Along the Water’s Edge…

January 13, 2008

For those of you who want to follow something besides the current U.S. primaries, the most recent legislative election in Taiwan was a landslide for the Nationalist Party, which formerly ruled the country in an authoritarian dictatorship up until 1996. Funny how things change. The presidential election will follow soon, leading many people to suspect that the Nationalists will be back in power in a big way. The Democratic Progressive Party — which started out as a bunch of democracy activists against the Nationalist dictatorship — lost big, because current President Chen Shuibian is very unpopular and his party’s upper leadership has been charged with corruption across the board. Personally, I’m pretty excited about the Nats winning, because that will lead, hopefully, to closer ties with China and less likelihood of a war — something that once seemed far-fetched, but recently is looking frighteningly real, with Chen pushing for Taiwanese independence and China threatening to invade.

Speaking of China news, I was talking a bit with Shreyas about developing a set of oracles for Vincent Baker’s new game In a Wicked Age, based on the Water Margin. The great thing about the Shuihu Zhuan is that it has the same kind of “progressive protagonization” that Vincent tries to set up in his new game, with the main protagonist role constantly shifting to new characters, often characters that have just appeared in the story for the first time. And the Water Margin certainly takes place in a wicked age, when the best men have become bandits due to the injustice of the state and of the wicked men around them.

There are, however, a few key differences that I’m trying to figure out how to hack:

  1. In the Water Margin, the 108 main characters are fixed — the 36 “heavenly spirits” and the 72 “earthly fiends” — each with a given name and nickname, such as Lin Chong, the Panther-Headed or Lu Zhishen, the Flowery Monk. I’m thinking that maybe there should be a separate deck of cards filled with info on all the outlaws, and you simply deal out cards when you need outlaw characters. Maybe their stats would be predetermined too, I don’t know.
  2. The list of stats that Vincent uses — covertly, directly, for myself, for others, with love, with violence — doesn’t really fit the Water Margin. I don’t think I have a better list yet, but I think I might be able to come up with one after re-reading more of the original epic. Most prominently, love is not a major motivating factor in the Water Margin. Loyalty and camaraderie, maybe, but I’m not sure the outlaws would call that love. Manners and treating others with respect and hospitality seems a more fitting companion to violence, in this case.
  3. The Water Margin is both a collections of stories that are frequently told out of order — you might go to an opera or storytelling session and just hear “Wu Song Kills the Tiger” in isolation — and a series of stories that have a set order to them. If you read or hear or see the entire tale from beginning to end, there is a kind of progression to it. This makes me wonder about setting forth a long Primetime Adventures-style list of “episodes” or “chapters” before the game begins and then playing them in whatever order the group chooses. And if you chose to play an episode next to a previously played episode, you’d read through your notes about what happened in that session to make sure you connected up the stories on either side. So basically, before play, you’d create something like this table here, except not filled out.

In any case, I want to play In a Wicked Age a bunch before reworking it for a new hack, but I’m excited about the possibilities. As always, a new game by Vincent means a few doors have been pushed open, partially because of the progressiveness of his design work and partially because his games get so much attention that people can’t ignore what he’s doing. All in all, a good thing for roleplaying and for those who love his games.

P.S. I talked about the rotating protagonist structure of the Water Margin back in March, where I outlined the protagonists for the first three chapters. If I could do that for the whole book, it would be pretty helpful for constructing the oracle, I bet.

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