Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ultra-Tech Frameworks: Step 1: Your Technological Concept and Core Activity

A useful concept in designing a campaign is to think of the “default adventure.” This is simply what the characters are expected to do...The GM can use default adventures to play up different aspects of the game and the setting. – GURPS Space page 208, the Default Adventure
What sort of setting are you trying to build? This should be your first question, but it often isn’t. Many people start by saying something like “I’m building a TL 10 setting and...” but this doesn’t tell us anything. TL 10 can be anything from advanced cyberpunk spy-thriller to conspiratorial supers to anti-alien warfare ala X-Com to full-on space opera. You need to know, first, what your game is about.

While there’s no such thing as “generic fantasy,” the fantasy genre does benefit from the dominance of Tolkien-esque D&D-inspired knock-offs so you can say “I’m running a fantasy game and...” and most people have a rough idea of what you’re doing, sci-fi absolutely does not have the benefit of this. Even if you refine it to something like “Cyberpunk” or “space opera,” it can still mean any number of things; after all, both Star Wars and Star Trek are in the “space opera” genre, yet are very dissimilar in just about every aspect. Tech level will vary, available technology will vary, and what the players will do will vary.

So the first thing we need to do is to come up with at least a sentence to describe what the game is like. You can borrow from existing tropes, but keep it short; think of it like an elevator pitch. It should, in the very least, invoke some of the technologies one might expect, not explicitly, but implicitly. Additionally, or supplementing this, you should think about what players do, the “Core activity” of the game.

A “core activity” of a role-playing game is anything that the mechanics and gameplay focuses on most intently. When players are “making choices” in gameplay, these tend to circle around core activities, and when people talk about “game balance,” they mean the balance of strategies around the core activity. You can think of it as “what the players generally do.” The most common example of this is Dungeon Fantasy’s “Killing monsters and taking their stuff.” Players will focus most of their character builds on going into dungeons, killing a wide variety of monsters with varied tactics, and then setting about acquiring their loot (while avoiding traps). They do not spend much time, for example, worrying about if their characters will arrange the right marriage necessary to secure a treaty between two factions, or who murdered Old Man Jenkins. These aren’t the core activities of Dungeon Fantasy; you could make them the focus of your game, but arguably you’d be playing in a different genre. Game of Thrones-inspired fantasy games, for example, care very much about arranging marriages and securing treaties between rival factions, while Monster Hunter games or Mystery-Solving games care very much about murder mysteries. These also tend to have far more mechanics focused on them: a princess with high status, very good looks, Empathy, Psychology and high levels of poise but absolutely no combat skills to speak of makes for an absolutely worthless dungeon fantasy character, but an excellent game-of-thrones character.

This matters because your technology should serve your settings’ goals. A cyberpunk game may need cybernetics (or some form transhuman augmentation), information technology and a bad attitude, but additionally, its core activities will shape it too. If the game is mostly about being part of a resistance cell that fights an oppressive government, then combat may be your core focus, and you’ll need to have plenty of interesting guns to choose from. If your core focus is on running a game where hackers can dig into the dark net to ferret out the insidious plots of the evil megacorp, then computers, security and software need far more focus. What they don’t need, you shouldn’t waste much time or effort on; for example, if your cyberpunk game has robots as background characters, then you shouldn’t spend much time on robots, nor draw undo attention to them.

By creating a concept and a core activity, we focus down on just what we need and, critically, no more. It’s our starting point, our spring-board for building the rest of the technological framework.

Some examples might include:

  • Genetically enhanced super-soldiers on an interstellar crusade to clear out alien races and make way for humanity to colonize the stars. Core activity: fighting aliens.

  • A new model of high-intelligence android has been created to work with law enforcement, always an android with a human officer; however, this same technology may lie behind a series of terrorist crimes as the robot revolution may have already begun, and its up to the player characters to stop it (but which side will the androids choose). Core Activities: solving crimes, unraveling conspiracies, fighting criminals/terrorists

  • The space cruiser’s continuing mission is to seek out new worlds and new alien species and investigate them, then bring home the data, while fending off the encroaching Alien Empire who seeks to seize these worlds before the heroic Space Alliance does. Core Activities: exploring new worlds, solving “science” mysteries, and fighting other spaceships.

  • The heroes awake from cryo-sleep to find that the solar system has gone silent, and their ship has been damaged. They must repair their ship, and then navigate back towards Earth, picking up supplies where they can, to find out what’s happened to humanity and, perhaps, to see if they can find any other survivors. Core Activities: Scavenging, survival, the logistics of space travel.

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