Sgëno, all! Sorry I don't post here much; I find I rarely have much to add to the discussion. I do follow it all pretty closely, though, and try to follow those ideas through in the game I'm designing, The Fifth World
. (A post from my design blog—"Introducing the Fifth World in Forge Parlance
"—might help here)
Anyway, we have lots of RPG's with rules that model different parts of a literate, domesticated culture. I want the Fifth World
's mechanics to model on the outlook and assumptions of oral, wild cultures. So, for instance, it doesn't use a randomizer, because animists don't see the universe as really involving randomness; it's always about your relationship with others. A hunter does or doesn't find prey not because of luck, but because the animal decided to either reveal himself or not, based on their past relationship, and whether the hunter has treated the animal with respect. Randomizers do a reasonably good job of modeling the way we think the universe works; but animists don't see the world working that way. Running a game about hunter-gatherers with rules that fundamentally spring from an agricultural idea of how the world works doesn't draw you into an animist lifeworld, it actually seems a little condescending: they might have their quaint beliefs, but we
know how things really
In that vein, I've undertaken a fairly large task: trying to understand hunter-gatherers in their own context. David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous
, Graham Harvey's Animism
and Tim Ingold's Perception of the Environment
have helped me greatly in this, and I'm glad I can put that anthropology major to good use, but I've come to this: it all comes down to perception
. That's your atomic action in the animist lifeworld, just like the attempt against fate or chance is the atomic action in ours, which we model with a die roll. Some examples of how this is expressed:
- Most band-level social life focuses around the rather slow-moving process of building consensus. To express this with a Diplomacy check suggests that you achieve consensus by overcoming someone else's arguments. That's not typically how it works. For this to work, consistently and long-term, you need to achieve consensus by understanding the other's point of view, and aligning your points of view, so that you can match. (That's why it so often takes so long!) So, you're fundamentally talking about a problem of perception--awareness of the other's ideas, opinions and values.
- With a primitive bow and arrow, a hunter must get very close to an animal to take it. At those ranges, there comes a critical moment when a deer notices the hunter. The deer looks directly at the hunter and stands there. This evolved in conjunction with wolves, where it gave both a moment to gather themselves before the final burst. Cree hunters see in this behavior an offering; the deer offers itself to the hunter. In fact, they do not see any violence at all in hunting. To take an animal that has not offered itself, that would be an unforgivable act of violence. The animal would punish you; no other would present itself to you, and the revenge may not end there. Sickness, when it did occur, often stemmed from such offenses. But because of this, hunting requires a great deal of effort in tracking, but the kill itself happens quite easily. With each track, the tracker comes closer to the animal. Most trackers describe the experience as an exercise in empathy. To represent the moment of the kill with a die roll would be blasphemy by the animist understanding: it suggests overcoming resistance, which means that you're taking an animal against its will. The challenge, rather, lies in being aware of what is offered at the critical moment that the offering is made.
- Shapeshifting doesn't involve emic vs. etic accounts, nearly so much as a basic ontology of the universe. In our dualist worldview, owing to Plato ultimately and Descartes more recently, mind and matter belong to entirely separate categories, so when we think of dreaming, we think of a mind "unplugging" from the material world, so what we experience in dreams is internal to the mind. That doesn't make sense in an animist sense, because they don't separate mind from matter. Rather, "mind" acts as a verb, something the body does, not something it has. Dreams, like everything else, are precisely what they appear: a different means of perceiving the same world they perceive at all other times. So if they see themselves become a deer or a bear in a dream, vision, or trance, this is not a metaphor, analogy, or ceremony; this is something that truly happened. Shapeshifting, then, is a matter of shifting one's perception to mimic, as close as possible, that of a different animal. You could consider it the utmost extreme of empathy, but successfully shifting shape doesn't involve overcoming a challenge--it means adjusting your perception to match the animal's perception.
Now, I've already figured out that rather than skills, traits, or other attributes which reflect the cognitive consequence of literacy that makes us think of the universe as a collection of object with definite characteristics, the Fifth World
should use relationships to define a character. This is reflected in many animist languages; the word to "sneak," for instance, is often the same word as "coyote." So to sneak into the village is, in their language, to coyote
into the village. So rather than, say, a "sneaking" skill, you have a relationship with Coyote that could guide physical sneaking, clever planning, guile and trickery, etc. These would be fairly broadly-defined, and you'd have a lot of breadth in choosing relationships, so I see them as somewhat related to Traits in Dogs in the Vineyard
, or Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday
I've been experimenting with the Lakota medicine wheel as a character model, and it seems to have built into it the idea of different realms of perception and awareness. With perception or awareness as the fundamental challenge, we don't need randomizers, since a different kind of game immediately presents itself: resource management. In this case, the resource is attention or awareness. Wide-angle vision, like trackers rely on, means compromising focus, for example. Paying more attention to one thing may mean paying less attention to other things. Adding concentric circles on top of a medicine wheel could model not just what direction your attention is focused in, but also how broad or focused that attention might be at the moment.
What's got me stymied is how to model where the Other is. Matching the other's pattern doesn't seem right. When does your configuration of awareness equal success? At the moment, I'm thinking a relationship you have with the other could serve as a margin of error; if you have 10 points in a relationship with Coyote, then you can succeed in tracking a coyote even if you're +/- 10 from the real goal. But there has to be a better way of generating the successful configuration than simple GM fiat.