Friday, February 26, 2010

The Progression of Animist Sin

In the playtests I ran leading up to and at Dreamation, I found a consistent problem with setting up the situation. We started to get something really good after an hour or two, but I want to get to that from the start, not a few hours in. So, creating a strong situation from the start has become a big concern for me.

Dogs in the Vineyard does this very well with a set town creation system that the GM uses. The system takes Mormon theology as a given: problems always begin with pride, which manifests as injustice, which leads to sin, which manifests as demonic attacks, which leads to false doctrine, which manifests as corrupt religious practices and heresy, which leads to false priesthood, which manifests as sorcery, which leads to hate and murder. You pick the particulars of a pride, the injustice that follows, and so on, following the chain down until you have a pregnant situation for the Dogs to walk into.

While at Dreamation, my mind started spinning around this idea. In Dogs, the GM does this before the game to set up the town, but what if we did this at the table, as a collaborative exercise? We start with one player, and ask them who's pride in the town sets things off. Next player to the left then tells us the injustice that leads to, and so on, until we have a situation ready to burst.

When I mentioned this to Giuli, she said it's a bad idea, because the Dogs come into town and try to figure all this out. Dogs is about coming into town as a stranger and unraveling its secrets. It's probably best for that game that it stay a GM exercise before the game starts.

But The Fifth World isn't about strangers, and animists have their own progression like this. And fortunately for me, it's a progression that works backwards. When a problem besets an animist group, whether bad storms or sickness or bad hunting, they don't chalk it up to chance. A more-than-human world seems densely populated with active persons pursuing various agendas. Nothing "just happens." Everything happens because someone did it. If sickness falls on the people, it happens because someone sent the sickness to them. Misfortune comes from angry people, and people become angry because of insults, offenses, trespasses, injuries or failed obligations.

This could work as a means of generating starting situation. The first player has to come up with a problem the people face; she says, "They're getting sick." Great! Next player: who sent the sickness? "Deer." Great! Do we stop there? Maybe that's all we need—we play a game that revolves around our investigation and our entreaties to Deer, as we try to figure out who offended Deer and how. Maybe we keep going. Why did deer send the sickness? "Deer agreed to give up 10 for our sake; but one hunter took an 11th deer in secret, and hoarded the meat for himself." Awesome. Next player: what does Deer demand in recompense? "The first 10 were given; the 11th was murder. Deer demands the murderer's life in return." Maybe we stop there—and we play out what we do next. Do we give up the hunter? Do we find some other way?

I might use this; I might just as well not. But it seems like no matter what, it could be an interesting exercise in animist thinking for the animists in the audience to work out what the progression of animist sin looks like. I'd love to hear your suggestions!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My Three Insights

Back in December, Vincent Baker wrote a post on his blog, claiming that every RPG says three things simultaneously:

First, you're saying something about the subject matter or genre of your game: something you think about adventure fiction, or swords & sorcery, or transhumanist sf, or whatever. Second, you're saying something about roleplaying as a practice, taking a position on how real people should collaborate under these circumstances. Third, you're sying something about real live human nature.

What does The Fifth World say?

Subject matter: Ecotopian fiction seems like so neglected a genre that simply defending its viability as a genre seems like a statement worth making. If I consider my genre science fiction more generally—and I suppose that I could—my assertion here would largely agree with what Kim Stanley Robinson wrote in the introduction of Future Primitive, or the kind of science fiction that Ursula LeGuin has written, or what Michael Green said of Afterculture; namely, that we desperately need a hopeful vision of a viable future.

Roleplaying as a practice: I have said a good bit on this blog about storyjamming. Storyjamming emphasizes that jamming element, a continuous, fluid exchange of story. You need just enough rules to weave everyone's contributions into a seamless whole, but not so much that they start to call attention to themselves. The rules in an RPG need to knock you out of your head and interrupt your story, so that you can participate in the moment and help us track down our story, together. They also need to stay simple and elegant, but fit together to create emergent experiences. What people take away from your game will come from whatever emerges from that—whether you planned it or not.

Real live human nature: A healthy life as a human requires a strong sense of place. That doesn't need to mean we never leave; it just means we eventually come home. We have obligations to the places that give us life, and when we neglect those obligations, the land starts to die, and we start to die with it. But we also make the world a better, more beautiful place—if we can balance our ambitions and our obligations.

Building Towards an Endgame

At the beginning of the game, you declare your goal, and tell us about the obstacles in your way. When you work towards your goal, you cast coins. Heads advance your goal, so you take some coins away. Tails mean you encounter a setback, some complication that puts a new obstacle in your way, so you put another coin on the stack. While you can get lucky, this system alone doesn't get you anywhere. You have as much a chance to get heads as tails, so you could sit there forever, the stack of coins fluctuating but never reaching zero.

In the episode of Storyjammers that Mike & I published yesterday, I made the claim that you really want your mechanics to do one of two things:
  1. Bring the story closer to its conclusion.
  2. Introduce a new twist or complication, or, move the story further from its conclusion.
This fits in nicely if you want to drive a story arc by the rules available at any given moment. At the start, you'll have as many setbacks as successes; later on, you introduce rules that can bias play towards success, so only then will you make any real progress. That gives us some satisfying twists, but as we get to the end of the story, we start to get that satisfying rhythm of tying up more threads than we start up.

I have two ideas on rules that might do that, but I'd like some input about them.
  1. Helping. Other characters help you by casting their coins when you cast yours, but instead of counting heads and tails normally, the tails cast by people who help you don't do anything, while each head they cast cancels out one of your tails. Basically, this would mean that helping means more that you watch out for a character's mistakes than really push the agenda forward yourself. Does this really fit? Or should people helping just magnify the effect: all the heads count as successes, and all the tails count as setbacks, so you might get closer to your goal, but you'll have more complications, too? Or (this occurs to me as I write), you count up the sum of all the heads cast, but only the largest number of tails cast by any one person?
  2. Setbacks. Keep track of how many of the coins on a goal came from setbacks—perhaps by keeping them in a separate pile. You can use each one once to cancel out a setback. So, the more setbacks you suffered early on, the fewer you suffer now—like learning from your mistakes.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Information Beats

Recently, Robin D. Laws has written about information beats. Reading it gives me the sense of some profound new way of understanding and designing games just on the tip of my tongue. Jason Corley's recent thread on Story Games in defense of the much-maligned "giant, detailed setting" books, seems deeply tied into this. Both, in effect, ask us to see an RPG in terms of pacing and controlling the flow of information. I think they have something there, and I'd really love to see what happens as game designers start thinking of mechanics that really handle questions, reveals and pipes.

This all led me to an idea for the Fifth World; a subtle change, but one that, I think, could make all the difference. Right now, at the beginning of the game, you declare a goal you want to pursue. You place that goal on the map, and then you tell us about the obstacles you face. For each obstacle, you put a coin on the goal. Then, when you set a scene in pursuit of your goal, you cast some coins. Heads reduce the number of coins on the goal, tails put more on. You win when you have removed all the coins on the goal.

The change I have in mind really just involves changing some names; like, instead of "goal," you have a question. Heads don't give you successes, they give you answers; you take one coin away from the stack. Tails don't give you setbacks, they give you more questions; you put another coin on the stack. It doesn't change the mechanic at all, but it feels like a significant shift in the tone. One I feel pretty good about.

Friday, February 5, 2010


I started a podcast with my brother, called Storyjammers. In the grand tradition of podcasting, our first episode kind of sucks, but I think we've started the upward trend of improvement even with the second episode. You can let me know if you agree on Monday when that episode drops. Even so, I think the first episode will still give you a good idea of the kind of angle we take on gaming. In our discussion of why we play, we go through GNS, Sockets, drama therapy and escapism. Our next episode talks about mechanics and what purpose they serve in the game, and the third one features my rant against games with GM's. So, if that kind of thing interests you, you might want to subscribe. I'll still post notes on how developing the Fifth World goes over here, though naturally, I might post some of that on the podcast, too.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Fifth World Movies: Avatar

I actually feel very ambivalent about Avatar, so I hesitate to call this an "endorsement." But it sparked some good discussions with the people I went to see it with, which certainly counts for something. Moreover, the points that bother me about Avatar have some significant connections to The Fifth World.

Visually, the movie awes. It even has its moments as a story. I especially liked the part where Neytiri calls Jake a baby. The montage of the outsider learning Na'vi traditions hit the high notes for me, including the language, and even tracking. The intelligent root system—ethernet cords in animals' hair notwithstanding—presents an only slightly more magical version of the mycorrhizal networks that really do knit Earth's continents into enormous organisms (even though the movie's presentation seems to suggest that Earth has nothing like this).

I also liked that the genocide has no real stand-out villains. Even the colonel acts as he does because he has gotten hurt before. He wants to protect his people, and his inability to do so makes him increasingly paranoid. He becomes more and more violent not because of any moral failing, but because of the impact of living in the system he does. The businessman in charge of the whole operation cares about the bottom line; the scientists care, but their arrogance and their need to cast everything in their own terms constantly gets in their way. The genocide doesn't happen because of a villain; he happens because of the systemic problems and relationships between these different people, pushing them forward towards an end that none of them, on their own, particularly wants. Just like real life.

That said, I can hardly deny the deeply disturbing, racist undertones in the movie—once again, the condescending conceit that native people need a big, strong white male to come save them, right down to the "Indian Princess" story. Will Heaven summed this up much better in The Telegraph. Annalee Newitz puts it quite well on io9:

These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color—their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the "alien" cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become "race traitors," and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

I went to see the film with these things in mind. I probably wouldn't have gone on my own because of this, but my brother wanted to see it, and I hadn't passed such absolute judgment based simply on the report of others that I would refuse to see it myself.

First, might it sometimes take a European to fend off other Europeans? After all, consider the depths of sociopathic depravity we see from the humans in Avatar (which only dimly mirrors the sociopathic depravity of Europeans who invaded the Americas, Africa and Australia). They do more than simply "displace" people, they rip them from a rootedness in a particular place that affects them in ways not unlike a collective frontal lobotomy. That takes a kind of bloody-mindedness, a ruthlessness and cruelty—or at the very least, a kind of devastating ignorance—that no healthy person can really understand. To know what they'll do, you might need someone as damaged as they to think in such, frankly, psychotic terms.

Second, it seems to me that Jake Sully's rise to Na'vi savior came from precisely what Neytiri said of him at the start: he acts like a baby. He stumbles about, knowing nothing. He heard the story of Toruk Makto, but he lacks a real feel for it. Most of us have heard the story of Moses, but we wouldn't try parting a sea. Someone else, having heard the story only once, might not know better; and if it worked, well then! Seen in this light, Jake Sully becomes the hero—both when entering Na'vi society, and when becoming the "great white savior"—precisely because of his ignorance, and his willingness to admit his ignorance. He does something amazing not because he is amazing, but because he doesn't know better, so he tries.

I don't think these perspectives absolve Avatar of its faults. I don't see much ground for taking these as authorial intent. They provide what seems to me like the most generous reading possible, and even then, I have to wonder to what degree these serve simply as the rationalizations of another white guy?

I think I liked Avatar most not for the film itself, but for the discussions it sparked—discussions of race, identity, cultural appropriation, imperialism, privilege and white guilt. The Fifth World raises these questions, too. I hope to handle them somewhat more honestly, though.