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?


Jason Godesky said...

Writing this, I realized, I should really ask this question on the Forge. So I did. Feel free to contribute here or there, as you prefer; I read both!

Willem said...

Martin Prechtel (along with other traditional folks) has articulated another side to this too; that you can't get out of debt, that you can only bear it "beautifully", by offering a bit back of what it has allowed you to do.

Meaning: if you ever got out of debt, the world would end. Staying in debt consciously and sincerely, feeding the world back some of the beauty it has fed in you, makes the world live.

Elfun K. said...

This sounds like "giving to take" or "taking to give". You can take how much you gave. And you can give how much you took. Can't this limit "saving up", so the store of value?

Flow continues and it makes the world alive, as Willem said.

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Alan Post said...

Speaking to your comment on randomness versus animistic relationships with sentient things:

My first thought was that coins, dice, stones, whatever "randomness" mechanism you were using *represented* the will of non-player forces.

If you were playing this game outside, you could let the wind, birds, crickets, &c be your random elements. Players could listen to their environment and respond in-game to changes in the landscape around them. The changes in the landscape itself may not be the same kind of change that is happening in game, and that would be just fine. It is still informing it.

It seems conversely that casting lots with appropriate ritual phrases is just as much asking the will of the trees as it is "rolling dice."

Bill Maxwell said...


Love the redefining of random; imagine like the old dragondice game (ouch... that brings up weird memories), with tree, wind, coyote, whatever represented. Hm... take a six sider. 1 dot = 1, 5 dots = 5 fingered creature, 4 dots = 4 fingers, 3 = bird. Just thinking of patterns = tracks. :)

Willem said...

I also consider "random chance" a person, with a will to do something: create the unexpected!

So leaving chance out of a game doesn't make it more "animist", in my mind. Traditionals love to gamble.

Jason Godesky said...

Yes, but I want a game that will lure someone into that moment where it all "clicks," and for one moment, they experience a more-than-human world. Yes, for people who already think that way, chance appears like a person particularly given to whims. But I think if you start there, it will kill that potential. Sure, you talk about other-than-human persons in the fiction, but the game mechanics reinforce your belief in a dead, clockwork universe ruled by random chance and impersonal forces. It seems to pat animism on the head and subtly say, "Don't actually believe what the characters say; they don't actually know what they talk about. Really, the world runs by impersonal forces like a machine." I don't know if I can get players to appreciate dice people just by rolling them the same way they've rolled them a thousand times before. This could work for life-long animists, but would it lure someone else into seeing the world like an animist does?

Jer said...

It's not really a concrete thought, but reading thru your post, the IaWA "Owe List" mechanic keeps coming to mind.

I'm not sure exactly how that could play into the "taking to give"/"giving to take" flow, but it niggles strongly....

Bill Maxwell said...

Regarding dice, hells, Jason, how do you think I originally trended towards animism? Lots and lots of praying to my dice! :)