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?

11 comments:

Giulianna Maria Lamanna said...

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.

I think this sounds fantastic, and if you go with it, you definitely need to have four different colors of beads rather than just white for success and black for failure. I think matching the beads to the color wheel would be essential for making it more than just a conflict engine.

Jason Godesky said...

I also had an idea that you could add a story, judging it as a black or white story, perhaps "good medicine" or "bad medicine." Tell a "good medicine" story and you put a white bead in the bag; tell a "bad medicine" story, and you put a black bead in the bag. But it stays in there, like karma catching up with you; so, you might try to tip the scales against me, but that will just make it harder for you. Your story about how you kicked that cat makes the whole world a little bit darker for everyone, and the story about how you sang a song for the river makes the world a little bit brighter for everyone. It fits nicely with another idea bouncing about my head: moving character and setting creation from pre-game to in-game. So, the game involves a lot of stories shared; "Oh, I remember once, I came here and..." Put a bead in the bag. Humans feed the world with such stories.

This has some problems, though. Why not just put white in all the time, for example? Maybe something really bad happens if you pull nothing but white beads?

Giulianna Maria Lamanna said...

But as Daniel Quinn has pointed out often, "good" and "bad" are subjective. What's good for me might be bad for you, and vice-versa. I don't think you set out to make a game that's that... well... black and white. Having four color wheel beads make it much more nuanced.

Jason Godesky said...

Ah, very true, young grasshopper. I had in mind not so much "good" and "evil" in the Abrahamic sense, as, what a Haudenosaunee person might call uki and utkon. Those come with a strong grounding in the sense that we mean "good for humans" and "bad for humans," along with the realization that something "bad for humans" might still count as "good (even necessary) for something (even everything) else".

Uki is predictable and human-friendly. Otkon, on the other hand, animates the West-called "trickster" element, that is, it operates on its own, nonhuman agenda that does not formulate its actions based on their usefulness to humanity. Otkon only coincidentally confers benefits or harm on human beings. (Johansen & Mann, 2000:231)

Or, maybe we should leave all such simple dichotomies at the grave of right and wrong.

Though, I must admit, I do like how easily we can adapt this to different regions. Maybe the land that taught the Haudenosaunee about uki and otkon will teach feral humans about black and white, while the land that taught the Lakota people about the medicine wheel would teach feral people about four different colors of beads?

Johansen, B.E. & Mann, B.A. (2000). Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). Westport: Greenwood Press.

Giulianna Maria Lamanna said...

If you have to redesign the system for each culture, you're setting yourself up for way more work than you need to. If you make black and white beads for Haudenosaunee-area feral people and color wheel beads for Lakota-area feral people, where does it end?

Or, maybe we should leave all such simple dichotomies at the grave of right and wrong.

Sounds good to me. :P

Jason Godesky said...

Oh, I set bioregionalism as a major goal here. Playing a game in one bioregion should come with a totally different feel than another. I want a consistent core of rules, but things like the colors of beads and what they represent, perhaps even the number of colors, that kind of thing can—and should!—totally change from one region to the next.

Changing the number of colors might pose a problem, though I'll certainly have to leave the door open to changing the colors and what they stand for. For example, the Lakota associate the West with black and the earth, but they have the Rocky Mountains to their west. For a group living on the California coast, that wouldn't make any sense at all.

Though, we could even play with the number of colors from one bioregion to another, assuming we plan for that from the beginning. So right now, I consider it a good idea to keep those things on the table.

I do think your point about the simplicity of the dichotomy bears consideration, though. We might need at least a stable number of colors, and the difference between the Western "good and evil" and the Haudenosaunee "uki and utkon" might require a level of subtlety we just can't expect from the average player.

Giulianna Maria Lamanna said...

We might need at least a stable number of colors, and the difference between the Western "good and evil" and the Haudenosaunee "uki and utkon" might require a level of subtlety we just can't expect from the average player.

Bingo. Especially if the average player has come off of several years of D&D.

I think a stable number of colors is a must, too. You could keep changing the colors, but the basic mechanic has to remain the same. I mean, you want to encourage people to make up their own cultures, right? So it should be as easy as possible to do that: a baseline of rules that only change in superficial ways from land to land.

The color wheel, to the best of my knowledge, is just a North American thing. But the four pigments of black, white, red, and yellow pop up all over in H/G art. So there's not even much reason to change the colors.

Bill White said...

That could work. I especially like the notion that the color bead you draw determines the type of detail you describe. I'd go further: I'd change them from beads to "tokens," each of which had a different sort of symbol on it -- totem animals, maybe? -- to act as a prompt for creativity. So you draw the red raven, e.g., and it means you have to introduce a detail related to some nightmarish emotion (I'm making shit up). So your medicine bag contains a mix of tokens based on how you define your character, and that's what you pull from in order to introduce narrative elements into the on-going stream of narration about what you feel, what you perceive, what you believe, and what you do.

Or do it this way: draw the token and then play it; play it "open" and others can narrate; play it "closed" and you narrate. Some other benefit accrues from this decision?

vulpinoid said...

Naturally, I have to chime in now that I've seen this concept resurrected.

I've toyed with the bead concept a few times. Here's something quite a bit different though...

An alternative to black and white could be to use elemental/directional coloured beads. 4 types of them.

A character might attempt to push the story in a direction and they might have to draw [beads/tokens] from the bag. The twist is that the characters aren't trying to gain tokens equivalent to the task they are doing. They are trying to avoid drawing tokens of the opposite type.

For an example, let's use the cardinal directions. The player is trying to push the story "north", as long as they don't draw a "south" bead, they manage to push the story in some way. If they draw a "north" bead, it goes they way they hope. If they draw an "east" or "west" they push the story in an unexpected direction, maybe not what they intended, and it will certainly bring new twists into the story. But it isn't a failure unless they draw a "south" bead. Different directions might imply specific types of story twists.

Certainly brings the mechanism from a task resolution device and pushes it more to a storytelling device.

It also reduces the impact of this mechanisms slow speed...every bead drawn has some kind of twist or impact. Some characters might have abilities to overcome certain types of story twist, other characters might gain advantages from certain twists.

Like always, just ideas...

timeLESS said...

OOh jason, i like the Uki and Utkon for a game of exploration! It really animates the "Other" in your story. Where Uki is the human scale of interaction with the world and Utkon the non-human scale of interaction with the world. I would personally make the distinction human/non-human (familiar interaction / non-familiar interaction) at the tribal level but you could lay that line anywhere any given moment it seems.

How bout having Uki - Utkon beads as well as other beads in the bag. The other beads add pieces of detail while the Uki - Utkon are merely compared in number to see against what scale of interaction the current storymark should be judged?

my two ramblin' cents.
anyway i'd really like to see a beads system !

take care - timeLESS

Jason Godesky said...

The color wheel, to the best of my knowledge, is just a North American thing. But the four pigments of black, white, red, and yellow pop up all over in H/G art. So there's not even much reason to change the colors.

Just the opposite, I think; you can make a case for the universality of the medicine wheel, but the colors often change from region to region.

I like that the medicine wheel concept has re-emerged in all this. Willem had some very interesting things to say about "wise compasses" a while back, and I've experimented with different ways of incorporating that into the game for a while now.

I started reading Stephan Harding's Animate Earth today, and in the first chapter, he draws Jung's compass of the four functions. So the colors come not just from tribal folklore, but Jungian psychology—that tonal difference between wild and feral, that memory of a civilized interlude. The very first version of the game had Meyers-Briggs types as part of character creation. Maybe that will make a comeback!

I'd change them from beads to "tokens," each of which had a different sort of symbol on it -- totem animals, maybe? -- to act as a prompt for creativity.

Interesting idea, but I fear it would make it hard to get a game together. Getting a bunch of beads of the same color might run you a few dollars at your nearest crafts store, but making a bunch of tokens could take some doing.

So your medicine bag contains...

Yes! This! Just that phrase, "your medicine bag," that puts everything into perspective. Not one bag, but several. Everyone has their own. The bag itself defines the relationship between "inside" and "outside," just like yourself. You feed it from the land with different colors of beads. No one knows what you have inside until you take it out. The beads represent your awareness, your attention, the energy you put into understanding and relationship, and by their colors, the kinds of understanding, awareness, and relationship you have to offer.

Say in my region, North has the color White, and it means Thinking. I pull a white bead from my bag, so I can add a detail that I deduce, reason, or figure out. I put that white bead back in the central bowl. Our stories and ideas feed the land in return.