Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Roleplaying Poetry

So, why have I spent my time blogging these ideas, rather than writing rules and playtesting? Well, I have to wait a bit. Willem has gone on a little trip, so the Myth Weavers will have to wait until he gets back before we playtest Ben Robbins' game, Microscope. I want to play The Fifth World's history! When we finish, I'll have the story of how a globalized history fragmented into bioregional histories that we can only speak of in the plural. I'll have lots of good ideas, great scenes, and a breakdown of major periods will pass through.

See, I got Nørwegian Style last week. As I'd hoped, the book has proven full of great ideas to inspire the kind of play I want from The Fifth World. It did leave me with the disappointment of learning that "roleplaying poems" don't actually come in poetic form. They just provide short, intense play. But, I've taken some inspiration from an experimental and somewhat incomplete game called Virtue as well, to consider some other possible meanings of the phrase, "roleplaying poem."

Nørwegian Style had other ideas for me, though. The first game in the anthology, Matthijs Holter's Fuck Youth!, includes reading the rules as part of play. In fact, reading this game moved me all by itself.

That night, I had one of those wonderful, sleepless nights, the kind where you can't sleep because the ideas just keep coming, each one more exciting than the last.

Naturally, not everyone in The Fifth World thinks of the collapse of civilization the same way. I thought of an isolated order of monkish scholars maintaining a library, partly inspired by the monks of the Dark Ages, partly homage to A Canticle for Liebowitz. The book you hold in your hands never breaks character. It presents itself as something like, "The Fifth World, With the Commentary of the Scholars of the Distant Halls." "The Fifth World" here refers to well-known, old poem. I can imagine an introduction that begins says things like this: "It seems that every land has its own version of this poem. We hear of performances lasting hours, or even days, though the text itself cannot possibly last this long. Many scholars, after studying the text and witnessing oral performances, believe the poem provides a framework for storytelling, rather than a text entirely unto itself."

I can layout the book like a Talmud: the poem itself on the inside, with commentary, explaining the rules in simpler language but written like the interpretations of these monks, in the outer margins. Like Holter's game, you read the poem as part of the performance—and here I get to why I've hit a snag in writing the game. It needs a good pedagogy of play and good warm-ups that help tell the creation story. This becomes even more important if you have to set scenes at places you know. Our Microscope game will give me historical periods that every land goes through; that gives a structure to the creation stories, and a structure to developing the places where you set the scenes.

I think reading the poem will help set the tone, create a good flow for the game, and establish a good pedagogy of play all at once. It also makes the book interesting in and of itself. That one I'd keep short, as the most generic version of the poem, kept by the monks. It would end with an invitation, asking his brothers to record the versions of the poem in other lands and send them back to the library for study and preservation. That neatly sets the stage for a series of land-specific books, like, "The Fifth World, as Recited in the Restless Land." It would include the different variations (like bead colors) relevant to that land, but also include notes and illustrations for the brotherhood about life in that land.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Little Close to Home

I started a thread on Story Games asking folks what they'd look for in a game about exploration. I got a lot of good suggestions from that thread, but, at the risk of seeming like I just have an interest in patting the backs of people who follow my blog here and comment after yesterday's post thanking Michael Wenman, I really got a great suggestion there from Bill White. He wrote:

I think there was something powerful in The Fifth World's transformation of a modern landscape into a post-urban one. It's like that old Talking Heads song: "Here was a parking lot; now it's all covered with daisies." Make that a part of play: lay out a roadmap of the place you'd like to see transformed and have one output of play be alterations to the modern landscape. Another output of play then becomes integrating these newly defined zones into the post-urban politico-spiritual economy.

I could've jumped out of my chair when I read that. Yes! That totally captured what I wanted from the game. It captured what had excited me so much when I first saw Michael Green's Afterculture, that consideration of a future where the world has become magical—as Michael Green would put it, "cool"—again. A re-enchanted world, a world once again recognizably more-than-human.

So, now I wonder, what if you had to set every scene in a place you knew? Then, you had to tell us what that place looked like 400 years in the future? It seems like it could fit well with a mechanic built for awareness, where you have to spend points to add details to the scene.

I feel pretty excited about this. What do you think?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Back Around the Color Wheel

Over a year ago, casting about for mechanics, Michael Wenman suggested using two colors of beads, perhaps white for skill and black for difficulty. You place a number of beads into an opaque bag to represent your skill or effort, and the difficulty you face. Then you reach into the bag, pull out a given number of beads, and count up the white ones. If you have enough white beads—"successes"—you succeed. It has a certain resemblance to Jared Sorenson's "Color Wheel" mechanic, as well. It has room for expansion, too: you could, for instance, expand it to four colors associated with the medicine wheel, and now you need to pull enough beads of the correct color.

Since rejecting pretty much all of my work thus far, I've found this idea sticking in my head again. It has a lot of the things that the Prisoner's Dilemma simply didn't. You can represent skill or effort with the number of beads you put in. You can represent the challenge you face in a very clear and direct way; you could use a sort of budget, for instance, to scale up how many beads of different colors you can add to the bag. You can tone difficulty by increasing or decreasing the number of successes you need, and you can tone specific advantages or disadvantages by increasing or decreasing the number of beads you can pull from the bag. In other words, it has lots of knobs you can tune, and that means you have more places where your fearsome warlock can see the story reacting to the fearsomeness of your warlock powers.

I rejected this idea before because it seemed like the same old randomization, telling the same story of a random universe. But now, I think it might fit the game very well, because it doesn't really present a random universe, but an unknown universe. The bag has black and white beads; you hold your success or failure in your hand, in the bag. You just don't know which yet. The tension comes not from an outcome as yet undecided, but an outcome as yet unknown.

But does it fall victim, once again, to setting every story in terms of conflict? I made that contention once, and certainly referring to "successes" does. But do we really have to call them "successes"? Perhaps each bead tells us something we learn. The four directions of the medicine wheel also have four different ways of engaging the world, so maybe those two white beads from the north mean we learned two intellectual things about the situation, and the three black beads from the west mean we learned three physical things about the situation. Maybe each bead demands a detail revealed, and instead of needing three "successes" to "overcome" the "challenge," we really need to know that third intellectual detail about the situation. Cast in those terms, it becomes a mechanic about discovery, rather than conflict. Especially if we actually need to narrate a detail for each bead—that would really seem to promote that descriptive flow I want to create.

Have I just taken the easy way and convinced myself that it works with a bunch of fancy words, or do you think this really works? What do you think of this idea?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Sensory Experience

Last night, I got to play the first regular mission in our Mouse Guard campaign with the Myth Weavers. Episode #14 has the recording, and I just posted an adventure log for the session on the campaign page on Obsidian Portal. But none of that will likely tell you just how much fun I had with this game. It's really the most fun I've had playing an RPG in a very, very long time.

It got me thinking about why I enjoyed it so much, and by comparison, why something like my D&D campaign so often falls flat for me. It didn't take long to realize that what I'd enjoyed most in this session came when I really got on a tear describing things. The others said they enjoyed the game, but I didn't hear anyone else describe it with the kind of superlatives I felt. I had a "gamer high" that kept me up for another hour, despite how late it had gotten by the time we ended. And editing the recording for the podcast, it also became clear that only I had really gotten onto a good tear like that. More to the point, I'd gotten on two or three of them. Thinking back, I can remember other games I've enjoyed, and in each one, I can remember at least one point—usually what stands in my memory as the high point—when my description of something suddenly becomes vivid, excited ... fluid.

I hit a flow experience in my description. I don't have to search for words, because I play average. I don't need to struggle to think of what to add to my description. I can see it in my head, and the description comes easily, like running water.

I very often struggle with description. In speech, if not in text, I consider myself halting, hesitant, tongue-tied and thoroughly lacking in eloquence. But not when I get on a good tear. It becomes fluid and effortless. Key to it, I think, lies in that I stop trying to come up with a good description, and instead, I really go there, and I describe what I see. So, the challenge lies not in imagining the scene, but in describing the scene I see.

In April, I wrote about something I cheekily called, "The Storyjammer's Journey." In that series, I described real story as something we pursue, rather than something we make up. In Play Unsafe, Graham Walmsley advises to play average.

Do the obvious thing: the thing that obviously happens next in the story; the thing that you think everyone expects to happen. Paradoxically, that obvious thing may, to everyone else, seem original and brilliant. ... Naturally, not every "obvious" thing you say will be brilliant. Often, what you think is an obvious next step in the story will, indeed, be an obvious step in the story. That's fine. When you respond obviously, 90% of the time, you'll carry the story forward naturally. If you'd tried to be clever, 90% of the time, you'd have thrown the story off course. And, when you're obvious, one time in ten, you’ll be brilliant.

Try to be brilliant and you'll fail. Be obvious and, often, you'll be brilliant. (p. 8)

This has everything to do with finding a story rather than making up a story. I suppose I should have already realized this, that I enjoy stories that we can explore, not stories that we make up. But this has helped me realize something: I enjoy this sensory experience of the story we find most of all in RPG's. I play RPG's for that.

So, this gives me a design goal for The Fifth World: to drive towards and support that rapturous description of the story we find.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Fifth World Movies: Pathfinder

I'd thought that discussing movies with hints of The Fifth World's tone, like Nausicaä, would give me enough to post regularly. We see how well that plan worked out!

Well, today, I'd like to talk about a much less well-received movie: 2007's Pathfinder. Rotten Tomatoes gives it just an 11%. I won't really argue the critics there: I won't vouch for the dialogue, or the plot, or the pacing. It seems like a simple gore-fest, and I have no doubt that to the director and most of the audience, it held little more than that.

I even had some gripes beyond that. For instance, one scene has a Norseman calling to his fellows by mimicking a bird call. Peter Charles Hoffer makes some excellent points about this very thing in Sensory Worlds in Early America. To the Europeans, "the woods" seemed dark and scary, home to witches and warlocks. They yearned for the comfort of calls and cries that broke the native pattern, that created a sharp distinction between the "natural" and the "artificial." Meanwhile, why wouldn't natives rely on techniques like "concentric circles"? You simply can't sneak up on a true native in his own home—every bird and animal in the forest has already announced you from miles away.

I'd expect many would feel disappointed at the bizarre aesthetic of these "Norsemen." I can forgive the heavy metal, anachronistically gothic look, though; it plays with perception cleverly, presenting us not what they actually looked like, but instead captures some of how they must have seemed to the Algonquin people they encountered. The shots of the Algonquin village in the beginning provide one of the best visions of what the Fifth World might look like that I've seen on film.

But what makes me give Pathfinder any consideration at all actually has to do with that non-existent plot. Yes, it begins with the classic action film set-up. The protagonist, orphaned protagonist, Ghost, fights against his biological relatives on behalf of the family that took him in, along the way contending with his anachronistic identity issues. But he fails. He fails so completely that the titular Pathfinder must take his place and die violently, instructing Ghost to exchange paths. The Pathfinder dies the violent death that Ghost's violent quest for vengeance sent him towards, and instead becomes pathfinder to the Norsemen. Only then does he manage to succeed; not by his own strength, but by following a Trickster's path, and bringing his enemies to the place where the land defeats them.

In that, Pathfinder traces a very interesting contrast between the Western action hero who succeeds by overpowering his enemies, and the native Trickster hero who succeeds by aligning himself with the land, and then the land defeats his enemies. It shows the grisly, violent end of the Western action hero, and the eventual triumph of the Trickster, nto by his own strength, but by the land's.

Yes, Pathfinder has no shortage of flaws. Despite that, it has something very valuable in it, I think. If you don't mind a violent, gory movie, it might even make watching it worthwhile.