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This episode is a conversation with Jason Godesky, creator of The Fifth World Role Playing Game, recorded in-person several weeks ago at the Save Against Fear convention, but I start our conversation with an introduction to all this, so go ahead and give it a listen.
You can find out more about Jason and the game at TheFifthWorld.com.
If you would like to know more about Save Against Fear, the gaming convention where this was recorded, the website is SaveAgainstFear.com. The Bodhana Group, which organized the event and uses the funds raised each year to assist the children and families impacted by childhood trauma, is at thebodhanagroup.org.
As you may have noticed in our closing we ran out of time in our session, and did not get to address all the listener questions. I emailed those to Jason, who kindly responded.
Q1: “Composting toilets?”
Jason: “Do you mean to ask if I have one? No. I think that reusing what’s already built usually beats building something new; that, combined with my bioregional commitments, led me to go in with my brother to buy the house that we grew up in. It’s a fairly traditional suburban setting, and I haven’t made much headway with repurposing much of it yet.
Or do you mean to ask what I think of composting toilets? My opinion on them is the same as herb spirals, hugelkultur, and just about all of the other “cool” permaculture techniques: they’re great — in the right context. There’s several kinds of design that figure prominently in my life, especially web design, game design, and permaculture design. Across them all, I’ve become convinced that design itself comes down to really thinking through what you want to accomplish here, in this specific context, and picking the principles and techniques that focus on those goals. In each of those fields, I see people who look for the short-cut of just picking from the pre-approved list of “best practices,” but no matter how many other people have employed a thing successfully elsewhere, no one has ever applied it in your specific circumstances before. So, to bring all of that back down to earth for a moment, I love composting toilets, and they’ll probably fit in well with most permaculture designs, but the world has never seen a truly one-size-fits-all solution, and probably never will. Not even composting toilets.”
Q2: “Wow! I love RPGing. It looks like a magic free world? Is there any technology above stone age? What mechanic is used (D20, 3d6, fate)? Will it be available on drive thru RPG? Will it ever be print? Is it in beta and can my group help test?”
Jason:“The Fifth World takes place in our world, four hundred years from now, so it has all of the magic that our world has. I take that to mean a great deal of magic, though none of the Vancian fireballs that a wizard from Dungeons & Dragons would recognize. In “Becoming Animal,” David Abram writes of his apprenticeship to a Nepalese magician who taught him how to shapeshift — a long regimen of training his awareness that involved nothing supernatural, and yet ended in astonishing magic. I wonder about the ways that magicians could use altered states of consciousness to heighten “thin-slicing” (as Malcolm Gladwell called it) to go through mystical experiences that synthesize vast amounts of data, allowing them to make better decisions, which they would experience as mystical journeys and encounters (and really, what makes my neurological explanation any more real than their first-hand experience?). Hunter-gatherers learn the calls of different animals well enough to mimic them and to understand the responses they get in return, so that we can really only deny the conclusion that they speak with animals out of spite. It seems less false to me to call such things “magic” than to call them anything else.
I think that an interruption to our industrial infrastructure would not leave much room for re-starting it. The first time around, we could find sources of metal near the surface. We used those up as we made tools to dig deeper for more. Similarly, we used fuel that we could find easily to build machines that could dig deeper to get more. We’ve used up the sources of metal and fuel that we can obtain easily from the surface. We dig deeper for them because we can no longer find them more easily. So if we interrupt that process, we won’t find the metals or fuels we need to get to the depths where now find metals and fuels. It will take geological ages to push them back up to the surface. That restriction definitely limits the kinds of technology available in the Fifth World. I wouldn’t call it stone age, exactly. For example, you can’t find much flint easily now, either, but you can find plenty of broken glass, and you can knap that into knives, spearheads, and arrowheads quite effectively, so rather that stone, they use colored glass from discarded bottles. Mostly, though, I prefer to focus on their priorities. As a society, we generally believe that technology improves our lives and will ultimately save us from our problems, so we have become excellent at producing technology, and have neglected the techniques for building social bonds and deep relationships. In the Fifth World, people generally believe that social bonds and deep relationships will improve their lives and ultimately save them from their problems, so they spend as much time and energy focused on that as we spend focused on technology.
The game has its own rules. I firmly believe that good game design means focusing on a game’s specific purpose. Rolling dice, for instance, works really well in a game that keeps revolving around the question, “Can I do it?” When you have the dice in your hand, you wonder what will come up, if you can roll high enough to overcome the obstacle. For an animist game like the Fifth World, though, this doesn’t help, because whether or not you can overcome someone (and generally someone, rather than something) doesn’t usually matter nearly as much as whether or not you can connect with that person. That led me to using a deck of cards. Each time you draw a card, you don’t ask, “Can I do it?” but “What will I discover?” This, I think, makes cards a great way to focus on exploration. In this case, I tried to use that to focus on exploring both physical space and social space.
The Fifth World doesn’t have a game master (GM), like many other RPGs do. Instead, the players share the roles that a GM would normally fill. Each player ha a number of awareness points, which they use to ask questions. They choose one of the other players to answer the question, and as we answer these questions, we begin to discover the Fifth World together. This has an interesting side effect: NPC’s can seem to have personalities and minds all their own. We all build off of what we’ve already established together, but we might have different ideas of what follows naturally from any given point, so the same NPC can potentially surprise everyone at the table at one point or another.
The Fifth World presents an open source game with an open source setting. That means that the most canonical version will always exist online at thefifthworld.com/rpg. That said, I recognize how much it can help to have a book in your hand. That also gets into my business plan, and how I hope to sustain this so I can afford to put more time into it. I want to present a free PDF packet with everything in it. I’m also hoping to produce a scout book [http://www.scoutbooks.com/], aiming at a price point of $10 or less, and possibly expansions published in the same manner. Since it uses cards, I’m working on putting a custom card set on DriveThruCards. I’d like to create a better set with custom artwork for each card, but I don’t have enough art for that yet. I’d also like to make a more elaborate art book, in the style of Dinotopia by James Gurney or Gnomes by Will Huygen and Rien Poortvliet. Both of those, however, will require a great deal more art. I have a Patreon set up if you’d like to help me with that at http://patreon.com/jefgodesky.
The game still sits in a public beta phase, so I’d love it if you could playtest it and send me your thoughts. You can find the full rules and the link to the feedback form at http://thefifthworld.com/wiki/rpg”
If you have more questions for Jason about the game, feel free to let me know because I look forward to recording another interview with him in the future, as well as a live-play of The Fifth World so you can hear what the experience of collaborative storytelling is like.
If you have any questions for me, or there is a way I can assist you on your path, let me know.
After having this conversation with Jason, as well as many others off-the-record throughout the weekend, I left with a lot to process about what it means to have culture, to live in community, to tell stories, to create myths that last generations.
So I’d like to play with this idea and have created a game of creative storytelling and invite everyone listening to participate. Head over to Facebook.com/thepermaculturepodcast and, since I don’t know when you listen to this, look for a post from September 30, 2015 that begins, “A game for us to play together…” and read through the comments so that your reply adds a new sentence to the story. Just one. Then let someone else respond before adding another.
We’ll see where this goes and what a community of permaculture practitioners can create.
Though my idea of myth making comes from the tabletop and games, Jen Mendez, a show sponsor, and her collaborative partner Dr. David Blumenkrantz examine how to apply this idea of myth making to children and communities so that together we can change the story and transform the future. Join them for their virtual campfire sessions by going to permiekids.com/oursharedstory.
From here, next week is the first of the round table conversations recorded at The Riverside Project outside of Charles Town, West Virginia. My next interview is with Dillon Cruz on Monday, October 5 to continue the series on Faith and Earth Care. Tuesday, October 6 Sandor Katz joins me to discuss fermentation. Email or call me if you have any questions for either of them.
Until the next time spend each day creating the world you want to live through your stories and your actions by taking care of Earth, your self and each other.