RPG Review – How We Came to Live Here

Brennan Taylor's Anasazi-like RPG How We Came to Live Here Copyright: Galileo Games

How We Came to Live Here
Brennan Taylor
Copyright: Galileo Games

Despite once being nearly wiped off the face of the planet, the Native American culture of the early Americas has a flavor that if nothing else offers a unique experience to Gamers. Brennan Taylor’s How We Came to Live Here is a role-play heavy RPG that ‘takes its inspiration from the mythology of the people native to the American Southwest’—specifically the Anasazi.

The Anasazi, which in the Native American dialect of Navajo means “Ancient Ones” (or “Ancient Enemies”) were a groups of people who resided in present day Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. They’re known culturally for constructing cliff dwellings: rock, stone and adobe mud built homes that were carved into the vertical faces of cliffs and that were sometimes only accessible via rope or by rock climbing. (They’re also famous for having their very own X-Files episode, “Anasazi”– one that implies that their entire culture just might have come from aliens, instead of course being spectacularly indigenous)

Cliff Palace, at Mesa Verde Public Domain

Cliff Palace, at Mesa Verde
Pueblo People cliff dwellings
Public Domain

The world of How We Came to Live Here (HWCH) is therefore set in a distinctly and obviously non-Eurocentric setting that has a hugely different approach to the concept of role-playing.

Similar to Brian K Vaughn’s Saga comic which chronicles a family instead of a superhero, HWCH places its emphasis on the village, community and relationships that exist inside the shared world that players create at the table instead of simply a single party of random adventurers.

The (Game Play) Goals

The unique thing about How We Came to Live Here, like most indie games, is that there is no ultimate character leveling that players strive for.

Instead, players work to create a shared experience with one another at the table: again something no different than any other RPG out there. However the emphasis in HWCH is on creating and building a community full of relationships while at the same time balancing their characters own unique and individual Ambitions. Ambitions are positive or negative experiences within the game world that impact their character on a personal level. The game chooses to define these conflicting goals through its rather interesting Village Web (explained later).

Through relationships and Ambitions, How We Came to Live Here focuses on creating tales, and myths—memories of these shared experiences that are developed through game-play. These memories or stories all take place within the context of this pseudo-Anasazi culture the game is based upon, and overall the game does a pretty great job of facilitating this process throughout.

Player Characters

How We Came to Live Here - Character Sheet Copyright: Galileo Games (Fair Use)

How We Came to Live Here – Character Sheet
Copyright: Galileo Games (Fair Use)

How We Came to Live Here starts and ends with a village. From the outset the game stresses a communal mentality and the very first thing you do in the game is come up with this concept of a distinct and common village from which all characters come from.

The source book, available in-print and via digital download, goes into great length on how to construct a village name that fits within the unique world view of the Fifth World, the pseudo-Anasazi setting of the RPG. Nouns and verbs are the building blocks of naming conventions within the game with Sky Village, Yellow Plains Village or Raging River Village expected iterations meant to embody a village concept. Likewise, PC-names are given descriptive parameters as well.

Following the village name, players choose their clans. And this is where character differentiation first comes into play, and also where the mythology, culture and world-immersion starts.

In the Fifth World mythology of How We Came to Live Here, a make-believe fable crafted by the designer to describe a creation story, clans are given the equal of traits most gamers would identify as racial abilities from games like your standard fare of D&D. Instead of Human, Gnome and Dwarf, you have clans like the Wolf Clan, the Sweet Water Clan, the Sparrow Clan and the Red Earth Clan. Through these unique family lineages, players take on traits, for example famous warriors, spiritual leaders, warm and caring caretakers and others, all of which lay the groundwork for what a player has as a starting concept for their character.

The emphasis with these clan traits is again, the village. Players are asked how these adopted traits will come into play with others within their village. There is no emphasis on magic, ranged weapons, immunity to sleep or other crunch material. Instead there is an explicit description of how clans are viewed within the context of the communities around them: leaders, warriors, spiritual elders and the like.

Following clans, players next decide on gender. Notice gender, not sex.

Unlike traditional gaming, How We Came to Live Here places a great deal of emphasis on gender, with characters being allowed to do certain things within the context of their gender as opposed to their biological sex. While the traditional roles of gender are largely followed, with women being caretakers and cooks, tasked with raising animals and the like while men are focused on dog training, fighting and wrestling, within the game there is a nod towards the transgendered and players have the option of playing a specific sex, but then playing towards a gender that could in fact be the opposite of this, recognizing the differentiated binary of the two, clearly based on historical traits that in some respects were centuries ahead of their time in terms of equality, and unsurprisingly entirely non-Euro-centric in formation– see Two Spirits.

A Male two-spirit engaged in weaving, or as the English and Spanish settlers colloquially refered to them as 'sodomites'Source: FirstPeople.us

A Male two-spirit engaged in weaving, or as the English and Spanish settlers colloquially referred to them as ‘sodomites’
Source: FirstPeople.us

Despite this openness, gender is a pretty important character element in the game and defines specific activities that player characters are allowed to do without consequence in the game world. These activities affect how their village views them, either favorably or as Criminals. Crimes are transgressions the game defines as ranging from as small a thing as lying to outright murder and rape. Crimes themselves are one of the games core mechanics in terms of plot devices and storytelling and one of the most developed things in the overall system itself.

Once this character groundwork is done, ability scores, what the game calls Pools are chosen next. Unlike your standard Strength, Dexterity or Intelligence traits, How We Came to Live Here relies on amorphous groupings of descriptive ones like Skill, Strength (well, obviously Strength is included), Spirit and Faith being the primary ‘stats’ which are then broken down into descriptive terms within these like Household, Motherhood, Kinship and Fidelity. The Pools are shorthand for the games other core mechanic, the Dice Pool (explained later).

Names are chosen next, with nouns and verbs being the standard: so Running Leg, High Laugh and Catches Wolves are the expected variations (likewise, X-Files Cancer-man or Smoking Man plays a nice homage to the native culture, some four-hundred years after the beginnings of eradication). As interesting as the other bits about characterization are this is actually the first chance for uniqueness in the game in terms of character development simply for the fact that it is the first open-ended choice that players must make, but one that can heavily define their gaming experience.

For instance, the character in my current How We Came to Live Here campaign is called, Makes-Good-Arrows (or he was anyway—explained later). The implications in the name are obvious, but somewhat more ambiguous and thought-provoking are the other PCs: Hits the Mark, Loves the Strange and Raging River. Here for the first time the true beauty of the game begins to be felt as players look to really embody a concept for their character, rather than a way of simply playing a rote concept (i.e. the dwarf cleric). It’s a subtle difference, but one that is highly individualistic per player.

How We Came to Live Here - Medicine Kiva Copyright: Galileo Games (Fair Use)

How We Came to Live Here – Medicine Kiva
Copyright: Galileo Games (Fair Use)

Once you have a name your next step is choosing a class—or rather which Kiva Society or Societies you belong to. Kivas are specific membership groupings within a community and are the games equivalent of classes. Their closest European counterparts would probably be Guilds.

However, rather than a warrior guild, mage guild or thieves guild,  the Kivas in How We Came to Live Here correspond to more humanistic duties that these societies perform within their villages.

For example, good hunters can be found in the Dog Society, clerics and wizards correspond to the Ghost Kiva (if they are males) or the Bone Kiva (for females). From the outset you have these Societies full of individuals who are good hunters, metalworkers, holy members, caretakers of the dead and warriors, with rankings within individual societies serving as the traditional and ubiquitous ‘class levels’.  While most of these societies are open in terms of membership and duties, others are secretive and even nefarious in purpose, giving the game the perfect vehicle for conflict.

The next and most important part of character creation is crating the Village Web.

How We Came to Live Here - Village Web Copyright: Galileo Games (Fair Use)

How We Came to Live Here – Village Web
Copyright: Galileo Games (Fair Use)

Players take turns placing their player on a sheet the game provides called the Village Web. They each proceed to create either positive or negative personal relationships with each other character or non-player characters that are created by the players themselves and that exist in the village they created in the first step. And here is what the creation process has really been building up to.

The entire process up to this point has been largely created within a vacuum in terms of character genesis. But what the village web does is force (lightly of course) players to develop not simply their characters motivations, but also how their view of the community will ultimately affect their play style and their characters place in the world.

It is through this Village Web that the entire setting being created takes shape, one that stresses rather some nebulous disconnected hero that exists solely in the minds of the individual players, one that must incorporate the goals, aspirations and connectedness of the other players and non-players in the game itself. It is a great way of inducing shared community building and what really makes the game stand out from other indie games in that players, even before playing are equally responsible for crating the world their characters are going to inhabit and how they will ultimately interact with that world.

The last step is to assign character Ambitions. These are motivations their characters will pursue over the course of the game, things like achieving a higher rank in a Kiva Society, repairing a relationship on the Village Web or even investigating outside threats to the village.

The Mechanics

How We Came to Live Here - Scene Resolution Copyright: Galileo Games (Fair Use)

How We Came to Live Here – Scene Resolution
Copyright: Galileo Games (Fair Use)

There are three principal mechanics that the game uses to implement its system: dual Story-tellers, Dice Pool and Conflict Resolution and Corruption/Crime rankings.

The first mechanic, dual Storytellers is perhaps the best and most unique story mechanic of the game. Unlike most other games, How We Came to Live Here has two story-tellers or Game Masters running a session: an Inside and Outside Story-teller. These roles correspond to events taking place either within the village or outside it, with threats being either village elders, food shortages or other intra-community conflicts and outside threats being monsters, other villages and droughts.

While this sounds simple enough, what it really does is force players and the story-tellers to embody the concept of ‘shared’ story-telling head-on. Rather than a single individual being in charge of the main storyline and in fact the actual outcome of the game, the passing over of the story to someone who may or may not share your view of how things will happen is an immensely unique and jarring take on role-playing. It really decentralizes who is in fact in charge of the game, and does perhaps the best way of creating a truly egalitarian table-top setting. There is no single man in charge, there are two (or perhaps two women even?), who may or may not disagree on everything and the fact that your in-village story may lead in a wildly different direction once players leave the village is both, from a storytellers viewpoint terrifying and liberating at the same time and makes the game incredibly distinct.

The next mechanic, the Dice Pool and Conflict part of the game, the central point of any RPG is both incredibly frustrating and like the dual story-telling incredibly liberating. Rather than relying on numbered outcomes, How We Came to Live Here lies on interpretive results: you roll a set number of dice, special die that the game promotes called Fudge dice, d6’s with faces of ‘+’, ‘-‘ and blanks used in what the game calls Scenes. Scenes are perceived points of conflict where story-tellers describe specific attacks or challenges and must be responded to by players either in kind, defended against or escaped from. These Scenes can be as simple as a conversation to as dramatic as a fight with a Grizzly Woman.

The difficulty in this system is its open-endedness. Dice pools are composed of a limited number of dice based on the Skill pool players choose to interact with the Story-teller with who alternatively composes a Threat Pool. The pools can be influenced by either more dice or dice changing via players Traits, Failings and Corruption points. For example, if you are speaking to a village elder and wish to deny a marriage proposal from their son or daughter, the Inside Story-teller may decide a scene is justified and you must engage in an actual conversation, with dice pushes like “He’s lazy” (Presumably an attack) to which the Village Elder may respond (“So are you”—Interpreted as yet another attack perhaps).

While this sounds simple enough, the difficulty is the emphasis the game places on Victory Points or Victory Dice that players and story-tellers amass during a Scene through either stealing or exhausting them. With uncertainty in the rules over what constitutes an Attack, Defense or Flight combined with what happens to dice within the pool after each attack (is there unlimited number of Attacks/Counter-Attacks allowed; Do you steal Dice from Opponents Pool by choice, random or not at all?) and the openness of story-telling itself combine to make the system entirely circumstantial: In the previous example with the Village Elder, is their response of “So are you” an Attack or a Defense? The seeming in-consequence of this decision carries with it real and lasting mechanical outcomes within the game.

Because once a Scene is over, Victory Points establish things as minor as earning favors from other players to outright killing characters off—hence the importance of getting Victory Points and properly interpreting their results. For example in my current How We Came to Live Here campaign, our group tried climbing a cliff to get to a stone haven whereby the dice leaned so heavily in favor of the outside Story-teller they ended up winning the Scene and were subsequently able to amass 5 Victory Points- result, my character fell and died (Last words: “Smells Like Lillies”—in-game reference).
While this sounds like a harsh system, the likelihood of this outcome happening very often is small, considering that storyteller and player dice pools are so. Similarly in the same game, our characters also encountered a witch high in the Bone society, but due to bad rolls, the interaction didn’t end up in heavy conflict, which is somewhat the point of the game itself- solving conflicts creatively and progressing the story.

The Hunger People - Villains in How We Came to Live Here Copyright Galileo Games (Fair Use)

The Hunger People
Villains in How We Came to Live Here
Copyright Galileo Games (Fair Use)

How We Came to Live Here achieves these goals by focusing on fulfilling your ambitions and avoiding Corruption Points. In the setting, characters are motivated by their individual goals but affected by their communities’ values.

These values involve the consequences of characters performing things as minor as performing a task assigned to another gender to something as heinous as casting harmful magic on another person. It is through giving out Corruption Points and forcing players into situations where these points may be gifted that the Story-tellers provide more than simple conflict but also consequences. It’s an interesting system, one that doesn’t shy away from real world subject matter like Adultery, Sex with Monsters and outright Murder, so the game may not be entirely suitable for younger audiences.

However the Corruption system, with Points as low as 1 to as heavy as 5, synergizes well with the Story-teller concept and the conflict mechanic overall. The game has clear and not so clear designs towards pushing players into thought-provoking and unique, but still challenging Scenarios, short of setting up a land of purely happy beginnings, middles and endings (who would want to play a game of Happy Bunnies doing Happy Things on the Plains of Happiness? Well actually that sounds like an awesome game!)

Immersion and Setting

Fifth World Creation StoryHow We Came to Live HereGalileo Games

Fifth World Creation Story
How We Came to Live Here
Copyright: Galileo Games (Fair Use)

In no small part thanks to its mechanics, How We Came to Live Here is incredibly immersive. From the moment characters are created, it subtly and bluntly forces players to rethink the boundaries and what it is they are seeking to get out of the gaming table.

The book itself is lavish on mythologies, with each chapter started off with a ‘Story of My people’—a quick fable meant to get you thinking in terms of the game and what it is and how it is to be played. There are no clear-cut solutions in any of these myths; rather the emphasis is on communication and courage in solving disputes and conflicts, some that invariably must be dealt with by force, but many that display the folly of such decisions. And this is really how the game should be played.

The monsters, mostly simply other People in the Fifth World who have gone astray and who have become wild, cannibalistic or simply bad ‘magic’ users, all have an indication that they can be reasoned with first instead of being dealt with harshly. More importantly, they all have the subtle implication that they themselves represent how player characters just might end up if enough Corruption Points are amassed. As Harvey Dent famously said “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”, How We Came to Live Here really embodies this concept, and does so within the context of an unfamiliar but deeply relatable universe.

The Verdict

Apart from its difficult at first to grapple with dice pool mechanic, How We Came to Live Here is an excellent indie story-telling game. It has enough character uniqueness to give the framework of traditional concepts like class, leveling and maximizing to cater to your hard-core gamer but really pushes you to rethink the concept of why we game as a hobby in the first place.

So if your looking for something highly different, highly immersive and highly engaging, why not order a copy of how we came to live here and,

Game Forth!

How We Came to Live Here official website

And for something entirely political:

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