Sunday, February 21, 2021

Another exorcism of thoughts: Who are the Nibelungs, Part 3 (final word on culture? magic?)

I should be doing something else, but I felt the urgency to at least make an attempt to put those ideas down before they are lost in the bliss of a Sunday in the sun. It connects to a serie of posts I started 6 years ago about what understanding of the "Nibelungs" I want to evoke in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. We had the base assumption in Part 1, going something like this:

Historically speaking it would be the children of those desperate and armed refugees that settled among the ruins left by the Romans. They are to explore the deep forests and dark valleys, following whispered rumors of treasure, secrets and sorcery. They will leave their mark on the world, as it is their time.

The game is about their lost songs.

 And then we talked a bit about difficult topics of the past and future in Part 2, concluding like this:

It's a harsh world the Nibelungs live in, haunted by the evils of a lost civilization. But it's also a world of opportunity for man and woman alike to claim a part of and become legends if it is their fate. Within this legendary realm everything is possible and a Nibelung could rise from slave to king.

It is a semi-historical setting they live in, with the pagan believes of the old world struggling and fighting the rise of a new religion that threatens the very fabric of magic itself. The Nibelungs are all the Germanic tribes and their lost songs.

This leaves a couple of questions open, all of them are about getting an idea how those tribal people mapped the world around them. What patterns did they see? How did they explain the world and why? This is an exorcism of thought and not yet fully fleshed out. You have been warned.

A world without reason?

Culture is a collective mental state ... let's begin with that. It's also dynamic. My understanding of how that dynamic might work, is (among other things) derived from what I could gather in the (great and highly recommended!) book Authors of the Impossible by Jeffrey J. Kripal (a book that'd be featured in the research list I plan to include in Lost Songs).

So the firt step would be to get an understanding how our culture works, then extrapolate towards 550 AD, right? Bridging this cultural gap would make the past playable while adding the extra value of gaining a deeper understanding of that Germanic mindframe back then. In a sense, they already did all the work for us in the stories they told (or what we know of them), so there is that. However, reading those stories today (like, say, the Edda), always seems like it needs a whole lot of extra knowledge to get the references, the subtext ... all the symbolic stuff that you'd read in those stories that, by our understanding, comes down to magic.

There's no bridge. You see: reading those stories is like seeing an island in the distance, obscured by mist. What you deinitely can't do in a roleplaying book is make it an excursion into history and demanding of the reader to catch up to "get it right". No, nothing of that sounds right to me. And what would knowing the history more than, say, superficially actually bring to the table?

See? Like that. No bridge at all ... [source]

I've talked at length about how language should be used in the game (and you can start falling into that specific rabbit hole here). It's also easy enough to get an idea what clothes they wore or how they fought, what they paid with, all that good stuff, for sure worthy. What all the trivia doesn't do, though, is giving you a mindmap, of sorts, that brings to live what made those people tick. That a day started for them with the sun going up, not in the middle of the day, like it does for us now, gives you an inkling of an idea what I'm talking about.

But I digress. My goal would be to cook all of the above down to an abstract level where that other culture transcends 'just' by playing the game and without using any visual material other than description. The Narrative Generator is the biggest tool in this, but just one side of the coin.

However, to do this examination proper justice (to build that bridge), or so I've learned, we need to understand that culture is the collective decision to interprete the world as concluded by an intellectual elite, with what is negelected making a comeback in popular culture. In other words, if your world is run by reason and science, the spiritual will be popular in the stories we tell. That's the premise, that's the material for the bridge laid out..

People in the past didn't have it good ...

There is a popular understanding that life was hard in the past and people just didn't have the richness of experiences and safety we indulge in today in huge parts of the world. Stuff like "I wouldn't want to live in the 18th century ... all that misery, the health issues, the harsh living conditions. Horrible, horrible stuff." or some tune like that. I'm of two minds with this: for one, I agree. If someone growing up in our cultural environment would be transferred a couple of hundred years into the past, they'd most likely die fast. That doesn't mean, however, that the people living back then felt the same about their lives.

Off to the Dark Ages ... to DIE! [source]

There is that joke where one doctor tells another how he stopped drinking and smoking and eating unhealthy so he had a chance of a longer life, and the other doc just looks at him puzzled and asks: why would you want to live longer, if you had to live like that?! I always found this 'joke' stupid and unfunny, for the simple reason that it puts consumerism on a pedestal it doesn't belong. If you just live to consume, well, you don't live at all, imo. There is more, for sure, if you care to look.

Anyway, it all connects. I'll even raise you one: the neuroscientist Andrew Huberman had a great talk in a podcast the other day (see it here, it's worth your time), and he talked about the plasticity of the brain and how we can rewire ourselves to receiving dopamine awards for things we did rather than for things we consumed. Turns out (or so is my understanding), people that manage to do that, will need nothing else to thrive and be happy.

No need for expensive cars or meals or holidays or houses or whatever, just reading that one book, a page at a time, just doing that sport routine, doing the things that help you grow, is not only 'enough' to be content, it'll give you the energy to push harder, to go further. People producing material like crazy have unlocked that for themselves, one way or another. As a matter of fact, the best way to make this happen is pushing through stress. Do what you feel resistance against, and the brain will award you for it. Crazy (I'm still mulling over that, as a matter of fact).

Well, you are probably guessing what I'm hinting at. We are not wired to live like fat cats in comfy chairs, we are wired to do stuff. Our brains and bodies actually help us doing more than we would think we are able to achieve ...and to get by with way less than we actually have. Our genes haven't changed much in the last, what, 300.000 years? Assuming that we are just now able to live properly is preposterous.Commmon sense will tell you that, and science is right there with it, nodding wisely.

So there's no reason to believe that people weren't living fullfilled lives in 550 AD if the basic needs were met. There genes weren't different, the dynamics, generally speaking, would be the same as today or a couple of thousand years before that. They would laugh and love and sing and grieve and hate. kids would play, and have toys to do so. That said, they'd also live in very, very different surroundings than we do. Here is a little bridge to build up to that big bridge we are talking about: the dynamics apply, just on different surroundings, because it needs to work in the environment to allow survival and even growth.

I'd even submit that they didn't know less than we do, they just had different explanations and methods to get by (broadly speaking ... I'd fight you on this, though). That's the bridgehead.

Building a bridge across cultures, time and space ...

... with just some dice in hand. Wouldn't that be nice? Anyway, let's talk UFOs, because that's the logical next step. Why is it that we have more than 80.000 witness reports of encounters like that, all over the globe, and no proof? How is it that a lot associated with the UFO phenomenon relates so closely to religious experiences? It maps nicely (again, Kripal, quoting others). So nicely, in fact, that we can see the same dynamics between religious hagiography (basically stories what saints experienced) and UFO abductions ... or our ideas what those abductions are like.

I won't (can't!) go much into detail, but let's assume, just for the game's sake, that those phenoma are ... similar, only their interpretation in a different cultural environment will just turn up differently. Angels, fairies or aliens, all follow the same principle (abstractly speaking). I hope you see that bridge shaping up at this point. We can now conclude from our culture, to some extent, what that culture 1500 years ago might have set as priorities compared to us. There's the map, there's the pattern, if you will.

Not that I have done that yet to any reasonable degree. This is me playing around with some fresh impulses, so to say. But we know we can take the Enlightenment out of the equation. We can assume that life back then was way more spiritual than our lives today are. And going by the little I know about the paranormal and the unconscious and the idea of how all is connected, it is by no means said that we are entirely on the right track in our completely reason based cultural assumptions. So they might have compensated some of our advantages with knowledge now lost to us (as a matter of fact, that rising religion back in the day did their damnest to assimilate or kill that cultural heritage off). 

Who are the Nibelungs? (Part 3)

From what we can tell, it's been a very dynamic mix of different cultures settling down. In a way, the people starting their new lives in what would become Europe had their own intense culture war going. We know who lost, in hindsight. But how that war was fought is a different story. We also know of the tribal nature of those settlers, how they travelled a lot, and how they took impulses from everywhere. In that particular time, we can say we have lots of leeway to be creative within the imaginable. The smaller, the more isolated a tribe is, the more strange it could be.

Other than that, the Nibelungs are a spiritual people. How else could they have lived meaningful lives back then? Tapping into the (collective?) unconscious like that should offer some alleviation, help and even healing, but it also (for sure) brings our heroes a lot closer to things we'd love to keep in the dark nowadays. Those struggles back then were as real as today. Them going out to fight dragons or haggle with the gods should tap into the same sphere as us getting hunted or abducted by aliens. And just like we will find traces but no proof, because we tend to ignore those things in general, they might have encountered and fought those things for real (which is a leap I'll allow myself, since this is a game, after all).

What exactly that might mean and which symbols and systems to use to express it all in the game will be for me to explore in the future. A lot of it is already there. If you take a look at character creation (which is pretty much the same after all those years ...), you can end up with an elf, a dwarf or a troll. The sleight of hand here is that I'd argue that it is still as historically accurate as history can be. Ha!

Representing history accurately. Ha! [source]

One last thing. You might ask yourself, why go through all that to write a game, to which I have to say: it's fun, what else is there to know :) If there's value beyond that, we'll find out, I guess.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs: Mission Statement 2021

Time to tackle this beast again. While we work hard on getting my first take on a complete game published and distributed, it's always been my declared goal to make all this happen to allow Lost Songs to be my best effort. Because I care about it. I have been a bit silent about it on the blog, about where I am in that regard, but that's just me being busy and doing this on the side. As you will have noticed, my ramblings had gotten somewhat redundant and more and more, let's say, baroque in the last few months ... Most certainly because 2020 was a snail-suckling fuckfest of epic proportions. So now for something more productive.(Maybe, no promisses) 

That time again ... [source]
What you don't need ...

Here's one preconception that won't hold for Lost Songs: it needs to be a pastiche of some sort of existing game. If you want to trace the origins of this (and I make no effort to hide any of it here on the blog), you are free to go on a deep dive to find and see all of it. Or talk to me about it. I'll probably give you an ear full or two of half-assed theories about why Hit Points are Confidence and how that is actually psychologically sound, design-wise and in general. 

The truth is, you don't need another clone or re-hash or reiteration of games that already exist. Not from me, anyway. It's all out there, most of it for free, and if you by now aren't avoiding the sugar-coated money-milking machine that is corporate roleplaying, I don't know what to tell you other than that I have a bridge to sell for you ... Anyway, there is a world of games out there, catering to many of the same basic assumptions. There are bad takes and there are good takes. You are good in that department. Roam free, my friends ...

All I'm saying, is, that since all of that is out there, I feel no obligation what-so-ever to cater to that in any way shape or form. There is room for all kinds of experiements, and mainstream looks a bit too cozy and a bit too insane to me right now.

What to expect

As I said, I'm giving this my best effort. What this meant up to this point, was going as far as not only writing and testing and more writing about Lost Songs in the last, what, six years, going hard on seven? I also wrote and am about to publish a (completely different? to some extent different ...) roleplaying game, just to see what it takes. Just to be prepared. I'm not saying it to brag (there is nothing to brag about, tbh, it is what it is), I'm saying it to make a point: I want to publish a game, I need to see what it takes.

There is another dimension to this, and that would be the fact that it actually helps to have different projects at different stages in the air. The ideas hold each other in check, so to say (which means I will give The Grind some love as I go into the next stage with LSotN). All of this already took years and will take some more, if I keep the pace I'm having.

Many will have moved on by then, I presume (many already have). In a way, it's funny. If you go the distance, you don't care that much about the turnout. Attention in the age of the internet is fickle. If something can't be satisfyied within a forseeable future, people will move on. That's ok. I have made friends here and we keep in touch. The same will be true when I get Lost Songs out there. So I'm sure I can make someone happy when this becomes a reality.


There's also an extensive amount of research to this. For what I'm trying to do, it needs a exhaustive knowledge about history, psychology and game design. 'Exhaustive' means in this context, enough for me to be comfortable with the result. I actually want to have an inkling how people have lived 1500 years ago in Europe. What houses, what music, what food, what languages ... That's some dark history right there, with lots of unexplored areas, actually. Which is where psychology bridges the gap, I guess. And since I'm not writing a fricking novel here, game design is my form of expression.

That's what you can expect, then. If you care enough to stick around (or if the short attention span cycle brought you by in a couple of years from now). A game based on the potential exhibited so far here and with my other publications. Is that enough? I'd say, it's honest. Let's go from there.

What I aim for

It's not that there isn't any vision, and it might very well be out of my reach. Still, something to aspire to, so here it goes. I want players and DMs of this game to get an inkling what live had been like back then. To gain some insight into the kitchens of the old Germanic people. Playing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, you should take away an idea how those legends of old came to pass and what they meant to the people telling them.

Not in the sense of a documentary, or anything like this. It'll still have zombies and tentacles and cosmic horror and Elves and Dwarves ... just through the lense of someone who lived 1500 years ago. See? That's the thing. It's not something the players need to bring to the table, it's something the game needs to evoke when it's played, not even when it's read. That's with the designer. If I'm not able to deliver that, I failed you when you actually decided to explore the game.

I keep saying that roleplaying games are a distinct form of medium, so this is what it takes to make that happen, imo. Player will be heroes, but they might die from the damage they received in a snow storm short before fulfilling their destiny. It should be a wild ride, the game should allow players to play the system to have their characters excell, but failing needs to be satisfying as well. The story told needs to be great, just from the system output alone. It needs to make the DM look good, offer a (plat)form of expession specially customized for this experience.

It all needs to come together, and I have a very specific idea about the layout, that will be very experimental (to say the least .. but it might just work). It needs to be complete, which might make another intensive play-testing campaign necessary .. In the end, I need to be happy with it. A good friend of mine said the game so far reinded him of a very complex clockwork of a system (a comment I still appreciate, after all those years). Problem with that is, that it takes little to go wrong with that big-time.

Either way, you probably guessed it by now, it will be very special interest :D

Goths, before it was cool [source]
Anyway, lets write this mother ...

You see, many, many construction sites. As it is, I can make that happen at the table, if I DM it. To some extent I can make it work if I'm accompanying a DM helming a game. It needs more than that, and if you actually read the above, you know I have set up some hard standards for this. So far it's a fun experience (and yes, I know I'm strange).

I'd love to see the following happen in 2021:

  • a complete collection of everything I did for the game so far (all 4 books)
  • collecting, expanding and summarizing my research into the Dark Ages
  • getting an idea what this should look like, as far as layout and artwork go (what can I do, what could I invest, how far can I push this) 

I expect this to keep me occupied for some time, with some fun projects on the side (we are play-testing/developing that module I have talked about, called THE RISE OF ROBO-HITLER, and it's a hoot). So I will keep you all informed (the three people reading the blog, ha!).

One last thing I have learned and will dare to share here: it doesn't matter as much how long it takes to get something finished, finishing it is what counts. That's what people need to have confidence in. I want this to exist, so it will exist. And as long as I have a say in how it will exist, it'll be something I will be proud of to have in the hands of others.

I wonder, of course, if anybody out there is still interested in seeing how this turn out. So if that's the case, it'd make me really, really happy to see a comment about that below. Show some love, if you feel like it. Gimme that vote of confidence. It goes a long way (as this might still go sideways, for some reason or another ...).