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.


Willem said...

I like it. You have my permission to make this game now please.

Jason Godesky said...

Heh. Current schedule:

May 6: v0.7.0 ready, in some form
May 7-11: Alpha playtesting
May 29-31: Run v0.7.x at Camp Nerdly