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Speculative Physics

Two for One

by Mendel Schmiedekamp
Aug 19,2005


Two for One

Last month I mentioned that I participated in the annual 24 hour RPG grand act. The rules of a 24 hour RPG are simple, one person designs and writes a complete RPG in 24 hours. Now, I've done several iron game designer competitions, my favorite of which was a week long competition while I was writing my master's thesis. I knew in advance that I only had an hour to design and write the game. The result was a short little game called Obscurity, where you play a self-aware song that sticks in people's heads trying to change the world.

So coming into the grand act, I decided to make things more of a challenge. First, while I have numerous ideas for RPGs floating around, I restricted myself to having no pre-planning, coming up with the core inspiration during the 24 hours. Second, I decided that instead of just doing one 24 hour RPG, I would write two, consecutively. Here's how it went.

Speed Design

When I decided to write two consecutive RPGs, I realized this cuts much of the slack from the 24 hour design. Since I needed to be close to peak for the second day, I couldn't cut things to the wire the previous day. All-nighters are far to dangerous, not to mention the hazards of finishing a weekend with very little sleep. In general, you can put off more things for 24 hours, than you can for 48 hours. This meant I couldn't afford to fall behind schedule at any time.

To solve this problem, I decided to use a game design technique that I've mentioned several times during over this column, holistic game design. Since I had flexibility over what the final RPG would turn out to be, I could drive the design by picking a seed idea, and iterating from setting to system and vice versa to build a game that fits together quickly.

The particulars of holistic game design can be found in the first article of this column, and several applications of it can be found in Oppositional Mechanics and Fuzzy Alchemy, with the protracted example of Roads of Enlightenment - here, here, and here.


My first 24 hour RPG is Transmutation. The initial seed for Transmutation was a mechanic based around a non-commutative group. Essentially, it is a system where you add two elements together to produce a third element, however unlike normal addition, the order of addition does matter. The smallest non-commutative group is the group of symmetries of the triangle, which has six elements. Not wanting to over-commit I decided to use this group, and to convert the natural structure of this group into an alchemical system, keeping the name elements and the structure of the group.

The alchemical system of Transmutation is the core of the setting. Unlike the cyclic structure of most alchemy, this group has a three level structure. At the top level is the identity element, which preserves all elements. I chose this as crystal, determining that once the fantasy world of Transmutation was pure unblemished crystal. The next level has two elements, which are their own opposites. I decided to assign these to traditional elements of alchemical change: sulfur and mercury. In alchemy there is a third element in that triad, salt. Because of this salt naturally associates with crystal. I decided that salt would represent a blight, a loss of the potential inherent in crystal. The third level of elements are three elements which have the most complex interactions. These became wood, fire, and water, with water leaving behind salt and thus being the destructive element.

Now that I had the basics of the setting, and the core mechanic (transforming elements to achieve the desired element). I needed to determine how characters worked. First characters needed a reserve of elements to expend altering the basic elements of a situation. I broke this reserve into body and mind. Also, to expand character options, I added another alchemical feature, formula.

For example, Hadasen is attempting to identify a creature he has spotted deep in the crystal wastelands. The GM draws a random element, it is a water. He needs to transmute that element to either a fire (for knowledge) or a mercury (for perception) to succeed, using one of the elements he has under mind. He needs either mercury or fire to do so (adding one to water produces the other). If he had the formula Learned (Beasts), then he would also succeed on a crystal, meaning a water element would also suffice.

In short, Transmutation is an RPG set in an exotic world, ruled by a strange form of alchemy. Characters seek to make their mark in the world, before succumbing to dreaded salt.


After completing Transmutation, I decided to work on something quite a bit different, a game of emotional and social combat, Savagery. After brainstorming the idea, I decided to make Savagery structured as a gladiatorial style of game, but focusing on social interaction and emotional violence, rather than physical violence.

The first mechanic to come from that setting was the idea of alternating scenes, from sparing scenes to actual combat. In Savagery, the sparing scenes are called club scenes, where characters all meet, presumably under the auspices of a newly formed club and talk about how they want to change their lives, while occasionally engaging in social combat with other players. These alternate with trigger scenes where a character confronts some aspect of his or her life, based on the character's particular drives.

Given the scene structure, of focusing on a character at a time, a general theme of change fits Savagery well. The specific type of change, whether for the better, for something different, or for the worse, works much better as an overarching theme. This meant adjusting the game to handle different types of play, from a descent into madness and despair to a fight to control your own life.

The second major mechanic of Savagery is the way that social attacks are made. I wanted a quick mechanic, that incorporated a fair amount of depth. The solution I found was to use a core roll of a d6 + d8 + modifiers versus 8 + modifiers. This determined the success of the attack. If it was successful, the individual dice then produced the result of the attack (one die was damage, the other was location).

With the idea of emotional locations, I split character's psyche into five different rating: Ego, Empathy, Ideals, Libido, and Reason. These added to attacks and defense (depending on the particular combat maneuvers) and were damaged by successful attacks. These and the drives formed the core of a character. The last step was to combine the different emotional combat maneuvers into sets, appropriately named fighting styles (such as Intimidator, Seducer, and Whiner).

Savagery is a game of violence, but not physical violence. Instead it explores the world of social combat and emotional violence, to its greatest heights and depths.

After developing Transmutation, I've realized that groups and related structures are even more useful for game design that I first thought. Next month I will explore some of that vein.

Next Month: Groups Redux

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