My first day at Save Against Fear (SAFe) was punctuated by enjoying the open play area. Multiple board and card games played by many different players of different ages and skill levels. It was early on in the convention and booths were still being set up, so I grabbed a box, set up the pieces, read over the rules, then waited for players to arrive so we could go a few rounds. It was the usual simple objective-based foundation most games utilize: players as heroes of virtue out to stop monsters using dice rolls and stats. It was a fun bit of casual respite from the stresses of a convention starting up. Then I moved on to have a session of The Fifth World with its designer, Jason Godesky.
The difference was night and day.
It’s the End of the World As We Know It
Talking lightly with Jason before and after our session, he said he wanted to capture a particular atmosphere for this game: one of humanity reverting to a quasi-spiritual tribal hunter/gatherer way of living in the aftermath of a vaguely defined apocalyptic collapse of modern society as we know it.
It was particularly intriguing because with a setting that could have very easily been pitched as a “neo-caveman urban fantasy adventure,” the execution is actually closer to collaborative storytelling and conflict resolution exercises through the lenses of empathy, eco-friendliness, and self-awareness.
The first thing that took me by surprise once the character sheets were handed out were that no dice were needed in order to play. Instead a specially made deck of cards was broken out and a simple currency called Awareness was handed out; five for each player.
We were then given a scenario involving a monster going through the tribe’s territory and several locations to explore, represented by several cards, similar to a traditional board game, and we had our characters venture off into the familiar, yet alien world of Pennsylvania after civilization collapsed.
It is here that The Fifth World wears its tribal storytelling heart on its sleeve. Rather than have the Game Master dictate each and every single encounter, describing items, locations, and characters of note to plant or pay off later, the encounters and conflict were actually determined by the players thanks to a simple yet highly interpretative conflict system tied to the deck of cards. One player goes to a location, another player at the table draws a card with each suite tied to a certain form of conflict: Spiritual, Emotional, Mental, or Physical. The player with the card must then keep the card face-down and come up with a character dealing with a problem of that nature that the second player must identify. From here, the encounter is basically a dialogue sequence, with crucial questions and clues being tied to giving up Awareness Points, which also double as your health. Figure out the nature of the problem, gain some insight and a clue as to where to go to next. Fail, and you could be wounded, which permanently removes the maximum amount of Awareness you can have at a time.
A Lot With a Little
From a detached clinical perspective, this whole set up reads less like a traditional RPG and more like a variation of the Penny For Your Thoughts exercises. Set up a scenario, throw in a twist, make sure the listeners are paying attention, and incentivize contribution. But then something genuinely interesting happened in each of the encounters, thanks to certain lines the players could use to change the tone or even re-orient the tone of the session to something in line with the group’s idea of the world. A simple response of “I don’t see it” can immediately retcon the site of a bloody murder to something more innocent like a lost person looking for shelter from a thunderstorm and looking to you for help. This helps guide the experience to not going too far off the rails. The various locations are also encouraged to be tied to real world locations, their significance taking on a new context in the new world. The tourist spot of Hershey Park became an almost mystical ground as the various rides and attractions became used for esoteric soothsaying rituals. The nuclear plant of Three Mile Island becomes a mix of a forbidden zone place of peaceful death, with a faction of priests dedicated to “preventing the spread of the invisible fire.”
Which does lead to a minor issue I do have with the setting of The Fifth World. Even if you and your group are able to get what amounts to swapping fireplace stories about the distant twenty-sixth century, it’s an experience that depends a lot on each individual player’s capacity for conflict, explanation, and storytelling beats. It’s also especially difficult given that the setting itself is open source to an extent, with lore and content being added to it with varying degrees of validity. It also doesn’t sweat various details such as the quality of life of new humanity or the availability of firearms. That can be a bit too much to ask for certain groups that just want to make characters with silly names, roll some dice, and get into borderline esoteric discussions about various different ideas and locations.
And yet this game continues to stick out in my mind as something special with its gameplay minimalism and gave me unique challenges I haven’t experienced before as an RPG player. These tricky abstract encounters such as convincing another player to mentally bolster himself due to the loss of his right hand but doing so in the context of an internal dialogue the character is having with himself was never something I thought I’d have to do. It’s also a textbook example of a game that considers the actions of the players more than their stats, both in the long and short-term. Once the session ended, Jason asked each player what sort of hidden past or worry one of the other characters had. At first I thought it was simply a matter of discussion, but it was a continuation of one of the core tenets of the game: to celebrate one’s personhood. I was playing a well-meaning mystic type trying to protect the tribe from some unknown horror, but I was also an almost anti-social type, one who seemed more at home with wildlife and creative endeavors than social interaction. It wasn’t a feat, and it wasn’t a bonus or a drawback I took; it was simply in the character’s idiom.
On the whole, I may not play The Fifth World again, but that is not a knock against its quality. On its own it’s an experimental continuation of the numbers-lite expression-focused RPG systems that have been coming out in the past decade like FATE and Apocalypse World. This one just focuses almost entirely on small moments and encounters to paint a more vibrant picture of the group you’re with. It’s an experience I do not regret having at all, and one I think is worth a go if you are even remotely interested in an experience like this.
The rules themselves are easily accessible at the official website for free, any additions to the setting are actively encouraged thanks to its open source nature, and everything you need from character sheets to card decks can easily be replicated and printed from there as well.