Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Pros and Cons of Reincarnation: NOT FADE AWAY (Part One)

After a long dry spell, we have finally started a new game this past Saturday night. Let me tell you about it.

But first, a little theme music. In deference to my friend Amanda, the version you'll be hearing is not the sublime original by Queen, but the cover by the Protomen. It should still get you in the mood for a story about sword-wielding immortals.

I talked a while back about some of the thought process that goes into picking a new game, and I wrestled with the issue for a long time. I ended up a big mess when I pitched to the group, talking about games and genres in terms that were way too broad, and although a lot of them were interesting to the players, they didn't stick. Lesson for the day: make your pitch focused and tight.

The game idea that did stick was the one that happened to be among the newest ideas in my bag of tricks. I'd been noodling with it for a few weeks, and I was confident that I had something that was adequately meaty material for a strong group like ours -- even one that's been through some changes and stress recently -- to tackle and really dig deep.

I was inspired by an indie game called AMARANTHINE by David A. Hill and Filamena Young, a game about immortal magicians whose lives were forever intertwined. I liked the sound of that game because I'd heard it emphasized romance and relationships, which are totally my bag, but I was a little disappointed that it had more invested in a novel system (including a lot of stuff about magic) that was not for me. But it had one very awesome tool (a lot of indie games are like this) that I latched on to right away. Each of the immortals describes his relationship with the others with a series of statements that begin: "I always...", "I once...", "I sometimes...", and "I never...". 

I immediately began imagining a game that resembled our TIANXIA campaign of a couple years ago, a time-spanning epic that was framed by a simple story about the characters reuniting in the present but unfolded their complicated backstory in flashbacks. This was something that was complex enough to hold our interest and challenge our storytelling skills.

When I pitched the game, luckily I happened to have the PDF of AMARANTHINE on my tablet, and when I described the "statements" tool to the players, I knew I had them hooked. But they wanted to know what this game was really going to be about -- what did the immortals do, they wanted to know. I hadn't really thought that far ahead. But I agreed to give it some thought.

I wasn't keen on the idea of the immortals being magicians, but I came around to liking something that Rob, one of the players, suggested. "Are they superheroes?" I initially rejected this idea, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense to me. I had been doing some reading on what kinds of ideas various cultures had about reincarnation, and the ones that interested me most were the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. I believe it was the latter that had a belief that the cycle of reincarnation would end if a person did enough good deeds. That certainly seemed like the premise of a superhero game of some sort. And the monsters and gods of Hindu myth were totally awesome, and I needed to use a bit of that.

Another piece of the puzzle was Sense8, the outstanding Netflix original series by the Wachowski siblings, Tom Tykwer, and J. Michael Straczynski. This was the kind of sprawling, character-centric epic story that I wanted to tell, with very interesting things to say about gender and sexuality, and hey, the awesome psychic powers were cool too. My immortals would look an awful lot like the sensates in that show, I decided. They would reincarnate in many different places around the world, taking on different races and genders in many lives, to the point where the idea of gender and race were very elastic concepts for them. The musclebound warrior in one life could be a middle-aged housewife in another with several children. The heroes would each be a microcosm of the entirety of the human experience.

And yes, they have kewl psychic powers. Maybe that's cheating on my "Buttwyth Magick" rule, but I'm okay with that.

The reincarnated heroes in my game eventually took the name Pilgrims, something that appealed to me because a large part of the game I was imagining had to do with faith. When you think of a person who reincarnates, living many lives in many places, you have to imagine that a person like that imagines what is happening to them is happening for a reason. That their incredible, unprecedented life of amazing deeds and memories of places that have been lost to history are not something random, but something with a purpose.

...What if they didn't?

The last ingredient of the game comes from my wonderful wife Megan, who has been working for many years now on her PhD dissertation on the Temperance movement. I was astonished to learn, as I think most people would, that the same organizations that pushed for Prohibition -- and won -- in the 1920s was still around in the modern era as late as the 1980s. But what did they do, when they had effectively won their fight sixty years ago, then somehow had victory slip away from them? That's an interesting story I'm sure she will tell in future work. But it was very inspirational to me.

The Pilgrims, I decided, would have a mission -- an Enemy to fight -- but none of them could claim to have ever met a god or divine being of some sort that told them they were to do this. The Enemy were evil, sure, delighting in causing destruction, mayhem, and pain, but the Pilgrims had no more certainty than the average human being that what they were doing to battle the Enemy was the right thing. Any bloody mistakes they'd made over the centuries were their own scars to bear, and only belief that doing the right thing would eventually be rewarded with release from the cycle of reincarnation carried them forward.

The Pilgrims had engaged in a final confrontation with the enemy in 1945, I decided, a kind of "Gotterdammerung" that all of them believed was for all the marbles. Many of them died the final death at the hands of the Enemy, but those that were cut down by bullets or explosions died expecting release at last. Except that relief didn't come. They reincarnated again, and as the game begins, in 1999, sixtyish years after the final victory, they are asking themselves... Why?

To be continued...

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