In a fit of what may best be described as hubris, I ran Ganakagok at Dexcon for a group of 7 people. The game rocked, but it was completely and totally draining for me as the GM; it takes a lot of energy to run it, and I was lucky that the players were just so damn good. As one of the players says on his livejournal, by the end we had created “an authentic folkloric fantasy tale about eskimos on an island of ice.”
In this game, players are members of an Inuit-like culture who live on a fantastical iceberg in a world where the Stars are revered because it has never known daylight. But now the Dawn is coming, and no one knows what it will bring.
Bret Gillan played Akchuaq, an arrogant young hunter in love with the chieftain's daughter Moaqua (NPC), even though she despises him. She has been promised by the village elders (against their better judgment, we found out later) to Nefanganuk (played by Dave Petroski). Akchuaq is best friends with Muargulik (Andrew Morris), a timid hunter who is the younger son of Millilani (Mel White), a wise woman of the tribe whose eldest son, Kahupulu (NPC) has been lost on the ice. As a result, Millilani became embittered and turned away from the Stars. Akchuaq's grandfather, Patiaq (Alexander Newman) is an ancient oracle who reveres the constellations of the Walrus and the Great Feathered Eel. Muargulik's teacher is a clever hunter named Varlogtoq (Bob Manning), whose brother-in-law Qalaseroq (Kristina Evanouskas) is a resourceful gatherer who had learned everything he knew from a mysterious wanderer/teacher named Chitoruq (NPC).
All of this background information was produced by players each reading (interpreting) a hand of three cards from the Nitu Tarot, or Ganakagok deck. Dave Petroski had spent a lot of time over the past year and created a stunning set of cards that really added to play. They created a map of the social network of the Agluvu clan whose connections as always helped drive play. This time, Bob Manning also looked at the map of the area surrounding Agluvut and decided to spend Lore to place “the Great Cave” out in the ice fields.
My explanation of the game mechanics at this point in the session needed to have been smoother, as several players pointed out after the game. Part of the problem was me: I was not practiced enough in delivering the explanation. But another part was that there's some awkwardness in the rules themselves. They can be cleaner, especially in the structure of Mana and Medicine, and that's something that I want to fix for Dreamation in January.
The game began with Nefanganuk out on the hunting floes by the Sea of Tears and the other hunter-gatherers (Akchuaq, Muargulik, Varlogtoq, and Qalaseroq) at a hunting camp near some open water amid the ice plains of Ganakagok. Millilani and Patiaq naturally remained in the village of Agluvut.
Since Akchuaq was the youngest character, play began with the four hunters at their hunting camp, where they were sitting around their tent-stove talking over the disturbing indications they'd seen in their hunting. Animals were on the move, changing their patterns of behavior; the ice itself seemed to be shifting and losing its stability; what was to be done? Akchuaq decided to set off to the lands of the Ancient Ones, and Muargulik wanted to go with him. But Akchuaq forbade him to go and set off alone. Naturally, Muargulik followed him, secretly, and Akchuaq, perceiving that he was being followed, went back to where Muargulik had stumbled on the ice, tended his injury, and let him join. One of the source's of Akchuaq's reluctance was a vision (helpfully provided by Alexander, playing the ancient oracle) of Muargulik's death if he followed him. And (how cool is this?) the vision totally came true! (I didn't even realize it at the time).
Meanwhile, Qalaseroq went back to the village to try to get the People to prepare for the worst, but he was met with skeptical resistance on the part of some and panic on the part of others. For his part, Varlogtoq went hunting in his kayak and had to call upon the mana of the Ancient Ones to weather a sudden storm. He returned to the village with walrus meat to sustain the People.
In a very cool subplot, Nefanganuk approached the elders of the tribe with a brace of seals to demand the hand of Moaqua in marriage, but the elders were resistant. They (led by Patiaq, whose grandson was also one of the girl's suitors) ultimately relented, deciding to leave the choice up to the girl.
Meanwhile, Millilani approached Varlogtoq to try to cajole him to go back out on the ice and find her son Muargulik, but was coldly rebuffed, causing much bad blood within the village.
Patiaq was not going to let the fate of the People hang on the whims of a silly girl; he summoned Moaqua to his tent and browbeat her into doing what was best for the village, even though she hated Akchuaq and maybe loved Nafanganuk. Alexander did a great job using his Lore to establish tribal mores and customs that demanded that choice from her, and provided what I consider to be the second-best bit of narration in the game: Moaqua leaves the tent, weeping, to go tell Nefanganuk using the ritual words of the People that she rejects him; the tears freeze on her cheeks just as her heart hardens in her breast.
Out on the ice, Akchuaq and Muargulik find an ancient ice-crystal palace of the Ancient Ones and enter; there they find Kahupulu, transformed into a horrible monster, an orca that walks. They fight, and Muargulik's love for his brother reverses the transformation. Kahupulu tells them that an act of self-sacrifice is required to bring about the Dawn, and the two brothers vie to be the one who does so. An icequake separates the two, leaving Muargulik free to journey deeper into the structure and Kahupulu outside with Akchuaq.
Qalaseroq finally gets the People to take her seriously, and they journey to the Great Cave where they find sanctuary against the storm and a path to the land of the Ancient Ones.
At this point, we were out of time, so we moved rapidly into end-game. Ganakagok split into fragments and was destroyed, but the People were saved, following the path and taking up the mantle of the Ancient Ones as demiurges of the new world. Most of the characters had happy endings, but Patiaq drowned, unable to follow the path; Nefanganuk was revealed to be a bear-spirit in the form of a man who, denied a human wife, was forced to return to bear-form. And Muargulik (in what I thought was the best bit of narration) sacrificed himself to bring about the Dawn. He was fated to burn forever in the sky, screaming in an agony he'd chosen for himself.
Bill White's roleplaying game design blog, with emphasis on narrativist or story-heavy games.