Ashcan Review Part 1: How We Came to Live Here

I’ve been reading through Brennan Taylor’s ashcan of How We Came to Live Here, which he has posted for download. This is fortunate, because this year conventions aren’t happening, so I unfortunately won’t be able to get any of these ashcans in person.

I have long been of the opinion, particularly after doing my undergraduate work in religious studies, that the vast majority of rpg magic systems are horrendously awful. Magic is basically nothing more than someone else’s religion. So often, magic systems are put out there which are entirely devoid of color and particularity, or their color and particularity are completely arbitrary and uninteresting.

I thought of this persona rant while reading How We Came to Live Here because it is so incredibly strong in this area for a lot of reasons, the most important of which might be that the magic system he presents is not a magic system at all – it is a life system. Unbelieveable! That what amounts to “magic” would just be people’s beliefs about how the world works and how they interact with that world and with each other! This is one of the only instances in fantasy in general, and in rpgs in particular, when the magic system has been anywhere near as interesting as the religions and occult practices here on planet Earth. ::Applause:: Like a good anthropologist, Taylor gives us an inside view of this culture which is different from, well, my culture at least, as well as his – an inside view which is affirmative. These things are true because they are true for the People. What you’re sort of swept into is this holistic system of life that is presented, where supernatural and mundane things are all caught up in the same over-arching system.

In effect, I think, a good “magic system” is one where there is not any “magic” at all, if by “magic” you mean something separate from the life of a particular people at a particular time. It always bothers me when Elves and Orcs approach magic like Enlightenment philosophers, relegating everything to its hermetically-sealed category, casting spells that have no real meaning in their lives, which aren’t based in anything important, which are essentially flashy-but-arbitrary shortcuts.

In contrast, the strength of HWCtLH in this regard comes from Brenna’s stated goal of representing, faithfully, a fantasy setting that is based on a culture that is not his own – that of the southwest American natives whom he lived near growing up and whose beliefs and practices he also studied in college. He describes his game as a king of fantasy setting for the Anasazi people rather than for northern Europeans. I think it is this change in viewpoint that enables him to make this excellent presentation of a “magic system” that is actually interesting and evocative, even compelling.

I will try to put together a playtest of this game. Right now, I’m jealously trying to finish Parsec so that I can move on with the lessons I’ve learned from my first foray into rpg publishing, and I’m also running a Spirit of Eberron game, but hopefully I can put something together so that I can give him some more concrete feedback on this game.

I can’t speak about the mechanics of the game so far – they seem like they’ll work on paper, but I’ll have to put that playtest together to actually figure them out. But I’m loving reading this book for its own sake, which hasn’t happened in a long time for me when it comes to rpg books. You can really tell that this is a labor of love, something that Taylor feels passionate about. It shows through even in his relatively simple, straightforward text. I look forward to test-driving it.

This was Part 1 – Part 2 will come when, and if, I get to run the game. Even if I don’t, I’ll probably have more to say about how I think it’ll work when dice hit table…

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