structure then content

When I design a game one of the things I want to pin down early is structure. A lot of people start with a story to tell and then attempt to realize it. I’m not that person. There might be a kernel of an idea or a theme (like, say, the theme of lost legitimacy in The King Machine) but the detail doesn’t come next. Structure does. The reason for this is that detail eventually demands structure but doesn’t easily imply it. Structure, however, demands and directs detail.

So let’s look at an example here. I started this morning thinking “what happens with occupations?” So you family are all fisherfolk (this is a common fantasy theme for me and I have no idea why — I don’t fish or row boats or make nets) but what does this tell us about you? How would this affect your character? And I don’t want to talk mechanism yet because I don’t know what’s happening with this at all. It could fit into something else, it could be its own game, it could be destined for the bin. Dunno yet.

So as with most things I start with a list. A few minutes and I have:

  • Fisherfolk
  • Merchants
  • Bandits
  • Warriors
  • Leaders
  • Famers
  • Herders
  • Wizards
  • Assassins
  • Entertainers
  • Harvesters
  • Beekeepers
  • Mystics
  • Sailors
  • Shippers
  • Dockworkers
  • Clerks
  • Sages
  • Bakers
  • Engineers

Not exhaustive, not even representative, but enough data to start thinking about structure. And bullets are good because they imply more bullets and indentation: we are already going to have a hierarchical structure and relationships. You could mind map this if you think that way. Same thing, different visuals.

So let’s grab fisherfolk. Since I’ve already decided on a hierarchical structure the question is how to subdivide fisherfolk? There are a million possibilities and each choice will take us in a different (maybe very different direction). I choose to break it down by types of water to fish in. Subdivide and detail:

  • Fisherfolk
    • Coastal — You are familiar with rough water and beaches. You know your way around nets and netmaking. You can swim and you can dive, holding your breath for long periods of time. You take pride in your calloused hands and resilience in bad weather.
    • Deep sea — You can navigate by the stars. You are unafraid but respectful of the large ocean animals, and you know how to catch them. You know your way around boats and can predict the weather.
    • Freshwater — You know the maze of river and lake waters and can find your way between many points on land using these waterways. You know small boats and have one of your own. You can make fish traps and nets and lures. You know the animal life around (and in) lakes and rivers. You are resistant to (or at least ignore) insect stings.

The little blurb of detail invites me to further subdivide but now I’m thinking about re-usability and regularity. While these subdivisions are dependent on the top level item (Fisherfolk) I think I want the next level to be the same for every occupation. I vaguely have fantasy in my head so I decide that each of these should be divided into a Supernatural power and an Expertise (natural but exceptional) power. This way a character can decide a path that’s magical or mundane but still awesome. I’m already wondering how to turn this into a life path system, maybe randomized, maybe point buy, maybe something else. Patterns from other games are intruding.

  • Fisherfolk
    • Coastal — You are familiar with rough water and beaches. You know your way around nets and netmaking. You can swim and you can dive, holding your breath for long periods of time. You take pride in your calloused hands and resilience in bad weather.
      • Supernatural: you can make nets that can catch other, more specialized things. Not necessarily fish.
      • Expertise: you can hold your breath for ridiculous amounts of time and dive very deep indeed.
    • Deep sea — You can navigate by the stars. You are unafraid but respectful of the large ocean animals, and you know how to catch them. You know your way around boats and can predict the weather.
      • Supernatural: you can calm bad weather and control the direction of the wind.
      • Expertise: you have the equipment and skills to lure and catch and kill even the largest things in the ocean.
    • Freshwater — You know the maze of river and lake waters and can find your way between many points on land using these waterways. You know small boats and have one of your own. You can make fish traps and nets and lures. You know the animal life around (and in) lakes and rivers. You are resistant to (or at least ignore) insect stings.
      • Supernatural: there is always a river path to wherever you want to go as long as you start at a river or lake. Or whenever.
      • Expertise: you can befriend any animal come to drink at the shores of lake or river.

I’m just riffing here but a world is emerging. Time travelling river folk. Spirit trappers. Geomancy.

This is the way I work: I invent tools through structure to order data which in turn inspires new data which in turn starts to define an imagined space. It’s not the only way I work and it’s not the best way to work but it does get words on the page.

Now there’s nothing new here — this is just outlining or mind-mapping or whatever the mot du jour is for hierarchical data presentation. But there’s a reason it works. Well, reasons. It organizes and constrains, which creates regularity. And it invites detail. For example, I never planned to have supernatural blacksmiths, but now when I get there I will be inventing them because I made a data structure decision that all of these things have a supernatural and and expertise element. Similarly I never thought about the mundane aspects of wizards, but now I need to.

As for the specifics, a lot of this comes back to world building we did many years ago (and played insufficiently in) with a lizard species that managed to defy their bloodlust (their uncontrollable animal nature to kill and eat mammals and sometimes each other) by taking up fishing. Their bloodlust was satisfied by fish and though they were sickly (fish being insufficient) and unhappy (fish tasting bad) they were able to coordinate with humans and each other long enough to stay literate and build a civilization that could be communicated and reproduced. And have a history. These fishing lizards and their sacrifice to their own future are always in my head.

what is your game about?

When I first seriously considered designing and publishing a game it was in the mid-2000s and the Forge was ascendant for independent designers. It was churning out strange and wonderful games from strange and wonderful people — Vincent Baker had produced Dogs in the Vineyard, Paul Czege had made My Life With Master and Nicotine Girls. I and the authors knew what these games were about since they were built with great deliberation and starting with that knowledge. I didn’t really understand what these games were for, though. Not at the time.

(I hold no malice towards any of these people. What I will describe is not about a person but rather about a culture. Many of these folks made great games and would go on to make even greater games. I respect most if not all of them. I have learned a great deal from them. I still like you.)

Still, I very much wanted to be a part of this group, to have my work taken seriously. When I tried to engage, however, I encountered several obstacles.

First, a lot of discussion was around the Forge’s sacred texts, the essays of Ron Edwards. The relevance of these has since been minimized by most parties but at the time they were important enough to both be adhered to and yet also be debated. I read them and found them interesting where they were penetrable. At the core they implied you should be deliberate: understand what you want to do and then set all design effort towards doing that. This is pretty good advice. Be deliberate. In the details it got more contentious.

comm 9
This is actually one of my own diagrams.

Second, the group was entrenched. There was a core group who did the bulk of the interpretation and many wrote elliptically (echoing the style of the texts) rather than plainly, alluding and planting metaphors. They used diagrams that buried meaning under a layer of more coded language, obfuscating rather than clarifying. The core group, the ones that had been there forever and helped established the culture, nodded and winked in understanding. From the outside it was less explicable but not nonsense — you just found that lacking a few years of immersion in that culture that you didn’t know the language. You were a foreign visitor with limited language skills and the locals weren’t really interested in teaching it to you. As with any local, they may not have been aware that their dialect was unusual.

Finally, the group had a gate that was well kept.

When approached to consider a new game idea, they would (almost in unison) ask: what is your game about?

img_0259
Because laser.

On the surface this sounds like a deep question. And it is! But it’s also a way to guard the gate. The question, see, determines whether or not you embrace a top-down design methodology. And it does so unquestioningly, disregarding any other methodologies. If you couldn’t answer this then you couldn’t make a “coherent” game, which was the holy grail of the sacred texts. I’m not actually against this: I think coherence (as in tight focus, like a laser, not as in comprehensibility — people get hung up on this word unnecessarily) is a very desirable trait in a game, though perhaps I came to understand it in a more general sense than it was intended at the Forge.

I would use this question afterwards as well but that was a mistake. If I “helped” you with this phrase and you found it demoralizing, I apologize. It would be a while before I would realize what it does.

Knowing what your game is about before you design is part of a top-down design process: you decide and define what you want to accomplish (your requirements) and then you start designing mechanisms that all further that goal. You start with your intention and you develop your realization, drilling down into greater detail as you go. You develop mechanisms that serve your purpose.

This is a really good way to design things (especially very large and complex things). It’s not a bad thing to teach this methodology and expand on it.

But when I was asked that question and couldn’t answer, I felt rejected. Like I couldn’t answer what my favourite colour was at the rope bridge of doom. The gate was shut (and it doesn’t matter if this was the intent — this was what happened regardless of the intent). And so I bounced off the Forge and while I made some effort to understand it, I was never welcome and I never performed the necessary genuflection to be accepted. I could mouth the words but I didn’t believe.

That’s because there are other ways to design. There really are. You can start with a cool setting idea and start planting mechanisms in it that you dig and slowly assemble a game. And then refine it. Along the way you may well discover what the game is “about” and at that point you can continue to refine it, gradually focusing it on the target. Coherence does not only emerge from one design methodology. I often wonder if that metaphor can be pushed further — it seems like the top-down Forge methodology produced great accuracy: the games hit the nail on the head when they work (I had so many play well one night and fall flat the next). They did what they were supposed to do, usually. By contrast, other methodologies may be better at precision: whatever they do, they do it reliably again and again.

Anyway, I always felt rejected by the Forge. In point of fact I bounced off the gate so hard that it would be wrong to say they rejected me — you have to have some kind of deliberation, some assessment in order to reject. I was never given enough attention to reject. I just ricocheted.

law and chaos

One of the things people like about Good and Evil is that it provides a space for a supernatural (maybe meta-natural) conflict between deities that personify these extremes and the world in which we play our games is a battleground for these forces. In general this is a potentially fun conceit to work with, giving you people with varying dedication to these divine forces and fulfilling their roles as champions of their divinity. All potentially awesome.

But, in addition to the problems alluded to earlier, there is practical trouble with this particular dichotomy: while many say that there needs to be a balance (and there does, practically, need to be a balance in order for this battle to work since otherwise there might be a winner), it’s perfectly clear that there is absolutely no need nor desire for a balance between Good and Evil. Any rational being would want a world of Good, full stop. So where would allies of Evil even come from? Who would want that shit?

Weird_of_the_white_wolf_daw_1977Originally this was not the driving dichotomy in D&D. It was originally Moorcockian, an hilarious word I have just invented. In Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series (of which the Elric stories are just one facet) the divine dichotomy is between Law and Chaos. Now this is where it’s at: if you want a divine dichotomy, this is one you can work with.

First, there is no moral bias here. You can have good people on both sides. You can have awful people on both sides. In order to exploit the dichotomy for story purposes you don’t have to simplify anyone’s position and you don’t have to suppose that free-thinking individuals would credibly desire a world in which it was ordinary to get murdered.

More usefully, we can imagine people who would desire the extremes of course — perfect Law were everything is ordered and predictable and safe or perfect Chaos where individual desires reign and things are constantly new and unsafe but exciting. But we can also see that the middle ground, a balance, is in fact genuinely desirable. You don’t have to cart out the obviously specious claim that “good can’t exist without evil” and therefore that evil is somehow necessary. Even if Good has no interesting definition without the contrast of evil, that’s just fine! It’s still Good!

But Law and Chaos genuinely stress against each other in a fun fashion. Pushing more towards one has amusing possibilities for story without forcing a particular morality on anyone. And the gods themselves can be interesting now! Gods of Evil are inexplicable elemental things that make no intrinsic sense since they have no believable agenda. But Law and Chaos do! These are gods you definitely want to have a chat with. An audience with an Evil god is not going to go well. An audience with a Good god is going to be dull since their position is obviously good (it’s even called that). But an audience with a god of Law or Chaos, well that’s going to be interesting. It has no obvious arc. And their agenda is credible and either could be persuasive. But ultimately most people are going to want a little from column A and a little from column B.

I think the underlying concept of alignment is a compelling setting choice. That doesn’t mean every setting should have it, but it’s a choice that makes some sense. It makes a particular kind of world that’s fun to play games in. It’s the moral alignment that makes no sense and creates a dull (and, ultimately, racist and stupid) world. One agenda is obvious and the other is not credible. You can’t help but fight cardboard cut-out enemies since if you argued with the Evil ones you would have to conclude that they were either automata or insane.

If you imagine a plane of each extreme, a plane of Good and a plane of Evil, you find that the Good place is paralyzingly boring and the Evil place is perfectly undesirable (and unsustainable — the Evil places imagined in D&D have absolutely necessary non-Evil behaviour in order to persist: they cannot be “perfect” representations of Evil because Evil doesn’t function). But if you imagine a perfect plane of Law and a perfect place of Chaos you can imagine interesting (however undesirable) places where interaction still makes sense. You’re not murdered as soon as you show up and you still have something fun to do, beating down both Good and Evil planes for playability.

So it’s not alignment that a rail against (though I have little use for it, it’s because it’s just not a setting conceit in my games — don’t need a divine presence of this kind) but the insistence on using it for a moral dichotomy. A moral dichotomy is not a choice because one side is obviously, perfectly, inarguably, better. How’s that a fun way to run a universe?

look, mythology is crap

(A warning — my knowledge is mostly of “western” mythology, so Roman and Greek, and so one should read this with that in mind. But if you are an expert on other mythologies, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well, because the basis of the problem lies in technological facts of early human history and I would be excited to hear about exceptions.)

Okay it’s not. There is poetry, there are ancient ideas that are embedded in cultures. There are even cross-cultural motifs that echo something deeper within us (perhaps) than just the pre-Christian near-Eastern fantasies. But it’s also crap. So is history. The past is crap.

These stories are entrenched in a world where:

  • women cannot practically and safely avoid pregnancy, a reduced physical state without modern medicine, hygiene, and technology
  • rapid reproduction is essential to a population’s growth because of the high mortality rate in both children and mothers and consequently women become a resource rather than a human
  • slavery is the petroleum that fuels productivity — until we can burn oil, this is the technological accelerant of the day and the pure utility of it eclipses the inhumanity of it
  • warfare centers on the destruction or enslavement of whole civilian populations, sometimes just as revenge
  • warfare is entirely thinkable (something nuclear weapons, for a while, half solved for us but is now back on the table)

And so these stories embody these horrors. At their best they present exceptions to these horrors as wild fantasies. Imagine a society where women had power! Weird! Strange! What magic and puissance would be needed to make this a reality?

Our gaming should be fantasy (even when it’s cyberpunk or whatever) — it should be about us wondering what could be (for good or ill) in the context of some imagined alternate world. It’s a creative process that I find very exciting. It’s where the fun is.

But mythology is not that. Mythology is the fantasizing of people who were stuck in the world I previously described. Co-opting those mythologies uncritically is placing yourself back inside those assumed horrors in order to imagine wonders that, frankly, either could or do actually exist now. This doesn’t strike me as interesting nor valuable. And so the worst possible defense of a game or its setting would be, to me, “but this is how the myth goes” or, more obviously indefensible, “this is how history says it was”. Even when it embodies deep truths about ourselves it warrants critical examination, because it really embodies deep truths about who we were 2500 years ago, and some of those truths might not be true any more. The assumption that these revelations are both universal and transcend time is lazy.

I would much prefer a fantasy that extends from now. It doesn’t have to be set in the modern age nor in the future; that misses the point. Thematically, it must be a fantasy of how things could be better than they are now. It can also be worse (maybe much worse) but ideally in ways that spawn from the new fantastical context and not just rowing backwards into some BCE backwater.

File_002Most mythological presentation of women, especially as avatars for concepts, is pretty dismal. Women are idealized based on the ways they are of use to others. Or are amazing exceptions when they are not mothers and caregivers. This should not be amazing now, and I very much want to be amazed. We have maidens and mothers and literally wombs. We have muses, which are basically the uncredited authors of men’s art. We have goddesses that dote on boy heroes and tolerate husbands who don’t just cheat on them but casually rape. I want the rare show of autonomy and strength to be common. It is no longer amazing.

Of course mythology contains things worth mining. The stories are ones you can bet almost anyone has heard and that kind of commonality, those touchstones, make story telling much easier. We can speak few words and be sure that the audience knows all the missing ones. They contain images that are similarly entrenched. They contain powerful concepts such as the concrete realizations of abstractions like The Furies and that kind of realized metaphor is awesome. There’s a reason I always dug the D&D monsters, The Inevitables, the forces of elemental Law. That is an amazing opportunity for fantasy.

But that commonality is also a drawback. I’ve heard the story before. It’s the fantasy of people stuck in a world that doesn’t need to exist any more. I want fantasies for my world. What if something other than capitalism drove the motives of societies? What if there was no more oil? If magic worked, what would we really do with it beside solve ancient problems we’ve already solved? What if we encountered beings who were not like as at all — not palimpsests of known beings, but something entirely new?

Our stunted fantasies often revolve around the realization of deities — they are certainly concretely real. You can talk with them and they answer. What if there was a world with the similarly practical and perfect knowledge that there were no deities, that mortal consciousness is the ultimate consciousness?

What if power was free?

What if we were free?

So please, feel free to cloak your work in the imagery of mythology, but let’s not mire ourselves in ancient fantasies about escaping a world we already escaped. Let’s write (and perform) some genuinely new myths. Let’s take for granted the things we know we can do (even if we haven’t yet) and wonder harder about what else could change. Let’s make new things.

(Saw this morning that KatieQuixotic is talking about similar things on Twitter today. So thanks for sharing my brain a bit!)

orcs and evil

I recently was involved in a twitter discussion in which I concluded that a rational and natural evil was nonsensical. The path to there is a little convoluted, but it hinges on motivation: what is the objective of evil? Most rational objectives I can think of are pretty bad but not really what we think of as Evil. Maybe evil but not Evil if you follow.

Say, for example, orcs really hate humans. They kill all humans and destroy all human things. But if they are natural and rational, then they have an end-game, a perfect world. They have an agenda that is not just external to them (kill everything) but internal: something they want and strive for. Clearly this is just a world without humans but otherwise kind of nice — everyone rational wants things to be kind of nice, at least for them. This is extreme and aggressive but, depending on the backstory for their hatred, not necessarily evil and not innate so certainly not Evil. Maybe their human-free world is awesome. Too bad for us but more power to them.

But if evil is rational and supernatural we can kind of get our teeth into something meaty. Perhaps our Evil is a deity that despises this reality and wants to destroy it to replace it with their own (whatever that looks like doesn’t matter since it doesn’t have us in it). A kind of failed god like Morgoth in The Silmarillion — they hate the existing reality and are jealous of the power of creation. Their dedication to the destruction of everything is rational but supernatural: they want their own vision realised. That’s their rational end game.

img_0592
There we go, a hate elemental maybe. Or a failed god.

Or perhaps it’s supernatural but irrational — it’s just a kind of hate elemental, a realization of pure nihilism that only destroys. Maybe that’s not even Evil but it’s a neighbour. It is interesting however simple its agenda is. It will be content in its end-game to rule over ashes. But it has to be irrational: there is no constructive agenda, no genuine plan for the future. Just wreckage and horror.

But where do orcs go? It seems to me there are few places for orcs and evil. One is that they are an autonomous species with their own culture and a complex agenda (not Evil intrinsically) but they are unwillingly or unwittingly under the command of our hate elemental or jealous near-deity. They will ultimately be consumed as well. These orcs have a complex relationship with the world and are, to my mind, very interesting now. They can be saved or, much better, save themselves. They don’t really need a variation in shape, though — they could as easily be humans. Again, their evil is situational and not innate. They can and would likely prefer to find a different path.

Another way to read them would be as beings that do not have a culture, that do not exist as normal biological organisms do. That is, they bear no children and have no relationships but are fabricated by our Evil entity with only enough autonomy to serve as soldiers. Not even that, but really as just appendages of this Evil entity. These orcs cannot be saved because they are just semi-detached tentacles of the Evil. They are not “like” people beyond the fact that they sort of look like people. They are the best our hateful and destructive demigod of the ashes can do as far as creation goes and they will be expended in the end. Since they are basically automatons they can’t really be Evil themselves — they are an expression of our hate monster’s evil.

But I don’t see a way that rational, natural beings can be intrinsically evil (or Evil really) because there’s no end game to a philosophy of pure hate and destruction. They have no agenda that makes any sense. Anything you try to make them want requires either supernatural power (re-create the world as something functional for them), lack of rationality (a pure hate for everything), or not being actually evil (a complex and destructive relationship with the status quo).

Thanks Levi, I didn’t need to sleep anyway.

…in space!

Usagi_02I remember my wife bought me a copy of Space Usagi in the distant past and I was very excited — after all, I love science fiction and I love Usagi Yojimbo! And I read it and I was bitterly disappointed.

You see, what they did was just paint the science fiction on. They had ray guns and fought aliens on alien planets, but the tropes were largely the same as the non-sf version and the imagery was the same but with space-bits glued on. Japanese fortresses hovered in space. Space armour looks remarkably like samurai armour. They have laser katanas.

This felt like, well I want to say “betrayal” but that’s pretty harsh, but I did feel betrayed. We have a masterful storyteller and artist and it feels like they just didn’t put the work in to really adopt an alternate genre. They just painted the old one a new colour. There is no attention to how technology changes things. There’s no effort to understand the differences between Edo era Japan and some distant future. And so the stories are completely transplantable: there is nothing new or exciting here other than amusing new space art.

This lack of intentionality happened a lot in early popularized science fiction as well — surely we all recall mentions of technologies like “space pills” and “space wrenches”. This just lacks effort and it’s kind of insulting.

So anyway, what I never ever want is for my science fiction gaming to be that. When I choose science fiction for play I am not choosing it because I want space ships and lasers. I am choosing it because I want to explore a world impacted by the fact of space ships and lasers. It’s not enough to say you can easily change your physical body, growing a penis or a vagina at will. You have to address how this makes the place different from where we are now. And, at least as importantly, how it’s the same. Or at least how it’s relatable, how it’s an extension of where we are now. An important question I want to ask is “how did we get from here to there?”. And what were the costs?

This is why the cluster generation system of Diaspora (and the upcoming Diaspora Anabasis) is what it is: we create random solar systems with various technologies, resources, and environments and we ask at least these questions of you: what does this society look like given its attributes? How did it come to this? How does this affect its relationship with its neighbours?

My thinking was that if you start with making sense of these things — and likely making sense of apparent impossibilities like very low technology and very low environments — then your stories would necessarily start in a place that is not just a paint job over a place you know already. It might wind up caricatured that way (we all get a little lazy) but it doesn’t start that way and you are not invited to imagine it this way. You have all the cues you need to wonder about how technology affects a world (and not our world) and how it creates power imbalances and how those gradients affect every other system.

And I think this is the heart of the paint job problem: when the setting begins as something totally familiar but with lasers, there is nothing to grab on to and wonder about. If you’re even slightly lazy then you are stuck at the bottom of a false minimum, a place that’s easy to get to but not nearly the best you can do.

Thermodynamic_stability_EN.svgAnd since — oh! shiny! — we’re on to false minima…. A false minimum is a low spot on a curve that is not the lowest spot but is surrounded by increasing values, so if you are using a simplistic algorithm to try and find the minimum point on the graph, you can get stuck there. Sometimes they are stable (there is no easy way out) and sometimes they are unstable (a minimal effort would need to be put in to find a lower minimum. So you have points that are “metastable” (in thermodynamics, anyway) which are false minima — you need a lot of energy applied in a direction you don’t want in order to get free. You have points that are unstable (curvature around them slopes flat or down) and require only a small amount of energy to go one way or another. And you have stable points where there is no lower to go no matter how much energy you spend.

We think of low as bad but low here is good.

The reason this gave me an oh shiny moment is because it might be the case that our universe is in a metastable vacuum state — that is, the vacuum of space might be at a very low energy state but not at the lowest possible energy state. We call this a false vacuum because the real one is at the lowest energy state. If this is the case, that we are in a metastable universe, then it is possible for changes in local energy to push us out of that trough to plummet down to a lower energy state — possibly a stable one but also possibly just another false minimum. If this happens then we get “bubble nucleation” and the laws of physics may change (a little or a lot) in a bubble that expands from that point at the speed of light. And at the speed of light means there’s nothing you can do about it — you will literally only know about it when it happens to you.

The effects of a shift from a low vacuum energy to an even lower vacuum energy are speculated to vary between unnoticeable (which may have happened before) to survivable (which also may have happened before) to catastrophic. A bubble nucleation could end not only life, but the very form matter takes.

Now that’s exciting!

aerobraking

Okay let’s look at aerobraking. This is a way to get free ∆v for deceleration We’ll look at the principle and then talk about its utility. First recall our gravity example but I’ll add an atmosphere to the planet.

a1

Now the atmosphere is a source of friction and friction reduces your velocity. As you bang into gas molecules, you slow down. We can treat this as a third vector in the system, opposing our direction of travel (our initial velocity vector).

a2

Back when we were first talking about vectors, we said that you add vectors by arranging them head to tail and finding the hypotenuse. This was a lie, of course, as all science education advances by correcting the lies told in earlier lectures. In fact you just connect the last head with the first tail, like so:

a3

Oops. I crafted this example without figuring out ahead of time what it would do and it looks like this atmosphere is too dense for our maneuver! When science fiction stories talk about a “degrading orbit” this is what they mean if we’re being charitable: eventually atmosphere will drag you in if you’re too low.

However, that doesn’t have to be a crash! That could be a landing! In which case we saved the atmospheric vector from our ∆v resources. We totally meant to do that! Of course that’s not what that diagram represents since that enormous vector is our velocity and it does not look like a safe landing speed. Or angle. But that’s the principle and however much additional ∆v we have to spend to land safely, it’s reduced by the amount of drag provided by the atmosphere.

So let’s consider a hypothetical interception scenario — you are fleeing through space and the cops are after you. You have, let’s say, 7 units of ∆v and spend 2 planning a course to a safe planet. It’s months away and you’re committed and you now have only 5 units of ∆v. You’re saving some for slowing down at the far end — you need 3∆v to make orbit at your destination.

You: 5∆v

The cops spot you and match your course with 2 ∆v of their own. They have fast interceptors (high thrust for tactical corrections) but less reserves so let’s say they start with 5∆v. Now they have 3.

You: 5∆v

Cops: 3∆v

You spot the cops on your infrared telescope and track them for a couple of days, identifying their planned intercept point. You have a bunch of options. You have more total ∆v and if you know this you could burn more than they can afford to to change your course and correct back. If they spend any more than they have they won’t have the ∆v to slow down and stop somewhere to refuel. But if they aren’t tricked and don’t burn, then when you correct back they will still be on target.

You could also fake a course to a totally different location, spending maybe 3 more ∆v leaving you with 2. If the police correct for that they will be totally committed (they won’t be able to slow down so they are clearly going to try to kill you in a flyby and then count on other cops to save them from leaving the solar system) but you have some spare.

You: 2∆v

Cops: 0∆v

Maybe it’s not enough to make orbit around your original destination — you’ll be going too fast. But if you’re equipped with heat shields for aerobraking, you can steal 1∆v from the atmosphere and get the 3 you need to make orbit despite going way too fast!

Or maybe you won’t slow down! Maybe you’ll steal 1 ∆v from slingshotting your destination on order to head somewhere completely else!

You: 3∆v

Cops: 0∆v

Finding spare ∆v in the system geography is how you exceed your space craft’s specifications, and it’s a skill your character might have. Yes, we’re almost talking games now.

Since this is science fiction, what other sources of ∆v might be lying around a high tech industrialized star system?

∆v

Okay so now we can talk about delta-v (∆v from now on because it looks cool) in a larger context. We can see from the last post that the thing that really matters in space travel is how much you can change your velocity before you run out of gas. And I’ve talked previously about orbital mechanics. Let’s tie these together. First a diagram I have lifted from a much more detailed article about the topic at Wikipedia:

Delta-Vs_for_inner_Solar_System

This is a map of the solar system from Earth to Mars assuming you are travelling using orbital transfers — that is, you don’t care how long it takes and your plan is to burn just enough to enter the orbit of your target eventually. Exactly which way you point and how long you travel depends on many factors that are largely out of your control — at a given time with a given rocket you have essentially one choice.

The numbers on that map are not distances but rather costs in ∆v. And this is why ∆v is the critical resource both tactically and strategically in Diaspora Anabasis: it’s the only resource that matters for planning. Everything else is roughly fixed. Everything you might do to influence travel is going to boil down to changing your ∆v resource or cost.

So to get from the surface of the earth to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) you need to go 9.3 kilometers per second faster than when you started. Soak that in. Notice that almost every other transfer is somewhere between cheaper and vastly cheaper. This is why starting your trip on a planet is so incredibly expensive and why space and low-gravity-planetoid bases are essential to industrialized (and certainly private) space travel: this is an unnecessary expense that dominates everything.

If you have a space craft with 11km/s ∆v in resources, you can reach orbit and sit there. If you built the same ship in orbit, however, you could go to Mars with resources to spare. LEO is 2km away. Mars at its closest is 56,000,000km away. It’s 20 million times more efficient to travel with orbital transfers from Earth orbit than it is to orbit the Earth. When people talk about how hard it is to go to Mars and how we so handily went to the moon remember that: those Mercury and Gemini project orbits were actually the very hardest part of the whole endeavour. Everything after that is vastly simpler.

Now what if you don’t use orbital transfers? What if you want to spend less than 18 months to go to Mars? Well, you spend more ∆v. You can speed up any orbital transfer by burning harder at the start and burning again at the end to slow down. It changes the path of the transfer substantially — you’ll get there faster because you’re going faster but also because you’ll take a physically shorter path — your lazy elliptical arc will straighten as you dump reaction mass into the fire. But it costs twice as much because you have to slow down at the end.

You can think of an orbital transfer as basically matching courses with your destination (since planets are moving too). Imagine you want to catch up with a skier further down the slope than you. You can dig in the poles a little so you’re going faster and take an arcing path down the hill so that you slowly catch up, with friction equalizing your speed at intercept. It’s a lot of calculation and might need a little correction and it’s not the fastest path but it takes very little energy. That’s the orbital intercept.

Or you can drive on your snowmobile straight at your target. You’ll have to correct continuously as they move but you will arrive much sooner. You’ll also have to figure out how to slow down or you won’t be matching courses at all. That’s a “hyperbolic” intercept.

The other interesting thing on that map is the “aerobrake”. This is a way to steal ∆v from planets with an atmosphere: you can use that friction to slow down. We know that slowing down is just ∆v spent pointing backwards. So friction is free ∆v for slowing down! In the last post we talked about slingshotting, which steals ∆v from planets for speeding up. So the natural universe provides a landscape that can lighten the load and this is where strategic play will happen: we have a determination problem in that the math tightly constrains exactly how much ∆v a maneuver costs and you ship defines how much you have — so where are the player choices? What knobs can you turn to defy (rely manipulate) the math? The natural environment provides two.

We’ll talk about how the artificial environment can help next time.

soft horizon style guide

File_002Back when the VSCA was a business I thought I’d like to offer other writers the opportunity to make their own Soft Horizon games. New planes with their own themes that use the same rules, but interpreted through the lens of someone other than me. I really think the intrinsic diversity of Soft Horizon themes would be well served by a diversity of authors. Now, since I didn’t really take the business end seriously enough this never came to fruition (though it came close and there is at least one brilliant near-built plane out there).

Now that this isn’t a business I’d like to offer up the style guide. This was a kind of contract but of course that’s no longer necessary, so all the shalls should be read as shoulds. And I won’t publish or lay out or illustrate with you unless it seems like huge fun. If you do choose to make a Soft Horizon game and follow the spirit of the style guide here, we’ll have an anthology of wildly diverse but linked game, a psychedelia of shared space generators. And that would thrill me. I would love it if you at least POD produced it (which is damned near free to do — no risk at all) so I can have a shelf of books in this vein one day. And maybe I’d string them all together, with your permission, into a fat crazy book we can all wonder at.

guide

Keep tone conversational and idiomatic: let your authorial voice out.

Provide illustration notes as comments in your submission in case we get around to finding an illustrator. Better yet, illustrate it yourself. Your artistic talent isn’t relevant.

You should recommend or produce at least five illustrations.

Use gender neutral pronouns or sentence structure unless the setting demands distinction.

Whenever considering sexuality, write in diversity.

Whenever considering gender, write in diversity.

Whenever considering “race”, write in diversity.

Whenever considering disability/ability, write in diversity.

Be political; don’t be shy. These planes can be metaphors. Should be.

If swearing moves your narrative along, swear like a motherfucker.

Write as much as you need to develop your idea: there is no word minimum nor maximum.

Providing a map may indicate that your text is too specific. Providing a way to create maps indicates that your text is supplying the table with tools to create rapidly and in context.

That is a general statement disguised as a specific one.

INTRODUCTION

Write a custom introduction

SYSTEM

Re-write SYSTEM section in your voice keeping the system materially identical but replacing examples with setting specific examples.

Do not change the METHODS list as characters need to be portable.

Do not change the RISKS list though absolutely change examples to mate with your setting.

Do not change how wounds and debt works unless the change is ADDITIVE (adds new options and does not change or delete old ones) and CONTEXTUAL (clearly adapts the material to the new setting).

Do not change how progression works unless the change is ADDITIVE and CONTEXTUAL
Do not change the ref’s role (especially the GM moves) unless the change is ADDITIVE and CONTEXTUAL.

Whatever you add to the system:

  • The ref NEVER rolls in a resolution process
  • There are NEVER flat modifiers (+1, +2, whatever) to the rolls

Be aware that failure and risk realization are an engine that makes this game easy to ref. If you reduce the failure rate too much the game will stall. And it has to survive progression as well.

SETTING

Organize and explore your setting any way you like. It is not necessary to keep the organizational structure of the setting section in any other SH book.

Ensure that there are ways to develop places and people with a minimum of referee effort.

Lean on ORACLES, simple short text open to interpretation. Give the player something to create from rather than creating for them.

Sell your theme not you details. The players will bring the detail.

Ensure that the SETTING section ends with a note on the Soft Horizon and how your setting links to it.

CHARACTERS

Re-write to suit your setting.

Try to keep to the power scale established in THE KING MACHINE but you do not need to be strict about it.

The DENIAL mechanism needs to be retained.

Ensure that you have developed a way to start the game with the player characters together and working towards a shared goal or mission.

Re-use the association rules if you like; modify as needed.

Find a novel element of your setting to bake into character creation. For KING MACHINE it’s simply that racial differences are real: different apes are distinct and visibly different species and have mechanically distinct features. This is only interesting if that’s not the case everywhere. It’s especially nice if it’s ONLY the case there. In SAND DOGS the distinction will be a sort of life path system a la Traveller. Find another way to alter character creation such that you get the same basic end result (number and type of dice to distribute) but get there another way, delivering some new feature to character background or play or both.

RUNNING THE GAME

Re-write to suit your setting.

Keep the note on fronts and preparation but tune to you setting and voice.

Add any sections necessary to guide a ref in your setting (such as the “dealing with inconsistency” section in King Machine).

Modify the ref’s cheat sheet to meet your needs.

INSPIRATIONS

Entirely your space.

 

stress

One of the core components of Diaspora Anabasis is stress. When you want to improve a rolled result, including helping someone else improve theirs, you take stress. But stress is not an inert hit points track you run out of. Stress is intended to minimally model, well, stress. This turns out to have pitfalls I hadn’t anticipated.

Your first point of stress leaves you agitated. It’s easy to get rid of. You work out, talk out your problems, take a vacation, and so on. All the things your friends tell you to do when you’re freaking out actually work because you’re not all that stressed. Being agitated doesn’t even warrant a FACT on your character sheet. No problems here.

gnoll-hyarr-hires
Gnoll is agitated but has a process.

Your second point of stress gives you a compulsion. You write this in as a FACT on your character sheet: this is a true thing about your character that you are expected to incorporate into play. Your character keeps coming back to the topic related to their stress, even when it’s not appropriate to the scene. You are worrying something over and your compulsion is a signal that you are in distress. Getting rid of it requires getting away from the thing causing you stress. That can be hard in a space ship a million miles from actual air.

Your third gives you bad judgement. Again embodied by a FACT, your character is now bad at making choices about or related to something. Maybe you are becoming too careful. Maybe too daring. But your choices relating to your FACT are not the best choices. They instead are focused on whatever you’re stressed about. Clearing this one requires that you make a substantive change to your situation. In our game the captain of the vessel gave up their captaincy. So it has to be a big change.

Your last step of stress is withdrawal and at this point all of the other characters should be worrying. You need professional help and the support of your allies to clear this.

What I didn’t anticipate is how much this impacts the players. It can actually be quite upsetting.

One reason, of course, is because someone is telling you how to change how to play your character. Players rightfully buck at this. It’s one thing to be asked to narrate a limp because your leg is broken, but for some reason (and I say that not to diminish it but to express that I don’t fully understand it) it is way harder to take on a real-seeming psychological change. I suspect this is because of the way the human brain handles pretending things: when you pretend an emotion, your brain probably simulates the emotion just by running the mechanisms that actually evoke the emotion with with a little simulation flag set so you don’t forget you’re pretending. Bottom line is that pretend pain doesn’t hurt but pretend emotions do, to an extent depending on the person, cause you to genuinely feel.

twitguy-hiresThat up there is two reasons of course: we don’t like being told to play our pretend personalities differently, and feeling real bad feelings can really feel bad.

The other thing that gets in the way is that you are basically asked to play your character sub-optimally. You’re expected to deliberately make bad decisions. Since we’re playing a game, there is a desire to solve problems correctly and bask in the glory of victory. Deliberately failing is genuinely hard for a lot of people. I put myself in that camp.

When this last came up we talked it out and found a way forward that addressed as much of these as possible by making sure the player still felt like they had authority (but were handed some creative parameters) and agency and also that they wouldn’t be made to feel badly in a way that they didn’t want to feel bad. Talking it through was a big deal for me both to identify just how much of a minefield this thing is and also to resolve it or at least set us up for success in the next session.

Anyway here’s a draft of my rules text relating to this issue:

Stress can be very onerous on players. It asks you to play suboptimally and at the same time engage the game material in a way that is designed to emulate the real effects of stress on humans. At the extreme end of the track it asks you to act in ways that may upset yourself and others: your character will be withdrawn, upset, and making bad choices. Here are some ways to handle it. Please use these in addition to your preferred safety tools (X-Card, Script Change, and so on).

    • Don’t do it. Skip the facts. The stress system is not as powerful this way, which would be the point of not using it. If it upsets you, just don’t use it. It’s not more important than your fun.
    • Discuss it. When a character gets into the deep end of stress, take some time offline to discuss how to engage the new facts in ways that are not too upsetting. Part of what’s upsetting is that the rules are telling you how to play your character which most people are resistant to, but if you discuss how you want to play it, you can make it your own.
    • Help the stressed. If everyone pulls together to help the stressed character it can relieve the difficulties that this brings. It also makes great scenes and clears the stress! Everyone wins.