Blast from the past: Safety and the Inversion of Folk Logic

Another yoink from Blue Collar Space circa 2011.

Hurray, Brad is going to talk about his field of expertise instead of game design! Well, this is supposed to be a blog about technical things that interest me and games are just a branch of that (yes, games are technical — a technology — and I can blather about that another time if you like) so I’m not averse to going fairly far afield. And who knows, it might be the case that if I ramble long enough I somehow come back around to games anyway.

I was walking from the train station to work this morning and encountered four interesting cases of really crappy risk analysis — three real and one hypothetical. One was accompanied by an epithet that told me exactly why humans are so bad at risk analysis and, at the same time, why safety design is such a counter-intuitive process. It has to do with the fact that humans think in terms of acceptable risk. In a way, safety design looks from the other side of the glass.

Consider standing at the train platform. There’s a 50cm-wide yellow stripe right at the lip of the platform before it falls vertically to the guideway proper, which is where the train is going to be. I have seen children (and older) stand in the yellow zone and, as the train zooms in, tell their parents it’s perfectly safe, presumably using their survival as evidence. This is logic we expect of children, of course, which is to say, flawed. Deeply flawed.

An evidential argument for safety (I didn’t die that time, or even, no one has died yet) is inadequate. I mean, it’s adequate for you but it’s not adequate for design. You see, that yellow bar does not (again, by design) say, “If you stand here you risk injury or death.” I know, you think it does, and the sign says that, but that’s not how it’s designed and so you are misled into thinking it’s too conservative somehow. You’ve stood in the yellow a hundred or a thousand times and never once been killed.

Rather what it says is, “If you stand on your side of the yellow zone and not in it or, obviously, in the guideway on the other side, then you are as safe as we can make you, which is pretty bloody safe.” That is, technologically, we don’t really know the risk of standing in the yellow zone because it depends a lot on freak configurations of the train, your own stability, and in most cases of actual fatality, whether or not you are wearing a backpack(1) So we don’t try to calculate that. Instead we find a  space where, barring some bizarre circumstance, you are certainly safe. Then we mislabel it so you can deride it in front of your parents or friends.

Here are some other examples drawn from my morning walk. You will notice a recurring theme that is both hilarious and insane and perfectly common. I’ll try to remember to point it out at the end.

The traffic signal that indicates it is okay to walk sometimes displays an orange hand instead of a white or green walking guy. This hand does not mean, “you will be killed if you cross now”, or even “you can reasonably expect cars to be passing through your path now”. It means, “You no longer have been granted safe passage.” That is, it’s the default case and not a special case. The special case is the green guy, which reads, “Okay, it’s your turn now, and crossing at this time and place is as safe as we can make it.” Any time the green guy is not present, it’s a bad idea to cross. I watched a woman in a dreadful hurry cross on the orange hand this morning (and ours has a countdown on it which, even if you read safety warning backwards, can reasonably be read as how many seconds until you are totally dead) with the counter to fatality at 4 seconds. She was dressed darkly and small. She fell (also running heels, but also not running very well) in the middle of the road with two seconds to spare, basically disappearing from sight for many drivers. She was not killed. It was still stupid on several levels.

A crowded sidewalk is a crappy place to ride you bike at high speed. You aren’t especially in danger, but the sort of sociopathy that lets bike riders think this is okay is completely beyond me. You are violating a core premise of the safety design (there won’t be any high speed vehicles on this space ever) and making what should be a certainly safe space no better than the road. Yes, you did not injure or kill anyone. Well done. Fuck you.

I’ve never seen anyone blow through a train crossing with the bar down, but I think people don’t do it mostly out of an aversion to destroying things like the bar or scratching their vehicle. Or maybe they just avoid violating custom or even law. But I did hear a driver loudly proclaim that there was tons of time between the bar coming down and the train going by. He could totally have made it! The bar does not say, “It is certainly unsafe to proceed”. Rather when the bar is up, the message is, “Don’t worry, it’s safe now.” The bar down says, “We can’t guarantee anything.”  There’s a reason why level crossings in Texas often have webcams that the public can view and it’s not a pleasant one. Texas is one of the best places to get killed by a train you think you’re probably safe from. Yay freedom!

People are not stupid. They are badly equipped to manage risk, though, and certainly others have spoken more authoritatively than I can about that. What you can do is recognize that you are bad at managing risk and work within that envelope. Then the risk you manage is, judging by the hurry out there, being late for an appointment. Here’s how I manage that risk: I set the alarm 15 minutes early, and then I don’t run for anything but sport.

–BMurray
(1)Backpacks are an awesome way to piss people off and also get yourself killed. I’m pleased to see a decline in their popularity after so many years of seeing them everywhere. Here’s the problem: a stuffed backpack is an extra 20-50cm of space protruding from your body that is completely outside the limits of your proprioception. You have no instinctive knowledge of where that thing is. That’s why you’re always banging it into people (and you are, even if you don’t think you are, and you don’t think you are for the same reason) and occasionally hanging it over the yellow zone and into the guideway. 

Blast from the past: The Hovercraft Parable

This has been recovered from the Blue Collar Space archives, circa Christmas 2010.

Recently a new chapter has been added to the story about the role-playing game publishing industry dying. The “death” is mostly a way to interpret the steady failing of big reliable game lines and the steady success of small endeavours with small goals by peers using technology from front to back. I think a modern parable is in order.

One day I was heading home from work, got off the train, and went to the bus stop for the last leg of my journey. Standing at the stop and looking north, I see a huge construction project in progress. This looks like it is going to be some kind of very sturdy multi-storey concrete building, like a parking tower or an industrial warehouse. They are working on finishing the second floor.

What they are doing, specifically, is laying down concrete and smoothing it flat. I don’t get that this is what’s happening right away, because what I see is three guys laughing their heads off. They are laughing because they are each sitting on a chair that looks like it is mounted on a pair of downward-pointing fans, and skidding around all over the structure at high speed.

They are surfacing the concrete by riding around on one-person hovercraft.

My first thought is that I would pay to do this. In fact, I am pretty sure that if they sold tickets for twenty bucks to give you half an hour on the hovercraft-chair, there would be a line-up around the block. The surface would get done and someone would make a packet and a half doing it. There’s even a built-in audience — about half the people waiting for the bus are watching the well-paid union labourers ride and thinking pretty much the same thing as I am. “Goddamn, what I really want to be doing right now is giving one of those guys twenty bucks and then barrel around on a hovercraft.”

There are probably many obstacles (insurance, quality of work, marketing, licensing, simple convention) but only one is really insurmountable. The union would never go for it.

 

orbital mechanics

While tinkering with the technology levels in Diaspora Anabasis, we had an interesting opportunity disguised as a problem.

Technology level 0 means no space travel. There are six different oracles to explain this (and of course you can invent your own) but only the space travel bit is interesting here.

Technology level 1 is early space travel requiring huge resources if there’s a gravity well. Chemical rockets.

Technology level 2 is commercial space travel, more advanced rockets.

Technology level 3 introduces the slip drive but not much more.

Technology level 4 is even better drives but so what?

Technology level 5 is magical tech. Crazy off the wall unpredictable tech. It’s peak technology just before a civilization disappears.

So the problem with this is that level 4 is not actually differentiated much from 3. So here’s my idea. From tech level 1-3 rockets have efficiencies such that you can only practically travel most places inside a system using orbital mechanics. At tech level 4 you get so efficient that you can just do a Traveller-style constant burn, turn over, constant burn pattern to anywhere you want to go.

I’m pretty sure most of my audience knows what this means but let’s spell it out.

Right now in the real world we are bound by orbital mechanics when we go into space because we don’t have rockets efficient enough to just point at our destination and burn. Instead we steal energy from the orbits of planets and pay for it in time.

you orbiting home
Orbiting your home, A, you are moving really fast along A’s orbit and also pretty fast around A to stay in orbit.

Any body in orbit is travelling at some huge velocity at right angles to the sun at any given time. It’s basically falling on a ballistic trajectory forever, continuously missing the sun. So as soon as you get out of the gravity well and into orbit around your starting point, you’re already travelling super fast with respect to the sun.

you orbiting the sun
Escaping A and now just in orbit around the sun. Relatively cheap on fuel.

If you accelerate a bit in the direction of orbit or away from the direction of orbit, you’ll escape from your planet and be orbiting the sun instead of the world. You’ll be pretty much travelling alongside the world, but you’re now revolving the sun alone instead of the world and the sun. This is a relatively cheap burn.

Now you can spend energy to slow down or speed up. If you speed up, your orbit will descend towards the sun, allowing you to intersect (if you time it well) with an inner planet and be captured by its gravity. If you slow down, your orbit will ascend outwards from the sun, allowing you to intersect with an outer planet and be captured by its gravity.

you slowing down
Speeding up to go visit B in a closer orbit. Your new orbit is elliptical.
you later
So you wait until you get around here. Notice everything else is moving too.
Canvas 5
Then you burn a little here, slowing a little, to make your orbit closer to circular.
Canvas 6
Then you coast a little, burning no fuel, until you get inside B’s capture radius.
Canvas 7
And make another little burn to start orbiting B. Now you can launch your interface vessels!

 

This is a cheap way to travel but since you are coasting most of the time the following things are true:

  • Your travel times are much longer than if you can burn directly
  • You are at the mercy of the orbits — if you orbit doesn’t intersect your target right away you might have to go around the sun a couple of times. This could get old fast. So could you (though at the usual rate).
  • Most of your time is spent in micro-gravity

This is the sense in which you buy energy for time: you don’t need a whole lot of delta-v (your capacity to change your velocity, mostly measured in how much reaction mass you have to spend) to use orbital mechanics, but you do need to spend some time in transit and you have to plan if you want to minimize that time. Of course what I’m thinking about now is how to mechanize this so that it’s at least roughly realistic but also simple and fun. It’s a bonus for me that this introduces a lot of meaningful downtime — this can then be a phase of play, introducing projects and healing opportunities as a feature of simply travelling from A to B.

Generally your pattern is this: you decide you want to go to B from A. You sit around at A and check your charts and computers and determine when the best time to leave is in order to minimize your total wait time (sitting around before launch + coasting between the planets) and also get a course that’s within your ship’s delta-v limits. Then you wait your WAIT TIME (a downtime period that takes place on planet). Then you launch and do your initial burns. Then you wait your COAST TIME (another downtime period but it takes place on your ship). Then you do your terminal burns and arrive at B.

And now that we have a pattern, we can start to dream up ways to mechanize it and keep it fun. Well I can anyway, in a vague sort of way. Watch this space and look for actual rules to start showing up at our Patreon page.

Now this also implies that using slipknots is pretty expensive and maybe requiring very specific ship designs at T3 — you just don’t get any benefit from orbital velocities when you need to stop at a stationary point in space 2500 light seconds above the star. You are going to have to pretty much cancel your orbital velocity by the time you hit the slipknot and also accelerate there and decelerate before arrival — I think you’ll be taking a kind of rising spiral to the knot (please correct me if I’m wrong) and it’s going to chew up a lot of delta-v. Tech level 3 might be really very interesting indeed as it deviates from tech level 4! Slip capable ships might be defined as having very high delta-v capabilities, sacrificing other capabilities. If you want to blockade a slipknot at T3, your optimum strategy might be to build warships at the slipknot and jump them through where they stay, not having enough delta-v to endanger the system proper but rather just able to station-keep and act as a massive weapons platform. This introduces a whole new set of stories — the old Diaspora stories were all the same when slip is introduced but now we have two distinct narratives around slipknot travel, the orbital mechanics story (T3) and the direct burn story (T4+). I think that’s pretty cool.

helping people in distress is hard

In times of trouble, at least when you let people know you’re in trouble, people who love you will say “is there anything I can do?” or “if I can do anything please call.” It is meant with the best intentions. It’s heartening to hear people declare that they are in your corner. And when your trouble isn’t really all that bad it’s innocuous. I do it. Everyone does it. It’s like asking “how are you?” in a way — it’s polite but not necessarily an actual invitation. And when you’re in genuine trouble you need that invitation to be real.

When trouble is really bad it can become a new stressor. I will decline your help for a couple of reasons.

First, I have no intention of imposing on you. You’re my friend and I feel as much compulsion to make your life easier as you feel for me.

20181109_183233
Couch needs a vacuuming for starters. If you can get the cat off it.

Second, the kinds of things I really need help with you don’t want to do and I would never ask you to do. I need the whole house cleaned. I need someone else to take over my household needs for a week so I can go somewhere else for a while. I need seven million dollars, give or take.

Finally, the onus is now on me to imagine things that I need, that are within your means, and that I think you would actually not mind doing. That puts an emotional burden on me that I really don’t need. It’s vastly easier for me to politely decline than to think up something in that narrow intersection of constraints that would really help.

Now, look: I love you. I understand and appreciate the sentiment. We all say it at some point and it feels like the right thing to say and it really often is. And it’s soothing to say — it releases one from a burden in a way. You know, you’ve offered, you’ve made yourself available (hypothetically). And when things are really bad, you’re kind of flailing: you know you can’t really help with things of a certain magnitude so you reach for something to say, anything, to indicate that you’re a friend and you want things to be better. I love all of that.

When someone is in dire need, here’s something you can do that doesn’t create that burden. It’s something that people used to do a lot in these circumstances but since our culture has become more about remote means of communication than physical interaction, it seems to have died off. You can just do something without asking what the person needs. It can be almost invisibly tiny and still have enormous impact.

My neighbour rang my bell the other day to say all the right things because she’d read about my trouble on Facebook. And she gave me a hug. I’ve been living alone for two weeks and I am a very physically affectionate person. I am a hugger. That hug genuinely made things better.

A friend who was in town for a visit gave me frequent hugs (because he knows) and also came with me to visit my wife in the hospital. And he didn’t ask how he could help, leaving me to invent the idea of joining me at the hospital. He said “I want to visit Jack; can I come with you?” Someone being with you when it’s hard shares the burden. It’s easier. It makes things better. He bought dinner and let me buy dinner. He let me be alone when I needed it and he respected my boundaries regarding my home and my embarrassments and my privacy. That’s some hard shit to do well, let alone perfectly. But the crux of it is: he just did things.

My mother, who lives across the country, would have been at my home every day. She couldn’t so from that great distance she found something practical to do anyway: she sent some cash. Now cash doesn’t fix every problem and in my case it’s not really necessary since I have a swell job, but cash is also always welcome. It relieves some stress. It lets me make a dumb choice with no repercussions just to make my life easier for a while. An expensive dinner, maybe, or some flowers. Cash seems crass but it’s powerful and practical.

20190618_172127
This is actually potatoes dauphinoise and not a casserole. Well, I guess it’s a potato and cream casserole. Fine it’s a casserole.

So next time you’re in this situation, consider not reflexively offering to help. A simple statement of solidarity, of camaraderie, of compassion is better. And if you really, really want to help, just do it. Drop by with a casserole: people under high stress are probably not eating right. This is why after the funeral everyone brings food. It’s actual help and it doesn’t require that the receiver do any work. Staying after to clean up is golden as well.

And that’s the heart of it: when the stress is really over the boiling point the one thing you do not need is more work. Everything seems like it’s too much, that it’s more than you can handle. Lift one of those things without adding any new ones. Just pick one. And if you have no idea what would help, I guarantee prepared food will never be remiss.

PS. You haven’t done anything wrong. The “how can I help” reaction is normal and compassionate. Everyone does it. It just carries a burden most people never have to think about and don’t analyze when they do. Much love to knife wife on Twitter for pointing it out — I couldn’t have put it into words without her raising it. It was like a light going on.

clusters

From Slipdrive Operation and Theory: A History

… Though there is some variability correlating to the mass of the star, the placement of Slipknots is remarkably consistent across the cluster, and this remains unexplained. They are positioned roughly 2500 light seconds perpendicular from the system’s ecliptic, and always paired, like the poles on a magnet. (Models suggest that the slipknot at a location without a central mass would occupy a single point and would entangle; see Armster 5324-WEM.) If they are naturally occurring phenomena, then the physics by which they are generated remains unexplained. If they were designed, then it was with a technology for which there has been no archaeological attestation (see also Slipknot Worship and Slipknots, Destabilization of).

The physics in each system in the cluster are identical. This is the best evidence that the systems are all part of the same universe, though Carradine and Zhang-Sho argue that even this is uncertain (3318-JFM). To date, it has proved impossible to match the stars visible from any system with those in another, and therefore the most conservative speculation is that each system is at least outside the observable universe of all others. Ochek therefore believed that the slipknots were designed to enable specifically intergalactic transport (4007-HRW). Efforts in the Fourth Millennium to expand the cluster by the Maltus Foundation were successful in adding Gawlinski Prime but documentation from that period is fragmentary and no similar expedition has achieved results.

Scientists are unable to disprove the existence of other clusters. …

Here’s a nice little piece of fiction from Toph Marshall for Diaspora Anabasis. This was never explicit in Diaspora but was always in my head: this is the “out”, the “hard” in our science fiction. It’s how faster-than-light travel works without violating other fundamental (or at least intuitive) rules.

It’s a common canard that you can have causality or faster-than-light travel but not both. But if the end points are not observable then they are functionally in different universes and there’s no causality to violate. There’s no causal interaction between the two points except the travel itself.

This little piece of fiction does more than just that though, as all the best micro-fic does. Aside from the obvious (there are slipknots, there are in this location) it also establishes that much of science in this setting is actually archaeology: no matter what the locals discover it’s probably been discovered before and (functionally) nearby. Half of high energy physics here is decoding ancient texts on high energy physics. All fields have the same sort of reverance of artifacts, dependence on linguistics, and possibly a religious component because the last civilization’s texts are the fastest route to recovering that technology. It’s as though Atlantis really did, certainly, exist. And it had starships.

I really dig that mood, the injection of the humanities into the sciences in a concrete way. A new archaeological dig is instantly of interest to biologists and chemists and physicists and mathematicians. No one can afford to be ignorant of ancient cultures.

And it must also become something of a crutch, stagnating original research. How much of your life would you spend on developing a new theory for high energy physics when it could be invalidated (or validated) by one new discovery on a remote moon of the local gas giant.

 

zooming in with diaspora anabasis

One of the ways I design, as I’ve discussed before, it to create my objective from scratch and analyze the way I get there in order to find a way to mechanize it so you can do it too. We’re currently developing the sequel to DiasporaDiaspora Anabasis — and I am at a place where I need to do this again.

We have cluster creation and character creation pretty much solved now. But in developing my prep notes for a session of play I find I want to know more about each system. In the original we hand-waved this, but I’d really like maps showing the worlds in a system in order to make them more real, more huge, and to avoid the common pitfall of conflating world and system. Also, with the happy fame of The Expanse i think there is even more energy in the community for these stories, the stories that take place during travel inside a solar system. This also makes lower technologies as rich to spin yarns about as higher technologies. It opens up the scope of the game.

So let’s start with a map.

antoine
The Antoine system.

Before starting this map I have some information of course. From the core conceit of the game I have the slipknot, the point from which high technology vessels can jump to other systems in the cluster. That’s the shape above the star.

test 3
The cluster!

From the cluster generation I have statistics for the system. I know that it’s a rich system, with multiple inhabitable worlds, one of which is a garden planet. A place naturally lush with life and air and water. I also know that the inhabitants support an industry capable of using the slipknot.

 

From character generation I have more information. I know that there are prison worlds because more than one character escaped from prison here. I know that the system protects its technology, refusing to give it to other systems. I know that it is deeply colonial, seeing itself as the patron and protector of the other systems which it believes cannot survive on their own due to their lesser industries and at the same time believes cannot be trusted to wield the power of that technology themselves. It’s a familiar place, no?

This, of course, is why games must always be political: any story worth telling is political. Humans talking about things make politics. Humans imagining things make politics. But I digress.

So if you hoped I would talk now about the new mechanism for system generation you’re going to be disappointed: I have no idea just yet. I drew the sun and a line and put some worlds on it. One is the garden world of Antoine and there’s a gas giant because systems probably have gas giants. And then I wanted some distinction and some wonder.

Antoine is a garden world and the original colony in the system. It is has vast burgeoning oceans and cities that reach into the sky. Its industry, pollution, and crime are exported to other worlds. While there are hints of revolution here, it is quickly exported to the Beregons or, worse, Lens. Hush is its moon which houses several habitats despite being airless.

Here’s a pivot point of course: I want wonder, so that needs to get baked in. In this system I put the prison worlds of Beregon in. Two planets orbiting each other closely as they orbit the sun. This is well north of improbable as a natural event and that’s a good vein to mine for wonder: how the hell did that happen? That’s a point to mechanize. Perhaps a set of oracles for wonderous improbable things.

Beregon alpha and beta are mutually orbiting planetoids. They have pressure but limited air and resources sufficient to create and sustain habitation. They are primarily inhabited by industry, work forces, and prisons. The configuration of these two worlds is not explained by astrophysics: they are probably an artificial construction though there is no evidence of a prior culture here.

I also decided that with this level of technology large space stations would be viable. So I put some in. And that there would be a station to defend and manage the slipknot. And there’s another point for mechanization: a list of things that are normal at each technology. Still wonderous as technology advances, but normal for the technology. Certainly an orbital that houses half a billion people is wonderous to us, however mundane it is for the locals.

Arkady is a radioactive wasteland many times its expected density as it is composed mostly of heavy metals. It is hypothesized that it was ejected from a nearby super-super-nova and captured in the Arkady system. A massive industrial orbital, Lens, is used as a shielded base of operations for mining and it houses half a billion miners and administrators. In high orbit is an electromagnetic deceleration tunnel for pushing unpowered or low fuel masses to inner orbits. It is predominantly used for mining shipments to inner worlds.

Elminster station is the slipknot station for the system. It is highly militarized and provides all layover, maintenance, and r-mass functions for both civilian and military spacecraft. It does not police slipknot transitions unless the ship lacks an approved and up-to-date beacon.

So what I’m leveraging here is the idea that many things wonderous would be normal at high levels of technology and that that normalcy is itself wonderous. Playing in a world where a wonder is mundane creates an emotion in the player that’s fun even if it’s not an emotion in the character. And yet there is still room for wonder in the characters as well by imagining technology or celestial happenstance that would be baffling and awe-inspiring to the characters. Two wonders are available to me!

I also know from the cluster and character generation that there are many inhabited worlds here. One thing we might want is to have habitable moons of the gas giant. Which means we need to wonder why they are there? So:

Corazon is a hot jupiter gas giant, swirling with radioactive gases, a failed star. It has more than seventy moons but only four are of interest. Matchbox is an ice ball well within the region of Corazon’s gravity and radiation to cause intense activity and liquid water volcanoes. Peril is just a rock, albeit a very battered one, and holds not substantial colonies. Ash is a nearly human-normal temperature and holds enough pressure to make colonization cost effective. It houses several breakaway religious sects and political rebels and maintains a navy sufficient to dissuade Antoine from changing that balance of power. Oka is similar but has a somewhat harsher, colder environment and much richer mineral resources.

So here’s another point to mechanize: why do people live where it’s difficult to live? Perhaps a list of possible reasons, another set of oracles, to choose from or get random information from. Because there is always the fact of the astrography and then the rationale for being any place in it. Or not being there.

Buzzard is a long way away and under explored. Even with current technology at Antoine, it would take more than a year to travel there and there is no reason to believe it’s worth doing.

And then I sprinkled it with another idea I had not inspired by anything in either the rules text or the generation text: I figured that if you were at the point where you were heavily exploiting an entire solar system, you’d also be thinking about ways to make that cheaper. So I added the Decels — vast electromagnetic railgun structures for moving in and out of heavy traffic but distant orbits. Because sometimes you’re not in a hurry, you just want to constantly move a lot of material. And since one of the worlds was lacking distinction, I put it there.

Lepzig is a rocky and metallic frozen world with substantial resources and a naval installation intended to keep a reserve force available to counter Ash or Oka aggression. It is generally considered to be punishment duty. Its two moons, Shepherd and Wallace, are also heavily militarized but they have no resources to speak of and are better considered bases than habitations. Regular traffic from Leipzig is required for them to be maintained. In high orbit is an electromagnetic deceleration tunnel for pushing unpowered or low fuel masses to inner orbits.

So now all that’s left is to mechanize this in a way that’s fun and reproducible, so you can get at least what I get when I play.

 

Thanks to patrons for the pressure and the energy.

Games are at LuluDTRPG, and itch.io.

the character you deserve

Some terms before I get into this — these are phrases I might be using in a unique way, so I’ll define them right off so there’s no sidelining about what they mean. If you don’t agree a concept should have this name or that this name should be associated with this concept, well, just swallow that. This is what I mean when I say these things and arguing that I don’t is not helpful.

Simulation. All games are simulations. They are all abstract machines we use to assist in the imagining of a world through rules that govern our behaviour when we do that imagining. Some games are simulating physics to a greater or lesser degree. Some are simulating a particular narrative structure. All are simulations.

Simulation boundary. You can’t simulate everything and you can’t simulate anything with perfect granularity. You have to make decisions about what is and what isn’t in the simulation. This is the boundary. Some stuff is inside. Almost everything is outside.

IMG_0705
Steyr turned into a bit of a punk, steering into a life of crime I didn’t intend.

Making characters is central to most role-playing games. And while there are broad categories one could define to pigeon-hole the various ways we do this, there are two categories that interest me: characters you describe with a generation system and characters you discover.

We’ve all played games where we have a character in mind and then look to the system to let us describe it. We have an idea, maybe not fully formed, but an idea, and we use the classes or the point buy or whatever to create a representation of that idea within the simulation boundaries of the system. When our intention and the system mesh perfectly we get a character that feels exactly like what we want to play and when we play it it delivers the experience we were hoping for.

My experience (with myself as a player) is that I tend to make the same characters. Not exactly the same, but remarkably similar. Sometimes they even look radically different until they enter play and then I realize I’m not being all that creative. I see this in other people too. Almost everyone, in fact. Not you, of course. And so my preference is not to use a system that lets me assemble my vision of my character. My vision is flawed. It has a lot of boundaries and most of them I don’t know about.

I prefer to discover my character. So let’s look at the new Diaspora Anabasis character creation system to see how we discover (and how we create, since we do both here). It will seem familiar — the phased process of Spirit of the Century still works today and I’m not junking any machinery that still operates and still meets my needs. I will tune it, paint it, polish it, even re-purpose it but if it’s not broken it doesn’t go in the bin.

We start with a list of APTITUDES. Things the character is naturally good at, modelled as gross categories. Some aren’t really aptitudes, per se, but let that slide for now.

PHYSICAL 0

SOCIAL 0

COMBAT 0

KNOWLEDGE 0

OPERATION 0

PURSUIT 0

CULTURES 0

ASSETS 0

We could argue forever about what a good set of aptitudes would be. Let’s not. This list is tuned to deliver Diaspora. For a different game with different moods I would choose differently.

test 3
The Antoinese Protectorate cluster.

Now keep in mind that we have already collaboratively created a context for these characters, a set of worlds with their own stories. Already before we even begin we have some choice forced on us: these are the worlds to choose from. These are the cultures. Whatever character we want to play, that character starts here somehow. Our choices are already narrowly focused.

You already do this, of course. When you play D&D your context has been firmly established and whatever particular tragedies are in your dark mysterious background, they all take place in the context of D&D’s particular fantasy world (or whatever variant you have bought or fabricated). So the only real difference here is that the context is partially random and wholly collaborative. No one is the sole engineer of the context. You are all reacting and creating, riffing really, off the random content.

So your first step is to choose a home world. In my case, I choose Borealis which has this description:

Borealis

Technology: 1 (chemical rockets to get to/from trojans and greeks, which are the only sources of resources in the system)

Environment: 0.2 (barely habitable moon orbiting a gas giant)

Resources: 1 (some exotic materials found in captured asteroids/comets that make up the L4/L5 groups around Borealis prime)

SUMMARY

Borealis is a hard-scrabble mining community of outcasts that are looking to strike it rich. It happened once before (long, long ago a prospector found something of value here, but what exactly it was has passed into legend and myth). From the view of Antoine (and any reasonable individual) there’s no point in spending human lives on such long odds and even robots aren’t worth the low returns. Thus, everyone on Borealis is doing their own thing, using outdated technology that’s held together by little more than baling wire and duct tape.

FACTS

Independent miners who might strike it rich.

Technology, environment, and resources are random components. Everything else has been created by the players.

So already I know something about my character and I didn’t control it.

Next I write a little something about growing up on Borealis. This is my first and most perfect effort to create what I want or at least plant the seed. I will not entirely control what it grows into. I write:

Everyone is totally, perfectly free here. Free to starve, free to suffocate, free to get radiation sickness and die of cancer. So you’re really slave to the labour you need to do to not starve, suffocate, or slough off your aviolae. At 11 I thought it’d be smart to specialize in fixing things that people need and chose to apprentice under an air systems team. Keeping the near-surface pockets of the Borealis moon breathing. That meant frequent trips to the surface and near orbit to mine gases. And that meant frequently standing in an armoured suit staring up at Borealis proper — that fierce warm glowing giant world that dominates half the sky with swirling blue and gold. And that made me want to fly.

Since this phase is mostly about the world itself, we get to add a fact to the homeworld, adjusting someone elses vision of that place to coincide with the character perspective. And then I make some mechanical changes to my stats which I don’t think are interesting to this narrative, but basically I decide what I’m naturally good at.

Next phase, though, I write about meeting another character:

It was Colonel Darros, an enormous Diver, who got me past orbit. He flew deep missions into Borealis to recover heavy gases and even suspended metal fogs. It was dangerous and exciting and it meant I had to learn to fly singleships from the surface of our Moon through complex orbital obstacles, and into the great storms. It was exacting, exciting, unforgiving work. But it wasn’t what I meant by flying. I wanted other stars. He had ideas along those lines as well. Dangerous ideas.

Now this is still me creating my character but I have also introduced a fact to my friend’s character Colonel Darros: I have implied that they are an expert in a certain field and given a kernel of an idea that they were up to something shady (since part of the context established previously is that there is one world that controls all FTL technology and it’s not our world). Even more disruptive is that another player has written about meeting me:

In an act of youthful defiance and idiocy, Markella stole away from her homeworld by hi-jacking a Antoinian inspections vessel. With it, she was able to slip to other systems. Little did she know that another person was on board when she boosted the ship. And it was lucky for her. It wasn’t until the ship’s systems were failing and she realized she could not possibly manage the ship by herself that she realized there was a prisoner in stasis on board. When she thawed Steyr Stonecutter, they found themselves working so well together that they were able to escape peril with their lives and an unexpectedly comfortable rapport.

So now I know that I’ve been aboard an illegally obtained slipship. I’m now a criminal (not what I was intending) and I have a friend. My next phase is coloured by this. And in a later phase I will influence another player character’s development similarly and be influenced.

This organic hybrid of describing and discovering is my favourite space for character design. I get to start something but I don’t get to decide where it goes. I get some curve balls and I decide how to deal with them. The character is my concept, but rather than my choice from whole cloth it is the sum of my reactions to things not entirely under my control.

And at the very least this character becomes different from my last character.

 

Thanks to patrons for the pressure and the energy.

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