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.


Jason Godesky said...

Just now, I ran a 1-on-1 game with my wife. She had some resistance to it, but I think it turned out pretty well. She journeyed to the Council of the Stars, where they debated whether to let the Sun be born. They had already done so, when Giuli's character warned them that the Sun would destroy them all. So, the stars made her their champion, and sent her back to gather the People.

Along the way, though, she came to the notion that the Sun and the Stars could live together, but her journey had so transformed her, that the People no longer recognized her. They rejected her, and cast her out of the village.

So, she undertook a journey to the east, to the home of the Sun, to convince the Sun and the Stars to live in peace. Ultimately, she journeyed into the sky, where they warred, and there convinced them to share the sky; the Sun reigning for one half the year, and the Stars reigning through the other half.

So she brought order to the sky, but the world below remained in chaos. The dawn unleashed all manner of strange, vast creatures in the unknown and unknowable depths of the sea. The People had to make an uncertain living off those chaotic waters, and said they suffered such a fate because they rejected the woman who brought peace to the sky. As for Giuli's character, rejected by her People, the Sun and the Stars invited her to live with them in the sky forever.

Giuli often has trouble with roleplaying games; she will often say that she has no ideas or doesn't know what to do. I know she has a lot of uncertainty and doubt about herself, but I don't really believe that she has no ideas. She's just too afraid to follow them. A game like Ganakagok puts that squarely in focus. In a lot of ways, that makes it exactly what she needs. So, the game seemed a little rough because she resisted it, but we ended up with a pretty beautiful story, and after a while, she started to open up more.

I'm looking forward to playing with more people on Saturday. I expect that having more people to play off of, more cards, more turns, etc. will give the game more momentum and direction. But I also really like that it can apparently work with just the two of us, too.

Jason Godesky said...

I re-read the rules tonight, and boy, did I mess up a lot of stuff...

Bill White said...

Hey Jason --

I'm not trying to say that system doesn't matter, but don't worry too much about "messing up"; just think of it as *drift*. The essence of the game is reading Ganakagok cards to drive situation, getting the player to the crux of the turn, and then seeing what happens. Everything else is incidental, an accommodation between that core of the game and the particularities of the group at the table.

Jason Godesky said...

I totally forgot about situational modifiers equal to the card's root, but I also pulled bad medicine from anywhere I felt like it and however much I wanted, rather than just the active player, and equal only to the number of people at the table. I also forgot to deal out medicine cards.

I don't know how tightly balanced you made the mechanics of who can shift what, so if it's a finely-tuned system, I completely mucked it up that time!

Anonymous said...

That was a very engaging report of the 1-1 game. I've often wondered how Ganakagok would play out with just one player character. I love the image of Giuli's character living in the sky with the Stars and Sun.