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Speculative Physics

The Homeworld Project

by Mendel Schmiedekamp
Apr 30,2003

 

The Homeworld Project

The first item that needs to be considered in any design project is the ultimate goals of the project. This is the only way accurate analysis can be performed on the resulting product.

Design Goals:

  • Genre emulation (see below)
  • Strongly reward player creativity
  • Stress discovery and creation themes
  • Keep mechanics fairly simple

Astral Space Opera

The core of Homeworld Project is the setting. This game is to be set in a translation of the space opera genre to the domain of astral space. In some ways this causes bizarre juxtaposition, in other ways these settings merge nicely. In order to understand what this combined setting requires, it is first necessary to look at the core elements for it's parent settings.

Astral space as a setting has a variety of interpretations. However several key elements are necessary for astral space to be recognized as such. First, ideas are accessible as physical objects in astral space. Second, the strength of belief and will translate into "physical" ability in astral space. Third, astral space exists between physical reality and something else. And lastly, in astral space everything has deeper levels than readily apparent. Astral space is usually the place where strange quests and journeys occur, so one of the key themes of any astral space game will need to be journeys.

Space opera is a more common setting which tends to be considered a particular form of soft science fiction or science fantasy. The key elements tend to be related to the dramatics of the setting, as well as the more tangible elements. The dramatic elements include a heightened sense of heroism and drama, mostly centering on the idea that individuals make a difference. The main characters will always be able to change the setting, often in significant ways, this is a central element of space opera. While the setting is vast, its evolution simply mirrors that of the main characters. Another key element is that of "cinematic" events and actions, characters are not meant to act realistically, and so are capable of going beyond the norm. The more direct setting elements of space opera include ships, aliens, and strange locales. While none of these are strictly necessary, they are often staples of the genre.

In combining the elements of two genres it's first necessary to find the elements which have a strong similarity. One of the main links is what is expected of characters in both genres. In both cases individuals will act larger than life. Not merely dramatic, there is a strong sense that will provides the way to success. In both genres this is a prominent element, hence it should be stressed in the design of the character system. Another major link is the strong sense of ramifications of actions. The setting is ultimately malleable, and changes can result from character actions of nearly any kind. This likewise should be central to the game mechanics, players should overtly feel the setting change as their characters do. Given the astral space elements, this should be as direct as possible. Lastly the motif of journeys and quests is central to both genres. Hence this sort of play should be mechanically supported, and made as natural as possible in the game play itself.

Other elements found in either setting should be supported in as much as they don't detract from the other genre. Fortunately both astral space and space opera lend themselves to weirdness, and thus are quite accommodating. Huge armadas and exotic worlds are quite appropriate, especially as the nature of astral space allows us to play fast and loose with all sorts of physical and metaphysical laws. Likewise astral space allows a range of strange creatures, each with a mixture of alien and human, a common staple of space opera as well. Another important element to consider is the frontier, the boundary into the unknown. In astral space this is a place of danger and mystery, while in space opera there is a more free-wheeling sense. A mixture of these may prove difficult, so it seems best to choose one approach. In this case a more mysterious frontier seems appropriate, treating the "outside" as a place of even more alien nature, rather than a place of totally new discovery.

Core Elements of Homeworld Project

  1. Choices are as important as abilities
  2. Some things are inevitable.
  3. Strength comes from building, or tearing things down.
  4. Every journey is eventful.
  5. There is always another way.

First Instatiation

The first mechanics of a game are a tricky element to design. They are often the first real aspect of the game defined, and will likely limit the creative space for the game for the rest of the design process. This is the case even when the process ultimately discards some of those mechanics. This is why the core elements of the game should be considered vital for the development of the core mechanics, by keeping the setting and system elements linked at this stage, the game will be more tightly developed. This is a key aspect of holistic design, start building the system from the setting, and the setting from the system as soon as possible.

Dramatic Dice

A resolution mechanic is a useful, if dangerous element to design first. Often the resolution mechanic will provide a variety of themes and setting changes, especially as it becomes incorporated in most of the system. As such, the first step to designing a mechanic of this sort is to decide what features it should possess. First, considering our design goals it should lend itself to dramatic results, since this is a key part of the genre. Second, also based on the design goals, it should be a fairly simple mechanic. Third, the mechanic chosen should incorporate some of the core ideas, so that they become implicit in the the subsequent system. In particular the first two ideas seem to fit a resolution mechanic well, so the mechanic should stress choices, but also consist of some inevitable results.

In considering various dice mechanics, it occurred to me that there is an element common in dramatic literature and movies which tends is rarely incorporated in a dice mechanic. This element is the reversal of fortunes. A swashbuckling scene doesn't have characters seemingly randomly hitting each other until one passes out or dies. Rather there is a chain of successes on the part of one combatant, or a chain of failures on the part of another. In either case there is a crescendo of drama, the successes or failures build momentum as time passes. Then suddenly they are altered, and the crescendo ceases, only to be replaced shortly with another. Considering this situation, it seems that a dice mechanic that would simulate this effect might be useful for incorporating drama into the game. Further, since this crescendo mechanic would involve some awareness of the success or failure of later actions this mechanic implicitly incorporates the importance of character choices.

Consider the following mechanic for rolling a 10 sided die, given two numbers, A and B:

  • If the value showing is less than A and greater than 1, reduce the value by 1.
  • If the value showing is greater than B, and less than 10, increase the value by 1.
  • Otherwise roll the die for a new value.

In this mechanic, the numbers A and B are called the fortune values. Note also that ultimately another die, rather than a 10 sided may be preferable, but the basic probabilities will be much easier to calculate using a 10 sided die. Another interesting facet of this mechanic is that once a chain begins a 1 or a 10 will always result, giving a sense of inevitability as desired by the second core idea. The following table gives the probabilities assuming a fair 10 sided die for fortune values A - B:

Fortune Values
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
1 - 10
10 %
10 %
10 %
10 %
10 %
10 %
10 %
10 %
10 %
10 %
2 - 9
18 %
8 %
8 %
8 %
8 %
8 %
8 %
8 %
8 %
18 %
3 - 8
22.8 %
12.8 %
4.8 %
4.8 %
4.8 %
4.8 %
4.8 %
4.8 %
12.8 %
22.8 %
4 - 7
24.72 %
14.72 %
6.72 %
1.92 %
1.92 %
1.92 %
1.92 %
6.72 %
14.72 %
24.72%
5 - 6
25.004 %
15.004 %
7.004 %
2.304 %
0.384 %
0.384 %
2.304%
7.004%
15.004 %
25.004 %
2 - 10
19 %
9 %
9 %
9 %
9 %
9 %
9 %
9 %
9 %
9 %
3 - 9
25.3 %
15.3 %
6.3 %
6.3 %
6.3 %
6.3 %
6.3 %
6.3 %
6.3 %
15.3 %
4 - 8
 29.08 %
19.08 %
10.08 %
3.78 %
3.78 %
3.78 %
3.78 %
3.78 %
10.08 %
19.08 %
5 - 7
29.395 %
19.395 %
10.395 %
4.095 %
0.945 %
0.945 %
0.945 %
4.095
10.395
19.395 %
3 - 10
26.2 %
16.2 %
7.2 %
7.2 %
7.2 %
7.2 %
7.2 %
7.2 %
7.2 %
7.2 %
4 - 9
30.52 %
20.52 %
11.52 %
4.32 %
4.32 %
4.32 %
4.32 %
4.32 %
4.32 %
11.52 %
5 - 8
31.248 %
21.248 %
12.248 %
5.048 %
1.728 %
1.728 %
1.728 %
1.728 %
5.048 %
12.248 %
4 - 10
31.24 %
21.24 %
12.24 %
5.04 %
5.04 %
5.04 %
5.04 %
5.04 %
5.04 %
5.04 %
5 - 9
33.76 %
23.76 %
14.76 %
7.56 %
2.52 %
2.52 %
2.52 %
2.52 %
2.52 %
7.56 %
5 - 10
34.264 %
24.264 %
15.264 %
8.064 %
3.024 %
3.024 %
3.024 %
3.024 %
3.024 %
3.024 %

Note: This table is symmetric with the probability for a number X with fortune values A and B being the same as for (11 - X) with fortune values (11 - B) and (11 - A), respectively.

One interesting fact of this mechanic is that it can behave essentially as an inverted bell curve. This is a fairly difficult distribution to generate, but is also useful for providing a more dramatic resolution mechanic. Also considering the significant effects of even small changes in the fortune values, it seems preferable to use 12 sided dice in place of 10 sided, so as to provide a little more room to differentiate characters by their fortune values.

In order to keep the system simple it seems best to make the general decision that nothing will ever modify the result of the die roll. This means all results will always be between 1 and 12, so there's no need for any added complication to interpret the roll. This is intended to help keep the system simpler.

Grains to Build Worlds on ...

While choices are important, ability should also play some role in the success of an action. But given our core ideas abilities should be based on changes to the setting, the evoke this idea more strongly call them grains. Then as characters influence the setting the grains slowly grow, adding layers, incorporating the imagery of growing a pearl. In addition grains are items of irritation, making them well suited to causing events, as well as being improved by them. As a result grains can be directly used to link to the fourth core idea, making each journey eventful.

The mechanical side of grains is the effect of layers on the dice mechanic. Since the use of additive modifiers is deprecated, it would be most likely best to allow a layer to be temporarily expended to roll the dice once again. This provides an interesting effect, since it shortens a chain, but also increases the effect as the end of the chain is approached. On the other hand, some things should remain inevitable, so while a layer may be expended to re-roll in general, this cannot be used if the die is showing a 1 or a 12. This ensures that once a chain begins, it will reach it's eventual end.

This is, considering, a fairly simple mechanic, and does not need more complication. Again choices play a significant role in the use of grains, especially since their use may be a poor decision in some cases. Grains will be developed further as the design continues, but at the moment it seems likely that, combined with the two fortune values, grains define what a given character is and can do. Meaning characters in Homeworld Project will consist primarily of grains, and their associated layers.

This evidences a notable problem, the genre of Astral Space Opera is rife with archetypes, but by placing no restriction on grains, archetypes seem unlikely to arise. There are several approaches to this problem.

But at Least I Had My Panache

Introducing archetypes can be a dangerous thing, it can cause the players to be overly limited in terms of how they can approach the setting, and it can hinder the creativity of the players in playing the game. Two things that should be avoided in this design. Hence a proscriptive archetype, such as those used by many popular games seems overly restrictive. Instead, the archetypes, owing to the astral nature of the setting, can be made part of the setting, and hence characters possess archetypes descriptively. In other words, a character is not chosen as a mystic, but rather in examining a character, it will become apparent that this character primiarily uses the mystic's approach, and hence is considered a mystic. Since this version of archetypes is more related to approaches and the style of the character, the term panache seems apt to describe it.

Several elements of panache need to be described. First, panache is defined by a character's grains. Each grain is attuned to one of the panache, and which ever panache has the highest number of layers is the dominant one. Second, a dominant panache has provides a modifier to the fortune values. After all, a veteran relies less upon luck and chance than a hot shot. Third, panache influences which grains will tend to spark during a journey, and how a given character is viewed.

By building panache in this way, it is necessary to make sure that no single panache can dominate any field. Ultimately the choice of a panache is motivated by which approach is taken in a variety of areas, not the need to find solutions to one particular arena. In this way panache fulfils the requirements of the fifth core idea, providing multiple approaches to any given problem.

Next Month: More on Homeworld Project: Modes, Grains, and Journeys

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