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Speculative Physics

Zero Sum

by Mendel Schmiedekamp
Jun 17,2005


Zero Sum

Last month I discussed the design inspirations for the RPG Drift. Drift is a space travel RPG, using the motifs of technobabble, and the themes of relativity. The characters of Drift travel in huge generation ships along a circuit of planets. While a few years may pass on the circuit ship, decades pass on the circuit worlds. This month I will focus on an unusual, but quite useful approach to character development used in Drift, a zero sum mechanic.

Changes are Coming

Character development is a very important mechanic of any RPG intended for long term play. Most players expect their characters to change, and want to have some control over how this happens. But the exact way that change is handled is something which must be carefully considered in light of the goals of your design. The following are some examples:

Climbing Effectiveness - This is the most common type of character development in RPGs. With this mechanic characters change by increasing their ability to change the game world and overcome challenges. Often this is linked with a reward mechanic, as the ability to overcome harder challenges or exercise greater control over the world is seen as enhancing the game.

Falling Effectiveness - This is far less common, because for the same reasons that increased effectiveness is seen as a reward, decreasing effectiveness is viewed as a punishment or penalty. Falling effectiveness is often placed in a small role, serving as an internal antagonist to the character. This approach fits well with games focusing on self-sacrifice or degradation.

Zero-Sum Effectiveness - Largely unexplored, zero-sum effectiveness does not involve changing the quantity of effectiveness, but rather the quality of it. Effectiveness is moved from one regime to another, for example, choosing to neglect swordplay to work on social skills. This method lends itself to a currency of effectiveness, which can then be moved between different applications, while the total remains constant.

Race to the Finish - While effectiveness can be scaled arbitrarily, a race for the finish approach to character development is based on a definite ending, whether positive or negative. In either case your character is lost at that point. This type of mechanic, whether it be falling into madness or attaining divine ascension defines the characters by their place on that path.

Character Discovery - Truly pervasive, character discovery is rarely used as a mechanic in its own right. This method of character development is based on expanding the available information about the character, either by new events or by adding past details. Some games codify this with narrative descriptors or by adding to a written text that describes the character.

Episodic - Perhaps the strangest of these approaches is episodic development. In this method, characters acquire special capability and description purely for the purposes of a local session or episode. Later these are removed, as other aspects are added to the base character for the next episode.

Since Drift utilizes a primarily zero-sum mechanics, the first design element to consider is what will be the currency of effectiveness.

Truths and Insights

The currency of Drift is that of Cultural Truths and Technological Insights. Each truth and each insight represents an area of ability, in the former case a physical and social capability, while in the later an ability to find a technological solution to the current problem. The following are some example truths:

Aspiration: Knowledge - The advancement of humanity is defined most directly by the body of knowledge that has been accumulated. Without this we would be nothing more than animals.

Law and Order - Society exists because of the rules that must be obeyed. Following those rules provides the necessary structure for humans to grow beyond their humble beginnings.

Sin: Anger - To be clouded in judgment and to show anger to another human is to insult the rise above the beasts. Humanity is beyond such unconsidered action. Violence carries a determined nature and it is with determination that is should be performed.

Virtue: Sincerity - Perception of dishonesty is a break down in the ability to interact in a real society. Truth is less important than the social obligation of being of one face.

And here are some example insights:

In a Long Enough Time Span - Patience allows meaningless data to take on a more structured form, as the irregularities pass away, only the true nature of the system remains. Technologies: Subtle Genengineering, Astrogation, Experimental Sociology

More Power - Any problem can be solved with the sufficient application of force. The hard part lies in delivery. Technologies: Weaponry, Power Systems, Conditioning

Principle: Unification - The goal of unification reveals deep structure other attempts at investigation often miss. Technologies: Theoretical Physics, Political Theory, Quantum Chemistry

Each character has a total of five truths and insights, and at least one of each. Where the character development comes in is how characters gain and lose them.

Impetus for Change

Drift uses a simple resource system called Impetus to reflect the amount of force and effort a character puts into an action. Each session, players receive a certain amount of impetus to expend, and when they expend them to better perform an action they are marked with the truth or insight used. Since actions can be made untrained, impetus spent for these are added to an special undesignated category, one for insights and one for truths.

Once the impetus reaches a critical mass on an undesignated category, the truth or insight with the lowest impetus is lost, and replaced by a new truth or insight. This process is not entirely free-form. Because the character has suffered a loss of a core part of his or her self, the recovery cannot be delayed, instead he or she acquires insights and truths from the society of the ship, and possibly the local planet.

Radical ideas and understanding drift into orthodoxy. Cultural pride and confidence are lost as the situations that led to them drift away. The wheat of the character is separated from the everchanging chaff, and the stalwart must decide to hold fast to an ideal that has long since passed, or succumb to the ravages of time and space.

Drift has both a surface structure of simple space opera missions, and the deep structure of dealing with cultural change. Next week I'll discuss what this means in terms of the play content theory of RPGs.

Next Month: Death of Culture

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