scope of interest

Let’s say you’re playing a game in which the ref is framing a scene. Not a huge stretch here since this is basically all of traditional RPG gaming and a lot of the rest of it. I think what follows will apply to other patterns of play as well, but let’s stick to what we know here. So you (the ref) are framing a scene.

What do you want? You want the players to engage with something, make choices, and consequently cause the wheels of the system to turn and have that machine generate whatever it generates. That’s the reason we buy games, right? We are buying a machine and it’s up to use to get it started and keep it moving. The beginning of a scene is how the engine gets started.

How do you do that? Usually you want to get to an event. Now you might start with casual discussion between characters and NPCs but this will usually stall in banalities unless something external HAPPENS. And event. As ref, probably your most useful input to the game is to craft events. Ad libbing based on the results of events is maybe the next bit. But it’s up to you to push the starter on this engine. The rest of the players shoulder a substantial burden as well: to engage with it. And, in the best of all possible games, to start stirring up their own shit, their own events, to feed the engine. But as ref even if you don’t see it as your responsibility to start shit (as in, say, a pure sandbox where you are mostly reacting) it is still a tool in your kit.

In my games I expect the ref to kick things off.

In thinking about this, about events that define scenes, I find three “scopes of engagement” for the players and their characters. Each is very different, has different results, and different values at different times. I think that recognizing these three scopes and understanding them lets us use them deliberately rather than instinctively or accidentally and that has to be a good thing.

Uninvested

This is an event in which the players have no initial investment. It happens to a place or person or thing that we haven’t discussed yet and so the players cannot have invented an investment in it. That’s not to say it won’t be affecting, in fact we hope it will! But since nothing about the event has any relevance to the player (not the character! We may find that the character is incredibly invested, but that’s super important: we are going to find this out) it does not require (and does not benefit from) any kind of decision tree.

The event happens and the players react. The event is a done deal, a fait accomplis. It is an instigator.

Since we’re all big fucking nerds, let’s use Star Wars for an example.

Han Solo jumps into Alderaan system and it’s nothing but rubble. That’s the event. The Empire has destroyed an entire planet. Before this event Han’s player knew nothing about Alderaan — we hadn’t discussed it, it’s not on their character sheet. Their introduction to Alderaan is its destruction. Consequently the player cannot be invested in it yet. Consequently we don’t need a big decision tree leading up to it. We present it.

What happens next in the scene is the reaction to the event. Facts have been established about the Empire’s ruthlessness, their evil. Players will want to investigate, maybe find survivors, maybe punish the wicked. At this scope of engagement, the uninvested event, we generate investment. All of the scene is about reaction. This is a self-guided missile, a fire-and-forget tool for the ref. Kick it off and ad lib against the player reactions.

Invested

Here we have an event that will affect something the players are invested in though not, critically, their character. We have already somehow established investment through backstory, prior play, mechanical elements, or some other method. We know about the thing that will be threatened by the event and we already care about it.

As referee you have carefully chosen this event to threaten something players are invested in. You have deliberately selected this scope for the scene.

When the players are invested we want them to be able to change the apparent course of events and consequently there must be decision points built into the scene: when you threaten something players are invested in, they must be able to act to affect the outcome. That’s the whole reason you chose this scope. So as ref, don’t get too invested in a particular outcome. You kicked the hornet’s nest and your plans get what they deserve: player agency.

Star Wars again suits me for illustration.

Princess Leia is threatened by assorted villains on the Death Star: cough up the rebel info or we destroy your homeworld! Well, shit, Leia’s extensive backstory notes are full of info about Alderaan! Her first girlfriend is there, her prized record collection, her family, her friends. It’s all in the backstory. Of course you read it, that’s why you’re threatening to blow it up!

Leia’s character is invested. They are motivated to stop this. As ref, this is the hinge of your scene! Betray everything you believe in and we’ll keep your planet safe otherwise it’s plasma. A moral dilemma (and this is the scope in which they thrive) — betray your most earnestly held beliefs or save your family, your friends, and people you don’t even know? A decision point. Not a chain of them, this isn’t suddenly positional combat on a grid, but at least one.

Leia decides to give the information but lie. The baddies destroy Alderaan anyway. I guess she should have put more points in SOCIAL but maybe when she levels up the player can think about that. In the meantime, angst, betrayal, and further investment in something that matters (the course of the narrative) at the expense of something that matters less (backstory). I use expense deliberately: backstory is a currency. We use it to buy things. If we don’t spend it, it’s not useful. Spend backstory.

Affected

At this scope characters are directly threatened. We don’t care about investment because we are going to be in a situation where they have to act because the bad thing is happening to them now. This is the easiest way to engage the system but none of these scopes are “best”! They do totally different things. This one is the easiest, most mechanical, but does not always provide the most (or even a lot) of change within the story.

This is because it is defined by multiple, perhaps many, decision points that are focused solely on the event and not the story arc. We are zooming in, blow by blow, making choices that are critical in the moment (I draw my knife!) but irrelevant from a larger scale. Ultimately there is still only one hinge here — what is the end state when the smoke clears — and a lot of decisions. It’s a lot of system engagement for comparatively little story change.

But! But we’re here to engage the system. Not better. Not worse. Different. We play the game at a minor expense to story (per unit time).

Star Wars fails us here, at least in the Alderaan scene, so let’s look at a character that never got mentioned: Planetary Defense Captain Olberad Pinch! While everyone else is wringing their hands or waiting for fireworks, Olberad Pinch has a problem with multiple decision points! Now we all know they failed utterly, but look at the expenditure in table time to get there. And it was very important and interesting for Pinch’s player.

Detection. A moon-sized warship enters the Alderaan system! What do Planetary Defenses do? That’s in Pinch’s capable tentacles. They investigate, gather information, determine the next course of action. Maybe send ships — maybe Pinch is on one and their story ends in a lopsided dogfight! Maybe they escape!

Action. The Death Star is determined to have planet destroying weapons and is powering up! Did you get spies aboard? Was Pinch one of them? What about the planetary railguns? The local fighter swarm? Sure, all of these things obviously failed, but there are one or more detailed, system-engaging scenes here. In game time, this space which is largely unseen in the movie, could be multiple sessions, maybe the bulk of a months play. This is the nature of the Affected scope! It’s about your character, not just something you like! You care this much!

Climax! The Death Star is powering up! If you’re not in a position to stop it maybe you can escape? Evade TIE fighters in your shuttle just in time? With who? Which eight people did you select? And where are you going now? Again detail, lots of table time, all to save your ass.

And so

Those are the three scopes of engagement I can think of for a scene. Each requires a different level of planning or ad libbing from the ref. Each has different expectations about the players and uses their character sheets differently. Each has a place, makes different things happen. If you over-use one habitually, think about the others. Think about ways you can fabricate investment with uninvested scenes. Think about ways you can engage the system by explicitly threatening characters.Think about ways you can make a scene-staging event interesting by picking on investments the player has declared right there on the character sheet (and incidentally this is why the lonely loner backstory will always be the most useless — if the character cares about nothing then a third of the tools are obviated — if you take anything away from this as a player it should be that the more your character clearly cares about things the more interesting things can happen to them).

catastrophe in the first person

So yesterday I blurted out this twitter-splort as a sort of sub-tweet related to someone asking about what could happen to engage characters when an asteroid station’s reactor malfunctions. I gave them direct and I hope useful advice but then I did this.

Something that doesn’t get explored enough for my tastes in RPGs: confusion. In real life confusion + baseline fear creates some of the most terrifying and difficult to navigate circumstances.

When something big and terrible happens in an RPG often we start with full knowledge of it. This is a missed opportunity. Often the outward signs of a disaster for someone not immediately killed are ambiguous and subtly terrifying.

There are lots of emergency people and they don’t know what to do. People are running in multiple directions (no obvious origin of danger). Things that always work are working sporadically or not at all. There are sounds that aren’t alarming but you’ve never heard them before.

There are dead and injured and it’s not obvious what killed or injured them. There are people demanding you help who don’t know how you can help. Visibility is suddenly restricted or obliterated. Alarming smells are suddenly commonplace (gas, smoke, rubber, metal)

But most importantly these haphazard inputs are all you have. They don’t assemble into a certainty as to what’s going on. They might not even help. If you are in this situation you are either:

* leaving

* investigating so you can understand

* helping the immediately in danger

A fair question is, how do you evoke this in a game. Now my first thought is that this isn’t mechanical in the strict sense — it doesn’t need points or clocks or dice. I mean, you can employ those things, but there are more general techniques you can bring to bear.

Maybe it’s obvious, but if a real person is terrified because things are uncertain and confusing and dangerous then evoking the mood for players guiding a character through the disaster might benefit from the same thing: lack of information. This is of course in direct conflict with the idea that players should have full information and play their characters as though they don’t. Sometimes that’s the right thing and lets mechanisms already present engage, but it doesn’t establish mood. So what I’ll suggest is that whether or not you eventually draw back the curtain to allow the mechanism to play out, at least start with limited information.

So consider this asteroid reactor failure:

Ref: You’re buying noodles at a swing-bar when suddenly there’s a lurch. The air goes opaque with dust or something and your noodles fly out of your hands, whirling across the open space of the Trade Void. You hear screaming and you can’t see shit.

This is where I start: you don’t need to evoke confusion or simulate. Start with the actual confusion. Players will probably start looking for information. Before they get too much out, follow up. This makes things urgent.

Ref: People are rushing past you, just grey shapes in this fog, bumping into you. They are heading in different directions and are incoherent. Except for the one begging for help from across the ‘Void. You find your clothes are smeared with blood from someone who passed you.

Players are now in a position where they have little information, no easy way to get more information, and yet a motivation to either leave, help, or investigate.

I think it’s a critical technique to know and use as ref: to step back from the simulation engine and use the information itself to establish mood and urgency. It’s a story telling technique, not a game mechanism. When you rush or interrupt people, they get anxious. When they don’t have enough information they get the Fear. When they know the danger is real but don’t know the direction that is dangerous, they get careful.

The problem with this is that it’s not safe. When you try to get real emotions at the table you are treading on dangerous ground. If you’re going to attempt to directly evoke fear and anxiety in people, they better all be on board for that. And even if they feel like they are, it’s helpful to have an out like an X-Card or a Script Change. Make sure everyone knows what they are in for and have a way to opt out. If I use fast random information and overtalking people in order to establish confusion and anxiety, I’m doing a real thing to real people and you bear a great deal of responsibility when you do that. Someone not prepared for it would have every right to get angry about it. So tread lightly and talk first.

The upside is that the mood is easier to get into, easier to react within context, easier to build scenes that are memorable for the emotion and tension.

Nachtwey_NewYork_1
Most of our catastrophe images have context because we are looking back on the event through lens of investigation and analysis. But what could you conclude from this if it’s all you knew? A vast cloud of thick grey is descending on you and the noise is tremendous and people are screaming. Context is a luxury.

One level above this is how to analyze situations in order to understand how to place someone in them convincingly. If you’ve never been in mortal danger, you might have no idea what features of that terror are easily conveyed. But there are things that are generally true as I indicated in those tweets:

Low information: initially you know nothing except the effects you see.

Low visibility: bad things often create visual confusion. Fog, smoke, tear gas, crowds — your ability to see what is going on is constrained, so don’t describe everything.

High emotions: people are screaming, crying, begging. Not all of them are in danger or physical distress but almost all of them are overwhelmed by the confusion. You can’t immediately tell which are which.

Blood: Even just second order injuries (people getting banged about by the confused other people) generate a lot of blood after a few minutes. And you can’t tell who’s badly injured from who just has a broken nose. Or who’s covered in someone elses blood.

Low air: whether the air is filled with Bad Things or you’re overcrowded or you’re just hyperventilating it always feels like there is not enough air.

On the upside you will also usually find pockets of local organization: there’s usually someone trying to help and even if they have no idea what’s going on this will tend to form a nucleus of organization: people in this situation are attracted down the confusion gradient. They’ll walk right into a crossfire of bullets if it’s easier to see and breathe there.

There’s also usually a coordinated response very rapidly and that forced organization defuses confusion rapidly. The longer it takes to get there the more certain people are that it’s never coming, which amplifies confusion rapidly.

Presenting these things fall into the category of technique for me. You can mechanize some of them I suppose, but I think you only want to do that if you want your game to be about catastrophe. If you just want your particular game night to deal with a catastrophe, you want to hone some skills for presenting the catastrophic.

advancement

Oh advancement systems how we love you in the RPG world. By “we” here I mean you, and maybe not you specifically. Personally, I dislike them a great deal.

The problem with character advancement is that opposition either scales with character advancement or it doesn’t.

When opposition scales with you, the best advancement systems have the following features:

  • The range of options available to the player increases
  • The range of options available to the ref increases
  • New chapters of the monster manual are brought to the front — you are revealing new pictures of new opposition

For myself, the first two of those are not appealing to me. I don’t want my game to get more complicated as I play it. I’m not saying you’re bad, stupid, or evil if you like it, but let’s acknowledge that it’s a very important design choice that people are going to react to differently.

img_0252
A possible hero to me without being a secret fireball-throwing wizard.

Especially as ref, new complexity can feed my anxiety and lead to me violating the rules. There’s no way I’m managing a spell list for a high level dragon and deciding what they do from round to round as though I was playing my wizard character. At least in part because this dragon is probably going to die soon and there’s another complicated monster in the next room.

As a player I can cope, especially if there’s a type of character that doesn’t change much in complexity. If my fighter has increasing bonuses to scale with the baddies but not a lot of tactical choices that increase over levels, I’ll probably play the fighter and not the sorceror.

Revealing new parts of the monster manual is valuable: changing up the nature of opposition is cool. And the implication that these increasingly powerful monsters imply increasingly existential threats to the low level societies I am protecting is pretty cool. But this is a very specific kind of story arc and not one I want to play every time I sit down. And, frankly, not one I have the patience to work through from zero to hero. It’s just not for me. I’d rather start where the fun is, wherever that is for me today.

Everything else is basically the same except the numbers are bigger, and this can get to feel pointless, especially if the monster manual is weak. If the gnolls just keep getting bigger and better at magic then I don’t feel like we’re going anywhere interesting. I’m just doing more damage against larger hit point pools.

If the system doesn’t scale opposition (like an asymmetrical system where the opposition model doesn’t change or where the opposition isn’t really modelled at all) then something very different happens: you just get more successful. Now I actually find that pretty interesting as long as it happens slowly and as long as failure is rich — the whole tone of the game should change over time. But it has a cap and not a very well defined one: at some point there are no challenges any more and that’s an unsatisfying way to end a story. It might make an amusing allegory once. Just once.

Again these are matters of personal taste. I know there are people (because I was one) who get a rush from advancing. Accruing enough points to ring the bell and get a new power is intrinsically satisfying regardless of its relationship to the story (and sadly there often isn’t one — maybe I’d be keener if something happened in the fiction to explain and explore my sudden leap in ability). But this makes it a mode of play, not a necessary feature of play. I like playing cards for money but it doesn’t mean that money needs to be on the table for every card game.

This is why advancement figures weakly if at all in my games: it doesn’t sing to me. It’s important that there are games that have it because it sings to a lot of people. But it’s important to have games that don’t as well, because that thrill of improvement ties a reward to the accrual of experiences that help you advance, which can distract you from the fact that sometimes these things are abhorrent and rewarding them should be questionable. When the thrill comes from this reward, this advancement, questioning the underpinnings of the idea of rewarding murder and robbery (for example) is uncomfortable and unproductive. I think we need to play without mechanical reward for a while to get a grip on what kinds of things we love in a story that aren’t murder and robbery. Maybe that leads us to games that reward different things and in different ways. And sometimes we find that it’s fine that that changes from session to session, and maybe advancement as a reward isn’t always necessary.

And sometimes, for sure, we want to ring that bell as we stand on the corpse of a wizard-dragon that took hours of smart choices to slay. But not always. And, for me, not even mostly.

Postscript

I wanted to talk a little about heroism but I forgot to. I don’t think a hero should be defined by their capabilities. I mean they can be, but it feels insufficient — even Superman is a hero for reasons far beyond being crazy strong and largely invulnerable. Powers enable hero or villain. A hero to me is about how someone responds to adversity — about the choices they make when the choices are hard. So “heroic” gaming to me is gaming within a context where its’ not obvious what the right thing to do is and, most importantly, where you’re celebrated when you make a great choice. People treat you like a hero when you’re heroic. Scale of conflict is not strictly relevant, though it’s a cheap way to get action that could resolve heroically.

Diaspora testing still happens every week

In the current testing form for Anabasis, the rules for a check are something like: ref declares a risk, then player rolls |d6-d6| and add your skill. If you have a relevant specialization, add another 1. Index on the table:

  • 0 — fails and always generates a new risk from the 6
  • 1-2 — fail, risk realized
  • 3-5 — success, risk realized
  • 6+ — success, no risk

Now, this means that very often risks are realized. So there’s another rule: if you take a stress point, you can increase your roll by one. Take more if you like. Now as your stress goes up you start getting character quirks that could be troublesome, so there’s no “win” here — either the risk is realized (you’re still successful at what you tried unless you roll 2 or lower) or you start to get burdened with Compulsion and Bad Judgement and so on. The ref starts needling you with “the inactivity is agitating you” and “even though there’s a battle going on you are highly distracted by the electrical system under the dash, which doesn’t look properly grounded”.

Both of these have the same purpose: they generate new and unexpected trouble. The big difference is that the risk is in the hands of the ref and the stress effects are in the hands of the player.

abadyos
He looks a little stressed out, no?

An example: Abadyos is trying to fly an unfamiliar shuttle through the atmosphere of a has giant. He faces a roll with the risk REVELATION — something heretofore unknown will be brought to light and it won’t be something good for the characters. Abadyos makes his roll with a total of 4. So he could spend 2 stress to get past the risk or he could just suffer the risk realization. In either case he has a success: he’s going to successfully fly this flight path through the gas giant’s strange atmosphere.

So this is a pivot: either way the story is likely to take a new direction. We’re not just flying to Haifeng the dirigible city any more.

Abadyos’ player chose the stress. He was under severe stress once before and compulsively disassembled and knolled part of the medbay, which was a problem for weeks. This stress has no immediate effect, but later, agitated waiting for a stealthy resolution of another problem, he decides to make a Bad Decision (a stress effect) and burst through doors he knows are guarded.

Acting on his stress is something that was up to the player. I cued it, prodding with declarations about the character’s internal state, but the player declared the action. In the past I would have been skeptical about such a purely social mechanism and wanted to mechanize it with points and a meter to manage or something like that. Maybe I just have great players, but this mechanization appears to be unnecessary. Some players are happy to take the cue and make their lives harder. They recognize that they bought the trouble by spending stress points. They know they should make good on the purchase.

If he’d chosen the REVELATION, a bad choice of rocket operation parameters would have ignited part of the gas giant’s atmosphere, pointing a giant arrow at the characters who are trying to hide. Now this is my space as ref: I am being asked to ad lib a major change in plot direction. It’s similar to the stress situation in that in both cases someone has a new creative burden with loose but clear direction: you character is agitated and impulsive and prone to making bad decisions right now or, in the case of the risk, the ref is mandated to create a new fact that changes the direction of the game.

I used to feel I had to mechanize things like this further, but someone pointed out to me that the fiction has its own weight. That there are things that need no further rules because they have a fictional presence that can only be responded to in a limited fashion within the context of the rest of the fiction. If you have a rope, you can do rope things. You don’t need a rule for every possible use of rope. We know what rope is for, and the current context of the fiction establishes the limits of what rope can do. You can write rules for it if you want, but you can get away with startlingly few when we’re talking about something everyone understands deeply. Rope. Agitation. Impatience.

I recognize that this is not necessarily a popular direction. But I think you will like it — maybe love it — because where Diaspora Anabasis puts its effort in mechanically is the setting creation and the character creation. We mechanize the establishing context and then inject deviations and obstacles. I think this is consistent with the original vision of Diaspora and it’s certainly consistent with how I plan and run a game.

You may notice this is similar to the Soft Horizon system and it is. It’s tuned for a different purpose and the dice are different, but the core method is the same. So far this is because it really really works for me. That could be the kiss of death commercially.

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.

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.

Games are at LuluDTRPG, and itch.io.