October 23, 2007

being a hack of the avatar game

With my arms around her I could feel her tense up. The wind had shifted and evening was approaching. Her golden mask was missing from the sky, but just as though she were there, the clouds were painting themselves in saffrons and purples. The light soaked into her skin, warmed it. She was suddenly too hot to hold. “Lover, it is time I go.” Her breath singed my arms. “I must climb the sky so that the mouth of the mountains can close on me, chew me up, and spit me out.”

She said it as a misbehaving child might say, “I must go home so my father can beat me,” with fear and anger, but also with a kind of resignation, helplessness stretched thin over the span of years.

I watched the sun climb to her doom, her naked feet still stained with grass, her shoulders scalloped with teethmarks.

Someday I will grind those mountains down. In all of creation, I am the only one who may bite her. I know when to stop.

Skyflower is a mini-game about a world that can’t change itself, and the hero’s quest to change it.

Choosing Primary Characters :: Culture & Geography

Most of what Jon said in the avatar game is true here. The crucial exception is that Skyflower doesn’t come with a setting, out of the box, and I can’t be arsed to make you one, but I can make it so you can make one. The one constant is that the gods of the world are, at least pretty often, enfleshed and personal. They take on physical forms and form relationships with individuals and peoples. They can be multifaceted—where one people see the sun goddess as a young, fierce woman riding a chrysanthemum horse, another may see a mother pouring buttery light out of a clay jar, and another might see a sooty three-legged bird that builds its nest in the uttermost east. All these visions are true. Or, they can be very specific and local—the god of this forest, this tree, the god that forged this sword. Universally, gods are embodiments of physical aspects of the world: night, winter, a crow, are all things that may have gods. Liberty, equality, and fraternity aren’t.

Each character comes from a different culture, either because of geographic separation, or because of social stratification; two characters may be from the selfsame city and speak the same language, but if one is a destitute priest and the other is a scholar-princess, they are effectively from different spheres.

As a group, answer these questions about the characters, making sure that no two answers are alike.

How do the character’s people relate to the gods?
How do they live; what god is most important to their livelihood?
What place is most important to them?
What place do they find utterly distant and alien?
What is the character’s social sphere, her people?
What is expected of him when he grows up?
How does she baffle those expectations?
What makes him well-suited for them?

With the first four questions, you can scrawl a map. Don’t fling all the distant, alien places to the corners and edges; instead, checker them with the hearts of nations, and build barriers and threats that keep them apart—deserts, mountains, bandits, superstitions, old feuds or unaffordable tools, whatever strikes your fancy. None of these barriers are impassable, merely imposing. In each nation’s most-important-place, set down a figure representing their most important god.

There are a lot of different ways you can answer that question about the relationship with gods, and how you do will colour your game significantly—are the people worshipful of the gods, or do they treat them as equals, or have they subjugated them? Is there one god they treat differently? Maybe they are familiar or alien, loved or feared or simply accepted. They are never unimportant. And, too, this is a kind of romantic game, so don’t get bogged down in extremes of realistic cultural complexity; suppose we are dealing with small populations that are close-knit and not especially diverse, and describe their cultures in broad, bold strokes.

When you identify a god for a nation, you don’t have to describe it exhaustively or in depth; every culture knows about most of the major gods of the world, and they see them in different and often seemingly incompatible ways. You can leave these different viewpoints unexplored until you need to use them in the game, or you can prepare them beforehand. Developing in play has a swiftness and organic quality that I find appealing, but the other way is good too; it gives you time and distance with which to manipulate imagery more deliberately.

The second four questions are there to get you thinking about who the character is. Remember that you can make multiple characters of the same people, as long as their social spheres differ. Think about what this means for their view of the gods! They will relate to them very differently.

Describing Primary Characters

Begin by describing each character’s relationship with the god you feel is most important to that character. This doesn’t have to be the god of her people. This particular relationship is personal and specific; character and god can recognize each other and their meetings evoke strong feelings in each other. Typically, characters and gods relate as lovers, adversaries, or family members. Think about what it means for a character to be the mother of a god, or for a god to be a character’s grandfather.

Next, for each relationship, describe one that the god has with another god, which has a direct, problematic impact on the first relationship. For instance, one character might be in love with the sun, but he is the husband of the jealous sea. Finally, describe any relationships the characters have between others or with nations. Connect each god to at least one nation. Make a diagram showing how everyone is connected, labelling each connection with a brief description of the relationship involved. Use analogies if it helps! It’s better to describe a god as “father” than “emotionally disconnected authority/creator figure.” The network of relationships between humans, nations, and gods that you draw in this step will become the communal chakra that the characters traverse. Be aware that you can create a discontinuous network—one where there is no path between one group of nodes and another—by following these instructions. That’s a tool for you—you can use it to tell parallel stories that connect later on when you alter the chakra—but you should always build a continuous diagram unless you have a specific reason not to.

Great Dharma

The character’s first great dharma is involved with these relationships; he needs to sort them out.

Lesser Dharma

Characters may have lesser dharmas that involve any character, nation, or god. In a scene about such an entity, only one character present needs to have a relevant dharma. The others may form their own agendas and the associated dharmas if they wish, or they can just come along for the ride.

Moving on the Map

Each character’s pawn starts on the node that corresponds to himself. When he moves to a node, he has a scene about the dharma he has related to that node; if he has none, then there is an opportunity to establish a new dharma, or enjoy an interlude, in which the character learns or teaches something human about the subject. It’s possible to have dharmas for any node, including the character’s own; these might be sort of self-involved, though.

The characters in Skyflower are exaggeratedly empathetic; the relationships that connect the nodes are the forces that motivate them to action, forming the transitions between scenes. In this game, selecting which way to traverse the chakra is more about choice than judgement. So, in a scene you need to do two things: accomplish something, and indicate the emotional connection that leads to the next scene. You don’t need to marry this shift to an action made by the active character; a scene shift can also be motivated by external events, or, from an appropriate character’s point of view, pivot around something that symbolically evokes a new subject, such as fetching water for a scene about a river god, or fleeing from some place shifting into a scene about another fugitive.

Changing the Map

You can change the relationships that connect nodes; to change relationships between humans (or create one; you can never uncreate a relationship) or nations requires nothing more than enacting a lesser dharma, while changing a relationship that involves a god calls for a great dharma. Nations don’t directly have relationships with one another; their interactions are mediated by characters or gods.

Secondary Characters

Secondary characters are fearsomely mobile. You may encounter them anywhere in the chakra, sitting on a node. Each one has exactly one relationship that is important to them, and you can transition scenes along this connection as well as whatever connections are on your node, but if you take their path they will follow you.

Sometimes a god will split off one of its faces and create a secondary character. These particular secondary characters always have a connection to a human.



  1. I finally sat down and read this through. I’m really interested in the idea of this game, but I’m not quite seeing the play yet. Or, I see the shape of it, I guess. Not having played the Avatar game is keeping some of it dark, I think.

    But the set-up phase is especially grabby. There’s a lot to love there.

  2. Yeah, I think playing the avatar game will clarify this game in useful ways—it went unsaid, but it should be, that all the assumptions that game makes that this one doesn’t specifically change are still in place, like the length of scenes and the nature of characters (young non-adult people).

    Thanks, too! We just tried the setup thing a couple of nights ago with four people, and we came up with a really pregnant setting.

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