making games: starting

Been a while, right?

I was asked to write about the VSCA design process, such as it is. Now, this blog has all kinds of snippets about tactics we use, but since we’re now deep into Diaspora Anabasis development, let’s look at how that gets moving towards a finish line.

There are three major obstacles to finishing a game: starting, doing the work, and finishing. This process is intended to solve these very specific and well defined problems for me and for my creative group. I can’t guarantee it will work for you. It’s not an algorithm and you’re not a computer.

We’ll start with starting.

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When I’m really jammed for ideas I just draw or write complete bullshit to see what happens.

If you don’t have an idea that enthuses you then you can’t start. Ideas come for me pretty much unbidden but you can force the triggers by consuming media. However, I find that popular media does not inspire me. Or rather it does inspire me, but not to do something that’s interesting, that’s novel, nor that has the legs to make it to the finish line. There’s something thin and ephemeral about popular media as an inspiration. Part of that might be that it tends to come in waves of similar content. Part is that everyone (hence popular) is thinking the same thing at the same time. I think what you want to do is pull at classic, timeless, idea-rich, diverse, or just straight up left field, fucked up, weirdo content in order to trigger the Juice that makes a project happen.

I get a charge with legs from old movies, the Classics, writers that were heavily influenced by mental illness and/or drugs, journal articles about literature or physics, and from films my father and I used to watch together. I try to constantly read and view a very wide range of material. I spend some time at ArXiv reading texts I barely (or don’t) understand to get a feel for where physics and math think they are going. I read bronze age plays and Shakespeare and Pinter. I re-read Moby Dick. I suddenly collect all of Alistair MaClean’s books (seriously, go grab a copy of The Guns of Navarone or Ice Station Zebra then watch the movies). J.G. Ballard. A.E. van Vogt. Cixin Liu.  Okorafor’s Binti and then everything else she wrote. I watch The Thin Man and my whole Kubrick collection. Yes, even Barry Lindon. When I’m not making a game or when I’m in the early stages I am consuming everything I can get my hands on that’s not currently the buzz. I stay away from the buzz. I’ll get to Avengers: Wherever the Fuck We Are Now in 20 years when it’s a classic and everyone’s moved on to fantasy about winter and seas full of fish.

Eventually something is going to trigger that inspiration and if it doesn’t then at last I’m having a good time with books and movies and comics and stuff.

When it strikes I take notes. I open a google doc and start bullet-pointing. I start with a top level: WHAT THE HELL IS THIS? And start piling in bullet points that may or may not be related. Things about desired tone, desired play, and a framework or a set of boundaries around the project: I want this but not that. But it quickly gets some structure I at least want a section called WHAT DO WEWANT TO DO where “we” is the players. When I’m playing this game, what should happen? Here’s the blast for Anabasis (and note that already there is input from collaborators):

WHAT DO WE WANT TO DO

  • Characters have a space ship
    • How do space ships work
      • I’d like to keep the space ship construction rules in a general sense — they are a killer app in Diaspora
    • How to engage all players when the ship is the focus
      • BobM:This was an issue for my character last time around.  He was the second best pilot and the second best gunner on the crew and so had no real role when ship combat rolled around.  Could there be more than one gunner on a ship? Is there room (a role) for a co-pilot? Should players define themselves in terms of their role on the ship right from the Chargen, so to ensure that they have a role?  Are there enough skills/aspects/stunts allotted to allow this, so that a character also has a unique identity (skill-set) apart from their role on the ship (my impression is currently the answer is “no”, not with the reduced skill pyramid).
      • CWM: This is interesting. Your character last time round made choices that didn’t put the leadership into play — you added NPCs, and they were loyal to you and without their own agendas, but it didn’t come through in die rolls. More on this below when I talk about FATE.
  • Space ship goes to places that already exist
    • Map of places that already exist
    • CWM: The cluster-development is solid. It is tied to FATE through the +4 to -4 bell curve.
  • Space ship explores new places
    • A way to find new places CWM: currently this is all emergent-from-play.  We can build it in, but in doing so, it begs the question why those who came before didn’t do it. One of the virtues of the mysterious slipknots is that they imply a previous tech that gets around space-is-big, where are the aliens, and other hard SF issues. (I can unpack this if needed).
    • Build new places into the cluster generator
  • What drives the characters to do anything?
    • Economics; keeping the ship flying
      • BobM:This provides useful stress, but not the most compelling reason to play the game.
    • External threats; someone somewhere else has diverging interests
      • Is there a simple way to make villains who are setting-consistent?
    • Reacting to a discovery
      • Discovered something that threatens people requiring a moral response
        • Disastrous
        • Upsets the status quo
        • Threatens to change the stats of the cluster.
      • Discovered something that’s valuable
    • Modified by threats to RELATIONSHIPS (character element)
      • People
      • Places
      • Things

CWM: This is an issue that (when I ref) requires a balance between articulating investment up-front, and allowing players creativity. When players are unwilling to play all humans (for example), motivating things at the scale of the ship is tough (for me). It’s also something that might affect our group disproportionately — you are a professional avoider of risk. The challenge is coming up with a plot that motivates people not to delay — perhaps better use of the aspects would work.

  • Sometimes we conflict at a personal scale
    • We debate, shmooze, get political
      • Can we play on a trade map somehow? CWM: to what purpose? As we have it now, you can get rich through trade, or you can work to destabilize a system’s economy. There are two intermediary steps I see. A corporation (modeled with numbers), but it is not clear to me what that offers players for their motivations; we did this a bit with the two cities. Or we can explicitly give planetary stats “hit points” or a damage track — economic events like 2008 count as a hit or two on the track. It means that progress in a change is quantifiable and explicit, but also more incremental. Is it fun to inflict a hit point of damage on an environment track?
    • We fight with technology that’s interesting
    • We bring out specific character elements to a conflict (Diaspora has a CHARACTER FOCUS and a SHIP FOCUS and both demand detail)
  • Mechanically: STRESSORS
    • Have a way to introduce a stressor by oracle that the ref will ad lib into a thing
    • A stressor twists the existing situation
    • It might be relevant to a specific character
      • If so, lean on character content? Relationships?
    • It might tie to conflict risks
  • Diaspora has gear. As above, gear needs to factor in. Getting better gear is part of the reward for success. Better technology is better.
  • It’s fine when Diaspora has turns and phases. Also part of the legacy.
  • Diaspora allows for complex, tactical play on a social stage.
    • To generalize perhaps we have first person tactics where you manipulate your characters…
    • …and third person tactics where you manipulate others and the characters are not on the board at all
    • Either could be violent or social; the difference is who’s on the map and what the map means

 

It’s rambling and it’s argumentative and it’s exploratory.

Then I like to pin down design principles. This is the frame around the game I was talking about. This is how we start to impose a structure on what we’re about to do. Again from Anabasis:

  • Design principles
  • CHAIN OF MOTIVATIONWhat is the cluster like (what issues are present)?
    • How does this impact the characters
    • How does this motivate the characters
    • Deeply mechanize changing system stats
    • Maybe this is the key purpose; the ship becomes a tool
    • No GM roll? My preference currently but maybe not a Diaspora thing?
      BobM:I enjoy the ‘drama’ of opposed roles.
    • Do not privilege violence as a solution
      BobM:OK, but many of the skills are tailored to violence.
      CWM: I think the current game does this — social conflicts are there, prominently, but we need to support this better.
  • Embed diversity in the setting
  • Engage politically — the cluster system as already written creates issues. Maybe point them out more explicitly? Colonialism certainly comes up all the time with tech superior places needing tech inferior places for resources. Maybe call out some of the emergent properties of the system explicitly (ie, a rule that says when X and Y happen, then this relationship exists and here’s what that means)
    CWM: with variability in the clusters, colonialism is intevitable. The question then becomes how to spell out/talk through that so that it can be questioned in the game. We can de-colonize the layer tasks, but still recognize the fundamental inequalities that are there. (BJM: Totally agree — maybe it’s wiser to acknowledge that the game is ABOUT colonialism given its inevitability and the degree to which it drives the story (see the trade maps later in the system sheet)
  • When do the dice come out?
  • Hard science fictionWe already have FTL solved (cluster, slipknot; that story works)
    • How can we inject travel time into the narrative without ticking off days?
      We travel pretty fixed distances: planet to planet and planet to slipknot; planet to slipknot is as long as any “inner planet” trip.
    • Distances are constantly changing between planets so abstract them: CWM: this was the major variable that the position of the slipknots solved — travel from jump in to main prot was basically constant. I’d want to keep that.
    • Distances to slipknots are fixed so they are already abstract enough
    • PROJECT/deadline mechanism when it matters how long it takes
      Planet to planet — variable clock size by time of year
      A good navigator would pick an optimum timeINNER TO INNER is a LONG DEADLINE

      • INNER TO OUTER is a SHORT DEADLINE
      • OUTER TO OUTER is a SHORT DEADLINE
      • Any to OORT is a VERY SHORT DEADLINE
      • Planet to slipknot — MEDIUM 5au clock for INNER; LONG 30au clock for OUTER
  • Limit arbitrary ref decisions (setting difficulties, for example)No ref rolls does this, but we have fun opposing rolls
    • dice
    • Rules?
    • A budget?
    • A regular escalation (per Hollowpoint)

Note that this isn’t really what I said it was. It’s a launching point to get everyone thinking about the specific things I think I care about at this early stage. What we want is to generate discussion and ideas. It’s loose and it varies wildly from vague to specific. It’s just the inside of my (eventually our) head stuck on a board.

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The process can be exhausting. Take breaks.

At this point we have STARTED. Once we get from here to a top level table of contents, a list of the sections of material we need to elaborate, we will start doing the work, which mostly involves playing and some writing. We’re going to start getting ideas and scaffolding them. We’ll playtest as we write. We’ll argue.

I’ll talk about this phase another time. But to summarize:

Consume.

Note the boundary and goals of the project.

Argue.

Thanks to patrons for the pressure and the energy.

Games are at Lulu, DTRPG, and itch.io.

One thought on “making games: starting

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