the character you deserve

Some terms before I get into this — these are phrases I might be using in a unique way, so I’ll define them right off so there’s no sidelining about what they mean. If you don’t agree a concept should have this name or that this name should be associated with this concept, well, just swallow that. This is what I mean when I say these things and arguing that I don’t is not helpful.

Simulation. All games are simulations. They are all abstract machines we use to assist in the imagining of a world through rules that govern our behaviour when we do that imagining. Some games are simulating physics to a greater or lesser degree. Some are simulating a particular narrative structure. All are simulations.

Simulation boundary. You can’t simulate everything and you can’t simulate anything with perfect granularity. You have to make decisions about what is and what isn’t in the simulation. This is the boundary. Some stuff is inside. Almost everything is outside.

IMG_0705
Steyr turned into a bit of a punk, steering into a life of crime I didn’t intend.

Making characters is central to most role-playing games. And while there are broad categories one could define to pigeon-hole the various ways we do this, there are two categories that interest me: characters you describe with a generation system and characters you discover.

We’ve all played games where we have a character in mind and then look to the system to let us describe it. We have an idea, maybe not fully formed, but an idea, and we use the classes or the point buy or whatever to create a representation of that idea within the simulation boundaries of the system. When our intention and the system mesh perfectly we get a character that feels exactly like what we want to play and when we play it it delivers the experience we were hoping for.

My experience (with myself as a player) is that I tend to make the same characters. Not exactly the same, but remarkably similar. Sometimes they even look radically different until they enter play and then I realize I’m not being all that creative. I see this in other people too. Almost everyone, in fact. Not you, of course. And so my preference is not to use a system that lets me assemble my vision of my character. My vision is flawed. It has a lot of boundaries and most of them I don’t know about.

I prefer to discover my character. So let’s look at the new Diaspora Anabasis character creation system to see how we discover (and how we create, since we do both here). It will seem familiar — the phased process of Spirit of the Century still works today and I’m not junking any machinery that still operates and still meets my needs. I will tune it, paint it, polish it, even re-purpose it but if it’s not broken it doesn’t go in the bin.

We start with a list of APTITUDES. Things the character is naturally good at, modelled as gross categories. Some aren’t really aptitudes, per se, but let that slide for now.

PHYSICAL 0

SOCIAL 0

COMBAT 0

KNOWLEDGE 0

OPERATION 0

PURSUIT 0

CULTURES 0

ASSETS 0

We could argue forever about what a good set of aptitudes would be. Let’s not. This list is tuned to deliver Diaspora. For a different game with different moods I would choose differently.

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The Antoinese Protectorate cluster.

Now keep in mind that we have already collaboratively created a context for these characters, a set of worlds with their own stories. Already before we even begin we have some choice forced on us: these are the worlds to choose from. These are the cultures. Whatever character we want to play, that character starts here somehow. Our choices are already narrowly focused.

You already do this, of course. When you play D&D your context has been firmly established and whatever particular tragedies are in your dark mysterious background, they all take place in the context of D&D’s particular fantasy world (or whatever variant you have bought or fabricated). So the only real difference here is that the context is partially random and wholly collaborative. No one is the sole engineer of the context. You are all reacting and creating, riffing really, off the random content.

So your first step is to choose a home world. In my case, I choose Borealis which has this description:

Borealis

Technology: 1 (chemical rockets to get to/from trojans and greeks, which are the only sources of resources in the system)

Environment: 0.2 (barely habitable moon orbiting a gas giant)

Resources: 1 (some exotic materials found in captured asteroids/comets that make up the L4/L5 groups around Borealis prime)

SUMMARY

Borealis is a hard-scrabble mining community of outcasts that are looking to strike it rich. It happened once before (long, long ago a prospector found something of value here, but what exactly it was has passed into legend and myth). From the view of Antoine (and any reasonable individual) there’s no point in spending human lives on such long odds and even robots aren’t worth the low returns. Thus, everyone on Borealis is doing their own thing, using outdated technology that’s held together by little more than baling wire and duct tape.

FACTS

Independent miners who might strike it rich.

Technology, environment, and resources are random components. Everything else has been created by the players.

So already I know something about my character and I didn’t control it.

Next I write a little something about growing up on Borealis. This is my first and most perfect effort to create what I want or at least plant the seed. I will not entirely control what it grows into. I write:

Everyone is totally, perfectly free here. Free to starve, free to suffocate, free to get radiation sickness and die of cancer. So you’re really slave to the labour you need to do to not starve, suffocate, or slough off your aviolae. At 11 I thought it’d be smart to specialize in fixing things that people need and chose to apprentice under an air systems team. Keeping the near-surface pockets of the Borealis moon breathing. That meant frequent trips to the surface and near orbit to mine gases. And that meant frequently standing in an armoured suit staring up at Borealis proper — that fierce warm glowing giant world that dominates half the sky with swirling blue and gold. And that made me want to fly.

Since this phase is mostly about the world itself, we get to add a fact to the homeworld, adjusting someone elses vision of that place to coincide with the character perspective. And then I make some mechanical changes to my stats which I don’t think are interesting to this narrative, but basically I decide what I’m naturally good at.

Next phase, though, I write about meeting another character:

It was Colonel Darros, an enormous Diver, who got me past orbit. He flew deep missions into Borealis to recover heavy gases and even suspended metal fogs. It was dangerous and exciting and it meant I had to learn to fly singleships from the surface of our Moon through complex orbital obstacles, and into the great storms. It was exacting, exciting, unforgiving work. But it wasn’t what I meant by flying. I wanted other stars. He had ideas along those lines as well. Dangerous ideas.

Now this is still me creating my character but I have also introduced a fact to my friend’s character Colonel Darros: I have implied that they are an expert in a certain field and given a kernel of an idea that they were up to something shady (since part of the context established previously is that there is one world that controls all FTL technology and it’s not our world). Even more disruptive is that another player has written about meeting me:

In an act of youthful defiance and idiocy, Markella stole away from her homeworld by hi-jacking a Antoinian inspections vessel. With it, she was able to slip to other systems. Little did she know that another person was on board when she boosted the ship. And it was lucky for her. It wasn’t until the ship’s systems were failing and she realized she could not possibly manage the ship by herself that she realized there was a prisoner in stasis on board. When she thawed Steyr Stonecutter, they found themselves working so well together that they were able to escape peril with their lives and an unexpectedly comfortable rapport.

So now I know that I’ve been aboard an illegally obtained slipship. I’m now a criminal (not what I was intending) and I have a friend. My next phase is coloured by this. And in a later phase I will influence another player character’s development similarly and be influenced.

This organic hybrid of describing and discovering is my favourite space for character design. I get to start something but I don’t get to decide where it goes. I get some curve balls and I decide how to deal with them. The character is my concept, but rather than my choice from whole cloth it is the sum of my reactions to things not entirely under my control.

And at the very least this character becomes different from my last character.

 

Thanks to patrons for the pressure and the energy.

Games are at LuluDTRPG, and itch.io.

why not fate?

diaspora-2e-cover-test bannerI got asked elswheres about Diaspora Anabasis and why not Fate. What follows is an expansion of my response. Now keep in mind this is me finally trying to serialize my gut on the matter. It’s not the original analysis — there isn’t one. I just felt like it was an unproductive move for me and only now tried to turn that instinct into words. So tread lightly on me here, I’m not trying to drag on anyone’s tastes or anyone elses work. This is just my animal brain trying to talk to my writing brain.

Well, obviously I’ve thought about this a lot and am also able to bring to bear my experiences writing Elysium Flare (a Fate derivation) and our two Soft Horizon Games (a custom system).

With the formalization of Fate as “Fate Core” and “Fate Accelerate Edition” I wind up pinned between several rocks and consequent hard places. I don’t want to write a Fate world book, a setting document — I want to write a coherent game that reflects my own interests in both play and design. So I would have to adapt Fate as formalized, likely drifting it a great deal to suit my needs. Fate is now very well established, though, and so if I choose that path I wind up with Fate fans, expecting The Real Thing, disappointed because it’s not core and I also lose the substantial audience that just dislikes Fate on principle. Making a Fate Core supplement doesn’t satisfy my creative needs. Making another Fate-like Bradthing doesn’t make a lot of not-Brad people happy.

slipknot diagramI did take a stab at a Fate derived version based on core but frankly I hated it. It was no fun to write and no fun for me to play. It also was immediately obvious that anyone could do it. Get your old copy of Diaspora and use Fate Core for the system. There are a couple of other tweaks but really that’s it. You don’t need to pay me to do that for you.

So if it’s going to flop or succeed, I want it to be on its own strengths and not based on positive or negative reactions to Fate. I didn’t have this problem with the original because it wasn’t really a Fate game — there was no formalization of Fate at the time. It was a hybrid of Spirit of the Century, streamlined and modularized according to my needs and to fix the flaws I perceived in that game. And so it was at least mine in that sense. Fate is not something you can approach that way anymore though. It’s not in an interesting process of evolution now that it has a Constitution document and a fan base that expects adherence. And detractors that will reject it with reasonable expectation of what a Fate game must be. Everyone who cares already knows what Fate is now, whichever way they’ve decided they care.

Basically there’s no creative mileage for me in a Fate game and it comes with a guarantee of alienating both lovers and haters of the system. I’d rather move on and apply what I’ve learned in the last ten years to build something that lives or dies on its own and is tailored to the material.

Keep in mind that the original Diaspora started as an elaborate joke: it was obvious that Fate and Traveller were misaligned if not perfect opposites, and so it was a sort of absurdist creative project to try and fuse them together. To my shock it worked. We still play it ten years later and I can’t think of any other game that’s true for. But that also means that now the pairing is not a joke and so there’s little creative motivation in just doing the same thing again. I would if it was newly funny with Fate Core. If people want Diaspora with Fate it will always be there in the first edition, pretty much exactly as we intended and as we still play it.

deriving the hex crawl

The hex crawl is a classic supporting structure for role-playing games. Many of my most memorable early experiences with Dungeons & Dragons were hex crawls, and the crawl was probably a bigger factor in their success than the D&D part. But let’s look at what a hex crawl ought to do by (like with the ranger) starting with some suppositions and deriving the technology.

So a few interesting things are true about the hex crawl: there are hexes (no more about this), the player side of the game doesn’t know what’s in those hexes until they enter or get adjacent to them, and something is interesting about each hex even if it’s just the terrain.

Let’s start with the “not knowing part”. This seems essential to me and I think it ought to play a part in defining the kind of adventure that takes place in a hex crawl. Let’s say I want to get from point A to point B in order to accomplish something at B. Obviously what I do is buy a map or a guide. I am not going to strike blindly into the wilderness if I have any other options. And I’m probably going to take a road which also implies the presence of maps or at least good directions. So this is not that.

Why would I strike out without a map?

There is no map.

Why no map? Why are we in this predicament?

Why not? Here are some possibilities:

No one has been there in a thousand years. There are stories about very roughly what is where but no one really knows. This is new territory.

So you might keep a map as you go in order to get back safely. You might use it as a predictive tool (if the ref’s map is rational enough) to find rivers and mountains based on gradually revealed changes in terrain. But mostly, since no one’s been here, you might be doing classic explorer stuff: making a map so others can make this trip more safely in future. When you find Point B, you will have one possible route there.

This last is pretty fun: if you find a very difficult and shitty route, you will be motivated to improve it, to find a better path. Otherwise the next person with the same idea might make a more valuable map.

For this to work, the map has to be fairly rational. If I hit plains and then hills, I should rationally predict mountains. If I move from dry to wet, I should expect a river. If I’m in the plains I can probably see cities and mountains on the horizon. If I find a road, it’s probably on territory much easier to build a road on than surrounding territory. I want players to be able to make rational predictions based on what they’ve found since they are trying to map an exploitable route without just randomly walking it.

Maps are illegal. Someone has maps but they are very protective of them and sell them for outrageous prices. Copies are dangerously imperfect and worse than no map at all.

Most of the above applies except now what you’re doing is probably illegal — not only are you lost in the wilds but two other things are true: some people aren’t lost (they bought maps) and someone probably wants you to stop mapping.

The land has recently changed. You might have a map but it’s wrong. What happened? I’m not here for that — you can already think of a thousand zany things.

You could be mapping this newly changed place in order to find routes through it, as though it were virgin territory, but really this problem demands another kind of adventure: figuring out why it changed. And you’ll have to cope with the fact that huge magical changes to the landscape don’t necessarily follow geological logic since it didn’t take place over geological time periods using natural processes. The terrain can lie to you here.

Now, I don’t the the ref needs to go into this knowing why the land changed — they might be interested to discover this as well. But whether or not they know, the landscape itself is going to have to provide some clues. Each new revealed terrain is not just a choice to follow or divert, as with exploration, but also a potential insight into the why of the changed terrain. Randomness can be your friend here with the very contents of each hex acting as an oracle for you to riff off of.

You don’t know where point A is. You’re already lost and mapless. Someone out there might have a great idea about the topography but you’re not that person and they aren’t handy.

Again, this is like exploring a route, except that at some point you should be able to put the puzzle together and recognize where you are. This territory not only needs to be rational, but it also has to be consistent with a (maybe shitty) map you DO have.

So fine, that’s how a map needs to deliver a theme, but there’s another question.

Why do I care what’s in each hex?

This is only partly obvious. If I’m mapping a route, I care what’s in a hex so I can make decisions about the next direction to travel in. But we are going to reveal each hex in turn so we want each hex to have more impact than that, otherwise we might be tempted to shortcut it, and say things like “I follow the ridgeline until we reach water or flatter terrain”. But the very nature of the hex “crawl” is to reveal each hex for some reason. What reason?

Usually it’s Random Encounters. Fine, sometimes, but seriously that’s the lowest common denominator. Maybe the old Risks list has some power here. What if each hex is not just one kind of risk, but one of those?

Cost. Something in this hex requires payment. Maybe it’s a monster extracting a toll to pass the only way through. Maybe you need special equipment to get through and you don’t have it. Maybe bandits steal from you. But passing through this hex risks a Cost.

Harm. Okay fine, here’s your random encounter. Or maybe a risky chunk of terrain that could break your leg.

Delay. Risking delay is only interesting if you have a deadline to meet. I recommend that — you should have a deadline. There should be a point at which you run out of rations or your competitor finishes their map first. Or you will arrive to late to stop the wedding. Something! A delay could be a washed out bridge or terrible weather or even just incredibly dense undergrowth. Something threatens to slow you up unless you find a away to cope.

Spillover. This one at first seems a little hard to handle, but suppose your intrusion on this unsullied wilderness is having a side-effect on the locals? Maybe you are bringing attention and banditry to an otherwise peaceful people. Maybe your presence wrecks the local magic flux that is such delicate balance. Maybe you scare off the delicious unicorns. Whatever it is, entering this hex does unanticipated harm to someone who doesn’t deserve it.

Ineffectiveness. Fuck this risk. Maybe you just can’t enter this hex, period. For sure if you tell players that they will try ALL NIGHT to do it anyway though.

Revelation. Something is in this hex that reveals something unexpected (ideally even for the ref) and not necessarily good. High ground reveals that you are no where close to your objective. A magical storm reveals that the land is still changing and your map may not be helpful for getting home. The partial map you stole from goblins is not just wrong, it’s a trap.

Confusion. You risk getting lost. You can’t find north. Your next move might be in a random direction. Try not to be a pain in the ass about this: making players build a map that is wrong or useless is not actually as fun for the players as the ref. But forcing them to occasionally move in a random direction and calling that “lost” is not a bad compromise.

Waste. You can get through this hex but the horses won’t make it. Or you’re out of water and need to find some as a priority. Something you had in plenty is eaten up in this hex.

Why hexes?

Because hex kit.

 

Thanks to patrons for the pressure and the energy.

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

deriving the ranger

I saw a bunch of traffic on Twitter lately about the ranger. What is the ranger? How best to represent the ranger? Why does the ranger seem so dull sometimes? So what I thought I’d do is write down who I think the ranger is and then derive the rest from that. If we stay true to concept, the idea goes, we get mechanisms that match their context.

I bolded the bits that are ready to mechanize. You do that. I don’t know what system you love.

The Ranger

img_20160603_104159You live your life in the wilds and mostly alone. Maybe you don’t like people or they don’t like you. Maybe you made some mistakes in the past and they are still hunting you. Maybe you just like the wilds better than you like people. But you do love people. You see yourself as their first line of defense — when things are going wrong in the wilds, soon enough the impact will be felt by people. You are always on patrol, always looking for those problems, and solving them if you can. And if you can’t you, reluctantly (because it means you have to return to civilization, however temporarily), raise the alarm.

Your core principle is self-sufficiency. Your equipment is at least repairable if not creatable, by you alone in your wilderness home. You know how to find food and shelter, since you’re always on the move. You naturally heal quickly and are resistant to natural toxins, and when that doesn’t serve you, you are adept at administering first aid to yourself. You don’t need anyone, or at least that’s what you tell yourself and what you trained yourself for.

You’re wary of making friends with wildlife since animals are often essential to making and repairing your kit. But who could resist the companionship and skills of a good dog or trained wolf? If you have a pet, it’s probably a predator and it probably sees you the same way you see it: a friend, a companion, and someone to be respected. It’s not going to be any more loyal to you than you are to it. So you make careful choices about that loyalty.

Equipment

You prefer equipment you can make yourself and you can live with equipment you can maintain yourself. Anything else is useless to you. And if your gear has more than one use then that’s fewer things you need to carry.

Consequently you like bows. You can hunt with it and you can fight with it, though in your head these are much the same thing. Crossbows have fiddly bits, typically metal, that are just not worth your attention to keep, maintain, and (worst of all) go into town to replace. You can make a bow yourself in a couple of hours. Arrows too, though metal arrowheads are a treasure: you hoard them, keep them dry, and recover them whenever possible. And you keep them very, very sharp. In a pinch you can make stone or bone arrowheads that are almost as good.

You are proficient with all bows.

Swords are just not worth it. They are not the best weapon in the first place and then they are not useful for much other than fighting. And that fighting is mostly duels, which you think is profoundly stupid: the idea of engaging in a fair fight just makes no sense to you: that’s not how one survives a hostile world. You avoid unnecessary fights and when you have to fight you make it on your terms. And your terms are very good for you and very bad for them. You probably carry some knives which you keep as carefully as your arrowheads. You may carry an axe or two since they have a thousand uses, many of which you come across every day. Or maybe just one but you have some spare axeheads. You can make the shaft any old time, but the axe head is scarce (unless you enter a town) and your time is too valuable to be swanning around a village. You don’t dress fancy enough anyway. And, if it’s to your taste, you probably have a spear. It’s a walking stick and a weapon. You can throw it and you can thrust with it. You can kill and you can just keep enemies at a distance. And you can make every part of it but the metal tip.

You are proficient with knives, axes, and spears. In some Regions you might have other proficiencies related to the survival needs of the area (a mattock or pick in stony territory, for example).

If you could get away with it you probably wouldn’t bother with armour, but most of the threats to people on the edge of the wilderness wear armour and you will need to handle them face-to-whatever if need be. But it’s armour you can maintain yourself, it’s armour you can get on (quickly) yourself, and ideally it’s not something else to carry awkwardly. So no shields, no big metal plates. Mail is handy and you can probably make some repairs, but it’s not ideal. It gets ragged pretty fast and time spent with special tools and a lot of squinting is better spent sleeping or eating. So you prefer cloth with metal plates sewn in, or good leather with lot of padding. If you’re in the mood to make it you might make a cuir bouillee breastplate or (more likely) some vambraces to protect your arms from thorns and your rugged fletching.

You are proficient with leather, cloth, and mail. If you wear mail it’s probably not very good quality.

You would not be caught dead without rope and you know how to make it with any one of a dozen local sources, whether plant or animal. You know where flint is found naturally but you can whip up a fire with dry sticks and your bow if need be. And while the dark is dangerous, you probably don’t like travelling with a torch or (worse) a lantern — it’s an invitation to trouble. Instead you sleep when it’s dark.

If you need a particular piece of equipment while in your Region and you could reasonably be carrying it, then you have it when you need it or you can swiftly make it.

You’ve no need for money. It just adds to your load, both physically and metaphorically. You might keep a few coins or gems for emergencies, but that’s exactly what you feel commerce is: an occasional emergency that you hate. But you prepare for.

If your system has an XP for gold scheme, consider changing it up for the ranger: you only get XP for you gold share that you give away.

Behaviour

You hunt to survive and consequently you are an expert at tracking prey. You’d starve otherwise.

In your region you can follow any trail made by any being not magically protected from being detected. Except maybe another ranger.

You always create an environment that is advantageous to you and you don’t trust others. So whether or not you’re in a party sleeping in shifts, you have certainly prepared a campsite with alarms if not deadly traps.

In your region any site you have prepared has traps and alarms around it.

Your approach to a fight is more procedural than most: you reconnoiter, you prepare, you trigger your encounter, and you leave when you have to. And you set yourself realistic goals from the outset: no one wants to fight to the death, least of all you.

You have great stealth in your region.

You have great observation skills.

You can make traps in your region.

You attack by surprise.

You effortlessly escape by prepared routes.

If you must travel in a party you must have a really good reason. And you’re probably very dedicated to that — if you make yourself part of a party then they become a tiny village that you hate that you love. You are now their protector. But know why.

You have a reason for being in the party. Declare it. Why do you love these people this much?

Region

You prefer a particular region. It might have many kinds of terrain but it probably has one dominant climate. You know all the animals in this region and all of the plants — you know what’s safe, what’s dangerous, what’s edible, what’s medicinal, what’s a potential weapon, and what’s better to avoid altogether.

You are never poisoned and never go hungry in your region.

You can heal yourself in your region on par with magical abilities.

You can heal others in your region to a lesser degree.

You never get lost in your region.

You move faster than normal in your region.

You know the special abilities of anything native to your region.

Outside your region you may have only limited abilities — if the wood’s unfamiliar and the animals are unfamiliar then you will start to have trouble maintaining your equipment and even surviving unassisted. You are very much a creature of your place, and though it may contain mountains and forests and lakes and swamps, it doesn’t extend forever. But you can learn, especially from other rangers.

You can learn a region by acting as a ranger in that region for an extended period of time or through multiple advancements. If you are mentored by another ranger, this happens faster.

Enemies

Your region has existing trouble and you specialize in guerilla warfare against that trouble. It might be people or it might be monsters or it might even just be weather or fire. Whatever it is, you have trained and equipped yourself especially to deal with this threat. You know everything you need to know about it and value new information very highly. And you will go out of your way to do it harm.

You have bonuses to all your abilities when facing your enemy.

You will want to divert from a task to kill or hinder your enemy if the original task has nothing to do with them. There is no bonus or penalty for this, you just want it. No need to be a dick about it in a party.

 

Thanks to patrons as always.

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

making games: doing the work

I’m an outliner. My order of actions is: make a lot of point form notes, write the table of contents, make a cover, brainstorm the sections, and then write.

Too short?

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_6e2
There’s a sketch before there’s a picture.

Okay we already talked about getting started and sort of sketching the parameters of the project. The next part is getting an actual text out and the first part of that is structure: I make a table of contents. Divide the problem up so we can attack it piecemeal. We already have some guiding principles to focus each section, but now it’s time for detail. What that table of contents contains depends on the game, but I might have, in no particular order, say:

  • Characters
  • System
  • Setting
  • Playing

That should get me started. For the current project I have more specific headers but this is fine.

Then comes just a ton of creative work. I start noting every stray idea I have as a bullet point under one of these sections. I add new sections. I try to stay to the brief but I don’t try all that hard. I update the brief if that has to happen. But it’s all just notes. One-liners. Ideas and alternative ideas to think about. I want as much exposed as possible. And I invite in collaborators to add and argue and delete.

diaspora-2e-cover-test.png
Don’t do this yet. Definitely don’t start buying art.

And I make a cover. Don’t do this part — it’s way too early.

When this outline is full of well categorized but otherwise unstructured ideas, I find that the collaborators have started to thin out. It’s often just me at this point or, if I’m lucky, me and Toph Marshall. He is the best, most provocative, and most productive collaborator. He will test me but he will also put in the work. I don’t need a gadfly; I need someone shovelling beside me but with different ideas about ditches and shovelling.

Once there are barely enough ideas we will start scaffolding whole sections. Playstorming, really, since the scaffold is kind of already there in some cases. So, for example, for this project our earliest test is going to be cluster generation. The setting generator! Someone will run each session, guiding everyone else through their half-baked and sort of documented idea. We will faithfully engage their idea and see what happens. And we’ll talk frankly about it — what worked, what didn’t work, was the result useful?

This happens a lot. It might get boring. We’ll go over the section from the beginning several time, testing alternate ideas. Iterate iterate iterate. But at some point it will feel less like random ingredients and more like dough. And so, the hard part: someone has to draft a working text for the idea. Several thousand words of draft text for the actual book. This is really important to me: up until now we are mostly playing with ideas that are communicated only during play. Once the text is written and the procedure therefore established, we get to the real test: does the procedure work or were we just enjoying the creative lead’s ad libbing?

So test again, but test the text. Don’t stray from it — stick to the script. And revise and play and revise. In this particular case, make a LOT of clusters. I think we had twenty or thirty test clusters while writing this section, though only from a half dozen sessions of play.

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Eventually you get a badger with a blunderbuss.

One thing I find with this process is that someone organically steps forward to own a section. They will guide the playstorming, they will grab ownership of that particular chunk of text, they will gatekeep (sometimes that’s a good word; curate if you prefer) the section, and they will do the dirty work of writing it. It will get communally edited into a consistent voice, but someone will own it. And they will step up to do it. I really don’t know who my co-authors all are until the last draft section is done.

That’s how we get from idea to text. That’s the work. We have 50 or 60 pages of rambling notes and then we distill through the process of play down to a draft text, working section by section. Break it into pieces and make the pieces. Later we will worry about coherence and organization and layout and copy editing. Right now the objective is a half a dozen complete and rigorous procedures that tell you how to play each part.

Note that for the most part we don’t even care about the resolution dice game yet. It’s really not the interesting bit. It doesn’t take a ton of work.

When we get to it I’ll revise that of course.

Thanks to patrons as always.

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

making games: starting

Been a while, right?

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

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

We’ll start with starting.

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT DO WE WANT TO DO

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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The process can be exhausting. Take breaks.

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

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

Consume.

Note the boundary and goals of the project.

Argue.

Thanks to patrons for the pressure and the energy.

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

more diagrams so sue me

Data Flow Diagrams are fun for highlighting all kinds of design problems and then fixing them. It’s intuitive: when there are tons of overlapping arrows you have a problem. When you have an arrow entering or exiting a resource but never the reverse, you missed something. When you have two process bubbles talking to each other directly you are implying synchronous behaviour. This lets you untangle, rethink sources and sinks, and wonder if there’s value in asynchronicity since you can see how to implement it.

As a cheap example let’s look at a simple synchronous conversation between four people.

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Instantly we see that synchronous communication between people gets complicated fast. Now fortunately at a game table most of that conversation is casual — it’s not part of the rules, per se. For example, while all the players can and do communicate with each other, the rules might specify a stricter relationship.

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Back in the Old Days we recognized that even this was messy and that, since it happened anyway, we’d formalize the idea of a Caller — a player who was authorized to do the mechanical communication with the ref, neatly gating the interplayer communication off. Again taking the inter-player communication as non-mechanical and not part of the diagram:

comm 3

One might feel that this an artifact of old school game design and one would be right. This is partly because many of the moves (which were not yet recognized as codifiable as Moves) were group moves: we go south, we go down the stairs. But since someone was gating group moves anyway, and since it cut down the confusion of crosstalk (the person being confused being the ref mostly), whoever was coordinating group moves was also summarizing individual moves:

ABLE: We should listen at this door before we go in.

BAKER: I want to just kick it in and charge.

CHARLIE: We will pause at the door and ABLE will listen.

DOG: [dice] you don’t hear anything.

CHARLIE: BAKER kicks it in.

Partly this is because there’s a lot of other things competing for the attention of the ref and this simplification is valuable when you’re running a secret dungeon map with wandering monster tables and trying to remember what’s even on anyone’s character sheet let alone where you put the stat blocks for those aboleths. Simplifications in this environment are going to happen anyway — might as well codify them.

When we really want to break things down and listen to everyone specifically, we went to a turn based system: the ref asks “What do you do, ABLE?” and then “What do you do, BAKER?” and we of course didn’t interrupt each others’ turns. A classic multi-tasking solution — we time slice the incoming events and give every pending interrupt its own little slice of the ref’s attention. The turn.

In deciding to treat role-playing as a conversation we don’t really solve this problem, we just agree that it’s more fun as a human problem than a mechanical one and it’s fine to just broadcast “What do you do?” to the whole table and handle interrupts as they arise. It’s a little weird to me that this is the modern development, when way back in the turn days we were trying to solve the problem of spotlight sharing and had a pretty good solution (time-slicing) and lo and behold, now we have the problem of spotlight sharing again. This seems backwards — it seems like in the bad old days we should have been shouting over each other with the loudest attended to and in the newfangled design-aware world we should have a mechanism to guarantee equal access to the ref. But whatever.

Anyway that’s sort of a digression. What I wanted to get to was asynchronicity. What if we did this instead?

comm 4

This is an asynchronous model of play, where everyone talks into some store of messages and pulls out the latest one. Rather than talking to each other we talk into the data store. You might recognize this as the play by mail or play by forum model. It’s even, really, the play by chat model, it’s just that we tend to use chat (like Hangouts or Discord or whatever) as an immediate communication technology, but there’s a back end store and you could come and go as you please and still pick up the thread from the store.

An interesting thing about this model is that it invites us to consider adding additional processing. What if we had another node that wasn’t a person at all, but that changed the content of the store or that listened and added its own content?

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Now we have text formatting, dice bots, directed communication (tagging something such that it also notifies a recipient), and potentially other assistance! And really nothing restricts us to one store — one might have another store that’s private:

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Yup, direct messages. These data stores are powerful!

So let’s look at another data store that we all use: character sheets. Ignoring the rules reference, our traditional play actually looks like this (at least):

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Everyone is maintaining a store containing their character information and the ref needs to see it. In fact it’s worse than that if you want to huddle together over tactics: everyone needs to see everyone elses sheet as well as talk to each other and that’s a lot of arrows. One of the things that happens in the real world when a social model like a game has a lot of arrows, is people stop using some of them. If they are necessary to the game then necessary parts of the game start getting stripped away. People stop doing stressful things eventually and this is how rules get pruned.

But what if we just put all our characters in a shared document?

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Our diagram now has way fewer arrows and still has the same capabilities (though I had to move things around to make the arrows not overlap, the topology is the same). It has more even. Practically speaking this means that the ref is probably going to pay more attention to what’s on your character sheet. And if the system is designed such that there are important things there (plot hooks and mechanical advantages) that’s a really good thing to preserve. In the previous spaghetti of communication, those are things that will get dropped to cut the stress down.

You can already see other parts of your game that can be diagrammed like this and then adjusted to reduce complexity. If everyone needs their own copy of the rules, that’s pretty terrible for example. If everyone shares a book that’s still cumbersome.

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But put essential rules on the character sheet and things simplify. You already knew THAT would happen but are there other things you’ve missed?

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Probably.

Diagrammatical languages are revelatory and they do some work.

Blame my patrons.