Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Space Race

Before I start, let me give a quick plug for a young gaming blog, charactergen.net. The authors are a pair of talented and inspired writers who are already off to an excellent start, and promise many cool things yet to come.

Anyway, it should be obvious that I'm a big fan of Bulldogs!, and if it's not obvious, I suggest taking a look at the lower left hand corner of the back cover, which should answer any questions about where I stand. It's a fun game standing firmly on a well-loved piece of sci-fi real estate and, notably, just launched its own foray into fiction with Redwing's Gambit, by the ever talented Monica Valentinelli, if that's your bag.

For all its explosive, sci fi fun, I want to really call out two pieces of gaming technology that any designer might want to take into account. Neither is FATE specific (though one leans that way) and both could be powerful seeds for other games.

Today I'll talk about the first, the handling of race. Race is a tricky thing - in fiction as in life - but it's also an essential part of this sort of sci-fi. Alien races need some manner of hook to make them something other than different colored rubber suits, but at the same time it gets very dull when every member of the race is incredibly similar. The classic racial template model tends to stray a bit too close to the latter problem - it works very well when you have one alien of a particular type on the crew, but as soon as you introduce a second one, it gets weird. Think of any six episodes of Star Trek and you can probably see the problem.

However, if you stop and think about any six episodes (well, any six *good* episodes) of Deep Space 9, you can get a sense of what you want to see. Since DS9 had so many recurring alien characters, it was no longer sufficient for "Ferengi" or the like to be a sufficiently distinguishing feature to leave it at that. Instead, it was a starting point to build a character on. Bulldogs! has found a way to build that into chargen, and quite cleverly.

See, it starts with a list of 10 aspects for every race. They're good, colorful aspects and they paint a nice and complete picture of each race. Presenting them this way spared the author the need to write up long descriptive blurbs for each race that restates the content of those aspects. The aspect tell us plenty about the race and about how others might feel or react to them. That's all implicit in the aspect list itself. It's a dirty trick, and a super clever one.

If you stop there, this is basically just a clever presentation of the classic racial template - good, but dull. The twist comes in application. A character is only expected to take two of those aspects.

It's a simple thing, but the impact is profound for a couple of reasons. First, it creates a range for a lot of different aliens of the same species, but it does so in a way that doesn't abandon the complete picture - the fact that your character doesn't use 8 of the aspects doesn't mean those don't exist, it just means they're less important to you. The full list provides a context that the narrowed selection takes advantage of. To put it in concrete terms, it means Klingon poets might be a rarity, but they're not impossible to make (or even penalized) - just pick the aspects that dovetail with your concept.

And as a bonus, it makes the GM's job MUCH easier for creating NPCs. The simple act of choosing _not_ to use some baseline aspects can tell you plenty about a character. Plus, if you're feeling lazy, you can just use more than two of them if you need to quickly stat someone up.

It's also worth nothing that the game gracefully avoids the "Humans are the baseline" problem which often accompanies these systems. The human-equivalents are handled in exactly the same way as everyone else in this regard.

For interested GMs, it's super portable to any system that uses descriptors of any sort (whether they're feats, distinctions or anything else) to construct groups. Races are the most obvious application, but it's easy to see how this could be used for organizations in the vein of White Wolf's old splats. Hell, it could be narrowed in scope and be used to create fencing schools. Anything where you need things to share a common root but have different expressions could be well served by borrowing this idea.


  1. Rob, Thank You!

    I think this totally solves a problem I've been working on for an upcoming game where all the characters are masters of different styles of Martial Arts. Now I just have to figure out if I have time to make up a bunch of different aspects for all the different schools and styles.

  2. Fascinating analysis, Rob. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I suppose part of the magic is having enough aspects to have meaningful definition AND choosing a small enough subset that there is differentiation. Classic m of n technique, with the choice of m and n very important to the overall effectiveness.

  3. One thing that I think is a good hallmark for a character generation system in regard to race (and I also include culture in this distinction as well as physiology), is whether it is possible to design a "human" in the system and make it as interesting to play as any of the other "alien" races.

    If you can't then it means either your system or your concept of "alien" (or "human") is generally too constrained in some way.


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