By The Stars — Relativity (Now isn’t that special?)

I find myself thinking about setting detail for By The Stars. Specifically, space travel. The biggest decision is: More authentic relativistic slower-than-light interstellar travel vs. more sci-fi faster-than-light travel. Maybe I should puzzle out some of the pros and cons.

RELATIVISTIC INTERSTELLAR TRAVEL
–Pros–

  • It’s rooted in reality. c is the universal speed limit, as near as we can tell, and thus what real space travelers are going to have to deal with some day. There are many sources of hard, scientific speculation about what such travel will be like.
  • It’s counter-intuitively rare in gaming, and pop-culture sci-fi in general. Mostly, they mumble about trans-whatsis-drive and get to the blasters and aliens. Novelty is a selling point, and I always like breaking semi-new ground.
  • It makes an epic time scale easy. When a single trip of a few months’ time from the travellers’ point-of-view could span hundreds of years for planet-bound folks, having millenia-old cultures and traditions is a snap. Plus, pairing it with a LeGuin-like ansible makes for really interesting slow-travel, fast-talking paradoxes.

–Cons–

  • It’s hard to wrap one’s head around. The science fiction novels that make good use of relativistic space flight are well-pondered on many levels. Putting it in the game demands more forethought from players, and pushing them out of their comfort zone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of.
  • It isolates characters. This is a BIG one. Talk about problems of splitting the party! I’ve taken a trip that will last a month for me and 50 years for you–what does that do to our shared narrative? Relationships outside the ship are going to apply to their own situation only, because NPCs will likely be long gone by the time you come around again. The thought of record-keeping alone makes my eyes cross.
  • It sets a standard that I, honestly, don’t have an interest in meeting. Choosing the unpopular, realistic option in something as central as space travel implies that other unpopular, realistic options–such as propulsion systems, particle shielding, power sources, transhumanism–are fair game and should be considered. But I’m not a guy that finds strong appeals in the hard science speculation.

HAND-WAVING FTL TRAVEL
–Pros–

  • It’s common to most popular sci-fi. Everybody “gets” the whole “making the jump to lightspeed” thing. It mimicks our own understanding of travel in our day-to-day world. Although the physics make no sense, the aesthetics are easy.
  • In-game problems and adversity are harder to run away from. Chases become reasonable actions.
  • The hand-waving can be interesting in its own right. Fading Suns’ jumpgates have always fascinated me–to have one choke-point where everything must pass is just plain cool. Who guards them? What other duties do they perform? How would information travel without FTL radio/ansible communications?

–Cons–

  • It’s common enough to be … boring. It’s expected that there will be FTL travel, and that journeys between stars take a few days or weeks. It’s run-of-the-mill.
  • Space loses its wonder and granduer. It becomes little more than a metaphor for oceans. Things are too close, and place doesn’t matter.

AFter typing all that out, relativistic space travel has some very high negative points. It looks like the best solution is to put a unique spin on the fantastical FTL travel. But I’m not yet 100% certain. I’ve never claimed that setting design is my strong point. Is there anything I’ve missed?

“The truths we cling to” — By The Stars scattered thoughts

There are some thoughts swirling aimlessly in my head about BTS that I haven’t been able to articulate for months now. This is my first attempt. They may very well be understandable to no one but me, but that’s what rough drafts are for. At least they’ll be down and out of my head!
One Scene to Rule Them All
I have a very tight focus for the game I want to create this time. I want to emulate the Luke-Vader duel scene from The Empire Strikes Back. Just as WGP… sprung from the Thanksgiving dinner scene of Spider-Man, the duel will serve as BTS’s guiding light. But what makes the duel so special? Why does it still capture my imagination nearly 25 years later? Let me list a few features, and then I’ll talk about my ideas for putting them in a game.
"I am your father." — Sudden Character Redefinition
This is the thing that had everyone talking from the time they saw Empire until Jedi came out. "No, Luke. I am your father." The duels starts out with Luke, the Avenging Son, coming to face down Vader, the Sire-Slayer. Luke’s lack of a father–as well as his desperation to follow in that unknown father’s footsteps–has defined his character up until this point. To suddenly learn that those footsteps lead directly to one of the greatest cinematic villians of all time shakes Luke’s character to its core.

How to do that in an RPG? My concept is for each character to have "open" spots in their character history. Things they don’t know about their own past. Perhaps I’ll put a grand diaspora or two into the recent past of the setting info to explain it. They can grab a bonus die for alluding to this open concept, and putting some constraint upon it. But so can other players. Whenever that happens, the open spot becomes worth another point of payout when it is defined. A player cannot define his own open concept. Only someone in conflict can define your open concept, and they get part of the payout. Kat suggests that you can set it in stone yourself, but only for half the pool.
"Join me. It is the only way." — Cutting Off Options
Look at the progress of the duel. They fight. Vader attempts to outmaneuver Luke and defeat him with technology (the carbon freezing chamber), and Luke just barely manages to dodge out of the way. Then, Vader overwhelms him with the Force. Finally, he visciously out-duels Luke and (literally) disarms him, driving him out onto a precipice where no other manuever is possible. The only way out is (seemingly) through Vader and by accepting what he offers. The only other choice is stepping off into the abyss. The fact that Luke does choose death before dishonor is the first step of redefining his character in the rest of the trilogy.

How to do that in an RPG? I think that all characters will be able to act in a number of different realms: Technology, Manuever, Melee, Ranged Combat, Social, Psychic Powers, that kind of thing. That happens to be six, so we’ll use d6s. Each one is associated with a single number on the die. During a turn, each character chooses a number/method that they’re using this round. They roll the dice for that method and a success is any die which matches the number of that method. Whoever gets the most successes on their own dice wins that round, and they get a number of consequence points to dole out equal to the matches of all players that round. You use these consquence points to add penalties to your opponents’ traits. But, these are not penalties in the sense of decreasing their effectiveness, they are damage penalties that accrue if the opponent choose that option. And, they’re not just abstract point penalties, they are "cannot" statements, much like in the character creation section of Puppetland and My Life with Master. They restrict your options. But, they can also be spent to give someone options they didn’t have before….
"Father, please!" — Enhancing the Options of Others
This slides into the climax of Return of the Jedi, which is really a continuation of the Empire duel. Luke has accepted that Vader is his his father, but even though his father has fallen from the path, Luke will not. He stumbles, but rights himself, throwing his lightsaber away before the Emperor. As the Emperor begins his lethal assault, his appeals to his father allow Vader to do what he could not do previously: Strike at the Emperor.

How to do that in an RPG? Just as you can cut off options by heavily disincetivizing them, characters can spend consequence points they gain to incentivize options to others. They’ll get bonus points if they do choose the option that you set up for them. Characters will have Oaths that forbid them from doing things. And they CANNOT do those things that they’ve voluntarily given up, unless some other character has given them this option.

This is where my thoughts drift into more abstract, less concrete stuff. In life in general, I think giving people options is generally a good thing, and cutting off their options is generally a bad thing. I see it as empowerment rather than control–call me democratic rather than authoritarian. Translating that shaky, ill-defined philosophy into game mechanics is tricky, because there will be innumerable counter-examples and players looking to gain advantage without consequence.

Tangent That’s something that drives me nuts in games–advantage without consequence. One of the things I wanted WGP…’s Aspect system to do (that it doesn’t do all that well) was that you couldn’t gain the advantage of an Aspect unless you brought it into the conflict, and thus risked damaging it. It doesn’t work so well in WGP… simply because everybody brings everything into every conflict. ::shrug:: But, in BTS, I want to bring that into play more centrally. If you use something to gain advantage over me, you give me the opportunity to affect that thing and potentially gain advantage over you.

My thoughts are all ragged now. Maybe I just need to do some self-playtesting.

By The Stars — “More machine now than man, twisted and evil” — Week Fifty-five(!)

Over a year I’ve been struggling with this damn game. Mostly out here, in public, on my LJ. After GenCon ’06 I thought doing a weekly update would keep me on track and focused. Instead, it kept me feeling guilty and pressured into producing something, even if it wasn’t worth producing. Couple that pressure to perform with one of the most stressful years of my life, and you have a recipe for what I have on my hands with By The Stars: an 80% functional game that I don’t particularly like. That’s what I’ve had on my hands all through the summer convention season.

I ran the turn-based version twice at Origins. The first time had 4 players plus me and crashed and burned. The game itself did not give us enough to work with. Plus, all the “clever” fiddly-bits of keeping the turn-based system running were too much trouble to keep track of. The second time had 8 players and went better, although still not real great. Both games at DexCon folded for lack of players. At GenCon, I jettisoned the whole turn-system and rolled it back to the LARP rules. For the GenCon Thursday game, I got 12 players and they had the best BTS game yet! The players even applauded when it was all over (not bad, considering I sat around and did nothing for 3 hours). On Saturday, I had 8 players and it was a rougher, more strained. Both GenCon games had strong critics among the players (often those who were succeeding very well, mechanically.)

Looking back, I see that the game structure I’ve crafted doesn’t do much but encourage players to get into lots of conflict after conflict. The attitude and imagination that the players bring to the game determines completely how the game is going to go. I’ve made noises about possibly polishing it up and releasing it as “By The Stars: The LARP,” but I’m not familiar enough with the LARP scene to be able to promote it properly. Perhaps I could format it as a PDF and sell it that way, but it’s not top of my priority list. I feel guilty to set aside all the work I’ve done, and all the great feedback that my playtesteres have given me, but this path is not working out.

Neither are the regular updates. I’ve let them slide over the summer, and I’ve seen my game more clearly. The only constant game design methodology I have is “Keep doing whatever works, stop doing whatever doesn’t work.” Thus, I’ll only be posting updates when I have something to report.

However, I have narrowed my focus on the game, have new, fresh ideas, and am working on it. One of the unproductive design goals I’m jettisoning is the “must be playable with up to 12 players.” It was seriously tripping me up. And I’ve regained some badly-needed focus. By The Stars is no longer going to be simply “a game inspired by my love of Star Wars,” but will be “a game inspired by my love of the Luke-Vader duel scene in The Empire Strikes Back.” It’s all in there. I just need some time and thought to tease it out.

By The Stars — the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs — Week Forty-Six

Things are changing faster than my pitiful blogging skills can keep up with. Here’s the quick and dirty summary.

* Last Sunday we playtested the new turn structure. For the most part, it works well. It makes the game feel more of a table-top and less of a LARP. With just a few tweaks, I have the version of the game I’ll be taking to the summer conventions.

* Speaking of those conventions, I leave for Origins in 48 hours! Yikes! Lots of prep to do! I’m scheduled to run BTS twice, but only for 10 players. I’m almost ready.

That’s why I need to go now. See ya in Columbus!

By The Stars — CryoSleep — Week Forty-Two

Week 42. The answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Ten weeks shy of a year. And I’ve barely touched the game in the last month. Game development tends to go in cycles for me: a few weeks or even months of intense activity, followed by a few weeks of doldrums.

The latest doldrums have been triggered by a swath of Real Life problems. Extreme stress at work, my dad’s health, home maintainence, etc. There was supposed to be a tentative playtest this Sunday, June 10. But over half my playtesters have already told me the won’t be able to make it. Such is the curse of summertime–everybody likes to do stuff. So I’m going to set up a playtest for June 24. It will be the last one before I (hopefully) run the game for strangers at Origins. Between now and then I need to rewrite and expand the number of characters in both “The Illyrian Crisis” and “The Myth of Planet Earth.” And I need to codify a turn structure that we’ll be testing out.

The good news is that I’ll be camping from June 15-22, so I’ll have a little bit of free head-space to think about such things.

By The Stars — Paused — Week Forty

It’s been a less than stellar week for By The Stars. Due to real life stesses on many people’s parts, there was no playtest this past weekend. Carl and Bill came over and we discussed a possible turn structure, why it might work, and how it might be set up. We’ll try again on June 10.

Since then, I haven’t had much time or brainspace to devote to BTS. The skeletal turn structure looks like this:

1) Opening turn, everyone starts with all their own Resource cards. They must hand out 5 of each Resource (10 total) to at least 4 different people. This will be broken into 4 turns. No player may receive more than 10 cards (We’ll mark that with poker chips or something). But you don’t just hand people cards–you explain why that character has influence over you. Thus, we build backstory right at the beginning.

2) On a regular turn, all the players will pair up for their conflicts. Normally, it’ll be whoever made the biggest bid last turn that picks their fight first, but on the first turn it’s random. They’ll negotiate spoils and set up their conflict simultaneously. Once everyone has figured out their bid, each pair takes a turn making their bid, describing their conflict, and resolving their cards in front of the entire group. This will allow everyone to know what’s going on in the game fiction.

This also opens up possibilities for helping. Players might be able to bid their own cards to help someone else’s conflict (and describe how, of course). But I’ve not yet settled on what they get in return mechanically. Plus, that opens a whole new level of complexity–Where do helping cards go?

So, progress is slow, but the moon wasn’t built in a day!

By The Stars — “Your faith in your friends is your [undoing].” — Week Thirty-Nine

Okay, time for a consolidation and restatement of my design goals for By The Stars:

1) A game that takes players from “I’ve never heard of this game, but I’ll play” to “That was great! It was my best game of the con” in 4 hours or less.
2) A game that drives and rewards players for creating conflict and excitement.
3) A game that can run for up to a dozen players simultaneously without a game master.

At the moment, I’d give it an D- on goal #1, a C+ on goal #2, and a B- on goal #3. The Camp Nerdly playtest showed me that #1 is faring very poorly. The game is too complex. It’s like trying to teach and then play Cancellation Hearts with folks who’ve never played a trick-taking card game. It needs to be like teaching and playing UNO.

One of the playtesters said, rather enthusiastically, “It’s a really interesting game engine and I think if I would play it a second time, I’d really get the hang of it and enjoy it.” For a game intended to run 3 or more sessions, that’d be a pretty good place to be. For a BTS, it’s a stake through the heart! (But a useful stake through the heart. All this stuff is useful–I’m not discouraged any more, just challenged. “Discouraged” was so last year!)

Why is it more complex than it started out to be?
Well, I’ve been adding little bits to try to fix the game’s other biggest problem: Lack of story development. It’s not that nothing happens. It’s not even that nothing exciting happens. It’s that the story does not build and hang together. I know it’s persistent problem because it’s structural, but I don’t yet have a better solution.

One of my playtest comments did get me closer to an understanding of the problem. One of the playtesters said: “With so many players, you’ve got a lot of processing power–a lot of creativity. But because the fiction never comes back together, you can’t really build on others’ creativity.”

This is a very, very good point. My players are not building a single story, they’re each building their own individual story. And, in every conflict, they find themselves needing to re-orient themselves about the content of the fiction, as well as the motives of the other player, and the needs of their own hands. In some ways, every conflict is like starting from scratch. This is a big, thorny problem.

Diagnosis in Forge-speak
I’m being trumped by the Lumpley principle because the group is never agreeing to anything, just a subset of the group. Thus, the Shared Imagined Space is never synchonized among the group and isn’t really “Shared.” Thus, to be super-nitpicky, we’re not really role-playing, just making stuff up in proximity to one another.

Diagnosis in English
What makes an RPG work is that the group of players all agree (to a greater or lesser degree) on what happens in the fictional game world. In the current structure of By The Stars, the group never has the opportunity to agree on the fictional events, because most of the group doesn’t even know about most of the fictional events.

BTS is LARP-like, but LARPs don’t suffer from this. Why does BTS?
This is not a problem in traditional LARP because players cannot really affect anything outside of their own characters without the acknowledgment of a game master. What I’ve added to By The Stars is the ability to describe things outside your character. People blow up starships, hack computers, and break out of jail. But almost like a tree falling in an empty forest, (nearly) no one hears them, so they barely make a sound.

What to do?
A solution that was suggested was to break up the free-for-all nature of conflicts and install a turn-taking structure. I’m concerned that it is going to make the game take too long–but it’s currently running quite short, so that’s not so bad. I’m concerned that it’s going to increase the dead-air time for each individual player. But we’ll see how much of a problem that is in playtest.

Playtest is next week. I’m thinking of re-doing the Illyrian crisis with some new and changed charcters, and the new rules. We’ll see what happens!

By The Stars — “Bring me the hyrdrospanners!” — Week Thirty-Eight

What did I do for By The Stars in the last week?

I playtested it with eight folks who had never heard of it before at Camp Nerdly in Triangle, Virginia. We had a wide gamut of experience with LARPs, gaming, and Star Wars.

How did that go?

Not as well as I was hoping, actually. I got a sense in my gut as I was explaining everything that the game has reached to point of too much. And several of my awesome, generous playtesters made comments to that effect–occasionally when they were trying to say something else, which lends a lot of credence. The Quest Cards barely got used. Betrayal cards got abused early (as I anticipated they would be). Every revision brings new problems.

Problems are fodder for progress. What’s the next step?

I’m not sure. It’s Wednesday and I’ve logged nearly 35 hours at work this week. May is always a very busy month. I haven’t had much time to wrap my head around the game. I design slowly, so not having any head-space is very limiting. I might have to cancel the May 20 playtest. I’ll try to make some time this weekend to ponder on what happened, what didn’t, and why.

I wish I had more to report. Work is killin’ me. But I’ll still be here next week. Same blog channel.

By The Stars — “Never his mind on where he was! What he was doin’!” — Week Thirty-Seven

Lot of prep to do for Camp Nerdly this weekend. And every minute I’m typing this us is a minute I ain’t prepping.

I will, at some point, be making a version of By The Stars available as a collaborative Google Document. If you’d like to be able to comment on the document, I think I need to specify your e-mail address in the doc (I’m not 100% sure). So, post a comment letting me know to add you. If you’re not my lovely and talented wife, don’t assume that I’ll put you on the “collaborate” list.

See ya on the other side of Nerdly!

By The Stars — “No Dice-integrations.” — Week Thirty-Six

The “Myth of Planet Earth” playtest was extremely instructive. I took out the rules for being out-bid by your own Aspect tokens and the game ran way short and suffered for it. This is great! I now know that those particular rules are vitally important for both pacing and excitement. Perhaps the best part to come out of that was the post-game discussion where a number of ideas of how to put these rules back in (while still addressing the reason I had taken them out) were bandied about. Several of them look promising.

I also introduced Quest Cards. They provide a sort of overarching narrative/alternate victory condition to seek out. Players all start with one card which can be bid as a simple +3 if they choose they’re not interested in the Quest. If they are, then each card matches with a specific other card out there, to reveal other cards. So, if I have the Port Half of Ancient Starmap and you have the Starboard Half of Ancient Starmap, and we both play our cards together, we get the Oldest Known Starmap Card. If we apply that information to the Original Design Specs of Central Computer card, it gives us the Override Code we need to get the computer to reveal the ultimate goal: The Coordinates of Planet Earth. The Quest Cards need some development, but I think they seem extremely promising.

Also, the “big board” came up in the post-game discussion. And I realized that the reason I kept rejecting it was I kept conceiving of it as a timeline sort of thing. Like WGP’s Synopsis Sheet. But when the idea of making it a map was put forth, it seemed obvious how that would help to synchronize everyone’s ideas about the game world.

So, I’ve got my work cut out for me. Camp Nerdly is in a week and a half, and I’ve got a lot to get together before then. See you in 7!