Wednesday, December 29, 2021

When Murdering Empires, How you Play is What you Win

     Bonus points to those who recognize the quote.

Yes, even the Skill Challenges.

     I have a confession:  The 4th edition of D&D is the only set of rules - for any rpg - that i've run Rules As Written.  The system was, as far as it intentions went, perfect.  The XP notation, monster blocs, the unified leveling mechanic, the treasure parcels, the encounter design tools - I even used skill challenges as written.  The 4e rules made it so easy to design and run an adventure that it was a pleasure to use at the table.

     So much so that it took me years to realize I didn't really like the game.

     Trying to adapt  the 3rd edition material to a 4th edition game by myself was a path down which lay madness.  The mechanics that were exquisitely simple on the front end seemed to hide furiously opaque math on the back end. This also made 4th edition terrible for those among us that like to make their own character classes or to multi-class ad infinitum.  The interlocking obligations of Balance between PC/encounter/monster/treasure level made such experiments not only difficult to develop, but impossible under the rules as written.  

Making unique classes and adapting your own material wasn't what the game was about.

     Put simply, the games I ran ended up being walks from set-piece encounter to set-piece encounter to fight monsters and grab a treasure parcel.  The "perfect" balance of the system made the encounters feel bland and much the same. Since they were balanced for your party's size and level, a fight against four goblins at first level had the same stakes and difficulty as a fight against four Sorrowsworn at twenty-fifth - but takes a lot longer because of feature creep.

    I understand that there is nothing in the rules forbidding more open and interesting play, there also nothing in the RAW rewarding different play.  You get XP from killing monsters.  You get treasure from killing monsters - either directly as loot or indirectly as quest rewards.  The special powers and class features you earn are overwhelmingly mechanics to allow Characters to kill more monsters.  The goal is to level up you Character and collect treasure to get new powers and equipment to...kill more monsters.

    Its a game about killing monsters.  How you play is what you win.

    D&D wasn't always about killing monsters.  One of the pillars of the modern OSR movement is the idea of rewarding XP for gold spent - no matter how you got it.  This opens up a lot more options for play that don't have to involve killing monsters.  It also allows one to de-emphasize balance, since you are under no obligation to tangle with a monster that in order to get XP.  Far more prolific Bloggers than I have covered the nature of OSR play and how rewarding for gold spent is important to the aesthetic of Conan-type characters who hunt treasure, spend it all on insane carousing and magic items until they're broke again and need more treasure.

    Again, how you play is what you win.

    Before I get too serious about developing Murdering Empire as a game system and associated support content, I need to decide what kind of play I want to reward.  What is a game of adventuring through a collapsing galactic empire actually about?  What do you do?

    Keeping with the philosophy of anti-cannon, I don't want to create a meta-plot.  I'm really leaning into the idea that people not only don't know what happened to the Empire, many people don't even know what the Empire was.

    I once again refer to Space Skimmer for the game's general mood:

    "The Empire itself was neither just nor unjust. It existed simply to fulfill a purpose—communication between all men; but whenever action was taken in its name, that action reflected the men directing it. If they were just, then so was the Empire. If they were unjust—"

-Gerrold, David. Space Skimmer


    It's too good an idea to let go.  I want to see starships enter a new system with great caution, never knowing what they can expect. Part of this comes from Space Viking, which for all it's faults has a sense of consistent scale when discussing the plot's man-hunt: 

    "We'll hear where he was a year ago, and by the time we get there, he'll be gone for a year and a half to two years. We've been raiding the Old Federation for over three hundred years, Lord Trask. At present, I'd say there are at least two hundred Space Viking ships in operation. Why haven't we raided it bare long ago? Well, that's the answer: distance and voyage-time. You know, Dunnan could die of old age—which is not a usual cause of death among Space Vikings—before you caught up with him. And your youngest ship's-boy could die of old age before he found out about it."

-Piper, H. Beam.  Space Viking

    With these two passages as dim guide-posts, I can see I want to reward traveling into the unknown with little more than rumors third-hand accounts. I also want to play with the idea that civilization and Empire are not synonymous. 

      And I want there to be Spaceships.  I want to have travel from world to world incentivized. 

That dome? Spaceship.


         The ideas of what you reward, what you want a game to be about, and game design in general grow tangents like hydra.  In the time it's taken to write this much, I've thought of:

  • The core game loop, or what you Players can do when they don't know what to do.
  • Currency and Economic and how much I don't want a game about that.
  • How to evoke a sense of wonder in a game using such well known tropes, and
  • All the stuff about what was great about 3rd edition D&D that I had to cut for this post. 

    I don't think I'll be doing all of these in order, because I already had a few ideas for blog posts I wanted to explore.  But that's good - having ideas to write about makes me confident I will keep writing.

    Look for the How you play/What you win tag for more posts in this series.


Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Murdering Empire with the Anti-Canon

I swear this is what mine looked like when I got it in 1980

Do you remember when Queen Amidala was supposed to be a clone!?

    The Handmaidens that surrounded her weren’t dressed to be her body doubles - They are all the Queen, and one was dressed to sit on the throne.  Meanwhile, the servant girl gossiping with the cook belowstairs? The Queen.  The naive looking lady-in-waiting you’re trying to bribe? The Queen. The pilot running toward the destroyed royal barge and the crumpled figure at the edge of the wreak?  Both the Queen.

    Most politicians and nobles in the galaxy were actually clones.  Like we’d see twenty-two years later in the Foundation series, having a genetic dynasty of clones was stagnating the Republic.  

    Then they tried to clone Jedi, starting with OB (old Ben) One.


    If you don’t remember this version of the prequels and subsequent Clone Wars, that’s understandable.  To the best of my knowledge, they only appeared in spoken form around a gaming table in 2002, and in the conversations that followed.  

I wish I could say that I encouraged this kind of creativity more than I did.  The truth is, I would get so emotionally involved in the settings I was making (or using) that I’d railroad players along what turned out to be rather boring adventures.  I'd remember my earlier experiences as a GM and feeling like that at any moment the whole session would go off the rails and devolve into a handful of private conversations instead of a collective role-play experience.  That had happened too often in the old days as my drinking got worse, and now that I was sober-

I thought I knew better. I thought that I needed more control.  

So I was GM-ing like a tyrannical asshole. Especially when playing with my wife Debra in the early part of our marriage. Most of the Clone Queen stuff was her ideas. With the benefit of hindsight I realize that what was happening could have been influenced by Debra and I just having had our first child, my just starting back to college, and the overwhelming feelings involved.  Well, that and my being a narcissist and desperately trying to grab the attention from my new child.  If I had articulated and communicated some of that, had I been able to- 

Debra and I don’t play anymore. 

Anti Canon

I read Luca Rejec’s post on the Anti Canon a few weeks ago.  When Luca describes the frustration of trying to run a campaign in The Forgotten Realms or on The Discworld, the frustration of not being able to “to improvise, innovate, or imagine.”, I remembered The Queen’s Clones.  I remembered how some of my favorite lore in Star Wars appeared at game tables in the mid- to late nineties from groups of friends riffing off the canon lore and making up stuff to fill the blank spots on the map.  As much as I like having new Star Wars movies and TV series - more hours of Star Wars have been filmed or drawn in the last ten years than the preceding thirty - It’s getting too…close.  There’s less and less room for my imagination as canon continues to cover more and more space in the Official Timeline. It’s happening to Star Trek as well and I feel like some of the hashtag-not-my-star-wars-star-trek-insert-IP-here diatribes that fill the internet are a response when they aren't racist/sexist whining. 

These thoughts about anti canon are half the inspiration for Murdering Empire.  The other half involves David Gerrold’s Space Skimmer.


Space Skimmer

I have a lot of time for David Gerrold.  He invented the Tribble! And also has written some of the most evocative prose on science fiction I’ve ever read.  Sometimes, his non-fiction about sci-fi worldbuilding is more evocative than his narratives.  But in Space Skimmer, all of this comes together in a handful of paragraphs that describe an empire, a history, a universe that has haunted me ever since.

I could describe it to you in a brief summary but it would have none of that exquisite flavor, and would also miss the point.  Instead, perhaps a quote:

News travelled via the Empire Mercantile Fleets, synthesized as Oracle tabs. Or via independent traders, synthesized as rumor. It leapfrogged from planet to planet, not according to any kind of system, but by the degree of mercantile importance in which any planet was held by its immediate neighbors. 

Every event was the center of a core of spreading ripples—unevenly growing concentric circles of reaction; like batons, the Oracle tabs were passed from ship to ship, from fleet to fleet, from planet to planet, passed and duplicated and passed again; taking ten, twenty or thirty years to work their way across the Empire. By the time any part of the human race received news from its opposite side, it was no longer news, but history. 

The Empire’s communications were the best possible, but they weren’t good enough. 

Control depends upon communication. Weak communications means weak control, eventually no control at all. 

-Gerrold, David. Space Skimmer


That is what inspires me from this novel. The empire was gone and no one knew why.  That’s what matters.

Baking-in Anti Canon

 As we discussed last week, the reasons for the Empire's disappearance are unknown and perhaps unknowable.  The reasons people believe tell us more about them than what happened.

The information gathered at the time of the Empire’s demise, by the people that were there, are not necessarily any more accurate than hindsight and speculation centuries after the fact.  Why should it be? If the agents of Empire knew why it was collapsing, they would have done something about it, wouldn't they? 

That’s the context of this new project.  Not having a firm history and not knowing which of the old stories are fact or opinion is organic and natural to a post-collapse society.  This lets anti canon be baked into the system and implied setting of the game.  This is important to me and what I want the game to be about: no one knows or can know what happened to the Empire  - Including the GM.  

Here are my thoughts so far on how to nurture that idea:

  • Players are able to fill in the setting and lore details about their characters’ homeworlds, species, local color/customs, etc.  

  • The GM is able to fill in the setting details and lore about NPCs, adventure information, and they arbitrate the rules.

  • The GM’s opinion of the background setting and lore does not have to be considered more true than the Players’.

  • As the Game’s Designer, I present to you the basic rules for running the game, an outline of the setting’s central premise and then I support help the rules and premise with more content.

  • As the Game’s Designer, my opinion of the background setting and lore is the least important.

The last point is important to me as well on a personal level. I do not want to tell other people they’re playing the game wrong.

To that end, The work I’m doing on the setting will be…not so much brief as it will be unverified, contradictory, and above all random.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

On Murdering Empires

         Why did Rome fall?

Did Rome actually fall, or just decline until noting but memories remain?

When did Rome fall? With the city itself in 410? During the sack of Ravenna in 476?  Or the fall of Constantinople in 1453?  That’s a thousand-year span - can we not narrow it down better than that?

And why did Rome fall?  Was it lead water pipes, the decline of the military, the rise of Christianity, the parasitic masses on the Dole, the parasitic aristocracy in the Senate, barbarians at the gates - 

All of these have been proposed and all have been argued.  

All may be wrong.

All may be right.

The reason I’m mentioning Rome at all has to do with Space Vikings, with pseudoscience, and with expectations.

And gaming, of course.  

This is still Blue Max Studios.

Space Vikings

By H. Beam Piper.  I’ve read it a few times. It's an adventure tale of revenge, swashbuckling action, making money by killing people, and best of all, bringing Civilization to a nearly empty planet.

Colonialism, in other words.

Feel free to read it yourself .  It’s copyright lapsed and doing so would be instructive.  The book was a major influence on the Traveller RPG, for one thing.  I genuinely liked the book;  It’s a good adventure story, it’s internally consistent as far as ships’ speed and travel times go, and I like how the distance and lack of FTL communication are an integral part of the story.  

The thing is, I have the privilege to enjoy this book. I'm a middle-aged, white, cis, male American. I can read stories of colonialism, massacres, rape and pillage, and smug men telling each other what’s wrong with the world and appreciate the good parts because the bad parts are far enough outside my personal experience for me to ignore.

But this post isn’t a book review.


    Space Viking was written half a century ago and shows it.  Not just in the rubber science of the magical space guns, space drives and profusion of habitable planets.  The dangerous bits of rubber science are the old social ideas and biological theories the book accepts as fact.  Everyone knows we don’t have starships.  People still believe in ideas such as:

  • Decay of the Fatherland: Or the idea that nations that colonize become dumber as all the Good Stock leave to live in the wilderness.

  • Bread and Circuses: The idea that great civilizations fall when they start using their tax money to provide social services.

  • Eugenics: So, so much eugenics in Science Fiction - I may have to write a whole post about it if I can stomach the topic that long. 

  • Empire Protects Us From Ourselves.  This wasn’t even new in the 17th century when Hobbes wrote Leviathan. It's the idea that we need police and soldiers and Authority in general to keep us safe because We the People will kill and/or each other if there is no one in charge.

I used to believe some of this.  I was supposed to believe in all of it.  It’s the Official Party Line that keeps people like me in power. 


That, patient reader, is my point - The reasons I was taught for the fall of Rome - or anything else - are just a story.  There is no evidence for any of it and a good bit against it.  We live in a world where people help one another when disaster strikes, where the only thing Empires all have in common is that they pump wealth from the fringe to the core and Genius - if the word has any meaning at all - is completely random and everyone is biased for and against ideas regardless of fact.  

Why did Rome Fall?  The reasons are not only unknown, they are unknowable.  Too much time, too many conflicting ideas and far far too much vested interest in one story or another has made such a question unanswerable.  

The answers we believe in say more about us than they do about Rome.

    When you read the title of this blog post, did you think about how empires murder, or about how to murder an empire?

That’s what my next gaming project is about.