Posted on October 13, 2009 by Flames
Our game design series continues with a new essay from Bill White telling us about his fantasy RPG, Ganakagok.
Ganakagok is a fantasy where characters are members of a tribe that lives in a night-time world on an island of ice who must deal with the coming of the Dawn and the changes it brings. Play involves the use of a deck of cards to generate situation, prompt narration, and inspire characters; each session produces an authentic-seeming myth of an imaginary people.
When people ask me what my game Ganakagok is about, I say, “It’s a fantasy.” I tell them that it’s about a people called the Nitu, who live on a starlit island of ice in a world where the sun has never risen. They live in darkness, revering the Stars, honoring their Ancestors, and marveling at the handiwork of the Forgotten Ones, who long ago wrought Ganakagok into its current form.
Each game begins the same way: There are portents of change in the world, and over the course of the game the dawn grows closer and closer, until at the end of the game it is morning, and the final fates of the world, the people, and the individual characters are decided. So the game is about how the Nitu confront the certainty of change in their world, both as individuals and as a people. In play, the action ranges from hard-fought arguments with stern village elder through desperate flights across the ice to epic battles with creatures out of legend, cannibal-ghouls and the Father of Walruses. “This game produces myths,” I tell prospective players, and the players who really like the game are the ones who enjoy that aspect of it—it feels mythopoietic, which is a fancy word for “myth-producing.”
But it’s an unusual setting, and I often have to explain that the game was originally written for the “Son of Iron Game Chef” design contest run in 2004 by Mike Holmes on the Forge, a discussion site for small-press tabletop role-playing games. The way Mike ran the contest, entrants had to pick three out of four keywords he’d provided and write a fantasy game using those “ingredients.” The four keywords were “ice,” “island,” “dawn,” and “assault.” I picked the first three, envisioning a gigantic iceberg floating waiting for dawn to come. Several other popular small-press games came out of that contest, including Ben Lehman’s Polaris (ice, assault, dawn), Timothy Kleinert’s The Mountain Witch (dawn, assault, island), and more recently Dev Purkayastha’s The Dance and the Dawn (island, dawn, ice—same as me!).
Mike gave Ganakagok an honorable mention in Son of Iron Game Chef, and I thought it was ready to run. I took it to a small gaming convention in New Jersey in the early months of 2005, and played it with three guys. One was Dave Petroski, a grad-school friend and gaming buddy who lived near the convention hotel; another was Andrew Morris, who had taken a look at the game on the Forge and thought it had potential—both would become strong supporters of the game. Their Nitu warriors journeyed to the far side of Ganakagok to defeat the prophet of the Sun in his ice-castle and forestall the rising of the Sun.
Still, the game had problems. A lot of them. I had built in a funky resource system intended to motivate characters to act: your village is low on meat, better go hunt. But the system was clunky and opaque. In other words, it was difficult for players to read the implications of the numbers. Did the people face famine or plenty? Additionally, players had a tough time coming up with character conceptions—I’m a hunter, I guess—and other bits of in-game color, flavor, and detail. The genre that the game most often winds up emulating—quasi-Inuit myths and legends—isn’t one to which most gamers have a lot of exposure, and so players often wonder what they ought to be doing in character.
So I ditched the quantitative system and added a qualitative one. I had been thinking for a long time about how to use a tarot-style “oracle” in a role-playing game, because I was fascinated with the way that divination methods like tarot and the I Ching provided powerfully suggestive grist for the interpretive mill. In other words, divination methods seem to work by providing an ambiguous image of which one makes sense in the context of the current situation or problem. Because our minds are designed to see patterns, make connections, and find order, the appropriateness of the divination seems uncanny.
To make the Ganakagok tarot, I essentially “reskinned” a normal 52-card playing card deck, changing the names of the suits and the court cards to make them seem more icily primitive—Tears rather than Spades, Stars rather than Diamonds, and Ancient, Man, Woman, and Child in place of Ace, King, Queen, and Jack. Then I went back to the divinatory meanings associated with the corresponding card in a tarot deck, coming up with two “motifs” for each one, a noun phrase that I called the card’s “image” and a verb phrase that was its “meaning.” So, for example, the Ace of Spades became the Ancient of Tears, or “Polar Bear,” with the meaning “to master or overcome.” And the Two of Clubs became the Two of Storms, or “Depths of the Sea,” with the meaning, “to be troubled by the unknowable.”
The cards worked great! I knew they were a winner during the first playtest with them, with a bunch of high-school-age D&D players, one of whom was the son of a friend of my wife’s at work, which was how I found them. They were all together hunting a polar bear on the ice—never split the party!—and one player, Max, described his character’s rival, an NPC, putting himself in harm’s way to distract the bear so that another PC could scramble up from where he’d fallen. That PC won the right to narrate the consequence card (in Ganakagok, one of the things you’re fighting over is who gets to narrate the consequences of your actions), which turned out to be the Child of Stars, “Reflected Image,” meaning, “to meditate or think introspectively.” And he said something like, “I guess I think about what [Max’s rival] did, and I see myself in him, and so I like him better.” And Max grimaced and went, “D’oh!” That was very gratifying: the cards could lead play into unexpected places.
Development of the game slowed after my daughter was born and I started to concentrate on getting tenure at the university where I worked. The real world intrudes! But I would show up at conventions with newer versions of the game, tweaked to fix problems that previous playtests had revealed, with copies for sale that I’d had printed on Lulu. Ganakagok started to attract aficionados, and got a lot of help from its friends. Jason Morningstar sent me images he’d scanned from accounts of 19th century expeditions to Alaska, and Dave Petroski found public-domain art to use in designing a Ganakagok tarot deck. Andrew Morris made it a point to play the game and send other people to play when I ran it. My brother Mel ran the game down in Virginia, at the Thursday night small-press game group at the Compleat Strategist in Fairfax, and at a small con called Camp Nerdly. Don Corcoran ran a gonzo version of the game that he called Crouching Polar Bear, Hidden Orca, where high-flying Nitu warriors with crystal swords defeated star-men suspended from the sky by slicing through the wires that held them in the heavens. And Alexander Newman bought an early version of the game and ran it at Origins and Gencon 2007, giving me even more feedback—both positive, in terms of the play experience, and negative, in terms of the “currency” of adversity available to the GM (i.e., how many resources the GM had available with which to oppose the player-characters) and the design of the game as a physical artifact.
The physical design of the game proved to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to its completion. I’ve always been a textual person—bookish, I mean—and going to grad school only made that worse. So the visual design of Ganakagok was not something I spent a lot of time worrying about, which was a mistake. My design-savvy friends in the indie-gaming world would wince at the Ganakagok book like it was a train wreck. Nathan Paoletta of NDP Designs even mocked up an ashcan to show me what a good design could do for the presentation of the game.
Luckily, I had a lot of help fixing it. Larry Wick pointed me to the work of cover artist Jeremy Mohler, who had done other Inuit-themed art projects. Dave Petroski agreed to lay out the game and re-design the tarot in light of feedback that we’d gotten in play.
It was about this time, too, that I began to suspect that the game was only “half-baked,” which was a term being bandied about in small-press game circles to denote a game that had been released too soon, with rules explanations that really needed to have the game designer packaged in the box with the game to ensure that it was playable. No one ever came right out and accused Ganakagok of such a thing, but I could see that the rules as written didn’t get reader the same experience as playing the game with me or someone who’d learned to run it by playing with me. So I decided to rewrite the game completely.
This time, I would write it as an explanation to the Game Master of how to run the game, from start to finish. So the rules begin with an overview of the game’s progression, move into an explanation of the Ganakagok deck, and then lay out what the GM needs to do to create an initial situation in the world, guide players through character creation, run those characters through scenes, manage the coming of the Dawn, and then facilitate narration of the Final Fates of the World, the People, and the individual characters. My friend Michael S. Miller, designer of games like With Great Power and Serial Homicide Unit, edited the text I wrote to make the explanations and descriptions clearer, and Travis Farber volunteered to run a blind playtest without me present that let me know that, with a few tweaks, the rules worked as intended to teach the GM how to run Ganakagok.
So I took the game to Gencon 2009, new books and new decks, and ran demos at the Indie Press Revolution booth in the exhibition hall. I ran it at after-hours gaming at the Embassy Suites, and at Games on Demand on Sunday morning right before I left Indianapolis. Both were really good, strong games that produced images of play that will stick with me for a while: two veteran warriors battling the Father of Walruses out on the ice to defend the village; a Nitu hunter leaping from a tower of ice to his death amid the horde of bloated, unnatural animals that thronged below. After five years, the game still surprises and delights me.
Now the game is out. The reports that are coming back to me are generally positive, though not everything is perfect: a group in England reports having to deal with “trait-bombing,” overwhelming the GM in the contest for narration rights with a host of too-relevant traits; a friend reminds me to attend more closely to issues of cultural appropriation. But the game is out in the world, and people are playing it. Even as I write, there’s a woman in Israel running a parlor-larp version of Ganakagok for the annual Israeli science fiction and fantasy convention. The game is done, and I’m proud of it, even though as you’ve seen it is in large measure the work of others.
– Bill White – 2009