Friday, 16 September 2016

How High Frontier builds futures

I've been a little hesitant about talking about the design work going into the High Frontier RPG since the arguments of the politest naysayers to my first post about it  can be approximated by "I haven't been to Russia so it can't exist." There are far less polite responses on the High Frontier board game mailing list, so I appreciate the general tone of the arguments being made in the comments - I'm just not swayed by them because among other things, they miss the fundamental fact that the person whose post I linked to is not just a hysterical tumblr user, but someone who has actually won a landmark precedent setting court case on the exact thing I was talking about.

Nonetheless, I'm also feeling guilty about a throwaway line I made in the last design post, which I think needs clarification and expansion on:
"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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