spacerpunk: reboot commentary

See also:

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.

current projects: summer 2012

A roundup of my current design projects. Please let me know if any of these are of particular interest, since that will encourage me to get those to completion.

Main Project

I’m the founder of a social games startup, Bold Lantern! I’m so busy with my first prototype that I don’t even have much of a website! This project is taking up a lot of design energy. I will probably talk about my social design work elsewhere, since this is mainly hobbyist design – which is still a great outlet for me.

Secondary Project

Meanwhile, Spacerpunk continues. I had some talks with Laura to pin down some evolving goals. A full-scale rewrite is possible; to be fair, this is because what I’d want out of play has simply changed that much, and I’ve finally taken stock of that.

This is, indeed, my white whale project, and I really want this done by my 30th birthday for a variety of reasons. If I can complete this, I can maybe establish a process of how to get your favorite project unstuck (and help some fellow designers), as opposed to being a cautionary tale.

So: July 24th. I’m 30, and Spacerpunk’s almost-final ashcan will be out there. I’m doing this crazy birthday retreat thing with a bunch of other Leos, and maybe I’ll aim for a 30-minute session there to show it off. I’m raising the banners and calling for aid to finish this one. Or else I’m throwing it out of the airlock.

Backburned and Half-Baked

  • I know that I must write the epic Indian Fantasy RPG. This is an important project, one that I’d hope to play with my kids. I’ve gotta do some reading and prep to make this real. I should probably commit to writing several of these in the long run (so that I don’t get overperfectionist on finishing the first one).
  • Dunn Deagro is my imagining of a basic D&D-like game from a timeline, except based upon a different “base four” standard classes, and drawing from faux-renaissance inspirations and heist movies, rather than faux-medieval dungeon crawls. If I use Dungeon World as the basis, I could see this being the Dark Sun of that game. I really shouldn’t work on this until I read The Lies of Locke Lamora.
  • A “Mage” heartbreaker/homage built on Robert Scott’s forthcoming Urban Tarot cards.
  • I wrote Walk Through The Forge for the last Game Chef. I want to play it once to see if it has a core worth refining. I didn’t think a narrativist wargame was at my design forefront, but I secretly wonder if this game actually has something brilliant to it.
  • I’m working on the opposite of spacerpunk: Sad Tale Of Space Detectives. If you prefer to your rollicking space opera adventure to primarily consist of staring sadly into the darkness of space with dead eyes and a broken heart, this is your game!
  • I talked about a Limit Break Manifesto on G+, describing my ideal fantasy game that seems starkly different from the direction of D&D 5e. I may wait to see if Pact or 13th Age end up designing this for me.
  • There will be team-ups with Little Octopus Games so that our mutual games see completion!

Many of these will chill out in backburner for a while or forever! I’m either musing about them or else I’m fundamentally certain I’ll make them eventually, so I don’t feel the need the get hardcore on them. What I should do is fervently read source material until ideas/enthusiasm reach a critical mass.

[harbor] a very small amount of conflict resolution

What’s interesting about Harbor so far is the idea of a “conflict resolution / fallout” system that is present but should only be usable once – at most – during the game. Gameplay is balanced about the threat of incurring fallout and the desire to avoid it. It should be a core component of the game. Here’s just the relevant bit of that, with the specifics filtered out.

Your father came here from the old country and used his old connections to create a prosperous shipping company. You return after a long absense to find that your people’s way of life is beset at all sides by dangers. The harbor is in peril.

The game is for two players. One player (“player”) portrays the character returing to the harbor after an absence; the other represents everyone else (“GM”).


Once every Threat has left the game board, proceed to endgame. It is possible that all threats will be voluntarily removed from the board, and both parties should consider this outcome.

However, it is possible that the player or GM will call of a Resolution of Conflicts. This will drive the game definitely towards the end.


This stage is more limited. Each round proceeds as follows:

1. The GM selects a Threat and sets a scene with those NPCs who would be working towards achieving this threat, as well as other NPCs who would be present otherwise. The player is probably present, or may be acting through other NPCs and proxies.
2. The GM will either choose to (a) abandon on the Threat or (b) attempt to achieve it.
3. In response to (b), the player may either choose to step aside and let it come to pass, or she may reveal the cards she has bid against it and inflict fallout. This will block the Threat from occurring. See the “Fallout” section below to see how that is narrated
4. If the Threat was blocked or abandoned, the player narrates what comes to pass. If it is achieved, the GM narrates the outcome. In either case, the Threat is removed from the board.
5. Repeat these steps until all Threats are gone from the board.


The suits determine how success can occur. If the suit appears, then this method must have been involved in your success.

* Hearts: an appeal to guilt, love, shame or loyalty.
* Diamonds: an appeal to self-interest or greed.
* Spades: the threat of violence or legal action.
* Clubs: the use of actual violence; actual physical harm occcurs.

The player narrates how the action took place.

The highest card of each suit determines the kind of fallout that occurs as a result

* [low] 2-4: They give in, your actions work against you in other ways. The GM will select a different Threat and remove a card that you bid against it.
* [medium] 5-10: They buckle to your show of force and suffer personally.
* [high] JQKA: They leave the game, either through exile, death, imprisonment or some other fate.
* If there are any paired cards, an additional character receives the highest level of fallout.
* If the highest level of fallout occurred, the GM may introduce an immediate followup threat if appropriate.

The GM narrates the above.

[spacerpunk] Opening Soundtrack from the Animated Series

I just uncovered this from my old archives! Back when I ran the first version of Spacerpunk in 2004, I tried to re-cut the Chumbawamba track “Pass It Along” into “the opening theme song” (if this game were a TV show). Check it out: SpacerPunk2259_TitleTheme

So: Does it hold up? Any suggestions for new soundtrack?

(Listening to it brings back fond memories. I don’t care about the haters: spacerpunk for life.)

(Also, jeez, 2004? Yeah.)

are you ready to get shakesplattered?

This year’s Game Chef had the theme of Shakespeare – a fabulous and enticing theme, to be sure. And so I present to you my absurdist game chef entry:


Elevator Pitch: “SHAKESPLATTER & SPEAREMAGEDDON: The Director portrays scenes from Shakespeare. The players pick classes and cool powers. Explosions. Death.”


LFG: Spacerpunk ONLINE sometimes

I’d like to have a rotating group of people to shepherd into some short games/demos of SpacerPunk in order to hammer out kinks and try new ideas. Sessions should be:

* infrequent, ad-hoc, participatory
* short (~1hr)
* virtual (probably via Google Hangouts)

These are ideally some short iterations to try out new ideas of mine quickly. Let me know if you’re interested.

Am I applying agile processes to this game design? Perhaps.