Thursday 27 June 2024

A Manifesto on Making Simulating Games

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to a lot of smart people talking about table top role-playing games and the great news is that I think the best podcasts out there are better than anything equivalent in the video or board game space.

But I want to challenge that run counter to a common assumption that games should be fun and game designers should be working towards maximising fun - or at the very least least defend the choices that I’ve made in Sixty Years in Space that make this game less fun. This is a gross simplification - of course - but concentrating on fun misses one of the other things games can do really well, and that’s simulation. I’m going to make a broad claim now, and that claim is table top role playing game designers are missing a huge amount of possible game design space by concentrating on fun rather than simulation; and the strengths of that game design space they’re missing out on are best done by table top role playing games (as opposed to video games or board games).

Argument one: Video games are great at mathematical simulation but terrible at mechanical simulation. What I mean by that is that video games have a limited palette of interactions: a controller, a keyboard and mouse, and perhaps some other (expensive) peripherals. Board games fall in the middle of the spectrum of mechanical simulation, but they come with the expectation that everything that is needed to play the game comes in the box. TTRPGs don’t have this limitation. You can create a TTRPG with any mechanical simulation you want. Dice. Cards. Miniatures. Food. Clothing. Glitter. Your imagination (and the wallets of your target audience) is the limit.

Argument two: Board games are terrible sand boxes because they have to have a limited number of verbs. Each verb in a board game is both a rule and a choice, which exponentially encumbers the player with learning both. Video games are better at allowing more verbs, because the player is able to experiment with the verbs they are given without needing to completely understand them, and in doing so can discover both new intended verbs and new unintended verbs enabled inadvertently by the rules of the game. Table top role playing games have potentially unlimited verbs: again, both the verbs and outcomes are limited by the player’s imagination. This is a double-edged sword: video games encourage creative play in a way that sometimes feels constrained in TTRPGs - more research and development is needed here to let players feel empowered enough to try verbs they haven’t used before and existing verbs in ways they haven’t tried before.

Argument three: Board games are not great at being open-ended. Video games are better: but the economic model of games as a service required to sustain forever games ultimately constrains what kinds of video games can be played forever. TTRPGs can go for as little or as long as you want. Again, all recent innovation in TTRPGs is towards creating games with a beginning a middle and an end; I’ve not seen nearly as much done work done investigating what a TTRPG that could run forever looks like.

Argument four: Video games aren’t great at embodying the actions you perform. I’m sure there’s a better term for what I mean: by “embodying the action” I mean that the physical and verbal actions that the player does and the thoughts the player has are the same as what someone doing what is being simulated would do and be. For instance, disarming a bomb might require reading a manual on how the bomb operates both in the game and in the real world while under a significant time constraint. Board games are better at this, although the mechanical and verb constraints limit what embodiment can be achieved. Table top role playing games can do almost anything here. TTRPG designers should be stealing from LARPs more.

Argument five: Table top role playing games are good at getting the players to think as a character, but for a while drifted away from getting the players to solve problems. Both board games and video games are better at this, but they shouldn’t have to be. And the problems that can be posed by TTRPGs include collaboration and social dynamics that can never be simulated in a board game or video game: for instance, acting as journalists forced to censor the news while working under an authoritarian regime. More TTRPGs should be creating interesting problems for the players to solve while letting role playing appear around the edges.

Argument six: TTRPG game components are transferrable beyond the wildest dreams of any NFT bro. You can literally take a board game and make it part of your TTRPG like I did. Likewise, you can steal the nationalities and ethnicities table from Sixty Years in Space and use it to help generate the background of any early 21st century NPC. The MOSAIC system is a great way to build up simulation subsystems that could be cleanly movable from game to game; but you can pretty much do the same with any map or game supplement.

Argument seven: Game literacy is improving. Dungeons and Dragons is the most popular TTRPG in the world, and no one could call it simple. Other examples: Minecraft. League of Legends. Elden Ring. These are complicated games with weird subsystems (crafting in Minecraft!?!) that players are willing to invest hundreds of hours in to understand. We should be making more TTRPGs where the pay off is worth the time invested. The key is figuring out what that pay off should be.

Argument eight: Table top roleplaying games create more interesting artefacts of play than video games or TTRPGs. Consider which contains more built-up history: a screen shot or a character sheet? I’m no fan of actual plays, but they appear to be persistent and meaningful in a way that game play videos are not. The value of simulation is often in the time invested in producing the outcomes, and these artefacts can provide a valuable trail of the path taken.

Argument nine: Creating worlds through play avoids the “porridge problem” — the issue where procedurally generated places and things blur into an indistinguishable soup of similarity. Even a +1 sword can be interesting in the hands of a player who rolls one short of their target in a key scene, instead of vendor trash. Many things we’d like to simulate will need procedural generation to populate part or all of the spaces in the game and simply limiting the pace at which players can reroll the dice goes a long way towards making each generated space meaningful.

Argument ten: TTRPGs are uniquely didactic. Video games don't require that you must understand their rules enough to be able to implement them. But board games are constrained in that at some point in understanding the rules of the game the simulation falls away and winning the game trumps realism. TTRPGs can always have "realism" trump their rules.

Sunday 31 March 2024

Sixty Years In Space: Devlog 4

One of the great joys of maturing as a game designer is that I've got very good at making complex systems as simple as possible.

But it turns out when you decide to make a realistic TTRPG in space, all the rules you need to play end up being far more complicated than you'd otherwise think. For instance, if your crew is spending years travelling between planets, and you want them to care about what happens back on Earth, you probably want them to have family members and loved ones back home who are affected by events on the planet: disasters, pandemics and war. And the crew's parents will be aging and inevitably dying while the crew are away. There's several ways you could do this: but it'd seem weird and challenging to have an event where the player is suddenly forced to invent and immediately care about a bunch of people that their crew would care deeply about - so it makes sense to at least generate some information about the crew's relatives, friends and lovers during the character generation process - just like every other TTRPG does.

Sorry? What do you mean no other TTRPG has rules for generating a character's family?

This is not entirely true. I'm sure there are TTRPGs out there that do this. Feel free to list them in the comments. But I've got a number of games on my shelves and have experience with a whole lot more and apparently in all of them every character springs fully formed as an orphaned waif who has no connections to any other human outside of the party of adventurers they start with.

So even rolling 1D6 for how happy your childhood was, a few dice to see how wealthy your parents are and a few more to see how many siblings you have and where in the order of siblings you fall is more effort than 95% of TTRPGs put into family dynamics and of course every additional step in character generation makes it more complicated: enough so that the game apparently breaks most AI that attempts to parse it.

The whole system is already snowballing complications before we've even left the launch pad.

Speaking of which, despite leveraging High Frontier's rules for interplanetary travel, there's a whole lot of rocketry that the board game doesn't cover that I've had to include. There's a great blog post on suborbital hops I used to calculate the fuel requirements and travel times for one of the two possible suborbital travel methods using rockets, and the other required one of the few times I had to consult Atomic Rockets to help me solve the necessary equations (link goes to the seal of approval page for Sixty Years in Space).

I'm a game designer, not a physicist, Jim.

And finally we arrive at surface travel on a planet.

I've possibly spent more time writing the vehicle rules than anything else in the game: because they have to deal with varying atmospheric densities (which turns out is different from air pressure), local gravities and surface conditions, this again becomes much much more complicated than I'd like.

And then there's encumbrance systems. Let's state up front: there are no good encumbrance systems in TTRPGs and then also that Sixty Years In really needs one.

The game says that it really cares about mass. You're light minutes or hours from anywhere that can replace missing parts, but we're already fudging the game to say you can 3D print virtually anything - it's one of the premises of the High Frontier universe - but you can't just magic up mass out of nowhere, so when you want to walk 10 kilometres over the Lunar surface to mine an ice deposit, you're going to be carrying everything you need on your back. (It turns out you can't 3D print fabrics, so that space suit better not tear too often).

I'm rewriting the load system for the third or fourth time, and I think I'm finally happy with it.

This is a complicated decision. The game is already in early access and people will be reading and internalising the rules so it is generally a bad idea to immediately turn around and say "oh those rules you learned - throw them out of your brain please". I've worked this way with board game testers, and it literally burns people out - they stop playing your game and sometimes don't ever come back.

So this new version of the rules has to be exactly the same or very similar to the existing rules - which it is - but it has to be a whole lot more intuitive and expressive - and luckily it also is those things as well.

There's a lot of parameters that the encumbrance system has to model, but the biggest one is low gravity. Lowering gravity means that you can carry more stuff, because it weighs less, but the stuff you're carrying still slows you down, because acceleration is force divided by mass, and low gravity doesn't make you stronger. The game handles this by having a permitted load, which increases with lower gravity, but then a separate penalty based on load applied to things like net thrust.

At the moment, this is summarised on a load table, which gives you a bunch of slots, where each item has an appropriate slot it fits into, and the whole thing is entirely driven by something that makes no sense and you have to look up every single time. Then I have to special case balanced and fitted items, which affect your permitted load less, and the rules got even more complicated (but still as simple as possible).
I hated this so much, I completely rewrote it to go back to a simple you can carry so many mass points (either centitanks, WT or a new O2t point scale) and just subtract items from this mass amount when you need them, but it turns out I hated this even more. (I've kept the idea that you can manifest items just-in-time rather than having to state what you have in advance - and that'll directly translate into carrying ink and 3D printing items when you need them for the High Frontier 4All compatible rules).

And then I had an idea.

Here's the new load table.

Each square represents (for a crew member) 4 kilograms. You cover up squares as you load up equipment and your load number is equal to the highest number you cover up. Equipment slots are represented by multi-square items: B for 8 kilogram slot items through to F for 125 kilogram slot items.

If you cover up a light grey grid, you get a -1 movement modifier (net thrust minus 10 in the original table); a medium grey grid means you have a -2 move modifier and a dark grey grid means you have a -3 move modifier.

The new load table is exactly mathematically equivalent to the old load table if you arrange your items correctly on it, but it's a whole lot more intuitive. The downside is it only goes up to load 16 but we'll deal with that later.

Except here's the new load table.
Now the load table incorporates the notion of balanced loads. It's mathematically equivalent to the old load table plus the "balanced load" special case rule which let you carry more balanced items -- each only counting half as much to the permitted load but the full amount to the move modifier. You can see how for a flatbed truck or a train, we could also treat this as spatial information and have items which can fall off, but don't improve the overall performance of the vehicle because there's an unbalanced item sitting elsewhere on the vehicle.

Except here's the new load table.

This load table is approximately equivalent to the notion of fitted loads - things like spacesuits which fit on your body and therefore a lot closer to your centre of mass -- and which count only as their actual mass for permitted load (I didn't tell you that the power series in the load table doubles the load mass for every 4 increase in load). But to do that, we need to have space suits load templates which fit as closely as possible to the "astronaut shape" drawn in the lighter greys on the table.

We've invented a paper doll inventory system from (close to) first principles.

This will all be incorporated (once it's tested) in update 2, but I've given you enough information to start using it now if you want to.

Wednesday 28 February 2024

Sixty Years In Space: A Primer


Sixty Years In Space is the officially licensed tabletop roleplaying game of the High Frontier board game, which means it already starts with all the hard rocket science that the board game includes. And the inspiration doesn't stop there: you'll be exploring the solar system, finding water and building factories just like in the board game except zoomed in to the scale of individual crew members rather than from the perspective of the mission control. But it doesn't limit itself to the practicalities of space exploration at a human scale.  While you're in space, Earth society will be changing, including your mission control, and a significant part of the game is deciding how your crew reacts to the missions your are assigned and the technologies imposed on you.

The game is extremely crunchy - the core rules and first 4 supplements run to nearly two thousand pages - and covers everything from microgravity health risks to robots to colonies. Rather than having a fixed future, your crew will be responsible for defining and reacting to it over the course of their lives, with potential life spans measured in the millions of years or more. It also doesn't have a game master, instead relying on random tables to create missions, other factions, rewards and even space dungeons!; condensing systems modelling insolation, agricultural area and population distribution down into relatively simple maps generated by dropping different coloured counters and dice and placing playing cards. And if you're fascinated by the High Frontier board game map, the A Lot of Zeroes supplement has an appendix which provides guidance on how to create maps for solar systems other than our own.

It's hard to overstate just how much stuff is in this game, with small gems of insight on each page about what a part of a possible future in space might look like. But fortunately you can download the first 120 pages of the core rules for free along with a chapter on space infrastructure and terraforming from the This Space Intentionally supplement, even if you don't envisage playing the game with your regular gaming group.