Bill White's roleplaying game design blog, with emphasis on narrativist or story-heavy games.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Ganakagok at Dexcon: Legacy of the Ancient Ones

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.

Wow. Awesome.


Mel White said...

We played Ganakagok at MACE (Nov 2006). Here's a summary of the game. It was a short game, with each player having one turn per stage so that we could finish in the four hour time frame.

Tarlanegaq—Returns home from the hunt to learn her mother forbids her to go out onto the ice and has arranged her marriage to Adulop. Adulop and his parents will shortly arrive for dinner, for the bridegroom to get a look at his future mate and decide if he wants to proceed with the marriage. If the bridegroom rejects the bride, this can cause great scandal in the village. Tarlanegaq does not want to get married, so she wants to convince Adulop to reject her, without bringing shame to her family. In the Face test that follows, Tarlanegaq succeeds. Tanith narrates Adulop postponing the wedding, a not unusual occurrence, so that both bride and groom can determine their true feelings.
Tornliaq—While paddling in his kayak, Tornliaq encounters a large party of kayakers sailing south. The party explains they are coming from the north, seeking Tornliaq’s village, Anagutokuq. Tornliaq offers to take them to the village, and reveals that he believes the Sun is coming. The northerners are offended, and reveal that they were coming to seek alliance with Anagutokug against heretic sun worshippers. The northerners decide Tornliaq must be killed. Realizing he cannot flee, Tornliaq reveals his Lore of the People of the South, who are rumored to worship the sun, and convinces the northerners that the People of the South are a more dangerous threat and should be defeated first. Anitahu joins Tornliaq to help deter the northerners. The northerners head south.
Anitahu—Distracted by the northerners, Anitahu (and Tornliaq) finds himself trapped in a circular ring of ice. Anitahu realizes that this is not a natural formation of ice and that it is the Sea Serpent sending the ice to claim him. Anitahu uses his Soul to call upon the Sea Serpent to come take him itself. The Serpent comes, and in smashing its way through the ice, distracted by the flashing of the aurora called by Tornliaq, opens a passage through which Anitahu and Tornliaq can flee.
Amikvik— At resttime, while examining the stars, Amikvik sees a villager running to the north. Amikvik chases and catches the villager, Nerguyuk. Nerguyuk explains that he is being drawn north by a vision of a ball of fire burning in front of his eyes. He must go to the Mountain of Ice. Amikvik tries to convince Nerguyuk to return to the village, but fails. Nerguyuk continues north.

Tarlanegaq—Hunting on the ice, sees ice wolf tracks and decides to follow them. The tracks lead to a nude man, sitting on the snow. The man reveals himself to be Kotoye, a god, and he needs a mortal body. Tarlanegaq agree to give up her body, but indicates she is not a worthy vessel and could find Kotoye a better form. Kotoye agrees, and shares Tarlanegaq’s body as she finds him a new vessel—Adulop, her former suitor! Kotoye leaves Tarlanegaq and takes over Adulop. [This scene ended here without conflict. I should have said that here is the conflict—can Tarlanegaq convince, subdue, or otherwise defeat Adulop so that Kotoye can take over Adulop’s form. Ah, well. It was cool nonetheless.]
Tornliaq—[I’m a little confused as to what happened here. I messed up during the turn. It started as Tornliaq’s turn but led to a conflict for Amikvik. Tornliaq returned to the village and instigated the actions in Amikvik’s scene (below). Tornliaq did not face a conflict of his own.]
Anitahu—Word comes to the village that more fishermen are trapped on an iceberg at sea. If they are not rescued they will die. Anitahu leads the charge to rescue the villagers. Tarlanegaq (who is now the village chief, in accordance with Amikvik’s actions) and Tornliaq are also present. Arriving at the scene, Anitahu realizes that the men are once more trapped by the hideous Sea Serpent. The people struggle valiantly to free their comrades from the beast, but are defeated. The fishermen are lost. Anitahu and the others return to shore. Anitahu feels the loss most keenly.
Amikvik—The village is restless. The people see the changes occurring, they see other villages moving, they hear of strange incidents at sea, and they are concerned. A group of villagers confronts Amikvik to see what he wants them to do and why isn’t Anagutokug (the village) doing something. Amikvik reassures them, saying he knows what he is doing. Amikvik believes that the coming change is good, thus no action is necessary. But the people are worried, and Kotoye (in Adulop’s form) starts calling for a new chief. Tornliaq joins in! Amikvik’s leadership is at stake as he must convince the people that he knows what is best. Amikvik wins the Face challenge in the ensuing debate, but then appoints his daughter Tarlanegaq as the new village leader

Tarlanegaq—Kotoye, in Adulop’s form, tells Tarlanegaq that he wants her to be his wife to savor the experiences of mortals. Tarlanegaq agrees. Kotoye then tells Tarlanegaq that the Sun is coming, and if the Sun should rise, then Kotoye will disappear from the world. In order to prevent the sun rising, he needs mortal form to travel to the Mountain of Ice, and he needs many mortals to go with him. Therefore, he needs Tarlanegaq to convince the People to travel to the Mountain of Ice. Tarlanegaq doubts the sincerity of Kotoye, and makes a Soul challenge to determine if the god has good intentions or bad intentions for the village. She succeeds, and realizes that Kotoye has the peoples’ best interests in mind. [The scene ended there, but I should have continued it to see if Tarlanegaq would move the people to the Mountain of Ice—however, Morning to follow!]
Tornliaq—Tornliaq, having sabotaged all the village kayaks but his own, kidnaps the object of his love, a young woman of the village, and takes her to the mountain of ice. There he discovers a grand chamber. In its center is a huge circular altar from which come many channels cut into the rock. Torliaq struggles to determine what the purpose of this chamber is. He wins a Mind challenge to realize it is a refuge—perhaps a place of safety for the coming change.
Anitahu—On the village shore, Anitahu is examining his damaged kayak when from out of the water shamble the bloated, fish-eaten, undead bodies of his former fishermen friends and followers. They have come to claim him for the Sea Serpent! Without his boat to escape, Anitahu’s fate is sealed—the ghouls take him! Anitahu faces a Soul challenge to determine if he faces eternity as a ghoul remembering his past mortal life, or if he dies at peace, atoning for losing his followers by himself being eaten by the Sea Serpent. Anitahu wins the Soul challenge and so we see the ghouls carry Anitahu to the waiting Sea Serpent except as Anitahu breathes in that first breath of cold salt water he stands and walks into the maw of the Serpent! [Cool!]
Amikvik—Amikvik’s wife, comes to him to talk. She notes the changing of the environment, the stars disappearing, and rumors of other villages picking up in their entirety and heading north. She doubts the wisdom of having made Tarlanegaq chief. Amikvik is in conflict with his wife—he wants to reassure her of her doubts and convince her that he knows best and has acted properly. Amikvik wins this Face challenge, and the wife is mollified.

Morning (at this point, the fates of Ganakagok, the People, and the characters are revealed.
Ganakagok—18 Bad Medicine vs 16 Good Medicine (narrated by Tanith). The rising sun wreaks havoc on the land melting the ice and causing much destruction and death. Pockets of humanity remain, struggling to survive.
The People—10 Bad Medicine vs 8 Good Medicine—(narrated by Andy). Having found refuge in the Mountain of Ice, the people survive physically. But eventually they emerge into the light and, being the only coherent force in the world begin a campaign to rule all others in a cruel and merciless autocracy. The people have lost their humanity.
Tarlanegaq—A positive result (more good medicine than bad medicine): Tarlanegaq is the dictator that leads the People to domination. Her change hope has come true—the People have become strong.
Tornliaq—(Narrated by Jason) A negative result (more bad medicine than good medicine): Tornliaq dies on the ice as the sun rises, trying in vain to reach the Mountain of Ice in order to see once more the love he forsook.
Anitahu—(Narrated by Jeremy) A negative result. Anitahu’s soul exists in lonely solitude, never gaining the forgiveness of the sailors he led to their deaths.
Amikvik—(Narrated by Andy) A negative result. Amikvik survives the refuge but lives out his days horrified by what the People have become.

All in all, a grand time!

georgeolivergo said...

hi, I've been trying to find Ganakagok on Lulu, and it seems to be gone -- just the tarot labels listed. Is the game still available? I'd love to order it.

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A communication Ph.D., I teach public speaking and media-related courses in the middle of PA. I do research on scholarly/scientific communication, and I write & play roleplaying games.