Saturday, November 28, 2009

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?

1 comment:

Willem said...

I definitely think you have options to present debt via setting, or other game structures rather than "resource management" mechanics.

The Ganakogok tarot really presents a brilliant way of encouraging setting-oriented storytelling, without tangling you up in strategizing.

I see "debt" as the central pole of bioregional animism, and not in just the day-to-day sense, but in the big picture questy sense.

However, if it means resource-management thinking, I would rather play archipelago-style and just presence the debt relationship in my story through setting.