Archive for the 'Four Nations' Category

The Four Treasures

2008 Dec 18

Sorry for the flurry of brainstorm posts, but this game is bursting out of my head.

Reciting the chronicle requires a set of implements, the minimum for which includes the so-called “four treasures,” one key implement for each master representing a given nation. The four treasures are:

The argent pittance is a handful of small silver coins insufficient to buy passage to the Silver City on the moon. These are placed before the master that sits to the North, representing the Nation of Doors. Among the common people, specie of any kind is often substituted, including worthless slivers of tin crafted just for the purpose of reciting the chronicle.

A revel chalice is a wine vessel raised in celebration during the summer carnival at the great capital, Njaluwe-in-Dreams. This implement is placed before the master that sits to the South, representing the Nation of Dreams. Among the common people, a cup or bowel is often substituted, though even the most vulgar storytellers ensure that the implement can be distinguished from other drinking vessels on the table.

A gilt trowel is the ritual marker of a monk or nun from Most Beautiful Cage, the monastery of ghosts. This implement is placed before the master that sits to the West, representing the Nation of the Dead. Among the common people, a hand trowel or spoon is often substituted, though the most esteemed storytellers refuse to use any implement that has not buried at least one stubborn ghost.

A witching stave is the primary tool of fate workers, used to follow and untangle the lines of possibility that lead to the future. This implement is placed before the master that sits to the West, representing the Nation of Fate, the keepers of the sun. Among the common people, a cleaned wooden stick, writing brush, or pen is often substituted.

Following Suit

2008 Dec 18

The dead adhere to Spades (Swords), the suit of death, air, freedom, sudden change, military, strength, power, and suffering. The monks and nuns of Most Glorious Cage, the monastery of the ascetic dead entrusted to dwell in proximity to the living, carry gilded shovels which they use to bury ghosts that will not depart for the Dying Lands.

The dreamers adhere to Hearts (Cups), the suit of love, water, emotions, clergy, and religion. Um, maybe Shreyas can add appropriate imagery here.

The fated adhere to Clubs (Wands), the suit of war, peasants, farmers, fire, nature, simplicity, the will. The rod is the most basic tool of fateworkers, who frequently use it to dowse future events the way a water witch dowses for water. Thomas can add some more.

The keymakers adhered to Diamonds (Coins), the suit of wealth, earth, the body, possessions, merchants, traders. The lost nation, that may yet dwell in the glittering city on the moon, linked doorways through the use of small silver coins, ritual payment for physical passage. Though they rarely work for those not raised to understand the keys, such coins remain in rare quantities, the sign of a tradition long gone. Indeed, the keymakers’ remnants, those unable to obtain passage to the Silver City, are often called the “argent host,” for the coins they keep and use in reciting the chronicle.

Apprenticing to the Dead

2008 Dec 18

If a new player wishes to apprentice to the dead, the dead storyteller takes that player aside. “Who are you, apprentice,” the storyteller says, “and where do you come from?” The apprentice is most probably a local from the place where the chronicle is being told, but could also be a traveler from somewhere else. “That will not do,” replies the storyteller, “because you are to play one of the dead and so you must ‘be’ dead. Take me, I am [the storyteller explains their own background as one of the dead, indicating that their identity may, in fact, be fictional].” Together, the apprentice and the storyteller construct an identity for the apprentice. If the apprentice already claims to be one of the dead, the storyteller may tell them that their origin “is not sufficiently convincing [again, implying that it may be a lie]” and help them “improve” it.

At the stage in play where apprentices are introduced, the dead storyteller says something like, “Masters, I would like to draw your attention to this youth to my left. While his appearance is very similar to the page who serves food in the local inn [or whatever the character did before], I would have you know that he is not actually of the living. Indeed, he is in fact [summarizes dead backstory of the apprentice].”

Afterwards, throughout play, it is customary for the other storytellers to remark, during lulls in the game, how the apprentice does not appear at all like one of the dead and, in fact, reminds them very much of [whoever the apprentice was before]. The apprentice, of course, must deny this strongly, insisting on being one of the dead and is defended in this by their master, though only after the apprentice has spoken for themselves.

Interestingly, this facade allows the dead to actually participate in reciting the chronicle, even though the dead and the living normally have nothing to do with each other. However, most storytellers of the dead tradition are not actually dead, but impostors from among the living who claim to be members of the dead, having either apprenticed to one of the dead or another impostor (and, most likely, they may not be quite sure which one their master was).

I also think that apprentices should have some role in actually reciting the chronicle, like cooperative play in a board or video game, to help them more quickly learn how to recite the chronicle and allow some interactivity.

Chronicle of the Four Nations

2008 Oct 9

Making a list of most the extant information about the Four Nations project, because we lost most of Shreyas’ and Thomas’ contributions when Thomas’ server crashed a couple years back. Unfortunately, it gives a fairly biased picture of what was going on, since it’s mostly my stuff that’s left.

Avatar game posts on Thou And One
Four Nations posts on Thou And One
Four Nations livejournal community
Four Nations posts on Secret Wars
The Severance of Heaven-Earth Confederation

Evolving Interaction Methods

2008 Jul 18

Cross-posted from Story Games.

I feel like there could be a really potent mechanic that combines ritual negotiation (like the blade method or Polaris‘ ritual phrases or Mridangam or Waiting/Tea or Kazemaki Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan) and character evolution (like Keys in TSOY), but I haven’t quite put my finger on how that might work yet. Like, how cool would it be if each player could develop their own ritual negotiation method and have it change and grow over time, as a metaphor for developing your character’s fighting style and learning from others through training or fighting with them? Figuring out how different negotiation methods could interact would be the hardest part, but that would be totally boss. If we could do something like that, it would open up a world of different design and play possibilities…

Four Nations: Ghost Stories

2007 Mar 12

One of the great storytellers and literary analysts of the dead talks about their narrative tradition.

Everyone must someday come to the Dark City. This means we cannot tell stories of the great heroes of the past, for they are here in person and might take offense. Eternal emnity is nothing to scoff at.

Indeed, we can only tell stories of those who are not here. Speculation about those currently living is common and there is also some fanciful speculation about future generations. However, that type of imagination is dangerous, as it reminds us all too dearly of life.

Instead we must speak of those among the dead who remain behind in the sunlands, those who have chosen not to journey to the Dark City. In our great epics, then, there are two main types of protagonists: ghosts and ghost hunters. The hunters often include members of the monastic order residing at Most Beautiful Cage, the sole outpost of the dead under the sun.

Of course, it is important to note that those seeking refuge at the Cage, while disciplined and highly regarded, are themselves ghosts. And that resonance with their prey, the close relationship between hunter and hunted, forms the basis of many of our stories.

There is also something transgressive about storytelling. The dreamers speak of nightmares. The pattern-walkers tell of those who sought to defy the pattern. The doorkeepers whisper of the places even they cannot reach. And so it is with the dead.

We speak of ghosts and those heroes among us responsible for tracking down them, seperating them from the echos of their past. As is often the case in heroic tales, it is always difficult — intentionally so, I suspect — to seperate heroes from villains, ghost from ghost hunter.

When the Grey Lady kisses her parents, children, and husband goodbye, swearing to join them in the Dark City once she has captured the ghost responsible for all their deaths… are we to compare her to the ghost she hunts?

As for our champions who issue forth from Most Beautiful Cage, are they not also tempted by the fruits of life? Do they not occasionally err in their pursuit of the errant? Is this not why we sympathize with them? Why we honor them? If even the most disciplined among us occasionally succumb to the taste of sweet cream or the ecstasy of sexual passion, that speaks to the nobility of our own frailties.

So the overarching theme of all our ghost stories, the question we constantly seek to explore is this: how are we to let go? How do we move on from life’s joys and sorrows to an eternity without them? What does that brief candleflicker of bright sensations mean in the face of the long dark?

Four Nations: Building the Dark City

2007 Mar 11

I’m not totally happy with this, but it gets the basic idea across. And it’s not like this is gonna be the final text or anything. But I figure we should maybe try to explain some of this Four Nations stuff.

There was a time, in the early days of the world, when death was a deep slumber. The newly dead fell asleep and their families lay them down in beds freshly dug into the earth.

The dead would dream in that subterranean land, the place below, the under-world. There, they would share pleasant visions or nightmares, all springing from the basket of memories they brought with them from life.

But the dead became unhappy. And so they harnessed their dreams to fight off their nightmares. Together they built a great stairway, leading them up from the world below back into the lands under the sun.

And the living welcomed the dead back into their homes. The dead had no dreams or nightmares anymore, for they left both under the ground. Neither did they sleep. But for a while the dead and the living dwelt in the same place.

It was not to last. There was a great battle. Each of the living that fell became one of the dead.

When the Dream Queen was slain, she rose from the ground as the Queen of the Dead. Surveying the field, she soon realized that, if the war was not halted, there would be no one left alive. She sounded her horn.

And so the dead separated themselves from the living. They drew away, beyond the light of the sun, to a place of shadow. There they build the Dark City to which all must one day travel. And the living stopped burying the dead, because the dead stopped sleeping. But neither could they dwell together.

And that is why the dead must travel, each in turn, to the Dark City. Those who remain behind among the living are ghosts. And trafficking with ghosts only leads to misfortune.

Epic Structure: Wandering Spotlight

2007 Mar 2

As part of a book club for work (don’t ask), I’m reading Pearl Buck’s out-of-print translation of Shuihu Zhuan (Outlaws of the Marsh, The Water Margin), which she arbitrarily decided to call All Men Are Brothers. It’s a 700-page, illustrated tome of awesomeness. But what I’m concerned with here is the structure of the narrative, which is something that I don’t think roleplaying knows how to handle very well.

Unlike the One Thousand Nights and a Night, the Shuihu Zhuan has no frame story on both ends. It does, however, begin with a tale very much like “Pandora’s Box,” in which the arrogant Commander Hong frees an entire horde of evil spirits out into the world. Each of these spirits, as we’ll discover later on, represents one of the main outlaws of the epic. The characters are loosed from their cage in order that the might perform their story for us. This is interesting, but not the part I want to dwell on.

Let’s talk about the first 2 chapters and the prologue. Like all Chinese epics of this period, each chapter has a title in two parts, each part describing one of the main plot points of that chapter. In Buck’s translations these are given as:

1. Chang, the Heavenly King, Chief of the Taoists, beseeches the Gods to drive away the evil flux.
2. The Commander Hung, in heedlessness, frees the spirits.

1. Wang the Chief Instructor goes secretly to Yien An Fu.
2. The Nine Dragoned makes a mighty turmoil at the Village of the Shih Family.

1. Shih Chin escapes by night from Hua Ying.
2. Captain Lu kills the bully of Kuangsi with his fists.

Simple enough, right? Okay, now watch who the central character of the narrative is as the story progresses.

1. Ch’en Tu, a Taoist hermit
2. Emperor Jen Chung
3. Commander Hung
4. Kao Ch’iu, a peasant who becomes a lord
5. Wang Ching, the head instructor
6. The two guards
7. Wang Ching
8. Shih Chin, a local thug
9. The Robber Chiefs
10. Shih Chin
11. The Robber Chiefs
12. Wang Shih, a servant
13. Shih Chin
14. Shin Chin
15. Lu Ta, a captain
16. Old Man Chin
17. Lu Ta
18. The people reacting to the butcher’s death.
19. Chief Wang and others
20. Lu Ta

What you have is a “rolling cast.” The story does not tarry overly long on any particular character, rather, it moves constantly, inventing minor characters and, just as easily, abandoning them as soon as they stop being the focus of the most interesting action. BUT! While it is focused on the two guards, those guards are the most interesting characters in the story, despite the fact that we’ll never see them again in the entire epic.

Also, note how there’s an overall sense of progress, how the characters slowly roll over and let new characters step to the front. The narrative spotlight is not going back and forth between several major characters (which is what roleplaying usually does). It does hover for a time around Wang Ching, Shi Chin, and Lu Ta, but you know eventually it will move on to other characters. Perhaps earlier characters will make appearances later on, possibly even be the spotlight character for a while, but the narrative is always looking for “new hosts.”

Also, look at the wide range of social positions among the characters. We have emperors and sages and we have average thugs. And the narrative flows easily back and forth between them, making no real distinction when it comes to deciding “where the interesting action is.” The plight of the local people is just as important as affairs of state or the emperor’s personal life.

Anyway, this is something I’m hoping we can try to emulate, possibly in a modified form in the Exalted hack. And more extensively in Four Nations.

Telling Stories, Not Roleplaying

2007 Jan 22

When you tell the story of Red Ridinghood to, say, a classroom of young children, you have a fair amount of freedom to improvize the details but are constrained by storytelling traditions. There are a few crucial details:

– The girl protagonist wears a red riding hood
– Red is visiting grandma
– She meets a wolf
– She tells the wolf where grandma lives
– The wolf arrives before Red and eats grandma
– Red arrives
– “Oh what big eyes you have, etc.”
– Some resolution

Aside from that, there are many potentially important things that can be determined. Why does Red wear that hood? How did she come by it? Where does grandma live? Didn’t anyone tell her not to talk to strange wolves? How does the wolf get the info from Red? How does he get there before she does? Why doesn’t Red see through the wolf’s disguise? What about that thing with the woodsman and the part about filling the wolf’s belly full of rocks? Is that appropriate for young kids? Maybe even some of the important points above can be glossed over or ignored. If the story is already well known, sometimes you can make it more interesting by changing major aspects of it to make it new and exciting.

In any case, one of the opportunities and challenges of my recent approach to design is making games that are more like telling stories than roleplaying. When you tell stories, you already know the major incidents and characters that make up your narrative, even if your audience doesn’t. If I’m telling you about some guy that I saw trip over his own shoelaces and fall down a flight of stairs, you probably don’t “know the story,” but I certainly do. Still, that same story would be told differently by different storytellers and at different moments in time. What if I was the one who fell down the stairs? How would that affect the story? What if it was something that happened 5, 10, 25, 100, or 1000 years ago? How does that affect how the story is told?

I’ve been trying to bridge the differences between roleplaying and storytelling. I want to enable people to collaboratively tell stories together as if they were already familiar with what’s going to happen, at least in a general sense. I think surprise at the unknown, what Vincent talks about as the core of roleplaying, is neat. But I don’t think it’s central to the kinds of games I’m interested in designing.

[P.S. I do think surprise is an important aspect of storytelling, but it’s surprise at the details and how things come together, not at the major plot points. An act of storytelling, like a roleplaying session, is an instantiation of a larger tradition. Like Xu Wei says, “it’s new for every moment,” even if it’s a story you’ve heard a hundred times.]

My current struggle is in building a scene flowchart to outline one of the Four Nations stories. It’s pretty difficult but also really exciting. I can’t wait to show it to you.

Four Nations: Dead and Dreaming

2007 Jan 19

Shreyas let me “think at him” about the mini-game project that erupted out of Red Star White Sun and, unlike the other games described here recently, will actually be finished. Soon. I promise.

me: i’m still uncertain about this mini game i’m hoping to draft out this weekend
Shreyas: yeah
me: even whether i should try to make it about the 4N or just have it be about the Chinese civil war or the Lake Associations I just posted about
Shreyas: tell me about it
me: let me get some thoughts together
Shreyas: sure
me: so i have several problems
Shreyas: mhm
me: the first one is that i don’t know how ambitious to be with this mini-game; i think the answer is “not very” but i’m not sure what that means; for example, if you’ve looked at my Lake Association post, the premise includes the fact that one landscape (map) can look very differently to two different factions
Shreyas: yeah
me: which is something that 4N should be ALL OVER;,but I don’t know if I want to approach that yet; since my main task is showing this Key-map structure of narrative; so that’s problem #1
Shreyas: i want to say, like, waiting/tea has a good scale, in that it recaps two episodes and you play out a third
me: right, sure
Shreyas: i think if you can get the minigame to play out as about two episodes; then that would work
me: right; i was thinking about the other challanges of 4N too; one of the big ones is having a big cast with a limited number of players; and have a limited number of cast members in any given “story”; if we are going with the “batch of related tales” thing that Thomas proposed; so i was thinking that this mini-game would tell 3 related tales; telling the entire story of one character and bits and pieces of other characters stories
Shreyas: that would be interesting to see
me: which, if we wanted to, could be expanded to tell all of the other characters’ stories too, but that would be a later development; and i was thinking that the tales could be told in any order; both in the sense that some parts could be flashbacks, like in the Odyssey; or any epic fiction, really; but also that the events within them did not happen in any fixed moment in time
Shreyas: i’m not like a hundred percent behind the no fixed time thing, but i think it has some cool possibilities; it really opens up a lot of opportunities for cool structure things
me: okay, so actual 4N premise… I think it’s called “The Dead and Dreaming” after a line from the Counting Crows; and because those are the two peoples I know the most about
Shreyas: okay
me: the characters include a pair of unrequited lovers and a ghost-hunting dead monk; i think one of the lovers dies in a tragic accident, so they can never be together; but sticks around as a ghost, because he’s in denial
Shreyas: and this lover is like clinging on to love
me: and the monk must try to convince him to leave this world and return to the land of the dead
Shreyas: even though the dead are not allowed
me: right
Shreyas: cool
me: so there are neat possibilities here; 1) will the girl committ suicide to be with her love? 2) will the ghost kill her? 3) maybe someone arranged his death, which might not have been an accident?
Shreyas: and what will the monk do with all this
me: right
Shreyas: right
me: i also think those alive are dreamers
Shreyas: sounds cool
me: so their death removes things from the world; maybe important things; and they can’t see dreams anymore when they’re dead; i also think one of the stories takes place in the past of the dead monk, when he was alive or right after he died, talking about someone he had to leave behind; so that story comments on the other two
Shreyas: that’s a sweet detail
me: so we have like 1) Lovers Alive and Happy Together with Hints of Tragedy All Around, 2) One Lover is Dead and WHAT HAPPENS with the Monk, 3) Monk’s Past; and you can tell those three in any order you like
Shreyas: nod; and they’ll make sense in basically any order and each can comment on the others
me: sure, which is what i think we should strive for
Shreyas: agreed; that effect is the best part of 1001 nights
me: i think i need to fill in the landscape a bit; with the dreams of the lovers; but i think those need to be at least partially player-determined; so we’ll see; it would be easy to be like “the male lover’s dream is a location”…