Severance of Heaven-Earth Confederation

Severance is a game created and transmitted as a practice instead of a text. My inspiration is structured theater forms, like Chinese opera.

The game normally requires four players, since there are four distinct roles that are critical for the game to function (like a more complex version of the Heart, Forsaken, and Moons in Polaris). To learn to play Severance, you “apprentice” yourself to someone who already knows how to play, sitting or standing beside them, watching them play, asking questions, and receiving answers and explanations. Apprenticing yourself for a single game is generally enough to learn the basics of one of the four roles, though some of the subtleties and details may escape you. Having watched a few games, a player might feel capable of performing a role that they have not had the opportunity to study as an apprentice, though they will likely only know what that role is supposed to do, not why they do it.

In playing the game, the players take on the roles of ritual figures in a storytelling tradition. Four storytellers are coming together to tell the great epic known as The Severance of Heaven-Earth Confederation, the tale of how Earth and Heaven were separated, when before they dwelt together in a single place, the living with the dead, dreams amongst the waking, the sun and moon floating between the clouds. Each player, then, develops one or more ritual personae in the course of playing the game. For example, I might cultivate the figure, Nashpaputa, the Corsair of the Hidden Reef, who specializes in the Western School (one of the four cardinal roles) but sometimes, when the situation demands, dabbles in playing the North. Perhaps later, after apprenticing myself to learn the Eastern School, I might create a new ritual persona who specializes in that role, instead of adding those skills to the persona of Nashpaputa.

The game is distributed and developed, then, in several forms:

1) the weird mystery cult / live action MU* that is apprenticeship and play,

2) selling or freely distributing the physical objects needed to play, which may include a map, a boardgame-y board, folding fans, chopsticks, bells, blocks, whistles, handkerchiefs, tassels, and other accoutrements,

3) the gradual and inconsistent evolution of the game that naturally happens as different groups and players intentionally or unintentionally begin playing with different rules, all of which may be eventually reincorporated back into the four established “traditions” (roles). The idea is that new play styles can easily evolve or be created. Entire new traditions (roles) could emerge, either as variants of the four cardinal direction traditions, or entirely distinctly. Because the game is a living tradition instead of a text, new “editions” of the game happen constantly, as groups of players meet and learn from each other.

The “original” game, then, is created largely by playtesting. In the beginning, four designers (ideally ones with different-but-compatible design styles) will develop the personae of the four “tradition founders,” each of whom will develop one of the cardinal traditions. Each tradition will require certain accoutrements and be responsible for particular tasks during play. Then, before the game is “released,” the four tradition founder personae will be forced to “die off,” leaving their traditions in the hands of dozens of bickering disciples who will in turn train dozens of apprentices of their own, leading to a fully and complex living tradition of play. The four original designers, while they originally developed the traditions that make up play, should try to avoid presenting themselves as authorities (since the “founders” are “dead”), though they could cultivate the study of the “older traditions.”

It’s in the interests of players to, in turn, market the game across whatever borders they like, because it raises their status as teachers and they can pass on their own styles of play. So if people want to develop instructional videos or teach people by AppleChat from continents away, that’s cool, but that’s not really up to me. I’m totally fine with John Harper deciding he’s going to put out a book called Advanced Northern Style Fan-Manipulation Technique in Norwegian, if he likes. Likewise, if Emily Care Boss goes to Knudepunkt, I imagine she could probably find enough people to run a Severance game, thanks to a mix of people who’ve learned to play from GenCon or the internet or from emails a friend sent them or YouTube videos of actual play.

If it helps, think of this as a model of “roleplaying as a cult,” based on all those misconceptions of what roleplaying is. How do cults spread? That’s how this is going to spread. Since “house rules” are the root of roleplaying, way back before D&D was published, when people were hacking wargames in their basements, this really goes back to when roleplaying as a thousand different idiosyncratic rules systems that only a handful of people need to understand for the experience of play to be meaningful. Shreyas and I were just discussing the assumed universal evangelism of a lot of roleplaying culture, where you want everyone to know how to play your game and, when it comes to most indie games, you want them all to play in more or less the same way. In this model, you don’t necessarily need or want everyone to know how to play your game. You just need the people in your play group to know how to play. We’re not saving people’s souls, here, just teaching them games. If someone you don’t know or someone you don’t really want to play with never learns how to play, that’s cool. That doesn’t mean people can’t decide to become evangelists, of course, and there are some incentives to do just that. If John Harper makes his brand of Northern Fan Style really popular, he can sell a bunch of his books and custom John Harper Fans.

Inspirations for this game concept include the Forge / IPR Booth model of demoing games, Games on Demand, and my experience organizing and running open one-shots at Story Games Boston are definitely major inspirations. Also: cults and other ritual / religious organizations, like I said, and the way Magic The Gathering, Pokemon, and other kids media games are spread (did you ever actually read the rules to Magic, or were you taught by your peers?). I played and talked about Magic with kids I didn’t really like or get along with normally. Plus: the card game Mao. I feel like this is building on a fundamental human practice, the way that culture is transmitted through socialization.

Thanks to Shreyas Sampat, Thomas Roberson, Selene Tan, Ben Lehman, Alexis, and Elizabeth Shoemaker for listening to me prattle on about this idea for the past two years. While I’ve wanted to write a game like this for a while, none of the design work has really been done (not that we haven’t tried; it’s just REALLY HARD to put something like this together).

One Response to “Severance of Heaven-Earth Confederation”


  1. […] Severance of Heaven-Earth Confederation […]


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