01 October, 2012

Further Thoughts on Walkabout Community

Over on G+ I found a great post from Geoff Skellams...

I present it here in it's entirely, so that nothing is taken out of context (then I'll add a few thoughts on this with respect to Walkabout).

What Is A Community?

I have this thing for the concept of a community in role-playing games. It began back in 2003, when +Bruce Baugh  asked me to join the group of writers working on the Gamma World D20 version. The writers' bible for the game instructed us to update the game universe background to encompass more modern forms of scientific apocalypse (instead of the nuclear holocaust that the original game used), so we went to town on nanoware, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and the list went on and on.

Bruce made it pretty clear from the beginning that he wanted a major focus of the game to be on "communities" - something that the PCs could use as a base of operations and to give the GM a ready made set of plot hooks. I fell in love with this idea, as it definitely appealed to my storytelling proclivities. I went on to write the chapter on communities in the (badly named) Player's Handbook, as well as expanding on the idea in the supplement, Cryptic Alliances and Unknown Enemies (CA&UE).

Now, there were a few missteps I made with those rules. Looking back, I would probably do things a lot differently, at least mechanically (with the main one being I wouldn't do them using the D20 system, but that's another whole rant entirely). But on the whole, I was - and still am proud - of the material I wrote forGW D20.

Anyway, since then, I've had this thing for communities in RPGs. To me, they've got a lot of meat on them for storytelling potential. I keep coming back to the concept of the community as something I want to work with in the long term, to make them more viable and useful as a GM storytelling tool (if even if it's only for myself).

A week ago, I received a set of Story Forge cards, and started playing around with them. I quickly realised that I could use them to come up with new communities that I could then use as the basis for new stories. This pleased me greatly.

I mentioned this on Google+ the other day, and +Chris Carpenter then asked the poignant question, "Do you have a separate post about 'communities?' I am curious about your use of the term." This, as often happens when I stop to look at something that I take for granted, got me thinking.

More specifically, it got me thinking about what is a community, in the context that I use them?

When I first started working with the concept of a community in Gamma World, I really only thought about it in terms of a geographically isolated group of people who live together for the mutual survival; a township, in other words. Each township would have a particular outlook and focus, and it was this focus that would set it apart from the others, and that's what would give each community its flavour.

Later, when I was working on CA&UE, I realised that a community did not have to be isolated: it could be a neighbourhood within a large settlement. CA&UEwent on to give guidelines on how to combine a group of communities (as defined in the rules) into a large mega-community. 

But the rules in CA&UE were based around communities doing different things; communities in GW D20 had D&D style "classes", based around what the community's primary focus was. By combining several smaller communities together, you could build a larger settlement that could multiple things.

Over the years, I'd continued with this basic line of thinking, without ever questioning it. But, for some reason, the idea had never sat entirely comfortably with me. There was always something wrong with it, but I couldn't see what it was.

It wasn't until Chris asked the question the other day that it got me thinking about what a community is that I began to question my underlying assumptions and realised something interesting.

Basically, the short version is: a community is a group of people who share a similar mindset about something, acting towards a common goal.

Now, in the case of physical township, the common goal is mutual survival. Each member of the population contributes (to some degree) towards making the community what it is, and helping it survive. If you think of a small village, you get people who's job it is to get food (hunting, agriculture, or whatever). Others handle the construction and maintenance of the physical buildings. Still others worry about the physical and spiritual well-being of the community members (doctors, teachers, preachers, even down to housewives or servants) and so on.

But a community need not necessarily be about physical survival. It may, instead, be about the growth or fostering of a particular ideology or line of thought. It may be about the promotion of a religious ideal. It may be even something as specialised as a military commando unit. It's the core ideas that the group focuses on that makes the community special.

Now, this is all tempered by a few related things. The first is the size of the group. The second is the degree to which the group focuses on their core idea and the third is the amount of dissension within the ranks.

While I have no empirical evidence to support me, I believe that the larger the group is, the harder it is for it to have a very strong focus on its ideals and the greater the amount of dissension you're going to see. Humans (and by extension, other races in RPGs) all have differing views on the core idea, and will have different ideas on how to go about promoting or achieving their goals. A military commando unit, for example, will have a strong focus on what their mission is, and will have a relatively small amount of dissension, because their training is to work together at all costs to achieve their goal. The scientific community (to go to a crazy extreme for the sake of an argument) has a much broader focus, and as a result, you're going to see a lot more dissension, as people argue as to who's right and who's wrong about any given subject.

I mention things like size, focus and dissension as these are all good things to consider when you're thinking about using a community in a story. The focus and dissension aspects in particular make for good story fodder. It's also important that these aspects do not even need to stay static over a course of a game. In fact, they should remain dynamic if your community is going to act like a real group. Circumstances change as events alter the group's dynamic. People come and go, bringing in new ideas about a subject, or killing off of particular lines of thought. Ideas mutate over time as well, as people gain in power with a different focus and different levels of understanding about subject matter. The longer a group has been in existence, the more likely it is that their focus is going to be radically different from what the group started with.

It's also important to realise that one individual could belong to any number of communities. This is particularly useful to think about in some of the White Wolf games, like Mage: the Awakening or Changeling: the Lost. A given character in Mage, for example, will belong to at least four communities: their path, their order, their cabal and their consillium. One could also argue that their path and order communities could be split further into the local area and greater area groups, and each one could have very different foci. (The same basic concept applies to Changelings, with their motleys and Courts and Freeholds and so on). Things get especially interesting when the different communities that an individual belongs to have similar but sometimes clashing ideas about what's actually important.

So, at the end of all of this, why do I think that communities are important? Basically because it's the clash of ideas that creates conflict in stories and coming up with different groups that hold certain ideas to be true (whether or not those ideas are true or not is actually irrelevant) can make for interesting story fodder and make the game universe seem a lot more interesting and diverse.

That's kind of the "why" in a nutshell (I'm sure I could probably go on a lot longer about this, and may well do later on, as I further refine my ideas). In the near future, I want to talk about the "how" a bit more, in particular, how I want to use my Story Forge cards to help me create interesting communities quickly, so that I can use them in stories and games.

It's a great set of ideas, and I think I've been addressing a lot of these concepts in Walkabout, but it also shows that I've got a long way to go. For starters, a focus of the game is the relationships that people share, with one another, their ideals, their communities, their tools, and their environment. As a second focus, the game concentrates on the holistic nature of the world, everything is interconnected in some way.

Characters in Walkabout are defined by three factors that link them to other people they might meet; their "people", their "edge" and their "dance" (much like "Race", "Occupation" and "Religion" might be used in other games). Communities in Walkabout are a gestalt of their members, they might predominantly hold members of a certain "people" or might share knowledge of certain "edges", but they can't be narrowed down to a single type of each.

The globalisation of our current world may be a thing of the past in the setting of Walkabout, but there are nomads who roam between the settlements (and even the nomads are considered communities in their own right). Communities aren't completely isolated; in the decades of the new world they have managed to reach out to some neighbouring groups, some forging trade alliances and sharing paramilitary aid, others choosing to wage war on one another as humanity has done since the dawn of time.

The aim of Walkabout is to create stories of nomadic wanderers who are bringing peace and balance to a disrupted world where the spiritual and physical have become chaotically intermingled. The communities aren't the focus of these stories; they aren't the word that forge the tales, instead they are the punctuation at the end of the sentences, the spaces between the verses, a chance to rest briefly before beginning a new stage of the journey.

That isn't to say stories shouldn't be told about the communities encountered along the road. and I guess that's one of the places where my ideas are drifting at the moment. On the one hand I want to tell the stories of a journey across a desolate landscape, one the other hand I want the character to have their motivations brought into the spotlight by contrasting them with the actions of other people. I'd love to see this game embrace the brutal stories of "Walking Dead", the disturbing nightmares and social intrigue twists of "Silent Hill", and yet retain the beauty and commentary of almost any anime by Miyazaki, and hold true to the ethos of Australian Aboriginal lore.

The bond of community is the thing that they all share, and it certainly needs to be a strong focus in the game. These are not the stories of a lone hero overcoming the odds to emerge triumphant, instead they are the stories of a person's link to the world around them, their understanding of the true nature of things, and their potential sacrifice in the face of great catastrophe.

A good story needs to be meaningful to it's participants, a good roleplaying game puts a group of players into the roles of those participants. I don't think that a game needs to be completely ad lib for players to gain a sense of agency within the unfolding story; in fact I think that games like this have a tendency to drift and either one or two people will get a satisfying tale, or no-one ends up getting a satisfaction. Sandbox play brings a great sense of player agency, but can take a lot of work, and linear play can tell great story at the expense of seeming railroaded. (I heard a great analogy for dramatic railroaded play, calling it "rollercoaster play"..but that's another post entirely). I don't think a GM should spend more time in preparation for a game than they spend actualy playing the session.

Walkabout is a series of mini sandboxes. The character have been charged with the duty to correct the spiritual balance along a specific path. If they encounter a imbalance, it is their duty to investigate the reason and remedy it. They can use any tools at their disposal, any contacts among their people, make any ripples they want, but of they ignore the imbalance they are forsaking their duties to their people and to the wider community, if they engage in violence they need to ensure that this is simply a means to an end, and not something that will cause even further imbalance to the world around them. With this in mind, the basic balance points of the setting need to be established...what events lead where, what ramifications could occur if a certain character is taken out of the picture, who gains power from certain activities (and would thus be an ally in this situation), who suffers as a result (and would thus be against the action occurring). Shorthand notes, ten to twenty minutes of preparation work (no more)...that's all it should take to get the basics of the story and the community for a given session of play, whether these communities they meet along the way are the settlements, the nomadic wanderers or the spirit beings with their own mysterious agendas. Everything else can be developed based on the actions of the wayfarer characters.

The place where the difference lies is among the core community for the characters, the circle of wayfarers to which they belong. Here is where the true connections and politics of community really start to play out over the course of several sessions.
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