“I’m confused: Whose ass am I kicking, now?”

February 14, 2012

Conflict is the heart of fiction, and nowhere is that more true than gaming.  In the past, I’ve designed settings that ran facefirst into the question, “…but what do you DO with it?”  It’s my hope that with HORIZON, I can answer this clearly, early, and with a lot of sweet options.

Recently, I wrote a bit (in a different game) discussing John Carpenter’s The Thing, one of my favorite horror movies, because it really is a picture perfect example of threat and how to handle it.  In The Thing there are environmental threats (the antarctic winter outside), social threats (the increasingly paranoid humans, all trapped together) and one big icky threat (the Thing, which looks like chewed food and makes people look like chewed food).

You may have noticed that HORIZON has three social groups, the Walkers, the Riders and the Above.  They all have their individual strengths, weaknesses, preoccupations and stereotypes of one another.
The Walkers see themselves as the hard-workin’, underappreciated, sensible salt-of-the-earth types who may not have a lot of fancy property but by gum they know the value of family and loyalty.  HORIZON’s values voters, if you like.  They see the Riders as brash, uncouth, violent and dammit, just too sexy to tolerate.  As for the Above, they might as well be another species, with their lives of learning and privilege and owning things.  Where the Above lie on the continuum between awe and contempt varies from Walker to Walker, but there’s just not a lot of fellow feeling.  They’re either regarded as straight up better (the way Americans tend to view celebrities) or they’re chiseling parasites who do more harm than good (the way Americans tend to view politicians).

Riders, on the other hand, are arrogant, stylish, competent and courageous.  That’s what they like to see and try to be.  The precious things of the Above may be interesting or attractive, but most Riders would rather be known for making that perfect long-distance bow shot right up the stag’s nose (to leave the pelt intact) than have any object owned by anyone, anywhere.   (A really good horse might be an exception, but Riders tend to view horses less like possessions and more like life-partners.)  They consider Walkers their inferiors, a grasping and sometimes pitiful class that produce necessities.  The best Walkers can rise above to become Riders, and the worst Riders can fail to the point that they lose their mounts and are forced to grub in the soil to survive.  Sad, but that’s social mobility for you.  As for the Above, they’re too smart for their own good and get to make a lot of decisions that they think matter but which, to the Riders, are inconsequential.  They’re soft, unless they started out as Riders.  Riders who go Above are respected for their abilities, because you don’t get that kind of acceptance unless you’re really good at what you do but… they’re seen as sort of treacherous.  Or maybe perverse.  Either way, they succumbed to the temptations of power and possessions, rather than remaining true to what matters — honor, speed and the bow.

Then we get to the Above, who prize display, status, ability and cunning.  They’re the holders of specialized knowledge (what there is of it), the people who can tell you why your stock aren’t thriving, who can treat your daughter’s fever, who can build you a better bow or put a better edge on your axe than you’ll get with a flat stone.  More than that, they consider themselves the leaders.  Walkers are trying to stay alive day-to-day, and Riders are like overgrown children, concerned only with glory and blood.  Those Above play the long game.  The chief among the Above literally set the course for the whole tribe.  If they decide poorly, the Walkers wind up scavenging fields that have already been picked over and the Riders have to uncomfortably share hunting grounds with other tribes.  If they make the right choice, things are better for all and no one even knows what they did.

So: We now have three social groups, focussed on pragmatism, ideas, or awesomeness.  We have three categories of threat, environmental, violent, and social.  The focus of the gaming group determines what kind of conflict is likely to pull them in.

If you have a group of Riders, it’s going to be about prowling through the woods, running into tribeless bandits and fighting them, or Riders from other tribes (who may want a friendly horse race, or to have some light fistfighting for bragging rights, or who may want to knock you out and brand you as a slave, depending), or squabbling with Riders within your tribe, or you could wind up hunting that thing that leaves huge footprints and has been dragging off Walkers’ animals in the night.

Walker groups, on the other hand, are going to focus more on survival issues and the tough choices that arise when there just isn’t always enough for everyone.  Illness and famine and injury are a big deal when you have to move yourself every day to keep up, or else be left behind, alone, in a wilderness that slowly closes in as your people get farther and farther away.  But if we’ve learned anything from zombie movies, it’s that every survival conflict scenario is fertile soil for interpersonal conflict.  Walkers are a good choice for more investigative games, because the kinds of mysteries that occupy Walkers are the kind you can’t ignore – the kind that kill.  What is dragging off the animals and why are the Riders afraid to go after it.  Who’s pilfering from the stores and how they hell are they getting away with it?

Those Above are also clearly a class with plenty of social conflict potential.  They adjudicate disputes, settle problems, inevitably leave one side unsatisfied and, let’s not forget, own everything.  They’ve got the most to lose and they’re the ones making the decisions that could send them to war against another tribe for the first time in generations, or else escalate the tensions within a tribe into open warfare for the first time ever.  If the pressure on the Walkers arises from being unable to control their own destinies, the pressure on Those Above comes from knowing that hundreds of innocents might suffer every time they make a bad decision.

A mixed group, on the other hand, leaves all your options open and may be the absolute ideal for PCs because it’s so unusual.  What kind of Above hangs out with a Rider and befriends a couple Walkers?  The kind who plays by his own rules and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks!  As for Walkers who ‘get ideas above their station,’ doesn’t that just mean they’re not content to eat dust, that they want something more from life than its mere continuance?  Iconoclasts, dreamers and passionate ideologues are the kinds of characters who tend to come at a GM’s plots from weird angles, banging them into exciting new places and, often, generating new ones in the process.


5 Responses to ““I’m confused: Whose ass am I kicking, now?””

  1. gregstolze Says:

    Oh, and I’m pretty sure recent changes to Federal copyright law require me to wish you a happy Valentines’ Day.

  2. How sciency is this “fantasy science” thingie going to be?

    Like, do we have to worry about how long suteraps live? Do we have to worry about what they eat? Should I be imagining forests of fast growing things (maybe something like bamboo) that replenish themselves over the course of the suterap migrations? Should I care what a dead suterap is good for? Is it edible? Does it have any precious oils? Are suteraps mammals? Can you build on the females, or do the males “cover” the females when they mate? Maybe they don’t give milk and have no genders. Are they very solitary (chasing each other away except during mating season), or can you herd them, like if you have a very big prosperous tribe? Are there any animals related to suteraps? No is an acceptable answer, since I can’t think of anything that is related to the horse, or the elephant.

    Because right now I’m imagining giant turtle-hippo-caterpillars, like crawling whales, eating forests of bamboo. They average 40 miles a day but meander around a lot so they can meet up with foragers (walkers) twice a day. “At noon we will meet at the Fadh Veb river to take on clay for the potters. Camp at the fish weirs of Ascoby. We will arrive there at dawn.”

    The mounted hunters can cross up to 60 miles in a day on horseback, so you might not see them except once a week, when they have meat to trade for fruit and craft items. Or if they have sick or injured that they would want to leave with the slower members of their tribe.

    I imagine Rider clans taking their horse herds out to the fields while the strong hunt. Herdsmen (mostly herdswomen, galloping while hunting is not for people who have yet to invent sports bras or who might be caring for young children) could milk horses, or butcher knackered horses. Horses have to come from somewhere, and they only live about 10 years so you don’t get one and keep it your whole life, plus riding the same one all day every day is not a good idea (unless you’re Frank Hopkins).

    I imagine walkers mostly walking, foraging along the way, with wagons for food storage, sick people, old people and for tools that they use infrequently. “The suterap will not enter the Onui Wood. Gather all the mulberries and cocoons that you can for the Silk Festival. We will meet you on the far side of the forest.”

    If all this is too sciency, or not sciency enough, just set us strait.

    Also, if you want historical “hinges” are you going to maintain someplace on-line where we can submit how we’ve chosen to develop our tribes, and you can post the best ones, something like a table top version of Spore, so we can take the tribes of other gaming groups and use them in our own games?

  3. gregstolze Says:

    Eventually, I’d like it to be pretty scientific. Yes, suterraps die and their bodies get plundered for useful stuff, but I doubt they’re edible. I figure they reproduce without intercourse, just for scale and taste considerations. Certainly there’s nothing related to them on the humans’ continent, though God only knows what’s in those turbulent oceans.

    You’re right about Walkers rendezvousing with the suterrap, or some push themselves ahead (using draft animals for the heavy pulling), fell some trees, and dress them while waiting for everyone else to catch up.


  4. Kairam Says:

    Please tell where do we find your The Thing comments.


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