Deconstructing the Future, Part 1

This is the first essay in a series, looking at Shock:1.x, what I set out to do with the game before its publication in 2006, what it does, and how I want the game to behave differently in Shock:2. I’m hoping it will be enough of a record that it helps new creators understand what a twisty, imperfect, messy process is creation, and how compromise and the acceptance of imperfection allow a creator to extract experience from the process and go on to create other, better things.

Shock:Social Science Fiction came about because, in 2004 or so, I was GMing a game of GURPS Transhuman Space and realized that all the really good experiences that came out of that game was stuff that GURPS just didn’t care about; and all the stuff GURPS cared about, none of us players did. We cared about the irony of selling a slave dealer on Ebay to the very AIs he’d sold. We cared about the discovery of wild AI and what it meant to those of us who were humans, or transhumans, or designed-and-constructed AI (and, really, the players, who were all IRL humans) when we faced the complexity of what we call the Human Experience.

Separating the Yuck From the Yum From the Spicy

As I began to take the project seriously, I read Ron Edwards’ book, Sex and Sorcery. It was a big deal at its release, and I think there are many, many minds yet for it to blow. Though Ron wrote it as a supplement to his RPG, Sorcerer (a game that came about because of Ron’s similar realizations while playing Champions), Sex & Sorcery is concerned not with resolution mechanics or detailing elements of the setting, but with consent; with the premise that we need to have a way to agree to (or disagree with) the subject matter of our active play as it interacts with our emotional experience.

One of the central suggested structures in the book is the pair of veil and line. When players discover a piece of subject matter they don’t want to be explicit in the game, but don’t mind its implicit presence, they “draw a veil” over the action. It might be that the players aren’t comfortable talking about sex with the other members of their group, or it might be that violence is OK when it’s goofy and James Bond-like, but realistic violence or torture is something they don’t want to have to envision in their minds’ eyes, even though the Bond villain does it offscreen or otherwise at a level of remove from the players’ experience.

The players watch their own reactions and those of their fellow players for how explicit the group wants to be about that subject matter, and, if the subject matter itself, offscreen or on-, is disruptive to the players’ experience, they draw a line instead of a veil. Players often draw a line around material that is sufficiently affecting that it prevents the players from fully engaging in the subject matter. It might be as emotionally impactful as material that replicates traumatic experiences, or as managerial as avoiding material that violates the tone of the game as it’s evolved in play.

However, by the time I was working on Shock: the larger community of players had begun interpreting the line as something established upfront, before the players had even had a chance to figure out their feelings in the social environment and in the context of the fiction they were creating together. Players would request that a particular subject be considered off-limits after agreeing to play, but before play had begun. I think that was the result of a confirmation bias kind of problem: if a game was, prima facie, about subject matter they didn’t want to engage in, they wouldn’t join the game in the first place; but also, they didn’t want to be ambushed by that material in another game, and were taking appropriate steps to not get their yuck in the other players’ yum. But at the same time, it was becoming hard to play a game in order to find out what it was about because the early phase of play became about eliminating potential subject matter.

At the same time, I noticed an even weirder side-effect of that interpretation: often, as soon as a player established a line at the beginning of a game, they would proceed to promptly cross it. Players who requested that child abuse not be present would establish characters who were abused children. Players who abolished particular sexual expressions would design characters who expressed those very things. Violence on the wrong side of the line would become the motivation of the line-drawer’s character.

Not only was the Forge player community misinterpreting the idea as something to state upfront, but they were using it for something much more interesting than what the principle of the line promised — despite the understanding of the very players who were using it! They were using it to establish creative constraints and a safe space where they could effectively address the stuff deep in their guts.

From that observation came Shock:s Issue — the thing that really matters to you. The idea was borrowed from Matt Wilson’s excellent Prime Time Adventures, but Shock: uses it differently. While a character’s Issue in PTA is a personal (usually interpersonal) issue, the Issues in Shock: exist on a sociopolitical scale.

That established the first of the elements of the game that I now want to look at seriously and critically: Shock:s view from orbit of the world.

The reason players start with Issues and not characters is that speculative fiction requires that characters be an extension and expression of the setting and in service to its system of metaphor. The game asks players to establish Issues first (then crossing them with Shocks) because doing so means that the Issues the players are exploring become inevitable subjects of the fiction. But it also means that characters — Protagonists and Antagonists — are clearly products of their environments, and what we care about most is the effect that their decisions and trials have on those environments.

The Personal <->Political Proportion

Here, at the very heart of the game, is my first major question: How do I turn the dial between the personal and the political? On the one hand, how do I make the game feel like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red/Green/Blue Mars, where individuals are emblematic of social institutions, given only enough personality that their stakes make sense to us and they feel like plausible people; and on the other hand make possible stories like Ted Chiang’s Story Of Your Life, about the inevitability of intimacy, attachment, suffering, sickness, and death?

In the first case, Shock: shines. As Shock:players, we’re often cruel to *Tagonists because the game gives us distance that keeps us from feeling protective of the characters, and we let them live and suffer and die as symbols. But Chiang isn’t callous with his characters like that when he brings them suffering. He’s compassionate with them. He gives us intimate, unusual details about their lives and relationships. We learn their insecurities, even in the face of certainty. We learn the texture of their feelings about each other without losing our ability to recognize the extraordinary.

It is this second mode — common not just in Chiang’s work, but in Ursula LeGuin’s and Philip K. Dick’s as well — that Shock: does poorly. Fred Hicks of Evil Hat and Fate, wrote an article about the impact of exactly this design decision several years ago. In it, he describes the disconnect he feels to the game. Fate is a very different kind of game, built as it is to assume the heroic relevance of the characters, where Shock: wants to give you opportunities to find out if they matter at all . So I’ve kept the article in the front of my mind for years for two reasons.

1. His analysis is correct.
2. Shock: is working according to its design specification.

The question is how to give players the flexibility to make a character as simple and in-the-service-of-the-plot as an Asimov character when one wants to; or as subtle, emotional, sexual, complex, and fleshy as one of Rosemary Kirstein’s. And, ideally, as bizarre and personal as a Rucker or Dick character.

Finding Secrets Where Everyone is Looking

Over the last seven or so years, a conversation has been going on in RPG design circles. The conversation is called Powered By the Apocalypse, and the games in that conversation have been making roleplaying more visceral and imaginative than I’ve ever seen before.

My own contribution to the Powered By the Apocalypse conversation is The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze. It takes the viscerality of the Apocalypse Engine and combines it with the system of creative constraints from one of Epidiah Ravachol’s contributions, Wolfspell, and turns it into the turbine that powers the game. The resulting play revolves around on the players’ sense of humor the same way Shock: does, but in a way far easier to understand, moment-to-moment; far smoother in practice; far faster in implementation.

The catch is that The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze relies on a universe that comes from the heart, guts, and wombs of the World of Names — not from a consistent, testable, repeatable universe where the closest one comes to a deus ex machina is coincidence. Rationalism is not, and cannot be, a descriptive philosophy of The World of Names, and that means that there can be no development of philosophy, no pyramid of technologies, there can be no science, and therefore there can be no science fiction. A universe of consistent, testable, repeatable phenomena is a core piece of Kirstein and Dick’s work, not to mention Asimov and Clarke’s. It’s what separates the kind of science fiction Shock: does best from Star Wars or Flash Gordon, or even lots of Star Trek.

But there’s something there in that system that I want to explore. I’m looking forward to figuring out how to broaden it into a system that supports science experiments like those Shock: produces while keeping that close relationship that it has with the Second Chakra.

Bad Credit

When first designing the conflict resolution system for Shock: I went through several different design specifications. Because I wanted the game to always feel like a rational, determinist universe, I first decided that resolution should have no luck involved, and designed a system in which players bid Credits to win their side of the conflict. But it became apparent that the outcome was always a foregone conclusion; the number of Credits to spend was obvious to the players, so determinism became not a mystery to solve — “what are the factors that caused this outcome?”— but simply a known fact. There were too few elements in the game to produce a complex output, so conflicts came out like you said they would, or you wouldn’t actually make the conflict happen.

To increase tension without increasing the number of confounding elements, I turned each Credit into a die. That way, when a player failed to achieve their objectives, it was, in a way, their fault; they could have spent to roll another die. In all likelihood, this was the first time I felt like I understood what dice were for in roleplaying games. I’ve since developed the idea to this: Randomness in RPGs functions to show that there are more factors in an outcome than serve our aesthetic objectives to represent. (I discovered, during the design of Mobile Frame Zero 002: Intercept Orbit, that determinism can be used similarly: your spaceships will continue traveling forward unless your dice allow you to alter the situation; maintaining control of the vessel takes crew able to control the vessel, and I wanted the ships to move like naval ships, not real spaceships, so “go forward 1” is a minor problem you have to solve each turn, hoping that your dice come out well enough to retain that control.)

Eventually, I discovered that disliked the extreme distance of the Credit bidding process from the fiction of the game, so I gave Protagonists a number of dice based on the number of things we knew about the character, called their Features. Initially, this had been a system I used only when Protagonists conflicted between each other. But I was delighted to discover that I could eliminate one system for a simpler, better one. (Note: the qualities of the character do not impact the events of a conflict; simply the number of qualities a character formally has. We’ll get back to that!)

Conversely, Antagonists, because they’re so abstract, have kept their finite number of Credits throughout the development of the game. Whereas Protagonists fail, they become better-defined characters, Antagonists should feel pressure to commit to resolving the Protagonist’s story.

The catch was that the Credits remain, throughout S:1.x, to be determinist to the point where there is really only one moment to choose how many to spend: on round 1, you might save one Credit, spending to rolling the minimum so that you have a die for the finale, two rounds later. Rarely, that Credit is used on round 2 instead.

The Credits don’t increase tension. Despite my hopes, they just don’t work that way. In practice, though, they do something else important: provide the game with its pacing mechanism. Which means that removing them will remove part of the system of communication in the game — the “currency”, in oldschool Forge terms — that players use, like eye contact and rhythm in a Jazz band, to collaboratively feel the tone, sense of humor, and timing of the story. Without it, players need greater personal rapport to feel it out, and that means that they need to practice with each other without me reminding them to communicate their time signature. I’m definitely skipping out on my responsibilities as the game’s designer if I don’t give them a way to communicate that stuff. I’m just not sure yet if Credits, as they exist right now, are the most elegant solution.

Grilling Stakes

As in many roleplaying games of its age, Shock: uses Fortune In the Middle, upfront stake/counterstake setting to convey between players what they hope the outcome is. Such declarations of intent live in two places in the game: the Intent (what your hopes are in a single scene) and the Terminus (what your hopes are over the course of this story or chapter, originally called the “Story Goal” in Shock:SSF, changed to Terminus in Shock:Human Contact.)

Because Shock: cares a lot about the outcome of events — not just what you’re doing at the moment — it uses up-front stake setting, then allows other elements to get drawn into the vortex as the conflict continues.

The first creative responsibility you have as a Protagonist player is to set your Terminus. No sooner than you have an idea about where a Protagonist sits in the Grid, you set the Terminus and tell your Antagonist player what it is. That gives the two of you some of the first of a shared set of symbols to use as you collaborate (if antagonistically) to form elements that form your shared idiom.

The View from Orbit of stake-setting does something good — it keeps the events contextually relevant, allowing players to make sure that the players are looking to interpret them in ways that support each other’s objectives. But they also do what Fred says: they distance you from your character’s internal life, distance the player from the setting, and distance the characters from each other.

Asymptotically Approaching a Singularity of Stakes

The game allows other elements to be drawn into the possible outcome, as the conflict continues: Links and Escalation. Links — elements of identity, like friends and allies, wounds, and other mutable assertions of one’s nature — broadens the risk to personal elements that the player didn’t necessarily expect to be endangered. Escalation represents a deepening of the danger, making it affect more of the world.

Links do what they were designed to do: give the player options once they’ve rolled their dice, but don’t like the results. They also give you a reason not to. It’s a legitimate choice. Unfortunately, they also ask you to change contexts in the middle of the highest intensity part of the game: when everything is going wrong for the Protagonist.

At a certain point, I realized that the conflict of interest that I resolved by making Links into a resource didn’t resolve the conflict of interest in the player as they were trying to empathize with their character. So, in Human Contact I added the ability for the Antagonist to threaten a Link. The Antagonist doesn’t after all, want to beat the Protagonist’s numbers. They want to accomplish their objectives in the world and defy those of the Protagonist, an they’re certainly not above taking hostages to do so.

Escalation takes place more linearly: where Links increase the breadth of the elements drawn into your conflict, Escalation increases the scale. I’m not sure this is a valuable element to retain at all. After all, we care about Buffy when her stakes are her friends and relationships, but when it’s the whole town sinking into the ground, it doesn’t feel bigger; it feels garish.

Bug Report: Dissociated Characters Operating As Expected

The View From Orbit strength/weakness of Shock: is something I’ll be coming back to in future segments of Deconstructing the Future. I’ll be able to talk about how it impacts Links when they serve the dual, mission-critical purposes of in-conflict compromise and challenges to the characters’ values. We’ll talk about how Minutiæ and the Audience role keep contact from orbit. We’ll talk about what happened when the mechanics that encourage the View from Orbit were introduced into the personal-scale objectives and longer-form play of Human Contact.

Please back the xenoglyph Patreon to get to the fun parts: where I start turning this analysis into playable experiments!

The only Solarpunk RPG I've ever seen.
The Fifth World is on my very short list of real science fiction RPGs. It sits with FreeMarket, Paranoia, and Shock: and not much else.

Reaching for Aphelion: an Interview with Gloria Reynolds

Gloria Reynolds is an aerospace engineer and comic artist living in the Pacific Northwest. Her posthuman science fiction comic Aphelion is something I’ve been longing for for years: a comic that stretches the imagination and shows images that are uncomfortably unfamiliar, but with rigorous, naturalistic thought applied to the setting and events. I put it on a very narrow shelf with PLANETES and, frankly, not much else.

Gloria sat down for a couple of hours with me on Skype and we chatted about engineering, science fiction, and creative process.

Continue reading “Reaching for Aphelion: an Interview with Gloria Reynolds”

How The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze Works

I’m really proud of The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze. It’s the best roleplaying game I’ve ever designed and I think that I’ll be able to look back and see its publication as a watershed moment for the playable parts of my creative output. This is where it came from.

Continue reading “How The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze Works”