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Speculative Physics

Death of Culture

by Mendel Schmiedekamp
Jul 27,2005

 

Death of Culture

A few months ago I wrote a series of articles presenting a novel approach to roleplaying theory, here, here, and here. One of the core ideas of this approach is that identifying the patterns within roleplaying. This idea also lends itself to analyzing the games themselves, by discerning what patterns are predominant in the structure of the game. These patterns provide a basis for the patterns which arise in play and suggest for what purposes the RPG is well suited. Now lets see for what purposes Drift is best suited.

The Flow of Impetus

The first level of structure in Drift is how impetus affects character growth. Impetus is a mechanic which allows the player to decide how important a particular action may be. However, impetus is only applied on actions that initially fail. This means that impetus can only be spent on challenging actions. However because impetus is a limited resource, the need to use it is balanced by the desire to use it where you want.

Because impetus controls character development, players will often want to limit their use of impetus to the insights and truths they wish to keep. At the same time, it is far easier to use a large amount of impetus on the undesignated insight and truth, due to how difficult those types of rolls can be. Ultimately, players must seek to challenge their character, and more importantly choose the right challenges.

However, change is almost inevitable. The undesignated impetus doesn't go away. And, that means that the character will be changing at some point. Characters will move through different sets of truths and insights, trying new ideas and discarding old ones. The core of this movement is driven by impetus, directed by both necessity and intent.

This structure is the explorer's path. It is a meandering through a space of possibilities, often seeking something, but driven step by step. This is distinct from a true network pattern where the network is expanded as a whole. This path also avoids being predominantly circular, acting as a journey rather than training. These facts imply that the impetus mechanic best fits declarative learning, rather than the networks of cultural learning or the cycles of procedural learning.

In particular, the declarative views supported by this mechanic will be those that focus on personal change and the influence of culture on the traveler. This is particularly interesting, as on the face, both of these topics appear to suit a cultural approach to play. This is an important lesson, the nature of the content is less important than the structure of the content. The nature appears to reflect cultural learning, but the structure is that of a journey, and that journey lends itself primarily to declarative learning.

Remember the Mission

Above the level of impetus and action, is the level of missions. Ultimately, a game of Drift is a sequence of missions, where players arrive at a world, or are faced with a problem during transit. Each mission is different, but they all require the player characters to find a solution. At the same time there is an over-arching push to solve the mission using certain truths and insights, among the players.

Thus each mission presents itself as a tool based problem. Players approach a mission with a set of tools they want to use, and a larger set of tools that are available, but less desired. After each mission, they can identify how they performed by the distribution of impetus. This generates a cyclic pattern, not on how to complete a mission as much as how to complete it they way the players want. This cyclic pattern neatly arises, suggesting that at the mission level Drift lends itself to procedural learning.

The Circuit of Worlds

One level higher than missions, is the level of the circuit itself. At first appearances the circuit of worlds seems to be yet another journey, traveling from world to world. This is initially true, until worlds begin to be repeated. This gives a cyclic structure to the circuit, but in fact, because of the drift of each world, this cycle ends up being a spiral, as each world changes in its own way. It should also be remembered that some portion of these worlds will be homeworlds for the characters.

As a result, this spiral is an outward evolution, moving away from the character's initial states and each evolving independently. As a result, this structure is a hybrid, exploring a graph, but also representing two journeys at once: one around the circuit and one through time on each world. Since this structure is a borderline, it can easily lend itself to both cultural and declarative learning.

The Lightning Path

At different levels of structure, Drift can support different views. One player could play with a view on character development, another with a view on impetus management during missions, and a third on experiencing how planetary cultures can change over time. In essence, all of those views can co-exist safely, more easily than, say, a view based on physical exploration and a view based on inter-character romance. The game supports certain types of views, by incorporating those structures, and since those structures are not mutually exclusive, those views augment each other.

This is especially important, the similarity of content is less important than the coincidence of the structures of that content. What's more this type of coincidence of structure, permits multi-level views. A player could in fact have a view that incorporates both impetus management on missions and seeing how the circuit worlds change. This is because these structures coexist and do not interfere with each other, thanks to the design of the game.

All games are forced to limit support to a small subset of learning, this subset need not be limited to a category of learning, nor are the views of its players limited to a single type of pattern. What is important is that the patterns interact positively. This is perhaps the most important requirement for functional play, that the patterns each player is looking for can coexist and even support each other.

Over this weekend and next weekend is the 24 hour RPG Grand Act, where game designers challenge themselves to design and write a RPG in 24 hours. During the early portions of this column, I described an off-beat approach to game design called holistic game design. This approach works very well for experimental designs, and also rapid designs. So I decide to try my hand at not one 24 hour RPG, but two. Next month, I'll show you the results.

Next Month: Two for One

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