Archive for the ‘Four Nations’ Category


The Game of Avatars & Chronicle of Four Nations

June 1, 2007

In the nameless darkness, three lights did stir. One light became a scholar, and one became a poet, and one became a painter. They said unto one another, “Let us play the game of avatars.” Thus did it come to pass in the summer of 2006 during the festival of GenCon.

They played the game of avatars and it was good.

Upon returning to their mansions scattered in three corners of the world (the fourth remaining dark), they spoke about things, and said unto one another, “We cannot make this a game of avatars, because…” Well, because someone owns that property. I mean Avatar: the Last Airbender, of course. So we were like, let’s tell a story about four different nations.

So in that long car ride across the Midwest, the Four Nations were born: the people of gates, the people of fates, the dreamers, the dead. We talked about their cultures and wrote their legends and mapped their world.

It came to pass that they found a fourth light, a builder of buildings.

We talked about publishing models, and the anthropological beauty of the setting, and storytelling traditions, and other things.

Along the way, Four Nations kind of became three games: One, the avatargame in a form that can be shared; two, the game that can be communicated as a tradition; and three, this setting which is so rich and beautiful.

I don’t know if they can be reconciled anymore, but that’s okay. If I have to write a 4N game, and Jonathan writes one, and Thomas does too, that’s okay. If I write three, that’s okay too. Whatever. 4N means a lot to me. It contains multitudes. Four of them.


Founding a Tradition

May 30, 2007

Starting a tradition is difficult. For every Moses or Handsome Lake who’s come down from the mountain with a new way of life, there are thousands of other figures who’ve tried to start traditions of practice and been unsuccessful or only temporarily successful. Sometimes no one’s interested in this cool new thing you’ve got or they like the idea at first but quickly return to the old way of doing things.

Luckily, with Four Nations, we don’t need to necessarily found a tradition that will last 100 years. Still, if the tradition dissolves in only a couple years or is kept alive by a mere dozen participants, that won’t meet my expectations for the project.

Here’s one idea for the type of tradition we might bring down from Sinai:

1) In order to play Four Nations, you need four players. Each player represents a storyteller from one of the four nations and, traditionally, there must be one storyteller from each nation.

It was midnight by the time that our party arrived in one of the small villages outside of the great city, Njaluwe-in-Dreams. The young people there had never seen men from the Solar Isles before and remarked on our bronzed complexion and curious garb.

As in several other stops on our journey, the villagers were eager to hear tales from The Record Of The Four Nations. We pleaded that we were poor, uneducated merchants and not very capable storytellers, but our hosts insisted. They more or less dragged the eldest member of a local Doorkeeper family to the village hall.

Initially it looked like we might be spared, for it is always difficult to find one of the Dead who will traffic with the living long enough to recite from the Record. However, one of the village’s elders had died two days previous and had yet to begin her journey to the Dark City. Recently dead would have to do.

Geet, my lazy cousin, waved me goodbye as he headed off to bed, leaving me to tell the Record for hours into the night, without offering to take turns or even staying up to listen. He’ll get his soon enough.

They bade me choose the first passage, so I began by describing The Tiger’s Most Precious Jewel…

2) Storyteller identities are unique and attached to specific players as “handles.” Over the course of playing Four Nations, players typically use the same storyteller identities over and over again and slowly try to develop storytellers from all four nations, to make it easier to get the necessary mix (one from each nation) to play the game.

3) For example, early on in the playtesting of Four Nations I might cultivate the storytellers Byannur (of the Dead) and Khara Eijin (of the Door People), switching between them depending on the makeup of the group. Later on, once I was comfortable with those two identities I might start developing lazy cousin Geet (son of the Pattern).



May 28, 2007

Four Nations, at least as it appears in my head, is a collective design project exploring (in part) what collaborative storytelling might be like in a society where most people are illiterate.

Perhaps writing was never invented in the first place. Perhaps it is still a secret possessed only by the priests and scribes. From oracle bones, we suspect that the Chinese writing system may have originally been used for ritual communication between the high priests of the Shang people and the gods, especially Di, the Lord on High. It’s not clear that the priests would have used it for any other purpose outside of divination. What if writing had never become anything more than a secret code for speaking with the divine?

In illiterate societies, I suspect, since there is no opportunity to learn from texts or record information, memory is highly prized. And not just being able to memorize large amounts of information in your brain, but the body memory that comes from repeated or ritual practice of certain behaviors.

If you’re going to learn to be a farmer or a blacksmith, you need to be able to be able to tell, at a glance, how far apart you need to space your plantings or when an iron is hot enough for smelting. You don’t know this by someone telling you, “oh, about 14 inches” or “when the color is exactly the shade of the sky at 5am” because that’s ridiculous. You learn from an expert by repeatedly participating in these tasks until they become second nature to you.

Which brings us to orthopraxy, which is “the proper way of doing something,” like orthodoxy for practices. Orthopraxy, like all status quos, develops from repeated behaviors.

Joke telling is a great example of orthopraxy that still exists today, largely independent of writing. If you tell the same joke over and over again to different people, you’ll inevitably tell the joke slightly differently each time, hopefully improving it as you go, from the trial and error involved and judging how people respond to the joke. You can never really write down instructions on how to best tell a joke. There are little things like facial expressions and pauses and intonation that are difficult to encode in written form. You just know from having done it. And the “best way” can still change over time, as you come up with new alterations that you like better, but eventually you will find a “sweet spot” or just reach a point where the method of telling becomes more or less fixed, at least temporarily.

My ideal for Four Nations, where the rules of the game will never be fully encoded in writing, is that the way people play eventually develops into an orthopraxy, a default way of doing things under most conditions, but that individual play groups will also develop their own heteropraxies (like herodoxies or heresies), variant versions of the standard play behaviors, and that these will eventually affect the orthopraxy and vice versa. I want us to create a verbal- and practice-based system of play that is constantly evolving.

So, ideally,Four Nations won’t have rules; it will have traditions.


Before Books

May 27, 2007

Once upon a time, the people had no books. Only priests and scribes had books, for they were the only ones trained in the secret arts of reading and writing. You might think that the people would have been very sad, with no books to tell them about far-away places, or which was the most beautiful city in the empire, or what wild mushrooms were tasty to eat.

But the people were no sadder than people today. If they wanted to know about distant lands, or which was the brightest jewel in the empire, or how best to cook the truffle that had suddenly sprouted on their doorstep… they simply asked someone. Sometimes these someones lied of course — because people are as fickle as books — but the people were careful about which someones they trusted, lest they — like a wicked book — prove false.

But there were certain someones — like some books today — that were renowned for being false. They were known for being so spectacularly false that the people came from miles around to listen to their beautiful lies. The people would come to these someones and ask to hear tell of distant places, or the sparkling towers of other cities, or about a mysterious mushroom and one would reply…

Over the mountains and across the seas, there is a distant kingdom amidst the desert sands…

And another would reply…

The most beautiful of all metropolises is the Starlight Capitol of the Queen of Night…

And yet a third would say…

The most deadly of all poisons is made from the cap of a most mysterious fungi…

And by the time the people had finished listening to these lies, they would have forgotten the purpose of their original question and be filled with a hundred more that the lairs would answer in turn.

Sometimes, one of the people would say, “Tell us again about the desert kingdom that dwells over the mountains and across the seas.” And the liars would oblige. But the people would be puzzled, saying, “We had not remembered that oasis where the sand is the color of the sky. Indeed, it sounds quite wondrous! But you forgot the part about the horses made of steel! Tell it again, and this time do it right!”

But try as they might, the liars could never tell the same lie twice, which is why the people eventually made books of their own. Books tell the same lies every time; it’s only the readers who change.