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.


Willem said...

I should note that the particular warm-ups I used, I used because of limitations produced by skype; and then, having started with those, I used them again at Gamestorm 11 because of the lack of privacy.

If I had a private room or a removed corner, I would add in a lot more whole-body exercises, especially silly ones. Like "Touch blue", where a leader calls out an adjectival quality to the group, and they have to find and touch an object with that quality as quick as possible.

Even though I deeply and emphatically support the integration of warm-ups into the design of the game itself, I worry that this will make it difficult to include totally silly, random, whole-body warm-ups.

I think our groups could have gone even much, much, farther if we could have included these.

To sum up, my ideal: skill games sandwiched between whole-body silly games, alternating.

Spolin's text can intimidate quite a bit, but also she has quite a variety of different games that we can tune to the tabletop environment. The Juicers deck just gives us a jumping-off point.

Jason Godesky said...

Neat—I think I definitely need to learn more of those. I don't think we have a mutually-exclusive set, though. The more we can weave into the game itself, the better; and what you can convince your group to experiment with in addition, the better for you. But if you have a group like mine, where you may not have a shot at most of these techniques in their "raw" form, you may not have a chance of convincing them to try anything that the game hasn't woven in.