[Primitive] Such glorious incoherency

Started by Eero Tuovinen, February 23, 2008, 03:56:59 AM

Previous topic - Next topic

Eero Tuovinen

I've played two sessions of Primitive after getting a bunch of copies in a recent batch of indie games from America. The game looks rather striking and it's cheap, so it's easy to recommend for anybody interested in caveman fiction. It's also obvious from reading it that this is one of those games - games that have no creative agenda orientation whatsoever. Primitive is a total toolbox of a game, with half a dozen glorious ideas stitched together into a model of a game. Underlying this rough framework it is easy to perceive an equal number of different games of Primitive, all depending on the emphasis a given group gives to the different parts of the game. To wit:

  • I could very easily see a game of Primitive focus on long-term survival of the tribe as passionate Darwinist drama of the jungle - a carefully specified set of local circumstances and resources combined with the limited cultural resources of the caveman tribe and the advanced thought processes of the players might well make for a gripping challenge game! What is needed for survival? Which procedures of living are correct and which are disastrous for cavemen trying to survive beasts, weather or other hazards? A GM who pushes rising adversity and balances it with the fruit of success would have a most compelling gamist campaign arc in all this; at least it speaks to me as a fan of caveman fiction.
  • Along the same lines, the setting of Primitive is apt to encourage simulationistic processes related to the same issues - it's just naturally a source of curiousity, at least for me! How did primitive cavemen actually live? How did they think? What does it take to make a good stone spear tip? What does a rise to civilization look like, what kind of environmental factors force humans towards it? It's very easy to get into examining all this stuff with the whole group in unison.
  • Lastly, Primitive purports a rather obviously narrativist-leaning separation of caveman abilities into Civility and Savagery; at least it's easy to interpret that way. In any case, the question of what humanity means and how intellect, tribal instinct and brutality go hand in hand in allowing humanity to triumph over adversity make for good drama, too.
So when I'm reading the game, it seems incoherent as all hell. It doesn't help that the rules have all kinds of weird procedural blind spots that simply need to be bridged by play group activity, but I'll write about them more below. For now, a few details about my sessions:

The first session I played was with the Swiss indie hobbyist Christoph Boeckle and his friends Julien and Jerome. (They visited me for a couple of days for skiing, which explains the geographical distance.) We picked Primitive for play mostly because it's simple enough to play in one-shot and because we thought that not having any in-character dialogue would be easier when we were all playing in a second language. The session lasted for several hours then and went through one full adventure, simple as it was; perhaps four or five hours all told, I think.

The second session was with my brothers Jari and Markku and Sami Koponen, a mutual friend some of you might remember from some past actual play story. We'd just ended a three-session run of Hero's Banner last Wednesday, and as it was still pretty early, we decided to take a swing at Primitive as well. This time around the session was pretty short, a couple of hours, during which we managed several interrelated scenes but not an actual full story arc.

The first of those sessions was long enough for a creative agenda of a kind to emerge; I'd say that the game was pretty clearly going to be simulationistic, concerned with the everyday practices and solutions characters would find for their problems. I've ran a lot of narrativistic drama games during the last couple of years so it was pretty instinctual for me to insert all kinds of potentially narrativistic stuff into the situation at hand, starting with an ambivalent conflict between tribe customs and immediate gain and ending with a pretty stranger throwing herself at one of the player characters in an effort to find protection against his tribe. Most of this stuff, however, proved ultimately insignificant compared to the more concrete problems like the engineering of a primitive raft to ship the dead chief's body to the burial island, for example. The game system encouraged us to engage with the details of engineering to rather detailed degree, which left little impetus for exploring the creation of theme. The game would probably have been somewhat more coherent if I'd been more conscious about being a neutral and responding participant in the process; it didn't get too bad at any point, but there was some unnecessary maneuvering where I made things more difficult than they needed to be.

The second session was pretty short and it might have gone a different way agenda-wise than the first one; we've played together a bit with the group in question and most of us have a pretty clear preference for narrativistic gaming. There were signs in our OOC discussion and IC interactions of characters finding a pecking order within the tribe and establishing thematic niches: there was a savage leader guy with the big dick (the name we used to refer to him - and this was quite a serious game - was "Mammoth Beam"), the under-appreciated limp-wristed craftsman/inventor and the mysterious wolf-befriending outsider type, all ready to develop relationships and ultimately either affirm or change the initial social order. There was also plenty of Setting/System exploration (those two are almost the same in this game), but I didn't have the same feel of immersion in everyday routine we had in the first game; might have been because we had such a short session, but the way the session proceeded implied that we'd probably have gone into some quite dramatic scenes soon enough, with tribes crafting alliances and going to war over lebensraum.

A common feature of both sessions, however, was the conflict resolution system of the game. It's one strange bastard of a system! Some notes:

  • The communication ideal and the conflict resolution system are in odds with each other: if you establish stakes as the text suggests, you can effectively communicate with other players about your intentions by discussing the stakes with the GM. This can be avoided in some situations by just explaining what the character is doing immediately, but in more complex cases that just leads to frustration. In the second session we had players determine their own difficulty levels for stuff they did in cases where revealing their intents would have amounted to inter-character communication. I took this line after we had several scenes in the first session where players effectively removed the need for inter-character communication by accidentally revealing their intentions this way.
  • The difficulty and deliberateness of communication, fascinating as it is, draws the game strongly towards task resolution. The above issue of expressing intent is part of it, but it's also a matter of setting exploration: there is a certain necessity to coordinate character action and determine default levels of difficulty and competence for characters. Every time something is tried for a first time there is a strong expectation of rolling checks, however minor it is, exactly because we don't actually know whether it is minor for the cavemen or not.
  • The GM is pretty much on his own as far as setting difficulty goes. I go into this with an open mind for different factors that affect the situation in the setting; that devolves quickly into a kind of wandering dialogue with the players, stuff like "OK, it's Big for one die... would you think that it's ferocious? No? How about thick hide, is that a factor?" Who knows where that's going to lead.
  • The reward system is too bitch-ass slow as it is for almost anything I can imagine! We adapted to this by rolling checks for the most insignificant details (another factor drawing the game towards task resolution, note); for the most part the results of these checks were only significant as color and immediate scene exploration, not as a matter of direction - another draw towards situation exploration simulationism. Increasing the number of checks and providing experience points for failed checks as well (a clear drift of the rules on my part; I saw no basis for requiring success specifically) ultimately allowed us to gather a full die's worth of facets every couple of hours per character, which is just barely acceptable to my mind; tribe dice need to feature in important conflicts, which is only possible if players actually can replenish the pool somehow.
  • Wounds are only used by the combat system as written, which I was quick to change by permitting wounds to be caused as an abstract gauge of harmful consequence, whether in combat or not. Otherwise I can't say that I'd have had any need for the combat system. The one time there was something resembling combat in the first session I never even thought about dragging the combat system forth; the basic resolution system suffices easily.

What the system combined with the communication system (for those who don't know - characters in Primitive do not know speaking, they just grunt and gesture) there is some strong practical tensions to resolve, and the way those get resolved will determine the focus of play. I'd expect that playing Primitive can be a very rewarding experience if the group can get to the same page concerning the creative agenda and setting - in our case I talked both times about my favourite caveman fiction and about whether we'd be interested in all that dinosaur fantasy stuff; I don't know if it's too much Flintstones in Kevin's diet or what, but in both of our sessions the groups were quite clear in preferring a more realistic and less pulpy cavemen environment.

Also common to both sessions was an intense want on my side: playing the game makes me want to rewrite it into something more coherent and definite, so that instead of relying on group-established standards and emergent features it'd go directly into the meat of the Valley of the Mammoths, Shardik, recent Palaeolithic research or whatever floats my boat at the moment. It'd probably use the Sorcerer dicing mechanics, too, while I'm at it.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Christoph Boeckle


I quite agree with the points Eero raised. For me it was an interesting experience as I had never attempted a deliberate and conscious shot at Sim. I think it worked quite well, although as Eero notes, both of us had some habits to get rid of (he was throwing bangs at us and I was declaring stakes all the damn time).

I enjoy languages, so this game was interesting from an almost philosophical point of view. As a matter of fact, the session convinced me of the impossibility of not having a rudimentary language, given our human bodies. It is just not logic (in an almost mathematical sense), in my opinion. Even though I grant that abstract principles were perhaps long in the birthing, the vast array of grunts, cries and other funny noises our throats manage and our capacity to point at an object and repeat a specific sound just begs to establish a code between tribesmen. As a matter of fact, in that one session we had probably invented ten "words" (mixture of sound and gesture) to communicate more efficiently, for only one fiction day. As there is absolutely nothing that made that day more special than previous ones, I cannot believe that the tribe does not have a shared vocabulary of, say 300, "words" designating physical objects and perhaps even actions.
So one of the very premises of the game was just not credible for me (after discussion, I was the only one to hold that view), but it was very interesting to go through the thought experiment in play.
I have absolutely no idea of how to adapt that to a playable game though. Restricting players to "sounds which aren't quite words" or "only basic and concrete concepts" would be a pain to enforce. So I guess one just has to buy the idea that grunting is all there is.

The other thing that I found very interesting was how exploration relied quite heavily on task resolution and how that let us discover it at a very fine-grained texture. We would quite frequently roll for something just to see if it made sense in our situation. If it did, then we would develop on it, if not, we'd find something else to do and acknowledge that limit for the while being.
We had some intricate play just to determine if we actually could construct a raft: this required to communicate between players (the laughs!), communicating with the NPC tribe (thus discovering stuff about them), then we'd have to find the logs (and we only found one immediately, which was quite embarrassing as we were walking around, probably in what seemed an aimless manner for the strangers, for quite a bit of time), etc. In the sequence that followed we had to convince the strangers to let us embark their dead chief and that nearly ended in a tragedy, as on one side we nearly committed a sacrilege and on the other created a diplomatic incident with our own tribesmen who hadn't grasped what was going on. The tragedy of Babel, that's what this session nearly became (this was probably the point were the bangs were flying hardest, btw).
A bit frustrating at an immediate scale, but instructive after having given it some thought.

Eero, if you use the Sorcerer dice mechanic with this game, please tell us about it.