Monday, 18 September 2017

The Continent Adrift

Over the past four weeks, I've been sharing a sci-fi supplement for Dungeon World in twice-weekly installments to Google+ communities: this is the full story of that supplement.

Chainsaw Dungeon

Image result for sf pulp magazine coverI have a soft spot for fantasy adventuring: like many other people, I can while away a happy hour or two pretending that I'm cleaving goblins in two with my axe, setting them alight with fireballs or sneaking up behind them to stab them in the back. It's pure, simple fun, with maybe a little bit of wish-fulfillment, where I can kick back and enjoy the fantasy without worrying about real-world issues. When it comes to literature though, I prefer sci-fi to fantasy: I like my stories with wormholes & time-warps rather than myths & spells for the most part. This inevitably lead me to consider blending the two together, which caused the image of a hero chainsawing alien monsters in a techno-dungeon to spring into my head.

There has been a setting idea floating around in my head for a while, about a world used as an experimental site by aliens who dumped a lot of different sentient-but-lesser species there one or two thousand years ago and then vanished. The central conceit of this setting is that, before they disappeared, some of the aliens taught their captives how to access their advanced technology, including the master computer that manages all aspects of the experiment. Fast forward a few centuries and these access protocols have been passed down as 'miracles' by those who venerate the aliens as gods and 'spells' by those who figured out how to hack the system. It's a fantasy-campaign world that doesn't know it's actually a pulp sci-fi setting!

With the above framework loosely in mind, I sat down and seriously started to work out the premises I'd need to stick to in order to bend pulp sci-fi into something resembling an archetypal fantasy-gaming world. This is what I came up with:
  1. Civilization Is Fractured: there need to be frontiers and wild, unexplored places, not a known, safe, urbanized world.
  2. Technology Is Limited: the day-to-day tech used by the inhabitants needs to be at a medieval or pre-industrial level, so no trains, cars, radios, mass-production and so on.
  3. The Amazing Is Possible: while the day-to-day tech is of a low-level, there still has to be access to much higher technologies so that the heroes can pull off magical-seeming stunts.
  4. Monsters Are Real: it's not just about the intelligent beings here working together, there has to be conflict with other races, sentient or not.
Contemplating this, the next idea that sprang to mind was having alien abductions but on a massive scale: I wanted intelligent species of different races to mingle in this setting, but if they'd arrived at this world under their own power, that would undermine the first two premises. What would stop them from simply colonizing the whole world and getting support from their home-worlds to do so?

The Petri Dish

The world I was building had to be one that the inhabitants didn't have full control of, because they had been snatched and dumped there rather than arriving in their own spaceships: if they were being snatched and dumped, then there had to be a more advanced civilization doing that for their own reasons. This fit nicely with the older setting idea of the alien experiment world, but making it a whole world didn't feel right: why wouldn't the abductees just colonize it completely within a few generations? What would be holding them back? Well, what if it wasn't a planet but an artificial world? Something like an asteroid colony or Dyson sphere or some other constructed habitat? A non-natural world wouldn't have natural resources, so the inhabitants would find it very hard to expand beyond a limited area without fuel sources, metal ores and so on.

GatewayNovel.JPGAt this point, I was thinking of a loose cloud of artificial habitats orbiting a star: the larger ones would be cities acting as entry points for abductees, while the smaller ones would be the dungeons, consisting of exotic, strange and dangerous places that abductees could visit for their own gain. I didn't want the inhabitants to have spaceships flying them from place to place though, as that raised too many questions about their level of knowledge, so I went with a teleport-network connecting all the habitats in the cloud together. There was a little bit of the idea of Gateway by Frederik Pohl in the back of my mind here, with the abductees not really understanding the system they were using and just going to random destinations to find out what was there.

I really liked the teleportation idea, as that also neatly explained how the abductees suddenly found themselves in the cloud: I expanded this concept so that the abductions occurred at regular intervals, with the most recent wave being significantly larger than previous ones. This gave me a 'best of both worlds' set-up, where there was an established abductee civilization of sorts but it could be stirred up by new arrivals with a better idea of where they were and what might have happened to them. In all forms of this setting, the superior aliens behind it all were long gone, otherwise the story would have turned into captives rebelling against their captors, which wasn't the sort of story I was trying to tell.

The logistics of this setting still troubled me and if they troubled me, it was reasonable to assume they would trouble others as well, who would then ask questions I wouldn't be able to answer. With the size of the habitats I had in mind, how did the inhabitants support themselves? How could a city-sized ecology support a city-sized population? Where would their food and water come from? The basic foundation of the setting needed to be larger, at least the size of a country to be really plausible, but then what did it look like? How did it get day & night? Discs and rings and asteroids all seemed a bit impractical and limiting, all requiring compromises to the vision of the setting to get them to work. I asked my partner what shape he would make an artificial world in orbit around a star and his suggestion became the framework for The Continent Adrift: a series of domed habitats attached around a rotating axis! I didn't even need the local teleport network, as the inhabitants could walk to other habitats through the superstructure connecting them all, which added a whole new dimension of adventure to the setting!

Dungeons In Spaaaaace!

Now, I'm making it sound like all these ideas occurred in series, like 1, 2, 3, 4, etc, but the truth is that the creative process is a lot more muddled than that and a lot of this thinking took place in parallel, with different parts of my imagination working away at many different ideas at the same time. For example, I like making PbtA games a lot: it's good to build a game from that foundation, as it's simple enough to hack easily, familiar to a lot of people by now and also happens to produce really great stories. So, all the time I was thinking about the details of the setting for this game, I was also thinking about how to implement the rules and naturally gravitating towards the Apocalypse World Engine to save myself from re-inventing the wheel.

There's already an outstanding fantasy adventuring PbtA game in the form of Dungeon World, so I chose to hack that rather than build a game from the ground up using the Apocalypse World Engine, only to arrive at the same destination anyway. In fact, I didn't even want to hack Dungeon World, merely to supplement it: it was already a quintessential dungeon-exploring game, so the more of it I changed, the further from that ideal my game would be. The fundamental form of supplementing an existing PbtA game is the playbook, which adds a new character archetype to an existing setting, and I was already thinking of three or four playable character-classes for my game, so playbooks were definitely the way to go. I couldn't just create playbooks though, as that wouldn't really explain the setting, so I needed to include more information but I also didn't want to write up a complete setting book as that would restrict what players could create and ran counter to Dungeon World's philosophy of drawing your own maps as you explore.

With a handful of playbooks sketched out in my notes and ideas for a few more, I started roughing out the first one, the Pioneer, and realised they would also make the perfect voice for introducing the game to others. I added a datasheet as a prologue to the playbook, giving the basic outline of the setting and it's history, and decided to do the same for all the other playbooks, using each one to provide the necessary details, rules and content for the game. These voices got a lot stronger the more I wrote and insinuated themselves into my thinking about the game: the original concept of the Warden drifted away from a knight errant into a wild-west sheriff just because I enjoyed writing in that voice so much!

Form & Function

I shared the Pioneer playbook with some communities on G+ to see what feedback it got, but I already had the next playbook almost complete, had started work on the third and had made notes on three others. Very early on, I knew that I wanted to keep as much of the Dungeon World design as I could and to deviate it from it as little as possible, so all the stats and Basic Moves remained untouched, but I wanted alien races rather than fantasy ones and I just couldn't justify alignments to myself at all. The alien races were pretty easy, arbitrary choices: I wanted to avoid 'bumpy headed humans' and with the unlimited budget of the imagination, I could make my aliens look like anything at all.

Image result for crane birdAeriths were my first idea because I thought the bird-like image made a good contrast with humans, which also brought with it cultural ideas of nesting, flocking and so forth. I built on that whilst trying not to get too stereotypical and made them suspicious and insular, with a low-tech level compared to humans, putting them somewhere in the bronze or iron age. Their look is something of a cross between a crane and a kingfisher or hummingbird: elongated and elegant but with a show of colour. Across the eight playbooks I eventually wrote, I used the voice of an aerith three times to showcase their different personalities and also drop in a few suggestive turns of phrase: they're the Apothecary, Scrapper and Warden, in case you were wondering.

Image result for pangolin
I wanted a real contrast for my other sentient aliens and just decided to use pangolins as the basic shape of them, hence the name 'gola' calling that to mind, but in my subconscious, a little bit of tardigrade got into the mix, so they aren't all sweet and cute. They got an intermediate level of technology, industrial but not electronic yet, bringing to mind the Victorian era, which then informed their culture and personality types. I like the idea of them being seen as bossy and over-confident by the other sentient races, as that can manifest in a variety of different ways: the Pioneer was a classic gola right from the start, but the Augment and the Chorister showed how that trait could display itself as faith or piety as well.

The classic Dungeons & Dragons tropes of Good, Evil, Law and Chaos had to go: it was fine for a fantasy setting with magic, gods, heavens and hells, but stuck out like a sore thumb in a sci-fi framework. I wanted to keep some equivalent of that though, so I thought of some political or social questions that characters could stand on different sides of: the one I liked most was what do we do here? All the abductees are trapped, but some of them want to go home, some of them want to take control of their prison and others don't care either way, they're just happy to be alive and well with all these opportunities in front of them.

Condensing all the necessary information for the playbooks into that limited space lead directly to another creative decision and I stole from myself for this one. Taking the idea of upgraded moves from Just Heroes, my superhero PbtA game in limbo, I was able to offer moves at both the 2-10 and 6-10 levels just as in Dungeon World, but without having to take up space with two separate lists.

I used a quote as a title for the first datasheet and that became a feature of all of them: some sprang to mind, such as the Arthur C. Clarke quote about technology and magic, but others I had to search for, which lead to a mix of classic and contemporary quotes. The first two are probably the best summation of the game's overall philosophy though, that the world is wonderful & strange and that the things that seem most wondrous of all can be explained with science if you just look for long enough and ask the right questions.

Now & Next

You can download all eight datasheet & playbook combinations at this link, though this is still an alpha draft and therefore subject to change, but I would like to share my reflections on the experience of writing this supplement. First and foremost, it didn't go where I expected it to: my initial idea had that cloud of small, separated habitats as a centrepiece, but I just couldn't make that into a living, breathing world without sacrificing some of my fantasy-adventure premises. I changed the setting in order to preserve the tone I was aiming for, something I must keep in mind for the future, but I still think that 'cloud of habitats' setting might find a place in a game I create one day.

The process of writing the installments also changed my plans for them, as I initially wanted to present the datasheets in a detached, authorial tone, but that last paragraph at the end of the Pioneer's datasheet inspired me to give each installment a distinct voice. Some of them were stronger than others purely because of my past role-playing history and reading preferences, with a sheriff from Deadlands and a witch from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series pushing their way in.

I like condensed writing and see it as a challenge to see how much game I can fit into a limited space: the two cheats used to do that here were first, assuming knowledge and familiarity with an existing game, and second, splitting the supplement up over eight installments, so that each one could be read separately even though you'd need all eight to really play the game. This struck me as a versatile and useful technique: I've dabbled with it before, but this was my most successful effort in that direction, inspiring me to use it for a different game. One thing I really like about Dungeon World is the design of it's playbooks, such as making the choice of Race & Alignment an integral part, rather than requiring a separate chapter to explain it all: an Elf Ranger gets a different benefit from a Human Ranger and that's all you need to be told, the rest is left up to your own creativity and shared understanding with your play group. About half-way through writing The Continent Adrift, I had an idea for using analogies for Race & Alignment in a different context but still in this installment-based, playbook-&-datasheet model. I've begun my next short-term writing project already, another PbtA game tentatively entitled Worlds in Motion...