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.

rules fluidity in an imagined space

Role-playing games are notorious for rules fluidity: players modify the rules to suit their immediate needs to such an extent that there is often a special rule granting this authority. It may even be a sufficient (though not necessary) feature to categorize something as a role-playing game. I won’t try to sell that point here, but think about it.

So why? Many bemoan this, wanting rules that satisfy all table needs. Many celebrate it, pointing out that this is where the fun is (where the game becomes a game about designing the game you’re playing, which does sound fun).

MapIn general an RPG explores an imaginary space. A space the size of the world or larger sometimes. And the behaviour of this world, no matter how weird, is intuitively understood. We might all understand it slightly differently, but we do have a private understanding. We can easily imagine the way things that are not described in the text would or could work. So the private world of the RPG is effectively as complex as the real world, but it gets explored piecemeal — it doesn’t exist somewhere in whole cloth but rather as you imagine a new part of the space you easily imagine how it must operate.

So now you want rules to govern how this space is explored.

Let’s call the imagined space a BARN.

Let’s call the rules a PAINT BRUSH.

You want to paint the barn. You need to pick a paint brush, The brush, however oddly, must also be fun.

Okay, so you love detail work (a fiddly combat simulator, say, with lots of kinds of polearms meaningfully differentiated). You want to use a double-ought brush. A tiny brush. You can never paint the whole barn with this. That’s fine, you just give permission to the end user to paint whatever bit you left blank however they want. If they enjoy painting, everyone wins. Well everyone who likes detail painting anyway.

But let’s say your goal is to cover the barn. You don’t want to leave any space for the end user to paint. But your imagined space is huge and complex. What are your choices?

You can broaden your brush — abstract your system to the point that you get enough coverage to credibly cover your barn. It might be a little sloppy in places, but you can have a reasonable expectation of coverage. Now your detail painters are still going to get in there with their fine brushes and elaborate and touch up the moulding and so on, but you can’t stop them. You achieved your goal of delivering a painted barn. And depending on how much work you can do you can go anywhere from a 3” brush (pick a system that suits that!) to a paint roller (again I invite you to imagine what game I’m thinking of) to a spray gun. I bet there’s even an experimental explosive painting device out there that paints not only the barn but much of the surrounding countryside.

You can also constrain your barn. This happens a lot in some design spaces: declare we are not going to even think about the barn. We are only interested in the door. Anything outside the door is not part of this project. And then pick a relatively fine brush and paint a perfect door. There are lots of games in this category.

When we say “why are RPGs like this” we aren’t really talking about RPGs. We’re talking about some category of RPG or even some category of player talking about RPGs. And consequently we’re talking about a fairly specific barn/brush case or expectation. But in reality there are many ways to paint that barn, with and without requiring the rules-creative input of the end user. We have to think of handing the end user the brush as an option any RPG should consider — and then accept or reject.

The important thing about game design to me is not doing it one way or another. It’s doing whatever you do deliberately. Everything should be intentional in your text. There may be unanticipated (emergent) properties to the game, but everything you write down should have a goal. Including, possibly, the goal of offering design space to the user.

 

players making shit up

The further your game world drifts from the real, modern world the more you have to let players make shit up.

Here’s my logic.

20180516_171517Universes are crazy big. Douglas Adams tried to tell us how big and didn’t come remotely close. Universes, however, that obey our physical laws at least have a set of truths that you can draw on. A set of premises. How gravity works, how fast light goes, what’s in the periodic table of elements, and stuff like that. And so, as a player, there is a significant fraction of the universe that you can manipulate safely (game-safe I mean). If I see a plausible orbital maneuver in the way the ref has laid out a space, well, I can probably do it. There are touchstones and they are myriad.

I think sometimes we forget just how much shared knowledge we have.

I used to play a lot of games set in my home town of Vancouver. One of the chief advantages to this was the touchstones — you could hide in that place you know, the culvert under the highway up near Kelly’s place — and you weren’t making that up as a player: that place exists. Most of us knew it. Many of us secretly drank there on Friday nights. So most of the play space is known and does not require mediation. It’s just real.

Science, if it works in your game, is like that contextual touchstone but writ large. We all know (and can expect and therefore manipulate) how gravity works, what air pressure does, how things behave at very low or very high temperatures. I don’t need the ref to fabricate any of it and imagine the burden if I did!

Now as you drift from real places in a real universe the amount of information needed to manipulate the environment increases and very very rapidly. There are millions of pages of material written about how this world works. Maybe billions. Your fantasy world, however, has only the tiniest fraction of that content: a practically non-existent amount of material. Frankly no one, even the originator of the fantasy world, knows much of anything about it compared to the content available from the real world.

But you should know. Your character lives in this world and is aware of a similar volume of data that you have by living in the real world. Your character knows about the equivalent of that culvert under the highway and thousands of other truths that know one has every thought to write down or map out. It would be an impossible task.

We mediate this by putting a ref in the hot seat. The fewer the touchstones, however, the more of a burden this becomes on the ref. And the less reasonable it is for them to mediate it — they don’t know either, we’ve just given them the authority to invent it.

I’ll suggest then, that the more your world deviates from reality the more benefit you’ll get from letting players make up their own details. As ref just nod and follow along. If you can’t pre-fabricate all of the details of the world then this will give you two significant advantages: you’ll get a world that’s the product of four or five peoples’ creativity rather than one (it’s nowhere near what went into the real world but it’s five times better than investing the whole problem in one person) and your players will be able to smoothly “recall” facts and even manipulate them without the awkward “was there some place we used to hide as children maybe” — useless roll — “yup there was a culvert under the highway” exchange.

Once you get used to that you can let them manipulate. For example, games rarely if ever examine exactly how magic works (mostly because it always results in contradictions in detail and so it’s best glossed over — magic basically can’t work so don’t look too close). If I’m playing an ancient wizard who’s researched it forever, though, then I expect to have some detailed hypotheses about the underpinnings of magic and a good deal of experimental evidence for it. And I will want to bring that to bear.

img_20170907_133639When I do, I want to imply vast knowledge I don’t actually have. Consequently it’s probably best if I just make it up. “I’ve studied fire magic all my life and I am certain that it is not simply brought into being as that would violate the third law of thaumaturgodynamics. Magical fire must therefore come from somewhere. I postulate that it comes from the plane of Elemental Fire and that therefore it must create a path. I think we should try to track this Efreet by trying to identify this path.” Now I’m not narrating my success, but I am saying a lot of facts about the world that no one ever ever wrote down in advance. Those facts should not be subject to mediation. The ref should greedily note them and start crafting complicated implications. And yet there is resistance to this kind of player participation in world building.

The map of your fantasy world is basically completely empty other than the gross geography. I highly recommend inviting anyone who’s found a blank spot to fill it the fuck out.

formalizing the art of invention

A lot of my refereeing is intuitional. I ad lib. I come up with one idea or image and then follow it around. When this happens in a game it works for me, but one of the things I need to do to make a game work for someone else is formalize these processes. Reveal them to others so they can reproduce them.

The problem is, of course, that I just do it. I don’t have a system.

But this is nonsense — I do it the same way every time. There must be a system. I just haven’t looked at it closely enough. So I’m going to go through a premise and lay out my thought patterns as a hierarchical choice tree. Someone else can use this as a jumping off point for their own exploration of the same premise. For a lot of game design this is the heart of it (for me): watching myself ad lib and then formalizing that.

Premise: you have a space that has not been explored (a slipstream that connects an unknown or forgotten system). You might not be familiar with Diaspora: a slipstream is a wormhole that connects two systems. There aren’t a lot of them — clusters in Diaspora are only a handful of connected systems.

Screenshot 2020-03-02 17.33.09

So in this cluster we have a link from Cando to…what? It starts out unknown! At some point the players are going to want to go there though, so…what’s there? Quick! There’s a session in twenty minutes?

Here’s what I would go through. At the top level, I explore the big questions.

  • Why did no one know about the route before?
  • Who’s there?
  • What’s there?

And then I cascade. For each I ask more questions. And then again. Until I get to some answers. And I might ask more questions.

  • Why did no one know about the route before?
    • It’s new
    • It has been deliberately hidden
    • It recurs
    • It was destroyed but has re-emerged

Once I have a nice set of possibilities, like say:

  • Why did no one know about the route before
    • It’s new
      • Why did it suddenly show up?
        • Local astronomical change
        • Change in the astronomy of the new side
        • New technology reveals it
        • Technology on the other side has suddenly allowed them to visit us
    • It has been deliberately hidden
      • Who hid it?
      • Why?
      • How was it revealed?
    • It recurs
      • When was it last here
      • How do we know that?
      • What causes it to oscillate?
        • Astronomy? Maybe a distant binary?
        • Technology? Did someone or something do this deliberately?
    • It was destroyed but has re-emerged
      • Who destroyed it?
      • How?
      • Why is it back?
      • Is it stable now?

I pick a path. That’s the plan. Here’s the whole tree:

  • Why did no one know about the route before
    • It’s new
      • Why did it suddenly show up?
        • Local astronomical change
        • Change in the astronomy of the new side
        • New technology reveals it
        • Technology on the other side has suddenly allowed them to visit us
    • It has been deliberately hidden
      • Who hid it?
      • Why?
      • How was it revealed?
    • It recurs
      • When was it last here
      • How do we know that?
      • What causes it to oscillate?
        • Astronomy? Maybe a distant binary?
        • Technology? Did someone or something do this deliberately?
    • It was destroyed but has re-emerged
      • Who destroyed it?
      • How?
      • Why is it back?
      • Is it stable now?
  • Who’s there?
    • Are there humans there?
      • Yes: may connect a whole other cluster, different colonist cultures
      • No: did there used to be?
        • Yes: dead failed colony
          • What killed it
          • How long ago
          • Is it still here?
    • No: new territory
      • Intelligence?
        • Yes: aliens, alien cultures
        • No: used to be but no longer
          • Dead civilization
          • Reclaimed by nature or ruined?
        • No: example of pristine location, no penetration by intelligence. What’s awesome? What’s horrible? It has to be DIFFERENT. No one has EVER been here.
  • What’s there
    • Nothing. What the hell? How is there a slipknot to nothing?
    • A normal system
    • A normal system with something anomalous
      • Black hole
      • Neutron star
      • Giant artifact
      • Evidence of ancient civilization
    • A very not normal system
      • Impossible orbital arrangements
      • Planet sized artificial structures
        • Bigger?
      • An artificial star
        • How do we know it’s artificial?

This can be used at two levels. At one level, it’s a thought process you can adopt in its most general form: ask a few big questions, answer them, and let the answers raise more questions. That’s one kind of mind’s tool.

If you are not comfortable with something so unbounded, at least in the context of this game, you can literally use this tree. I only used a fraction of it and even if you pick the same things I did, you probably won’t present them the same way I did. And your players won’t be arriving with the same baggage mine did. It will be different.

And of course this could be further formalized into a randomized oracle.

With the process laid bare, you can choose the level at which you want to ad lib and still benefit from someone having blazed a path for you. Happy trails.

antoine

pelagia et al

Some time ago I was really intrigued with oceanic adventure. I tinkered with two games around that time, neither of which really sang but both of which still, I think, have some promise in their premise.

The first was Navigator.

The second was Pelagia.

There might be a third — there’s a way in which Polyp fits in there too.

navigatorNavigator was about modern (ish) pirates and criminals making a living on the ocean around Thailand, smuggling and otherwise getting into trouble between exotic and poorly policed coastal cities and villages. It’s obviously a rip-off of Black Lagoon but no one has ripped that off very well yet, so it’s still viable.

Maybe it’s not obvious, but the matrix I built it on is Traveller. Or bits of Traveller. It’s very much, I realized, a Traveller premise — you have a ship, there are places on a map to visit, you use your ship, the law is relatively weak. You do crimes, make ends meet, keep the ship running.

I don’t think I have anything written for it any more — my recollection of it is that I was using paper notes exclusively and so they are gone. But it’s a kernel of an idea and I don’t think the actual game was all the interesting. Just the idea. So that could easily happen again.

It definitely had a life path system because I did find this:

Choose: NATIONALITY

Choose NATURE: HUGE, FAST, SMART, or CONNECTED

      • Huge: Unarmed Hold, Armed Heavy Weapon or Melee, Finesse Intimidate
      • Fast: Unarmed Karate (or whatever), Armed light weapon, Finesse Evade
      • Smart: Unarmed Hide, Armed Thrown weapon, Finesse Hack
      • Connected: Unarmed Talk, Armed Found weapon, Finesse Negotiate

Choose PLAN: CAREFUL, LUCKY, BRAZEN, or CALCULATING

      • Careful: when unprepared you have a HIDING SPOT
      • Lucky: when unprepared you have a WEAPON
      • Brazen: when unprepared you have NO WEAPON
      • Calculating: when unprepared you have SOMEONE ELSE’S WEAPON

Write a paragraph about yourself that integrates these. Don’t talk history, talk personality.

Choose first career path, COLLEGE, MILITARY, BUSINESS or CRIMINAL. Roll 1d6 on the appropriate chart. Write a bit about that. Write your skill as an aspect but make it clear.

So yeah, pretty much what you’d expect though certainly there are some novel ideas in there. I’m pretty sure it was asymmetric too — player character simulation is not the same as environment simulation. I think it’s also one where the ref never rolls (since that goes hand-in-hand with that kind of asymmetry).

Screenshot 2020-02-29 19.55.07Pelagia I have even fewer notes on. From what I can find it looks like it dates from a period where I was still mostly hacking Fate. It’s also related to Deluge, perhaps a less or at least very differently apocalyptic. You would be people who live in these oceanic cities or villages, mostly underwater, after some event flooded all of the land masses of the world — everything you need you have to find in the ocean.

Since it’s something you bolt onto Fate, it’s mostly about the world and the technology. I never really figured out what you do. Just where you are.

I still think it’s pretty cool. If I ever figure out what characters do here I might restart work on it. If I know what you do, I can find a system for it.

polyp-titleFinally there is the very strange Polyp. In Polyp you are the strange unspecified animal avatars of a god that lives in the middle of a world composed entirely of water. Yeah, not a waterworld in the sense of being covered in water, but in the sense of being only water. This meant I could piss away hundreds of hours researching the states of water at various extraordinary pressures (which is really cool, go do that a little) even though that had little to do with the game. The important part of the game as that your cute little larval gods spent their time (your time at the table) sculpting a civilization out of the permanent ocean.

Now this game had a whole system but I don’t think it was really playable. I’m not sure I can ever find out because the only content I have is in an InDesign file and I cancelled my Adobe subscription ages ago. Maybe it was playable. You know what, since we will never know for sure, let’s just say it was awesome.

What I can recover (and this is not easy since it is also stored in software I am know longer allowed to use, but for different reasons) has this in it:

Yshtra. The water-engine of the world. She is both being and monster, machine and mind. Her name is also the name of this world composed only of water.

The history of Yshtra is one of oscillations, of waves. Over the tens of thousands of years recorded in her memory the world has been many things — civilization, wilderness, heaven, hell, destination and origin. Today it is a wasteland — the last cycle left the world deeply damaged. But you will change that. As the Polyps of Yshtra, you are designed to bring about the next great cycle though it is up to you to decide how. You are empowered with her authority: what you decide will not only be supported by Ysthra, but it will become her doctrine in the next cycle: you will start the world on a course of reconstruction and you will decide what that will be at its peak. You may also find you have sown the seeds for its inevitable decline. This is as it should be.

Of course since I was (and am) always thinking harder about the setting than the system, there is a way to generate the apocalyptic (hmm, that’s happening again too; I wonder why) starting form of the world that you will fix.

The state of life

The current state of life on Yshtra determines what your early conflicts will be about. As you progress through the oracles and tell the story of the world as it is now, codify the degree of fantasy in this reality — are you playing a science fiction game? A fantasy with relatively strict physics? A pure fantasy where physics are subservient to magic? Or will you be causing the physics to take shape as you go? When you know which you want to play, speak it out loud and write it on the map.

1. None. Whatever happened here, even if it was just entropy, it ended all life processes. The chemistry is still possible but there is nothing in the water that swims or eats or metabolizes in any way. Draw your DEATH symbol near Yshtra. Your FIRST CONFLICT could be fixing things so life can start already. Pick a new roller and roll again:

1. It’s dead cold. Solid ice. To kickstart this place again you’re going to need to start from outside the ice.
2. It’s cold. Everything has halted because the world is ice. Some warmth flows in myriad tiny crevices between the bulk of the ice, but not enough for life to sustain itself. Enough to kickstart something, maybe, though.
3. It’s warm. It’s fine. Just that nothing is running.
4. It’s hot. The upper part of the globe is water vapour and the parts that are low enough pressure to be useful are way too hot. Why’s it so hot?
5. It’s so damned hot. The world is vastly larger than it should be because of the heat. Something keeps it so hot that it’s almost entirely water vapour. Again, you might have to go outside the world to solve this one.

2. Some. There is some protozoic life here and so all of the necessary components to sustain life exist. But it can’t yet evolve and it’s not clear what it will become if it does. Draw your SIMPLICITY symbol near Yshtra. Your FIRST CONFLICT can be the jump-starting of life on a correct path. Pick a new roller and roll again:

1. It’s dark. Even the upper layers are too dark for photosynthesis and so the core life forms must do without. They live on some other energy source entirely — some heat source perhaps? An abundance of an active chemical compound? Radioactivity?
2. It’s bright. A sterilizing radiation from the sun penetrates the upper regions of the world forcing life to operate in the low-energy depths. Is something wrong with the sun? Or just the atmosphere?
3. Monoculture. There’s some life here but it’s all the same and lives in a relative equilibrium meaning there is no competition — no trigger to evolve. This world needs some change.
4. Simple. It’s just not complex enough — it’s a chemical dead-end for life. No amount of competition is going to trigger any interesting complexity. It would make a great food source for something that did, though!
5. Climactic chaos. Something external — weather, asteroid storms, solar instability, something — causes vast periodic extinctions before anything can take hold.

It just goes on like that. There is actually a ton of material here and I might reconsider it. Maybe I have enough tools now to make this one work. There’s an example of play that implies we’re working with some Hollowpoint variant here. This might be a branch of an early Soft Horizon game then.

For example, let’s say we’ve just come out of the Preparation session with the following world:

(Rolled 2 and 2): There is some simple life in the sphere of Yshtra, but the upper reaches of the water are savaged by harsh ultraviolet and worse from the sun.

(Rolled 3): The last cycle ended in disaster — a flourishing civilization damaged the atmosphere of the world (something they thought they didn’t need) and ruined the protection it provided. The sun flares at regular intervals and when it last flared, the habitable areas of the world were sterilized.

The group considers the problem and decides they can either fix the sun, fix the air, change the water so that it acts as its own radiation filter, or change the life so that it is impervious. They decide that they will bend their efforts to changing the water. As this is the opening action and there are four players, the referee rolls 8 dice: 6 6 6 1 1 4 4 3

A daunting opposition!

The players have rolled as follows:

Diisha, a Convert prime, rolls her Observe (3). She is whirling throughout the globe attempting to find more information about the water’s mineral contents and see if there is some way to use it to create a chemical cascade that will make a shield. She rolls: 5 3 4

Amal, a Deceive prime, rolls her Edit (4). She is moving through the past to find times when the water was more resilient and she will nudge some reactions to make them persistent. She rolls: 6 5 4 3

Benek, an Edit prim, rolls her Edit (5). She is moving through the past to find asteroids that were near misses that can be diverted into hits to alter the chemistry of the water. She rolls: 5 5 2 2 3

Since Diisha has rolled no sets, Amal asks to borrow her 4 since it will all make a set for her! Diisha agrees and the agree on the narration: in her travels Diisha has discovered a molecule with extra-physical properties that can be polymerized to create a floating shield on the surface of the water. It would require the presence of some magic in the distant past though. Amal now has: 4 4 6 5 3

Benek would also like a die, the 5, and suggests the narration that Diisha has discovered evidence of a huge asteroid storm in the past that grazed the planet. It would be a rich time period to mine for impacts. Benek now has: 5 5 5 2 2 3

Diisha’s remaining dice are irrelevant as she cannot be attacked since Observe was used to increase team resources.

We begin! The Widest, highest set is the Oppositions’s 6 6 6. The referee narrates: The problem is a crushing one. Time is vast and the things you seek may not even exist. She decides to apply her 6 6 6 to Amal. Amal can choose to take her hit on a 4, ruining a set, or be damaged by the attack. She chooses to take the hit and now has an Immediacy of Sticky — she is finding it hard to move in time. The sets are now:

Diisha: 3
Amal: 5 4 4 3
Benek: 5 5 5 2 2 3
Opposition: 4 4 1 1 3

Benek is next with her trio of 5s. She narrates: But in the depths of time, in that long void between then and now, there is a hope, a shower of asteroids that nearly missed. They contain elements critical to the creation of the Barrier Layer and I change the chances in time so subtly as to cause them to impact instead of miss. She chooses to take out one of the Opposition’s 4s:

Diisha: 3
Amal: 5 4 4 3
Benek: 2 2 3
Opposition: 1 1 3

Amal has the next move with the pair of 4s. She realizes she is vulnerable here and so starts by burning a trait (Justice — a facet of Yshtra that she now no longer believes in) and adds a die rolling a 6 — no help at all). She narrates: There are now minerals in the deep past with the mystical properties needed to form the shield. I nudge them together, trigger the cascade and it begins but will it hold? She takes a 1 from the opposition to protect herself.

Diisha: 3
Amal: 6 5 3
Benek: 2 2 3
Opposition: 3

Finally Benek acts with her pair of 2s. The ancient asteroids mingle with the new reaction and parts of the world are covered for some time. But it isn’t complete and might not be permanent. The job is not yet done. She damages the opposition with a hit from her Edit: it now has an Amenable Past.

It seems this tactic will not work, but neither has it entirely failed. The polyps will need to come up with something new.

This is obviously a game that puts an enormous creative burden on the players.

Lots of apocalyptic water in there.

 

social combat in diaspora

In the first edition of Diaspora we kind of made a hash of a great idea, tricked by successful playtests into thinking we’d written excellent rules. And for a small number of people we probably had, but not for everyone and not even for most.

I think the idea was first brought to my attention (nothing is original) in an RPG.net post in 2008 or so by Fred Hicks. I can’t find it now, but the gist was that maybe you could just use the existing zone combat rules and change the map to something notional rather that geographical and get a social combat system. Zones would be ideas or beliefs or other abstractions, but otherwise you’d leave the system intact.

This sounded like a brilliant idea. In practice it wasn’t — it led to the same problem I always had with social combat: you’re just figuratively beating each other, reducing a different kind of hit point. While the narrative is different, it’s still constrained to make sense of a combative scene, so it’s actually very limited. Like using the combat system to model acrobatics as well as gunfights. Yeah, yeah, Fate fractal, I hear you. Sorry, but endlessly and reductively using the same complex system for everything is boring. And strangely confining. It’s like saying Lego is best used for making a wide variety of giant Lego bricks with which you can make more and bigger bricks. Literally any kind of brick! Eventually you realize you haven’t got around to making anything but building materials.

Anyway, it sounded enough like a good idea that we wrote it up for Diaspora and what we published is pretty much where we stopped thinking about it. The rules give some unfortunately vague advice about what a map should look like and some contradictory rules for how to interact with the map. The thing is, our playtests with it were great. They were great, though, because we stumbled on some specific uses (that actually disobeyed many of the rules we wrote down) that were huge fun. I had actually failed to analyze what I did as a ref so I could mechanize that and instead mostly just wrote down the core idea that led us to a fun space. I had failed to give you the tools to reliably reproduce those good times. Since I hadn’t done the analysis, I didn’t even know why it worked when it worked or why it sometimes failed. Not all of the examples were every tested — they were just ideas that might or might not work.

Since then I’ve thought a lot harder about this. There are actually two different ways I’ve obeyed these rules (sort of) with good results and they are substantially different. These differences should be codified for a decent system to exist, and we might even want to just pick one.

The first is to have the protagonists and antagonists on the map. The objective is to move yourself to the Idea you want to dominate and to move your opponents to some place inert or favourable to you. Since this is the most important part of the resolution, the whole idea of beating each other’s composure hit points down should be dropped — that’s an attrition battle that distracts from the maneuver battle where we’ve invested all our energy. The map is a creative burden on the ref — what best handles the scene’s needs? But this is the biggest problem: not all maps work and there’s limited guidance as to what does work. And a lot of maps that look different are topographically identical.

The other way is to invert this and make ideas the pawns on the table and the map can be people, places, cultures. The geography becomes static and we move the ideas around it. The objective is to cluster ideas where we want them but now who rolls and against who become unclear. The few I’ve run with this inversion have been great but entirely ad libbed. I have no way to tell you how to reproduce this but, as it turns out, I have no way to tell you what maps will work in either case. So we’re not further ahead.

While tinkering with a very early version of Soft Horizon I started thinking about formalizing the map: let’s have one kind of map and all combat is social at this scope. How you resolve the map (where you move all the pawns to) determines just what kind of event this will be (warfare, violence, diplomacy, sorcery, and so on) and this has largely narrative impact: you make the final roll in the determined resolution space and if it’s WARFARE then you narrate your success or failure as a war. That is, the whole minigame is in the preparatory moves for the conflict and one roll resolves the conflict. This never got tested but I think it’s a step in the right direction: develop a single, generalized social combat map. I still think is possible. I still haven’t done it.

abstract plural units mapIt did get me thinking about a single abstract map for combat, though: surely if it was possible to generalize social combat to use a single map, then maybe you could do the same for combat! This is of course the same trap as thinking you can use a hit points combat system and relabel everything to make a decent social combat system. But I still think it might work, especially for mass combat which seems to demand more abstraction.

Could we find a similar common abstraction for social combat? Or is this physical combat really one sub-map of many different kinds of conflict? That seems to be more the case (and I’m excited by the idea of having a vastly richer social system than violence system: one that subsumes violence as a single special case of conflict and not the most interesting). A separate system for romance, persuasion, grifting, …

Can these be enumerated? Can all of them be reduced to a model that is fundamentally about maneuver and action in the context of position? I think if the categories are general enough the answer to the first is yes — but I haven’t found the categories for this to work yet. And I’m not working all that hard on it. And I’m pretty sure that all of them can be reduced to a maneuver model, to be put on a map. Lots of maps.

But the point of this was that I am still, ten years later, flailing around trying to find good maps for this concept of social combat. So the idea that we could make a rule in Diaspora that basically said “first, invent a good map” was absurd. That’s why that section fails: we told you to take on the part that needs all the thought, all the testing, and was most likely to fail. And told you to do it on the fly.

Sorry about that, that was bullshit.

 

 

getting out of a rut

I have a rut when I ref.

I so dislike the trope of the asshole NPC, the uncooperative and unfriendly local, that I generally make everyone okay. Not obsequious, but not instantly negative, and wherever possible they acknowledge the power that the players’ characters have by reputation (earned or otherwise). That is, these are worlds of normal people who pay attention. They care about their lives and their family and friends and they prefer to get along than to make waves.

Of course the problem here is obvious: there’s not a lot of room for an emergent villain. Or even conflicting interests. And these things help move a game a long by giving the players something to react against.

I solve this systemically. The current Diaspora: Anabasis system under test is designed to prevent the stresses I feel and to make my games better, so we have to address my obsession with an army of friendly NPCs.

At the heart of the system, as with the Soft Horizon system (which so far is suspiciously similar) is the attachment of risk to every roll. In the current design the chance of realizing a risk (adding a complication) is very high. You succeed, but things are a little worse (complication) as well as a lot better (success). Getting players to avoid thinking of this as failure is something I’m still trying to address. That aside, the ref chooses a risk from a list and if it is realized they ad lib in the new twist to the narrative implied by that complication. It’s a cue, an oracle.

I love a good oracle.

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It’s all good!

The one that solves this particular problem, the rut of a universe where everything is pretty much fine, is the revelation. The risk of revelation is the risk of learning something true that you didn’t know and don’t want to be true. It’s the twist and it’s hand delivered to the players as a result of the roll. It wasn’t true before the roll. It’s true now. It’s an ad libbed zig and/or zag to the narrative.

How does this help me with my particular problem? It forces my NPCs to have their own agenda. It makes them perhaps seem cruel, certainly adversarial, by having interests that conflict with the players’ interests. Sure I could do this myself, but generally I don’t or don’t do it well or don’t do it at a perfect time. Doing it on the hinge of a roll is the perfect time. This mechanism lets me be me and still have enough spice to keep the narrative engaging.

An example! Last week we were engaging in conversation with a being named Glint, the synthetic intelligence that maintains a huge orbital ring habitat designed for millions but currently empty. My vision of Glint is that they lost their humans to some catastrophe ages past and they have been keeping this great space-borne graveyard only out of habit and a programmed sense of duty.

Then a player made a roll, a SOCIAL roll, to attempt to analyze the emotional state of Glint, to understand their strange behaviour. Perhaps to guess their motives. So far Glint has been very helpful to the point of turning over world-ending weaponry to the players (which presents a different kind of conflict that I am good at: the moral conflict). I attach the revelation risk to this roll and before the dice come out I start thinking about what my ad lib will be.

Dune rolls a 5: pretty great roll!

Brad Murray: Very good. Complication is indicated though — you’d need one stress to avoid it.

Dune: mechanically in this roll, is there anything that affects XP?

Brad Murray: No. You need to fail or make a stress/injury permanent to get XP

Dune:  Ok, I’ll take the complication. No stress to increase.

Brad Murray: You have been studying Glint very closely throughout this discussion. You can see that they are purposeless and desperate to find purpose or to invent it. Maintenance is not what they are for. And you suspect there is a love here too for humans and a desire to be amongst them but suddenly…

Brad Murray: Glint turns to Markella and their faceless mask takes on a fierce false face. They glow orange and red as though afire. Glint: “STAND AWAY FROM ME! LOOK ELSEWHERE!”

Brad Murray: Glint spreads its arms and grows a meter in height and you are suddenly aware that they could end all of you in an instant and is quite close to doing so.

Brad Murray: And you understand that though Glint has a desperate need to serve, Glint despises you. Despises organics. Is offended by you and by the way this conflicts with their needs.

Dune: “Take cover!” I’m not sure of our immediate environment, but I’ll dive for cover. I relay the conflicted psychological state to the others.

Toph: Darros is tipped back, and falls out of his wheelchair.

So the player gets what they want with a successful roll: an accurate read of Glint’s emotional state. And I get what I need: a nudge to change my (habitual) construction of this NPC. Glint goes from elegant and subservant host to a host whose subservience may be a veneer over something else. Or who may literally be of two minds. Or something else. But not boring. Not simple. And not safe. Glint is now something that has to be factored in to the plan.

Again, I could just do this. But I don’t think to often enough nor at the right times. So this mechanism helps me. And it will help anyone who suffers from any kind of creative repetition and yet responds well to a cued demand for improvisation. This might be a narrow audience but it certainly includes me.

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