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

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Whither Rune Saga? Post-Nerdly Prospects

I didn't run any Rune Saga at Camp Nerdly 3 this weekend (the run-down on what I did run ishere), but the game wasn't far from my mind, as I considered Bruce's comments in a previous thread: should I use the game to experiment with "jeepforged" structured freeform-type techniques, or develop it as a tabletop story-game. I had thought the former, but Bruce's comments gave me pause.

Bruce says:
Freeform/jeepforge is somewhat outside my comfort zone but I'm very interested in your efforts to develop "techniques to facilitate player engagement with their characters without sacrificing the narrative coherence that oracular mechanics provide." 
. . . To my mind, the tarot-based oracular game mechanics make Rune Saga unique so I wouldn't worry that In A Wicked Age occupies the same "space." I think the two games are very different despite the fact that they are both "sword-and-sorcery story games."
Whichever direction I take the game, I'd like to avoid the pitfalls of "parlor narration" -- a term of opprobrium that suggests that the game is a purely mechanical exercise with some fictional elements "tacked on" in an inessential sort of way. In other words, I want there to be a space for role-playing within the game, for engaging with the fiction to be essential to the game's forward movement: You get to the end, you've told a story, and you've felt it.

So in my last few designs, I've toyed with the idea of using emotion or attitude game-mechanically: in order to achieve this task or participate in this encounter, you have to act a particular way. Take a look at The Great City and The Perilous Realm and you'll see what I mean. My notion is that these things may give the player the freedom to act in character, rather than in purely "rational" utility-maximizing ways.

Bruce goes on:
For me a major appeal of your designs is the support they provide to situation generation during play. Generally RPGs rely on the DM and players to decide what situations the PCs are presented with. Mechanics are provided to determine success or failure and to arbitrate conflicts; guidelines may even be provided such as "threaten PC beliefs" etc; however it's largely down to the DM (or other participants) to come up with interesting situations which advance the fiction.
In your designs the participants aren't asked to determine "what happens next?" they're asked to interpret the cards. This is easier somehow and works surprisingly well considering there's no 'architect' guiding the story. There's a degree of 'magic' being employed here I think.
Yes! Magic, indeed. It's the same sort of magic that lets charlatans and mountebanks fool the unwary, but we use it for good. People's minds naturally want to impute meaning to patterns: random noise plus human perception equals deep significance, as someone once told me.

And that's why I think that when we're playing Ganakagok a card will come up as the situation or the consequence and people will laugh, because the appropriateness of the card in the context of what has gone before seems uncanny. It isn't, of course; it's just our minds filling in the blanks for us. This is to some extent a learned skill. These days, when I run the game for new players, I often find myself saying, "Now, there's an obvious interpretation of this card. . ." But it's not obvious at all; it's something I've learned how to do.
Anyway, I'm curious, did you consciously aim to target this in your designs or has the added 'support to situation generation' arisen out of other things?
I had been playing around with oracular systems prior to writing Ganakagok, but they were a solution without a problem for me until then. Then after the first run of the game in January 2005, sans cards, part of the feedback I got was that it was hard to figure out what to do. I had been relying on a kind of resource management thing to drive the action: you have such-and-such amounts of bone, oil, meat, and hide, so maybe you'd best go hunting. But it wasn't easy to tell what the numbers were saying you should do, and hard to keep track of in any case, so it was easiest to jettison those rules and replace them with a Rune Saga-like deck of cards that would serve as a qualitative  and descriptive system for coming up with statements about the world like "The people are starving." Best go hunting, then.

Since then, I've never looked back. Jason Morningstar has accused me of being a "slave" to my "house style," but I prefer to think of myself as inimitable.
Your Fourth Age D&D rules would appear to address this specifically for D&D. In your words turning it into more of a "pick-up game."
Exactly so. I'll be running a D&D mini-campaign this summer if all goes well; I'm regarding it as an experiment in "ganakagok-ified" gaming.
Thirdly, I wonder if you might divulge any elements of the process you went through to establish the card meanings in Rune Saga and Ganakagok? Do I detect some of Vladimir Propp's narrative functions? I'm intrigued and fascinated. The symbolism which you've assigned is not only very effective but resonates quite strongly with me personally.
The Rune Saga cards came first, and were created by re-skinning the I Ching's trigrams with some of the key major arcana from the Tarot (Child is really the Fool, Man is really the Magician, and so forth). The suits are thinly veiled Tarot suits assigned elemental meanings and used to create specific identities for each card. The events associated with each card are pure Propp. The interactions of card values (the "glyphs") are simplified versions of the I Ching hexagrams. 

It was a lot of work! Pleasant, puzzle-solving work, but work nonetheless.

Having done it once, though, it was easy to do it again for the Ganakagok deck. This time I simply re-skinned the meanings of the minor arcana of the Tarot with quasi-Inuit flavor, melding the Knight and the Page into the Child of any given suit when necessary. I think I extracted a Nitu numerology from the card meanings, but that came after the basic meanings were already fixed.

A few things helped me in the process: Robert Graves's The White Goddess, with its notion that poetry is the preservation of (druidic) knowledge of the world expressed in riddle and metaphor, and Algirdas Greimas's Structural Semantics, which is all about unpacking the latent semiotics of any given system of meanings.

So the thing to do, I think, is go back through these old designs and see which ideas are most compelling, interesting, or novel, and pull them in to a revised Rune Saga. In the meantime, I'll play around with Ganakagok Jeepforged to see what can be pulled from that game. Ultimately, I think I'd like the game to feel like The White Goddess: a powerful mythic connection to a time long-past-if-ever.

1 comment:

Bruce said...

Hi Bill

Thanks for the thorough reply to my questions and comments.

Very interesting indeed. There’s a lot to respond to here. I’ll try and cover the main points without waffling on too much. Though it's hard to curb my nature :-)

Firstly, I certainly like the idea of you incorporating your most compelling, interesting, or novel, design ideas in to a revised Rune Saga. That’s liable to be some game! It definitely has potential to have that “powerful mythic connection to a time long-past-if-ever” feel that you aspire to. Ganakagok is one of the few games I’d already place in that category.

I also hope you’ll keep us updated on how your D&D mini campaign experimentation in “ganakagok-ified” gaming goes. I think there’s huge potential for expanding this sort of thing to other systems.

I agree with you that there can be a fine line between games having consequential or inconsequential fictional elements and leaving space to roleplay and engage with the fiction is essential. I would like to add that I feel it is as important for the game mechanics to have “weight” so that executing them propels the narrative forwards.

To my mind, the ideal is for the execution of a game’s processes to result in a rewarding fictional experience; one that you “feel”, as you put it. The narrative should be more than mere “colour” and the mechanics should be more than just a toolset for participants to arbitrate success or failure while constructing freeform narrative.

In my opinion your games succeed in this because the oracular mechanics offer a “helping hand” rather than leaving development of the fiction solely to the participants. It’s my experience that groups of willing individuals don’t always include “storytellers” who can spontaneously narrate and propel the story forwards in suitably interesting ways, so reliance on “freeform improvisation” can be challenging.

For this reason I certainly value game mechanics like yours that assist in the evolution of the story by giving participants something to work with.

Your description of how you incorporated the cards into Ganakagok in response to people “not knowing what to do” is this phenomenon exactly. Often a “spark” is required to get things going.

I’m left wondering why more game designs don’t address this in some fashion?

The concept of using “emotion or attitude game-mechanically” by making it that “in order to achieve a task or participate in an encounter, you have to act a particular way” is intriguing. I confess that superficially I find this statement problematic but upon consideration the root of my concern is whether the “you” in the sentence is the player or the character. If it has to be the player then I feel there is some danger of the mechanic rewarding or penalizing participants with greater or lesser acting ability respectively, which to my mind is undesirable. Both talented and untalented “actors” should have the freedom to play. However if the “you” can be interpreted as the character then this is serving as an indication of the character’s behaviour during the act or encounter and is, to my mind, adding to the fiction. So it’s a good thing.

Certainly I can read your implementation of this in The Perilous Realm as more of a player choice/reflection of how a character is acting e.g. the player can have a bonus to their character’s humours if they stipulate that the character is acting with rage or passion. I like this very much because it makes the players think about how their characters are acting, which helps define the characters’ personalities.

Incorporating emotion or attitude into the game mechanics in this way is a excellent, as without it the manner of the character’s actions may go unspecified and so is weaker.

I wonder if my interpretation is diverging from your intent here though?

There are a few other things here that I may respond to at some point but I’ll leave it here for now as this is already turning into another lengthy reply. Hope my comments are useful.

Many thanks


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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.