bugging out

Yeah I’m bugging out.

20191106_201018Making games for sale has become tedious. I like inventing games. I like writing and editing. I like illustrating. I like layout out. I just hate with an increasing passion all of the pressures attendant with selling them. I realized today that I am just not getting paid enough to care what anyone thinks, and when you sell something with an eye to making a buck you are literally investing in what other people think.

Part of the problem is just how many awful people there are in the industry/hobby/whatever-I-am-not-here-for-definitional-debate. I feel like I can’t distance myself enough sometimes. So this is as far as I can go.

The other issue is reach and what really cut the heart out of the pursuit for me was the death of Google+. One day I reached four to five thousand people with every musing. The next day I reach half a thousand on Twitter and two thirds of those are robots. My interaction went from tens or hundreds every week to three or four. Since I’m not interested in any of the banal work that goes into “building a brand” that’s not going to change. So fuck it. It stopped being fun when G+ shut the doors, it just took me a couple of years to realize it.

The last couple of media purchases I’ve made were magazine subscriptions — one to Nature and one to Lapham’s Quarterly. Each reveal in a different way a creative and analytical world so profoundly richer than musing on game design that I can’t leave the bathroom (where I read my magazines) without feeling like I should go back in since it’s so much more…relevant.

This is not about you. You are all, as far as I can tell, awesome. I love you. You know who you are.

And it’s not about playing games. I love playing the games I make. I will keep playing them, keep keeping that company, and maybe now play more. Maybe even make more. I’m just not going to engage with all of the senseless (to me) work that goes into selling them to you. I love these games. I’m just exhausted by the idea of having to care what everyone else likes while I’m doing it, and that’s intrinsic in turning it into a business. I don’t need the money that badly and it wasn’t much anyway.

new haircut 2

I don’t know yet what will happen with Diaspora Anabasis. There are other creatives involved and I owe them something. There’s a lot of work already done that I love and I’m having trouble summoning the kind of energy I would need to revise it so that you (notional, aggregate, and non-specific you) will love it to. It’s going to have to be enough that I love it but I’d rather not ask you to pay for a vision that doesn’t deliberately include you. I will settle for all my accidentally coincident gamer fiends.

I’ll keep writing here. Maybe more than usual. But mostly I’m going to sit with my wife and laugh at Monty Python.

Love to you all.

ADDENDUM

I’m still working all this out. I decided on a gut instinct and my brain is slowly catching up.

One thing that bothers me about these games and that has increasingly depressed me is the focus on violence. It’s gone from discomfort to disgust. I can’t even look at most game artwork without reflexively despising the fact that everyone on the cover is threatening me with a weapon or behaving as through the dismemberment of a foe was the pinnacle expression of healthy comraderie. I’ve talked about this before so I won’t elaborate. It’s all in the blog somewhere. It’s just so normalized in this hobby; so expected. And that normalization is extremely disturbing to me.

I’ve talked about this before of course.

getting out of a rut

I have a rut when I ref.

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

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

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

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

I love a good oracle.

20190805_163044
It’s all good!

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

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

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

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

Dune rolls a 5: pretty great roll!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post brought to you by my long suffering patrons.

character sheets and choice and success

I recently read a definition of OSR (and I do not want to talk about defining the OSR) that included the idea that players are expected to use the content of their character sheet to find an optimum path to success. That is two things: the character’s skill set defines the shape of the narrative (the character happens to the world) and players are seeking success as a priority. I do not doubt that this is at the heart of OSR because this is very consistent with its wargaming roots.

So I now withdraw my old proposition that my games belong in some niche of the OSR. Unless this is a new axis I can be far to the left on, this isn’t what I want from a game at all.

example-char-sheetNow the first I’ve probably over-implied my distaste for. I do want the character sheet to impel the narrative, to sculpt it in terms the player has indicated. But I don’t want any part of the sheet to be irrelevant. I want characters to deal with complex problems that push them out of their expertise. I like it when Fighter is desperately trying to sneak into the castle. When Wizard gets in a knife fight. When Thief has tries to solve a problem with a half-learned spell. The real world rarely hits you head on — it hits you from the side. It forces you to learn things you would never choose for yourself.

So, systemically, that has to be fun to work. And that’s tied to the next thing.

Okay so, about success-seeking. In a role-playing game specifically, I really dislike this but I understand it — I think it derives from combat-centricity and the threat of character death. That is, we have become trained to seek success by games that punish us (the player) for failure. You’re knocked out of Gloomhaven. You go broke in Monopoly. Your bard dies. And so we seek to optimize both preparation and play for success to avoid punishment. We try to win.

moodBut the opportunity for something else is front and centre in role-playing games. We have no victory conditions. We don’t need to put death on the table as a risk if we don’t want to. And so we can explore failure safely, or at least partial failure. And I think this is necessary for an interesting narrative — a string of successes would indicate to me a lack of struggle. It doesn’t sound like interesting — or surprising, and I like surprising — space. We have to deal with reality, though, and reality says losing is bad. I used to cry when I lost a game. Flat out wail. That’s training we need to confront and overcome to get somewhere else.

Fortunately language has enormous power.

The system I’m refining to use for Diaspora Anabasis scales results as automatic failure, failure, success with complication, and success. The rarest is a success. Sadly players read this as “I am always going to fail” and the memory of losing Park Place to a slightly drunk and very performative Auntie Jean looms. We flinch. We don’t want to be put in that space. I’ve already given the game away here though — the word complication.

See, it didn’t used to be that. It used to be “realized risk“. This really triggers that reflex: the stage is set, the risk is declared, you roll the dice and the risk is realized. The bad thing happens. You failed.

Except you didn’t! You succeed, and the risk was realized. You got what you wanted, it’s just that there’s a twist. The negative reaction is largely a function of the language, though also partly because it is unavoidable. So two things are in order: a repair of language and a choice that you probably won’t take but that needs to be there to give you some security when you face the ghost of Auntie Jean. Hence “complication” instead of “risk realization” (which flows better anyway). And stress. Don’t want to eat that complication even though it’s a change in the narrative direction? Take some stress and add a FACT to your character sheet that has only fictional weight (which sounds like it’s weak but fictional weight is very strong indeed — consider your 10′ pole for a moment and all of the rules associated with it compared with all it will do in your game) and avoid the complication.

So mostly what’s going to happen is you’re going to succeed, even if you’re not great at something, but something unanticipated is also going to happen. You’re going to learn something that makes things more complicated (interesting). You might get injured (but not dead). Someone else might get injured. You might lose something. You might get delayed. You might get lost. But these things are at the heart of stories!

These, then, are critical ways my games will deviate from the OSR. In many other ways they align elegantly. But you won’t really have a character that lets you optimize all scenes for success, in part because there is no Fighter/Thief/Wizard role provision and combat is not privileged, so there are few contexts in which each broad skill category has a contributing role — the artificial tank, dps, healer cooperative role does not have a scene unless there is a complex positional combat system. And there isn’t. You will certainly look to your character sheet for ideas, but you won’t always pick your best skill and try to make it work.

And you won’t be confronted by Auntie Jean. Things will go south, get complicated, feel desperate, but you won’t feel like a loser. You will, I hope, feel beset with woes and emerge out of every strange twist of fate in a more interesting space.

Diaspora testing still happens every week

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

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

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

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

abadyos
He looks a little stressed out, no?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

orbital mechanics

While tinkering with the technology levels in Diaspora Anabasis, we had an interesting opportunity disguised as a problem.

Technology level 0 means no space travel. There are six different oracles to explain this (and of course you can invent your own) but only the space travel bit is interesting here.

Technology level 1 is early space travel requiring huge resources if there’s a gravity well. Chemical rockets.

Technology level 2 is commercial space travel, more advanced rockets.

Technology level 3 introduces the slip drive but not much more.

Technology level 4 is even better drives but so what?

Technology level 5 is magical tech. Crazy off the wall unpredictable tech. It’s peak technology just before a civilization disappears.

So the problem with this is that level 4 is not actually differentiated much from 3. So here’s my idea. From tech level 1-3 rockets have efficiencies such that you can only practically travel most places inside a system using orbital mechanics. At tech level 4 you get so efficient that you can just do a Traveller-style constant burn, turn over, constant burn pattern to anywhere you want to go.

I’m pretty sure most of my audience knows what this means but let’s spell it out.

Right now in the real world we are bound by orbital mechanics when we go into space because we don’t have rockets efficient enough to just point at our destination and burn. Instead we steal energy from the orbits of planets and pay for it in time.

you orbiting home
Orbiting your home, A, you are moving really fast along A’s orbit and also pretty fast around A to stay in orbit.

Any body in orbit is travelling at some huge velocity at right angles to the sun at any given time. It’s basically falling on a ballistic trajectory forever, continuously missing the sun. So as soon as you get out of the gravity well and into orbit around your starting point, you’re already travelling super fast with respect to the sun.

you orbiting the sun
Escaping A and now just in orbit around the sun. Relatively cheap on fuel.

If you accelerate a bit in the direction of orbit or away from the direction of orbit, you’ll escape from your planet and be orbiting the sun instead of the world. You’ll be pretty much travelling alongside the world, but you’re now revolving the sun alone instead of the world and the sun. This is a relatively cheap burn.

Now you can spend energy to slow down or speed up. If you speed up, your orbit will descend towards the sun, allowing you to intersect (if you time it well) with an inner planet and be captured by its gravity. If you slow down, your orbit will ascend outwards from the sun, allowing you to intersect with an outer planet and be captured by its gravity.

you slowing down
Speeding up to go visit B in a closer orbit. Your new orbit is elliptical.
you later
So you wait until you get around here. Notice everything else is moving too.
Canvas 5
Then you burn a little here, slowing a little, to make your orbit closer to circular.
Canvas 6
Then you coast a little, burning no fuel, until you get inside B’s capture radius.
Canvas 7
And make another little burn to start orbiting B. Now you can launch your interface vessels!

 

This is a cheap way to travel but since you are coasting most of the time the following things are true:

  • Your travel times are much longer than if you can burn directly
  • You are at the mercy of the orbits — if you orbit doesn’t intersect your target right away you might have to go around the sun a couple of times. This could get old fast. So could you (though at the usual rate).
  • Most of your time is spent in micro-gravity

This is the sense in which you buy energy for time: you don’t need a whole lot of delta-v (your capacity to change your velocity, mostly measured in how much reaction mass you have to spend) to use orbital mechanics, but you do need to spend some time in transit and you have to plan if you want to minimize that time. Of course what I’m thinking about now is how to mechanize this so that it’s at least roughly realistic but also simple and fun. It’s a bonus for me that this introduces a lot of meaningful downtime — this can then be a phase of play, introducing projects and healing opportunities as a feature of simply travelling from A to B.

Generally your pattern is this: you decide you want to go to B from A. You sit around at A and check your charts and computers and determine when the best time to leave is in order to minimize your total wait time (sitting around before launch + coasting between the planets) and also get a course that’s within your ship’s delta-v limits. Then you wait your WAIT TIME (a downtime period that takes place on planet). Then you launch and do your initial burns. Then you wait your COAST TIME (another downtime period but it takes place on your ship). Then you do your terminal burns and arrive at B.

And now that we have a pattern, we can start to dream up ways to mechanize it and keep it fun. Well I can anyway, in a vague sort of way. Watch this space and look for actual rules to start showing up at our Patreon page.

Now this also implies that using slipknots is pretty expensive and maybe requiring very specific ship designs at T3 — you just don’t get any benefit from orbital velocities when you need to stop at a stationary point in space 2500 light seconds above the star. You are going to have to pretty much cancel your orbital velocity by the time you hit the slipknot and also accelerate there and decelerate before arrival — I think you’ll be taking a kind of rising spiral to the knot (please correct me if I’m wrong) and it’s going to chew up a lot of delta-v. Tech level 3 might be really very interesting indeed as it deviates from tech level 4! Slip capable ships might be defined as having very high delta-v capabilities, sacrificing other capabilities. If you want to blockade a slipknot at T3, your optimum strategy might be to build warships at the slipknot and jump them through where they stay, not having enough delta-v to endanger the system proper but rather just able to station-keep and act as a massive weapons platform. This introduces a whole new set of stories — the old Diaspora stories were all the same when slip is introduced but now we have two distinct narratives around slipknot travel, the orbital mechanics story (T3) and the direct burn story (T4+). I think that’s pretty cool.

clusters

From Slipdrive Operation and Theory: A History

… Though there is some variability correlating to the mass of the star, the placement of Slipknots is remarkably consistent across the cluster, and this remains unexplained. They are positioned roughly 2500 light seconds perpendicular from the system’s ecliptic, and always paired, like the poles on a magnet. (Models suggest that the slipknot at a location without a central mass would occupy a single point and would entangle; see Armster 5324-WEM.) If they are naturally occurring phenomena, then the physics by which they are generated remains unexplained. If they were designed, then it was with a technology for which there has been no archaeological attestation (see also Slipknot Worship and Slipknots, Destabilization of).

The physics in each system in the cluster are identical. This is the best evidence that the systems are all part of the same universe, though Carradine and Zhang-Sho argue that even this is uncertain (3318-JFM). To date, it has proved impossible to match the stars visible from any system with those in another, and therefore the most conservative speculation is that each system is at least outside the observable universe of all others. Ochek therefore believed that the slipknots were designed to enable specifically intergalactic transport (4007-HRW). Efforts in the Fourth Millennium to expand the cluster by the Maltus Foundation were successful in adding Gawlinski Prime but documentation from that period is fragmentary and no similar expedition has achieved results.

Scientists are unable to disprove the existence of other clusters. …

Here’s a nice little piece of fiction from Toph Marshall for Diaspora Anabasis. This was never explicit in Diaspora but was always in my head: this is the “out”, the “hard” in our science fiction. It’s how faster-than-light travel works without violating other fundamental (or at least intuitive) rules.

It’s a common canard that you can have causality or faster-than-light travel but not both. But if the end points are not observable then they are functionally in different universes and there’s no causality to violate. There’s no causal interaction between the two points except the travel itself.

This little piece of fiction does more than just that though, as all the best micro-fic does. Aside from the obvious (there are slipknots, there are in this location) it also establishes that much of science in this setting is actually archaeology: no matter what the locals discover it’s probably been discovered before and (functionally) nearby. Half of high energy physics here is decoding ancient texts on high energy physics. All fields have the same sort of reverance of artifacts, dependence on linguistics, and possibly a religious component because the last civilization’s texts are the fastest route to recovering that technology. It’s as though Atlantis really did, certainly, exist. And it had starships.

I really dig that mood, the injection of the humanities into the sciences in a concrete way. A new archaeological dig is instantly of interest to biologists and chemists and physicists and mathematicians. No one can afford to be ignorant of ancient cultures.

And it must also become something of a crutch, stagnating original research. How much of your life would you spend on developing a new theory for high energy physics when it could be invalidated (or validated) by one new discovery on a remote moon of the local gas giant.

 

zooming in with diaspora anabasis

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

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

So let’s start with a map.

antoine
The Antoine system.

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

test 3
The cluster!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks to patrons for the pressure and the energy.

Games are at LuluDTRPG, and itch.io.

the character you deserve

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

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

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

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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.

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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.