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Archipelago [game]

Entry updated 8 May 2019. Tagged: Game.

Role Playing Game (2007; rev 2009, 2012). Independent Game. Designed by Matthijs Holter.

Small Press roleplaying game associated with the improvisational approach of the Nørwegian Style Live Action Role Playing movement and the affiliation of its methods with the folktales of Norway [for Folktale see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. The game is designed to replicate the imaginative territory and implicit anarchism of the Earthsea novels of Ursula K Le Guin.

Play begins with a map (that which precedes Le Guin's initial Earthsea trilogy of A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (Winter 1970/1971 Worlds of Fantasy #3: exp 1971) and The Farthest Shore (1972; slightly cut 1973), and collected as Earthsea (omni 1977; vt The Earthsea Trilogy 1979), is by Ruth Robbins (1968)); this might be a version of the Archipelago of Earthsea expanded to include further Islands, or one set at a different time period, or indeed one that charts an entirely different setting: the two alternative backgrounds suggested in the text are Fantasy and science fiction (see Genre SF). Players define details of the setting as a group and, if necessary, add relevant minutiae to the map as the story develops; each person playing creates a character for the story to be told and a "destiny point" (a phrase indicating what might happen to the character during the story) for every character not their own. The person directing the character chooses one of these destiny points for their character to face at the denouement of the story.

The outstanding attribute of Archipelago is that ritual phrases, distributed authority and gameplay geared toward collaborative storytelling replace the combat mechanics, pre-prepared Game-Worlds and centralized leadership of a Gamemaster common to many mainstream Role Playing Games. Authority over aspects of the setting is offered to particular players: examples given for pertinent areas of ownership in Earthsea are Magic, Sociology and geography. It is suggested that each character have an indirect relationship with at least one other character by being tied emotionally to a third character or an event or location indicated on the map.

Play proceeds in turns with each person setting the stage for a scene involving their character at a point on the map and then portraying any dramatic action or dialogue with the help of the other players. The tenor and intensity and of scenes is mediated via a sequence of phrases that anyone playing can employ at any time. "Try a different way" applies when a player thinks someone narrated something that does not chime with the story or situation: the person on the receiving end of the phrase must then either narrate a variation on what they said or come up with something completely different. "Describe that in detail" applies when a player wants to hear more about what another player just narrated. "That might not be quite so easy" applies when there is a challenge or conflict: this may only be applied once per turn. "I'd like an interlude" applies when a player wants to add a coda to a scene that has just ended; this requires the agreement of the other players. "Harder" applies when a player thinks another player is avoiding conflict or cutting a scene too early and obliges the player on the receiving end of the phrase to be more dramatic in the rendering of their scene. "Help" is for when a player wants the input or advice of other players.

Any player may draw a Fate card once per session – e.g. "An area on the map is threatened. An attack by enemies, a natural disaster, a change from within or similar" – in order to introduce a random element into their narration: the card (or phrase scribbled on a piece of paper) is handed to another player to interpret. Secondary characters may be introduced at any time and anyone playing may veto aspects of narration from other players pertaining to elements of the fiction that they own. Suggested techniques for improvisation such as "Accept input", "Know when to talk and when to be quiet" and "Avoid big time jumps" attempt to generate the atmosphere necessary to communal storytelling. The game ends when each character has faced their destiny point.

Archipelago was enormously important to the development of the "story games" movement that grew out of discussions about the threefold "GDS" (game/drama/simulation) model on the online USENET system (for which see the entry Role Playing Game) and which later expanded to become the "Big Model" theory of Game Design as practised by regular users of online forum The Forge. These games tended to stress an independent publishing model, to employ explicit mechanics for the mediation of a shared imagined space open to everyone playing, and to use a variety of specific settings and methodologies designed to undermine Clichés concerning War and Imperialism that underpin some of the traditional approaches to roleplaying design. An early precursor to this approach was My Life with Master (2003) by Paul Czege.

Independently-produced games based on Archipelago's system include Love in the Time of Seið (2010) by Matthijs Holter and Jason Morningstar, which is set in a Norse fantasy kingdom, and the Steampunk-themed Anarktica: Fate of Heroes (2012) by Nick Reynolds and Richard Williams. The equity and circularity of Archipelago's story mechanics evoke some of the ways in which Ursula K Le Guin's Taoist sensibility informed the portrayal of the interrelationship of Ecology and human culture in her work, and the game's free-flowing, conversational approach communicates a strong sense of how Le Guin's consistent assertion of the inherent creative capacity of all humankind fuelled the growth of the author's influence beyond Heroic Fantasy and into Science Fantasy and the further reaches of the SF Megatext. [MD]


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