spacerpunk: reboot commentary

See also: spacerpunk.com

The structure of a reboot

Here’s the core of what I want from this space-operatic RPG: humble space opera stories, with a focus on the relationships amongst the crew of a starship and the emotional arcs of the people. Gameplay will feel episodic. I have more notes about the feel I’m going for, but you can also check out the “spacerpunk” tag here to see whats come before.

I recognize there are some different stories I want to tell, albeit within a given framework and backdrop. Stories of impoverished space smugglers are different from the tales of renegade space dissidents.

The game format will be primarily one-shots. A surprising evolution, but I realized that one-shot play — ad hoc games, local gameday or at a random con — will be where the great deal of play comes from, and I want to design for that. I realized also that the other kinds of long-form play I wanted to support — living campaigns and episodic campaigns — can both be built off a functional one-shot framework.

I came with two kinds of “peronas” for the kind of people I expect to play: (A) a former White Wolf afficianado, with an understanding of RPGs and a preference for character-centric stories; and (B) someone who is familiar with several story games, and often plays them in convention or one-shot contexts. The assumptions between these will clarify what I have to design. If the game is funcitonal for these personas, I may cover other ones (such as people with no such experience), but I’ll keep these in mind first.

On a stylistic note: I prefer a relatively “naturalistic” style to the mechanics, for lack of a better phrasing. I’ve seen games with an extreme focus in its take to narrativism – say, focusing each scene on a single character’s issue and providing explicit mechanical rewards in resolution based on addressing or resolving the narrative – and I think I’d like to have a lighter touch here. (Still: it’s hard to do so! Emergent effects are hard to craft, and either you incent something or you don’t.)

So here’s a partial list of the game elements I must create, given the above:

  • MODULE: CORE. Task resolution, including ways different characters are effective. [prototype: 90%]
  • MODULE: EMO. Mechanic for tracking progress of relationships and character arcs. [prototype: 60%]
  • TOOLKIT: CHARACTER CREATION. Creating a set of mostly-pregen characters with niches and plot hooks.
  • TOOLKIT: CREW CREATION. Linking the characters above with a crew agenda that changes through gameplay. I want gameplay to create that feeling of a crew as a shared culture/community.
  • TOOLKIT: LOCATION/SITUATION GENERATION. Creating a new location and plot hooks for a session of play. It doesn’t make sense to generate a situation in the session, but there still may be a stack of tables I use during pre-session prep.
  • DETAIL: WORLD. Write up the backdrop of a world in a few words as possible, since it’ll probably be explained for the first time at a given table.
  • Also: mechanics for enforcing a crew agenda, mechanics for special cases like markets or lasers.

How we got here

I am loath to admit it, but: my first notes were scribble down in ’03. I began by creating a generic space opera setting for a generic system. This evolved as my taste in games changed, to supporting diceless-generic systems and shared-authorship-systems and oracle-driven-systems and so on. I basically hung my ideas on a variety of new trends as they happened.

Over the years, it’s also inevitable that my taste in fiction and ideas changed. (When I first discovered Firefly, it changed my game in a strong direction. As I grew to have misgivings about some of its assumptions, that also changed the games. I wrote an essay outlining some of my frustrations, and got some epic responses.) The context in which I lived also changed. A young man in his twenties wants to tell stories of a small group of unseparable friends defying the universe. A man looking at the end of his twenties has learned of different stories.

Drift over time, and a fundamental incoherency to the game, was inevitable. There were some really interest moments of actual play achievement that are worth noting. I played a campaign with my friends in Cambridge (and unsurprisingly, the camraderie of that circle of friends echoed the camraderie I wished to capture). It was an absolutely successful campaign.

I later ran a LARP for friends, based on my ideas. This was a chance to quickly write a great deal of material, and what I saw was a great elucidation of the space opera world I wanted to create. For several hours, I really saw this active world taking part in conversations all around me, in real time.

Yet, in both of these: flaws were apparent. Neither game is something I’d run again, due to the revealed flaws, and due to my evolving taste. For example: I’m no longer enamored of the faction-centric design (which dominated the tabletop), and I’ve seen that the presence any space-western elements (as was a small portion the LARP) will dominates things and get everyone saying “y’all” and “the Verse”.

So, several more rewrites followed in early 2012, driving the idea into the ground and decimating my motivation. I perhaps was clinging too heavily to the idea of finishing it, just so I can chalk this up as complete.

The reboot was: a long session of brainstorming (complete with sticky notes and a large white wall), trying to get out all the ideas I had in mind, and finally trying to walk the ideas back, dropping anything that was not vital and trying to get to the essence of what I wanted. I kept throwing things away; it was quite difficult.

What I have left is an outline that may result in a game I’m willing to play at least once. If not: I’m ready to drop it out of the airlock and move on. See you in July.