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Speculative Physics


by Mendel Schmiedekamp
May 17,2005



Recently in this column, I've been relating more tools and ideas which can aid the holistic game designer. Whether using language structure as the source of inspiration, considering the ramifications of communication failures in RPGs, or examining RPGs as sources of learning, these ideas and theories help fill the tool box of game design.

But after a deluge of theory and tools, it is important to come back to the pragmatic. In this article I'll be presenting the methods, decisions, and effects of one of my experimental game designs. I hope you enjoy the ride.

The Conceit of Star Trek

When I set out to begin this design, I envisioned a game within the genre of space opera. Looking for a seed, I looked back at an old design of mine called Technobabble. One of the reasons to engage in experimental design is that game design is like any skill, you will only improve through practice. While the long term devotion to a single design project is valuable, when you are learning to design it is far better to engage in many different projects. Often those early games won't be very good, but over time you should be able to recognize what is what works and what doesn't.

Not only do those earlier games provide practice in the craft of game design, they also contain a wealth of ideas, if you can eliminate the chaff. For example, Technobabble was a generic space opera game set in a very high-tech setting. The basic idea of the game was that almost all problems in space opera are solved either by personal values or technology.

To provide technological solutions a character in Technobabble had access to a collection of words (such as "positron", "modulator", and "reverse-phase"). By combining words together they created a piece of "technobabble", which had certain utility in solving a problem (fortunately you are able to piece together a "reverse-phase positron modulator" using the ship's weapons systems). The assumption is that technology was so advanced that realistically, there is nothing that technology cannot do, if a character is creative enough.

However, technology is only part of the picture. Consider how often Captain Kirk defeats some alien monster who is clearly stronger or quicker, due to his courage and beliefs. If you wish to emulate Star Trek, it seems that having a strength attribute is largely superfluous. Instead the personal values of each character are what matter. In technobabble I attempted to design a system similar to the technology system to allow characters to possess their own unique philosophies, and apply them game mechanically. Unfortunately this is where that design fell apart. Things became too complex to work well, and philosophies didn't lend themselves to the same technobabble structures, unless the characters where literally high-tech roaming philosophers.

However the root idea of the conceit of Star Trek, that in a space opera your personal beliefs and technological insights are the important aspects of a character, is compelling. But I needed another piece to start building the game. And to do this I did what any good designer should do, I returned to the source material yet again.


Relativity has different meaning as a motif and as a theme. On one hand maintaining the restrictions of relativity create a complex web of requirements for the structure of society. Without the simplicity of faster than light travel or communication, the is an inherent limit to what humans can do, society and government can only grow so large. The distances between planets and systems introduce huge time lags into the dissemination of events, knowledge, and culture.

At the same time, those who travel at relativistic speeds find the rest of the universe passing by at a lightning pace. However because of the limitations of communication, it is these very people who have chance to keep up on the changes across star systems and respond to them. To do this we take the classic idea of a generation ship, and extend it to what I've termed a circuit ship. Exploration is important, but so is governance, technology, and culture. A circuit ship is the linchpin that holds a circuit of planets together.

These ships pass along a circuit of planets taking the best of each world as new blood and aiding the worlds along their circuits as they go. This is a ripe setting for a space opera game, with one caveat. Due to relativity, these circuit ships could take several years subjectively to complete a circuit of a dozen planets, and those same planets may perceive nearly a century between each circuit.

A situation like this brings in the other version of relativity, that of the distance and changes of perspective. Imagine being chosen to join a circuit ship, and passing through a circuit to return to a world where every has changed in almost a century. Your personal values were rooted by the world as it was when you left it, now you are adrift.

Growth and Drifting

Space opera as a genre tends towards a particular kind of personal development where a person starts as naive and weak, but with innate talent, and with the help of veteran characters attains his or her potential. This is doesn't fit the setting we've described as much. We expect that the characters are ones who have attained much of their potential, and while they may have some room for improvement, they are not likely to get much better.

Instead characters are adrift, on a huge ship which passes a circuit of ever changing worlds, their own identity is left without a frame of reference. Now they must choose to root within themselves or adapt to the changes around them. This is not advancement but drift.

Because of the importance of this idea I elected to call the game Drift. I believe this imparts the sense of change which is the central part of this game. Each character begins with some cultural truths and technological insights. Then they must decide what to do with them, whether to embrace or discard, whether to seek some new stability or change with the winds. But how do you design a system where you have character change without character growth? I call mechanics like that zero sum, after the type of mathematical game. Next month I'll show how I went about designing such a zero sum mechanic.

Next Month: Zero Sum

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