Friday 3 March 2023

Sixty Years In Space: Devlog 2

When I started writing Sixty Years in Space, there weren't as far as I was aware any TTRPG adaptations of board games. Dungeons and Dragons itself was an adaptation of a miniatures game, and that tradition had kept going, and a collectible card game had a an adaptation, but the overwhelming flow of adaptations was in the other direction. Board games, especially in the modern renaissance of board games, were prolifically adapting everything they could, either directly or inspired by. And video games in turn have begun borrowing ideas from board games and rapidly iterating on them, taking advantage of the fact that while a board game rarely gets more than 10 plays at the table, a board game-inspired video game might be able to get 10 plays an hour.

Board games have a number of cool ideas that could easily be adapted into TTRPGs. As someone pointed out on Twitter, board games have much, much cooler character sheets. Indie board game fans are are more comfortable with the idea of paying for things than indie TTRPG fans. I would argue that boardgames do a lot more work with a lot simpler maps and rules (although you are free to disagree). And board games sometimes do something else, which I'm going to term diegetic play.

Something strange occurred as I was writing Sixty Years In: I began to notice that reading the rules was part of playing the game.

For a start, that's a great excuse for allowing me to get away with making more rules. If reading the rules is part of playing the game, then more rules equals more game play. But I already had a great excuse: as long as nothing I wrote was as complicated as rocket movement in the High Frontier board game, I could get away with as writing as much as I wanted (and let's not start with the sins that the phrase living rules enables). So something else was up.

Monopoly is a much bullied game in the board game community in a way that ignores its popularity. Most of the Monopoly rules are terrible. But when you go to the bank in monopoly, you get handed money which is counted out by the banker, just like people of a certain age used to do in real life. And that's what I mean by diegetic play: the thing you do in the game mimics as closely as practical the thing you do in reality.

Reading the rules in Sixty Years In with a group of friends and figuring them out is as close to the experience of sitting in NASA mission control, with the spacecraft design and operating manuals out, trying to figure out a technical solution to an unexpected situation as I can make it. And that's not the only place I was able to introduce diegetic play. Creating a map can become diegetic play, if I make the process of creating the map follow the same order of operations as surveying a planet or star would follow in the real world. Running an exfiltration, while you watch from afar as red and blue teams move throughout a map, can become diegetic play. Calculating fuel allowances is diegetic play -- but building rockets in the board game is diegetic play but not in the TTRPG, so I've not been able to do this everywhere.

You might argue that even venerable Dungeons & Dragons has diegetic play every time you have a conversation with an NPC. But there's an inherent tension in every role-played conversation in every TTRPG: it is reliant on player-performance instead of character-performance. And moving figurines around the map is diegetic only in the miniatures forebears of D&D, mimicking the battle map a general might move their troops around during a combat operation. Except. Except if you recast yourself as a co-director of a fantasy movie, moving figurines around a map is just what you'd do with the stunt and special FX teams while you were planning out an action scene. And that's where D&D gets the closest to indie TTRPGs: the combat map is a collaboration between players and DM in much the same way that collaborative play is designed for and encouraged in many of these games.

Wednesday 1 March 2023

Sixty Years In Space: Devlog 1

Sixty Years In Space is available now at

Sixty Years In first came into being as a Google doc, then a collection of Google docs, early 2015. I had been working in my spare time (I didn't need much sleep) on the High Frontier 3rd editon - I am the uncredited developer of the edition of High Frontier Interstellar that was packed in as a stretch goal for that release and provided cheerleading, goading and playtesting on the 3rd edition proper.

Very quickly I recognized that this was a unique opportunity to develop a game unlike any other that I had played: by making it a table top roleplaying game I could give it unlimited scope (up to a billion years it turns out), by steering into the idea of the player characters being responsible for colonizing the solar system I could give them the ability to shape what the future looked like - the trade-off that the bump mechanic provides between personal gain and making sure the future is safe for everyone else was added very early on - and by making it act much like the board game I could get rid of the need for a GM which meant I could play it as well.

My background in roguelike game development meant I was comfortable with procedural generation mechanics, and thus the rough shape of the game formed. Player characters (crew) would be sent on randomly generated missions, encounter randomly generated spacecraft and visit randomly generated locations on fixed planets on the High Frontier map initially, but randomly generated elsewhere in the universe. And it would happen at High Frontier scales, which meant years would pass quickly - perhaps a decade in a play session. I had tried this previously in a much smaller game (Wisp) that was unfortunately lost due to a laptop hard drive failure, and much of A Lot of Zeroes is a spiritual successor to that game.

The next 8 years have been filled with figuring out what that exactly looks like and how much I had to create to fulfill those requirements. And how to make it fun.

Making the game GM-less immediately created a whole lot of challenges. The biggest one is the amount of bookkeeping required. Without a GM, I couldn't rely on any authorative game state being preserved implicitly in the game master's memory. So everything has to either appear on the map or be written down. I struggled for a long time trying to work through the implications of that and ended up abandoning almost all attempts at turning that process into systems. There was at one point a whole set of mechanics for creating characters who had secrets hidden from each other, that could be revealed during the game. Players didn't just have crew positions, but also have separate roles which determined what parts of the game they book kept. These ideas may return: there is absolutely a good game to be made where each player is a crew member on a space ship who is controls part of the game (navigation, comms, etc). This is not that game although it wants to be.

The second set of challenges arose from the fact space is an incredibly hostile and unforgiving and worst of all, unintuitive place. To reflect this, I needed to both create systems that reflected this, but also understand myself what that meant. I did mathematics in university, but not physics ever and was at times during development literally doing rocket science. There's an incredibly messy Google spreadsheet with maybe a hundred tabs of doodling and calculations where I hopefully haven't made too many gross mistakes. A few very helpful space people helped me out: I absolutely need to shout them out, but, much like maintaining a bibliography, I didn't have the discipline to note who they all were. You'll just have to trust me when I say all of this game is based on research.

My love of science fiction drove a lot of this: but I've tried to avoid direct homage too much. I removed an entire supplements worth of random faction mission tables from All Errors are my Own when it became obvious the amount of work and page space required to have one table per faction (I'd already done half) and the fact I was worried I might be sued for lifting plots from every science fiction work I'd ever read. What also drove my was my absolute annoyance at some beloved sci-fi game properties. The entire Weapons chapter is fueled by my annoyance at the generic-ass-we-gotta-have-a-heavy-pistol Eclipse Phase weapons table. No Mans Sky has a great sound track but is also extremely instructive on where planetary procedural generation works (pretty colours and crossing hazardous terrain on foot) and what doesn't (almost everything else they tried).

To create as much as I did requires some cheating, so apologies for this in advance. I absolutely created hundreds of faction doctrines by Googling "theories of X" and then creating a doctrine for each theory - and then never taking the time to hide the evidence. There are so many random tables because random tables have blank entries, and blank entries force you to come up with ideas, and then even if those ideas are bad, you can come back later and fill them in with a better idea. Hopefully I did that everywhere. Some of those random tables have levels of precision required to precisely match stellar frequency or demographics, and some of those tables I've basically pretended that 2D6 has the same probability distribution as 1d12. And speaking of demographics, two of the most egregious outcomes of the whole development is the lose of diacratic marks from the demographics table in the core rules, and deciding to use consciouness as the measure of how advanced a civilization is on the development path. Or maybe its using Alzheimer's and cancer as game mechanics (they're from the source material!). Or maybe its alphabeticizing some tables and not others. Or the use of capitalization.

But the biggest cheat was that I had to make the process of creating the game fun. That absolutely breaks Sid Meier's fifth rule of game design "5. Make sure the player is having fun, not the designer/computer." This game wouldn't exist if I hadn't had fun making it. And will you have fun playing it?

One morning at about 5 am after having spent a largely sleepless night planning a turn for a play by forum game of High Frontier 2nd edition, I made a move where my rocket got to the Saturn heliocentric zone. I can still feel it to this day: my stomach dropping away from me like I was on a roller coaster as I'd finally, after months of playing a cut throat and unforgiving game, I'd moved a plastic counter on a cardboard map farther than I had ever moved it before.

That's a strange kind of fun. But I want you to experience something like it. And that's why I've made this game