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Author Topic: Mythmakers: A Game for Talysman  (Read 4973 times)
Jonathan Walton

Posts: 1309

« on: April 07, 2003, 07:00:28 PM »

So John Laviolette (aka Talysman the Ur-Beatle), Shreyas Sampat, and I have this deal going from one of the Forge Birthday Forum Threads.  Shreyas is going to do a game based on Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (for me), I'm going to finish Fingers on the Firmament (for Shreyas), John's going to do a game based on The Other Bible (for me), and I'm going to come through on the following:

Quote from: talysman
I want Jonathan Walton to do a game about a secret society that designs myths and injects them into various cultures in an attempt to change societies by changing the way people think.

How in the world I ended up agreeing to write two games (when the other guys only have one) is beyond me.  I'm just a sucker, I guess.  That and John & Shreyas probably conspired to slip something in my drink.  I thought it tasted funny.  So, since Fingers is probably on the backburner for a while (though I will get to it eventually), here's the concept for John's request, currently a project codenamed Mythmakers:

The Power of Myth

This game is a combination of Joseph Campbell and Daniel Quinn (going a little heavy on the Quinn).  As per my assignment, the PCs are members of a semi-secret society that creates myths and unleashes/injects them into cultures in an attempt to create change.  But theirs is not the only society.  No, there are thousands of these societies, many dating their origins back hundreds or even thousands of years.  They go by many names: freemasons, cults, magicians, practicioners of kabbalah or feng shui, shamans, priests, secret orders in the Vatican, government think tanks, intelligence organizations, mystics, dream interpreters, storytellers, saints, scholars, prophets, and the enlightened.

All of these are aware of the Truth: in the same way that the natural world develops over time, changing and transforming, so does the human world.  Ideas are born, mythologies are crafted, religions are spread, revolutions of culture, information, technology and the like galvanize the existence of man.  The way we view ourselves is directly related to how we live our lives.  Stories are not just entertainment; they are what define us as humans, as nations, as peoples, as families, and as individuals.

And myths can be crafted.  And they can be broken.

You can do this.

Memes: Truths, Stories, & Lies

The basic component of a myth is a meme.  Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, coined this word to describe a cultural or social construct that is the basis for human culture.  As Daniel Quinn summerizes, "memes are to cultures what genes are to bodies."  They are a way for the culture to transmit itself and (potentially) to grow and spread beyond its carrier(s).

It is from memes that characters construct their myths.  Single memes can be very powerful and influencial, simply because there is little resistence to single memes, especially if they are based on an existing mythology.  It wouldn't take much for people to start believing that Marilyn Monroe secretly bore JFK a child.  It might not be true, but it's the kind of meme that could easily be spread.  And, from there, the Mythmakers could move onto bigger and better things, using their new meme as a foundation to warp America or the world's conception of itself.


Memes spread like diseases.  One of the most effective way to spread a meme is to build several of them together into a "meme virus" that will quickly grab hold of the popular conciousness.  Boy bands, Pokemon, and others are simply versions of this practice that are not so obviously subversive.  Others, like the place American culture holds in the minds of Asia's youth, are more aggressive in their tactics.  In either case, massive and immediate results start to appear very quickly when groups of memes work together.


Mythologies are much more complicated than simple constructs or fads.  In order to build or affect a mythology, the way a large group of people feel about a significant part of their lives, you need to have a significant number of memes all working towards the same goal.  You may even have to try to put your "spin" on ongoing events in order to get it to happen.  Maybe you want post-9-11 America to become the Global Policeman in actuality, effecting international law at whim (due to her significant influence) and cracking down on all the majority-Islamic nations to create what it believes will be a new imperial order: the Pax Americana.

Possible, but difficult.  Not something a single person or even a fairly large group of people coule attempt on their own.  So you make compromises.  There's an old Communist sect in the former-Soviet republics that's willing to come to your aid, and some Islamic fundamentalists are itching to go toe-to-toe with an overconfident USA.  Together, you just might be able to make it happen.


Beyond affecting individual mythologies it is possible for a great number of Mythmakers working together (either by chance or design) to affect the Zeitgeist of the age in which they live.  Some ideas go beyond merely a single culture or mythology.  The world is flat, you say?  The earth is at the center of the universe?  Farming is better than hunting and gathering?  The Internet is the greatest thing since sliced bread?  All of these are near-universal concepts that dominate global culture at a particular point in time.  They are all mythologies that make up the Zeitgeist of a particular period of time.

Fads come and go.  Mythologies wax and wane.  Zeitgeists make it into the history books to be studied and analyzed by people for centuries to come.  Many Mythmakers dream of truly making a difference, and this is the high point of such dreams.

The Monomyth

Altogether, all the memes that make up human existence, from the very beginnings of culture to whatever end we make for ourselves, is the Monomyth.  It is the story of humanity.  It is the answer we give to God when he/she/it asks "why are you here?"  Everything that humans have ever done and been is contained within the Monomyth in some form.  Directly affecting the Monomyth is pretty much out of the question.  There's very little chance that enough Mythmakers could actually agree on what they wanted to do and, even then, the Monomyth isn't so easy to control as the lesser kinds of construct.  It is what it is and reacts to change ever so slowly.


So, I'm imagining a system that's a little bit Rune, a little bit Nobilis, a little bit Ars Magica, and a little bit Illuminati.  Whether or not there's going to be a GM is a good question.  I'm open to suggestions as far as that goes.

I'm invisioning a system where characters and groups of characters can create memes and them use the memes to build larger cultural contructs.  Just how freeform or detailed I want this to be is yet to be decided.  In some ways, I'm attracted to the Gamism of Rune, where you buy everything with points and figure out just what kind of myth you want to create.  However, if the primary activity in the game is mythmaking (as opposed to killing demons while yelling viking warcries), it needs to be simpler and faster than that.

So, more models.  Nobilis' Chancel and Imperator creation system is something that is looking very stealable.  You basically have a list of possible traits and go down it, adding a +1 or -1 here and there to get the total cost of your thingee.  Quite similar to the Gift-creation rules, at that.  I think something like that, elegant, but fairly detailed and clear about costs, would work fine.  However, it's loose enough that it might require a GM or other arbitrating force.  Unless the worksheet was "interpretation proof" or the game decided that player interpretation was cool and encouragable.

So, Ars Magica I threw into the mix just because its magic system gets rave reviews for being modular and great for constructing this sort of thing.  It's also part of the inspiration for Nobilis, I believe.  Don't have much familiarity with it myself, but I did download the free version of 4th edition from RPGnow, so maybe I'll absorb it when I get the chance.

I also think it'd be cool to allow the players to build their secret society of Mythmakers.  History, beliefs, what they believe Mythmaking is (magic, spreading the gospel, communing with spirits, doing hallucinagens, etc.) and all the other neat things that make a secret society neat.

Anyway, that's the concept.  Fell free to start picking and I'll post more as it comes to me.


Posts: 302

« Reply #1 on: April 07, 2003, 07:19:32 PM »

First thought:

The players, through their characters, are going to work at altering reality, or at least the perception of reality (reminds me of Mage and the Paradigm at first glance), in a rather passive way. There's Something they want to change; they come up with an idea that will overtly or subtley work to shift the Something; they spread the idea.

What, exactly, is there to roleplay?

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I'm just envisioning this more like a boardgame, or maybe SimMyth, where the players sit around, and try fitting different pieces together; then they press PLAY and let it run for a bit until the results start filtering through.

Granted, that seems pretty cool to me, because I spend hours playing stuff like SimCity and SimEarth; it's not a complaint. I just can't figure out how you'd turn this into something with roleplaying elements without it seemed tacked on, forced.

You see:
Michael V. Goins, wielding some vaguely annoyed skills.
Jonathan Walton

Posts: 1309

« Reply #2 on: April 07, 2003, 07:36:51 PM »

Quote from: anonymouse
What, exactly, is there to roleplay?

Good question.

While there could be several styles of play that would be supported by the system (including a "SimMyth" kind of deal, similar to The Greatest Game in Continuum), I imagine the default playing style would be anything but passive.  

Creating your cultural construct is only half of the equation, after all.  You have to "inject" it, as John described the process, into the culture that you're trying to affect.  Say you want to spread Gnostic Christianity or Sufism among the equatorial tribes of Africa.  That's not something you can do simply by sitting in your enclave and plotting away.  You have to go to Africa and proselytize.

The Mythmakers do possess a kind of supernatural control over myths, but they still have to manipulate them the way everyone else does.  If you're familiar with Nobilis, think of mythmaking sorta like the Aspect attribute.  Humans can drink a glass of water; with Aspect, Nobles can drink a lake or an ocean.  Mythmaking works the same way.  You can do the impossible, but you have to use the same methods to work your magic.

All of this means that Mythmakers would be out and about.  Working like the Illuminati behind the scenes, spreading rumors, lies, truths, & beliefs, fanning the flames, breaking into libraries and newspaper offices to plant material in articles, plotting a conspiracy to change one verse in every Bible in the world, and similar things.  This would also bring them into conflict with the other Mythmaking groups in the world, which may not be especially friendly.  You could have Hong Kong-style gangster gunfights, flying wuxia action, Highlander-esque swordfights, or just tense negotiations and alliance making.  Depends on what kind of game you want to run and what kind of secret society you're a part of.

That clearer?

Spooky Fanboy

Posts: 585

« Reply #3 on: April 07, 2003, 07:54:02 PM »

If I had a cool game like that, I'd call it (dum da da dummm):


Kinda emphasizes that you're using ideas as weapons of subjugation, and that they're difficult to reign in once unleashed. In fact, you should think of rules that groups could use to subvert your myth, or corrupt it to uselessness.

Reminds me a bit of the Semiotic Assassins conspiracy that some guy wrote up for a LARP-based Over the Edge, who by controlling the information about someone, could control that someone, up to deleting him/her/it from existence by destroying the information. Supposedly, they did this to Atlantis, except for one surviving member.

Cool. I always wanted to do a game like this, but never figured out how. I says go for it.

Proudly having no idea what he's doing since 1970!

Posts: 201

« Reply #4 on: April 07, 2003, 08:14:02 PM »


I'm completeing a total re-write of Incarnate - I know the answer is probably *ahem, no* - but I really like this concept, and I think the system I currently have put together might be able to support some of these concepts.

You've seen some of the base stuff, so you know the direction I was headed in anyway - and I can pass you some notes on the current version within a few days (plus or minus depending on a few RL variables completely outside my control: the arrival of child #2 in the deadpanbob household).

Anyway, this game concept is REALLY cool - and if you'd like to discuss this possible marriage I'm willing to as well.



"Oh, it's you...

Posts: 675

« Reply #5 on: April 07, 2003, 10:37:07 PM »

cool, Jonathan.

I think you got stuck with two projects because you're a popular guy. =)

I'm glad I didn't get stuck with two projects, because I already have a couple projects in my "stack"... and although no one specifically requested that I do those projects, some of them were based on comments people made here on the Forge.

on the Mythmaker background: looking good. I was thinking at first in terms of non-supernatural myth-making, but the supernatural approach is pretty interesting and probably necessary to make it work easily.

you might want to list existing major myth-chunks (that would work in an Ars Magica way) that the characters assemble and modify with traits (in the Nobilis way.) so for you monroe-kennedy lovechild myth, that would start with the "secret child" myth that gets attached to many historical figures (at least as far back as moses,) then modify it with "kennedy is father" and "monroe is mother" traits, plus probably some traits specific to the lovechild's current whereabouts and destiny.

it's certainly looking do-able!

John Laviolette
(aka Talysman the Ur-Beatle)
rpg projects: http://www.globalsurrealism.com/rpg
Jonathan Walton

Posts: 1309

« Reply #6 on: April 08, 2003, 07:07:28 AM »

First let me respond to some comments, and then I have pages and pages of notes that I scribbled down last night...

Quote from: Spooky Fanboy
In fact, you should think of rules that groups could use to subvert your myth, or corrupt it to uselessness.

Hell yeah.  In my current system, there's going to be a way to quantify any myth or cultural construct that you like, include ones that already exist and ones that others have created.  Then, you can "bid" your contructs against others in an effort to alter or replace them.

Quote from: deadpanbob
Anyway, this game concept is REALLY cool - and if you'd like to discuss this possible marriage I'm willing to as well.

Sure, Jason.  Send the stuff along.  I can't promise that I'll necessarily want to use it, since I haven't seen it yet, but I'd definitely be open to the possibility.  I was just looking at your website the other day, actually.  I remember being really excited about Incarnate when you were first throwing ideas around and never knew what had become of it.

Quote from: talysman
I was thinking at first in terms of non-supernatural myth-making, but the supernatural approach is pretty interesting and probably necessary to make it work easily.

I don't know.  I was beginning to rethink that myself, last night.  Ideally, I think a non-supernatural game would be one that I'd prefer, but the problem would be in making it exciting, since the results of real life tempering with cultural constructs is not immediately obvious.  Doesn't get your blood pumping in the same way.  So maybe I just won't mention whether the Mythmakers have any special powers, and let individual groups make that decision for themselves.  Sure, the players will seem to have an awareness of all these constructs interacting (one that normal people wouldn't be aware of), but maybe the characters can remain innocent of most of that.

Quote from: talysman
you might want to list existing major myth-chunks (that would work in an Ars Magica way) that the characters assemble and modify with traits (in the Nobilis way.) so for you monroe-kennedy lovechild myth, that would start with the "secret child" myth that gets attached to many historical figures (at least as far back as moses,) then modify it with "kennedy is father" and "monroe is mother" traits, plus probably some traits specific to the lovechild's current whereabouts and destiny.

Yeah, I decided later that I hadn't given the best example of a single meme construct.  However, I think I want players to be able to construct memes at any level.  For instance, you could have a 1-meme construct of JFK-Marilyn's Love Child, containing that single idea, but it wouldn't be likely to gain a mass following.  However, if you spent time in developing the idea, started rumors, and attached it to other ideas that were floating around, you could build a 50-meme construct around the same idea.

Does that make sense?

All the notes from last night are going to get posted in a minute.  But I wanted to get this out there first.

Jonathan Walton

Posts: 1309

« Reply #7 on: April 08, 2003, 07:47:34 AM »

Towards a System

1 meme = 1 point of significance

Everything is evaluated by the number of memes that make it up.  Individual memes are single, unsupported concepts that exist on their own.  Often times, Mythmakers won't build their constructs from scratch, but instead work by connecting existing memes or groups of memes together into larger myths.  This runs a slight danger, though, since memes that you didn't create yourself are harder to control and sometimes seem to resist being reshaped.

I need a system for quanifying all myths and social constructs at a glance.  If a player wants to attack the American Dream, I need to know how many memes make it up and what form they take.  To do this, I'm imagining something like the Word-Forces concept that David Edelstein put forward in the In Nomine Gamemaster's Guide where you generally rate concepts based on their imagined significance in the world.

For now, imagine something based on the Fudge Levels:

a Legendary Mythology might have 3000 memes
a Superb Mythology might have 1500 memes
a Great Mythology might have 1000 memes
a Good Mythology might have 750 memes
a Fair Mythology might have 500 memes
a Mediocre Mythology might have 250 memes
a Poor Mythology might have 100 memes
a Terrible Mythology might have 75 memes
an Abysmal Mythology might have 50 memes

If you just want a general estimate, the GM (I'm beginning to think we'll need one) simply has to decide what grade Mythology the American Dream is.  Have people become Jaded about it?  Is it still going strong?  Maybe it waxes and wanes based on your location or your peer group.  Whatever.  Similar charts would exist for all the different levels of cultural constructs (not just Mythologies), with examples given for each level.  This would allow the GM, very easily, to label a myth as a Legendary Mythology or a Poor Fever or what have you.

However, the GM should not be concerned about being too exact or making a mistake in determing the importance of a concept early in the game.  For instance, labeling Nihilism a 400 meme construct but later deciding that it needs to have 1000 memes or more.  Since concepts are constantly changing, and their number of associated memes rises and falls, you can make changes to the way you've quantified concepts as you go along.  You might want to have Nihilism slowly rise into the world or nation's consciousness, instead of having it erupt suddenly, but change is definitely possible.  More abrupt change is likely the result of other Mythmakers manipulating Nihilism for their own purposes, which could be a plot thread for the PCs to pick up on.

Within a concept, memes are organized into further groupings, which can be determined when players start to examine constructs more closely.

Quote from: EXAMPLE
America the Beautiful! (350 meme mythology)
-- 30 memes, Blind Patriotism
-- 10 memes, Famous Landscape Paintings
-- 40 memes, the song "America the Beautiful"
-- etc.

These groupings within a construct are called components.  You can attack components seperately in an attempt to weaken or undermine a construct.  For instance, if you want to begin picking away at "America the Beautiful!" you might first begin by attacking the meme/construct named:

America the Beautiful: Blind Patriotism: Blood of Martyrs: Self-Righteousness: Chosen People

However, things like "Chosen People" or "Self-Righteousness" are not constructs that are unique to "America the Beautiful!"  They are instead something called strands, bits of existing constructs that have become a part of another idea.  When characters bring existing memes together to form a new contruct, they are weaving strands together.  Weaving or unraveling strands is much easier than destroying them outright, because trying to remove all the "Self-Righteousness" from an entire culture would be very difficult indeed.  Unique, non-strand memes are much easier to replace or destoy, since they are not a part of so many other constructs.

Towards a Resolution Mechanic

When constructs fight each other, I'm thinking that drawing stones out of a bag has great potential as a resolution mechanic.

Imagine this: the players have built a 25 meme construct to chip away at some 200 meme Mythology that they don't like.  The ratio of memes now stands at 200:25.  You reduce the fraction until you get something managable.  8:1 is probably too low for our purposes, but perhaps something like 16:2 or 24:3 would work, depending on how many stones you had available.

In any case, you drop different colored stones into a bag in the right proportions.  24 red for the defending Mytholigy, 3 blue for your little construct.

Next, one player sticks a hand in the bag and grabs a handful of stones.  This represents the outcome.  The player can grab as many stones as they like, but there should still be stones left in the bag when s/he pulls a hand out.  Now, in a 24:3 situation, it's entirely possible that the hand will contain only red stones.  In that case, the PCs have been completely unsuccessful in influencing the larger construct.  However, if there are some blues stones also mixed into the handful, then they have influenced the construct in some (yet to be determined) way.  Obviously, the more of your stones that make it into the final handful, the more influence you've gotten for youself.  This means that bigger constructs always have the advantage over smaller ones, but that smaller ones can eventually chip away at the big boys.

Other Thoughts

I'm thinking that there's no so much a supernaturalness to mythmaking; it's just an exaggerated portrayal of what actually happens in the world.  That's probably the best way to describe it, as exaggeration and hyperbole, not magic or alien mind powers.

There would be great possibilities for playing Mythmakers in various time periods or settings.  Imagine a medieval Kingmakers variant, a primordial Godmakers variant at the down of civilization, a classical Heromakers, ancient near-eastern Prophetmakers, Nationbuilder, etc.  Also, you could take the rules on top of whatever fantasy or sci-fi or post-apocalyptic game you were playing.  In your PA game, wouldn't it be cool if the characters really could work to rebuild the world, creating new socities, nations, and religions?  I could even leave out any sort of action-resolution mechanic, focusing entirely on the rules for cultural constructs.  Then, you could simply use whatever system you like, from D20 to Fudge or a specific setting-based system, to quanify the characters and determine the success of their non-cultural endeavors.

More later.

Shreyas Sampat

Posts: 970

« Reply #8 on: April 09, 2003, 09:57:37 AM »

So, I've been thinking a lot about how to make games 'taste right' lately.  Forgive me; I'm a chef.

Anyway, can you elaborate on the strand idea some more?  I'm thinking that the linkages that a meme has to other memes has a big effect on its strength, and maybe you can incorporate this into your 'when constructs fight' thing.

Allow me to elaborate.

The great Near Eastern myth complex has two memes as the centrepiece, Heaven-Father and Ocean-Mother.  You can see these strands running through Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hindu, and Christian creation mythology quite clearly, and it's likely that they apear in Zoroastrian, Muslim, and Judaic creation mythology too, though I don't know enough about them to say.  Observe:

Quote from: The ancients
In the beginning, there was nothing in the world, only the chaotic waters of the Nu.  Then, in a burst of light, Ra appeared, and made himself a place to stand on, of mud baked dry by his heat.

Nammu, the goddess of the sea, was alone until she birthed the primal mountain, where stood glorious An of the sky and bountiful Ki of earth.

Brahma the Creator sleeps on Vasuki the serpent, floating in the universal sea, and the world grows from a lotus in his navel.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.

So this motif is intensely powerful, nearly impervious to attack.  But at the same time, it is not claimed solely by one complex; it is so widespread that it's easier to simply adopt it as your own than to try and build another complex separate from it.

On the other hand, if you were to try to attack the Hindu meme of 'Savitr is the guardian of the fifth month', you'd have an easy time of it because who cares?, but you'd have a lot of trouble stealing it, because you'd have to get through a lot of layers of presuppositions before you have access to such things as guardian deities and Sanskrit names.

So, I'm not really done with this train of thought, but I have to go home now... I'll post some more later today.  Cheers.

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