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.


Mad Dr. Jeffe said...

I think troubles work fine... utopian or not you need conflict or you don't have a story. Troubles give you a way to interact with the story and right what is wrong with the world which is the point of playing in a utopian post apocalyptic society right? Anyhow it jives for me but it is after all your game.

As for the total of your advancement and names (i.e. Prestige) make it "Respect" or "Coup". Prestige is just so ... hoighty toighty

Jason Godesky said...

Thanks, "Doctor." Back in May, I dealt with the proverbial wisdom that story requires conflict, and found myself in agreement with Ursula LeGuin that that doesn't seem to necessarily hold true.

I don't know if I'd call righting wrongs the point of playing in a utopian society; after all, how many wrongs can a utopian society really have before it stops seeming quite so utopian?

Thanks for your point about the term "Prestige." I've just started to work out the idea, so I haven't really settled on the language. I like "Respect" and "Coup." "Respect" has that really great, plain-speaking tone; "Coup," of course, lets you get into "counting Coup," and lets you say something like, "What a Coup!" when you do something memorable. I don't know if that tips the balance too far towards just "playing Indian," though, so that might push me back towards something as plain and simple as "Respect." Then again, I don't even know if the game could use such a score, so I might not need a term for it at all!

Willem said...

Well, the french coined the word "Coup". :)

I think a very real, constant animist problem exists in the difficulty of balancing all the different kinds of debt that exist; family debt, village debt, wild people debt, the divine-that-pushes-life-into-the-world debt, ancestral debt.

What if you owe all those folks debt, but only have enough time to pay a couple? You get distracted by day to day life? You have ambitions that distract you from your fundamental debt payment obligations?

These are the kinds of things that native communities struggle with; can we still put on the debt-paying ceremony, in spite of all the soap opera and dischord that we still haven't resolved?

Village/tribal life creates constant fodder for dischord and chaos. The traditions, when consistently applied, bring things back into accord...but can we stay focused, forgive each other for long enough to put on the ceremony?

I guess I personally don't see the Fifth World as pseudo-utopian - I see it as a beautiful, rolling mess. Humans have the chance again to enact their absolutely irrationally wild natures, and struggle to live and work together while doing so, with the obligation of paying a community debt to a mysterious spirit power (so easy to take for granted) on top of that.

Jason Godesky said...

Yup, the French came up with the word "Coup," but in French, it means "stroke." It only begins to mean something like "respect" when you get to the tradition of "counting coup" among Plains Indians.

"A beautiful, rolling mess," yes, exactly what I meant by "pseudo-utopian." So many people today take war, disease, poverty and oppression as a given, that they consider it an overly-idealistic utopia if you suggest that life might go on without them. But I don't think the Fifth World will seem perfect, either; a traditional community so often feels like a soap opera. You have the troubles and competing obligations that make life interesting, but you don't have the kind of global calamities that domesticated folk have to worry about. I like how Daniel Quinn put it: "Nothing evolution brings forth is perfect, it's just damnably hard to improve upon." I use "pseudo-utopian" to try to say that quickly!

Jason Godesky said...

Maybe I need to watch more soap operas...

Jason Godesky said...

I thought of another example today that got me excited:

Achievement: Learn the song of the hemlock tree. Five obstacles:

1. The old-growth hemlock trees have finally returned to our forest.

2. They live as long as any tree in our forest, and longer than any human.

3. We call them Grandfathers of the Streams, because their pines fall down, and as the rains fall through them, the water turns black. The streams that flow through hemlock groves run black, and that makes the streams healthier.

4. With their long lives, hemlocks sing long songs, so long that only the most patient elders will even recognize their singing at all.

5. Because of their relationship to the streams, they sing with the babbling brook, so you need to learn that song before you can even begin to hear the hemlock song.

This can really work for any kind of story. You could use this to play a game about musical composers or toolmakers, and never have a violent scene. Or, you could make it work for a dungeon crawl! I don't want to make this a game that precludes violence, but given the single-minded focus on combat you find in so many other RPG's, making combat just another option among many can seem downright pacifist by comparison.