Ganakagok by Bill White of Consensus Games. This has to be the coolest RPG I’ve come across since Ben Lehman’s Polaris. Both are awesome. If you like poignant mythic tales of individuals making hard choices and facing unforeseen consequences then these are the games for you.
Curiously both were entrants in the 2004 Son of Iron Game Chef challenge in which game designers had to create an RPG from scratch in a limited amount of time while also incorporating three of the four themes: Island, Ice, Dawn and Assault. Given that Tim Kleinert’s Mountain Witch and Shreyas Sampat’s Snow From Korea were also in the running this year it was a damn good contest!
According to Mr White, Ganakagok can be thought of as ‘Eskimo-punk’. The characters are quasi-Inuit hunters living on an immense iceberg in a world lit only by starlight; a world that could never be, never have been. In ages past the gigantic mountain of ice was sculpted by unknown hands into soaring spires and labyrinthine caverns and now it floats beneath a sky of stars that speak to men and women in dreams. But the Dawn is coming, and with it change.
There are two mechanics from this game that I absolutely love: the use of tarot-like cards for inspiration and the gifts.
e.g. Nine of Tears ~ Darkness, to lose hope, to despair (Nine also means secrets or a hidden purpose, and the Tears suit means The Ancestors, Grief or Flesh)
At the beginning of a player’s turn a card is drawn and a scene (or situation) framed based on an ‘interpretation’ of the card’s meaning. The scene (or situation) develops, perhaps drawing more cards, until the character reaches the crux of it (some sort of consequential action or inaction). At which point another card is drawn to determine the consequences of success or failure. The player rolls against the most appropriate attribute and the result indicates success or failure and who has narration rights. Gifts (possessions, relationships, knowledge or mana) and adversity may then be used to adjust the outcome. Finally whoever has ended up with narration rights narrates the success or failure and resulting good or bad medicine distributed.
To my mind the strength of this oracular resolution is at the heart of Ganakagok. It draws upon the power of the human mind to interpret and attribute exactly appropriate meanings. As Bill White himself says:
Random noise plus human interpretation equals deep significance. This is how the Tarot and I Ching work. It only looks like magic
Gifts are another beautiful mechanic because the rules encourage players to use them to adjust the outcome of rolls, whether their character is present in the scene or not. As long as there is some rationale for doing so e.g. Nuqaki (character in scene) remembers Maleuk’s (character not present) warning not to rush in and waits for a good opportunity, thus improving his chances.
I knew the Ganakagok cards were seriously cool when during a playtest game a few months ago, the characters were fighting a polar bear and one player (Max), in order to help out his buddy Jack (whose turn it was, and whose character had been knocked flat on his can and was laying there with the bear looming over him), used his Gift (a Love, or social connection, with a rival hunter who’s wooing his sister) to say that the rival hunter interposed himself between the bear and Jack’s character. And the consequence card was “Reflected Image,” and Jack got to narrate what it meant, and he said something like, “Well, I guess that because of his actions I sort of see myself in him and I like him more now.” And Max went, “D’oh!”
I’m dying to give this game a go, but sadly there doesn’t seem much prospect of getting a group together at the moment.