Monday, September 26, 2005

Sweep of History -- thoughtspace

This is exactly what I don't need right now: an idea for another project.

Wouldn't it be neat to make a game in which the 'characters' are countries, social movements, memes, and the people who are loyal to them? You could have generational play, moving the focus from the world-spanning down to the concrete and individual and back again, so at one point the players are different countries vying for dominance, and then they decide to 'zoom in' to a handful of people caught up in that struggle for dominance?

As long as the ruleset was minimal and flexible, you could play anything from cavemen to transhuman space colonists, and in fact you could play the cavemen to the transhuman space colonists. Allow the pace of the game to be scalable per group, so if you wanted to jump a hundred years, you could play out those years in culture-zoom and then zoom back down to people that are the descendants of your original characters.

The game should provide systemic rules for the people influencing the cultures and the cultures influencing the people, changing stats that reflect what's important to the culture and people and what resources are available to them. This would probably be why the focus gets zoomed in and out -- the only way to power up your culture is by playing an individual, and vice-versa.

Ideally there would be more than one 'level' available, instead of just culture/people. Something more like culture/nation/province/city/people (The West / The U.S. / California / Los Angeles / Josh). Best customizable, creating levels as you need them -- and upgrading your culture from city to province is an in-game effort. Perhaps individuals can be apotheosized into social movements (Jesus of Nazareth, anyone?).

Explicit ways in which cultures can merge or sublimate eachother -- so the Thirteen Colonies can federalize into the United States, or one duchy can conquer another one.

Ownership of cultures and the ability to make characters in other people's cultures should have explicit rules, allowing me to subvert your culture (and maybe take control of it) with some well-played people within it. So too would introducing new cultures (and new people) have some procedural rules.

Stats (by which I mean stuff-on-pages-with-game-effect) would be player-created, with an emphasis on the descriptive and evocative. Call them Qualities. Qualities could be inherited (going down from culture to individual, so my Frenchman is lusty) or could be... uh, invested (bad term, but going up from individual to culture, so my Susan B Anthony gives her culture sexual equality).

I'd prefer the 'character sheets' for cultures were somehow a running record, so you could see the imprint of the original culture in the culture that's been developed through play for thousands of in-game years.

Perhaps there could be some sort of record made of the game, so that it could be played indefinately by a continually-changing group of players (see 10,000 Blank Cards) so while there is no end-point, this doesn't assume that your gaming group will play this game and only this game for years on end.

Ideally this would run GMless, which avoids the problem of which players of which cultures play which people. Players jump into individuals to counter the other players, and the like. That would mean that the zoom feature would have to be under player control, as well -- probably as a currency spend sort of thing. There would need to be player currency divorced from the individual characters -- either as an assured "earn 2 points per turn" or you earn them off of the success of your owned cultures and individuals.

Crap, now I'm thinking specific game mechanics. So you start play with a pile of currency and a starter culture. Maybe it's a caveman village, maybe it's a planet in a galactic empire, whatever. It starts off with two or three qualities. You can spend currency to 'spawn' off an individual from your starter culture, and spend more currency so he inherits some of its qualities. As a new spawn, he also gets his own, new, quality of his own. You spend some currency to zoom the camera into individual-scale (or maybe this is covered in the cost of spawning him), and he can do 'stuff' and if he's successful at doing the stuff, he can invest his new quality onto his parent culture, or he can acquire a following, which transforms the individual guy into a social movement, which bumps his parent culture up a level. Other players can spend currency to spawn off some of their own individuals to confront your individual to prevent him from doing either. Something like that, so you're forcing the qualities (and player effectiveness) up and down the tree.

Probably need a mechanic somehow to remove qualities you don't like, or qualities that other players forced into your cultures. Also need a mechanic to downgrade cultures (nation to province, province to city). Hm.

Perhaps every quality that travels is signed by the player who started it, so if their quality becomes dominant in that culture, they gain control of that culture. You might even want to get somebody else's qualities if they're useful -- just not too many of them or else you lose control of your culture. Dunno if that can jive with the thought of other players spawning individuals off of my cultures. Perhaps that rule doesn't apply to individuals -- they're always controlled by their creators, and since they don't last long comparatively, it's not an issue.

I'm not sure I'd want it to be about taking over as much as possible -- I'm encouraing imperialism enough already with FLFS -- so maybe there's a sort of burden or upkeep involved to disencourage that sort of play. On the other hand, I don't know what sort of goal should be attached to the game, either. Of course, it would be difficult to really go imperialistic, since even if you maneuver your culture to subsume other cultures, the other players can infect your imperial culture with their own qualities, and wrest control of it away from you even as you ascend to world-spanning power.

Additionally, I don't yet have any privileges that are associated with ownership -- perhaps a discount on spawning off individuals, but I'm not even sure I like that. Amusingly, a disincentive to control anything might work even better -- if it costs less to spawn off of a culture controlled by someone else, that means that there's even more mish-mash of inputs. Heh. Players might try to foist control of the globe-spanning empire off on one another.

The mechanism by which players earn currency is what will cinch it. If you, say, earn currency for every culture that you control when your turn begins, then the game is all about gaining control of as many as possible. If you earn a flat rate of currency per turn, I suspect the game goes flat -- it becomes a rattling machine but it doesn't go anywhere. Perhaps currency can be earned via in-game resources (coal, lumber, industry, colleges, etc) expressed in qualities on the culture's "character sheet". So you'll work to found universities and build factories. That could work. It would also encourage the building of infrastructures, if my Interstate Highway quality helps me build Factories.

Need some way to avoid death-spiral resource-hogging, where one player controls as many resources in order to have the most currency in order to have control of the zoom, spawn, and inheritance/investment. Or do I? Is that perhaps what the game is about? Perhaps if there is no distinction between resources and non-resource qualities (so sexual equality gives you currency just like factories do), the game is about creating and moving around those qualities, and that seems a lot closer to target.

Maybe -- you earn currency for each quality you own on cultures you own, but must pay upkeep for each level of culture you have. So your starter village with cavemen and two qualities earns you one currency per turn, but your level-7 empire with only six qualities actually costs you currency every turn. You have to ensure that your empires are strong enough (and 'yours' enough) to be empires before you promote them there. Simultaneously, other players can either destroy your qualities or even force-promote your cultures so they become liabilities.

I need lunch.


At 7:19 PM, Blogger Alan Kellogg said...

You just invented Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth (Last Unicorn Games). :)

At 9:03 PM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

Aria isn't quite the same, but yea... there is some overlap.

Josh, you may want to check it out if you want to go further with this: both to see what was done, and to see what not to do. (Aria had some fantastic stuff, and some rampaging crap.)

At 12:10 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

I highly suspect I don't want to pursue this at all; perhaps as a microgame, but nothing larger.

Wasn't Aria the object-oriented game, where your sword was a child of the sword object, which was a child of the bladed weapon object, which was a child of the weapon object, etc etc?

At 6:11 AM, Blogger Kuma said...

While I'll echo the bit about checking out Aria, Aria was very top-down. You ran IH (Interactive History) and the persona-level games independently. There was no official mechanism for passing between the two levels. Essentially, you played at the topmost level (cultures or countries) until you reached an interesting point in history (or a generation passed), then zoomed back down to the persona-level game. The two halves didn't interact much.

I've also been pursuing this very goal for a while now - it's a lot harder than it looks, precisely because of the currency problem. Working from the cultural level, how does a player not stack the deck in their favor, creating 'supermen', for lack of a better term, that are then played on the micro-level? Granted - all of the players would have the same sorts of resources, but it's a positive feedback loop - the culture creates a 'perfect' individual that advances the player's goals for the culture, then returns to the cultural level and produces another generation of ubermensch.

Imagine, for example, Cold War America churning out a Ronald Reagan, which leads the country further into its Cold War stance. Then the country reacts by creating an even more efficient Ronnie Raygun, and so forth.

The only way to break the cycle is to have things happen that the player has no control over - either purchased by the other players or controlled by GM in the role of force majeur. This breaks your rule about being GMless.

At 1:37 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Hi, Kuma!

Yes, I can certainly see the iterative death-spiral potential -- that's why I'd explicitly leave open the possibility that players can spawn off of other players' cultures for subversion and obstacles.

On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with playing Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchhill, King Arthur, what-have-you. Individuals need not be paragons of their cultures, but neither need they be common men every time.

You mentioned you were working with this; what's your project?

At 11:34 AM, Blogger Tony said...

Hi, I just happened upon your blog. This sounds like an awesome idea. I've been kicking around a similar game concept, but have never been able to get it to work. Your mechancis sound a bit more promising than mine though.

At 10:24 PM, Blogger Kuma said...

My project was a bit less elegantly thought out - it relied on a single central table, which was built on a logarithmic (or, more precisely, two logarithmic) scales - one axis for the Attribute score, the other for the Scale of the thing being presented.

People were at a Scale of 1. Kingdoms (I was dealing solely with pre-industrial societies, a la Aria - once you hit the Industrial Revolution, the amount of tabulation required starts to get burdensome) were at a Scale of 10-11. You, as the ruler of your kingdom, would purchase things like forests and towns, along with loftier things like Freedom or Academia. Conceptual attributes affected how you interacted with material ones and vice-versa. Fr'ex, if you bought a crapload of Mercantilism, you could exploit your material natural resources much more quickly - however you paid the balance by creating a merchant class which could become an organization in its own right and threaten you as sovereign.

The two sticking points that confounded my work were:

1. Nailing down conversions that were internally consistent, and;

2. Trying to grapple with the sheer scope of the thing.

The first was the worse problem, in the long run. For example, in theory, a player creating a kingdom could invest in blacksmiths, population, training facilities, stables and mines to raise an army. Let's just say that all of these investments add up to 1000 points of investment. The same player could turn around and create an army - *poof* - for 2500 points. Armed men, some cavalry, maybe some seige engines.

So Kingdom A takes the first path, and Kingdom B takes the second path - according to my conception of the game, both paths are perfectly legal - in Kingdom A's case, it takes time to raise the army using the base. In Kingdom B's case, he must now invest in suitable amounts of base to explain the presence of this army.

The problem with this is that Kingdom B gets to pummel his neighbors by, well, 'cheating'. I put cheating in quotes because as I originally formulated it - it wasn't against the rules in letter, but it was in spirit. So then I considered the case of a player who *never* invested in their base - only creating what they needed as the narrative unfolded, and leaving the rest unsaid - again, something that wasn't tacitly against the rules.

And so I kept trying to figure out how to mitigate this effect - the closest I got was a sort of 'Total War' compromise, based on the Total War quasi-RTS games. But really, it didn't satisfy and the idea faltered.

I'm a bit older and wiser now, though. Maybe I'll go back and tackle the problem some more.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Rob Muadib said...

Driveby Comment


"Wasn't Aria the object-oriented game, where your sword was a child of the sword object, which was a child of the bladed weapon object, which was a child of the weapon object, etc etc?"

That was Alternate Realities, A game that utilized object oriented programming theory, and a rather solid Diminishing Returns Function Table for resolution. Which they scared anyone and everyone away from by including notes on it's derivation using an inverse tanget function. Probably the most egregious example of a mathgasm in an RPG evar.

At 10:55 AM, Blogger Rob Muadib said...

One more thing

It also had a fair amount of interesting ideas relevant to your idea in it' set of CDOs, Cultural Description Objects,, some interesting concepts. To be honest, I have mutated a number of it's ideas for use in my own Game T:COTEC, which treads some of the Aria ground. A topic on which I will be posting about today when I discuss the metaplay aspects of the design in my Wild Musings blog


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