, I naturally tend to think of ritual phrases like oral swales. A swale stops the flow of water, giving the water time to build up in the soil. Ritual phrases interrupt the flow of regular conversation, building up deeper, underground aquifers of meaning that the swale points us to.

That kind of function not only helps us relate in times of great stress, it also provides an excellent means of moving from one "mode" to another. It won't take long for a church-goer to recognize the ritual phrase that marks the beginning of the service, or the much-awaited ritual phrase marking its end (I joked in my Catholic days that the congregation's concluding ritual phrase, answering, "Thanks be to G-d," had simply gotten some minimal clean up from the Church because they felt that everyone crying, "Thank G-d!" had gotten embarrassing).

Ben Lehman's Polaris uses ritual phrases to great effect. The game plays out largely as a negotiation conducted in a ritual language, giving the whole game a particularly ritualistic tone. Other games have played with this idea to one extent or another, including "Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan." Simon C. said of it:

While I'm on the subject, Ritual Phrases! These are so cool! I think they really went a long way towards establishing tone for the game, and formalising the "gameplay" aspect. Each post felt like a concrete "move" in the game, like sliding forward a chess piece or playing a card. The joy of the game was in making a move, and then anticipating the other player's response.

Ritual phrases can establish tone, define the structure of a game, and delineate the social space of the game clearly and explicitly. It can mark the transitions from one phase to the next of the storyjammer's journey. They can serve as prompts when we don't know what else to say—in this case, not because we face the profundity of mortality, but simply because we have to tell a story and feel intimidated, or we just don't have any ideas at the moment.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Finding Your Way Back

If I'd had a bit more foresight, or done a bit more planning, I'd have saved "Coming Home" until now, to keep the pattern of "Theory, Application, Next phase." But I didn't, so for the re-incorporation phase, I'll have to refer you back to that article for the theory behind it, since I have little new to add to it just eight days later in terms of theory. Today, in keeping with the pattern so far and wrapping up this discussion of "The Storyjammer's Journey," I want to discuss some of the ways in which we might tackle the problem of using those ideas to design an endgame for the Fifth World.

Most groups will stick around to discuss their game after they've finished. In lieu of any real support, players re-incorporate as a matter of social convention. The challenge lies in formalizing that, and making this formalized game relevant to players who might not appreciate the importance of the activity. Like warm-ups, saavy players may recognize immediately what they help achieve, but other players may not appreciate how much they shape a storyjam until they've experienced them firsthand. Besides, it seems like simple good design to weave these elements ever more closely together. You'll recall that we integrated warm-up games into character and setting creation, tasks that the game needs to begin with anyway. By completing those tasks with warm-up games, we can weave them into regular play. So, what tasks do we need to accomplish at the end of a game session anyway, that we could turn into re-incorporation?

Perhaps, first and most obviously, the game could support an "epilogue" round. Like the "previews" from the end of a game of Primetime Adventures—a game which, as Giuli observed, does have some mechanics for a reflective endgame (though admittedly weak), a final round of short scenes without the usual restrictions could allow characters to wrap up any final threads and bring their storylines to a satisfying close.

At the end of the story, the main task we face involves what other games might refer to as "awarding experience." How do we quantify and apply the ways that the game session has changed the setting and the characters? Often, this involves no more than a tally of points, but the very nature of the task seems to invite us to expand it to achieve the task of re-incorporation: bringing us back to ordinary reality, reflecting upon and thus integrating our experience in the story.

Others have noted before that character creation generally takes the action of what happens in a game and condenses it into a much faster process, so looking back at character creation may offer some hints. Initiations can create connections, add new features, and introduce new places. Did a character act strongly in accordance with the theme of another place? Perhaps that justifies shifting a character's home. Or, it might justify establishing a new connection between that place and the character's home.

In an earlier version of the game, I used a "questions" mechanic to establish themes. It broke immersion entirely, yanking players violently out of the game, so I scrapped it. But here, where we want to pull out of the story's liminal space to observe and interpret, it may fit well. Perhaps a series of questions could guide some discussion about the game, by which the group would award appropriate options to change the setting and the characters.

Perhaps we should go back to the land once again—each place could have not only a stanza of poetry to prompt a creation story, and a list of themes to choose from, but a list of questions, as well. Each player can ask one question associated with her home at the end of the game, pertaining to that story; the table answers the question, and that answer decides what kind of change happens.

I have my weakest mechanical ideas on this front, but I see it as largely unexplored territory, so that doesn't intimidate me too much. I'll open it up for discussion: what kinds of mechanics do you see for re-incorporation?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Story in the Landscape

I know that I promised yesterday to talk today about some game mechanics that would design for flow (often called "immersion" when experienced in an RPG), but I pulled a dirty trick on you. See, I already did. You might not have noticed it; don't blame yourself; I admit, I did it in a pretty sneaky way. I'll have to spend most of my space today just detailing what I mean.

Whether in the warm-up phase of a one-shot game, or in the first session of a longer-term game, we started off telling the creation story for the places where our story unfolds. David Abram uses the example of the songlines of Australia (1997). Aborigines sing the songlines as they travel, effectively reading them, written in the landscape. The criss-crossing lines weave into each other, creating a woven epic written into the landscape of the continent itself. Individual aborigines bear not only the right, but the responsibility to keep those songs, to walk those paths. Walking/singing those paths where the ancestors walked/sang before them, aborigines blur the line not between a primordial creation and the present, but between ordinary reality and a concurrent Dreaming. They become the ancestors, and they experience creation not as an event long past, but as a process they themselves engage in. Thus, they bear the responsibility to renew their little part of creation constantly (Harvey, 2006).

This viewpoint has no interest in the novelties of "the Age of Exuberance." (Catton, 1982). Instead, it prefers focus, attention, rhythm; it wants to plumb the depths of the world we live in, peel back the layers, and find the magic hidden in the everyday. For our purposes, it means that the story of creation we told at the outset has established the elements—the game centers on the joy of finding the stories, patterns and relationships that our creation story implied, and tracing some of the infinite possible twists on the basic framework—the landscape—we already established.

The strong identification of personality in the landscape, as well as emotion, intellect and imagination in the landscape as well, means that the game can unfold on one map. The map of the setting also provides the character sheet; each character comes from a particular place, and each place resonates with a particular theme. The paths that connect places also mark the relationships between characters, and the relationships between themes. A journey across the landscape means a social journey and an emotional journey as well. The layering of what we would normally divide into "internal" and "external' worlds also helps to create a sense of "magical realism," or "animist realism," a literary tradition that has arisen from the interface of colonial and native literatures.

I laid out the basic mechanics that could bring all of this together in my post from almost a month ago, "A Narrative Game Economy of Making You Look Awesome." To refresh your memory, I took inspiration from the "Banners" that Judd Karlman's 1st Quest, a hack of The Shadow of Yesterday. This can work well as a mechanic to explicitly establish the theme of a place, and thus, the theme for characters from that place. But, I want to take it a step farther. Karlman's Banners allow a character to gain reward when they act in accordance with their theme, or when other characters challenge their theme (thus giving the character the opportunity to act in accordance with it). The Shadow of Yesterday still has a GM, which solves the problem of adjudicating what constitutes acceptably acting in accordance with the theme. I want to take this idea farther: I want themes that only reward you when you give someone else the chance to act in accordance with them. This also helps solve the problem of GM adjudication: the player whose theme you challenge gets to decide if you've really given her that opportunity or not.

We've established these themes as we told the creation stories—place types have a set poem to prompt a creation story, and possible themes to choose from, derived from that poem. A template adds another stanza, and more options for themes to choose from. But by the time the regular game begins, each place has an established theme. Players can challenge those themes when dealing with characters from that place, or in scenes set at that place, or while traveling to or from that place.

And what of those paths, that double as relationships? They have a weight and a status—either Open, Closed, or Uncertain. As a relationship, Closed connections indicate hostility, while Open connections indicate friendship. You can have a relationship with an enemy every bit as intense as your relationship with your lover, which indicates that kind and depth deserve entirely separate scales. Uncertain relationships can go either way; you don't know if you can always trust them, but you might still need them. As a physical path, Closed connections indicate danger, while Open connections indicate safety. Uncertain connections could become dangerous, if a player wants to make them dangerous.

This opens up a consideration in play, because these statuses can change. You can build trust by making yourself vulnerable, or break it by taking advantage of it. In true magical realist fashion, and just as in traditional folk tales and fairy tales, when you break your sister's trust, the path connecting her home and yours becomes flooded out, blocked by landslides, or prowled by hungry predators. You can't open all your connections—some mutually oppose each other, so opening one necessarily means closing another—but you'll need to choose which ones to open and which ones to close. You may decide that based on your own concerns, or you may need to consider how things can flow through the whole region.

But what do you reward players with for hitting on the right themes? What do you measure the weight of a connection with? I first considered calling this your "wildness," or possibly "wilderness," but that term comes with far too much romantic baggage. I long ago came to the conclusion that the most common English words do the best to describe such important concepts—like "family" instead of the much-debated "tribe." In this case, looking at the etymology of the word "wild" proves a valuable exercise in itself. It comes from the same root as the word "will," and in fact, before the vowel shift, sounded just like "willed," as in, "willed land," or "willed animals." "Wild" describes a person with a will of its own—whether a human person, an animal person, or a place person. But like imagination, intellect and emotion, like I wrote about yesterday, will does not come from inside of us; we partake in it, like the air.

In some of the earlier versions of the game, a friend objected to the will mechanic. To him, he said, it suggested an anthropocentric power that belied the relational context of the rest of the game. Instead, I now imagine Will as something that inheres in the landscape, set at the beginning of each game by a budget based on the number of players. At first, each place has some amount of Fate, a resource that the Genius loci can use to introduce complications. Spent Fate becomes available for that player to award when other players challenge her theme. Once awarded, it becomes Will.

Games with no GM notoriously run into the problem of opposition. Either they must oppose each other, breaking down the camaraderie and cooperation that defines one of the RPG's greatest virtues, or it runs into the Czege Principle: "When the same person is the author of both a character's adversity and its resolution, play isn't fun." (Of course, a game with a GM doesn't really solve the problem if we want camaraderie and cooperation, either, since it just unites everyone else at the table against a common enemy, creating some of the questionable dynamics that others have already remarked upon.) We've seen two dynamics for creating conflict in this arrangement that don't rely on either of these problematic solutions:
  1. Closed connections place conflict right into the landscape itself. To change those connections, characters must willingly "lose" encounters and make themselves vulnerable. In other words, the system demands that you accept setbacks at first in order to prevail in the end.
  2. If the players need Will to complete their goals, the only way to open up Will requires players to first use Fate to introduce adversity. In other words, the system demands that you accept setbacks at first in order to prevail in the end.

At Dreamation, Ganakagok reminded me of ideas I'd neglected in designing the Fifth World, centering the game on the challenge of balancing conflicting forces to maintain the world and your relationships, and negotiating mutually exclusive demands from various relationships. The dichotomy of Fate and Will establishes another source of tension: places need a balance of Fate and Will, or bad things happen. Players must balance Fate and Will, which may require them to volunteer to endure adversity. Once again, the system demands that you accept setbacks at first in order to prevail in the end.

This kind of environment gives us the opportunity to define very clear goals for a game.
  1. The Story of a Journey. The story begins in a specific place, and it must go to a specific place. You could expand this to an itinerary, or even a cycle, requiring successive scenes to move from one destination to the next, or to journey from home to a pre-determined place, and back home again. You have very clearly set goals: set a scene in each destination, in sequence. You have clear feedback on your progress, in knowing which places you have set scenes in so far, and which you have not yet visited.

I think this set up allows for other types of games, with equally clear goals and feedback, but I have developed this one most of all. If you have other ideas, I'd love to hear about them in the comments below. In addition to the feedback provided in that particular kind of game, players have feedback from the amount of Will they have gotten, the balance of Fate and Will in the game, and the configuration of Open, Closed and Uncertain connections on the map. With this, we have some potent ingredients to design for flow, so we can start making a game that creates the conditions for immersion to happen.

Hunting Story

"Indeed, the ineffability of the air seems akin to the ineffability of awareness itself, and we should not be surprised that many indigenous peoples construe awareness, or 'mind,' not as a power that resides in their heads, but rather as a quality that they themselves are inside of, along with other animals and the plants, the mountains and the clouds." (1997) So writes David Abram in Spell of the Sensuous. The Hebrew word for "soul," ruach, also means "wind," as in Genesis 1:2, "and the ruach of God moved upon the face of the waters." Hebrew does not depict vowels—contrasted with consonants because vowels form simply from sounded breath. Thus, even reading in Hebrew demands interpretation, an active wrestling with the word of the deity like Jacob in Genesis 32; reading the Torah requires an interaction between reader and text, it requires the sounded breath of the reader to bring the text to life, to give it a soul. Our own word "spirit" comes from the Latin spiritus, also meaning "breath." The Latin word for soul, anima, gives us words like animal, animism, and animate, all words that share a common meaning of "bringing to life," but it also meant "breath." Our words like "psychology" derive from the Greek psychê, which meant "mind" or "soul," but also "breath" or "a gust of wind," and it came from the verb psychein, "to breathe" or "to blow." The Greeks themselves used the term pneuma to mean "spirit," a word that today forms the root for words like "pneumatic" because of its other meaning, "air." Obviously, we retain some understanding of mind, soul, spirit, imagination, intellect, whatever we may call it, as an interaction with our ecology, something we breathe in, effectively a kind of sense by which we perceive our environment just as effectively as we do with our eyes, ears or skin.

In Papua New Guinea, E. Richard Sorenson found that in "preconquest consciousness," people navigate the landscape by emotion, rather than abstract direction.

Navigating such affect-space is not at all like barreling down the Beltway to Bethesda or even going to Mars. Feelings mattered, not hours, kilometers, or abstract directions. ... Among these people, feelings about locales were what mattered, and it was feelings that defined them. Arbitrary geographical divisions were devoid of such meaning, so had no relevance to them and were unrecognized. A locale’s name varied according to the numerous affect relations different people had with it. There were no abstract sectionings of space, no geometric projections onto space, no projected boundaries to undo their sense of interdigitation. (Sorenson, 1998)

Closer to home, traditional Haudenosaunee assert a similar sentiment.

From a Haudenosaunee or Mohawk perspective, we notice that minds colonized by these assertions concerning the universality of imagination’s origins and functions are contributing dimensions to larger conceits maintained by anthropocentrically biased cultures. Cultures colonized by these conceits tautologically confirm the interior sources of their intelligence. Minds colonized by such conceits think and conceive of themselves in this grammar of posessive individualism. Onkwehonwe (unassimilated, traditional Haudenosaunee), in contrast, regard any assumption concerning the existence of autonomous, anthropogenic minds to be aberrations that violate the unity, interrelation, and reciprocity between language and psychology, landscape and mind. The ecology of traditional Haudenosaunee territory possesses sentience that is manifest in the consciousness of that territory, and that same consciousness is formalized in and as Haudenosaunee consciousness. Of course, other beings manifest that consciousness in their literature of tracks, chirrups, and loon calls. (Sheridan & Longboat, 2006)

To put it more simply, intelligence, imagination, creativity and emotion do not occur inside a human skull; they happen in the world around us, and we participate in it. This turns our usual understanding of storytelling and creativity on its ear; while we can certainly "make up" stories, having had the experience of discovering a story instead, purely fictional stories immediately reveal themselves, and feel disappointing and uninspiring by comparison. Many writers have remarked upon their experience as an exploration or discovery, describing story as something they find rather than something they invent. In his diary in February 1895, for example, Jules Renard wrote, "The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it, and copy it." Samuel Butler said, "Books want to be born: I never make them. They come to me and insist on being written, and on being such and such." E.L. Doctorow said, "Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go." D.H. Lawrence warned, "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale." All of these reflect a persisting understanding, however unconscious, that stories do not originate inside the skull of a single, human author; that they already exist in some form, and the task of the storyteller lies not in creating the story, but in finding it.

This brings us back to "The Storyjammer's Journey." Rane Willerslev describes the experience of traditional Yukaghir hunters in terms that shed light on the origins of the phases identified by van Gennep in rites of passage, and by Campbell in heroic tales (2007). If we accept this native view of story, then the parallel becomes stronger. We don't make up story; we hunt it. The "liminal space" we enter exists in the landscape we explore, in the relationships between us in the jam, and the relationships we have with the landscape. The warm-up games help to strip us of our self-censorship and hesitation, breaking down the impediments we rely upon in our daily lives, so that we can enter this space to hunt story.

In yesterday's post, I wrote about Csikszentmihalyi's concept of "Flow," and how it relates to the RPG player's experience of "immersion." With no single author, I think this perspective bears even more potential for roleplaying and story games than it does for regular storytelling. It also addresses one of the questions I left open yesterday: what "goal" do we pursue in a storyjam? We need to answer that question before we can even begin to design for flow—it will inform how we can more clearly define it, how we can provide clear feedback on our progress, and even what kind of skills it involves and what kind of challenges we face.

This view of story suggests a goal immediately: to hunt story. We can make it as clear and unambiguous as hunting a deer, with feedback just as clear as the tracks you might follow. Tomorrow, I'll get down to some solid game mechanics ideas on how the Fifth World can address the concerns of flow and immersion, using this perspective to inform goals and feedback, in the liminal phase of the storyjam.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Immersion & Flow in Storyjam's Liminal Space

In roleplaying game fora, you'll find a great deal of discussion about something called "immersion." Most players seem to agree on a core concept that emphasizes staying in character strongly. The term "virtual reality" often pops up in these discussions, describing immersion in terms of the player's ability to lose his awareness of himself and slip as completely as possible into the character's experience. With regards to story games, "immersion" has become more contentious; some players say that shared narrative authority breaks immersion, because, as a story gamer might put it, moving from an Actor Stance, to an Author Stance or a Director Stance, involves removing one's self from the character. But by the same token, story gamers claim their own kind of immersion—an immersion in the story, rather than their character, which may suggest a crucial, defining difference between a "story game" (concerned with the immersive experience of the story), and a "roleplaying game" (concerned with the immersive experience of playing a role).

Emily Care Boss put it this way:

Immersion is subjective state of mind which each individual has unique requirements in order to enter. What helps me do what I call immersing might absolutely block you from being able to attain what you call immersing. Our experiences of it might also be mutually exclusive. If I could put it into words, what I describe as immersion (in character, game, world or other) might not accurately communicate what my experience is to you, or if it did what I described could be sufficiently different from your experience that you would not acknowledge my experience as immersion. ...

Having said that, my personal suspicion is that there is a shared experience among everyone who speaks about immersion, and the real differences are in what one requires in order to experience that. The differences include system, metagame and social concerns, description of setting, pacing, the whole gamut of what goes into role-playing.

John Wallis describes "mask play" as "a virtual reality: when the player looks around, they see the game-world. They look at other players and see the characters. They look in a mirror and see their character's face. Only by doing this, by shutting out as much of the real world as possible, will the player be able to let their normal personality take a back seat, and allow the personality of their fictional character to take over. I can't describe what that actually means because it doesn't happen often enough to be analyzed, but personal experience makes me think it's worth striving for." (Wallis, 1995) In both of these descriptions, we see immersion described as something mysterious, almost magical. Moyra Turkington puts it in such terms quite explicitly:

There seems to be this perception out there that all immersionists talk about their relationship to character as if it's a magical or mystical process that cannot be explained, and that this leads many of the theorists to get exasperated and decide that immersionists simply are obfuscating because object to the analysis of their play. I disagree with this, and I find it rather dismissive.

There's a reason why so many immersionists express their immersion experiences in mystical terms: the immersion process is in a secular sense, extremely mystical in that the process is enigmatic, obscure, and it often inspires a sense of wonder in the person who experiences it.

I agree, and I find that "mystical" nature itself revealing. The essential experience of mystics carries the name "ecstasy," from the Greek meaning, "to stand beside." Ecstasy involves an altered state of consciousness with intense focus on a single thing, to the exclusion of other stimuli—just like we've already seen so many players define "immersion." One noted psychologist has written a great deal about "the sense of effortless action [many people] feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as 'being in the zone,' religious mystics as being in 'ecstasy,' artists and musicians as 'aesthetic rapture.'"

Except the psychologist who wrote that, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, did not have much to say about roleplaying games; he wrote that in an article titled "Finding Flow," for Psychology Today. Csikszentmihalyi's concept of "flow" unites not just religious ecstasy and artistic rapture, but it also sounds very much like the mystical experience of "immersion" that players discuss, and points, as Emily Care Boss suspected, to a shared experience, despite the subjective means of attaining this altered state of consciousness. In fact, just as it did in Csikszentmihalyi's research, the word "flow" in its normal usage appears frequently when players try to describe "immersion." They talk of "going with the flow"; Csikszentmihalyi heard people describe "flow" experiences similarly, as well as "on the ball" or "in the groove." In the middle of a "flow" experience, we become fully engaged with what we do; other concerns fall away. Csikszentmihalyi cites many examples in which people became unaware of their body or the passage of time.

Others have previously noted the strong parallels between Csikszentmihalyi's concept of "flow" and "immersion" in games; I would go so far as to say that "immersion" simply means flow in the context of a tabletop game, just as ecstasy means religious flow, and "aesthetic rapture" means artistic flow. I think this also describes the "liminal space" of a storyjam—at least, ideally. Whether we immerse in a character's experience, losing our sense of self for a moment to see the world through the eyes of a fictional person, or we immerse in a story, losing our sense of self for a moment to exist in a shared imagining, at the core of both lies that mystical experience of slipping outside of ourselves to "stand beside" and see the world from a different angle.

Does this definition help us at all, besides giving a name to what others, like Emily Care Boss above, already intuited? I think so. You will notice, too, that in the previous descriptions, players describe "immersion" as something they do not understand, and thus, something they cannot cultivate. Everyone has favored methods of creating "immersion," but no one can agree on what methods work best. Most players resign themselves to the notion that immersion either happens, or it doesn't. They have little control over it. A secret combination of the right time, the right place, and the right people might result in immersion, but duplicating the formula seems absurd. That uncertainty might heighten the thrill of hunting it, but many more players abandon the activity because of it. The really rewarding part of play—the immersion—happens much to infrequently. But the work that Csikszentmihalyi has done with flow has created a set of known techniques to help it along; as my permaculture teacher Larry Santoyo might put it, we can create the conditions for flow, or immersion, to happen.

Flow happens when we have clear goals and clear feedback. Roleplaying and story games alike often create impediments to immersion by design, then, if we accept that immersion simply describes flow in a particular context. They often eschew any clearly stated goal, and rarely provide clear feedback. The idea of setting flow itself as such a goal seems suspicious; we might design towards that as a goal, but we could best achieve that by setting the player towards some other goal that we have clearly defined, that has importance and value, and the player knows she has a chance to achieve. We'll also need to find better ways to provide feedback to players to let them know their progress.

Video game designers have focused on this for some time now. They have recognized that immersion in video games means maintaining flow. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as occurring in a narrow channel where your skills perfectly match the challenges you face (1990:74). If you have skills greater than the challenge, it becomes boring; if you face challenges greater than your skill, it becomes frustrating. But staying in the "flow channel" poses a challenge, since using your skills will increase them, so a steady level of challenge might produce an initial flow experience, but continuing the activity will slip into bordeom as your skills increase. By the same token, increasing the challenge too quickly will make the experience slip out of the flow channel and into frustration. To maintain flow, the game has to keep increasing the challenge in step with increasing skill.

In a recent episode, the College of Mythic Cartography podcast interviewed Evan Gardner about his language fluency game, "Where Are Your Keys?" Derived from the ACTFL levels of proficiency roadmap, the WAYK game has both diagnostic and educational capacities; it indicates how much fluency you have, and then begins instruction at that level. It provides immediate and constant feedback, another condition for flow, that thus allows for the challenge to constantly calibrate to the learner's ability. I find it no coincidence that WAYK teaches fluency—flow—rather than "language acquisition" or "vocabulary building." And in fact, Willem Larsen, inspired by WAYK, has gone on to write about a "learning revolution," that sees all learning in terms of fluency (flow).

So, rather than leaving the "liminal space" of a storyjam up in the air as something mysterious that we might achieve or might not, I think we have clear goals that can create the conditions for an immersive game experience, to allow the storyjam to flow:
  1. The jam needs a clearly-defined goal; something inherently valuable and something the jammers feel they can achieve.
  2. Jammers need frequent, clear feedback on their progress towards that goal.
  3. The level of challenge must constantly gauge the jammers' skill, and adapt to that level.

Moreover, we even have a model to emulate and learn from in Evan Gardner's "Where Are Your Keys?" fluency game. This provides an exciting model for designing games, one that promises a game that, instead of just hoping that immersion might happen, could actually create the conditions to cultivate it. Tomorrow, I'll write about how I can use this to design the Fifth World, by setting clearly-defined goals, providing feedback, and adapting the level of challenge organically to the jammers' skill.

  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial.
  • Wallis, J. 1995. Through a mask, darkly: Connecting players and roles. Interactive Fantasy, 3

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sitting Down to Your Second Game

Yesterday, I wrote about using warm-up games to weave creation myths that would create characters. This gives me a start on how to set up a campaign—but what about your second game? Or third? What do you do when you want to play a long-term game that unfolds over several sessions, and you've already created your map?

Each game session exists in a particular storyjam—so each game has those three phases of the storyjammer's journey. Every time we sit down to a new game session, we come fresh from our ordinary, daily concerns—the traffic on the way, getting the pizza order, the day at work perhaps, whatever we do before the game that defines our ordinary, daily life. We don't come to the table already in story space, so beyond the journey of our characters through the arc of the story, we also have to attend to the journey of our attention and state of mind. Just like good physical exercise, good storyjamming requires some warming up.

Last time, I wrote about using improv theater games to warm up and create characters, but what about your second, third, fourth and fifth games, where you already have characters, but still need some good warm-ups?
  • At the beginning of the game, a recap of what happened before often helps. Different people remember different parts of the story, so usually the recap comes from everyone throwing out what they remember. Why not turn this activity into a round of "Yes, and"?
  • For character-driven story, a reminder of what the characters act and look like plays an important role, so using "See Me" at the beginning of each session could prove useful.
  • Because feral creation stories don't end, but set a pattern for a process we continue throughout our lives, I like the idea of creation stories setting patterns that the game's story retraces in new ways. So, retelling the creation story, at least in part, at the beginning of each session seems to make sense with that. Perhaps "Color/Advance" could work well with a retelling of the creation of the places the characters call home. With different calls for "Color" and "Advance", each telling will emphasize different aspects—just like a traditional storyteller adapts to each audience and context.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Calling the World: Warm-Up Games, Character Creation & Creation Myths

I read a book some months ago (I wish I could find it now, or at least remember its title) that told two stories of how the world came into being: the creation story in Genesis, and the creation story of the Haudenosaunee. It contrasted the two, and pointed to a crucial divergence between them. In the Jewish story, a perfect, divine being ordered the universe, and on the seventh day he rested. In the Haudenosaunee story, people create the world over time. The creation story in Genesis fits in very well with what Tim Ingold called "the building perspective." First came the model, then a divine being implemented the model, and finished it. It "is"—in fact, just trying to summarize this myth this much in E-Prime proves a revealing exercise. The Haudenosaunee story, on the other hand, complements nicely what Ingold called "the dwelling perspective." No model precedes; instead, the world arises from our interactions and relationships. At no point can we look at it and call it finished. That underlines the important point for the moment: to our literate culture, creation happened; to oral people, creation continues.

David Abram and Tim Ingold both discuss the place of songlines in the traditions of Australian aboriginal peoples. As they travel across the landscape, aborigines repeat the songs of the paths they walk. Each journey composes a unique story, recounting the ancient journeys and adventures of ancestors. Yet, traveling in the same places and repeating their tales, the aborigine blurs the lines between himself and his ancestor. In the most real sense imaginable, walking a trail creates the trail; in tracing that pattern, the aborigine shares in part of what made his ancestor, and in a very real sense, becomes that ancestor. The Dreamtime of creation does not happen in the distant past, but concurrently with lived experience; creation did not happen, but people engage in the ongoing process of creation every day. Calvin Luther Martin underlines this with the Yupik and the Dene: they, too, see the ongoing project of creation as the chief occupation of living persons. The Dene specifically put their charge in terms of entropy and beauty; entropy brings everything into decay, so persons must always continue the work of creation, to create beauty.

I find this in nearly every native tradition I take the time to examine, and I suspect that it has less to do with some primitive universality than a perspective uniquely bound to the written word—people not bound by letters to a page that once printed seems to never change (at least along the timeline a human could appreciate) see a world constantly made and remade, and see themselves at the very least as co-creators alongside gods and ancestors, if not the current heroes of an eternally unfolding myth.

I promised I'd move past theory and get to game mechanics, but this lays down an important principle. Fred Hicks has said (and I freely insert myself into his "we's"):
  • We believe that character creation is not a nuisance you need to "get past" in order to get to play.
  • We embrace the idea that creating characters is a game in and of itself.
  • We suggest that character creation is the first (and most important) step in communicating to the GM what the GM must do in order to make the game rock.
  • We do not believe in character stats that do not directly hook into driving actual play in interesting and vibrant ways.
  • We never provide a means for creating characters that does not embed them in the story of the game, and does not embed the story of them in the game.

I see a lot of parallels between what Fred Hicks suggests here, and the pattern that so many native peoples have already laid out in their creation stories. Particularly since, to so many of these cultures, nothing defines them more than their relationship to their home.

In this phase of the game, according to the journey I've written about lately, we face the challenge of separation, or the "call to adventure," moving out of the ordinary world and into the liminal space where storyjamming happens. I've experimented with Willem Larsen on warm-ups in storyjamming. We all hesitate and censor ourselves in our daily lives, and while we might need to do that in our ordinary social interactions, nothing can kill a storyjam faster. To effectively jam requires jammers to let their creativity and feelings flow, so that we stop "making up" a story, and instead find the story that already exists between us, and chase it. Via Willem via Lisa Wells, I've learned about the improvisational theater games and techniques of Viola Spolin. In Play Unsafe, Graham Walmsley credits many of his ideas to improvisation teacher and director, Keith Johnstone. Johnstone and Spolin have a great deal in common, and indie RPG players have worked with improv games, theater games, and roleplaying games for a long time. Bringing together some of these approaches from Johnstone, Spolin, Walmsley, and Larsen don't constitute some striking new innovation of mine. But by the same token, while players have recommended these as ways to improve a game, I've never seen a game that wove these things into the game itself before.

I want The Fifth World to create storyjams, and like Fred Hicks, I want character creation to play like a game, and like Willem Larsen, I want warm-up games that teach the game and how to play it and put players in the right mindset to approach the rest of the game, and I want all of that to tell a creation story that doesn't end, but sets a pattern for the rest of the game to explore. (I feel like I just played a fairly exhilarating warm-up game of "Yes, and" just writing that sentence!)

So—how to make a game out of that?

Let's start with the warm-up games we've used, their form, and what they do.
  • Firing Line. This game has one person on the firing line, and the rest of the group. The group takes turns throwing out random words; the player on the line has to respond with the first word she thinks of. This game breaks down your self-censorship.
  • One Word at a Time. The players tell a story, each player contributing one word at a time. This one helps get the group working together, and further breaks down self-censorship.
  • Yes, and! Each player throws out a declaration. Declarations must all begin with "Yes, and...", forcing players to build on each other's ideas without negation. This breaks down self-censorship even further, and trains players to build on each other's ideas without negation.
  • See Me. After an initial description—perhaps as little as a name—players take turns adding descriptions, until someone says, "I don't see it." This game trains shared imagining.
  • Color/Advance. Each player takes a turn telling a story. The player on your left tells you when you can advance the plot by saying, "Advance." The player on your right tells you when to fill in more color and description by saying, "Color." This helps each player develop better descriptions, and better pacing.
  • Counting. The group must count to 20, but no one can say two consecutive numbers, and you can't form any detectable pattern. This trains players to listen to each other—what they say, but also their body language and other non-verbal communication.

Some of these seem easier to apply to a game than others—for instance, Yes, and!, See Me, and Color/Advance all seem easier to include in character creation, whereas a game like Firing Line would almost always stand out as something difficult to tie into the game.

So, true to the bioregional ethos, we want to start with the landscape itself. Perhaps here we can start with a few rounds of Yes, and! describing the landscape and adding features: rivers, streams, terrain, climate, and so on. We wouldn't want to get too specific—places play a different role in the game, that we'll need to define later—but this establishes the general lay of the land. While reading this over, I went back to sectors and zones in permaculture. Perhaps the bulk of this little game should focus on the sectors that most impact the region.

Next, we begin aging the characters, beginning with the oldest character, and stepping through seven-year increments until all the characters reach the present. Each iteration has an initiation. For the initiation, the player gets to set a scene at a place; she gets to add a specific place to the map. To add a place, she must draw it on the map and tell the story of its creation. The game will have to include an oracle and some guidelines with prompts for people who don't have anything specific in mind. I think descriptors, like "cleared by fire," or "poisoned with ancient pharmaceuticals," could apply like templates, adding new features. The combination of the place and any of these "templates" applied would set a starting point for the place's creation story, which the player could expand upon. That creation story would establish an explicitly defined theme for that place. The player will always have a choice of making the place featured in an initiation the character's home. These creation stories may provide an excellent place to apply Color/Advance. This could help short-circuit the problem we saw in playtests, where the initiation scenes went straight to the conflict, often making players wonder why they cared about the stakes. It really got to the heart of the immersion problems I found at Dreamation.

At this point, you'll have characters and a map. Perhaps, like Polaris, the game could use a small ritual to introduce these characters, once they have fully aged? See Me suits that need perfectly. A character's ritual introduction should provide all the preface necessary for a round of See Me.

If this works properly—and it will need some good playtesting to make sure—this could turn character and setting creation into a unified whole, a game unto itself, and a recitation of a myth of ongoing creation that sets the stage perfectly for some feral storyjamming.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Coming Home

I left off yesterday with the question: where do you find the storyjamming equivalent of re-incorporation and the hero's return? This forms a crucial part of the journey; the separation meets us in the ordinary daily life we inhabit, and then breaks us away from it to enter the liminal space where we participate in the raw power of ambiguity and plenipotential—where "anything is possible." But then, all too often, our stories stop. Instead of an ending that brings us back into the ordinary world, enriched by our experience, we cut the story off right there. Freytag's classic pyramid of dramatic structure seems lopsided against time: we spend nearly all of our time with rising tension, then hit our climax, and fall precipitously towards the end. If a story has a denouement at all, it happens quickly, like an epilogue. Many writers say that falling action has an inherently boring quality. But a meaningful story—a story worth telling—leads you along a journey. What does it say if it picks you up for a ride, shows you incredible things, and then abandons you in an unfamiliar neighborhood at the end of the night?

I think we have trouble with the re-incorporation phase of stories in our tradition because we come from a people who have spent the past 10,000 years homeless and rootless. In his book, Against the Grain, Richard Manning outlines the history of agriculture and its ancient unsustainability. As Derrick Jensen put it, "Forests precede us and deserts dog our heels." The center of Western civilization keeps moving west as the consequences of our actions chase us around the world, and we move west to find some place that we haven't yet turned into lifeless desert. We have told our children for generations now, at an increasing pace, that fortune and opportunity lie not at home, but over the western horizon. It has turned us into rootless wanderers, so our myths and legends honor rootlessness and wandering. Our classic heroes come, like Beowulf, from somewhere else, and when they have solved our problems, like the the classic hero of Western films and books, he rides off into the sunset—into the west.

We romanticize our pathology. Because of our experience of rootlessness, the theme of coming home holds little allure for us. We don't know what it means. I think that goes a long way to explaining why we have allowed this crucial part of our art to atrophy so severely. In a very real way, we've gotten to the very root of rewilding here—how to perform this grand group therapy to heal this wound and reconcile our abused Land and our dysfunctional Family. To become native means to come home. If we knew a good story about how to come home, we could follow it—and come home.

The Fifth World tries to tell a story about coming home from start to finish. Its strong bioregional focus keeps tying the way we live and the stories we tell back into the landscape. I have no excuse to neglect re-incorporation. Warm-up games seem comparatively easy—they move us towards the liminal storyjamming space we want to go. But a good re-incorporation moves us in the opposite direction, back towards our daily lives. In Soul Hunters, Willerslev describes storytelling itself as the re-incorporation of returned Yukaghir hunters. The return to human language re-humanizes them, and putting their experiences into human terms allows them to synthesize what has happened, and bring it back with them into the human community. From this perspective, the entire game seems like an act of re-incorporation; but even if it does work that way, we still have a complete journey sub-set into that re-incorporation, which still requires some re-incorporation of its own.

Willem has suggested a few techniques that provide some excellent starting ground for our explorations. Like warm-up games, you can think of re-incorporation in terms of the "cool-down" needed after exercising your other muscles. Willem also suggested using the ORID debrief method:
  • Observe. What happened for you? What happened for the group? What critical moments did you experience? What did you learn from success and failure?
  • Reflect. How did what happened compare with your expectations? With stories you had heard? With your interests? What personal "a ha" moments did you experience? Work group "a ha" moments?
  • Interpret. What in this applies to your daily life? What defined this experience for you? For the group? What got in the way?
  • Decide. Do you want to do some things differently in your daily life as a result of this?

As Willem points out, this weaves the story back into our real lives, and brings it home. I think most gaming groups already do something like this, sticking around to discuss their game experience for some time after it has finished. But I also think that most gaming groups could get a lot more from that discussion with a framework like this. Just like we've had to find clever ways to weave warm-up games into the game itself, so that we don't feel like we haven't started the real game yet, or that we can cut this part, it will also take some clever design work to weave this part, too, into the game experience, so that players don't just throw it aside as good advice at best.

This pattern sets some clear design challenges, but I've done a lot of theorizing now. Tomorrow, I'll get down to some game ideas, and what kind of clever, elegant techniques we might come up with to make this work.

The Storyjammer's Journey

Arnold van Gennep worked as an ethnographer and folklorist at the turn of the last century in France. He gets credit for founding folklore as a field in that country, but most today remember him for his 1909 work, Rites of Passage. In it, van Gennep described three phases to any rite of passage:
  1. Separation. This phase focuses on the end of the participant's old life and identity, sometimes put in terms as extreme as the death of their old self.
  2. Liminality. Separated from the old life but not yet initiated into the new life, the participant enters a delicate liminal state, neither this nor that. This amiguity and plenipotential makes the participant powerful, giving them the power to achieve the initiation required.
  3. Re-incorporation. In the final phase, the participant re-enters normal society in her new life, and relieves recognition and acknowledgment in the new identity.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), Joseph Campbell introduced what some have called "the hero's journey" or "the monomyth," a basic, archetypal template that, Campbell argues, all heroic tales follow. In the book, Campbell summarizes this template: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." Campbell identifies three stages in the hero's journey—departure, initiation, and return—and further details many of the various sub-themes and archetypes involved in each (for example, "the call to adventure" and "refusing the call" under departure), which occur often, but not always.

The similarity of Campbell's monomyth to van Gennep's rites of passage does not happen accidentally. Campbell studied van Gennep and relied on his work to describe the stages of the hero's journey, making the story of any hero the story of our own rites of passage. The separation from the old life becomes the hero's call to adventure; the adventures of the hero becomes the experience of liminality; and the re-integration following becomes the hero's return.

In Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs, Rane Willerslev offers a different template for them both. Like Ingold, Willerslev "takes animism seriously," refusing to take the "easy answer" of metaphor or myth, and thus conclude that every traditional person has either lied to us, or has severe psychological problems. Instead, Willerslev looks for the roots of animism in the lived experience of people.

For the Yukaghirs, hunting means seducing an elk to give itself up, and that requires a process of mimicry, entering a liminal state where the hunter becomes not elk, but also not not elk. The difference proves crucial in both directions—a perfectly identical elk would have no power over the prey to kill it, but such an identical performance would also mean a hunter had lost touch with his humanity, and would become lost to elkhood forever.

To perform this dangerous dance, hunters must first isolate themselves from the normal human community. They must expunge the smells of humans, particularly women and children, and the smells of sex. They must also abandon normal human language. Hunters must not speak of killing animals directly, lest the animals overhear; so instead, they must speak a ritualized and indirect hunting language. For the Yukaghirs, speech and scent mark critical identifiers of their humanity, but in order to succeed, hunters must leave those things behind, separating themselves from their humanity.

The liminal space Willerslev describes—a space where every animal perceives itself as human—reminded me a great deal of Calvin Luther Martin's description of the world just past the skin of the earth in Way of the Human Being, which had in turn reminded me strongly of the stories of Faerie in Ireland and other Celtic countries. In this liminal space, profound things happen. Power comes from one's moments spent here. Most basic of all, here the dance of seduction becomes possible, and the Yukaghirs can kill their prey and feed their people.

The return plays an important part as well, precisely because the hunter has no guarantee of it. Willerslev relates the story of the "wild men" who remain lost in that liminal state, the ultimate anti-social creatures, they walk on two legs like people, but grow fur all over them like animals. The description reminded me of stories of Bigfoot, and even moreso, Pat Murphy's short story, "In the Abode of the Snows." Willerslev describes storytelling among hunters as a humanizing activity, precisely this last part of re-integration, giving the hunter a chance to become human again.

So, the hero's journey and the rite of passage, in this light, seem to spring from a much more basic source: the experience of the hunt itself.

Naturally, all of these things reminded me of storyjamming. Willem Larsen introduced the notion of using "warm-up games" used in improvisational theater in his articles for the College of Mythic Cartography, "Warming up and Working with Energy" (I, II). Since then, we've both worked on ways to weave these more tightly into the experience of play itself, rather than leave them so seemingly extraneous. I can personally vouch for the separating experience of these warm-up games. They push me towards a very different frame of mind, separating me from my normal day lucidity, and priming me to not censor myself, to reach for eloquence, and to allow the story to flow through me.

With that separation, I can much more easily see story as something to discover, rather than something that I "make up." The separation of these "warm-ups" moves us into a liminal state, a shared imagining, where we can track, stalk, and seduce the story together in the jam itself.

This, to me, raises an interesting question that I'll return to in tomorrow's post: where do you find the storyjamming equivalent of re-integration?