How the Bundle of Holding is influencing my game design

I have a problem with the Bundle of Holding. I am buying new roleplaying games faster than I can read them. This is forcing me to curtail a slow reading of all the gaming goodness I am downloading off the internet. It also means that if a book I am reading is failing to catch my attention and set fire to my imagination, the temptation to close the file and pick another one is strong.

One of the things that is really striking, is that when a game uses something incredibly familiar, such as a task resolution system based on “Die Roll + Attribute + Skill”, then it really needs something in its theme, setting, or another mechanic that it incorporates in a novel way.  Of course, too much in the way of unfamiliar setting, character roles and mechanics makes me want to read something else as well. One of the game design books I read recently put it succinctly as “Same, but different”.

Today I thought roleplaying games are a bit like crimes. You need all three of:

  1. Motive – what exactly is the design intent for the player characters, mighty-thewed heroes or pluck investigators doomed to insanity? Its really nice to have something beyond “You all meet in a tavern, an old man approaches you…”  Yes, as GM I can establish a reason for the players to be together, but its good when the game is inherently designed to gel the party together, and keep them together long term.
  2. Method – what tools are the mechanics giving the players for interacting with the world? Fortune’s Fool used a Tarot deck to resolve all matters of chance and conflict in the game, and I loved how in character generation you could build a character who was lucky or really skilled in different ways.  The Edara: A Steampunk Renaissance game, used a”d12 + Attribute + Skill” and I could easily skip 90% of the mechanic rule chapters because I have seen it all before in a hundred different game systems.
  3. Opportunity – what does the setting let us do that we cannot already do elsewhere? Its really hard these days to try and find a genre that has not already been well covered in the last four decades of roleplaying game design. The market for genre mash-ups is also becoming pretty saturated (Zombies and Flavour of the Month, I am so over zombies). When people do come up with a really good new motive or method for roleplaying, you can see the subsequent spin-offs as its developed for expression in every conceivable gaming setting.

The sign of a good game is that you want to immediately use one of its motive, method, or opportunity design elements in a game you run in the future. The sign of a great game is that you don’t dare divorce any of these elements from the other for fear that the magic will fade away.

I am not sure how well my current roleplaying campaign manages “Same, but different”, although it is meeting the key litmus test of the players have fun, keep turning up, talk about the game between sessions, and are sad when they have to miss a session due to other commitments.

  1. Motive – the players are agents of Tarantium, members of a musketeer regiment used by the Imperial government for all those plausibly deniable missions. I avoided the constraints of a strictly military campaign (players having to obey orders from NPCs) by having most of their “episodes” involve away missions with vague orders and a lot of latitude for making their own decisions.
  2. Method – I used Runequest VI, because its a system I can intuitively design in without working too hard. Nothing too original in my adaptations, adding muskets to the standard Renaissance swords and armour, a mechanic similar to Call of Cthulhu’s sanity rules, and giving the players a range of social organisations to belong too for some roleplaying flavour and niche difference.
  3. Opportunity – I really wanted to run a setting with flying cities and a high magic feel, and I was dissatisfied with the published “flying fantasy” game books. I did all the background maths to make sure that the food and logistics/politics of the setting made sense (not that I would dare bore the players with crop yields and river boat cargo volumes). This meant I made a game based around “Go somewhere interesting, do something dangerous, go home and report, then take a month off to recover”.

My current roleplaying game design thoughts have been focused on a transhuman setting, where an alien Empire has colonised Earth in much the same way the United Kingdom established the Raj in India (one part commerce, two parts corruption, one part conflict, one part “oh fuck what we have gotten into now”).  While I have looked at some published settings, such as Eclipse Phase or GURPS Transhuman, the way they lock humanity into the Solar System is just a bit claustrophobic.  River of Heaven had some appeal as a d100 system based on a system very close to Runequest VI, but it was not quite transhuman enough for me, and it did not really explore the social and psychological effects of restricting travel to sub-light speeds (plus I wanted a FTL mechanic of some kind). As an aside, I think its rare for an “alien invasion” scenario to focus on the cultural impacts of the “out of context” problem, most books and visual media go for the plucky and violent humans versus the incredibly stupid aliens. Handling it the other way might be too uncomfortable a reminder of how “western civilisation” treated the rest of the world until very recently. Anhow, what I am thinking of involves:

  1. Motive – the aliens are paternalistic overlords of most, but not all of humanity. A key decision for the players, is whether or not they support the alien domination for the benefits it brings (climate control technology, immortality for talented people, peacekeeping forces, etc) or if they are supporters of the cause of human independence and freedom.  I would like to use the Icon system from 13th Age, so I would build a range of factions that support or oppose the Alien Empire, or which have a more ambivalent view (such as a smuggling syndicate). Each of the factions would have a use for agents willing to risk their current physical existence in exchange for material rewards or advancement of their personal passions, as well as providing a home base and resurrection point for when that TPK occurs on a suicide mission. The big background mystery plays off Drake’s Equation – humanity is surrounded by a sea of inhabitable worlds where pre-space flight civilisations have been destroyed, and the Alien Overlords are a little curious as to why Humanity was not treated the same way by the legendary “Bane Star”.
  2. Method – while I want to use the Runequest rules, a transhuman setting where bodies are replaceable and upgradeable means the value of the traditional fixed gaming characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, etc) is subverted. Who cares if you rolled a Strength of 5 on your birth body, when you can buy a Strength 18 off the rack? Runequest places more emphasis on key secondary attributes (Action Points, Strike Rank) and Skills (1-100% scale).  A key thing for quick play, would be an electronic character sheet in which you can change your body template and associated characteristics in two button pushes.  As well as having a full range of cybernetic and biological augmentations, I would want to rebuild the combat system to be fast and violent within the transhuman flavour of electronic warfare, high-tech weaponry, powered armour suits and energy shields. One such change would be eliminating Luck Points – essential in Runequest VI RAW because otherwise character’s die – its just not needed in a transhuman setting where players can restore their characters from their last backup, or a salvaged cortex stack.
  3. Opportunity – “Have disposable spaceship, will travel”. I am imagining a universe where a basic spaceship for six people costs about as much as a modern car does, can be fabricated within a day, and its cheaper to recycle it for parts and buy new, than to leave it parked in dock for a week. A spaceship will last less than a year before its engines burn out or it exhausts its fuel supplies. But in the mean time, it will cover 10 Light Years per week. Its a universe where almost anything can be fabricated in the “two credit” store in an hour, but if you want a signature weapon or suit of powered armour, then you carefully take your copyrighted blueprints to a master crafter and spend a few days making it out of premium materials. In a universe where you get a new body when your character is killed in combat, gear is even more disposable than ever before.  I also like having a modular ship design system, where the players choose from a limited set of customisation options and can build their spaceship in a few minutes.

…and that’s all I have time to write this week. Spending more time on SCA martial arts is changing my hobby-life balance around a bit, so the future holds significantly less time playing World of Warcraft for me than was the case for the last few months.

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