Review: How We Came to Live Here

With apologies to Brennan Taylor – this is far later than I’d originally hoped.

The very deserving 2010 Ennie nominee for Best Writing, and the game that I personally voted for in that category, is How We Came to Live Here by Brennan Taylor through Galileo Games.  Here’s the blurb that goes with the game:

“The People have emerged into a strange new world, a world ruled by monsters. They must carve a place for themselves in this hostile place. Tell the tales of mythic heroes facing the threat of terrible monsters from outside, while at the same time finding their way within the strict rules and expectations of their family and their village.

HOW WE CAME TO LIVE HERE is a story-telling game which evokes the myths and legends of the Native American people. Within the game, characters must navigate their own ambitions and desires, the conflicting demands of their fellow villagers, and the ever-present threat of monsters and natural disasters from outside: Your own ambition could lead you down a path of corruption.”

First of all, I like what HWCTLH attempts to do, which is to set what is essentially a fantasy game in something other than pseudo-Europe.  As I said, Brennan Taylor was very much deserving of his Ennie nod for Best Writing on this game, which is lucky, because for the most part, when I buy cool indie games, it is with the understanding that I may never get the chance to play them.  The writing style isn’t flashy or over-eloquent, it is simply direct and appropriate to the game.  I don’t personally know a great deal about Native American mythology and culture, but what the game text does very well is to evoke a way of viewing the world, from the use of names on up, that is very different from modern America.

As with last time, I want to point out three things about the book that I thought were great, and then at the end point out any weaknesses that I thought I saw.  Because I am a gamer and a writer, I am going to talk about aspects of the game I like as well as aspects of the way the book is written that I like.

Opening Fiction
Lots of roleplaying games begin with a bit of fiction – White Wolf is kind of famous for this, but many games do it, and almost universally this is a poor use of space in the book.  Game fiction is nowhere near at the level that basic genre fiction is most of the time – it is at best a step up from read-aloud box-text in your average adventure module.  This is likely because the skills required to write an engaging instruction manual (which is a lot of what games are) and the skills required to write an engaging story are similar but distinct.  It’s definite possible to be good at one and not the other.

HWCTLH begins with the mythic story, briefly told, of the first four worlds.  the game is about stories told in the Fifth World, after all, so one immediately wonders – what came before?  I don’t know a lot about Native American mythology, but I have read some myths and stories and poems in translation, where the particularities of syntax are retained, and I think that Taylor does a good job of emulating this.

To make a ‘story’ short; I actually read this game’s opening story, and I’m glad I did.  I can’t remember, as i sit here, the last time I could honestly say that.  It gives important information and begins to set the tone for the reset of the book and for other stories players will tell in the Fifth World.

Call-Out Text and the Soul of Wit
As I said, Brennan Taylor has a more difficult task in writing this game book than is the case with 99% of the gaming books out there.  He is unable to make reference to common tropes.  Because of this, there are points at which the text needs to take an educational term.  In HWCTLH, this accomplished in simple, half-page text boxes on topics like the number four, or people who are transgendered.
What I particularly like is that I’ve read longer descriptions of Elves and Dwarves than the text boxes in HWCTLH – and everyone knows what a damn Dwarf is.  But who knows about the status of transgendered people in the Fifth World?  At 214 pages, HWCTLH is longer than many other indie titles, but the text is relatively large, and the writing is very efficient.
Magic: Bones and Ghosts
Magic systems in games is an ongoing, serious annoyance for me.  Almost without exception, they are terrible.  I realize that in all three of my main comments, I’m comparing HWCTLH with other games.  Even without these comparisons, or my pet peeves that drive them, it is an excellent book.  It’s just that what stands out to me is what Brennan Taylor does well which so many other games do poorly.
In the Fifth World, Kiva societies are something like secret societies, divided by gender, which player-characters can be part of.  The various Kiva societies are based around some kind of secret knowledge or techniques – something like Guilds were in the Middle Ages perhaps.  Two of those societies are focused on men’s magic and women’s magic respectively: the Bone Society and the Ghost society.
The two societies, though one is for men and one is for women, are really very similar in their core description.  Initiates must face the fear of death and must answer questions demonstrating their knowledge of the spirits.  They start off their time as initiates by stealing bones from graves or stealing personal items from potential victims of the harmful magic they can learn to wield.  Both are feared, and if discovered members of these kivas will often be driven out of their village or killed.  All the same, people seek them out because of the power they wield.
I like these descriptions, as emblematic of the many kivas the book describes, because each paragraph implies a story or a focus for a session for a particular character.  From the very beginning  you are taking serious risks, breaking the taboo against touching dead bodies and sneaking into the homes of people you’ve known your whole life.  As you grow in power, you also grow in risk and become more monstrous.
The gender differentiation is even more pronounced when we get to heroic traits and dice-pools.  Men and women have different Skill, Strength, Spirit and Faith traits – they are, as the game is designed, going to be good at different things, or to accomplish their goals in different ways.  Though this is alien to modern sensibilities, it is a great point where the system reinforces the setting.
Sneaky Fourth: Inside and Outside
It is difficult  not to just reiterate the entire book; as I read through it, I find more and more that I like.  One distinct thing that HWCTLH does is to split the job of GM into Inside Player and Outside Player.  During village creation and the creation of the village web (setting-building and creating a web of relationships), the Inside Player and Outside Player are just two more players adding their input.
When scenes are framed, they are either Inside scenes or Outside scenes – referring to the scene involving issues within the village or outside in the wilderness.  The job of the Inside and Outside Players are familiar from other story games, or even from a board game like Descent – to spend their resources and create tension and adversity for the Hero Players.
I like two things about the split in particular: one is that with what are essentially two GMs, the table itself is going to be a reminder of the divide in the game and the society between inside the village and outside the village.  This is perhaps something similar to the effect in Polaris of people taking various roles depending on where they are sitting with regard to the player upon whom play is focusing at the time; or, perhaps, in Wraith: the Oblivion where a Wraith’s Shadow is another player who is there to tempt, convince, cajole and coerce.
I also like that the existence of the Inside Player means there are going to be plenty of scenes where relationships in the village are at risk, rather than rushing off to fight monsters or rival tribes.  There are definitely going to be times when the “Big Bad” is going to be an elder taking another wife, or one kiva society vandalizing another kiva.
Weaknesses
A big weakness for me is that my attempts to put together a group to playtest, and then simply to play, How We Came to Live Here were never successful.  This was due to a paucity of players in the area I recently moved to.  This means that my level of expertise on this game is, thus far, having read through it twice, once when it first came out, and once again to refresh my memory on what I wanted to talk about.
If the book has any weakness, it is that the layout, graphic design and so on are simple.  My main concern here would be that this fact might take away from the game itself, or might dissuade people from picking it up.
Conclusion
In my view, as written, this book is worthwhile even if it was handwritten on napkins, or was just a Microsoft Word document.  The book is $10 as a pdf, and it is more than you will get for that amount of money from almost any other game.
4.5 out of 5 stolen human bones

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