Hopi Hopes and Navajo Nightmares: How We Came to Live Here

August 6, 2010

In honor of the currently-in-progress GenCon Indy 2010, where this game is in the running for an ENnie Award for Best Writing, I give you a review of Brennan Taylor’s How We Came to Live Here: Stories of the Fifth World.

As the somewhat alliterative title of the blog post suggests, this tabletop role-playing game has you playing tribes from the American Southwest in the era before white colonial forces came mucking about with pox-infested blankets, massacres and exploitative casino contracts.  It is a game set in a time of legend, when the myth-tellers walk with myths, and where mythemes can achieve expression with a minimal level of modern cultural baggage.  Yet it is also a game that tells the story of a village, and by no means a simple one.  By the time you are done creating your characters and the relationships between them, these Native Americans might as well join the cast of Dallas, with all their interrelated bits of familial business.

One Game, Two Gamemasters

How We Came to Live Here’s certifiable “schtick” is the fact that it’s a small group game (for 3-5 players maximum) with two “gamemasters” whose main role is to provide conflict and adversity to the remaining 1-3 Hero Players.  The Outside Player pulls the strings of the external threats to the village, whilst the Inside Player controls the festering internal conflicts that may rot it from the center. Now most seasoned role-players would be skeptical about the entertainment value in having two different scheming folks plotting adversity against their poor, defenseless heroes.  Believe me: it’s entertaining.  The village itself comes alive through two souls tasked with playing a lot of NPCs, the scenes more readily push toward conflict – which is itself stripped down to its essence on account of the setting (i.e., the People’s crops are on fire, one of the People committed incest and is becoming Corrupted whilst covering it up, etc.) – and the Heroes seem, well, frankly more heroic by the virtue of there being fewer of them and driven to address conflict with alarming frequency.

To Build a Village

The creation of the characters and village is, however, the most charming aspect of this game by far.  In our playtest, we came up with the village Water Horse Crossing, which was set in a previously inhabited, crumbling cliff overlooking a raging river and tucked below a broad plateau where the horses grazed.  Our two protagonists, She-Who-Conquers-the-Horse (the horse-tamer) and He-Who-Ties-Us-Together (the rope-maker) were our Hero characters and good childhood friends whose mothers had conspired for an arranged marriage against their will.  She-Who-Conquers-the-Horse was also the object of affection for at least two other men in the village (He-Dives-Off-Cliffs and He-Laughs-at-Danger), whilst the rope master struggled with obligations owed to the maligned village outsider He-Who-Hides-in-Shadows.  To top it off, the Shadow Dwellers within the abandoned, unused part of the village have begun to stir up trouble and the witch She-Sings-Horses-Away began to pick off the tribe’s precious herd.  After two hours of coming up with family lineage, communities, ambitions and threats as a group, it is a pleasure to finally breathe life into it all.  It also offers you little opportunity to rely on crass stereotypes and ideal images to provide convenient shorthand for your characters: they are so well-developed, there is no reason to rely on such easy shortcuts.

Conflicts Abound

Taylor’s conflict resolution mechanism uses FUDGE dice and presents a hybrid between the pacing mechanisms of Primetime Adventures, where an actual character arc is established before the game is established, and the “hand” system of Dogs in the Vineyard, in which you deploy individual dice as part of a way to map out the “beats” of a scene.  The Heroes can more or less sell their soul to get what they want out of a conflict, but then bad things begin to happen to them.  The system encourages the Hero Players to push their characters’ capabilities and test their limits without abandoning conventional RPG stand-bys like dice pools and deployable traits.

Though the character sheet design was a little cramped, the added fiction a bit too plentiful, and a few typos were found (“villiage”), the game by all means should walk away with its Best Writing award. Clear instructions make a complex narrative generator into a breezy, pleasurable affair.  How We Came to Live Here relishes in the pleasures of sandbox creation without abandoning the sweet delights of the creative destruction wrought by plots afoot and disasters aplenty.  Like Mortal Coil, we are asked to play in a dream world where the nightmares are encroaching in on us from the periphery.

If Neil Gaiman wrote fiction about the ancient Native Americans, you’d likely get a session of this game. Try it – your brain will like you for it.

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Mysteries of Modern China

October 16, 2007

Oracle BonesI recently finished reading Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones. As Jennie noted when she reviewed it on her book blog, Hessler does a remarkable job of not writing yet another “I was a foreigner in Asia” book. He also avoids making it either a book all about him or a book all about impersonal views of contemporary China. Instead, what we get is an excellent blend of his own story, the stories of people he meets, stories from recent history, and stories from ancient history. These smaller stories, which all seem quite disparate at first, get woven skillfully together into a very neat overarching panoramic story at the end, using the mysterious death of one of the first modern oracle bone scholars as the touchstone. And as an added bonus, his writing, as well as his life, is very entertaining, with occasional bursts of wry humor in unexpected places. (See here and here for examples.)

As you can probably tell, I liked it. A lot. It takes a huge amount of work and talent to turn that much information about a country as old and complicated as China into a comprehensible, interesting, and entertaining narrative, accessible to pretty much any audience. What’s more, it underscores my own thoughts on the way history influences culture, which seems particularly revealing in the case of China, where modern history is seen as so separate from the ancient. Hessler draws out how those connections still stand.

While I was reading Oracle Bones, though, I was occasionally struck by a sense of deja vu, as if I’d read that description, or something very like it, before. And then I realized it was from a mystery series I found in the library earlier this year: Qiu Xiaolong‘s Chief Inspector Chen novels. Now, I don’t know about you, but I love it when I find a series of fiction books that have enough actual facts in them that I can learn something while having fun. This is one of those series. The author, as you can probably tell from his name, isn’t a native English speaker, which gives his writing (while very fluent) a sometimes peculiar flavor, but he does an excellent job making the reader feel like they are in 1990s China with the characters. (Complete with tons of food description, an important Chinese detail.)

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Ancient History on a Road Trip

August 24, 2007

The other day on NPR, I heard this story:

World’s Oldest Hominid Now World’s Oldest Tourist

The basics:

One of the world’s treasures, the hominid fossil known as “Lucy,” is about to go on public display for the first time outside its native Ethiopia.

The Lucy exhibition has been praised by some as a coup for Texas and denounced by others as the reckless exploitation of one of humanity’s most famous ancestors. Renowned paleontologist Richard Leakey even called it a form of prostitution.

Next week, the 3.2 million-year-old fossil goes on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. It could be the start of a six-year, 10-city tour for Lucy…

There is now a huge argument over whether or not such rare archeological finds should be allowed outside their countries of origin at all. The main argument, of course, is that they are too fragile or could be damaged, which seems like a fairly good argument if you consider that these remains are still the subject of research.

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