Around the time we were playing with Burning Wheel we also got into Universalis, a GM-less universal system for developing a story with interesting people using a simple currency to trade narrative control. It has a nice rhythm, and with a little attention can be diverted from the gonzo towards something more serious. We used this to develop a setting for Burning Wheel play and frankly the developed setting was more interesting than the game itself was.
If there is a spectrum of games on some linear scale of I-don’t-know-what, there is a scale where D&D is on one end and Universalis is the other. In that sense the game provided a kind of map — if there’s a known quantity over there and another known quantity waaaaaay over there, then that implies a space between. A huge space in between. So that was a map with a lot of blank space and such things invite exploration. I know that’s vague but that’s the way I felt: I was seeing a huge gulf of apparently unexplored space between this game and what I was used to.
And Universalis was another independent title, again whispering in my ear that I can make these things if I want.
spirit of the century
Well obviously, right? We played this and dug it because it was an engine. You fire it up, play by the rules, and get some pretty wonderful results. We rotated the GM role and got great results. This implied a framework for games that I knew I could work with.
I also really wanted to decompose it. It clearly had a lot of subsystems entangled in it that could be teased out, defined, made to do other things. It begged to be refactored.
It’s very broad, heroic stuff and so perversely it made me think about subverting that. And that’s when Spirit of the Far Future was born, which would soon be Diaspora. But this wasn’t a case where we looked at the game and thought, you know, this would be the perfect system for Traveller. Rather this was a case where we looked at the game and thought that rebuilding Traveller with it would be somewhere between perverse and pathological. It was a Bad Idea.
But that was a rationale, and all I needed, to start deconstructing the system in the ways I thought I saw were possible. And I was right. We didn’t go far enough, but we went in a direction that would certainly influence others.
We never played much SotC. A few sessions maybe, just enough to get a feel for the system so we could re-write it into a game we actually wanted to play. But it spawned Diaspora very directly and that game has seen a lot of play. Tons of play. Even when I started to grow tired of Fate, I still got a kick out of a Diaspora game.
And Fred and the gang were great to us. Encouraging, enlightening, supportive — just great. And so even if all the game influence was devalued, the influence that would stick would be the realization that the designers were just folks, and folks talk to folks. It humanized an “industry” for me (it’s not an industry).
And then we started playing Reign. This game is built on the “One Roll Engine” and it packs a wollop: one roll is decoded in rounds, dice moved around, subtracted, compared, to get initiative, attack, defense, hit, damage, and hit location all in one throw each.
That’s really cool. It spawned Hollowpoint (again because I thought there was a way to pervert it).
But the key influence in Reign was the organization rules: rules for treating an organization to which the characters belonged as a character itself. With its own actions in the session and crossed influence: changes in the character play changed the organization play. Changes in the organization play changed the character play. And this drives a game — an organization to which characters belong (essential) that has its own motivation (also essential) is a super powerful motor to keep a game running.
It binds characters together without meeting in an inn.
It supplies common motivations. Characters might have their own little personal things they want to do, but the organization’s needs are something all can agree on.
It supplies resources. There’s money, people have heard of you, there are friends and there are enemies. Things that were hard to introduce were now just handed to us.
And then there was the way Greg Stolze, the author, was handling expansion. He was experimenting with different models for getting paid and that made us think about those things as well. The business side was being revealed to be as broad and poorly understood as the games themselves. So many things were possible.
shock: social science fiction
And then things got serious. This was the first game I played that was clearly and concisely about something. The mechanism was deliberate, doing exactly what it was supposed to do. That was something I wanted to emulate: I want to be intentional. Shock is intentional.
Shock is also spare. It doesn’t do anything but its intention. And Joshua A. C. Newman thinks really hard about how to do what it needs to do: he wants to have play emulate a certain kind of science fiction and then drills into the heart of that fiction to figure out what makes it go. Then mechanizes it. It’s game design as engineering.
My games aren’t that intentional. I can only hope they at least get mistaken for it.