Aug 25 2011

Hollowpoint mission design

I’ve had a chance over the past few weeks to get lots of input from actual play and even to participate in a couple of games with new players acting as ref. This has been very insightful and led me to think a little harder about what makes a mission work. As usual, a lot of game design for the VSCA is translating what we do instinctively into a set of rules and we frequently leave a few things out — sometimes on purpose, mind you — and therefore leave to instinct.

One of these is the fact that in Hollowpoint there’s no strict mechanical pressure to use one skill over another. The intention is that this pressure comes from the context of the scene and a certain amount of peer pressure to narrate appropriately and therefore not use KILL in an interrogation. The rule is fairly straightforward: if you KILL someone they are dead. Dead people do not give up information (though it’s worth noting for those of you out there skinning this cat — if you have magical powers — like talking to the dead, say — in your game, KILL might be a great way to get information). Therefore successfully killing someone fails the objective for the scene.

So let’s try to codify this a little by breaking out some basic scene objectives.

If you are trying to take some territory (flee a bank robbery to safety, say, or occupy an enemy fortress), KILL is a very good choice. KILL takes territory by eliminating resistance. TERROR is also very good. TERROR takes territory by neutralizing opposition (whether they flee or collapse is irrelevant). Despite the name, TAKE is not a good fit. CON might be a pretty sly way in if the story is good. DIG is not helping. COOL…well, I’ll talk about COOL because it’s a kind of universal skill though not in a way I see as problematic. You can use it for practically anything but they are almost all hard stories to tell. Pick COOL as your peak stat only if you’re up for some very creative narration that works. For taking territory, I’d say no, generally, but there are stories out there that scream “yes”.

If you need to gather information in a scene, KILL is not helping. TERROR might. CON is always good. DIG is the obvious choice. TAKE…well maybe, depending on the specifics and the story the player comes up with. COOL, well I already talked about COOL.

If a scene is about putting the Fear into someone — making them toe the party line by encouraging them forcefully — and that someone is not present in the scene as a principal (you are “sending a message”), then KILL is okay! TERROR is a perfect match, clearly. CON not so much. DIG, maybe, with a good story, but generally a tough sell. TAKE? Don’t see it, but again if the story to date sets that up, maybe. Just to be clear, the horse’s head in the bed schtick was clearly TERROR and not TAKE. The characters didn’t keep the head for anything. I know, no one knows what happened to the body. Maybe they took that. Whatever, you’re quibbling.

Now if the scene requires that you acquire something from somewhere, KILL is not useful at all: KILLing doesn’t get you things, it kills people. TERROR is pretty weak too. TAKE, obviously, is perfect, but so is CON. DIG is a hard sell unless the thing you want is information.

If you need to accomplish something without alerting authorities1 then regardless of the objective, KILL might be the wrong choice.

Now this is still kind of vague (though less, so, I hope!). If the scene is set such that someone has a brilliant territory-taking solution with DIG, well, let it stand. The system self-balances even if everyone always takes their peak skill through a few mechanisms:

  1. Typically there will be a diversity of peak skills and the optimal solution to a simple fight is to all use the same skill. Therefore some people will be using weaker skills in the optimal group solution.
  2. Having a lot of dice can be a problem, so it may be the case that you want a weaker skill. This is more often the case when asking for help — you might figure 7 dice is perfect, so you want to use your peak (5) and get help from someone elses 2. Or maybe use your 3 and ask for help from their 4. You’ll have to work out for yourself where the sweet spot is for dice, but let me tell you, getting a 6×5 and a pair of 1s sucks hard. You leap out unprepared, surprise them, take a die, and then stand around as a target.
  3. The Catch requires a specific skill. Make it one that is not clearly primary to the context (escaping a guarded fortress but you have to crack the key code on the door with DIG or it all fails!). Use the Catch if skill use is getting dull. If no one is very COOL, make the Catch a seduction!
  4. A principal in a scene creates two targets to take out, and they could be taken out with different skill effects. If the objective is to interrogate the principal, then KILLing the henchman is fine, but someone better be doing something else to the principal.

Now you might be thinking, well, what about that rich scene, where someone is killing guards while someone else is taking the objective and someone else is hacking the computer system down. How does that happen when everyone picks the perfect skill for the mission? Well that’s easy — whatever skill gets brought to bear, it is useful in picking off dice before the effects actually get laid down, and so those skills become part of the story even if they are not strictly addressing the objective of the scene. That is expected and desirable. That happens very frequently unless the team lacks diversity and everyone has taken KILL 5. Or COOL 5, though those scenes are intrinsically awesome.

Well they better be. If you are narrating for a COOL 5 character, you better be on your toes and prepared to sell it. Flick that cigarette butt off the bouncers jacket and stride on through the door, partner. Flash that grin. Be confident as hell not just because you are the dog’s balls, but also because Amy is outside with a bazooka and she likes you.

She likes you a lot.


  1. Hey, it happens — set the scene: “The heat is on and you can’t afford to get noticed now. That last firefight in the junkyard might be a valuable diversion for this next action, but another mass murder could bring the hammer down on you. Your boss can only protect you from so much.”

Jul 21 2011


Fair warning. This will sound like a description of things I carefully and explicitly intended while working on Hollowpoint. It’s not. It’s a rationalization of a lot of instinctive stuff that went on that was related to events in a certain order. It feels, now, to me, like it was all deliberate and careful. But it wasn’t. So this is me making sense of how the part of my brain to which I do not have direct, narrative access to seems to work. That one time.

This game came out of discussions about non-violence. Now by that I don’t mean not hitting people, though that’s certainly part of it. I mean the kind of non-violence that J B Bell introduced me to as elaborated by the Center for Nonviolent Communication. The crux of this idea is that any human interaction in which a party engages by undermining the essential needs of the other party is violent. Killing is a trivial case–there are more subtle and interesting ways to be violent.

I was (and to some extent remain) skeptical of the utility of this approach and J B and I had a lot of lunch time discussions about this. Also at lunch we talked about game design. He was working on Chimaera at the time and one thing he was interested in was making it profitable to act in non-violent ways. Because most games assume you will do violence to everyone in order to get your way.

Well sort of. In fact as I thought about it I realized that I couldn’t really think of a game that took a solid stance one way or the other. Reign has Lie and Plead, which are both kind of violent in their way (undermining needs for honesty and peace and autonomy &c), but it also has Perform which really isn’t. Most games are like that, failing to take a side.

So J B wanted to explore nonviolence (and at this point I want to tell J B that his preferred spelling, with the space, has typographic issues and that he should reconsider it for the sake of aesthetics) in his new game. But can you make a fun and engaging game without violence? One way certainly would be to just have no violent skills, but this still allows the player to frame their use in a violent manner. So it’s not so simple as drafting skills.

Eventually we started talking about reward cycles and how one might make non-violent behaviour more appealing or at least competitively interesting. That’s all another story. because while I was ostensibly helping J B (see–it just doesn’t work J B) with his game, I was actually developing something else. Sure I stole his dice system, but my brain was heading over here: what if I made a game where you could only be violent? Where there was no way to frame any action in a non-violent sense. If non-violent-only games seemed boring, perhaps violent-only games would be awesome.

Well it turns out they are. In Hollowpoint, every core skill is a form of violence. You are KILLing, TERRORizing, obviously. But you are also COOL and aloof, completely apart from your opponent, degrading his self-image by comparing it to your own. You CON people rather than discuss or diplomatize or even haggle. You trick them. You are dishonest. And further, you do not buy or even beg — you TAKE. And when you want information you do not ask. You don’t even investigate. You DIG. You have more in common with a vicious, determined, investigative reporter (who, however laudable their work is, are essentially engaging in violent behaviour, strictly speaking) than an interviewer.

And hence this new game. It is a book that distills me wondering about a game where every option is violence.


Oct 10 2010

Chimæra update

Yes, it still lives! A recent development for Chimæra was figuring out, with precision, what makes a Human different from a Daemon different from a Mutant. Where this came from was trying to get back to one of my RPG-design Holy Grails: emulating nonviolent action, satyagraha, Soul Force. Numerous RPGs do allow persuasion with equal footing to violence, and a few enforce nonviolence as preferable–Dead Inside is maybe the most prominent example I know.

I haven’t found those fully satisfying, and though Chimæra Alpha 1, as I’ve come to think of it, did deliver interesting play, conflict wasn’t that engaging for the GM (me), and tended to come down to fairly classic ass-kickery.

Introducing the idea of “needs” as given in works on Nonviolent Communication (especially the book of the same name by Marshall Rosenberg) into the game explicitly opened up several things. First, I put my (previously hidden or gotten at circuitously at best) priority for nonviolence on the table. Second, and a very happy by-blow, it clarified what makes the different “races” in the game what they are. Humans (generalists as in so many other games) have the ordinary six needs: Community, Health, Integrity, Meaning, Play, and Autonomy (handy acronym: CHIMPA–total accident).

Daemons, being the creatures of pure dominance and submission that they are, lack Play and Community, and add Hate. This last is not hate in the ordinary sense–for Daemons it’s an organizing principle, universal among them, understood as a given. They are bloody-minded, and furthermore, they must destroy life to sustain their own. Something in humans is something daemons must have or perish. (The vampire thing here is perfectly deliberate, as Chimæra harks back to Vampire Hunter D.)

Mutants, finally, have other non-human needs, starting with the opposites of the regular six–so, you can have anti-autonomy, the need not to have a self, such as you’d find in collective intelligences, or at least, in their individual members.

Today Brad and I finally pulled this together into a new conflict system. The map (and I think having a map is really, really useful, something the Alpha 1 version lacked for conflicts, but had for the excellent community-mapping setup) is based on the needs on the character’s sheets. Things you do in a conflict are to bring need-nodes into the map, evoking them, and linking them together with one-way arrows. Your character’s stance is represented by a pawn on the map, and what need the pawn is sitting on determines the need that you defend with. So move another becomes a pretty important tactic.

Brad and I sat down to play. Pretty simple setup. The local Daemon Knight has heard about the spiritual leader’s preaching and aims to shut him down. The knight confronts the preacher in a speakeasy where the heretical teachings have been spreading.

I opened, putting the preacher’s need for meaning on the map, a defensive value of only 2. Brad countered with autonomy as the starting space for the knight’s pawn. Also a value of 2. We had everything at 2 except one we boosted to 4, rather arbitrarily. Hate for the knight, and Play for the preacher.

I won’t go into much more detail here as I don’t have the record on me. But suffice to say, Brad played the game as designed, and as he’s a smart guy he outplayed me. The really cool thing was that the fiction had the daemon knight, a tough, badass, mean character, out-maneuvered by the preacher’s mastery of playful (though not kind-spirited) mockery. I managed to get Hate on the board, but didn’t get to it before the Brad got the preacher on Play, and it was pretty well over at that point.

It was a curious experience of frustration, because losing just kinda sucks, and elation, as a kind of scene I wanted to have, with interesting detail and nuance, fell out of some fairly simple interactions. Just deciding on what kind of space to move in, and giving that a 2-dimensional representation to look at, is very powerful.

For the future I want to make a distinction where using violence (as Brad was, even though blows were not exchanged–it’s defined in-game by what features of your opponents’ character sheet you pick up to use) has later consequences. Previously violent acts contributed to an opposition dice pool, but I’ve dumped the pool in favour of a simpler system with a couple d6 and bonuses of +2.

Anyway, great stuff, finally got to some actual play-testing, and looking forward to codifying and playing more.

Oct 1 2010

Getting shot at is scary

Last night we ran a playtest of the squad-scale stuff that I’m hammering out at the skunkworks. I have this feeling that it’s a role-playing game but I need it to play very well first as a miniatures game because that’s part of the experiment — to duplicate the nostalgic pacing of gaming that I love. That’s the pacing that goes something like INTENSE COMBAT BRAWR talk talk talk talk COMBAT BOOM BRAWR talk talk talk.

I am hoping that one way to do that is to have a great combat system and interesting characters. We’ll see.

It’s actually playtesting of Soft Horizon that has led me to this place. For all that it has excited me as an idea and as a construct, Soft Horizon kind of sucks as a game. There are a bunch of good reasons for this, but basically I think they boil down to over-thinking the refinement of FATE coupled with a failure to deliver setting hooks that grab. The game sort of lurches around and is occasionally clever. But it’s not fun enough. So I’m setting it aside for now.

What I want from this new game is a really traditional strict simulation wargame but that tracks states on characters that reflect the things that really change the course of a battle rather than tracking whether or not someone is dead. Doing this without creating a system for mind control is tricky, so instead what we want is for the presentation of the simulation to be a side-effect of the representation.

Now to do this I need to track several variables and that gets cumbersome, especially as the number of units increase, so there are some physical tricks we use in play to ease this. It turns out all these tricks also facilitate conveying the necessary information as well as tracking it, so that’s an unexpected bonus. Here’s what we need to track:

Suppression. This is the degree to which you know, rationally, it would be very dangerous to stick your head up. This is not being afraid.

Fear. This is being afraid. This is the kind of reaction to danger that demands your attention and starts you focusing on yourself rather than your duties to solving the battle as a whole.

Wounds. Injuring the enemy is ostensibly why we have rifles and stuff and, while from a desk the objective is to drive the enemy away from territory you want to control, killing him accomplishes a lot of that mission.

Detection. This is badly named — Bob suggested “exposure” which is indeed better. This is how easy you are to shoot at.

Ammunition. How much ammunition you have is pretty crucial to the game’s premise — because your group is lost and alone, it’s a finite resource. It might become a kind of “treasure” even. So you need to track it but also, more than maybe anything else, it’s something worth tracking persistently (that is, between fights). We are not simulating each trigger pull, however — it’s not that kind of simulation — so this won’t mean counting bullets or magazines. It’s not expended in the way you might think either.

Initiative. We need to know who goes next.

So we take three colours of poker chip — red for wounds, blue for fear, and white for suppression. As these values increase or decrease, the stack is added to or subtracted from. The stack sits beside the unit stand on the map. This solves the keeping-track bit. It also really tidily conveys the information to everyone instantly. That guy with the big stack of red and blue chips? Not a threat.

Detection has a maximum value, so we put a six-sided die with the current value beside the unit stand. This works better than a stack of chips of a new colour because it doesn’t change as often, it has a cap that’s higher than your natural visual counting limit, and because I only have three colours of chips.

Initiative order is represented by the roll of a die, so we put that die out in front of the player to keep track of it.

Ammunition we track on the character sheet because it’s a persistent value and it’s a treasure resource. And because it’s intrinsically secret — there’s no way for the enemy to know how much ammunition you have unless he asks you and you tell him.

So a system that looks like there is a lot to remember and manage on paper actually runs at a brisk pace when these data are manipulated in a tactile and visually obvious way.

Now what do they do? Well I’ve talked before about design goals for this and how I want Fear to make units do things without having a rule that says “you are so scared you run away”. So instead there are certain actions that reduce fear or suppression. Because the three negative status effects are also penalties on your skill rolls, you want to get rid of them. Fear you have to get rid of every turn, though — that’s your animal urgency. Play shows that this method works: scared people ran away through the bushes and if that’s not feasible they lie down in one place and shoot a lot of ammunition around inaccurately. Occasionally they hit something. Suppressed people shoot less accurately unless they find better cover or lay down some suppressing fire of their own to get some breathing space. Wounded people just stay wounded.

What stories emerge from the rules? Well we had:

  • Concealed guys with good cover and difficult terrain staying in once place, safely, hoping to ambush a careless enemy.
  • A terribly wounded man caught out in the open panic-firing.
  • A light machine-gunner crawls quietly along a covering ridge-line to get a flanking position on some troublesome bad guys.
  • A confident and competent rifleman advances on a suppressed enemy, calmly firing controlled and well-aimed bursts as he walks, mortally injuring his target.
  • A rifleman fires, revealing his position, and then slowly creeps through cover to a new position. The enemy loses track of him.
  • An officer gives orders from a hilltop, enabling a team of riflemen to navigate a swamp effectively and close on an opponent they could not reach before.

These are good stories. These are the sorts of stories I want from a combat system that is about the fight as well as about the guy. And they all derived from the mechanism of play but, more than that, they derived from play the game well: there was no need to deliberately make sub-optimal choices and yet you never felt that you had no options, so there was no sense that agency had been removed. Well, until those wounds pile up and you can literally do nothing, but at that point the character can be removed from play.

This is a game that demonstrates some of the pitfalls in attempting to categorize games, I think. The structure looks super-traditional but the results are not so much (though this is not an attempt to claim novelty — other games have done this as well).

I am very pleased so far. Tweaks going in today, especially around character creation.


Sep 28 2010

Squad scale

I have a bad habit.

To be fair, I have many bad habits, but here’s one. It may seem minor. Hell, it is minor, but it confuses others. When I talk about the “scale” of a game, I am talking about the scale of the total number of entities in play, typically. What I should be talking about is the scale of a single unit. Diaspora is a great example of this: the “platoon scale” combat is really nothing of the sort — the individual unit scale is roughly a fire team — around, four guys, say. But generally when talking about how big a fight is represented, I’d say that a platoon or two on either side is good and that more than that gets unwieldly. So “platoon” sticks in my head. “Team scale” might be better. Striker, for example, is a team-scale game too.

So this squad thing I’m playing with is not actually squad scale. Rather it’s individual scale — each unit is a guy. See, that’s what makes it stick tightly to a role-playing game, because you can make each guy go vroom and so identify closely in combat with the unit. At a team scale this sometimes works (with vehicles, notably, where a vehicle is a team and you go vroom reflexively) but much larger than that you have to find an individual to care about, and that forces you to play the leaders.

No Contact is definitely not about leaders. I think it’s more interesting exactly reversed: your leadership is gone; now what? So one reason for that is that the individual scale demands it. The other reason for that is that it maps closely on the existing table structure.

A group of people are in an inhospitable environment with no declared leader and life threatening trouble. What power structure emerges from this? Well, we already know, because we do this pretty much every time we sit down to play a role-playing game. This is the story of gaming in general so making it the premise of the game is a no-brainer. Most of the foibles of military gaming derive from trying to fit an artificial command structure onto the undisciplined democratic chaos of the actual table (though Clash Bowley solves this elegantly by letting everyone play leaders and followers alike, which is clever and a half).1 No matter how you elect the lieutenant, and even if it’s the person that normally takes charge at your table (assuming you have one of these), there will be resistance to it. The leadership role assumes knowledge that most of your table doesn’t have and makes quasi-experts of people who may not be equipped to deliver their knowledge well.

But we already know that the emergent organization of the table works — well, we know that it works now and that we’ve already booted people, had “that talk”, and so on to get it to this point — so it seems productive at this scale (the individual) to decapitate the unit. It’s also a good premise for a game: out on patrol, out of communication, disaster strikes, you’re lost, your orders are out of date, your lieutenant is dead, you can’t find the maps. What now? Everyone I think can put themselves right there (dare I speak of immersion?!) and that’s a significant fraction of the battle.

Okay, so No Contact is technically individual scale: one unit is one guy. It is intended as the combat system for a super-traditional role-playing game design: character generation, combat system, equipment list. Everything between bursts of gunfire is raw role-playing, maybe with the occasional skill check, but there are no mechanisms in place to make role-playing happen. Well, let’s face it, there probably will be. I’ll probably bolt on something that sells motivations somehow, but I can’t see it feeding a complex cycle (like Burning Wheel BITS). And probably not a forced narrative cycle (FATE Aspects). But something like Reign‘s “use this motivation and get a bonus on a roll” mechanism is deceptively simple and powerful.

Maybe I’ll steal that.

Anyway, pardon the ramble — I’ve been sick and am sporting a fever. Makes me babble.


  1. Clash, the purple on black has to go though man.

Feb 23 2010

Bloody Diaspora clusters are everywhere

I’ve been resisting this. Really.

However, I started playing around with something for Hollowpoint (tired of the acronym) based on some feedback from friendly and interested folks on Buzz and Twitter and Etc. Turns out they are smart too. Because Hollowpoint is basically about agents of some agency handling some more complex relationship diagram, it is a natural to build that relationship diagram and the cluster system from Diaspora has already demonstrated functionality. Okay I give.

The first idea was to define the agency itself, but I don’t want the agency to become a character. The opposition, however, is a character, so that’s what we’re defining. I establish three attributes, use the same rules for linking as in Diaspora, and then add some rules for interpreting the results. Some of the rule outputs need re-wording but I think the idea is clear. So the attributes are:

Honour. How honourable the entity is.

Cash. How much cash the entity has.

Manpower. How much force the entity can bring to bear.

Now because we’re using six-siders for Hollowpoint, this must also, so we use the d6-d6 method: roll two differently coloured dice and subtract one from the other using a pre-determined rule (subtract black from red, say). This gives a shallow curve from -5 to 5, peaking at 0. So we roll that for each stat and then for each node roll it again for connections. A negative result connects to the neighbouring node only, a zero result adds a connection to the next available node after, and a positive result adds a a third connection to the next neighbour open after that. An open neighbour is one not already connected.

And then we interpret based on these rules:

A connection between nodes that both have positive or both have negative values for an attribute indicates that the nodes are allied on this attribute. Honour implies friendliness, cash implies a mutual reliance, and manpower indicates a pact or truce.

A connection between nodes where one or another has a zero attribute is ignored.

A connection between nodes where one is negative and the other is positive indicates an imbalance that is a potential source of friction (mission driver!) So for honour this is a debt of honour: the negative seeks revenge on the positive. For cash this is a simple debt: the negative owes money to the positive. For manpower this is weakness and strength: the negative is weak to (and therefore defers to) the positive. Here’s an example:

Well I have to say that that invites some missions. We have some debts, some weaknesses, an interest in revenge and an interestingly cash-poor overall operation where everyone is interdependent. Clearly there are too many families in this syndicate! We also see the hub — that second node that everyone is weak to and everyone is connected to. And their sole realy strength is manpower — violence.

There’s something deeper in the cluster creation system than it looked at first. And though we touched on what it might be right there in the book, I don’t think it was clear until now just how rich it is in the abstract. It’s nice that it’s also an icon for VSCA, so if I use it in everything I ever produce I guess that’ll be okay. Or at least explicable.


Feb 2 2010

A little more on Deluge

So I put up Deluge last night for sale, as I already noted. I thought, though, that I had better talk about what’s in it because, well, it costs seven bucks.

Deluge is 37 pages of material, about 30 of which are strictly game-related stuff. It’s in PDF format using a version that lets me add bookmarks and hyperlinks, so it’s not fully functional on some kinds of software and devices, but you should be able to read it just fine. I have an ePub and MOBI version kicking around on my drive at home (and on my Kindle) that also works and if you want a copy of that just give me a shout.

It costs seven bucks but you can share it for free with anyone you want. Yeah that means that you can re-host it and give it away to the world. That’s cool by me — that’s part of the experiment. It’s only available through Lulu at the moment but I’m looking into getting its stuffed into more popular locales in the next short while. Probably in the complete “package” with all formats. Well, all the formats I have, I mean.

It contains, aside from some original artwork and thankfully terse fiction:

A discussion of the premise of the setting.

Concrete ways to organize and design characters so that they have cool things to do in the setting and with each other.

Ideas for developing communities so that they are interesting to discover and interact with.

Random tables for finding out what communities have, need, hate, and love.

A method for building a session around your home town, plus fourteen meters of water and a hundred and fifty years without modern technology.

Details for angels, bears, and giant squid.

A discussion of the kinds of secrets the GM will want to invent, keep, and reveal in the process of participating in a Deluge story.

Factoids about rain.

In the spirit of Diaspora and my own preferences, even though Deluge is a setting, it’s also still a toolkit. Yeah I know, settings have been traditionally anti-toolkit, but rather reference material for a campaign. Honestly, I hate that. Remember Thieve’s World, the game aid? What was cool about Thieve’s World for me was not the characters or the stats or the story lines already unfolding in the city. Honestly I barely read any of that because it wasn’t mine, I didn’t want to memorize it, and I knew my players would not read it or listen to me read it. What was cool about that was the map and the tone.

So Deluge is all about this kind of thing too — the core assumption is that you, the potential consumer, want to tinker. You want to take something and make it yours. You want to be as unhindered by canon as possible, so all you need is a premise and a methodology and you will be off and running making your own awesome game. Because that’s what GMs do, at least where I come from. So that’s what it delivers — premise, methodology, atmosphere, and some examples to spark your own imagination. In a sense I’m selling you a good idea rather than a game or even a setting. A good idea and a way to use it.

I am certain that my idea of what play is (as a GM) is not universal. There are people who want encounter details in a setting document. They will hate this document but, hopefully, they already know that because Diaspora is full of clues regarding my preferences and they already hate that game (or know they will hate it). However, if your idea of a good time is drawing over a map of your home town, documenting its destruction and its treasures, and then slowly revealing this to your friends during a rousing game with your favourite system, this is certainly built for you. It’s built for me, after all.


Nov 5 2009

Automation is what changes everything

In Diaspora we talk a little bit about what changes when technology advances or falls. In a nutshell, we propose that any given technology goes from impossible to government use to corporate use to private use. For our game our interest here is space travel — to begin with it is impossible to get people into space. One day it becomes possible, but the resources require cooperation on the scale of a government project (including the resource of mandating behaviour). Eventually it becomes profitable and the scale changes again and now a corporation can get into space (and this is where we are or are heading here and now). Finally, it becomes something that a single person or family can afford to do. It moves from profitable to leisure in some sense.

This progression happens because of the empowering function of automation.

As technology advances, from the ground you and I see gadgetry first. I can hold my entire record collection from 1984 on a single tiny device (with room to spare — lots of room to spare) and play it to myself for longer than I can actually tolerate before the batteries run down (not to necessarily imply that I am getting great battery life from my player). But gadgetry doesn’t actually create a huge amount of change — the big change in music is that I can click a button and get more music whereas in 1984 I had to catch a bus to a record store and back, carrying a fragile artifact home. Carrying more music than I actually care to listen to is a remote second for social impact.

Automation increases individual empowerment. Empowering individuals through automation causes the capability of the individual to encroach on the capability of last year’s corporation (by which I only mean a large scale organization of humans with a directed purpose — this is not an anti-capitalist screed by any reading). Obviously this touches on my recent experiences with publishing and with publishers: the individual is now fully capable of doing almost everything that last year’s publishers were necessary to do. I can write, buy art, create art, lay out, print, cut, make books, present for sale, and fulfill all from my desk. I even do all my marketing from my desk, now, but that’s not as effective as these other things are. That’s an important hole, though, and I’ll come back to it. So anyway, with respect to publishing, an individual is now potentially as empowered to produce as a corporation once was.

Technically the publishing example is one of a more important effect: the aggregation of automated individuals. My personal capability with respect to publishing is actually because my communication with a small number of other people is managed in an automatic fashion, and the bulk of their work is also automated. I do my work, press a button to submit to an Entity. They get my data, store it, and present it for sale. When an interested party clicks BUY they handle the money, submit the data to a fulfillment Entity automatically, and keep track of things so they can pay me my share. The fulfillment Entity takes the data, turns it into a high-quality books, and hands it to a shipping Entity. They get it to the customer’s door. Each Entity could be a single person except where automation has not quite caught up (like shipping, though it’s getting very good these days too). Some Entities don’t need to be people at all any more.

So let’s say that automation increases my individual power by a factor of two. This means that when n people so empowered choose to interact, their effective output is 2n. The potential of aggregated individual effort is an exponential function of the effect of automation on each. That’s why automation changes everything, and that’s why there are technological leaps in Diaspora that have the character they do — what humans do doesn’t change all that much except insofar as they do less of what they dislike (generally), but how much they can do does change. And the output of their aggregation is greater.

We could talk now about the costs of communication — how every indirection of communication results in a loss of data between humans because all communication between humans is a form of translation and all human translation is lossy. Then we could see that communication between automatic entities does not necessarily suffer from this, and then see instantly why some efficiencies in automation exist. Then we would also see that organizations beyond a certain size must have some indirect communication (chain of command and cross-discipline communication, for example). So if we now see that automation decreases the size of an organization for the same output, we also see that this output is magnified in quality and quantity when the decrease in size similarly decreases the amount of indirect communication. There are max-min equations to be done here, but there is a moving target that changes with specific industry and degree of automation, that pays off in millions when you hit it: the optimal organization size. This trick never works, though, because organizations acquire meta-interests that include growth, which is broken. See also: dinosaurs.

Regarding publishing, this means that publishers already embody substantial functionality that is being automated to the individual level. As I look around, it seems they know this though most are still steering big-ship-slow and not necessarily in the right direction. Many concentrate on the gadget (we should ePublish!) which is treating symptoms. Treating symptoms offers some relief, but you will probably still die of the disease. Some resist the automation (laughing at self-publishers as though there were a relation to vanity-presses, which have a justifiably evil reputation). The ones that will be present in thirty years are the ones that recognize what isn’t automated and what isn’t likely automatable soon, and selling that service hard. That will put authors in the driver’s seat, though, and neither party seems all that used to that yet. Yet.

So, Diaspora, yeah. Automation changes everything. When you wonder what a T3 culture looks like, realise first that individuals here could have (that is, barring social repression or poverty or other obstacles to ownership) access to automation that gives them the power of T2 corporations or T1 governments because of automation. That means that it doesn’t make sense that a T3 gun can kill a nation. It does mean that a T3 individual might credibly have the resources to divert asteroids into planets through use of automatic manufacture of automatic spacecraft that navigate automatically to places that have been surveyed automatically and station-keep automatically around asteroids identified automatically so that their orbit is altered catastrophically.

Automation is the key and not gadgetry.


Oct 27 2009


Rob Donoghue has some very nice things to say over at his blog, Some Space to Think, about Diaspora. Specifically, right now he’s jazzed about scope, which we introduce in no more than half a page of material on page six. My response to his observations and to those of his commenters is:

You guys are mowing all over my Soft Horizon lawn. :D A lot of this is ground I’ve covered while analyzing scopes but some of it is new as well, which is exciting. An upcoming project, Soft Horizon, uses scopes as a critical component of character generation and it pays in extraordinary ways.

During character creation, when asked to select an aspect, the player may choose either an aspect or a scope. She gets one scope for free — Myself. Every aspect must be under a scope. Refresh is the number of aspects only.

I’m sure you can already see most of the cool trade-offs being performed here. One that’s less obvious, perhaps, is that the player is making decisions about autonomy: when the ref compels an aspect under the scope “The Royal Family”, it’s the character’s obligations that are pushing. Were the aspect under “Myself” it would be a personal decision. The story of accepting or denying the compel must take the scope into account.

Another feature is the empty scope. What does it do? Well, when someone maneuvers to put an aspect on you (friendly most relevantly but also hostile) they must put it under an existing scope. So empty scopes are places where your friends can make you extra awesome by empowering your relationships (your DEMON SWORD or your CREW OF PIRATES).

Scopes rocks.

Scope is a remarkably powerful concept to introduce to Fate because it adds constraints and the one thing that Fate really needs is constraint. These kinds of constraints are the anchor points in the system (any system) that let us find interesting new mechanisms and interactions between mechanisms. Systems with no constraints have nowhere to get a grip and twist. And look how much you can twist this sucker with just this one constraint!

This is space that needs exploring — in any awesome system in which you can do anything, wonder how you can tie it down and make it beg. Once bound, it will be more obvious how to make it something more interesting.

BDSM metaphors are not typical for me, I promise.


Oct 23 2009

Confined space

We were recently asked (indirectly) how clusters in Diaspora are connected together. The short answer, promptly given, is that they aren’t. A cluster is a group of some small number of systems linked together by an unknown geometry underlying the universe that perhaps changes slowly and perhaps not. The systems could be any distance apart and the links can be traversed instantaneously with the right technology.

Okay, so because that’s basically a setting axiom, I don’t feel obligated to explain it in terms of setting logic. It’s just true.

So presumably what is interesting to talk about here is why it’s true in terms of game design — why did we make that choice.I can’t speak for all four authors, obviously, but I will anyway. They can chime in in the comments to call me a liar. As always, memory is 5% stored data and 95% local fabrication, so this is my post-invention invention of why we did this.

Constraints are fun and infinity is hard. Having clusters consist of a small number of systems constrains what you can do, and this lets you focus. You will find that because of this each cluster has its own character and therefore tells its own stories. We wanted to encourage you to (and take a deep breath, preparing for heresy) make new characters and clusters often. If your campaign is awesome for six years straight, more power to you, but I personally am a fan of stopping the second it gets dull and starting over. So character generation is fun and cluster generation is designed to give you somewhere new and refreshing to play. My attention span is about four to ten sessions.

This small number of worlds is also small enough to get developed at the table. In one evening you will have characters, a place for them to find adventure, and explicit connections between the characters, their environment, and each other character. You can’t do that with an open map — there must be places that lack detail to some extent because that’s just how infinity works.

If you love your characters but want a novel place to adventure (either to scratch the itch of experiencing new worlds or the itch of exploring the unknown or to support an event in-story) that’s easy enough — the cluster system is also intentionally modular. Make a new cluster. Connect the last system in the old cluster to the first system in the new cluster. Done! So the system is secretly infinite but we don’t start you there because you can’t spend infinite time in the first session. In the programming world this is sometimes called “just in time development” and the principle is simple: don’t build something you don’t need yet, but build an infrastructure that lets you add it fast exactly when you do.

There is another reason to make clusters finite and it’s more related to setting design than story design. Earth is not one of these worlds.

The essential mystery in Diaspora is Earth. Where is it? If this is how faster-than-light travel works, how did we get here from Earth? Why the diaspora? What is happening on Earth now (though as I touched on briefly yesterday, that question might as reasonably be asked with “when” as “where”…) and is it going to happen in this cluster soon? Has it already? Is this even the same universe that contains Earth?

These are questions that I wanted to exist and I certainly did not want to answer (and here’s my canon promise: I will never create a canonical story about Earth — it is certainly and forever yours to deal with or not as you see fit). And so disconnecting the play space from Earth by thousands of years, unknown distance, and an apparently insurmountable technology barrier leaves that mystery intact and its resolution entirely in your hands. And you may find a different answer in each campaign you play, or never find it.

So the closed cluster gives you a small enough playground to invent it in detail in one evening and amusing mysteries of grand scale to play with. It grants comfort to players and wonder to characters. And, with luck, the potential for awe, which is a holy grail for great science-fiction play in my books.