Oracles for Outdoorsmen

edited September 2009 in Game Design Help
So the folks that hired me to work at Middle-earth Camp asked me to come to an adult camp one evening next week, and lead them in a Storyjam. They want to develop a method for group storytelling, around a campfire, which can be repeated by its participants without me present, and imparted to others. The theme (in keeping with Trackers NW's message of reclaiming wilderness skills and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle) is a world reclaimed by wilderness, a modern world going back to primal roots.

I'm gonna teach 'em how to make an Oracle.

So I'd love your help. There's been discussion here and there, about what makes a good grabby Oracle Element, and some clarification on that issue is swell, but what I'm really looking for is an idea of the composition of elements as a whole. Looking at the "canonical" Oracles, there are several different kinds of Elements. There are driven people, evocative locales, alluring objects. . .can anyone tell me what kind of thought goes into assembling a list of such things? What's a good ratio of objects to people, or people to locations? Are there different sorts of people to be balanced out? And yeah, what ARE the salient attributes of a "person" entry? Of a "locale" entry? And so forth. . .

[EDIT:] I'm also wondering if there's some kind of progression, from Ace to King, of degrees of severity or drama, or anything like that. Oh, and incidentally, I've cross-posted this on the Lumpley Games Forum at the Forge.


PS I've got more plans than just that for my Storyjam; a framework of game procedures (IaWA-based, but heavily modified for the fireside) and the means of introducing/teaching them is coalescing in my mind. But I'd like to concentrate on Oracles here, and get a strong handle on that from those what've done Oracle Construction.


  • Joel,

    I'm thinking you've talked with Willem Larsen on the subject, no? He's done modified-IAWA, designed to run around a campfire.

    Also, I'll suggest you talk to Julian Michels, who's writing his guide to... his method of storyjam.

    Sorry to not directly answer your question, but I just wanted to mention those names. They'd be good people to talk to, in working on this project.
  • Joel,

    First, I love you.

    Second, and continuing Joe's recommendation here, Willem and I both did some experiments with bioregional oracles. I usually re-read this entry that he wrote to focus when I start writing mine. I think here you want to start with their observations. You've got them at a wilderness awareness camp, around the fire at the end of the day, so they've just spent hours observing plants, animals, tracks, etc. Tell them to mention one. Now, start asking some questions about it. In a way--and I think Willem could rant to you about this for quite a while--you really want to tease out of those observations a riddle. Collect 52 of them and assign them to cards, and you've got a bioregional oracle bristling with your observations about your local landscape, and the stories shot through it, and every time you play, you can't help but explore the stories in that landscape.
  • Relationships with a status or power differential. Do not skip this. Every time my group plays the oracle-driven game Fiasco, these are the elements that give the characters their thrust.
  • Joshua AC Newman's guidelines have consistently delivered the best oracles for me and my various groups. By best I mean, easy to understand, good kickoff, not boring, not too ambiguous.

    They are: People in need, objects of desire, and events that add pressure.
  • edited September 2009
    Thanks, y'all.

    Joe, I know Julian and I've talked to him about his storyjamming method, for sure. I'm not sure if I'll have time to review it before this gig, but I'm certainly keeping that in mind. You're also bang-on about Willem; it's exactly his campfire-IaWA that I'm using. :)

    I'm glad you pointed it out, because I totally forgot to attribute it to him. I wanna give credit where it's due. Willem and I are collaborating quite a bit on this, and his thoughts on the learning process of storygames have been front and center in my developing methodology. I'm also making heavy use of our friend Evan Gardner's language fluency method, Where Are Your Keys? by using sign language to mark out key techniques and concepts and help remember them. (That's right, I've taught myself ASL for 'Best Interests" and "Oracle." :) )

    And on that note, Jason, thanks for pointing me to that post of Willem's. That'll be a great addition to my body of concepts. Hell, I should've asked Willem to point me toward it myself--but we've got our hands full talking about this stuff as it is. I do this thing Tuesday Evening!

    Also, it's nice to be loved.

    Colin, that's funny, I was thinking about Status issues as a touchstone for play, based on Graham's discussion of it in Play Unsafe. definitely an important driver of character play. One thing I like is that it gives you an instant roleplaying handle on any character in any situation--there's always a status differential somewhere.

    Ryan, thanks for the link! I'd forgotten about that discussion. I think Joshua's guidelines get you in the ballpark, for sure. Having thought a lot about it, though, Willem and I have noted that the "need" and "desire" stuff may be a bit of an oversimplification. like Brand noted in the post below Joshua's, there's a subtle knock to Oracle design that requires an instinctive attention to a variety of factors. Some concepts we came up with that are every bit as important (even moreso) as "need": Tension, in the sense of a coiled spring; i.e. potential energy, motion, in the sense of people doing and not just thinking and feeling, and questions, that is, a dog-bites-man quality that provides something provocative that must be answered in play.

    For instance, "A knight astride his gallant steed" is expected and uninteresting. "A knight astride his rival's steed, galloping on an urgent mission" is just popping with mysteries to solve. What's so urgent? Wait, his rival's steed? etc.Similarly, "A sword with jewel-encrusted hilt" falls into play with a THUNK, but add "which must never draw human blood," and we're off to the races!

    Not that the last one has nothing of need or desire about it. it's just pregnant with compelling mystery, an object that just can't be left alone. Willem had this one pop into his head: "A man sits weeping in a bar, wondering to what use he will put the gun in his pocket." No need expressed, just emotion and an ominous threat. But it provokes questions. And it's out of those questions, about the man with the gun, the knight on the errand, the sword with the geas, that need, desire and pressure will arise.

    In other words, it's a Fruitful Void. How about that?

    Designing directly for Need, Desire and Pressure is definitely good, far better than having those elements absent from the game. But I think even better is designing with a light touch, so the entries point you toward those things, without laying it out for you. Nothing provokes creativity like a half-finished thought. :)

    Any thoughts about use of landscape in Oracles? That's going to be particularly important for this venture. one thing I've noticed, in Vincent's Oracles, is that a locale is never just scenery; there's always an implied character. "A field of herbs and wild flowers, alive with bees, where a certain half-bestial creature brings its lovers.. Any other principles we can tease out for good Landscape entries?

  • Well, as I think Trackers NW would make as an explicit point, the landscape never takes a passive role. Not when you really take the time to observe it. David Abram wrote about how every place tells a story. I wrote about this recently in a totally different context. Again, turning that into an oracle means really drilling into your observations and asking questions until, well frankly, the riddle reveals itself.
  • Jason, let me take your observation and amplify a bit.

    The "bioregion" in which games of Fiasco take place, more or less by default, is a small town somewhere east of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It's a human-created environment of highways and pawnshops and prisons and cheap motels, where the climate is suspicious and deeply traditional, as well as hot and wet in the summer. The reason that those pawn shops and cheap motels are interesting features of that landscape is their liminality, their role in transition. A loan office is analogous to a treeline, or a stream bank.

    A relationship with a power differential is similarly analogous. It's a hill down which water can run; it can metaphrase a gentle slope or a cliff. A relationship with a strong but ambiguous power differential component is like broken terrain - if you're married to my sister, and I don't approve, and I still have her ear to some extent, and she's not wholly satisfied with her marriage to begin with... that's story material. Probably tragedy material!

    TLDR: differentials and boundaries are important to stories in the same way they are to natural environments, and oracles should emphasize them.
  • Yes, I think seeing human relationships and human activities as also part of your observations of the landscape really means a lot. We all too often draw an unnecessary line between "natural" and "artificial," when I think we can understand these things much better as part of a single whole. By the same token, that insight might also help you to observe the way in which the non-human features of the landscape might have many of the same dynamics we see in human relationships.

    Maybe I've projected here a bit, Joel, but it seems that getting these people to expand beyond just human relationships, to see the patterns of relationships between humans and other-than-humans, and between other-than-humans, plays a major role in this kind of thing, no? (I know it certainly did for the Three Rivers Oracle I put together).
  • Fascinating stuff, everyone!

    Jason, given that this is trackers NW we're talking about, I don't think your projecting at all! That's exactly the stuff I want to be able to impart and facilitate. Thing is, i'm a total rewilding newbie, having been exposed to it (and fascinated by it) purely through friendship with Willem. If he hadn't referred me to Trackers for a job, I'd have never Fox-walked a day in my life!

    So relationships with other-than-humans, yes! Differentials and boundaries, yes! Now I just need to figure out how to do that. I can probably rely a lot on the trackers themselves for the observations from which we can tease out the landscape's story. But what would be some techniques to help that process along? Say I ask for some observations about their landscape, and someone volunteers one. What do I say, what questions do I ask, in that moment? What coaxes that simple observation--"there's a family of foxes in a clearing down that trail"--into an Oracle element that tells the landscape's story? Do I tell them to "fantasy-ify" the statement, like: "in a clearing dwell a family of faerie beasts who grant boons to those who treat their home with kindness"? Or what?

    It probably would be good to get some examples, from your Three Rivers or from Willem's Cascadia Oracles.

    Colin, that's a cool and interesting point about the parallels between "natural" and "urban" environments. This is a particularly fascinating case because the trackers folks want to talk about a landscape that's modern but returning to a wild state. Kinda like James Griffioen's Feral Houses. I wonder what particular principles are in play in such a case?


    PS. I'm doing this Tuesday evening, so that's the parameter for any further timely advice you guys might have. Though this discussion can certainly live on past that!
  • I don't know quite how to package this into clear-cut advice. I wouldn't try to fantasy-ify it. But I'd keep prodding with questions until a good oracle element comes out. Think Socratic method, almost. So, they tell you, "a family of foxes lives in a clearing down that trail." OK, good start, but it hardly has the snap of a good oracle element just yet, so you might ask, "Do they seem healthy and happy right now?" Maybe not; maybe they've had a hard time getting food. So go for the opening: "So, how do you imagine the mother or father fox feels right now? What might they do to save their children?" That should probably prompt a pretty good oracle element, like "A father fox, willing to make any deal to feed his family." Or, maybe they look healthy and happy right now. Maybe now you start asking what people know about foxes. Maybe someone mentions the trickster stories associated with them. Maybe that gives you, "A bored fox, looking to cause mischief for his own amusement."

    In my Three Rivers Oracle (which I just recently reworked), I used local legends and history as much as natural observations, to try to weave it all together. For the six of diamonds, I have, "A bear makes ready for his long sleep through the winter." We've got lots of black bears here, so this happens very frequently. So, coming up with this didn't pose much of a challenge. Playing it out might involve more of a challenge, though. What do black bears do in preparation for winter? What must it feel like to prepare for a winter-long sleep?
  • I just wanted to follow up briefly: the storyjam went swimmingly! We made a small oracle of about a dozen elements, then played strip-strip-STRIPPED-down In a Wicked Age. The game, through Evan's fluency techniques, was smooth and engaging, despite (or perhaps because of) none of the players having storygaming experience.

    Full play report coming soon! Thanks for the discussion guys, it helped a lot.

  • Joel, please make sure to put the cap on this thread with a link to your play report when it's done. Thanks!
  • You betcha!
  • edited October 2009
    I wrote a reflection on the workshop on my blog and a detailed account on the Forge. Anyone interested in knowing how it went can check those out!

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