A Brief Introductionby Mendel Schmiedekamp
A Brief Introductionby Mendel Schmiedekamp
A Brief Introduction
What is Speculative Physics?
In its broadest sense a physic is a description of the world. It contains a collection of rules and procedures to simulate events. It also contains a framework by which one can relate the results of a physic to an actual event.
Speculative physics are collections of rules which describe non-actual events. The distinction is very important, but the similarities are also telling.
In the study of physics often a theory is developed with limited scope. Then the foundation for that theory is extended and generalized to permit a greater range of description. Philosophically the same attempts are made in RPGs. Look at the evolution of the original Vampire, Hero System, or D&D. The push to expand the simulated settings is a strong element in the evolution of RPGs.
On a smaller scale, the revisions of rules in RPGs follows a path similar to the development of a physical theory. In both cases, tests are performed. While in RPGs we call these playtests, and in physics we refer to them as experiments. In either case these are fitness evaluations, a check to see if the rules match the outcome.
There is one area where speculative physics necessarily differs: there is no such thing as a incorrect speculative physic.
The Scientific Method
When people are designing a RPG, they often start by developing at least the framework of the setting, and come playtest time, evaluate the mechanics based on their fitness to the setting. This process is analogous to the scientific method.
In RPGs, the developer generates some rules, and hypothesizes that they simulate some or all of a specified setting. They then apply these rules in a natural environment, ideally a typical group of players, and verify the results.
In science, the researcher develops a theory for how a specific portion of the world works, they then test this theory, by performing an experiment. The results of this experiment can then be used to determine the fitness of the theory.
However, just because the rules failed the test, does make them invalid. All it says is that those rules do not fit the setting. Very likely those rules do fit some setting, probably one that hasn't yet been developed. This is a significant change from natural to speculative physics, the rules can be useful, even if they don't describe the setting.
When a setting and a system of rules fail to match well enough, we have two options: modify the rules or modify the setting.
This is what speculative physics is. Not simply taking a setting and finding rules to fit it, but also taking a system of rules and finding a setting to fit it.
System and Setting: the Holistic Approach
In the holistic approach of game design, you exploit both options when you test the fitness of a system and a setting. In one instance you change the setting, in another the system. The idea is to find a preferred match by allowing you more control over the entire process.
An additional feature of this, is that it becomes easier to investigate more unusual settings and systems. Most of my future columns will be about just such investigations. Was there some mechanic, which you always like, but could never really find a way to fit into your setting? Or, perhaps an off the wall setting, which never quite permitted itself to accept a generic set of rules? These are the areas where holistic approaches are likely to bear fruit.
One major disadvantage of the holistic approach is that it's unpredictable. If you have a market niche in mind, this is likely not the best way to fill it. This is ultimately a research technique, for exploring and developing new ideas in RPGs. It's a way to think outside of the box, as it were, and build new options and ideas at a faster rate than other methods permit.
System to Setting: Considering the Consquences
What is it about a setting, that causes is to fit some systems and not others? What is wrong with running a game of Hong Kong style action using the rules for Nobilis? How about the Forgotten Realms, using Unknown Armies? Or perhaps a game of anime magical girls, using Obsidian? Likewise, using the game systems developed for these settings, would be just as inappropriate. Sure, it can be done, but you either need to modify the systems significantly, or keep covering for the discrepancies that occur using an ill fitting game system. To some extent these kinds of discrepancies always creep up, if only due to the different perspectives on the setting.
In order to discover what setting best fits a set of rules, you need to let the discrepancies fall where they may.
Consider the differences between different mechanics for avoiding death. In one game the best way is the be agile and dodge blows. In another game this is less effective than having a strong constitution and simply absorbing blows. This doesn't seem to make much difference at on set, but it makes a significant difference if you are describing what a band of military veterans should look and fight like.
Consider a magic system involving many spells of verbal nature. Would the accused, in any major crime, really be permitted to speak in her own defense? Consider also a magic system where materials can be fairly easily transmuted. Would precious metals be the currency? Would there be skilled mundane craftsmen, if magical crafting was more efficient and easier?
Each mechanic has it's consequences. By developing those, a setting begins to form, made from the internal logic of the game system. But by no means does the system determine everything in the setting, there are many choices to make, about how each part of the system affects things, as well as choices that the system ignores. Third edition D&D does not pick the number of continents on a planet, it doesn't even say there should be continents, or a planet for that matter.
Often the elements that are fixed most closely by a system are those directly important to playing the game, things like magic, combat, social manipulation, and investigation. These are what should matter in the setting as well.
Setting to System: Plumbing the Depths
What matters is what matters. Any game system that doesn't handle the core of a setting, the elements which are fundamental to it, doesn't fit the setting. For example, if the setting is meant has magical and technological forces in conflict, the system doesn't just need to have both magic and technology, it needs to specify on a basic level the interaction between them.
If you have a setting, some elements will be essential. No one describes the Star Wars universe, no matter how succinctly, without mentioning the Force. It is a fundamental aspect of the setting, and any system which fits that setting needs to have it as a fundamental feature. Both published Star Wars systems, while effective, fail to make the Force a fundamental part of the game.
The first step in holistically designing a system is to find the vital parts of the setting. David Brin's Uplift universe has a variety of key elements: first, the conflict between eons old ideas and new creativity; second, the sheer alieness of even the most similar species; and third, the importance of luck, good and bad. A game system which fits this universe, needs mechanics that permit some species to think more freely than others, while balancing this with access privileges to ancient lore. Further any social rules should be developed with an eye towards over coming species differences, or reinforcing them. Lastly the system should permit a significant chance for special results, positive and negative.
Once the fundamental elements are developed the remainder of the mechanics can be constructed, either by building around the framework or using the central mechanics to further detail the setting, and returning to mechanics with these new details in tow. This later method is the core of holistic game design.
Setting equals System?One of the side effects of the holistic approach is that it becomes increasingly hard to decide where the system ends and the setting begins. It's reasonable to say that a system is a collection of rules that defines what can happen. But at the same time, isn't this also what the setting is? Doesn't the setting define what can and cannot be in it? Is there any line to draw between them? There can be, but not always. And when that line starts to fade, that is when the setting and the system are starting to fit each other.