Wednesday, March 9, 2022

More on Anti-Canon: Ways to Imply a Setting

    The other day on Twitter the question was asked: "When world building, what do you start with?"  My answer was probably obvious to anyone who has read my blog.

    I start with a spaceship. I am a spaceship nerd. 

Pictured: My Spirit animal


   Then I start thinking about how it would work, the technology it'd need and what that implies for population and education and what else that technology would be used for beside spaceships and how many people must live in space for spaceships to be this common or rare and how long it'd take to develop that technology -

    Spaceships may operate in a vacuum but they aren't designed, built or maintained in one. Even if they were, every aspect of their being is dependent on a cascade of technological assumptions.  Last week we discussed how this makes designing rules for more than one franchise difficult. This week, we'll take advantage of this to imply setting in an anti-canonical game.

    One idea I'm using to imply my idea of a setting but not making it canon is stolen borrowed once again from Electric Bastionland. A large section of that game involves Failed Careers - what your character was doing before losing it all, getting in debt and becoming a treasure hunter.


What does "Squidbagger" say about a setting?

    I am not including d100 failed careers but I am using a similar concept in Character Pasts.  In our Project NEPTUNE rules set a Character Past will be include a Character card (3x5) a resource card (2.5x3.5 trading card) and condition card (also trading card).  Let's look at one of the cards and see how it helps imply a setting:


Front and back, with room for notches.

      If you'll open the image above and read the card, you'll find quite a bit of implied setting:

  • There's the name itself: This is a setting that includes Earth and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is still a known IP.
  • The setting is Hard SF. FTL = Time travel is the understanding of current physics.  Actually using that as a potential plot point says that implications normally ignored in science fiction will be explored - or at least played with.
  • The setting is going to deal with mental issues. And they are still somewhat stigmatized. False memories, hallucinations, or actual memories?  You get prescription meds either way. 
  • This setting can get dark. Remembering killing someone? Remembering dying? Shrimp are extinct?

     Some of the other Pasts I'm working on include:

  • THE RELATOR: Psychiatrists for Artificial Intelligences.
  • THE CHRONOI: People from Saturn - complete with wind chimes. 
  • SANTA'S HELPER: means the setting has Santa Claus Machines
  • THE WALKER: The Rainbow Road of Mars is marked with the multi-colored spacesuits of those that died walking it.  It's become something of a religion.


   So there are a lot of setting elements here, but only if they interest you.  This is all on a single index card.  Use it if you want and if not, put it back into the stack and forget about it.  And even if you choose to use a Past card, it's not a wall-of-text info-dump because there's a finite amount of space on the card, and that's all I get to sell you on the concept.

    Using spaceships to imply a setting is a bit different.  Space travel and combat is the sin qua non of Project NEPTUNE and the kind of spacecraft available will have an impact that cannot be ignored.  Fortunately, our use of Causal Influence Diagrams let us take the technology of a spaceship can be mixed-and matched to a certain extent. And again, you the tech you don't want to use can go in the stack and be safely ignored.

    I'm not sure if of the reason I feel compelled to use a rule or item that's in a game's rules or setting is because I can see it on the page when I open the book, but the edge-notched card will keep them safely out of sight and out of mind either way.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Project NEPTUNE: Making the Procedures Universal

    More than any other genre I'm aware of, Science Fiction is defined by it's technology.  For example, the difference between Clash of the Titans and Lord of the Rings is to my mind less than the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars.  And both of those have almost nothing in common with The Expanse.

    This is relevant to game design because I could run a game set in Middle Earth or Mythic Greece using D&D with no real problems.  I could not run Star Wars using Star Trek RPG rules or vice versa. Warp Drive, Transporters, Lightsabers, The Force - I would spend enough time in conversions from one system to the other that I may as well just get both games.

    While there are more universal SF RPGs out there (and GURPS, of course) this usually puts the problem on the GM.  Systems such as STAR HERO for example make it possible to build virtually anything you can imagine - at the expense of having to build everything you imagine.  This kind of time sink can be more intensive than actually learning multiple game systems and encourage GMs to purchase multiple games.

    I intend to address both problems.

Yes, I know what it means.

    The inspiration for this part of Project NEPTUNE comes from the same place I get most of my inspiration: Winchell Chung's Project Rho.  While most famous among SF aficionados for Atomic Rockets,  Chung's Project Rho has other treasures for those who seek them.  Two of those treasures are going to be the key to making space travel and combat interesting, full of player agency, easy for GMs to prep and run, and useful across multiple franchises.


    Project Rho has a whole section on cool game mechanics that bares careful study. Among them is a single article by Neel Krishnaswami that can, as of 2022, only be found on Project Rho.  I'll give a high pass of what's important for us here, but the full article is excellent and I lament there was no follow up.

    Seriously, go read it.

    The example in the article addresses Star Trek in particular but the core idea applies to any technology. By breaking down a SF tech like warp drive or what have you into individual systems or components, you can build a causal influence diagram that gives the player details that actually matter.  This can be presented as a handout (or card) to the players and used by character to repair tech, work with tech and generally make the tech more real at the table.

    Since I'm working on the idea of Crew as Damage Control, I'm naturally drawn to this notion.

The rules for this -

    What makes this work across multiple franchises is that the procedure of using the Causal Influence Diagram is universal while the tech itself is modular.  For example, If I were playing a Star Trek style game, I'd want a CID of a warp drive.  It would have bubbles like Matter/Antimatter containment, Warp Core, Plasma Conduits and Warp Coils.  My Engineer character would use that to troubleshoot damage and tell the captain that She cannae take much more o' this.

- are the same as the rules for this.
    If I'm playing a smuggler in a Star Wars style game, I'd want my CID to have Hypermatter Coaxium Magic bottles, a Fusion Reactor, Hyperdrive Motivator and Field Guides.  I may not know what any of that stuff means but they're on the diagram and I can use them because the procedure of using the diagram is the same no matter what SF tech I'm modelling.

    So when folks on Twitter ask me if the work I'm doing on space travel and combat can apply to their favorite game, I can say with confidence that yes, yes it will. 

    Using the Analog Database makes this work even better.   Any ship system, from any franchise can not only be diagrammed, but the cards stored in the same stacks and simply filtered by search term.  Packaged and sold individually, a deckof cards inspired by a given franshise could contain the tech, character backgrounds, and unique rules required to fully use the setting without needing an entirely new game.


    I found another article on Project Rho that brings home to me the potential of this idea.  Ron Edward's The Sorcerer's Soul was also praised for it's use of relationship maps.   I got a copy of the book and perused that section - it didn't take me long to realize that Relationship Maps and Causal Influence Diagrams can be considered the same thing.

    So if CIDs can be used for physical objects and networks, and also for social relationships and people, could it also be used for ideas or intellectual pursuits?  Justin Alexander has pretty much proven it can - and provided excellent advice on how to use them as well.

    For me this means that not only can the conflict rules in SACRIFICES be used for physical, mental and social conflicts, CIDs can be used for physical, mental and social networks as well

    The system would be unified across all three attributes - which means it's unified across the entire game.  Across any game I want to make.

Still know what it means.
    More to come next week.


Tuesday, February 22, 2022

SACRIFICES: The Rules System I'm Developing


It can be said that most if not all classic TTPGs are based around resource management.

    The OSR has codified this in the myriad of rules that govern how to die in explore a dungeon. Time, spells, food, arrows - light -  are all limited and requires careful tracking.  Even at individual tables that don't follow Encumbrance rules or and lack magic there are finite resources baked into any game that has combat - hit points.  These may have different names and may drain attributes instead but attributes themselves are a limited resource if your think about it. No matter how your particular game is configured, part of what makes games games is limited resources because that's part of what defines risk.  

"You think you dissect me with this blunt little tool?"

    For the most part games have dealt with physical resources.  Some have attempted to quantify abstracts and mental states with such measures as "willpower" and "sanity" which have are problematic in and of themselves.

    Ive seen a few attempts at expanding what 'Inventory' means, such as in Knave, and Mausritter where spells are on/in individual runestones or grimoires.  These are still a physical items, however.

    What if everything was in Inventory? Not just your stuff, but your friends, your memories - everything?


    In keeping with my commitment to put everything on index cards in an analog database, I've started writing up this rules system with a summary that can fit on a 5x8 inch card:

  • You have three SAVES, MIND, BODY, and SPIRIT.  

  • When you face a choice and have something to lose, you make a SAVING

    THROW.  If you roll under your Save, you succeed.  If you don’t, you face

    the Consequences.

  • You have a number of SLOTS equal to your Save values. The Slots make 

    up an INVENTORY. Each Save has its own Inventory.

  • Inventories hold RESOURCES.  Resources help solve problems, or are 

    good in a Conflict.

  • Empty slots represent INSIGHTS (MIND), ACTIONS (BODY), and FAVORS 


  • Each Save also has a PROTECTION:  MORALE (MIN), DODGE (BOD), and 

    REPutation (SPI).

  • CONFLICTS happen when someone or something opposes you.  

    • A Conflict starts with a BOD Save to avoid Surprise. All opposing 

      parties (not individuals) roll and the lowest roll wins.  If there is a

       tie, no one is surprised and the party with the highest PHY Save 

      goes first.

    • THERE ARE NO TO-HIT ROLLS. Declare your action and roll for the


    • CONSEQUENCES are measured in points.  They subtract from your 

      character’s Protections, then Resources, then Saves in that order. 

  • For each point you lose from a Save, you take a CONDITION.  You must 

    sacrifice one of your Resources for every Condition you take.  Conditions 

    have specific ways they need to be resolved.  Once the condition is 

    resolved, you get the Save point - and the Resource Slot- back.   

  • If ANY of your Saves drop to zero, you’re finished. Whether  BROKEN 

    (MIND) CRIPPLED (BODY), or OSTRACIZED (SPIRIT), you’re adventuring 

    days are over.

    So, yeah.  That's pretty much it.


    Again, this is a basic summary of the entire rules system and is barer than bones.  But I feel like just what I have here implies some of the depth I'm going for. For example:

  • The rules imply equality to physical, psychological, and social conflicts.  They all use the same rules for resolving conflict, and the consequences of any type of conflict can end your adventure.
  • You don't need math to track your inventory - your slots are your slots.  Thanks to using cards, you can physically hold your items, skills, and social contacts - and the rules for using them -  in your hands at the table.
  • Empty slots are still useful and help refine the character.  Fill your body inventory and you're strong, but leave open slots for Actions and you're fast.  Insights would mean your wise, and Favors can be seen as valuing others less for their friendship and more for what they can do for you.
  • Every point of Consequences that causes a stat to drop takes a slot of inventory away, and fills it with a Condition.  If you don't have any empty slots, you'll have to choose one of your Resources to give up until you can resolve the Condition. 

    The system is called SACRIFICES for a reason.

    The resource cards really add to the play experience for me.  Like many Odd hacks, my Conflict system pares back the procedure just to the interesting decisions: Do I fight?  Do I keep fighting?  But the cards-

    There have been studies that show people spend less when paying in cash.  The physical act of handing over money makes people much more mindful of their spending.  By requiring players to actually hand over their Resources when they take a Condition, actually having to choose which of their finite resources to sacrifice, Inventory become a real thing, and the consequences of the players' choice become tangible.

    And that is another part of what makes games games. Meaningful choices that players care about.

 * * *

    We're going to be breaking down and expanding on the ideas in the rules summary in coming weeks, but before that we'll introduce the third pillar of Project NEPTUNE - the one that will allow my work on space travel and combat to be used with multiple systems and franchises.

    Stay tuned.