Consensus Games

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

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The New World: Breakpoints Wanted

I'm working on a game of fantastical alternate history that I'm calling The New World. It is essentially Guns, Germs, and Steel meets The Years of Rice and Salt: The Role-Playing Game, with a dash of Roger Zelazny's Game of Blood and Dust

The meta-game involves the accumulation of four types of civilizational currency (Warfare [i.e., offensive technology--think guns], Life [i.e., population and biodiversity--think germs], Wealth [i.e., luxuries and ostentation--think "cargo," in the WWII cargo cult sense), and Knowledge [in particular, technical and scientific knowledge--think steel]). Those currencies pay for scenes that produce fictional outcomes, which then feed back into the meta-game. So each session is like a chapter in a book of never-was history.

But to prompt the historical imaginations of the players, I want to begin the game with a little alternate history mini-game that will tie alternate history breakpoints or "points of departure" (PODs) to playing cards. Each player (who in the meta-game will represent one or more "zones" or "civilizational centers"--basically continents) will have a small hand of cards (probably 3 to 5) to play a trick-taking game that changes the initial distribution of civilizational currencies in line with the imaginable consequences of the POD associated with that card.

So, for example, I'm playing the mini-game, representing North America, and I've got the Queen of Hearts, which I know means that a comet misses the Earth in 10,900 BC, so there's no Younger Dryas ice age, so mammoths survive in North America, giving North America +1 Warfare (because they have war mammoths) and +1 Life (because domesticated mammoths are a biological resource and a source of pathogens). I lead with that card, and that event happens. If someone throws a card with a lower value, its historically more recent event doesn't happen (probably because of the butterfly effect), but if someone throws a card with a higher value, its historically earlier event does happen. So, for example, if the player to my left goes with the King of Diamonds (Atlantis really existed but sank in pre-historic times, so Atlantean refugees bring their super-science with them, giving +2 Knowledge to the zone of her choice), then she's winning the trick and will lead next, assuming no one plays an ace. But if she plays the Five of Clubs, then she's thrown away the opportunity to have Mohammed killed while fleeing Mecca. After three to five tricks, you've got (a) the starting date for the game, based on the lowest card that anyone led, (b) a world-historical sketch with hopefully evocative fictional elements: Vikings in America! Native American war mammoths! Chinese treasure fleets in the Atlantic Ocean! and (c) a starting distribution for the meta-game "civilizational currencies." I think it's fun and elegant in a Rube Goldbergian way.

So what I need are more points of departure! Give me your favorite alternate historical breakpoints and their imagined consequences! I think I want to stick to stuff that's prior to 1500, though, so no alternate Civil Wars or World War IIs or any of that Turtledove stuff.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Caillois and Creative Agenda

In the rather fraught Internet-mediated discussion of role-playing, few things are more controversial than the Forge-derived typology of the creative agendas of play--the collective orientation of players to the game, in other words--called GNS for its categories of Gamism (or "Step on Up"), Narrativism ("Story Now"), and Simulationism ("Right to Dream"). In a recent discussion, I wondered if perhaps Roger Caillois's four-fold of typology of play could be used to "reconstruct" the typology of creative agendas in a different way. The resulting discussion prompted me to write this post, in which I try to take my own advice.

Part One: Why Bother With Alternatives to GNS?

Posted By: Eero Tuovinen on Story-GamesI especially agree that while challenging the existence of CA [Creative Agenda, i.e.] seems ludicrous to me, I could well imagine alternative or even more useful descriptions of of the entire field than GNS. . . . because Creative Agenda has many parts that can be tickled better or worse by different approaches -- different techniques. I'd like to say that the best thing I get out of GNS is that once I'm able to clearly verbalize that I want to do premise-ful play or whatever, that allows me to set aside all the other vistas and focus better on the smaller nuances that were never available to me when I spent all my time trying to negotiate the big basics.

Yes, exactly. The notion that descriptions of CA like GNS should be at root pragmatic game design tools strikes me as dead on. The further implication is that, because of the multiplicity of possible agendas for play, any particular description of "why people play" or "what people get out of playing" serves a normative function as well, helping to create the culture of play it purports to describe--at least insofar as people subscribe to it as a guide to design and play. This is as clear a case of the reflexivity of knowledge as one could ever hope to encounter.

In the case of GNS, one thing that it does very well--as Eero rather astutely points out--is call attention to a mode of play that it calls "narrativism." When you think about it, you realize that this mode is actually rather obscure, a kind of play that works by having one stand in a kind of alienation or distance from the character one plays in order to more strongly appreciate the moral weight of the decisions the character makes--this in contrast to the strong identification with character that is the desideratum of immersive play and the elision of character that is the hallmark of competitive play.

One side effect of this way of slicing up the phenomenon, as people use it to explore the design space that results, is that purely gamist designs become interesting as a way of examining the negative space of narrativism--in other words, of challenging the basic assumption of narrativist play and saying, hey, what if there's no character, not really, it's all just a contest between us here at the table, via the medium of a set of rather elaborately detailed pawns. It recapitulates the hoary old narratology versus ludology debate in a new form.

But another side-effect is to make "simulationism" inexplicable, or even pathological. I remember seeing a post on Vincent Baker's blog to the effect that while he understood gamism and he understood narrativism, simulationism struck him as puerile wish fulfillment power fantasy at best. I seem to recall the subordination of simulationism in some other context having driven David Berg to distraction, given his efforts to make sense of and reclaim the term. And I think the reason for that is that once you make yourself aware of the distance between player and character, and use that as a tool in your designs, then you have a tough time with a mode of play in which minimizing or hiding that distance is a sine qua non.

So in devising an alternate set of CAs, the answer to the "why bother" question (i.e., "why bother coming up with an alternative to GNS?") has to be in order to reveal a different space for play, or to open up new possible avenues for design, or minimally to render us more sensitive to the alternatives that may exist.

Part Two: Reconstructing Creative Agendas

What follows should be read with an eye on Eero's remark that the absence of narrativism from Callois's scheme has to be attributed to the paucity of "premise-ful" modes of play in the instances of play he examined, and that were he around today he'd surely incorporate that into his scheme. In other words, our theories should be constructed in light of the empirical evidence available. On the other hand, I always assumed that the reason that Caillois identified four categories--rather than three or five, say--had something to do with the linguistic structuralism associated with the Paris School of Semiotics, in which a huge semantic space is produced by the conceptual entanglement of opposites. So a "positive" term implies (the existence of) a corresponding negative, like yes implies no. But those terms can be "entangled" as both yes and no (i.e., "maybe") and as neither yes nor no (i.e., "I don't know"). Similarly, agon (skill) implies its opposite alea (not-skill: luck or chance). And those opposites can be entangled such that "both agon and alea" can be understood to mean mimicry, as successful mimicry is at once a skillful (albeit not wholly competitive) performance as well as a willingness to subject oneself to the dictates of fortune. By the same token, ilinx is clearly "neither agon nor alea" in that the dislocations or dissociations one experiences in ilingic play obviate both skill and luck.

Now, in this post-structuralist era, we don't believe that our categories are in any way essential or fundamental; they are analytic conveniences only.

So what happens if we imagine agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx as the corners of a semiotic square? First of all, we notice that the underlying distinction in both the agon-alea and mimicry-ilinx pairs has something to do with the activity of the player; in the former, the player is active while in the latter the player is passive, in the sense that he or she is the object of the forces acting in the game, whether that’s the turn of the wheel of fortune or the elasticity of the bungee rope.

Secondly, we notice that the underlying distinction in both the agon-mimicry and the alea-ilinx pairs seems to be that the former in both instances presume the unalloyed agency of the player whereas the latter see the player as part of the field of play. In other words, whereas in both agon and alea you play the game, in both mimicry and ilinx the game plays you. You adopt a new persona, take on a new role, feel scared or excited, or otherwise lose control of yourself.

But these dualities are capable of being entangled, and we can use those entanglements to rebuild the CAs. We’ll follow Eero in suggesting that the combination of agon and alea is the Contest, in which players are interested in victory as the outcome of play. Conversely, the combination of mimicry and ilinx is Drama; players are interested in experiencing thematically resonant moments as the outcome of play. So far we’ve reconstructed the Gamism/Narrativism dichotomy in slightly different terms.

Looking at the orthogonal dimension, starting with the combination of agon and mimicry, I’d suggest that the appropriate metaphor or model is the Pageant, where players are interested in the skillful performance or faithful recreation of alternate roles. Its converse, the combination of alea and ilinx, is the Thrill Ride, in which players are willing to subject themselves to external control in return for the promise of a powerful or pleasant emotional experience. The effect of this, I’d say, is to reconstruct Simulationism as a kind of “agonistic mimicry” that stands in the same relationship to “Immersionism” as Narrativism does to Gamism.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Castle Bravo

The adventure I pitched to Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press after Gencon last year is finally available as a PDF! I'm very pleased with how it turned out, and I hope people run it and tell me how it went, for good or ill.

Here's the premise: It's 1954, and you're a sailor or scientist aboard the USS Bairoko, an "escort carrier" detailed to support secret nuclear bomb tests in the Marshall Islands. The bomb goes off in the Bikini atoll, the ship gets a light dusting of radioactive fallout, and now the crew is acting crazy, distress calls are coming in from monitoring stations around the blast site, and strange blips are showing up on the radar screens. What do you do?

The art is by Jerome Huguenin and is creepy and evocative, as I hope the example at left shows. Jerome also did the layout of the PDF, and it looks great.

I give Pelgrane Press high marks for its playtesting process; I got a huge number of detailed reports from GMs and players telling me what they liked and disliked about the adventure, and I was able to use many of their suggestions to make running it easier for the Keeper, and to improve the storyline. I revised the playtest draft extensively after running it at Dreamation in February 2010. If you played a previous version, you will not recognize the adventure; it's much more coherent as a narrative, more tightly focused as a design, and creepier as an experience while still preserving the central Lovecraftian conceit.

I think of Castle Bravo as Lovecraft meets atomic horror. I forget where I saw this--maybe the Illuminatus trilogy--but somewhere it's been pointed out that some of Lovecraft's monsters can be read as prefiguring horrors of modernity. When Azathoth is described as a "seething nuclear chaos," in other words, what else can we picture but a roiling mushroom cloud rising over ground zero? One of Castle Bravo's playtesters, a fellow named Sam Zeitlin, made a similar point. "Maybe," he said, "the real horror is the atomic bomb."

The adventure in its final form takes advantage of that insight, and I think the adventure is satisfying as a result, albeit dense. I'll run Castle Bravo at Dexcon 2010 so that anyone who is thinking about running it can see how to manage all of its moving parts; I'll record the game and make the audio available on-line as well.

Simon says he's looking for other adventures set outside the typical 1930s Trail of Cthulhu setting, so I'm working on another 1950s adventure, putting a Mythos spin on the 1952 death of occultist rocket scientist Jack Parsons. I think Cthulhu gaming is crying out for this adventure; the story is just too bizarre. A first draft should be ready for Dexcon as well, and I'm scheduled to run it at Gencon.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Civilization and the New World

Simon Rogers, the impresario behind Pelgrane Press, has challenged me to write a colonization game. The basic framework of the challenge is this:

  • It's a role-playing game, not a god game. You play a character.
  • The fate of the colony is intertwined with your actions as a character in that colony.

So I've been doing my homework. I'm not done yet, but it's been instructive. I've taken another look at Jared Diamond's Collapse, and read popular accounts of recent scholarship in pre-Columbian history, as well as some of the ethnohistory upon which those accounts draw. I'm also reading a textbook on cultural ecology. But I've also been looking at criticism of the computer game Civilization, and I’ve begun to think of my colonization game as the anti-Civilization, a post-colonial game. I want to talk a little bit about what that means, because it directly informs the game I want to write.

McKenzie Wark's Gam3r 7h3ory (later published as Gamer Theory) includes a chapter on Civilization III. Wark sees the game as exemplifying an artistry that marks a movement from the novelistic and topical (e.g., James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans) through the cinematic and topographical (e.g., John Ford's Stagecoach) to the strategic and topological. I read Wark as saying that the topical organizes itself by categories of idea and experience (i.e., the historical: these things took place) whereas the topographical emphasizes spatial configurations: this butte, that arroyo, these things took place here (i.e., the geographical). The novel is topical; the movie, topographical—more or less.

But the strategy game, according to Wark, is topological, more or less. Recall that topology is that branch of mathematics in which a coffee cup is equivalent to a doughnut because they are both toroidal (i.e., have a hole in them). Wark goes on:

Any and every space is a network of lines, pulsing with digital data, on which players act and react. In work and play, it is not the novel, not cinema, not television that offers the line within which to grasp the form of everyday life, it is the game.

So the point he's trying to make, or so I gather, is that as a genre the strategy game obviates the specificity of history and geography, extracting from them a general system of causal relations that is available for manipulation and experimentation, like a puzzle or a machine. Idea gives way to place gives way in turn to network. In Civilization, “the frontier” is simply the boundary of the system, which a la Nicholas Luhmann, seeks to extend itself to the edge of the visible environment.

Gamespace turns descriptions into a database, and storyline into navigation—an interface to line upon line of data. Sid Meier, known as a voracious reader, turns history and anthropology books into strategy game. Civilization III even comes with its own ‘Cyclopedia’, a one-eyed reference work for to a parallel world. But this is more than the remediation of old forms into new. Rather, the algorithm consumes the topographic and turns it into the topological. In the database, all description is numerical, equivalent in form. Everything within it can be related to or transformed into everything else. A new kind of symmetry operates. The navigation of the database replaces a narration via description.

The teleology of Civilization is thus one of constant expansion, incorporation, development, and progress; a panoptical cybernetics concerned with information and control. But besides being a metaphor for and instance of what Wark calls “gamespace,” the game also incorporates the ideology of American exceptionalism, an “allegorithm” of manifest destiny. As Christopher Douglas observes in the journal Postmodern Culture:

Civilization III and its predecessors posit the land as both inhabited and not inhabited by populations that seem to be on the land yet somehow, paradoxically, don't occupy it . . . Here one meets the first paradox of the American national symbolic staged by the game. American mythology has it that the Americas were essentially empty of inhabitants prior to colonization by European powers. What the Civilization series stages is the contradiction between this comforting “national fantasy” of the virgin land and the reality of the complex aboriginal societies all over the Americas.

Douglas reads the algorithms of Civilization and finds it “infused with an American ideology that is comforting insofar as it justifies genocidal practices and the stealing of land by positing an empty virgin continent that is paradoxically populated by what the game manual calls ‘minor tribes’ that can't improve the land and tame the wilderness.”

The irony is that this new genre—so postmodern, so sophisticated—exactly replicates the hoariest Victorian notions of civilizing the savages and taking up the white man’s burden. It’s not even funny, especially in the context of recent findings about pre-Columbian and early post-contact history in the Americas.

These new histories underscore the agency of native peoples in shaping the landscape in the centuries prior to the arrival of Europeans and in responding to their incursion from over the seas, as well as expanding our understanding of the diversity and complexity of the social, political, and cultural responses to the upheavals brought about by disease and dispossession. They also remind us that, at least in the earliest post-contact period, many colonies failed, by virtue of the indolence or ignorance of the colonists, the hostility of natives or other colonial powers, the indifference of backers, and similar causes.

So the game I want to write stands the ethos of Civilization on its head. Rather than seeing the New World as a virgin territory, untouched by human hands, and destined to exalted by the civilizing imperative, I want to imagine it as a site of contact between two Old Worlds, one European (and African) and the other American, a crucible without aim or end. I want it to contest rather than reinforce the myths of the American frontier, allowing us to re-imagine the New World in which we live. That would be a powerful and satisfying game.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Any Publicity Is Good Publicity

I was interested to receive this e-mail message today, reproduced below:

Hi Bill,

You may already know this, but there's a review of Ganakagok in last month's Knights of the Dinner Table (the gaming magazine/comic). The review is a good one, although the reviewer doesn't seem to have played the game. But tons of people read that comic, so good for you.

However ... the game is credited to John Harper. As if that dude didn't get enough props.

Anyway, in case you weren't aware of the review or the mis-crediting, there you go.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ganakagok and Cultural Appropriation

Reiterating a point that Jonathan made recently, Chris Chinn posted this severely critical comment about Ganakagok on his blog, Deeper in the Game:
Ganakagok is, “a quasi-Inuit Silmarillion as seen from the inside looking out”. A bunch of folks had recommended it as a great game. It uses a sort of tarot-system to set up the situation, the characters, and play out the game. I picked up a copy yesterday, as I’ve been meaning to check it out for sometime.

Skimming through, my first big twitch was the images of the example cards, using Pacific Northwest NDN artwork… UM. And then stuff like character names: “The name should be primitive and icy, vaguely Inuit in sound and form.” WTF is “icy”? Then there’s “Shaman”, “Good Medicine” and “Bad Medicine” …

For a game that claims to be a look from the inside-out, it’s chock full of exotification.

This brings us back to the larger media issue- we’re forced to either only indulge in things where we’re invisible (“Look, we don’t show up, so no problematic imagery… uh, yay, I guess?”) or things where we show up distorted and stereotypes (“At least I get to have media with people who look vaguely like me… I’ll just imagine there’s scenes and spaces where we get to see them as normal”). Which pretty much sums up my love/hate relationship of L5R.

And beyond that, the bigger social issue of why us telling stories, about ourselves, is absolutely required in the face of cultural genocide.

I suppose that’s also why roleplaying as a hobby, is where it is.

Who gets to tell your story? Right?

So I sent Chris this message:
Thanks for the chance to talk about the issue of cultural appropriation and representation in gaming. As Ganakagok’s designer, I’m chagrined to meet with disapproval, even mortified. But I’m prepared to take my lumps so long as they’re fair.

I’m saddened to have to admit that using Northwest Indian art as imagery on some of the cards was ultimately a bad idea from the standpoint of communicating the game, even if they are some of the most powerful images in the deck. My reasoning in approving those images was that they were broadly evocative of Native American culture, and thus appropriate for a fantasy game whose entire point was to dispense with the usual tropes of quasi-medieval European Tolkienesque fantasy. As it turns out, those images lose their free-floating symbolic power to the extent that the interpreter already has referents for them (already knows them), and thus familiarity (with the images) in this case breeds contempt (for the game): exactly the opposite effect than I’d intended. So that’s clearly a failure, and if I’d listened to Jason Morningstar I would have avoided it.

Umbrage at the language “primitive and icy” is probably justified, but a more generous reading of the rules text at that place I hope confirms my contention that what I’m trying to do there is tell the GM to take the naming of names seriously in the game: no “Nanook of the North,” no “Bob the Eskimo,” nor any of those other tricks of ironic distance in which players will sometimes engage. A better way of saying what I was trying to say there is “Enforce the setting in play. Make it sound right.” The least successful Ganakagok games I’ve played are the ones in which a player wants to be an outsider of one sort or another–usually a Viking, occasionally a colonist.

There are terms with which you take issue where perhaps there are connotations of which I’m unaware. For example, I’m not sure that I get why “shaman” as a potential part of a character’s identity is problematic. I can sort of see that using the term “Medicine” might call to mind bad Saturday afternoon cowboy movies, but as a way of signaling to players that the game revolves around a currency of karma, mojo, cosmic afflatus, or what-have-you, it’s perfect.

As I think about it, I suppose that the use of the terms contributes to the “exotification” you see in the text, which I take as referring to a Said-like Orientalism–a “Borealism,” if you’ll permit me–that is a kind of fetishization of the Other, which results in (as you say later) “us showing up as distorted and stereotypes” as the only alternative to invisibility in games.

But that’s a false dichotomy, isn’t it? When you say of games like mine, “I’ll just imagine there are scenes and spaces where we get to see them as normal,” you’re begging the question. Maybe several questions, actually, but the important one for my purposes is the extent to which Ganakagok play produces a human experience–whether or not it produces “scenes and spaces where we get to see [characters] as normal.” I want to assert that it does, often powerfully so. In a recent game, the drama revolved around a curmudgeonly traditionalist learning to love and care for his child, and an arrogant young man coming to grips with the necessary compromises of maturity. In other games, I’ve seen players grapple with issues of loyalty and betrayal, love and loss, fear and hope. The game is more conducive to a dramatic exploration of human experience than it is the fetishistic exoticization of alien otherness. In fact, my friend Don Corcoran told me that when he tried to run it that way, an over-the-top wire-fu Crouching Polar Bear, Hidden Orca-style game, the images and motifs on the cards (!) brought the game back down to earth.

Having said that, I want to clarify that I’m not arguing that Ganakagok is an authentic representation of Inuit culture. It’s not, and it’s not supposed to be. Rather, it produces stories that feel like the genuine fables of an imaginary people; the term “quasi-Inuit” is there advisedly.

Now, it may be that I can’t have it both ways: I do rely on the associations that people — players! — have in their heads for “Eskimo” to drive a fantasy of life on an island of ice in a star-lit night-time world. To call it a cognitive short-cut is merely to avoid using the word “stereotype.” I get that. But game-play often produces moments that are so satisfying and beautiful that I am moved anew when I recall them.

I also am not trying to argue that the phenomenon you’re talking about isn’t real. I was browsing the RPG Site a few minutes ago, trying to make myself feel better by looking at some real hate (it’s hard to explain), when I came upon this quote in somebody’s signature:

“I had no concept of historical anything. I think I even put in magic in there, like one of the indians summoned a ghost buffalo that was marauding the town, because he was helping some desperadoes steal the gold out of the mine…and we had to gun him down. It was a plot I lifted from Scooby Doo.”
In a word: Oy.

To sum up, I’d say I’m guilty of cultural appropriation but not of cultural misrepresentation. In the rules, I tell prospective GMs that the game “plays like a quasi-Inuit Silmarillion as seen from the inside looking out.” Thatplays like is important; it’s meant to describe the experience of playing the game, not of reading the rules, which I concede is dreadful. But game play is more often than not dramatic, illuminating, and powerful.

Thanks again for this opportunity to talk about the game. I hope we can continue the conversation and see where it gets us.

Chris was generous enough to reply:
Hi Bill,

I'm sure Ganakagok produces great stories and lots of fun for some group of people. It's also hurtful for a large number of people as a part of a larger historical action of cultural appropriation by outsiders for fun and profit... whether it was intended to be hurtful or not.

If you are interested in knowing more about how your game fits in with that, perhaps for improving future editions or avoiding such things in later games, you might consider reading some of the links on the sidebar of my blog under the "NDN" category, or perhaps googling some of the many blogs and websites by various indigenous people on the damage and effects of "well meaning" media.

Chris Chinn

Which led me here. The essay argues that existing copyright law inadequately protects indigenous folklore from cultural appropriation, and offers some alternative legal concepts that would ameliorate the problem while at the same time permitting appropriate artistic uses. After reading it, I told Chris:
My short-term obligations seem clear: (1) make a donation, and encourage others to donate, to an organization like the Nunavut Arts & Crafts Association as a kind of recognition of domain publique payant, and (2) provide an account on the game's Web site of the provenance of the indigenous art used in the deck in acknowledgement of the moral rights of its creators.

So if you have enjoyed playing Ganakagok, please consider making a donation to:

Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association
P.O. Box 1539
Iqaluit NU X0A 0H0


Monday, October 26, 2009

Two Games, One Name

My friend Nathan Paoletta is running a design contest called "Two Games, One Name," where pairs of designers are given the same title for a game and a set of contrasting constraints (e.g., "design a game for solo play" vs. "design a game to be played via text message") and asked to create games.

My assignment was The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which fit nicely into something I'd been thinking about since Gencon. My constraint was "music must be central to resolution," which I interpreted fairly broadly, using a musical analogy for the sort of exchange-level game-mechanical focus I first used in The Perilous Realm. I'm not sure whether to consider this a cheat or a bit of cleverness.

A draft of the game is here. Let me know what you think.

About Me

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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.