This is my proposal I’m sending off to a game company to compete for a job as a freelance game designer for them. This job would entail writing the base system and rules-book, as well as at least three or four supplements. Obviously, if I get the job, my head will explode.
by Douglas Hagler
August 8, 2007
Based on our brief conversation at Origins, as well as the documents you sent to me, I’ve spent some time making notes and brainstorming on the kind of system that would suit the setting and the feel that you prefer for it best. From my notes on our conversation I get “gritty, lethal, smooth and simple, not too high-tech”. From the documents you sent I got a lot of information that I’ve tried to allow for in the system that I’ve come up with.
Obviously, this is a very rough draft, un-playtested and whatnot. I figure, you’ll look at this, and the writing samples, and think “this guy can write the game” or you’ll think “someone else is a better choice.” Hopefully this will be enough information for you to make the right decision.
First, the dice mechanic. I went for a pretty simple d6-based mechanic that has three variables. The first is the number of dice rolled, and this is based on the core attributes of the character (or ship – we’ll get to that a little later) plus or minus situational modifiers, which always come in the form of adding or subtracting dice.
The second is the way you determine whether a die rolled a success or not. This is determined by skill – so a highly skilled character can count 3’s or higher as successes, while someone trying something they’ve never done before can only count 6’s as successes.
The third variable is how many successes were rolled – tasks will have a difficulty equal to the number of successes needed to complete them. In general, one or two successes is marginal, three is a ‘normal’ success, and four or five mean that things turned out better than expected. This success range also applies to things like how bad a wound is in combat. For harder tasks, then 2 or 1 below the target is marginal, the target is normal, and 1 or 2 above the target is better than expected.
Second, we have the basic attributes a character has. I decided to come up with a system where characters and ships would have the same attributes, though they will mean slightly different things in each case, which I’ll describe below.
For a Character
For a Ship
Physical strength, as well as how energetic a character is. Power is what determines melee and hand combat effectiveness and can also be spent for extra effort on physical tasks
This is the amount of energy a ship has available to be committed to various tasks, including powering weapons, maneuvering engines, life-support, and so on. In combat, Power is represented by tokens which are moved around on a card with a picture of the ship on it, representing how energy is being utilized in a given round
The easy and speed with which the character moves. On a battle map, it will be the number of squares or hexes the character can move in a turn, for example
The maneuvering capability of the ship in question, especially in tactical situations – how quickly it can reorient, turn, reverse, alter course, accelerate and slow down
Not only hand-eye coordination, but also the precision with which a character thinks and reasons. This is the root of many technical skills as well as ranged combat
The sensitivity of the ships’ instruments, as well as the effectiveness of its weapons, HUD, targeting-assist software, etc.
In a near future context, I thought that it would matter less what a character had memorized in terms of information, and more how quickly the character could access and correlate information effectively. Connectivity is how quickly a character can find information and find specific people over available data networks
For ships, this measures how easily a ship can travel from port to port based on its record. This also measures its communications capacities when it encounters other ships, port authorities, etc.
This is how the character comes across when meeting someone face-to-face, or over a video connection, etc. It is a combination of looks, charm, the way they present themselves, confidence, and their ability to manipulate others
For a ship, this is the ship’s reputation, either positive or negative, insofar as it makes it easier for the crew to do what it does. So the infamy of a vessel preying on trade ships would count, as would the fame of a particular bounty-hunter’s ship, and so on.
This is general toughness, both physical and psychological. How well the character resists injury, torture, humiliation, manipulation, and so on
Basically, this is a combination of durable construction and plating and other retrofitting that makes a ship more durable in the face of the perils of space travel, as well as the weapons carried by other ships
As mentioned above, the Attribute in question determines the base number of dice rolled in a challenge. In the case of ships, it is the ships’ Attribute which determines this dice pool, while the character’s skill still determines the target number for successes. So, a pilot maneuvering her ship would roll the ship’s Mobility in dice, plus or minus situational modifiers (damage to the ship, debris around it, etc.) with a target number determined by her Piloting skill.
Which brings us to the third thing, the skill system. Skills are categorized and loosely bound to each of the attributes described above. I say “loosely” because I can see situations where you would roll different attributes modified by the same skill, and the rules will account for this without any trouble.
I haven’t sketched out exhaustive lists since I wanted to get this to you relatively quickly, but here’s an example:
Power: Grappling, Striking, Melee, Lifting, Throwing
Mobility: Acrobatics, Orientation (i.e. in zero-G), Running, Swimming, Climbing, Evasion
Precision: Repair, Small Arms, Gunner, Programming
Connectivity: Research, Cryptology, Networking, Hacking, Social Dynamics
Appeal: Intimidation, Seduction, Deception, Command
Resilience: doesn’t have skills associated with it – it functions a little differently, with categories of things a character might try to resist functioning as skills – more on that later
For a shorthand way to describe rolls, I’ve decided on a format of Xd6@Y, where X is the number of dice (attribute) and Y is the target number (determined by skill). So, someone might be rolling 6d6@3, meaning they have six dice on which 3’s or better count as successes.
I like the lifepaths system used by games like Burning Wheel. Essentially, you work out your character’s history and back-story as a method for character creation, making choices about your character’s past which define your character’s present.
I prefer a simpler method than I’ve seen in most games, where each player chooses five lifepaths for their character at character creation.
Birth: this lifepath defines the character’s birth status and early childhood. It says a lot about what kind of family the character came from, and might also involve certain genetic traits (depending on how much biotech you want to incorporate into the game – I personally like it, and its definitely a technology that we’ll see a lot more of in the near future)
Education: this lifepath can cover any number of things that happened during the character’s adolescence. It might have been education at a school in the normal sense, or education living on the streets in some backwater colony, or education as a conscripted child soldier. In some cases, it will be a formal apprenticeship in a given trade.
Profession: this lifepath has to do with what the character does, or has done, for a living as a young adult.
Hobby: this lifepath is a chance to add some extra color to the character, to give her a source of interesting skills that wouldn’t necessarily fit with her professional background but which might prove useful.
Passion: this lifepath has to do with the character’s core beliefs, perhaps, or could also represent the character being madly in love for a long period of time. This is the glimpse into what the character is really about, deep down, behind the profession and the hobbies, the circumstances of birth and where she went to school (or didn’t).
Each lifepath will modify the character’s starting attributes and will also provide a list of skills to choose from when the character is finally put to paper on the character sheet. They are also a concrete way for the character to develop a backstory that may include some surprises of odd choices – just like a real life does.
Lifepaths will also help determine what equipment the character might have and what kinds of relationships the character has as the game begins.
In keeping with the sense that ships are characters, ships could also have “lifepaths” (I would like to find a better term that is more appropriate for ships). These would help characterize a ship and describe it, and also gives it a history. People who see the ship might remember it from some other famous, or infamous, event. It might have old owners who lost it at poker who want it back. Etc.
Build: this determines what the ship was originally built for, its size and basic specifications, etc.
Upgrades: these are modifications made to the ship to make it better at what it is intended to do – faster drives, better weaponry or communications or scanners, upgraded software, etc.
Retrofitting: these are modifications made to the ship to make it capable, or better at, doing things it was not intended to do – cargo ships altered to carry refugees, military vessels altered to contain secret compartments for smuggling, etc.
Abuse: if the ship hasn’t been used for its intended purposes, what has it been used for? These uses will leave their marks, both in the ship itself and also in the ship’s registry and official history. It might also have a reputation.
This is combat that takes place in a situation that has near-Earth gravity, or at least gravity that is significant enough to have a definite “up” and a definite “down”.
Combat takes place at three basic ranges – grappling, close, and long. At grappling range, the combatants are wrestling with each other, standing or on the ground. It is difficult to bring weapons to bear at all, and larger weapons are out of the question. The advantage that firearms give can be neutralized by a skilled grappler. If weapons are not involved, then the combat will tend to end with one side unconscious rather than dead.
At close range, small arms and hand weapons can be brought to bear. Clearly, firearms have an advantage here, but the shooter is in range of melee weapons or even unarmed strikes. This is the deadliest range because cover won’t come into play, evading or dodging is difficult, and downed opponents will be within easy reach.
At long range, only firearms (or other ranged weapons) will matter, but cover will be an option. Fights at long range will tend to end with one side dropping and being unable to continue, though not necessarily being killed.
I have ideas for things like suppressing fire, but wont’ spell them out at the moment. I think that if the overall system looks good, it becomes pretty easy to iron out the details (time-consuming and work-intensive, but not very complicated).
I also see this combat system as rewarding surprise and positioning a great deal. Having cover will be the difference between life and death, and a combat can easily be over in the first round if one side is taken completely off-guard. I like this because a lot of the game becomes tactically choosing how and when and where to fight, as well as deciding if the fight is actually worth the danger it entails. It would also have to be managed by the GM, because NPCs bent on ambushing and killing the PCs would have a potentially high success rate unless the PCs are paranoid and ceaselessly vigilant.
Based on our conversation, I would want to find ways for combat to result in serious wounds pretty easily – to be gritty and realistic in that sense. But for the sake of the game, I would like to have actually killing someone require an extra decision.
With advanced medically technology, I would also like relatively quick recovery to be an option. Ideally, characters downed in a fight shouldn’t spend months in an ICU and rehab. They will have scars and perhaps disabilities from severe wounds, but can re-enter play in some capacity.
I’ve sketched out some ideas that can accomplish this, but they’re not very fleshed out, and those are definitely the kind of ideas I have to playtest to really get a feel for.
I would like a damage system that tracks wounds individually. This accomplishes a lot of things at once. It makes each wound unique and individually threatening. It also makes the player identify more with what is happening to their character. It also makes recovery have more story possibilities – “We stitched you up, Captain, but we couldn’t remove the round. Too close to a major artery. You’ll live, but you’ll have that limp from now on.” Then, maybe every time cabin pressure changes, the leg throbs and reminds the character of that memorable fight…
Zero-G Combat and Space Combat
Here, “Zero-G” assumes it is personal combat and “Space” combat assumes it is between spaceships. I would like to use the same basic mechanics for both, though the space combat mechanic will be more complicated (and, I hope, interesting).
In any three-dimensional combat, there are some design problems that have to be dealt with. I wanted to handle these as simply as possible, and I tried picturing a bunch of ships whirling around each other in a dogfight, for example. I realized that if there are only three ships, or three groups of ships perhaps, then it is reasonable to assume they are all effectively fighting on the same plane. That is, three points make a plane – so it isn’t necessary to keep track of relative location in three dimensions, but only in two.
(In situations where there are more combatants or factions than three, I would recommend using a more abstract combat system I’ll include. I haven’t come up with an efficient way to keep track of multiple ships moving in three dimensions relative to each other.)
In these modes of zero-G combat, a lot of familiar things will be going on. Characters or ships will use their Mobility to maneuver relative to each other, trying to get themselves into the best position and at the best range to use their most powerful weapons, and so on. I’ll just point out the things I have in mind that are somewhat unique.
The first is for ship combat – power management. The Power score of a given ship is the amount of energy it has available for all purposes. I like the idea, common in science fiction, that energy can be redirected from one use to another temporarily depending on what is needed.
I imagine the ships represented by cardboard cutouts which present the basic layout of a given ship, with the cockpit, turrets and fixed guns, engine room, and so on. During a space combat, the crew of the ship will be able to move around tokens on the cutout representing how they are directing power in a given round. This could be the job of the engineer, for example, since I want to have interesting jobs for multiple kinds of characters on a given ship during a battle.
How this power is committed will help determine a number of things – the power of the jamming signal the ship is sending out to prevent its opponent from calling for help, the force of its maneuvering engine(s) as it tries to position itself, and the damage and rate of fire of many of its weapons. I think this adds a really interesting aspect into a ship combat with a simple mechanic that is intuitive to learn and use.
The second idea is for any kind of zero-G combat – orientation. I imagine cubes representing each of the combatants. The cubes have words on each side of them representing part of the character or ship in combat.
For characters: front, back, legs, head, right side, left side
For ships: face, tail, dorsal, ventral, starboard, port (I was playing with the idea of using anatomical terms for parts of a ship – but mix them with nautical for now)
Essentially, every round, part of the maneuvering tests would be how you will orient yourself to your opponent, twisting in three dimensions to exploit weaknesses while presenting your own best side to the enemy.
For example, for human beings, you don’t want your back facing your opponent, and I imagine a lot of zero-G combat will involve trying to ‘take the back’ of your opponent (to borrow a term from jiu-jitsu). For ships, if one part of the ship has sustained heavy damage and is threatening hull-breach, it is wise to turn another side to the enemy or risk being vented out into space. Similarly, if most of your weapons are mounted on the front, or on the sides, then you want to have those sides pointed at your opponent.
It is possible for this combat system to take place on a combat map or at an abstract level. For the abstract level, each round can begin with a contested maneuvering roll and a contested orienting roll. The winner of the maneuvering roll is at a range that they prefer for their weapons. The winner of the orienting roll can shift their opponent’s cube one step in a desired direction.
What’s the Damage?
In general, a damage roll is a weapon-skill roll versus an evasion roll, and then a damage roll versus a Resilience roll. Wounds or damage are tracked individually, and ranked according to a few simple descriptors:
For characters: Bruised, Injured, Wounded, Crippled, Killed
For ships: Burned, Scarred, Breached, Shattered, Destroyed
Basically, each level describes a state that is significantly worse than the one that preceded it, and each will have progressively worse penalties and consequences associated with it.
Wounds, while tracked individually, will also stack in effect when they are located in the same area. Two Bruises are an Injury, two Injuries are a Wound, and so on. So, on a ship for example, you’re hit with a heavy barrage and start venting air and other materials into space through a hull breach. Alarms sound and red lights flash and suddenly everyone is remembering where the space suits are, or at least oxygen masks. Everyone is thinking – one more hit like that, on that part of the hull, and we’re goners.
What’s the Game About?
Reading the documents you sent, I tried to get an idea of what overall themes the game would deal with and what kinds of conflicts the game would be centered around.
I came up with a few conflicts that seemed to stand out:
Authority vs. autonomy – with a world government, coupled with the incredible freedom granted by FTL travel via Baeder drive, there will be a frantic effort to enforce Earth authority over an incredibly large area. There is also the fact that cutting edge technology will often give one the upper hand against the government’s agents, who will be more numberous and perhaps better-funded, but still hampered by bureaucracy.
Identity vs. anonymity – I think that a major struggle in the modern world is the struggle for identity. I think this will only intensify when borders begin to be erased and as homogenization continues on Earth. Every city will look the same, and the same corporations will employ the same kinds of people at the same jobs wherever you look. In this milieu, how do you define yourself?
Agency vs. powerlessness – it’ll be difficult to accomplish things on your own in this setting, and growing technology will also expand the various methods of control available to the rich and the powerful. The general social forces will probably still want to produce mindless, predictable consumers, and being something else while not starving will still be a challenge.
Some conflicts will come from the ambiguity built into these terms. Some problems can be solved best by authority, and some by autonomy. Some problems will be created by each of these aspects, and the characters will probably end up coming down on opposing sides now and then (at least if the GM is doing her job).
Narrative Aspects of the Game
A good game probably won’t be all space combat and travel to distant systems and exotic locales, and there’s more to a character than their bare-bones background and their basic skills and attributes.
I have four categories that cover a great many character aspects that will help drive the game’s narrative forward and also help define what a particular game will be about. They are also things that will not be obvious at first glance, and which may be surprising when they turn up in a given character. Finally, they are aspects of a particular character’s identity – they are what a character will use to develop herself further. These categories are Passions, Goals, Obstacles and Secrets.
Passions: obviously, this was already touched upon in the lifepaths section, but here is a chance to expand on that simplistic presentation. Passions are deep drives which propel the character forward and which inspire her to do what she does. These are what motivates a character, and should be behind most of what she does in a given game.
Goals: these are refined Passions, expressing a character’s aspirations for herself. Goals help tell the GM what this player wants the game to be about, and these should be discussed with the entire group present so that they overlap in meaningful ways. Goals are a way to built a group template which binds the group together for a particular story – not so that there is no internal conflict, but so that everyone has a reason to be there in the first place, and so everyone has a better idea of what the game will include as it progresses.
Obstacles: these should also be discussed with the entire group present. (Especially interesting are situations where one character will be an obstacle for another character’s goal!) These obstacles could include enemies or competing groups or organizations, as well as psychological difficulties, a past that haunts someone, or moral problems with what achieving a Goal might entail.
Secrets: there are two schools of thought here. The first is that secrets from other characters should also be secrets from other players. The second is that all secrets should be known to all players. In the first case, it can be exciting to have a secret suddenly revealed in-game that surprises the characters and the players. In the second case, it is possible for other players to use their knowledge of a particular secret to built tension in a scene or to make a situation more entertaining. I think each group should just decide which way they want to go, since both seem to have merit.
In general, Secrets are also Passions, Goals or Obstacles, but they function in a different way. They are intended to help the story develop as it progresses through time.
From a rule standpoint, I like the idea that Passions, Goals, Obstacles and Secrets all grant a few bonus dice in situations where they come into play. Passions help drive a character to try harder and push themselves beyond normal limits. When Goals are at stake, everyone will put their greatest effort into a task because they all have a stake in how things turn out. When facing an Obstacle, the character has the weight of narrative behind her. No one wants to play a game where the PCs fail all the time and never achieve anything. More importantly, this encourages players to face Obstacles head-on, which makes for a more interesting game. Finally, when Secrets are at stake, all of the above things apply, and there is the extra risk of consequences when the secret becomes known (which it should, at some point, because otherwise why have one?)
In Conclusion (?)
I have more notes on more systems and ideas for the game, but this is the bare-bones presentation of what I have so far. As I said at the beginning, hopefully what I send will be enough for you to make the best decision, whatever that decision is. I really appreciate the opportunity to send you my ideas, and I hope the game is a success.