Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Story Beyond Conflict

"Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing."

Ursula LeGuin wrote that. It seems fitting to have such a stark revelation come from one of the great grandmothers of ecotopian fiction, and one of the great inspirations for The Fifth World. Who else would you expect it from, right?

I read this in a thread on Story Games from the beginning of the month, a thread I would have missed entirely had Mike Sugarbaker not posted a quick note at the end.

I have fallen prey to this conflation; I've heard "story is conflict," repeated over and over again, like a mantra. At first, I balked at the suggestion, and thought, "Surely, stories can go beyond that," but eventually gave in to the idea. Now, I look at our recent playtests and what I've started calling the game's "immersion problem," and see it all stemming from this basic mis-step.

Of his own game, Jason Morningstar wrote, "Fiasco, which started out as a very conflict-oriented game, evolved into an outcome-oriented game. Once I made this decision the experience of play improved a lot. It allows scenes where you beat a guy to death with a hammer if that's what is required, but also accommodates pretty subtle, introspective color scenes as well. Not relentlessly 'searching for the conflict' feels pretty good." I've felt that problem in The Fifth World, too. We "search for the conflict." Worse, we rush to the conflict, because the rules all deal with how to handle conflict, because they start from that premise that conflict means story. But that has led me astray; it's given me a game that seems, at best, like a tool for planning a story you might one day write, though frankly, it doesn't even seem like a good tool for that.

As I often do, I find wisdom in Jonathan Walton's words. He suggests:
  • Have interesting stuff happen in freeplay too, instead of just where the mechanics are.
  • Have the non-conflict stuff have mechanical significance (if there are mechanics).
  • Have resolution mechanics that don't frame things as inter-player (or player-GM) conflicts.

Right now, I think you could fairly describe The Fifth World as very heavily inspired by Primetime Adventures. This has me thinking of pulling more from Polaris, perhaps even to the extent of cutting out the Prisoner's Dilemma mechanic in favor of negotiations with ritual phrases, a la Polaris, with a map to drive the arc forward, rather than that game's drive towards a tragic end.

I always come up with ideas like this right before a con, too.

Playtest Report

A one-on-one playtest doesn't reveal as much as a playtest with several players. To boot, Giuli has a hard time throwing herself into a game, and as far as pushing scene and stakes, she plays really gently. That said, a one-on-one game of The Fifth World doesn't exactly feel like "lone wolfing," either, since we don't have that player/GM imbalance.

The printed materials for the lands and the creation story at the beginning did do a lot to establish the tone, I thought. The material itself definitely needs some work, but just doing it that way really helps establish a tone for the game. Giuli said it reminded her of the Haggadah, though I've said before that the Haggadah might have a good claim to the title of world's oldest printed RPG.

This session did teach me that I need to explicitly point out that while the mechanics tell you where you can set the next scene, they say nothing about when the scene should take place, or what they should deal with. You can switch between plotlines, have scenes set in the past or future, etc. Giuli assumed that the story had to progress from one scene to the next, in chronological order, with the same characters. That extra restriction may have contributed to the immersion problem, by making it harder to establish the next logical scene.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Pedagogy of Playing Mouse Guard

Edit May 23, 3:18 PM: Made some tweaks to improve the flow. You fill in your cloak color after your Accomplishment, and your Guard Rank as part of your Experience. Also, added some bits of flavor text at the appropriate times in a mouse's life from the book.

Willem started writing about the Pedagogy of Play (parts 1, 2, 3 & 4), proposing a principle that we should teach games in play, and providing an example with Polaris. We both experimented with this, me at home and on Skype, and him at Gamestorm. Apparently, Willem has a mutual friend with Sean Nittner and Justin Evans, the hosts of one of my favorite podcasts, Narrative Control. Unfortunately, in this particular game of telephone, by the time they got the story, the idea had gotten watered down to simply "icebreakers." Here I enter the story again, because I think I mentioned this episode to Willem first, with my suspicion that the unnamed GM from GameStorm in question meant him. Willem commented on the podcast thread, which led Sean to Willem's articles in the "Pedagogy of Play" series on the College of Mythic Cartography, where Sean commented that he wanted to do this for Mouse Guard. So this convoluted tale in which I played my bit part has worked out very nicely for me; I've mentioned here before how excited I've gotten to play Mouse Guard, and naturally, I'd planned to give it the "Pedagogy of Play" treatment on my own. But thanks to all this, Sean has already done a really good job of it.

Mouse Guard presents an interesting case. In some ways, it already has mechanics with respect to the storyjammer's journey, particularly with the Prologue and Mission Assignment at the beginning, and assigning rewards at the end of the game. As great a framework as that already provides, in between, the GM has a turn, and the players have a turn. In Polaris, we could use rounds of scenes to incrementally increase the complexity of the rules we had in play. With two turns per session, a lot of the pedagogy for Mouse Guard would have to come down to just planning a gradually-escalating session as a GM.

That said, with a little elbow grease and cleverness, we can still find a way to teach a game—even a game as complex as Burning Wheel—in play.

Character Creation

Rather than use the Mouse Territories in David Petersen's comics, I've decided to put things a little closer to home. As an ardent bioregionalist, I value the stories that bind us to a particular land most of all. I want the stories I tell to increase my kinship with my home, and a game like Mouse Guard can really hit that target—you get to tell the secret, heroic epics that go on in your land, just beyond our sight and appreciation. So instead, I've named our campaign, "Tales of the Black Forest." That name, "the Black Forest," summons up images of the Black Forest in Germany and all the fairy tales that come from there (at least it does for me). But it also refers to the old name for Cook Forest, one of the last remaining old growth forests in the eastern United States. Instead of Lockhaven, this Mouse Guard comes from "the Cathedral," in Cook Forest's Forest Cathedral, hidden in a rock curled into the roots of one of the towering, ancient white pines of the forest—which just happens to evoke the image of another white pine, the "Tree of Peace" of the Haudenosaunee who once lived in this land.

But I haven't defined anything else. For the most part, I've left this Black Forest—as far as the mice there care—an empty canvas. I want to kick off our campaign with a session where we'll fill in some of the Black Forest and create characters. Here, a lot of Sean's suggestions fit in really well, which I have blatantly pilfered below.

  1. Mouse Ball. (Derived in part from "Sound Ball"). The real spirit of the game lies in seeing the world from a mouse's perspective, where crabs seem like overwhelming monsters, and moose walk the earth like gods. So, I'll start by saying something that would threaten a mouse—say, "Owls." Then I'll throw the ball. The person who catches it has to repeat what I said, and add something else that would threaten a mouse, like, "Yes, owls, and storms." Then that person throws the ball to someone else, who has to repeat the last threat that person said, and add a new one, like, "Yes, storms, and snakes," and so on. This gets us into the present moment, building on each other's ideas, throws out ideas, and gets us in sync with the spirit of the game.
  2. The Epic Journey. (Taken from Justin Evans' example from the aforementioned episode of Narrative Control). "Send any mouse to the job and it may or may not be done. Ask the Guard to do the task, even death cannot prevent it from completion." The current player picks one of those dangers that we named in Mouse Ball. Each of the other players throw out problems that a guardmouse might encounter on the way to solve that problem. Then, the original player tells the shortest story he can, using all of the problems thrown out, about a guardmouse who solves that problem. Here, the players start getting into the mindset of the Mouse Guard, while working on how to hold the spotlight for a short amount of time, and incorporate the ideas of others.
  3. Forming the Patrol. (Based on "Yes, and"). I'll start this game as the GM, saying, "You'll need to form a patrol." After that, the players will take over, describing what that patrol should include, bit by bit, beginning each statement with "Yes, and." For example, "Yes, and we'll have a surly, bitter patrol leader." "Yes, and we'll have an eager young tenderfoot." Simply repeating "Yes, and" often changes the way people listen, from waiting for their turn to speak, to a mode where they listen for what to incorporate. At the same time, we start building up some ideas of what our patrol will look like.
  4. See Me. At this point, the players get to write something on their character sheets: Name, Age, Home and Fur Color. They get to state those things, and I ask the "Mouse Nature" questions from the book (p. 299). Then we begin a round of "See Me." Each player throws out details of the character they see in their mind from that name, age and fur color. It continues until the original player vetoes a statement by saying, "I don't see it." We do this for each character.
  5. Growing Up. This one could use some more ideas, but I've pulled a lot of this from the "Recruitment" chapter in the book.
    1. Hometown. The player describes his character's hometown and parents, and his early life. Check off skills for natural talent and parents' trade, and how they convince people (p. 301), and add two traits (p. 308).
    2. The Cathedral. I begin this round by telling them that the Guard recruited them as children, and they went to the Cathedral to train. Tell them: "The paths between our settlements are where the Guard live. They find the open space, the freedom and the danger to be more of a home than the secure doors and stone walls of any town or village." Each player describes the Senior Artisan underjavascript:void(0) whom they apprenticed, and the mentor who trained them. They get to place checks for these skills now (p. 302).
  6. Accomplishment (Taken from Dogs in the Vineyard). Based on the mentor they described, I come up with a 4 ob they need to face with a single, independent test. The player to that player's right describes how he helps, and gives one helping die. Regardless of whether they succeed or fail, they should now write down a Belief and an Instinct. The mentor then presents his apprentice with a cloak. The player needs to tell us the color, and why the mentor chose that color.
  7. Experience. Now, the mice join the Guard. They swear the oath: "We as Guard offer all that we are to protect the sanctity of our species, the freedom of our kin, and the honor of our ancestors. With knowledge, sword, and shield, we do these deeds, never putting a lone mouse above the needs of all, or the desire of self above another. We strive for no less than to serve the greatest good." The player tells us a little about the character's experience in the Guard. The player puts down his Guard Rank, and adds checkmarks for experience, specialty and wises (pp. 302-303). Patrol leaders and guard captains get another trait (p. 308).
  8. Friends. Each player tells about a friend they have (pp. 310-311). I ask a series of questions to establish their Resources and Circles (pp. 306-307).
  9. Enemies. Each player tells me about an enemy they have. I set up a versus test with their enemy.
  10. Suit Up. Characters get gear, one fate point and one persona point.
  11. Group Challenge. (I take this from Sean Nittner credits this to Judd Karlman, Justin Evans, Ken Hite and Ryan Macklin). We play through one full conflict that happens during the patrol's first mission. Each of the players has, by now, gone through an independent test and a versus test, so this just involves choosing actions and playing out the right tests as a consequence.

The Game

Evan Gardner's "Where Are Your Keys?" language fluency game establishes an important principle. If I might sully my lily-white E-Prime for a moment, performance is the only practice. We want games that fulfill prescriptive and diagnostic functions at the same time. We can figure out what level of skill you have by playing, and by playing, we increase your skill level, too. The "Where Are Your Keys?" game works like this, and so does a good Pedagogy of Play for storyjamming. It means you don't use this iterative complexity just for the first time you play; you use it every time you play. As you get better, you spend less time on the less complex levels, and proceed more quickly to the more complex levels. But your skill level doesn't stay at one level or another statically. Skills atrophy, or you might just have an off day.

  1. Introductions. Every player introduces the character of the player on his left as eloquently as he can. As GM, I describe the season and the weather.
  2. Prologue. One player delivers the prologue. If everyone feels satisfied with it, that player can alleviate a condition or recover a point of taxed Nature.
  3. Assignment. I frame a scene where the patrol gets their mission assignment. The players write their goals for the mission.
  4. The GM's Turn. For the first hazard, pick something that the patrol could potentially overcome with a single test; if I want to include a conflict, I should save it for the second hazard, and perhaps even leave it until after the first mission.
  5. The Player's Turn. Hopefully, by this point, the players have seen pretty much what they can do, so they don't have much to learn before they can make their decisions about what they want to accomplish on their turn.
  6. Ending the Session. Now we assign awards as a group; as the rules explicitly state, "Don't vote, decide." We don't use democracy for this, we use consensus.
  7. Questions. Before we break, each player has to give an unanswered question about their character that they want to explore more.


Like Ryan Macklin, I like tangibles gaming. I also have some skill as a graphic designer, and David Petersen makes so much of his art available online through his website, that I plan to really go to town with the idea of conflict cards that some people brought up on the Burning Wheel forums. I've heard complaints before about the complexity of conflicts in Burning Wheel, so I plan to focus my creative energy on that problem, at least for now.

Trying it Out

Now that I've read the book and figured out a "Pedagogy of Play," I hope to make characters sometime soon. Camp Nerdly puts a hole in my schedule, but with luck, I'll have a follow-up report on whether this works out or not in a few weeks.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Fifth World Movies: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Early on, when I thought I could skip right ahead to writing the game in full, I included a sidebar about movies that had inspired some part of The Fifth World. I really appreciate when games do this—like at the end of Legend of the Five Rings, or in the sidebar at the beginning of the Eberron Campaign Setting. Sometimes, that can help more than anything to help put you in the right frame of mind and get the right tone for the setting.

Unfortunately, nothing really hits the right tone for The Fifth World. That very vacuum gives me one of my main drives to keep working on this: nowhere do we have a really good vision of an optimistic future that really works. I think that lack of vision has a lot to do with why things have gotten to the point they have in the world. It seems odd, but the right work of fiction might make all the difference. I wonder how different today's world might look if Gene Roddenberry had stuck to Westerns.

So, I found that a simple list of movies won't suffice; The Fifth World just doesn't fit so neatly into an already-defined genre. All the same, I did find a list of movies that shared some themes; with a little explanation and a few caveats, I thought they could really help communicate the tone of The Fifth World. So, rather than sit on this any longer, I'll start posting them here.

I'll start with Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, because of all the movies on the list, this one probably bears the least explanation. It starts with a very similar premise: the survivors after the collapse of civilization. The relationship between the toxic jungle and its insects and humans could fit perfectly into The Fifth World: misunderstanding and tension might abound, but you need each other, and ultimately, you have to find a way to live with one another. Like The Fifth World, Miyazaki's films present problems that you can rarely solve simply through outright confrontation; it poses instead the dilemma of reconciliation. That might sound very soft and simple, but Nausicaä provides a clear example of how exciting such a story can get. Right at the beginning, it provides a scene that gives me one of the best illustrations I have, with Nausicaä and the fox squirrel. Lord Yupa warns her of their vicious streak, and the baby's particular rambunctiousness. But the Princess offers her hand nonetheless, and says, "There's nothing to fear." The fox squirrel bites down, hard. A bit of blood sprays. Nausicaä winces, but otherwise shows no reaction. "See?" she says. "Nothing to fear." Nausicaä's authenticity proves so powerful, so genuine, so radical that the fox squirrel becomes ashamed of what he's done, and begins licking the wound. He remains fiercely loyal to her throughout the rest of the film. That scene inspired me to include mechanics in The Fifth World for changing relationships: a display of unflinching vulnerability, when you know it will hurt you, can Open a relationship up.

Nausicaä examines that theme over and over again. The titular heroine succeeds precisely because of how much she will sacrifice to prove her authenticity to all sides, separated by doubt, suspicion, misunderstanding, and the festering old wounds that spawned all of that. She doesn't became a heroine by overcoming her enemies; she becomes a heroine by restoring relationships, whether between different groups of humans, or ultimately, between humans and the earth from which they'd become estranged.

All that said, I still wouldn't put Nausicaä on a list of Fifth World movies. Its aesthetic goes in a rather different direction. What exactly fuels Nausicaä's glider, much less a Tolmekian airship? And what exactly makes Nausicaä a "princess" anyway? Watching it last night, I told Giuli, "This is the kind of princess I can appreciate: No special treatment, no special rights, and she can't order anyone to do anything. Kind of makes you wonder what makes her a 'princess', doesn't it?"

More importantly, Nausicaä depicts humanity in a far more dire state than The Fifth World. The toxic jungle swallows up one kingdom after another, and many worry whether or not humanity will go extinct under the pressure. The Fifth World supposes that the last collapse goes much along the same line as past collapses, where people settle in to new patterns of living, and quality of life generally improves. Despite the sometimes idyllic life we get to see in the Valley of the Wind, Nausicaä still invokes a lot of the classic post-apocalyptic tone, wherein the loss of civilization leads to a terrible dark age for humanity.

That said, I have yet to see the film that comes as close to The Fifth World in tone as Nausicaä; it comes as close as any film would to getting on a list of "Fifth World Movies" without an asterisk.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Playtest Report

Just finished the first playtest of the new v0.7.0 rules. Well, "rules" seems a little grandiose—more of an outline of rules, really. But still enough to test the basic concepts.

We (myself, my wife & my brother) wound up with an interesting story, with lots of interesting reversals, and lot more uncertainty about who would open or close than we've gotten before. It still didn't hit nearly the right tone, though. Personally, I think that had a lot to do with the lack of aids: defined land types and templates, oracles, bits of read prose for the creation story, etc. Those things really help establish the feel, and while I hoped that the three of us could pull together an acceptable playtest without those aids, my wife & brother ended up taking the blank space with a shrug, rather than an invitation to get creative. The shrug and "I don't know" feel perpetuated itself, giving us a very mechanic, superficial game. Even so, it yielded a good story with a few interesting moments. I blame it on the lack of aids, but my wife & brother had different interpretations.

My brother didn't like the warm-up games at the beginning, and felt they came across as too much metagaming. I intend those as tone-setting and warming up, but without the aids, they definitely failed at setting the tone, and while I can see what he means about it coming across like a metagame thing, I think this has more to do with the lack of aids. Next time, we'll use aids, and see if that alleviates the problem; if not, my brother might have something.

He also found it frustrating that he had few means of influencing what happens in an encounter. If the other closes, you have no way to get your stakes. We talked about some ways to address those: either an ability to impress someone with your names or deeds, and/or special Powers, an ability from your Home that gives you the ability to alter a specific rule under specific circumstances (inspired by "Specific Strengths" from In a Wicked Age). Both would require spending Will to use.

The Open/Closed paths, and the system for introducing and resolving Trouble, proved quite effective. We had some comments about the Endgame conditions creating too much metagame concern that disrupted immersion, but I'd like to see how that goes with some solid tone-setting aids in place before I write it off.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Board Gamey New Version

I finished a quick outline of the v0.7.0 rules last night. I haven't playtested them yet, so I can't say much about them. It does stand out, though, that it seems much more like a board game. Putting the entire game on one map, like one game board, might have a lot to do with that. I don't necessarily think of this as a bad thing, though. Board games, after all, have other properties that I think RPG's could learn from, like well-defined, easy rules, which eliminate the need for a GM or umpire because they eliminate the need for judgment calls, and possibly a wider audience appeal. In the case of The Fifth World, I haven't eliminated judgment calls entirely, I've just made who gets to make the judgment call part of the game itself, something you play for. People who've played earlier versions remember the map most of all, so I've simply made that a bigger part of the game. I think it helps reinforce the bioregional themes, but I'll have more to say once we've had a chance to playtest.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Half-Baked Fate

I posted this question on the Forge.

I really like the basic idea of Fate and Will. It puts adversity in terms that I really like: something to feel grateful for, a chance to really show what you have, something to embrace now so you can succeed later on, and so on. It also makes the flow of resources through the map an important part of the game. I might end up discarding the terms "Will" and "Fate"; now, it looks like you call it "Will" when you have it, and you call it "Fate" when the land does. Through the game, you free this energy up from the land, use it to move around, and deposit it back into the places you visit. I love that the rules work out like that, since it so nicely mirrors the role of animals in any functional ecology—and reinforces the view, when you finish the game and look back on it, that you've recapitulated the creation story, and taken part in creating the region.

How to implement it in the game presents a somewhat sketchier problem. Basically, we have to deal with the Czege Principle: "creating your own adversity and its resolution is boring." In traditional games, one player (the GM) creates the adversity, and the other players create the resolution. The other players can have a sense of cooperation because one player alienates himself from the rest, and in compensation, gets absolute narrative authority. I don't consider this a particularly healthy solution, but so far, alternatives have not always shaped up very well. One popular approach in indie games simply abandons the idea of players working together, and has players opposing each other as harshly as possible. I've enjoyed games like this, including In a Wicked Age, but I don't think it fits the spirit of tribal cooperation I'd expect from The Fifth World. In principle, the economy of Fate and Will presents a great solution. Players introduce adversity for one another, but not out of malice or opposition; rather, as an opportunity to gain the resources they'll need to succeed in the end.

But, what does one point of Fate get you? A raging, hungry grizzly bear and a mosquito bite both seem like adversity. Wouldn't a nice, cooperative player always try to introduce the weakest adversity possible? How much bang should you get for your Fate buck? Or, how do I make sure that a hungry grizzly and a mosquito bite don't cost the same?