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.

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