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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Games are at LuluDTRPG, and itch.io.

early gmless gaming

There is one game I can think of that’s really purely gm-less. That is, there is (usually, when it’s done right) no single source or mediator for the story. There is no pre-planning. There’s no session zero developing characters or setting. Rather a narrative develops straight from a group of peoples’ brains with no particular mechanism for scene framing, risk, or conflict resolution and everyone is totally equal in participation.

When I was a kid, my mother and her sister and their friends would gather around the table with a wine glass and some strips of paper. My father would be absent — he wanted nothing to do with this though whether the event originated because he was out playing poke anyway or whether he played poker so as to not be there for it I can’t say. I never asked him about it and I can’t now. Or can I?

Anyway, a table, an inverted wine glass and a circle of paper scraps with letters and numbers, a yes, and a no. Yup, a “ouija board”. I don’t think I found out you could just buy one at the store for years. And I doubt that the timing with the release of The Exorcist was a coincidence.

So my other and my aunt and sometimes myself would settle our fingers on the base of the inverted wine glass and it would stutter and eventually move. When this gag works there is no sense that anyone is moving the glass–it feels completely emergent, as though the source is somewhere else entirely. But it’s certainly not necessarily one person doing the moving — we gather this story together by a subtle form of consensus, letter by letter.

Ghosts! Goblins!

And the stories were weird. Sure there was the usual appearance from the recently dead and related, but far more often the story was a pastiche of people and places and times and movies and novels and bullshit that bears a striking familiarity to me now. The stories were closer to soap opera than literature. To myth, perhaps, or folklore anyway. So we’d speak with long dead highwaymen who missed their dog and gather together amongst us the bizarre tale, which would meander improbably and end nowhere in particular. We’d speak with South American smugglers who met a bad end, family members who we always just knew were up to shenanigans during the war, and queens of lands not really accurately recalled who met tragic composite ends stitched together from imagination, historical novels, and Charleton Heston biblical sagas.

They were stories told by us to each other as a group with no real leadership nor mediation. And we creeped ourselves out a good deal. Were they role-playing games? Sorta. Were they story games? No question.

certain death and perception checks

Consider this scenario. I’ve seen it more than once so I think it might be interesting.

As ref, you describe a place that will definitely kill the characters if they enter. You don’t intend the adventurers to go in there — it’s just an illustration of the capriciousness of the owner. The adventure is somewhere else. So, say: the open archway is completely clear of sand, unlike where you’re standing outside of it. And right inside are the skeletons of three people who are dressed just like the people you know were exploring here last night. It looks like they crossed the threshold and died instantly then decomposed over at most a few hours.

From my perspective as ref I have made it totally clear that this path is barred. What I am selling here is the death of the friends not a puzzle. However, players will usually see a puzzle. So:

“I want to go inside and see what happened.”

Hmm, okay. It’s certain death. That doesn’t sound like fun. How about we tie a roll to it?

“Hrm okay. Let’s have a KNOW check then.”

Now this requires elaboration. The player may well think that failure means you don’t KNOW what’s going on. Success means you KNOW what’s going on. But this doesn’t lead anywhere interesting. I dunno means they go ahead and die. I know means I reveal it’s insoluable and the move on. Neither are very fun sounding. And what RISK would I apply here? Fail and die and also trigger a risk? Seems weird. Succeed and you can’t go there but also trigger a risk? Mmmmmaybe, sure. Success with no risk? It’s a hard success to celebrate so, hmmm, no.

And it fails to address the misunderstanding between ref and player. It maybe reveals it. So instead: explain the misunderstanding (you are humans, you can do this) and consider what the player really wants: they don’t want to know whether they can enter. They want to enter.

This reframes the player’s position in the context of the roll as “Do I KNOW how to enter safely?” At this point as ref I would be confident saying:

Risk is REVELATION (because I have an idea — the revelation will be that on entering you get the eternal enmity of the owning god but we won’t say that out loud right away).

20180419_104152
Don’t piss off the ibis god. You won’t like them when they’re angry.

Fail is death. You KNOW you can just enter. But you can’t. This is extreme but we’ve already established in the narrative that it’s lethal. Say it out loud. The player can still decide against acting. They want to enter but given the evidence maybe it’s wiser not to try. Not only will they die, but thanks to the risk their they die entering and the god (which in this actual case the players need to continue the path they’ve chosen) hates them.

Success with risk means that the revelation happens and the character knows away around the certain death. This is the divergence from the main narrative that risk tends to produce.

Success without risk means that the character knows a way around the certain death and the ref should narrate at will with this new direction. The god is apparently fine with this.

What I take away from this is that revelatory checks should do more than just reveal a fact. They should acknowledge the further intention of the player — what do they want to do with that knowledge — and play with that instead.

This post is brought to you by my patrons.

 

resolution as narrative

Sometimes the resolution system in a game is the game. You spend most of the time resolving or trying to get to the point where you have to resolve. You’re looking for a fight, for skill checks, for conflicts. And these conflicts largely define the play — the narrative is a string of resolution rolls and their interpretation.

Soft Horizon, I just realized today, doesn’t operate that way. The meat of the system, the thing that drives moment-to-moment play is in fact the interpretation of oracles. The nature of community relations and their bearing on the characters. And critically, the debts that characters owe to other entities. This is not present as a roll, as a check, but rather is underlying the ad lib work the ref is doing.

ouch
That’s a Juan Ochoa original. See previous post. Thanks Juan.

What the system provides instead is pivot points: places where things go where the ref wasn’t expecting. When a risk is realized it creates a design space for the ref: you must now decide how this risk realization changes the direction of play. Some are automatic — if someone is HARMED they take a WOUND and they will want to resolve that before anything else. The direction of the narrative pivots around their self-interest to get rid of the hindrance on their character.

More nuanced is COST — the character now has a DEBT to an entity. They owe them something and until it’s resolved, the character is often at a disadvantage. This is really a quest mechanism except as ref you are going to have to think it up on the fly. Where your narrative path was heading one way, now a character needs it to go another and so off you go. A pivot. A hinge.

It’s very hard to railroad anyone in this. The pivot points aren’t entirely up to you.

All of the risks (except the runt of the litter, INEFFECTIVENESS) are roughly like this. While only HARM and COST have a mechanical bearing, let’s look at the rest.

SPILLOVER creates a moral debt on the player not a mechanical debt on the character. Someone or something that shouldn’t have been harmed has been harmed and it’s the fault of the player’s character. The player will often feel compelled to fix this because being a fuck up stings extra when someone else gets hurt. Players that don’t feel this moral tug will be less likely to turn this into a pivot. Players that do will often use more energy to fix it than they would trying to fix a mechanical DEBT.

CONFUSION turns the situation from clear, directed action to unclear, undirected action. It pivots travel into study. It pivots combat into reconnaissance. What you knew is no longer certain. You’re lost. You don’t know who the enemy is. Something that made sense is wrong. It diverts action into search, movement into thought.

REVELATION forces the ref to invent a new hook, to bring in new information that they probably didn’t plan to bring in. Maybe that valuable thing isn’t really valuable. Maybe that uninteresting NPC is profoundly important. The narrative landscape changes. Again, the ref can’t really plan for this since it derives from the conflict which derives from play. This is huge creative space for the ref to pivot the whole narrative, revealing a deeper truth than what was previously thought to be complete.

WASTE creates a scarcity that wasn’t there before. You’re travelling from A to B and in the middle you run out of fuel. Or food. Or ammunition. This pivots the narrative to the story of either re-supply or living without.

DELAY makes something the players were going to encounter pass by. Got a meeting with the mayor? You missed it and that has repercussions. Trying to get to the airship dock before your ride leaves? You blew it, now what? Trying to get out of town before the invading force breeches the wall? No luck, you’re now in the thick of the invasion. It pivots away from an expected rendezvous and into whatever happens if you miss it. The creative space here is relatively small but easy. And the pivot is no less extreme than the others — everything can change by missing a vital appointment.

So the system provides pivot points and you don’t need a lot of these to make the narrative run like hell. One or two a session is fine — any more than that and you probably want to lean on the less disruptive ones occasionally, INEFFECTIVENESS say, just to rein in the chaos. Or, you know, go nuts. Embrace it.

Is it weird that one of the things that eases my anxiety as ref is to be forced to ad lib in specific ways? I find it makes detailed prep irrelevant, which means it’s very hard to show up unprepared. That’s where my anxiety is alleviated.

trusting the ref too much

Here’s a thing that happened in a game once (many many years ago — we may have just cracked open the box on a the freshly published Twilight:2000) that I never ever want to happen again.

IMG_0419 (1).pngThe characters were captured by some bad guys. Insert cool imagery here (I think it was a beached supertanker re-purposed as a fortress). Guards come and point to one of the characters. “You, come with me. It’s time for your execution.”

The player nods. “Okay I go with them.”

“The guards lead you down the makeshift steps — very rickety. What do you do?”

“Go with them.”

“You emerge suddenly into sunlight. It’s dazzling. Everyone covers their eyes for a moment to get used to it. What do you do?”

“I wait.”

“They tie you to a post and shoot you.”

What the fuck happened here?!

A bunch of things. As ref I thought I gave several opportunities for action to get out of this but the player never bit. Looking back on it now I see exactly why.

First, the player trusted the ref and did not believe the character would be killed so ridiculously. But the ref (me) had switched gears. This was serious business and there were ways out, but the player had to act and to take a risk. The player didn’t act because they didn’t get that this was their moment. They thought the moment to act would be later and trusted me not to kill them before their chance. To my mind, once we had poor Tim tied to the post, there was no way not to kill him. It was the stated intention, game mechanism would not longer save him (we weren’t going to roll hit and damage for a firing squad), and I felt bound to follow through.

Second, it was a system where the ref sets difficulty levels and the player assumed that at each possible action point the player decided action was riskier than inaction. They didn’t know what the difficulty would be and made an assumption. Based on prior gaming with me, for sure. But they didn’t know, they didn’t ask, and I didn’t offer. Because that’s how we played games then!

Third, the words “what do you do?” had no culture associated. It’s not a phrase that the rules command you to say to indicate you are expecting action. It’s just words in a conversation. It has no weight. I intended it to have weight but for that to happen we’d have had to have a discussion about it and agree on that. And frankly none of us were that self-aware about our gaming to realize that that was even what was happening.

Finally, everyone knew I fudged the dice. They were reasonably sure I would fake a bad roll at the critical moment and let them squeak out. But I had no more rolls to roll, in my mind.

Now there are things you can do about this without changing the rules, but they all involve changing the people and changing people is bullshit. You could say “well, players should be more proactive”. What if they aren’t? You could say “well, players should ask about difficulty levels and possible actions”. What if they don’t? Should the game just fail embarrassingly (and it did — the player was pissed, I was flustered, and we stopped early)?

How about we change the rules instead?

If difficulties are fixed then the player knows what’s what.

If the risks have to be declared then the player can make substantive choices.

If the ref never rolls dice then the ref never fudges dice.

If the culture is that the question “what do you do?” invites concrete (go to the dice) action then the cues are real cues and not just part of a conversation that might only be conversational.

So in some ways the Soft Horizon system is designed to heal this 25 year old wound.

There are no difficulties. What changes when you roll is the risk, not the difficulty. When you roll you already know the odds of success and the ref has already communicated (in a vague way) the risk of failure (or imperfect success). As player you already know you can succeed.

The ref never rolls.

“What do you do?” is codified in the text. This is what you say when you expect the players to act. Maybe not go to the dice, but certainly narrate something pro-active, something that progresses their interests. It’s a declaration that what the player says next is important.

Yeah I stole all this from smarter people. I’m not proud. It works.