Tuesday, August 25, 2009


So, Bill said something pretty smart yesterday (he does that a lot). He said:

...make the mechanics instantiate setting, so that the rules of the game are the rules of the world. Then players will make sure that character behavior reinforces the intended social dynamics of the "setting." Where did we have the conversation about making the mechanics mirror a gift economy? *Do that*; that's awesome.

I can't find that discussion, either, but it sent me back to some of my old notes. In an earlier version, I tried to break everything into relationships, but that became too much book-keeping. But luckily enough, the very defining characteristic of a gift economy lies in not keeping such records. You don't have a quid pro quo arrangement. You just have your generalized debt.

According to Martín Prechtel, the Mayan word for "human" means "person in debt," as in, indebted to the land and your parents and your community and the other-than-human persons who give up their lives so that you can keep on living. In Soul Hunters, Rane Willerslev talks a great deal about the balance of debt that Yukaghir hunters incur when they go hunting, and the attendant fear that if they become too much in debt, someone may come to collect on that—making them or their families sick, or possibly even dying.

I think the gift economy itself could pull in that tension of trust that Ingold wrote about, that I've referred to before. You have to contribute what you can, and just trust that the rest of the world will do its part and give back to you. Nerve-wracking? Absolutely. Which also makes it great for the kind of tension that a fun game comes from.

Debt in this sense has the nice aspect of forcing you to balance. Too much debt, and you risk losing what you hold dear. But without any debt at all, you lose your connection to the rest of the world, your agency. This could bring the game back around to something played with coins (and I do really appreciate the twist of coins representing debt). Players can stack up adversity from a central pool of coins, and it takes that many encounters to resolve that adversity. Those coins go into a different pool, from which players can reward each other for "selling" their issue, like I'd worked out before...

...except that totally does not work with debt. Why do I have more debt from making you look good? Shouldn't you get debt from that? You owe me for making you look good? I "sell" your issue, and you acknowledge it by ... taking some debt for yourself? It all seems terribly backwards.

I thought about making characters spell out what they fear losing. Maybe you have to put "My life" somewhere on the list (and how much you value your life could say a lot about you: two coins? Five?). If you have that much debt, someone can take that many coins away from you by making you lose something at that level. I like keeping the game very simple to play, so I don't know if that adds up to too much book-keeping again.

More importantly, what does debt do for you? Why would you want debt? I guess I've come back around to the question of the resolution mechanic (argh!).

I don't want randomizers because animists don't consider the world a random place. They consider the world full of persons who respond to our pleas and our requests. I wonder if I've hit upon a fundamental contradiction here. On the one hand, if you build that into mechanics, you strip players of any choices they can make. On the other hand, if you leave it entirely up to the players, then your characters have no impact on what happens. I think I've playtested both extremes, and I didn't like either one.

I feel like I've run around in circles here. I think I need to hear other people's ideas to clear my head here. Sometimes the strangest thing, just a little phrase, unplugs something. It's happened often enough with this project! What do you think of this debt concept? Does it prompt any ideas for you?

Monday, August 24, 2009


I listened to some interviews from GenCon on some podcasts today: Judd Karlman on Theory From the Closet and John Wick on Bear Swarm! They left me doubting what I should do. Do mechanics focused on what you perceive really tell the kind of story the Fifth World should tell, or have I once again so over-thought and over-analyzed the situation that I've gotten tangled up in a bunch of fancy novel ideas, and lost track of what the game needs to do? Maybe I should just look to an existing ruleset like FATE, and focus my efforts on bringing the setting to life in an evocative way—like James Gurney's Dinotopia, or Will Huygen and Rien Poortvliet's Gnomes.

Or do you think this looks more like over-thinking and over-analysis? Maybe I just doubt myself chronically. Maybe I just like to sabotage myself (I think I've seen a bit too much evidence for that one lately, actually). I don't know. I just have a big wad of doubts and confusion tonight. Any ideas?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Latest & Greatest

I finally have some time to work, and not a moment too soon. I just sent in my registration to run two playtests of the Fifth World at GASPcon X. I actually hope to help really bring a significant indie presence to that con this year, but more on that later. For now, I need to get a set of working rules, so I can get to playtesting! I watched Ten Canoes, and it occurred to me that a post pulling together everything I hope to achieve here might help me focus my efforts.

After reading Nørwegian Style, I took some inspiration from Matthijs Holter's game, Fuck Youth! which introduced me to the idea of reading the rules as part of play. I like that idea. It plays into the "pedagogy of play" idea that Willem & I have spent so much time experimenting with. It also reminds me of oral tradition, where you have a combination of very rigid, conservative structure, along with extemporaneous restyling, because the structure allows, even demands it. Having a recitation involved as part of play, with play taking place in response to the reading, gives you that combination.

So long as we have something we need to read, why not make it beautiful? Why not use that to set the tone? I want to give a new meaning here to the term "roleplaying poem." I also like the idea that Paul Tevis used in A Penny For My Thoughts, making the game rules themselves an in-setting artifact. I imagine the rules written as this poem written either now or perhaps a generation from now, trying to evoke the new world, copied by an order that mimics Dark Age monks who add illuminations, as well as their scholarly commentary in the margins, making it look almost like a medieval Talmud. That could provide a vehicle for presenting the different regions, too; the poem differs slightly in different regions, and this isolated brotherhood sends out the call for their members to collect these regional variations, along with notes from their field work, and send them back to the order's headquarters. I always had the notion of an anthropologist's field notes stuck in the back of my mind, actually; and it seems like it might fit into the idea of showing a setting, like James Gurney's Dinotopia or Will Huygen and Rien Poortvliet's Gnomes.

But that will come later. To start playtesting, I need that poem. How to write it? For local variations, I'd love to make it bleed local poetic traditions, maybe even reflect some of that "rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told" that David Abram writes about (1997:274), though I have my doubts as to whether I can really rise to that challenge. But hey, I made this open source for a reason—precisely for those parts I knew I couldn't achieve on my own! For the first iteration, I think I'll go classical—as in the classical epics. Open with an appeal to the muse—and just like John Milton turned the muse for Paradise Lost into the Holy Spirit, I'll look to the genius loci for my muse (a touch I really appreciated at the beginning of Terrance Mallick's most recent film, The New World).

If someone of our age wanted to write a great epic, what would they choose expect iambic pentameter, trying to echo the rhythm of Shakespeare? Naturally, I'll need to write it at least in e-prime—and e-primitive, as much as possible.

The poem will start off with the creation story—a quick, poetic overview of how the Fifth World came to pass, and hitting on the major themes. Then, it starts creating characters, around the table (sunwise, or clockwise, though that will vary by region—for instance, the Haudenosaunee dance counter-clockwise), from youngest to oldest. I don't want to talk too much about the rules here, especially since I want to leave that much open to adapt on as I write.

Hmmm, have I set enough restrictions for myself here?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Revisiting a Wicked Age

I've spent a lot of time lately in my other life, working up to the point where these two finally intersect. It looks like I'll soon get a chance to playtest Microscope with the Myth Weavers (or at least some subset of them), and then, I'll have to start shifting into high-gear again with Fifth World development. But for the moment, I still have a more relaxed RPG schedule (which fits nicely with a more hectic everything-else schedule—as a quick example, I've moved and had minor surgery just in the past week). But I just finished playing two chapters of In a Wicked Age, and it's reminded me of everything I love about this game.

In a Wicked Age more-or-less invented the idea of oracles, something Willem riffed on last year (parts 1 & 2), and now, I have an even deeper appreciation for what he said then. The Three Rivers Oracle needs improvement: it lacks the right balance that Willem talked about.

But not just with the potential for oracles to seed a game with elements of a meaningful story, the game itself drives in a particular direction. Rather than dreaming of a character and then saying what that character would or would not do, we first establish "Best Interests"—the things your character wants—and in play, we explore to discover what kind of person would want those things. Robert E. Howard especially brought a strong streak of that kind of existentialism to sword & sorcery. Think of Conan, and how much the original stories define him in terms of his ambitions, lusts, and desires. In play, you wear each other down over time, driving, typically, towards a thunderous climax. My brother noted early on that In a Wicked Age usually results in myths or folktales.

Perhaps just as important—at least to me—when played right, In a Wicked Age thrives on sensory details and lush description. Between this and the oracles, it focuses play on finding the story. We discover the type of character who would want these things, rather than "make up" a character and then extrapolate her desires. We unravel together how the statements from the oracle weave together, and flesh it out with sensory details that move us towards a common dream. In a Wicked Age still involves a lot of story that we make up, but it has a lot of story for us to discover, too.

We played with the default oracles for once—The Unquiet Past in the first chapter, and The God-Kings of War for the second. We might even play again sometime during the week, simply because everyone wants to know what will happen next. Sometimes it seems with all the oracles available, not many people play the default oracles anymore. I think I could use more In a Wicked Age in my life—but then, I could use more storyjamming in general.