This is the third and final part of my ongoing conversation with Jason Caminsky about his upcoming rpg, New Fire. If you missed out earlier installments, part one can be found here and part two can be found here.
Today we talk about Jason’s game design process, the evolution of New Fire, and what you can expect gameplay to be like.
Could you describe how the game plays a little? Does it have more of an emphasis on action, or introspective character development, or big mythic adventure stories, or what? Have playtests been pretty consistent across the board, or have different people focused on different things?
The game definitely focuses on mythic adventure, though not necessarily on ‘travel to faraway lands’ adventure or ‘start weak and end up god-like’ mythic.
Throughout the game, players define goals that their characters are pursuing, referred to as ‘Destinies.’ Destinies represent situations the character is moving towards and will ultimately face. Another way to say it is that Destinies represent the things that the Player wants to explore with the character – it might be something like ‘Kill the nemesis of my family’ or something more modest, like ‘Discover a new variety of corn and bring it home.’
Destinies must be concrete goals, not general tendencies. For instance, ‘Protect the Weak’ would not be a good Destiny, because it can never be achieved. Instead, you would pick something like ‘Protect the village from harm during the war.’ That is a concrete goal that will come to pass – either the village will be destroyed, or the war will end.
When a character spends time working towards a Destiny, that Destiny gains points of Day Energy (the ‘XP’ of New Fire). The more time a character dedicates to a Destiny, the more XP it acquires (and the more intense the story leading up to it gets!). However, the character cannot claim and use the XP until the Destiny has been resolved, either successfully or otherwise.
The Players and Gamemaster narrate the action and events that occur along the way to these Destinies, trading narration according to the narrative dice mechanics of the game. During this time literally anything can happen, depending on what is narrated – a trip across the world or a story involving a dispute between two farming families are equally possible, and can be equally rewarding! It just depends on the tastes of the players.
The thing that keeps this moving forward, however, is a mechanic known as the Bleeding Sun.
At the beginning of a game Cycle (a “chapter” of a New Fire campaign), the Gamemaster secretly rolls up a pool of Day Energy points. Each session, a certain number of these points bleed away. Players who work towards their Destinies are able to catch these points as XP, but they bleed away regardless.
Eventually, there will be no Day Energy left, and at that point one of two things must happen: the Players must sacrifice an NPC who has had a meaningful role in the story (NPCs can catch Day Energy much like Destinies can), or a Player must narrate the death of his or her own character. This death replenishes the Bleeding Sun, ends the current game Cycle, and allows the story to continue in the next Cycle. If nobody steps up to keep the story going, it (and the campaign) ends.
If I had to summarize what New Fire is about (a very difficult thing for a game designer!), I would say that it is about living with the knowledge that you will die. Players must think about what they want their characters to do in the relatively short time available to them, and work to fill their characters’ lives with meaningful acts and experiences.
They must also think about the way in which that character will face his or her death, because it must come eventually, or the story and the world that story represents will end.
This mechanic mirrors one of the core spiritual ideas in the game: the world is sustained by the sacrifice of human life. Humans depend on the Sun, the Wind, and the Rain for life. But these things also depend on humans to offer up their life energy as nourishment and renewal. Therefore every story, no matter how mundane, has a mythic quality to it – it is a unique reflection of this central idea, a unique contribution to the world, offered in order to sustain the life of others.
What compelled your design decision to make the Day Energy pool secret rather than public knowledge? Or is it just the roll that is secret but then the pool becomes visible? Both have their benefits, I’m curious why you chose the one you did.
The roll and the pool are supposed to be kept secret. The idea is that this introduces an element of mystery and anticipatory dread for the Players, since they won’t know for sure when death will arrive. They will have to be ready for it right away, and will be thinking about it in each session, which shapes gameplay around the theme a little bit more and also drives home the central question of the game–how do you live knowing that you will die? It encourages Players to get the most out of each session, because they do not know exactly how many more sessions they will have.
It also removes the temptation to think about it tactically–if the Players know they have 6 more sessions before the Bleeding Sun runs dry, it is hard not to make choices based around that time frame. It would emphasizes the planning, rather than the gameplay. They may ignore stories they would otherwise follow up on, manipulate NPC interactions, and in general treat it more like a problem to be solved rather than an unsolveable question to ponder.
One of the difficulties in designing a game is figuring out how to convey ideas and emotions to the Players as well as the Characters. For example, most horror games focus on putting the Characters in dangerous and scary situations. This works to the extent that Players project themselves into their Character, but because there is nothing you can actually do to endanger the Player you lose the real impact of the situation. For instance, I as a Player don’t really suffer anything if my Character gets infected with some horrible zombie disease, because I can’t feel the pain or the nausea or the gnawing hunger for the flesh of humanity or anything like that. A lot of games represent these things through penalties to actions, but that isn’t really scary. It’s annoying! And it only really affects the tactics of the game. That is why so many horror games are, in reality, particularly gory action games. In order to really bring the Player into the situation, you have to structure the game such that the impact of the situation reaches out of the game world and affects the Player directly.
The same is true in New Fire. The full impact of a sacrifice cannot be felt simply by describing it happen to the Characters. It must be conveyed in ways that reach out and touch the Players. This is why it is up to the Players to determine the death of their Character–it turns it into a conscious, deliberate choice rather than an unavoidable result. And that is why it works best if the Day Energy pool is kept secret–the fear the Players feel is that they may not be able to satisfy their goals with the Character before that Character dies, and the resolution to that fear is to “get busy living,” so to speak!
It probably won’t break the game to do it with open Day Energy, and some groups might prefer to have that information to better plan their story arcs. But death and the survival of the world is a constant concern, not something that can be planned for, and I believe the game ultimately works better and delivers a truer experience with the Day Energy pool kept secret.
NPCs can capture Day Energy…does it change them in some way, like with player characters? Who decides if an NPC is “significant” enough to qualify for sacrifice? Does the sacrifice have to be drawn from the pool of characters and NPCs immediately available to the player characters the moment the last experience point is claimed?
Perhaps I should clarify: when I say that NPCs capture Day Energy, I don’t mean they capture it for themselves. They capture it for the Players, much like the Players’ Destinies capture Day Energy. An NPC gains Day Energy each time the Players spend time dealing with that NPC. The NPC can be a friend, a villain, or simply a neutral who is particularly involved in the story somehow, but the more often he or she is involved with the story, the more Day Energy he or she acquires. This Day Energy is released when the NPC is sacrificed, and goes to refill the Bleeding Sun in place of a PC being killed. The Day Energy that NPCs gather indicates their significance in the story, and represents the value they have _to the Players_.
This serves a number of functions. Firstly, it prevents Players from simply killing off a constant stream of new NPCs that nobody cares about. Their choice is to either narrate the death of their own character, or to sacrifice an NPC they have spent some time with in their place. Until an NPC has at least some relevance to the story (and has therefore captured some Day Energy), sacrificing him or her means nothing.
That is a big idea that I wanted to feature prominently in New Fire, because it’s something that a lot of people misunderstand about sacrifice, both human and otherwise. The entire point of a sacrifice is that it is Hard. If it were easy, then it wouldn’t be a sacrifice! The reason the Aztecs sacrificed humans was not because they thought human life was worthless. It was because they thought it was the most valuable thing there was.
Many depictions of Mesoamerican sacrifices really play up the sheer body count and brutality of it, which has lead to the misunderstanding and ends up really missing some of the most unique drama and symbolism of the practice. A person destined for sacrifice would sometimes spend months or even years before actually being offered. During this time the captor and captive would often grow very close to one another, rehersing the ritual and living day in and day out in close proximity.
It was the captor’s job to ensure that the captive was able to face the sacrifice bravely. A pathetic, terrified captive would bring shame to the captor, so it was important that the captor do everything he could to make the captive as strong and brave as possible. If the captive was afraid, the captor would have to bolster his courage and help him through it. If the captive was sick or injured, the captor would have to brings healers. In some ways this is not unlike the relationship between a parent and a child, and in fact captors often referred to their captives as ‘My Honored Son’ or ‘Honored Child.’
This captor-captive relationship was mirrored in the relationship between a mother and her child. Childbirth was seen as the female equivalent of war, and the child was seen as the mother’s “Little Captive.” She would raise and care for and love her child, but she would always know that the child was ultimately destined for a life of hardship and sacrifice. Whether the child would grow up to die in battle, during childbirth, or from old age, that child was ultimately created to face death. And the ideal people strove for was to face death bravely.
I find this relationship absolutely fascinating, because in many ways it is the reverse of what happens in most games, and what happens in the everyday life of many people. People distance themselves from death and from the dying and from people they are going to lose, and often even dehumanize them. It is something we would rather not be reminded of. But in New Fire, the way to deal with death is to face it and become as close to it as possible.
This NPC Day Energy mechanic not only rewards Players for sacrificing the NPCs that mean the most to them (evident by how often they have cropped up in the story), it requires the Players to develop relationships with those they sacrifice in their place so that every time it happens, it means something.
Another clarification: the phrase “Sacrifice an NPC” doesn’t necessarily mean that the PCs must literally cut the heart out of that NPC. It means that the Players must narrate the death of that NPC in some way that involves their characters. The NPC might die despite the character trying to save them, for instance, or die by the hand of another NPC far away as a result of the characters’ actions. They may even die from an accident or natural causes, so long as there is some connection to the PC. They do not have to be close to the PC spatially. But they do have to be close to the PC narratively. So long as the narration is plausible, anything goes. But ultimately the point of the mechanic is that the Players experience the loss of someone significant to them in the story. The Sacrifice is aimed at the Player, not necessarily at the Characters. It reaches out of the game.
As far as determining significance, the NPC must have at least one point of Day Energy acquired in order for the Players to “get anything” out of killing them off. If the NPC has not yet featured in the story, killing them will not affect the Bleeding Sun.
Has a group ever decided to not make a sacrifice and just let the story end? Is there any kind of epilogue to provide some sort of closure?
Unfortunately, most of our playtesting games have ended due to time constraints rather than as a natural result of the story. New Fire is definitely a game to be played over extended periods of time, and one of the things I am most looking forward to after finishing it is to sit down and just play the damn thing, without a production schedule in mind and without constantly taking notes and looking for problems to fix!
For my part, I have always crafted some sort of epilogue to tie things up. I always try to include a major change to the world–the rise of a new city, the fall of an old one, a major change in the landscape, etc. One of the interesting ideas I’ve come across is the idea of the concept of ‘world’ in Mesoamerica. When most people hear about ‘the end of the world,’ they picture some Book of Revelations style apocalypse that physically destroys everything there is and leaves nothing behind. But that is not necessarily true of a Mesoamerican world. Mesoamerican mythological history encompasses several ages, each comprised of people very different than the people of today. Each age rose, and ended in catastrophe, but afterwards there was always a new race of people, a reordering of the world, and a new age.
In New Fire, there is the idea that the physical landscape of the gameworld is not the only thing that makes it a world. It is the meaning given to the different landmarks, and different people will find different meaning in the same landscape. A house may be inhabited by many families over the years. One family moves in, lives for a time, and then moves out. Another family moves in. Repeat. Though they all live in the same house, each family creates its own Home. In this sense, each New Fire campaign, each continuous story, is its own World.
What do you have planned for the future? I know you have some ideas for New Fire supplements…what will those be like? What other games might you have percolating in that noggin of yours?
Ultimately, I’m trying not to get too ahead of myself! There’s still a lot to do for the core rulebook, and I want to concentrate on delivering the best possible version of that before I start anything else. But that being said, I do have some ideas and sketches for future New Fire books.
The one that seems to be getting the most response from people so far is the Journey of the Dead supplement. Journey of the Dead would expand the setting and provide rules for playing games set not in the living world, but in the Underworld. Death in New Fire is more a transformation than an end. The dead enter into the dark and gloomy Land of the Fleshless and embark on a long, terrifying journey down through the levels of the Underworld, each one full of challenges and trials that the dead must overcome.
I think this has a lot of potential, and I am very excited to get to work on it (after releasing the core book and taking a little break, of course!).
I would also like to offer smaller supplements expanding and deepening the world (there is only so much that we can put into a single core book without making it look like a dictionary, after all) and offering additional character options. Much of this will depend on how much response we get, however. I am very interested in getting player feedback on the world and the professions, and seeing what sorts of things resonate with people.
One thing I will not be doing, however, is a Conquistador supplement. A few people have been asking about this (though not as many as I predicted, which I find very encouraging, actually!), but I have no intention of doing one. Everybody already knows the story of the Conquistadors! New Fire is about telling stories you haven’t heard before. Mesoamerican people should be able to have their own spaces.
As far as other games, I certainly have plenty of ideas! I don’t think ideas are ever the limiting factor for a game designer – Time is what we lack! I’m not sure if I will continue working with Mesoamerican themes, or if I will leave those with New Fire and explore some other settings.
I have an idea for a card game designed to help ballet dancers practice in a fun way. The player takes on the role of a beautiful Ballerina or virile Ballerino who, during late practice one night, is teleported into a magical world inhabited by characters from all the classic ballets. The player must journey through this world, defeating enemies using randomly generated dance moves, and ultimately confront one of several major ballet villains. If he/she succeeds, he/she becomes the new Prince/Princess of Ballet Land (or whatever I end up calling it). If he/she is defeated, it turns out it was ‘all a dream.’
It is actually going to be a (late) birthday present for Di (my wonderful girlfriend), but if it turns out well I think it would be fun to release it!
And there you have it! Thanks for sticking with us, and thanks to Jason and Di for indulging me in thousands and thousands of words. As always, the comments section is open, so let’s talk! Also, there’s still time to become a backer of New Fire… visit its Kickstarter page.