What the Fifth World Doesn't Include
If you’ve played other tabletop roleplaying games, you might find The Fifth World a bit bewildering. It doesn’t necessarily work like other games you might know. If you haven't played other tabletop roleplaying games, you don't need to worry about any of this — skip ahead to reading about our agenda.
It has no game master.
If you've played other tabletop roleplaying games before, you might notice that The Fifth World has no game master (GM). Rather than placing the responsibility for adjudication and running adversaries that other games place in the hands of the game master instead belong to the whole group. Authority shifts from one player to the next throughout the game, and in fact choosing who to give that authority to forms an important part of play.
Your role changes frequently.
The role you play in the game shifts frequently, and much of the game rests on playing each role at the right time. One of the points of skill in playing the game well lies in shifting gracefully from one role to the next.
Playing your character: When you play your main character, you act much as you would when you play any other roleplaying game. You put yourself in your character's life and try to think and act as she would, to see the world through her eyes and experience it as she would.
Playing the Other: When you play the Other in an encounter, you play another character — one that we might not know very much about yet. You have some basic ideas about her, including the need that drives her at this moment, but possibly nothing more than that. This differs only slightly from playing your own character, in that you want to convey the character as you understand her based on everything we've seen or learned about her so far, but you cannot make decisions for her. She might speak, but only to reiterate or elaborate on things we already know. She might act, but not in any decisive way. If anyone wants to push the Other to make a substantive decision, they'll have to spend a moment of awareness to ask a question.
Asking questions: Anyone in the encounter can spend a moment of awareness to ask a question. In this role, you try to learn something definite about the world, which could include what the Other or any other secondary character (NPC) will do.
Answering questions: When another player spends awareness and asks you a question, you get to answer. That answer forms the truth of the story. You could think of it as becoming the GM for a moment. When you answer a question always say what the principles demand, what the place demands, and what honesty demands.
Serving as audience: When you don't play your character or the Other, ask questions: questions for more detail or color (“What did that smell like?”), provocative questions (“Which of them do you trust the most?”), leading questions (“Did you hear the tiger sneaking up on you?”), any questions. They don't have the gravity of truth like the ones you ask by spending awareness, but much of the game's fun and color comes from them.
You don’t level up.
(Your family does.)
Most people in the Fifth World have skills that we, today, would consider impressive. Most can move through the forest like parkour runners. They live to over a hundred years old, and even the elders have more strength and endurance than most of their ancestors. They nearly all have expansive training with bows and other weapons, go about armed most of the time, possess expert hunting and tracking skills as well as a rapport with one another and their family territory so uncanny as to sometimes seem like telepathy. That just describes the average person in the Fifth World. But the game doesn't focus on them becoming more skilled or deadly. It focuses on the relationships between them and how those relationships change.
In saga play (what another roleplaying game would call a campaign), your characters grow up, grow old, and eventually die. You play an intergenerational story, so you’ll play several characters throughout the saga. You might play more than one in the same generation, switching between sessions, or you might just play a new character when your old one reaches the end of his life. Throughout that life, your character might change in many profound ways, but she won’t necessarily become progressively more powerful, and certainly not in any way that the game’s mechanics will focus on or reward. She might become an ancestor honored by your family who ties your family to its land, and so her memory might live on.
Over the long term, your family, rather than your characters, endure. You learn the names of places (a crystallization of the stories those places tell), and learning about those places unlock new questions to ask with which you can learn new things. Over time your family becomes more powerful — and by “more powerful” we mean more rooted to the land, dwelling more peacefully within it, more intimately bound to it.
The Fifth World didn’t come out of nowhere, of course. Like any other creative work, it has its own lineage. It takes great inspiration from Archipelago, Vast & Starlit, Ganakagok, Shock: Social Science Fiction, Misspent Youth, Apocalypse World and several related games, including Monsterhearts. Dungeon World, and Dream Askew. If you’ve played these or similar games, then you might not find The Fifth World so surprising after all.