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Andrew Doull
Amateur game designer
Amateur game designer


I'm feeling a little guilty about this throwaway line in my last post.

"Unlike virtually every other RPG on the market (sans Microscope), High Frontier RPG does not have a fixed game world"

This is, of course, nonsense as every single game master can attest to - the game world evolves as soon as players being to interact with it. The caveat I should have added at the time was "unlike virtually every other published setting on the market" and even then that is insufficient, as much like comics, RPG settings have to be torn asunder and rewritten to account for inevitable power creep and conflicts in the stories set in them.

What I meant, is that the published setting for the High Frontier RPG consists of very few immutable rules: nuclear power in space, wet extra planetary locations, a new space race, and even then there's potential caveats and loop holes that may mean not even these are true - for instance, the data used to predict icy comets and Ceres, a frozen Mars and water in the clouds of Venus has turned out to be inaccurate but High Frontier relies so much on these places having useful amounts of water to keep the game balanced and interesting that it'd be a different game if these changes were made.

The rest of the High Frontier RPG universe is not fixed: its random and chaotic and procedurally generated from the players actions directly (you can go out and set up factories and colonies yourself to increase the tech level you have available) and indirectly (the chosen Space Politics will directly impact how the social, political and technological milieu of the game evolves). Even then, I'm only attempting to stuff 60 years into the rules (the average time simulated by a High Frontier board game) and borrowing heavily from all sorts of science fiction tropes to try to guide what this looks like.

At the heart of this system is trends: a trend determines what the next few impacts on the crew are - be it a technology they can begin using, or a change to the way they operate or the missions they get, or a new type of human they are forced to evolve into or are replaced by. I split the trends up into ones driven by Mission Control, ones driven by the political environment that Mission control works in, and wider social trends representing what long term trends are happening Earthside (as distinct from short term events).

I'm going to quote from one person's experience of messing around with the trend system rather than an actual game session, to give you a feel for what this might play like:

"I generated the equivalent of Luftwaffe-in-Space: Red MCSU - Crew Nationality German. Not sure how to determine starting politics (always Purple?), but I simply rolled for it at the beginning and started on Red as well.
In a fairly small number of turns:
-Zipped out to Ceres with a VASIMR-Orion combo and planted a factory.

-Performed an Orbital Bombardment Weapons Test at Deimos.

-Got assigned another refinery mission out to Dione, but rolled snake eyes when crossing Saturn's rings, ending things rather prematurely.

Other cool things that came up that would have been great for an RPG session:

-En route to Dione the Germans received an additional mission to rescue a stranded Indian crew...on Dione. Didn't know if it is possible to take multiple missions if the destinations for both of them are the same, but I never got there to find out. The RPG possibilities for that encounter would have been fantastic. "We're here to rescue you. Also this is our factory now. You seem upset, why?"

-Not sure if I was doing the Earthside trends correctly, but it was generally of an increasingly gruesome flavor thanks to the Red space politics. A whole lot of Ludditism, some Surveillance State, and by the time my Germans met their unlucky fate, someone down the well had built a tomb to Fearless Leader that was visible from space. Could see having to react to a parade of such things being really interesting (especially with a crew differing strongly from Earthside trends).

-Rolling for Stresses, the Military Payload Specialist ended up with Pacifist. Lots of interesting RPG potential there, though I never encountered a combat situation."

The intuitive approach for building trends would be to go with a technology tree style structure. But I know from previous experience that tech trees are very expensive time wise to create and balance, and often feel restricting rather than enabling. So I've ended up going with a tech era system, with a random table in each era determining the trend for the era. And about midway through the era there should be a trend change which rolls 1D6 + big positive or small negative bias, instead of 2D6 + small positive or negative bias, effectively moving from a wide band of overlapping options, to a much narrower band of less overlapping and more individually likely options.

And each subsequent era has the extremes going more, well extreme. The most authoritarian regimes start out merely performing Great Projects. They then move to being Big Brothers or Failed States, and then Homeward Hive or Forever Wars. And where they can end up? Well let's just say aggressive Grey Goo Berserker starships consuming everything in their path is only the second worst option.

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This is a repost of a new post on my somewhat inactive game design blog you might be interested in.

One of the key challenges of the High Frontier RPG is making the game GM-less. At first this was almost included as a throwaway line with the thinking that it'd play just like a cooperative legacy board game like Pandemic: Legacy and those are really easy to make, right :)

But what I hadn't initially envisioned as being an issue and what is increasingly becoming apparent is aside from scene setting, conflict resolution, rules arbitration and flavour - functions that the High Frontier RPG has answers for, the Game Master has another function which is far less easy to solve: maintaining the game state.

What I mean by this, is the information that is preserved when the game is packed up and put away at the end of the game session. Legacy board games solve this by recording the game state using the game components: you open packets, write on the board, tear cards up and so on, which ordinarily would be considered big problems with board games and are the 'controversial' part of a legacy game, but in reality provide this function transparently and intuitively without anyone having to write anything down.

The Game Master does this for RPGs: he's the storage engine of the game, the hard drive if you will to which any changes to the game supplements are recorded. But it's not the storage function that is important - because the player's have memories as well - so much as the integrity of this storage function: the game master is the final arbiter of truth in the game universe and what he or she remembers to be true is the ultimate truth modulo a player making a compelling argument otherwise.

I could of course just make one player perform the 'secretary' function, but to me this feels like the bad parts of being a game master without any of the fun stuff. Instead I've made a set of assumptions that may or may not be true for any individual game:
1. Information that is publicly shared to all the players is going to be remembered by the majority. This is a massive side step of the issue, but I'm going to develop some work sheets that'll help here - essentially a mission log, to allow players to record some of the random results so that the play events can be reconstructed. This mission log can be filled in by anyone, and should hopefully be easy to maintain.
2. Information that is secret, is secret but verifiable.

Secrets are going to be the really tricky part of the game. A lot of what constitutes secrets in most games are going to be replaced by random tables. Unlike virtually every other RPG on the market (sans Microscope), High Frontier RPG does not have a fixed game world - the game world dynamically evolves from the real world today into something unknown. So the fact that say the New Attica Secessionists are the result of, for instance, a massively multiplayer alternate reality game spiralling out of control, is a random number that is rolled on a table at the time you could potentially figure this piece of information out.

But there are important secrets that are going to be part of the game. The three secrets that players will actually care about are:

1. The psychological profile of the character.
2. Whether a piece of equipment or person or faction that we're relying on is actually reliable (defect cards) and to a lesser extent, upcoming events (although events could just be replaced by a random card drawn without too much loss).
3. For any published game scenario (one is planned so far): The origin and intentions of the scenario threat.

To encode all of this information, I'm going to use packets of playing cards.

Psychological profiles are encoded by turning two 1d6 rolls into two cards. Since crews have four players, there's a straight forward mapping of crew position to suit. And the encoding scheme is simply going to be the first card is the lowest roll, second card is the sum of the lowest plus highest roll. This is a incredibly weak cryptographic system, but I'm using this as an advantage in that showing another player one of your psychological profile cards is an incredibly important thing. More importantly, at the moment once your psychological profile is created, you don't get to hold the cards - they're dealt out to other crew members. And to verify this, the rest of the unused psychological profile cards are sealed back into the profile deck and signed by all players so if someone is accused of cheating, we can check the profile deck to see which cards are missing from each suit.

Defect cards are associated with individual ship components, or parts of the High Frontier playing board. That's the big downside with defects - you have to have the High Frontier playing board, and you probably have to leave it set up somewhere between play sessions. Tracking defects are the weakest part of the game, easily manipulated and prone to cheating, which is why they are optional, but they are a very cool idea originally used in the Leaving Earth board game and I hope people find them interesting enough to respect the rules governing them.

The origin and intentions cards for the game scenario has only just come up as I've started designing High Frontier RPG: Titan. I originally envisioned this as a solar system wide conflict simulator for people really into their military sci fi to play ultra-realistic space battles and campaigns. However at the same time I wanted to add a bit of mystery by having the actual nature of the big bad be randomly determined, and as it turns out, only two of the six planned origin stories are straight forward kill the bad guys - two of them are figure out the bad guys, and two of them are 'I didn't realise we were playing an RPG adaptation of Naked Lunch/Edge of Tomorrow/Thirteenth Floor'.

This is a bold experiment, and if it doesn't work, I have a backup plan to allow a game master to run the game with all of the above resources available to them. But I'd like to see this 'in the wild', not just in controlled play tests to see whether it works and whether players can adapt to the challenge.

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Firing up Google+ again because apparently the Google+ has quite good game design communities.
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Since when did every single person in my streams become a Google+ publicist? Enough already with the 'new Google+ feature' spam.
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Ok. I've decided that either Google or myself has it's sharing all back to front. If you want to follow what I have to say, please comment here with which circles you want me to add you to: Blog, Game Design, Roguelikes, Procedural Generation.
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Seems weird that Google didn't already integrate it, but this workaround actually does the job...
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