Friday, January 25, 2013

Designing Sharazad

Some of you may have played my Sharazad storygame (and if you haven't, please do give it a look!) and been wondering what it's final version is going to look like (or at least, where I got the idea).

I wanted to show how cultures evolve. I wanted to demonstrate how a culture accumulates baggage, and releases it when it is no longer necessary.

So, I thought, "What is the most basic unit of culture?". And then it hit me. Stories.

Stories tell you a lot about the culture that created them, as long as you understand the basic context. As an example, look at the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The LORD sends two angels to visit Lot (a pattern you will see in many cultures with a hospitality tradition. There are myths about Zeus, Odin, and a number of other deities doing this. The odd thing here is that the LORD is working through agents). Lot invites them in, as a Good Host is supposed to do. Then the Sodomites demand that Lot allow them to take sexual advantage of his guests (the epitome of Being A Bad Host is to attack guests in one's home/city), to which he responds by offering them his daughters (who are, by the rules of that day, his most valuable property), showing that he is willing to place the well-being of his guests above that of his family, which a Good Host is supposed to do. The LORD visits him, and gives him warning that He will destroy the city (Lot's reward for being a Good Host is to avoid the punishment of the Bad Hosts). Lot thus flees the city as it burns behind him.

From this we learn a few thing about the ancient Hebrews:
  1. The Hebrews had a strong hospitality tradition. Anyone with a home was supposed to welcome travelers, and there were clearly-defined rules for how both host and guest were to interact, including that the host was to protect the guest from attackers.
  2. The Hebrews had an almost Manichean view of Good and Evil. The Good Host is almost completely Good, offering his daughters to the mob without hesitation. The Bad Hosts are completely Bad for very little reason, attacking guests in their city for almost no reason at all. In the end, Good is rewarded and Evil is punished. (Granted, most of the stories in the Bible operate on almost fairytale-like logic, with conflicts and motivations simplified to an absurd degree, but the point still stands.)
  3. The Hebrews had a very different view of women than we do today. Modern society frowns on the idea that Lot's adult daughters were his to offer, especially in that way. By the standards of the Hebrews, any woman in Lot's household was his property unless she was brought by a guest, and he could do anything he liked with her.
With that example out of the way, how can we go about turning "stories-are-culture" into a game?

We put the player in the role of a storyteller. "Tell Story" is the most basic verb of the game, with a broad variety of possible variations: Tell Cautionary Tale, Tell History Of The Tribe, Tell Subversive Story, Tell Account Of The Tribe's Enemies, Tell Fable Of Morality, Tell Speculation Of The Future, and so on. Those variations are complex enough that they call for their own minigame, which is what currently exists of Sharazad.

So, next (once all aspects of the minigame are complete), Sharazad will begin touching on culture. Some storylets in the minigame grant qualities, such as Prepared, Ritualistic, or Compassionate. At the end of the story, you can turn these in for cultural traits like Survivalism, Shibboleths, or Cohesion. To keep you from getting obscene amounts of all traits, there's two restrictions in place.

First, each trait costs Head Space. There's only so much indoctrination you can do, and only so many things you can remember. Advances in nutrition or education might increase this, but you have to work for them.

Second, there's sets of opposing traits. You can't be both Authoritarian and Egalitarian, nor can you be both Insular and Open, nor Survivalist and Curious. You can't gain a trait while possessing an opposing trait.

And that requires that if you want to change your culture, you have to dump some of your traits. You can make your story Subversive using certain actions in the tale, challenging cultural assumptions, and losing some of your audience. In one telling of the story, the angels were some of Lot's friends, and he fought the mob to protect them. In another, he threw them onto the street when they asked for lodging, or demanded payment. Since these challenge the standing rules of the society, they are Subversive actions. When you reach the end of the story, you can choose to oppose a standing cultural trait if you are Subversive enough; this removes one level of the trait and returns the Head Space it cost.

And then the next step in the development of Sharazad. The traits interact with the culture's environment. A Fast-Breeding culture develops Population quickly enough to replace what it loses to predation or warfare. A Survivalist culture is prepared to deal with creatures in the woods. An Open culture is able to learn new technologies and ways of thinking from its neighbors. A culture with Shibboleths is better able to resist being influenced by outsiders.

The player gains Turns, which are used to make cultural adjustments or develop Population, Technological Advantage, and the like; and then spend them on specific developments. Then, once the player has no Turns left, it's the world's turn. The player draws Opportunity cards, which allow xim to burn through the World's Turns. These cards represent threats to the culture (such as outsiders, wild animals, diseases, and so on) and challenge certain cultural traits, although some of them can simply be "bought off" with developments.

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