09 November, 2017

Reflecting Culture in Gaming

I've been looking over the 7th Sea: Khitai Kickstarter, and it got me thinking. Instead of the standard attributes, it uses a range of character virtues, and assuming it works like the old 7th Sea rules (derived from the original L5R RPG), I'm guessing it's a "roll and keep" system where in this case you'd add together the virtue and a skill to determine a dice pool, and then keep the best number of dice equal to the virtue used.

Back in L5R it sort of went halfway with this idea, by basing the attributes on the elemental forces of the setting. It's a way of getting a cultural feel into the way the game plays. I think Smallville and the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying System (both Cortex oriented games) did similar things by pulling attributes away from the traditional "strength/constitution/dexterity/intelligence/...etc." model and making the rolls of dice more related to the types of stories being told. This way you can have Superman or the Hulk roll dice along with everyone else at a meaningful level rather than simply having them completely overpower the situation every single time with their godlike abilities.

There are a few other games which take this route too, but recent years have seen the OSR backlash against story-games, and a return to that traditionalist attribute set.

Let's consider these to be games where the character output is filtered through a cultural (or genre-oriented) paradigm.

I was really thinking of doing something similar with the way Walkabout was headed, perhaps by linking attributes to cultural elements significant in different Australian Aboriginal groups. The biggest problem here was trying to find specific cultural virtues and aspirations that felt appropriate (rather than just feeling like generic tribal patterns, which would have the "cultural appropriation" brigade screaming at me). I'm already thinking of adding Totems into the game, because animal affinity is a strong part of Aboriginal Identity in many arts of the country (and has strong links to the systems of moiety that have been in place for millenia), and even though the word "moiety" derives from Latin, and the word "Totem" derives from the First Nations of North America (specifically the Ojibwa if I remember correctly), trying to find the right word in an Aboriginal Australian tongue is tricky because there are so many of them, and in most cases the English words have been adopted by the community because they are more universally understood.

In old versions of the game, I followed the FUBAR system of giving characters a culture they came from, a skill set for which they were known, a set of advantages that marked them as different from the world around them, and a dance which would be used to communicate with the spirits and engage with the community during a Corroboree or ritual during which XP was converted from personal memories to community stories. It kind of felt right, but not quite.

I've recently learnt about the Aboriginal 8 Ways of Learning, and I feel like this might be a good place to integrate some Indigenous culture into the mechanisms of play.

But how do I use it?

I started with the easy route of allocating certain skills to certain Ways of the system. "Bush Medicine" derives herbal remedies from the land, so it could easily be placed there... but there are a few other laces where it might fit too. Where would you put "Stealth", or combat skills... assuming you'd even have them.

A variant on the 8 Ways seemed to offer help...

...with the 8 outer symbols coalescing into 4 aspects at the centre of the diagram... maybe they could be attributes. Maybe I'm just thinking about the whole thing in the wrong way. It all seems cerebral, and while there are aspect where social elements can be brought into play (on the outer ring through "story sharing" and "community links", or on the inner aspects through "protocols"), the nature of physical actions in this system is an awkward fit at best.

That's when I realised I was doing it all wrong. This is a system for learning. This an Australian Aboriginal interpretation of how a person develops as they gain experience and internalise what they have encountered through their life's journey. This isn't about using abilities at all, it's about what you gain when the outcomes of those abilities are considered. It could still be possible to attach skills to the outer symbols or the inner aspects, but I feel that is too limiting. It probably works better as a meta-system.

Each of the symbols indicates a way that experience can be internalised, where different contexts apply better to different types of task.

Following the outdated (and pedagogically controversial) theory of multiple intelligence, these could be considered different intelligence areas activated by different types of scene in a character's narrative. If you learn something through a fight or an athletic challenge, you might gain a point in "Non-Verbal". If you decode a riddle, you might gain a point in "Deconstruct/Reconstruct". If you share a story with someone, "Story Sharing" is the obvious category. If you think outside the box, "Non-Linear" applies. These aren't character output filtered through a cultural paradigm, but instead character input.

It's using a recognised learning model relating to Aboriginal educational theory in a "practical" way. Which is really good since members of the Aboriginal Education Consultancy Group have been asking me to continue work on the project, and they are one of the main groups pushing the 8 Ways. 

But all the symbols are interconnected, and the idea of a holistic interconnected-ness is a deep part of Aboriginal spirituality and belief (it's always been a part of the way I've run Walkabout games, but not so much formalised within the rules). 

I'm thinking of making each of the 8 Ways a method for gaining experience, and once a character earns a combination of points from different areas they may increase their abilities in some way. For example (working from the images above), if they gain a point each in "Story Sharing", "Community Links", "Deconstruct/Reconstruct", and "Non-Linear", this would activate a "Values" increase.

One of the more controversial elements in "Multiple Intelligence Theory" is the belief that specific types of output can be measured, and different people will have varying measurements in these outputs depending on a number of factors. One of the less controversial elements of the theory is that different people have a preference for learning in different ways. Some people are more capable of learning from visual stimuli than those around them, some are more capable of gleaning information from texts.

This could be simulated by allowing characters to automatically gain points in areas where they show an affinity. But this feels a bit counterproductive, we don't want to prevent characters from doing what they are supposed to be good at... in fact we probably want the reverse, we want to highlight where characters have strengths. Perhaps instead of giving them an automatic point in a specific area, we allow them to gain extra points in that area. "Jack has a natural affinity with Symbols and Images so he gains more from encounters where these are a part of the narrative."

This is feeling good, but I know there's more work to do.
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