zooming in with diaspora anabasis

One of the ways I design, as I’ve discussed before, it to create my objective from scratch and analyze the way I get there in order to find a way to mechanize it so you can do it too. We’re currently developing the sequel to DiasporaDiaspora Anabasis — and I am at a place where I need to do this again.

We have cluster creation and character creation pretty much solved now. But in developing my prep notes for a session of play I find I want to know more about each system. In the original we hand-waved this, but I’d really like maps showing the worlds in a system in order to make them more real, more huge, and to avoid the common pitfall of conflating world and system. Also, with the happy fame of The Expanse i think there is even more energy in the community for these stories, the stories that take place during travel inside a solar system. This also makes lower technologies as rich to spin yarns about as higher technologies. It opens up the scope of the game.

So let’s start with a map.

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The Antoine system.

Before starting this map I have some information of course. From the core conceit of the game I have the slipknot, the point from which high technology vessels can jump to other systems in the cluster. That’s the shape above the star.

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The cluster!

From the cluster generation I have statistics for the system. I know that it’s a rich system, with multiple inhabitable worlds, one of which is a garden planet. A place naturally lush with life and air and water. I also know that the inhabitants support an industry capable of using the slipknot.

 

From character generation I have more information. I know that there are prison worlds because more than one character escaped from prison here. I know that the system protects its technology, refusing to give it to other systems. I know that it is deeply colonial, seeing itself as the patron and protector of the other systems which it believes cannot survive on their own due to their lesser industries and at the same time believes cannot be trusted to wield the power of that technology themselves. It’s a familiar place, no?

This, of course, is why games must always be political: any story worth telling is political. Humans talking about things make politics. Humans imagining things make politics. But I digress.

So if you hoped I would talk now about the new mechanism for system generation you’re going to be disappointed: I have no idea just yet. I drew the sun and a line and put some worlds on it. One is the garden world of Antoine and there’s a gas giant because systems probably have gas giants. And then I wanted some distinction and some wonder.

Antoine is a garden world and the original colony in the system. It is has vast burgeoning oceans and cities that reach into the sky. Its industry, pollution, and crime are exported to other worlds. While there are hints of revolution here, it is quickly exported to the Beregons or, worse, Lens. Hush is its moon which houses several habitats despite being airless.

Here’s a pivot point of course: I want wonder, so that needs to get baked in. In this system I put the prison worlds of Beregon in. Two planets orbiting each other closely as they orbit the sun. This is well north of improbable as a natural event and that’s a good vein to mine for wonder: how the hell did that happen? That’s a point to mechanize. Perhaps a set of oracles for wonderous improbable things.

Beregon alpha and beta are mutually orbiting planetoids. They have pressure but limited air and resources sufficient to create and sustain habitation. They are primarily inhabited by industry, work forces, and prisons. The configuration of these two worlds is not explained by astrophysics: they are probably an artificial construction though there is no evidence of a prior culture here.

I also decided that with this level of technology large space stations would be viable. So I put some in. And that there would be a station to defend and manage the slipknot. And there’s another point for mechanization: a list of things that are normal at each technology. Still wonderous as technology advances, but normal for the technology. Certainly an orbital that houses half a billion people is wonderous to us, however mundane it is for the locals.

Arkady is a radioactive wasteland many times its expected density as it is composed mostly of heavy metals. It is hypothesized that it was ejected from a nearby super-super-nova and captured in the Arkady system. A massive industrial orbital, Lens, is used as a shielded base of operations for mining and it houses half a billion miners and administrators. In high orbit is an electromagnetic deceleration tunnel for pushing unpowered or low fuel masses to inner orbits. It is predominantly used for mining shipments to inner worlds.

Elminster station is the slipknot station for the system. It is highly militarized and provides all layover, maintenance, and r-mass functions for both civilian and military spacecraft. It does not police slipknot transitions unless the ship lacks an approved and up-to-date beacon.

So what I’m leveraging here is the idea that many things wonderous would be normal at high levels of technology and that that normalcy is itself wonderous. Playing in a world where a wonder is mundane creates an emotion in the player that’s fun even if it’s not an emotion in the character. And yet there is still room for wonder in the characters as well by imagining technology or celestial happenstance that would be baffling and awe-inspiring to the characters. Two wonders are available to me!

I also know from the cluster and character generation that there are many inhabited worlds here. One thing we might want is to have habitable moons of the gas giant. Which means we need to wonder why they are there? So:

Corazon is a hot jupiter gas giant, swirling with radioactive gases, a failed star. It has more than seventy moons but only four are of interest. Matchbox is an ice ball well within the region of Corazon’s gravity and radiation to cause intense activity and liquid water volcanoes. Peril is just a rock, albeit a very battered one, and holds not substantial colonies. Ash is a nearly human-normal temperature and holds enough pressure to make colonization cost effective. It houses several breakaway religious sects and political rebels and maintains a navy sufficient to dissuade Antoine from changing that balance of power. Oka is similar but has a somewhat harsher, colder environment and much richer mineral resources.

So here’s another point to mechanize: why do people live where it’s difficult to live? Perhaps a list of possible reasons, another set of oracles, to choose from or get random information from. Because there is always the fact of the astrography and then the rationale for being any place in it. Or not being there.

Buzzard is a long way away and under explored. Even with current technology at Antoine, it would take more than a year to travel there and there is no reason to believe it’s worth doing.

And then I sprinkled it with another idea I had not inspired by anything in either the rules text or the generation text: I figured that if you were at the point where you were heavily exploiting an entire solar system, you’d also be thinking about ways to make that cheaper. So I added the Decels — vast electromagnetic railgun structures for moving in and out of heavy traffic but distant orbits. Because sometimes you’re not in a hurry, you just want to constantly move a lot of material. And since one of the worlds was lacking distinction, I put it there.

Lepzig is a rocky and metallic frozen world with substantial resources and a naval installation intended to keep a reserve force available to counter Ash or Oka aggression. It is generally considered to be punishment duty. Its two moons, Shepherd and Wallace, are also heavily militarized but they have no resources to speak of and are better considered bases than habitations. Regular traffic from Leipzig is required for them to be maintained. In high orbit is an electromagnetic deceleration tunnel for pushing unpowered or low fuel masses to inner orbits.

So now all that’s left is to mechanize this in a way that’s fun and reproducible, so you can get at least what I get when I play.

 

Thanks to patrons for the pressure and the energy.

Games are at LuluDTRPG, and itch.io.

the character you deserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHYSICAL 0

SOCIAL 0

COMBAT 0

KNOWLEDGE 0

OPERATION 0

PURSUIT 0

CULTURES 0

ASSETS 0

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

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The Antoinese Protectorate cluster.

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

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

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

Borealis

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

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

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

SUMMARY

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

FACTS

Independent miners who might strike it rich.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks to patrons for the pressure and the energy.

Games are at LuluDTRPG, and itch.io.

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.

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?

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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.

phased downtime

Elseplace we got talking about the nifty technology of phased downtime — that is, of downtime as a separate mode of play, enforced by rules. This is not all that new (see Pendragon, for example) but it is interesting. It’s a heartbeat for the game: you do mission stuff, you do downtime stuff, rinse and repeat. You also see it in Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches where you have night moves and day moves, creating two separate but related storylines with slightly different technologies.

Now this didn’t feel all that new to me, but let’s look at other examples and how they are different.

First, though, these examples are of mechanical separation — the rules, not the narrative, define when the phases change and what the rules are during the new phase. But there are other ways to separate phases.

Consider, for example, the Dungeons & Dragons I played when I was 11. You entered the dungeon and robbed the locals until your bags were full, then you left and went back to town to train (you had to train to level up back then), sell your stuff, shop, heal, and look for rumours about where to go next. Maybe you built a keep. On the surface this is not very different from the first examples, but it is. It is diegetic: the rules don’t change (though honestly if the rules only apply in certain circumstances then those rules are really subsystems for those circumstances) but rather the narrative drives the change in context.

NEW CONTENT: I can’t believe I forgot to mention Reign which is kind of a hybrid. Play is in two phases: character and company. But the character phase creates bonuses for the company game and the company game implies missions for the character game.

Similarly in Traveller every time you jump to a new system you have a week’s downtime. There’s nothing in-story to do so you do something else. Most of the time you just tick a week off the calendar and move on — at least there’s a space to pretend everyone got a nap, went to the bathroom, and so on — but you had options to train up skills or use your skills to do something that needed doing. Again, it’s a diegetic phase: it happens in the context of the narrative and isn’t forced by the rules. But it kind of is too: that week in jump space is forced by the rules.

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Yeah that’s why I’m thinking about this. I know I said I wouldn’t. My patrons and my stupid brain convinced me I might have been wrong.

And then there’s the case of session zero games — if you have one session devoted to setting and character creation, that’s surely a mechanical phase even if it only happens once. It has it’s own rules, it’s forced by the rules, and it’s not about the current mission at all. Diaspora is my favourite example so go buy a copy to understand why. And this leads us to the refresh mechanism in fate: every session you have a refresh in which you can update character aspects and skills, get your consequences tended to and so on. That’s not even pretending to be part of the narrative; it’s strictly arithmetic and textual manipulation of your character sheet. Doing your regular accounting. But still a “phase” and very mechanical.

So what’s special about the cyclic heartbeat of non-diegetic phasing as in Blades in the Dark is, I think, that it gives you space for long term projects. You are always guaranteed that space. It doesn’t derive from the narrative, so there is a sense it which it feels mechanistic but because the whole structure of the game is the episodic future of mission after mission, this is fine. It’s easy to wedge the downtime into the not-mission space. The downtime and the mission work together to reinforce their boundaries. Mission is not-downtime. Downtime is not-mission.

Pendragon ties this to the calendar — your phases are seasonal because in a medieval society the seasons matter a lot. There are things you just can’t do in winter (like stage an invasion or harvest wheat). You do things in their time and the seasons become the heartbeat of the game.

This idea of a heartbeat is very appealing. In addition to ensuring you always know at least roughly what’s happening next (during downtime you’re thinking about the mission and during missions you’re thinking about downtime) you also don’t notice so much that you are being constrained to do the things the system does. The game can focus because it deliberately focuses you. And though the phases don’t emerge organically from the narrative, they function diegetically: you tell story inside them.

Would D&D in 1978 have been better if that heartbeat had been formalized? I don’t think it would have been — the thing we pretty rapidly did and that made the game something I’d play for 40 years or so was to break out of the heartbeat. To adventure in the city, to sail abroad, to explore the wilderness. The phases, thankfully not formalized, were easily ejected and the game was bigger for it. As big as we could make it.

These are just observations, not value judgements. These are all good games.

Thanks to my patrons for giving me the space to do this.