Four centuries from now, humanity thrives beyond civilization. Bands of hunter-gatherers roam the wild. Villages cultivate forest gardens. Over the centuries, they have nursed the world back from the horrors of mass extinction, coaxed their lands slowly, surely, into abundance, and restored paradise. From one world, ten thousand unique traditions and families have emerged, as varied as the lands in which they dwell.
But the work of creation never ends. The ancestors did not just walk the earth in times of myth and legend. The people of the Fifth World must walk in their footsteps and continue their work. Without constant care and attention, the web of kinship that keeps the world alive will fray and break, just as it nearly did in the ancient past. You must balance the conflicting demands of your kin, human or otherwise.
This responsibility falls to you because you carry the legacy of your ancestors with you. You have inherited their strength, their power, and their wisdom. You can speak to animals and sing magic and recite the sacred, secret stories whispered by the trees. Your feet sink in the soil, the air fills your lungs, and you can hear the endless chorus of the more-than-human world to which you belong. This responsibility falls to you, as it does to all your kin, for you live in the Fifth World.
Long ago, our ancestors inhabited a very different world. We can see the ruins of that world all around us. Our elders have many different stories of how it ended. They invoke names that must have once held great power and fear, like “global warming,” “mass extinction,” “ecological collapse,” “biological weapons,” “peak oil,” “nuclear war,” “terrorism,” or “overpopulation.” All those names make it clear that the old world did not end suddenly or all at once. Of course, when has the world ever worked that way? It ended in fits and starts, faster here or there, each place telling a different story of how this strange moment in human history unraveled, and we stepped away from the brink of annihilation.
An elder once told me that she didn’t think our ancestors really had it all figured out. They just had the courage to try. Lots of people tried all kinds of things in those days, she said. Most just tried to keep living the way they had, though it just didn’t work any more, so they have no children to remember them. Some wanted purity — purity of belief, or lineage, or ideology — but they turned away too many people with skills and talents they would need because they deemed them “impure,” so they have no children to remember them, either. Our ancestors made similar mistakes, the elder said, but they kept on trying, changing, adapting. They didn’t know where they would end up, of course, but we honor them and remember them today because they tried, and in trying, gave us paradise.
The land provides us with everything we could need or want. Nearly every family in the Fifth World recognizes their own territory as the center of the world. Thirteen generations have passed since the old days, and each one has added their knowledge to the family’s lore, drawing us into closer kinship, making us more native to the places where we dwell. The Fifth World does not have a single history, or a single story. It has ten thousand thousand histories, as varied as the land itself. When we speak of things we all have in common now, we really speak of those bizarre superstitions and primitive rituals unique to our ancient ancestors that we have shed in order to survive.
Every family has their own way of making a living, for example, but the old custom of ripping into the soil to plant vast fields of just one plant simply doesn’t work any more. Gathering wild plants and animals for food takes a few hours each week. Gardening takes longer, perhaps even as long as six hours a day, three or four days a week.
Our eldest live to see 120 years. Most live to see 90 years or so, usually remaining strong and healthy right to the end. Our healers know the remedies for every sort of infection, wound, or ailment that we suffer from time to time, though I have heard stories of diseases in the ancient world that none of us have seen in generations.
We all recognize the personhood of other-than-human beings, from animals to plants to rocks and weather patterns, to those unseen spirits like stories or luck. We would never consider this a matter of religion, though — just a practical matter of survival. Human beings can survive only thanks to our kinship with other-than-human beings, after all, and how could we ever convince them to give us what we need if we did not first respect the personhood they show us? How could we get to know them well enough without noticing that they act like people? We consider this the height of pragmatism: if someone acts like a person, treat them like one, regardless of the form they take.
The Fifth World roleplaying game invites you and your friends to discover a story about a neotribal future together. This sort of collaborative storytelling takes the form of a conversation. The game enters into that conversation by adding rules about who can talk, about what, and when. These rules exist to push the conversation in a particular direction and to add the sort of unexpected and sometimes unwelcome elements that will keep you from telling your story, so that we can instead tell a story that doesn’t belong to any one of us.
You’ll play the part of a person in the Fifth World, a character whom you will create. You’ll describe this person, her thoughts, and her actions. You’ll speak her words and tell us what she does, at least at first. After playing the character for a while, you might discover patterns in her thoughts, behavior, and motivation, and playing the part may shift from deciding what she does to simply following her by staying true to her character.
When we play The Fifth World, we play to:
Linger on rich descriptions. Ask others for details. Help us to see familiar places transformed and reclaimed by a more-than-human world. Don’t try to come up with something clever. Rather, tell us what you see, what seems obvious to you. Even if everyone else considers it obvious, too, your description simply confirms that we see it all together and pulls all of us deeper into the world. Sometimes, though, you’ll see something nobody else has noticed yet. It might seem obvious to you, but it might surprise everyone else, while still flowing naturally from the story so far.
In many languages in the Fifth World, “person” translates into a verb, rather than a noun. Humans can person, but so can animals, and even plants, rocks, and weather patterns. Stories might person, and even “impersonal forces” like luck or memory. People in the Fifth World do not hesitate to recognize personhood in anyone who exhibits it. Persons do not embody stereotypes. Instead, they have motivations, histories, and concerns. If someone seems to act more like a stereotype than a real person, show us the parts of their lives where they break those patterns. Show us the reasonable and understandable motivations for even your most hated adversaries and bitter rivals.
You might consider “discovering” the story a bit of overblown language, but with your friends all pulling it in their own preferred directions and the rules intervening to send it off in still other directions, you may soon start to think that it follows its own course. Don’t think of it as something you tell, but something you hunt. Stay on its trail, follow where it goes, and embrace its twists and turns as the expression of its own personhood. Resist the urge to domesticate it by trying to force it into your plan of where it should go. If you have a story you would like to tell your friends, simply tell them your story. We play this game for a different purpose, though: to hunt the wild story.
The three purposes tell us why we play, but the principles provide us with more immediate strategies to achieve them.
Take the things that seem normal and familiar and watch what happens to them as civilization collapses, the world changes, and other-than-human forces claim them as their own. Free them from purely human control and watch in your mind’s eye as they rewild. Buildings, places, people, and institutions — let them all rewild, and tell us what you see.
Real things you know about the world — in particular things like anthropology or ecology, or more practical knowledge like earth skills or tracking — can feed your story. It thrives on informed imagination. If you feel excited about an upcoming game and want to spend time preparing, learn about your local area. Learn how the people native to your area once lived there. Learn about your local ecology. Learn about tracking or gathering wild edibles or herbal medicine. Don’t turn the game into a lecture, but do feed the story with what you’ve learned to make it richer.
Rather than talking to your friends about the Fifth World, talk to their characters in the Fifth World. Address them by the names of their characters, rather than their own names. Speak directly to the world you see together, rather than removing yourself from it and speaking about it.
If someone in the story seems to act in a way that seems more like a caricature than a person, you don’t need to accept that. Rely on curiosity rather than contradiction. If this person seems two-dimensional, don’t blame one of your friends for this portrayal. Instead, accept the mystery they’ve presented to you. What really motivates this person to act this way? Explore the question further, until you can understand and even sympathize with this person, even if her actions put her in direct conflict with your character.
The Fifth World exists as a web of kinship. If that seems idyllic, think of your own family. Surely you’ve had experiences where one relative expected something of you that went directly against what another relative expected. The same happens in the Fifth World, particularly when you have relatives like wolves on one side and deer on the other. Bring this to the forefront of the game. When one person lays an expectation on a player, bring in someone else to lay another on her that will force her to choose.
Where pulling in different directions creates a dilemma for a player’s character, drawing lines creates a dilemma all around them. Draw lines that divide families into two sides, and then show us how each side demands the characters’ loyalty. Draw many different lines that divide families in different ways. Characters can choose one side over the other, or they can choose the third option, to try to bridge the divide. You don’t need to leave any clear way to do that. You can leave it to them to figure that out, if they can.
Sometimes the story might try to throw you off its trail by taking you through territory that seems boring, tense, uncomfortable, or even painful. Stay with it. Don’t give up on the story or your friends by zoning out or disengaging. See it through with them.
Constantly ask questions of the other players’ characters — about the things they see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, about their feelings and perspectives, about their hopes and fears, about their past, about anything and everything about them that catches your attention. Add what you see to their answers and build on them. When those answers pique your curiosity, pursue them in play.
When you stay hard on the story’s trail, you might forget to look up to see where you’ve gotten yourself. If one player hasn’t had much to say recently, specifically ask her where we find her character and what we see her doing.
Consider the place where you live. Thirteen generations have passed living in this place as the old world died and the new world came to life. Each generation’s dreams, stories, inside jokes, insights, and proverbs have laid down like sediment. Their close apprenticeship to the land has made them sensitive to the stories it tells. Their oral tradition has arisen from this engagement and become a living body of accumulated knowledge and wisdom.
They’ve learned to settle their own disputes without recourse to other authorities. Without anyone to enforce decisions handed down, that almost certainly means that they figured out how to deal with problems through consensus. It takes a long time, but providing for themselves doesn’t take them very long, so they have time in abundance. With that time, they play games, tell stories, relax, and most of all, gossip. Often that gossip can help stop problems before they get out of hand, but it can cause plenty of frustration, too.
You have probably lived with your extended family your entire life. You’ve had to learn to respect each other in order to survive. As a result you’ve found a life you can all enjoy. Your family forms a culture and a sovereign nation — a free family dwelling in their land.
Life in the Fifth World revolves around family and land, and with everything woven together by threads of kinship, you’ll often find the distinction between the two quite thin. You and your friends will all play members of the same family to reinforce this. You may well meet people from other families, but you’ll deal with them as one family.
Before you play, you will need to create your family. We’ll do this by stepping through your family’s history from the current day to the Fifth World, and seeing how they change and adapt. In each era, we’ll find two things your family learned from that time in their history. This process will usually take 30-60 minutes, depending on how much discussion you like to devote to each question.
You will need the family sheet. You can download it from http://thefifthworld.com/downloads.
Once you have a family, you can play the game. In addition to your family, you will need:
We live nested inside concentric circles, from the horizon that envelops us to the heavens that arc above us to the cycles of time that enfold us. Families all around the world have traced their knowledge of such things inside sacred circles. One such wheel began among the people native to the North American Great Plains. In the old world, many people native to that continent adopted it as a symbol of their common cause. As the old world died, this image of the sacred wheel helped many families make sense of what had happened to them. It has become a very widespread symbol in the Fifth World.
You exist at the center of the wheel, though “you” might mean you yourself, or your family, or your land. All things begin in the east, like the sunrise. They dance around it sunwise, into the south, the west, and the north, and then return again to the east. Each direction points us towards something different: our spirit, our emotions, our bodies, or our thoughts. Whichever way we might look, though, we always exist in the center.
The word “spiritual” has changed much since the days of our ancestors. Many of them harbored a bizarre superstition that split the world in two, between the “material” and the “spiritual.” They spoke of spirit as super-natural, as something separate from nature.
When we speak of spirituality, we mean that magic that animates us, that gives us life and personhood, awareness and the ability to affect the world around us, but few of us imagine it as something collected into a spirit, much less something divisible from the rest of ourselves. We see spirit in everything that acts like a person: the spells sung by the songbirds who entice the world to bloom, the eloquence of trees creaking in the wind, or the slicing intellect of glass knapped to a perfect point.
What we value and believe in shapes the way we feel about the things that happen to us, leading us into our emotional lives. We know that emotion does not stand opposed to intellect or reason. It forms part of the same circle. Intellect and reason cannot exist without it.
We understand that our emotions act as another kind of perception. They can help us notice patterns too subtle for our conscious minds to fully comprehend. They can help us perceive the changes inside of ourselves. We don’t dismiss them as ephemeral or “merely” subjective. We know that they point us toward things that we need to understand.
Our emotions push us into our physical lives by demanding that we take action. Our elders tell us that our ancient ancestors had a tumultuous relationship with their bodies. They separated their physical life from their spiritual, emotional, and mental lives, to the point where speaking of “transcending” their bodies seemed not only possible but compelling.
Such notions seem bizarre to us. Our physical life forms part of the wheel. Without it, the wheel breaks. Even those other-than-human persons who lack a body have a physical form. We may not see the wind people, but we can still feel them. We may not see the bodies of the dead, but they still dissolve into the soil that we sink our toes into.
Our engagement with the physical world teaches us. We learn about the world by interacting with it and observing it, and so our physical bodies draw us into our mental lives.
We know that intellect does not exist as a faculty interior to ourselves. Rather, intelligence surrounds us. We live in a world full of intelligence that we get to take part in. Different places think differently. If you go to a place quietly and observe, you’ll find it thinking you, too. The intelligent person has a talent for taking in that intelligence, and using it in the most artful way. Like conversation or song, we understand intellect as an engagement, rather than an attribute.
The game revolves around the wheel. You’ve actually already taken one turn around it: your family’s history took you through four eras, through one revolution around the wheel. All movement around the wheel goes in one direction — sunwise (to the left).
At the beginning of the game, you can decide to create a new character for this game or play with a character you made for a previous game. If you decide to create a new character, you’ll need to first fill out a character sheet.
Once everyone has a character, go around the table so that each player can introduce her. The players sitting to your left and right then each tell us a bit of gossip about her going around the family as the game begins. If you find yourself at a loss for ideas, you can draw a card from the deck of signs. Match it against the tables below and use that as your gossip. Once you’ve drawn a card, however, you must abide by it — drawing a card means that you forfeit your chance to come up with the gossip yourself.
After everyone has heard the gossip, each other player can write down one thing they know about your character with their other knowledge. While gossip might lie, these things have a definite truth to them (though you may well discover that they do not tell the whole truth).
|2||She dances naked and alone at a particular place on the night of the full moon.|
|3||She can transform into an animal.|
|4||She has had the same strange dream every night for a month.|
|5||She once spent a year living with the animals.|
|6||She has gone mad.|
|7||Someone cursed her.|
|8||She has lost her soul.|
|9||She has a familiar.|
|10||She has eaten human flesh and become addicted to the power it gives her.|
|A||She uses dark magic.|
|2||She hides her true feelings from everyone.|
|3||She considers herself better than the rest of us.|
|4||She feels jealous of someone in the family.|
|5||She has grieved for her loss for far too long.|
|6||She hides a deep sadness.|
|7||She hates someone in the family.|
|8||She pines for someone who does not even notice it.|
|9||She pines after someone sworn to another.|
|10||She sneaks away in the night to join her lover in secret trysts.|
|A||She has an illicit affair.|
|2||She stole something valuable from a trader.|
|3||She won’t admit that her body fails her.|
|4||She made a lifelong enemy of a dangerous predator.|
|5||She keeps a secret stash of her favorite food so she won’t have to share.|
|6||She found something in the ruins, but will not speak of it to anyone.|
|7||She buried a treasure in a secret place.|
|8||She spends too much time in the ruins for her own health.|
|9||She knows herbal remedies that no one else knows.|
|10||She suffers from a mysterious illness from the old world.|
|A||She discovered something in the ruins — something she keeps secret.|
|2||She wants to do something no one else has ever done.|
|3||She knows how to read the painted words of our ancestors.|
|4||She considers herself smarter than anyone else.|
|5||She disrespects her elders.|
|6||She has a destiny.|
|7||She thinks she has a destiny.|
|8||She only cares about earning praise from others.|
|9||She has a painful injury, suffered doing something shameful.|
|10||She badly injured someone.|
|A||She murdered someone.|
The game proceeds in three acts. Every player with a character in the east can set a scene with that character. When several players have characters in the same direction, they can decide on scene order amongst themselves. Once everyone with a character in the east has had a scene, we move into the south, and every player with a character in the south can set a scene, and so on around the wheel. One cycle around the wheel constitutes an act. At the end of the third act, the game ends.
You can move your character from one direction to the next during your scene by using a ritual phrase. This can allow you to have multiple scenes in a single act. Scenes happen in a single place, at one time. If you want to jump to a different location or a different time, it becomes a different scene.
The game turns around a few ritual phrases. When you use these phrases they will introduce something new into the game’s story — perhaps a new character, a new revelation, or a new turning point. Some ritual phrases only become available later in the game. Others have a cost associated with them. You can modify ritual phrases slightly by changing the pronoun or inserting a character’s name in place of it, but for the most part, ritual phrases only count when they follow the pattern closely enough that everyone at the table immediately recognizes it.
You can use this ritual phrase at any point, even before the first act begins. If someone narrates something that you don’t think fits or introduces something you don’t want to see, use this ritual phrase and they’ll have to say something else. You can say what you’d like to see different, or just challenge the other player to try doing it differently.
Don’t feel shy about using this ritual phrase. Particularly early on in the game using it heavily can help establish a tone for the game that everyone feels comfortable with and enjoys. It can also help get everyone thinking more creatively by making us approach scenes a little bit differently.
When your turn comes to set a scene, use this ritual phrase to begin it. Complete the phrase by naming the place where this scene unfolds, or at the very least a description of it. Most Fifth World place names pack in some very evocative descriptions of the place, so the two actually have a great deal in common.
A player repeat this ritual phrase to end a scene. The first player to repeat the ritual phrase in the scene cannot speak again until the scene ends. That happens as soon as a second player confirms the scene’s end by repeating it once more.
Use this ritual phrase to introduce a new character. It costs points of awareness equal to the current act minus one, meaning you can use it for free in the first act, but it costs one point of awareness in the second act, and two in the third.
When you use this ritual phrase, draw a card from the deck of faces and add them to the wheel in the same direction where you find the space for their name (meaning that if you pull the first joker, you can choose to place her in the east or the west, and the second joker will go in the opposite direction). Write down something by which to identify her on the wheel. You don’t need to write in anything as specific as a name, but you should write something specific enough to identify her as an individual. For example, you could write “The Stranger” or “The Forest Garden Raccoon.” Leaving room open for characters to reveal themselves can provide you with more interesting and more useful things to know about them.
Use this ritual phrase to move your character to the next direction on the wheel. Choose the correct word to complete the phrase based on the direction you move into. “Spirit” moves you from the north to the east, “Heart” from the east to the south, “World” from the south to the west, and “Mind” from the west to the north.
When you use this ritual phrase, draw a card from the deck of signs. If the card’s suit matches your current direction, or if it matches a direction adjacent to your current direction and you pay a point of awareness, you learn one new thing about any person in the scene you choose. You can write this into a blank slot or replace any existing knowledge.
This ritual phrase allows you to build up your knowledge, relying on your awareness as a resource, and your position on the wheel as what you focus on. You’ll want to use this ritual phrase a lot to build up your knowledge. In the second act, another ritual phrase will become available which will help you use that knowledge to convince characters to help you.
This ritual phrase only becomes available in the second act. Use it when you want someone to do something for you. Draw a card from the deck of signs.
While seeking something from another person can mean asking another human being for a favor, support, a physical object, or aid, it can also take other forms. Hunters in the Fifth World generally consider animals as thinking, feeling agents. In the hunt, they seek the animals’ lives, and the animals choose to give themselves up or not. A glassknapper engages in a conversation with glass, seeking a blade from it. A climber engages in a conversation with the mountain, seeking a way up. A person pondering a puzzle seeks a solution from it. You can push it into even more ephemeral territory by exploring the fractal nature of personhood: a person suffering from soul sickness might seek her soul back from the sickness, for example. Consider both “request” and “person” broadly in this context.
If they refuse the request, any attempt to simply try again automatically fails.
Whenever you draw from the deck of signs, you can complete this ritual phrase with something you know about the person involved to draw another card. You can choose anything from your own knowledge or from your family’s knowledge. Pick the best card from among them. You can only use each thing you know about a person once for any given draw.
If you reach a point where you all feel the story has come to a natural end before the end of the third act, end it there. If not, the story ends with the end of the third act, even if it leaves a great deal unresolved.
At the end of the game, if multiple characters have the same thing in their knowledge, you can copy it to your family knowledge, replacing any item you like, as long as you can come to a consensus on it as a group.
The neotribal vision of The Fifth World owes everything to Michael Green’s Afterculture exhibit. This game constitutes my best effort to share the experience I had the first time I saw his work.
Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe: How Improvisation Can Change The Way You Roleplay and Jesse Burneko’s writing on playing passionately led directly to many of the purposes and principles of this game. I experimented with many other game ideas along the way, and I owe a great deal to all the game designers who helped me, in particular Bill White, Rob Bohl, and Joshua A.C. Newman.
I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the following people who have offered such generous help and support throughout this project: Peter Michael Bauer, Jeffrey Collyer, Pete Figtree, Grey Knight, Doug Hagler, Kristin Hunt, Jeff Johnston, Willem Larsen, Bill Maxwell, Kathryn Miller, Michael Miller, Joli St. Patrick, Daniel Solis, George Steel, Brennan Taylor, Steve Thomas, Matt Weber, Michael Wenman, and Rix White.
Thank you to the people behind Double Exposure, the Indie Games Explosion, and GASP, for providing me the space to experiment with this game so often.
Of course, I owe a great deal, too, to those intrepid individuals who dared to sit down to an alpha playtest version of this game as I worked through far more versions than I’d care to admit. To Rishi Agrawal, Jonathan Bagelman, Rob Bohl, Rob Bush, Matthew Campbell, Rob Donoghue, Michael Godesky, Doug Hagler, Tim Harper, Ian Hollander, Jeff Hoskinson, Matt K., Brian Kline, Robert Laedlein, Giulianna Lamanna, Matt Landis, Willem Larsen, Kathy Mack, Jordan Mechano, Todd Moular, Joshua A.C. Newman, Alex Pla, David Porter, Cory Scanlan, Daniel Solis, Neal Tanner, Joanna Walmsley, Matt Weber, Nick Wedig, Lilith White, Bill White, Jennifer Wong, Wayne Wyant, Jane Wyant, and Sarah Wygant: thank you. I know that I need to add a good many other names to this list. I’ve playtested this game for many years, and I did not always keep the careful notes that I should have. If you playtested The Fifth World and don’t see your name here, please let me know so I can fix that.
To my wife Giuli and my brother Michael: thank you.