Saturday, November 28, 2009

Putting Debt in the Fruitful Void

A lot of Story Games got started with disaffected World of Darkness players. They loved what the "Storyteller" games promised: games about story and character, and all those things. But they didn't really get that. The Storyteller System just provided another game about combat. That disappointment led to some of the first indie games, which began with ideas like "system matters," that stressed designing a game to fulfill a goal.

In that context, the idea that Ron Edwards and Vincent Baker started working towards back in 2005 seemed revolutionary: the Fruitful Void. Ron Edwards said, "Without such 'fruitful voids,' perhaps envisioned as what you get when you show a person seven of the eight corners of a cube, a rules-set is no fun. It's just a full cube; you can look at it, pick it up, mess with it, and nothing happens except it stays a cube." Vincent Baker said, "There's a trick to designing games, which I'm trying to tell. Ron says it's to leave the eighth corner of the cube unmade. I say it's to make a whirlwind."

In short, what you leave out matters just as much as what you put in. Most often, people use Dogs in the Vineyard as the example, I think in part because it does provide an excellent example, and probably in part just because Vincent used it in his post. You'll note that Dogs doesn't have any kind of "Judgment" or "Faith" mechanic. Yet, everything in the game—town creation, stakes, raising and seeing, escalation, fallout—it all points towards that. The game centers on judgment and faith. It doesn't need to address them directly—in fact, it makes the game more strongly focused by not addressing them directly, because everything else in the game already pushes you in that direction.

Yesterday, I worried about what role debt should play in the game, now that it no longer makes sense as a mechanic. Willem Larsen commented, stressing the importance of debt, and saying, "I would rather play archipelago-style and just presence the debt relationship in my story through setting."

I started to wonder how I could point players in that direction without preaching or mechanics—because, without something pointing them in that direction, what would make it come up more often than anything else?

And then I remembered the Fruitful Void.

The Fruitful Void of the Fifth World, the undefined center, should deal with Debt and Obligation.

I talked to Giuli about this earlier, and realized that I had to make the challenges harder, so that you need help. I thought of a new twist: you don't get to reduce obstacles by how many heads you get, but by how many heads you get over the obstacle. So, if you want to try to earn an Achievement with six coins on it, and you get seven heads, you can take one coin off the top. That would make it very hard to get started on an Achievement, but each success makes the next success easier. You might get the final, winning blow by yourself, but you'll know that in the beginning, you needed help.

I thought about a mechanic about people you owe, like if you help someone, they owe you, so you can force them to help you at some point later on. But I hate rules that force you to do something. In fact, I wonder now if this works better by leaving it undefined: if you get a reputation for not helping others in return, maybe they won't help you, which will make it awfully hard to earn the Achievements you want. Just like cooperation in the real world.

I don't know if this whirlwind has really built up enough force, though. Do you have any ideas of how other ideas could push play towards debt and obligation? I'd love to hear them!

Rethinking Debt

Since introducing the concept of Debt, it has gotten a very mixed reception. I think the narrative economy works, but I don't know if it really works to think of it as Debt.

At first, I enjoyed challenging the conventional notions of debt, and moving players more towards a feral conception of debt—as something ambivalent, rather than negative, as something that creates relationships and obligations and thus ties the world together, rather than simply a burden. But I haven't gotten that reaction; more often, I've simply gotten confusion.

With Debt and Trouble, the economy had a nice balance: causing trouble got you into more debt, and you could reduce your debt by solving troubles. It worked nicely. Trying to Achieve something, though, makes that pool look less like debt, and more like strength, ability—I keep coming back to the oft-abused "mana" as the best term, in its original Maori sense, as "impact-ful," or efficacious.

I've often thought about representing strength in games, and I think I've put my best ideas into the Fifth World already, even before I started thinking of the economy in this fashion. On the one hand, you have your pool of strength; on the other, you have your "bandwidth," or how much you can pull from that at once. So, you have weight lifters who can tap all their strength at once; you also have endurance athletes who can tap their strength continuously. You also have other kinds of strength, like willpower. You might have an impressive ability to resist a single temptation (high "bandwidth"), but if you've used up your reserves by resisting many different things all day long, you might succumb to something you'd otherwise resist easily. This allows both for the possibility of getting overwhelmed, and getting worn down.

In the Fifth World, you have your pool of coins, and you can use as many coins as you have words in your Name. I like that, because it gives you a lot of complexity with very simple rules.

But it doesn't really have much to do with debt at this point. I see three alternatives here. First, I could abandon the whole idea of Achievements, and go back to debts and obligations, and try to find better ways of fleshing those out. I fear what that might mean for the feel of the game, though. As I said, I didn't change people's conceptions nearly so much as I sowed confusion. Would a game all about debts and obligations make the Fifth World feel like a terrible place to live?

Second, I could scale up. Instead of dying when you pass an arbitrary threshold (which I never felt entirely good about), you die when your Debt surpasses your "Mana" (I don't feel entirely comfortable with that term because of its specificity to a single tradition and how much games, anthropologists and pop culture has abused it, but I'll use it provisionally for the moment for convenience's sake). You reduce your Debt by fulfilling your obligations, and gain Debt when you get the help you need to earn your Achievements. Those Achievements give you more "Mana," and take time away from your obligations. Those details may need more work, but you get the idea: your character has two pools, and you have to worry about the balance between them.

I worry that this makes the game too complex. In his design notes, included as an appendix in Ganakagok, Bill White talks about earlier versions of the game that had complex mechanics for determining what the people needed, meant to urge players to do things like go hunting, or acquire other provisions. That complexity didn't help the game. The current game relies on a tarot deck that originally came out of that problem, but the game now doesn't really deal with that kind of resource management. Instead, it creates the space for mythopoiec roleplaying. I worry that doubling the complexity of the game like this could have the same impact on the Fifth World, as the early resource management mini-game had on Ganakagok.

Third, I could let go of the whole concept of Debt. Yes, it plays a crucial role in tribal life, but does the Fifth World really want to get into the details of day-to-day tribal life, or does it want to present bioregional epics? Does it want to provide a taste of bioregional animism, does it want to excite you with visions of the future? To quote Michael Green in Afterculture, "It's about opening up a whole new category of solutions, about finding another way of being: evolved, simpler, deeper, even more elegant. Even more cool. Even very cool."

Maybe I can afford to let go of the notion of Debt in the game itself. An obsession with realism all too often leads to clunky, difficult games. The Fifth World doesn't necessarily aim to realistically simulate day-to-day life in the feral future, it aims to excite us today with visions of the kind of future we could have. So, the game should focus on that kind of story. Dropping debt doesn't imply that it doesn't matter to the people of the Fifth World, it just means that it doesn't relate to the bioregional epics that this game tells.

I often worry that I worry too much, that I analyze until I paralyze myself, that I spend so much time thinking about these problems that I never get around to sitting down and solving them. Then I worry that I haven't thought it through enough. In this case, does Debt represent something so important that I can't abandon it? Or has it become more a distraction than a goal, and so, something that I really need to leave behind? I don't know; I've gotten too close to it to really tell. What do you think?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Trouble or Obstacles?

I started thinking tonight about the wider implications of my "Causing Trouble" idea. I think it works well as a mechanic, but what does it say about the Fifth World? It seems to present the world as a place filled with trouble, trouble that our heroes must go out and answer. That can work, but it certainly doesn't jive with the pseudo-utopian feel I want to convey. It seems to lead me straight into the trap I've feared most: designing a game that inadvertently undermines the point of the setting.

It seems to me that the twist that separates a utopian setting from a gritty one might ultimately come down to something as simple as whether your characters reactively face problems that someone else created, or whether your characters proactively pursue ambitions that they themselves have set.

The rest needn't change that much. Achievements count more, based on how many Obstacles you put in your way. For each coin, you narrate one more obstacle you face, and you can reduce those obstacles just like you might have faced Trouble before: invoke your Name, cast your coins, and reduce by one for each one that comes up heads.

This would also make for characters with lists of achievements of varying strengths, which reminds me somewhat of Gifts in Ganakagok. Those Achievements should replace Memories, in that case, and their value tells you how many coins you can re-cast when you invoke it.

I started thinking about the ways you might use this, and the versatility made me feel good about the idea. For example:
  • Achievement: Slay the ogre! Six obstacles:
    1. In one bitter winter, my desperate uncle ate his child, my cousin.
    2. He became an ogre, a cannibal addicted to human flesh.
    3. Human flesh gives him supernatural strength.
    4. When they discovered his crime, the family tried to kill him.
    5. He got away.
    6. He has lived on his own ever since.
  • Achievement: Marry the beautiful maiden. Five obstacles:
    1. Her father hates me.
    2. Her mother doesn't mind me, but she won't stand up to her husband for me.
    3. She loves me, but I can't bear to make her choose between me and her father.
    4. Her father discovered our secret love, and forbade me from seeing her anymore.
    5. Now, her father has started trying to arrange a marriage for her to someone else!
  • Achievement: Restore the irradiated lake. Five obstacles:
    1. In ancient days, our ancestors created light from glowing rods.
    2. You cannot see the magic fire in those rods, but it burns forever, and it boils the skin away with a magical disease.
    3. Our ancestors knew how to start those fires, but not how to put them out.
    4. In desperation, they sank those rods in the lake.
    5. Their magic fire continues to burn, though, and it has turned the lake and everything around it into poison.

I think these three quick examples show some of the strengths of this idea. Firstly, it can cover everything from a good old-fashioned monster-slaying quest, to a romance story, to trying to restore an irradiated lake. Secondly, the obstacles can provide so much more context and depth to these challenges.

I can also see different ways of apportioning the value of such achievements. Perhaps you want to get a new Name from it, or perhaps some special effect. Set aside one point for the Name, and one point for the effect. If you had a five-point Achievement, you could turn it into a three-point Achievement, with a Name and an effect.

You could also have an overall "Prestige" score, totaling all of your Achievements and Names. Age should count somehow, as well. I don't know what I might want to do with this yet—perhaps nothing at all. The idea of competing for Prestige occurred to me—you could even give extra Prestige for helping others gain their Achievements, which would make the optimal strategy one of cooperation—but even then, I think that might undermine the tone of the game.

The idea of "Prestige" did remind me of Flow in FreeMarket. I despise transhumanism passionately, but despite that, I can't help but notice that the more basic premise of a utopian setting pushes me into a space somehow both similar and opposite to that game. In FreeMarket, "Flow" essentially means prestige—what the more technologically-intoxicated call things like "social capital." You use Flow to create things, which in turn gives you more Flow. The similarity makes me think I've hit upon something. Despite our almost totally opposite settings, we both face the basic question of how to tell stories in a more-or-less utopian future, and that might ultimately come down to something as simple as whether your characters reactively face problems that someone else created, or whether your characters proactively pursue ambitions that they themselves have set.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

In Media Res

A thread started on Story Games about starting games in media res, or, "in the middle of things." This has particular interest for me, because I've tried to design the Fifth World to tell bioregional epics. The Wikipedia entry on "epic poetry" provides a list of criteria you'll find, more or less, in any discussion of what an epic means. I have my praepositio and invocation at the beginning. Like John Milton in Paradise Lost who turned the Greek Muse into the Christian Holy Spirit, I use the invocation to ground the epic by identifying the muse as the Spirit of the Place. The use of epithets requires a little more thought, but at present, I think having to invoke your name to start using the mechanics helps bring that element in. I'll admit, I still don't have a good idea on how to bring in more enumeratio. But for the moment, I have the problem of starting in media res more in mind.

From the playtests so far, I feel confident that the basic approach to story structure does work. Fluency play means introducing each rules element, one at a time. As an extension of that, you can control the pacing of the story by introducing rules elements in a deliberate order. I definitely need to tweak that order, but I feel confident now in the basic premise. Specifically, we consistently found that the coin-flipping mechanics came up too late in play. Many of the ritual phrases and so forth refer to that implicitly by costing coins, but without the coins in use early on, you have little idea of what kind of price you pay.

What if the very first scene had you confronting Trouble and flipping coins? You could begin in media res. Later, when we introduce the Memory mechanics, you can use those to establish how we got to this point. This would introduce the coin-flipping mechanics at the very beginning, and add the other ritual phrases later on.

I think this would definitely change the tone of the stories, too. It would make the stories fundamentally about confronting Trouble. I think I like that emphasis, since it also gives more room for players to cooperate. The current framework sometimes allows for the game to end in some clever consensus, which works especially well when characters end up with what they wanted, but not in the way they expected to get it. This approach, though, does seem to give gameplay an essentially player-versus-player quality. I think beginning in media res, with Trouble mechanics, would make gameplay essentially cooperative, about our heroes working together to solve the Trouble facing their people. I think that dynamic could work very well. I'll need to whip up a version of the poem that does that, and see how it plays.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Wrap It Up

In improv theater, knowing when and how to end a scene often poses a problem. Often, a show has an emcee who solves this problem by simply deciding when a scene ends. In traditional RPGs, GM's control all aspects of pacing: they frame every scene and determine when every scene ends. Collaborative storytelling means liberating players from GM's and GM's from their obligations—and that means exploring other ways of figuring out when a scene ends.

This came up in playtesting. We had some scenes that had a hard time finding their focus, and as a result, would ramble on for far too long. We need some way to signal when to wrap it up.

In literature, every scene has a specific purpose, and the scene ends when it has fulfilled that purpose. In a story game, though, we may not know a scene's purpose until we've finished playing it, so how can we know when it has fulfilled that purpose? More importantly, how can we know in that moment, that a scene has finished, with all the other things we have to keep in mind in play?

I've decided to take a page from a Norwegian game called "Until We Sink," which itself seems to follow the model of most plays. In "Until We Sink," a scene ends when two characters have left. This means that one character can't arbitrarily end the scene prematurely, but by the same token, one character can't keep the scene going, either. When the first person leaves, it probably signals to the others that this scene should end soon, sending that "wrap it up" message to everyone playing. As with so many other parts of the game, I'll have a ritual phrase to indicate this, which should help to give it some additional weight.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rules Are Made To Be Broken

I try to keep this blog in E-Prime, so writing that title pains me. Yet, that old slogan fits my topic today too perfectly to pass up. It seems to me that one of the primary functions of a rule in any RPG lies in the opportunity to break it. Who can break it, and when, becomes one of the primary means of defining a character.

I considered adding an idea to the playtests at GASPcon, but decided to try the simpler version without it first. I considered making several cards, allowing each player to choose one for his or her character. Each would announce a particular character trait, and with it, a specific rule that the trait allowed the character to break. So, for instance:
  • Ungrateful. You can have 12 Debt before you die, instead of just 10.
  • Contrary. Using the ritual phrase, "I have never heard of such a thing" costs you no Debt.
  • Wistful. Choose a Memory. You can use it twice in this game.
  • Famous. You have a bonus Name.

I don't know if it would fit into the poem, and part of me worries about including a list like this. On the other hand, it offers so much more room for people to define unique characters that I keep coming back to the idea.

When combined with an idea like Trouble, it presents even more opportunities. For instance, you could incur one more Debt to attach one of these to a Trouble. So, you take on four Debt. You take three coins of Trouble, and put them on a new Trouble called "Wandering Mercenary," with "Famous" attached to it. The person who eliminates that Trouble becomes "Famous," so he can gain another Name because of that victory.

I don't know if this idea will work, but it seems to open up enough opportunities to warrant playing around with it to see where it might go.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Causing Trouble

Consistently, the playtests so far have revealed a dearth of situation. People complain that they don't know where to take their characters. I included a step in character creation where, after you introduce your character, we go around the table, and each person tells you something that you want from their character, that their character won't give you. I thought this might provide some good opening tension—even if it might wind up pointing play into a player-versus-player mode—but that just didn't happen.

So, I find myself going back to an older idea, and finding a better place for it now than it had when I first conceived of it.

Right now, you start with some amount of Debt, based on your age. This reflects what the Land and the People have provided to you over your life. Older characters have lots of Debt; younger characters, much less. You use your Debt to accomplish things, so young characters may need to get more Debt. Thematically, it seems to make perfect sense that you'd get more Debt by causing Trouble. So, you can take as many coins of Debt as you like, if you put an equal number of coins into Trouble. Older characters, with plenty of Debt already, could get rid of their Debt by settling Trouble. Which also happens to present precisely the dynamic I'd like to see: older characters cleaning up the messes that younger characters start.

When adding Trouble, you write down something that Troubles the People in a central area, perhaps a sheet of paper in the middle of the play area. You put at least one coin on it. You can put more coins on it, to make that Trouble more troublesome. In play, characters can confront that Trouble. They invoke their Names, which lets them throw coins from their Debt equal to the words in that Name. For each head, they can return that coin, and one coin from the Trouble, to the bowl. So, you can work off your Debt by solving Troubles.

Yet, you can only get more Debt by causing Trouble somewhere else. When you start the game, you get a starting Debt based on your age. I think you should probably introduce some starting Troubles, too, with coins equal to your starting Debt. Since zero Debt makes you ineffective and cut off from the world, you can't really ever solve all the Trouble in the world: you can only solve some Troubles, some of the time, and try to arrange your Troubles in a way you can live with. I think that in itself says something powerful, especially in a pseudo-utopian game.

This has the added benefit of letting players guide the game in a direction they want. Giuli and I have both noticed, with some irritation, that a disproportionate number of our playtests involve cannibals, for instance. It makes sense: they fit so well into the tropes of post-apocalyptic fiction. They violate the positive vision of the future that the Fifth World drives towards, though, and that really gets at the heart of the design problem the game needs to solve. We don't want to lecture people about why the Fifth World won't involve short lifespans, raging cannibals, or high infant mortality, but how do you get people to move past those stereotypes otherwise? A Trouble mechanic allows us to define the problems we face. With it, I can introduce my missing brother, who went hunting and never returned, but instead became a wild man (see the part about "Bigfoot" in this blog entry from April). Or we can add the curse sent upon us by Deer, because someone killed a deer violently.

Conflicts between characters lead us into player-versus-player games. Conflicts left to emerge collaboratively may trend towards stereotypes. But letting people establish Troubles may mean that we can guide a game in a specific direction, with the kinds of conflicts that we at the table find interesting and meaningful.

It also has the added benefit that we can actually play a cooperative, GM-less game. Everyone at the table can work together to eliminate the Trouble.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I've taken lessons from Ganakagok already, but only on Saturday did I get to play it. Bill came to GASPcon 10 to run it, and I made a point of getting into his game. I walked away with a book and a card deck; I hope to run it this weekend, and at the next regular GASP Games Day.

Something kind of magical happens in a game of Ganakagok, it seems. Bill's designed the cards so well that you could really believe in their divinatory power. So often, you get just the right card, that you might swear that someone rigged the deck. I think this involves more than just a common Barnum effect, where people naturally interpret a vague, general statement as something eerily specific, though that no doubt plays a part. Rather, Bill's designed the deck so well that the kinds of situations that the Nitu face come up in it regularly. More than just sufficiently ambiguous meanings, these cards have just the right punch and context to really make them matter.

Much of the game revolves around the interpretation of those cards. When we roll dice, we roll to see who will get to interpret the cards, and what consequences will follow from that struggle. That gives the game a definite momentum. Each interpretation builds on the last; the game gains a forward motion as we rush towards its climax.

Bill's called this the "Mythopoietic Edition," and I think he has picked just the right word for it. He's designed a game that really does seem to create myths, consistently and reliably. He calls it "a quasi-Inuit Silmarillion" (referring to the poetic elven mythology that J.R.R. Tolkien invented).

Issues of cultural appropriation do arise out of this, and while I, too, cringed at phrases like, "primitive and icy," overall, I admire how Bill has handled the situation—particularly upon reading his most recent blog entry, where he advised people who have enjoyed the game to donate to the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association.

While the cards you draw will create a different world with each game, you can never get very far from the stars disappearing from the night sky, and the inevitability of the morning. Though the world you've known differs from one game to the next, that world always comes to an end. Your character stands out as a protagonist because you recognize this earlier than most others. You have your hope for what the change could mean, and your fear for what it might mean. You have the balance of Good and Bad Medicine in the world, amongst the People, and for yourself. Ultimately, this game really digs into how we cope with inevitable disaster. The real world lets you take your pick:—global warming, peak oil, mass extinction, et cetera ad nauseam. In this game, the coming change—the Morning—has definite positive aspects, as well as negative. You almost certainly won't succeed in having more Good Medicine than Bad for the world, the people, and all of your characters. Even one will give you a challenge. So this change will include some amount of tragedy. Yet it doesn't need to mean unmitigated tragedy. As much as this game deals with fear and resistance to change, it also deals with embracing change, and finding hope in it. For that, I think Ganakagok has some pretty powerful, good medicine for us all. It leads you through a myth all about how the world will change, and how we deal with the need to face that reality—pretty much exactly what we all need right about now.

Monday, November 16, 2009

GASPcon Playtests

GASPcon 10 expanded to three days, adding two RPG slots on Friday. I ran one of the two Fifth World playtests of the convention on Friday night. I wound up with a bit of an "all star" playtest group, including Jenn from the Trapcast, and "Mr. Teapot" Nick Wedig, designer of House of Masks, which won Game Chef last year. Ironically enough, the fourth fellow at the table—the one I didn't know—gave some of the best performances.

We returned to the Point. I must assume the Ferryman met a cruel end, since we now had a tribe living there who thought that the portal to the Underworld there required human sacrifice. They had taken Jossiah the Healer, and wanted to learn his secrets. So their chief assigned a teenager named Hawk Necklace to become his apprentice. My character, Sleepy Watch, had failed to protect Jossiah, so he enlisted Paws, who took the blame for that because of their uncanny physical similarity, to help him rescue Jossiah. Paws lived in exile in the ruins of Oakland. The panthers had returned there, and allowed no one to approach, but Paws had become kin to them.

Paws and Watch received the help of the people just for trying to fight the other tribe off. They even gave them their magical weapons (the last remaining weapons made of metal). Hawk Necklace met them while looking for someone his people could sacrifice in Jossiah's place, and hatched a plan to sneak Paws and Watch in as prisoners. Watch challenged the chief, and managed to kill him. Watch considered the tribe cannibals, so he ate the chief's ear; but, they didn't actually practice cannibalism, so the gruesome scene simply had the effect of frightening them with his apparent madness.

The slaying of their chief put their village into chaos. A new chief arose, concerned primarily with saving his people. He considered a war on the People of Watcher, Paws and Jossiah a task that could give them the purpose they needed. They looked for ancient propane tanks in Oakland, with which to burn the forests there to the ground and send the panthers back into the Underworld.

After slaying the assassins sent after them and learning of this plot, Jossiah enlisted the aid of the whole village in retrieving these tanks from the old tunnels. Watch kept solitary guard against their enemies, now overconfident with pride. When the enemies came, the panthers fell upon them, but Watcher made a sudden movement against one of the attackers, provoking a panther who scarred his face.

In the tunnels, the enemies swarmed the people. Paws stabbed his spear through one of them, and into a propane tank behind him. They all exploded, consuming most of their enemies. Those that remained mistook Paws for Watch, and began to scream, because the boy who had killed their chief could unleash a firestorm with the strike of his spear.

In the end, Paws returned to the village, and Watcher went into self-imposed exile among the panthers. Just as they had both initially desired, they switched places. Their appearance spread a legend about a boy with magical powers and incredible strength, who could even appear in two places at once. Hawk Necklace left his old people and joined a new people, and Jossiah found hope that the next generation might not always seem less wise and less strong than their ancestors.

The second playtest on Sunday afternoon I played with some of the folks responsible for GASPcon. That one I'd have a harder time recapping from a fiction angle. We had a lot of interruptions, and because it involved some of the folks responsible for GASPcon, exhaustion overtook the game and we ended early. But I still got a lot out of this game especially because of Todd. Todd has taken a real interest in the setting, and he's given me a huge number of really great ideas. Possibly more important than anything, with a project like this, you can easily lose your bearings, and you end up with very little sense of the quality of what you've come up with. Todd gave me a much-needed touchstone to gauge where I stand with this.

In previous iterations, at this point in the playtesting, I'd start to re-evaluate the most basic parts of gameplay. Now, not so much. The poem seems to work for getting into play immediately, helping keep the story's progression on track, and setting a different mood for each round by controlling which rules everyone has access to at that moment. I need to work on the progression of those rules, and as I'll write in some upcoming articles here, I've come up with some different rules to try out. But right now, I expect to bring a game to Dreamation that will look a lot like the game I ran this weekend, and right now, that alone feels like a triumph.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Playtest Report #2

I got to playtest the Fifth World for the first time around a table on Saturday. My brother, Giuli and I played. I felt really good about the story that came out. I played a football star who wanted to live forever; Mike played the Ferryman, the heir of the character I played in the previous playtest; and Giuli played a character inspired by Nausicaä, who wanted to restore the toxic forest growing up out of the ruins of the Waterfront in Homestead. Actually, that location requires some elaboration, actually. A steel mill once sat down there. The Battle of Homestead happened near there, where Pinkerton soldiers attacked striking steel workers. Today, a large shopping complex sits on the site. The appropriation of so much of the world's biomass to build places like that, and the sprawling suburbs around them, have concentrated much of the world's biological wealth in those areas. In the Fifth World, once all that material finally gets to rot, some of the most vibrant forests grow up out of the cellars, washing machines and cars of suburbia. In this case, it sets its roots into soil filled with heavy metals from the old steelworks. I suggested a story of domination: domination of the steel workers, domination of the earth by the steel mill itself, domination through consumerism, and in the Fifth World, a place angry at humans because it has seen so much of humanity's worst qualities. Mike went for the complete opposite story: freedom bought with great sacrifice, like the labor movement bought with in the Battle of Homestead, or the life of the forest bought despite the heavy metals in the soil. Giuli went with that, and her character tied into that story because she wanted to heal the land.

Mike made the Point more of a sacred garden, as opposed to the terrifying otherworld from our last game. In the fountain, an abnormally large oak tree grows, with its roots reaching down into the secret fourth river that flows underground. When my character, the football star, wanted to live forever, the Ferryman told him to swallow an acorn from the tree whole.

Through the various rounds, my football star became more belligerent, since he thought he'd become immortal. He got married to Giuli's character, and the Ferryman told him he could cleanse the forest so important to his new bride by eating the poisoned fruit there. Since he would live forever, he had nothing to fear.

He died, right there.

The elders of my character's village accused Giuli's character of assassinating their star player; she submitted herself to their judgment to keep the villages from going to war. They executed her, and buried her next to my character, in the toxic forest she loved so much.

Next came the rounds with the memories, which worked out perfectly. The action had reached its climax, so now we went back, before, to see why it had all happened. The real climax of the story came later, even though, chronologically, it had happened before. My character remembered his grandfather dying, and telling him a story that I took from Paul Radin's Primitive Man as Philosopher, about a Ho-Chunk boy who wanted to live forever. He died, and grew into a tree—because only trees live forever. That acorn I had eaten before, what the Ferryman promised would give me eternal life? It sprouted. Its roots went deep, deeper than all the other plants, and sucked up more of those heavy metals than any of them could. So, I lived forever—and cleansed the forest.

Giuli asked why her character had to die, too. My character had wanted her admiration; despite all the women who fawned over me, I wanted her to notice me. In her epilogue, we found out why: I had sacrificed my human life to cleanse her forest, so she became a tree, too, so that my sacrifice wouldn't mean spending eternity alone.

The poem's structure paced it out perfectly, even when the other players worried that we'd reached the climax too soon. It created a beautiful, moving, poetic, mythic story really anchored in the land. I felt very good about that.

Like the playtest before, players raised some concerns about not having enough material to start with. I wanted to make character creation a part of play, rather than something that happens before play. I still suspect that I just need to press for stronger desires, but I'll definitely have to keep in mind that it may need some way of generating more pregnant starting situation.

In both games, the mechanics didn't kick in very often. That may also need some more work; or, it might work just fine right now. Who says that the mechanics need to kick in all the time? Maybe "leave them there unless you need them" makes for a perfectly viable strategy.

Another interesting thing to note: in both games, we had three players, and it took just over two hours, making for just over 40 minutes per player (I've measured time per player because I think, with the rounds, that how long a game takes will work as a function of number of players). If that continues to hold, then a game with six players would take four hours—one standard convention slot, precisely. Of course, I'll need to test other size games to see how that ratio holds up. I'll also need a much larger data set to say anything with confidence.

I haven't playtested nearly as much as I would like so far, but I think I can take this to GASPcon without too much worry. I've billed it as a playtest, so nobody should expect a finished game. All the same, the problems don't seem to break it entirely, either, and playtesters have even had fun with it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Playtest Report #1

I just finished the first playtest of the new rules, with Dan Maruschak and my wife, Giuli. It had all the roughness you'd expect of a first playtest, but the momentum I'd hoped seemed to work out. The second hour of our two-hour game got into pretty fun stuff; I got to play a hermit, Chiron-like ferryman, alongside a traveling trickster figure and a woman from a tribe beginning to encroach on forbidden, sacred areas. It ended quite satisfactorily, with my ferryman falling prey to one of the trickster's ruses in the Land of the Dead.

So, the momentum of the game seemed to work out well. We had some rough spots getting started, especially establishing motivations and figuring out what people wanted to do. We had some speculation that the game might have a little too much structure right now, and that the game mechanics might undercut the goals in some ways.

I can't say that any of this makes me want to immediately rewrite the game (though Giuli had some really scathing things to say about it after we finished the call). I want to playtest it a few more times to control for some other possible factors, so I can make sure what arose tonight from the game, and what arose from other factors in play. As rough as it seemed in play, I still feel rather optimistic about it all, because I had braced myself for much worse. They call it "playtesting" and not "playing" for a reason, after all!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Web Inspiration

I hope to relaunch on December 21, along with making the first rough draft of the rules available for public playtesting. For the website, I want to set up a wiki/forum/blog site, with those three aspects operating seamlessly with one another. Thing is&mdfash;and I admit to this with some shame, as a professional web designer—I feel completely lost as to the direction to take it. What should it look like? Feel like?

So, I'll ask you. What would you like a Fifth World site to look like? Do you have any examples of sites you like that you think I should take inspiration from? Let me know soon; December 21 only seems far away if you don't have to start blocking out how the work will have to happen to meet it as a deadline!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

RIP, Claude Levi-Strauss

The name "Claude Levi-Strauss" haunted my college years. I majored in anthropology and computer science, and for the former half of my time, it seemed that no matter where I went, the Frenchman's name followed me. You simply cannot talk about anthropology in the later half of the twentieth century without talking about Claude Levi-Strauss. He died on October 31; they buried him earlier today. He would have turned 101 at the end of the month.

I don't always agree with everything he wrote, of course, but Levi-Strauss had an immense impact on our appreciation of native traditions. People like me, who look to those traditions for examples of a human life well-lived, owe a great debt to Levi-Strauss. Like so many, I devoured science fiction in my youth; really, I loved the stories of wise aliens, whether benevolent or horrifying, who nonetheless had mastered that seemingly arcane secret of how to make a living in this world without destroying themselves. Without Levi-Strauss's influence, even before I ever learned his name, I might never have realized that such examples literally surround us, right here on earth.

I finished my rough draft the same day he died, and I cannot deny the influence his life and work had on this project.