What would make Frasgird fun?

After spending time in the last post talking a bit about what Frasgird isn’t, I think it’s important to talk about what makes Frasgird fun, or at least fascinating, and why people would want to play it.

The stakes are, of course, survival — not just personal survival, but survival of humanity itself. There is an underlying, if unstated, theme along the lines of Ben Franklin’s statement just before the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” The player, then, represents the best, last hope for humanity.

We need an interaction model for diplomacy between the colony Frasgird and the human settlements scattered throughout the known systems for the player to attempt to convince settlements to provide actual settlers back to Frasgird, as well as possibly useful supplies/technology/information. This model could be a variant on the character interaction model discussed in this post (boasts, threats, etc.). It requires winning an argument — or hammering out an agreement — without a credible threat of force (though there’s always the possibility of bluffing or threatening to incite the alien race(s) whose world their share against them).

Also in here is the challenge of understanding and making use of an interstellar economy, both to provide funding and to buy (and sell) goods. Sundog made this personal — you were trying to find the best deals to make yourself money and buy the goods to deliver to Banville — but now it’s up a level of abstraction. You are sending traders out with orders to find certain goods and bring them back — for which you will pay them. As your colony’s wealth and capabilities increase, you can consider setting up resource harvesting operations (asteroid/moon mining, etc.) outside of the colony. You can then buy or set up business — processing facilities, manufacturing plants — outside of the colony as well. The trick, though, is you still have to generate the money to run these operations and businesses, which likely means selling some of these goods to other customers rather than using them all for Frasgird. In so doing, you are going to be subject to the same supply-and-demand issues that Sundog faced, but you are also going to be dealing with the issue of burn rate and bottom lines for each such enterprise.

Also unlike Sundog, you are going to be dealing with issues surrounding the multiverse nature of reality. That multiverse nature raises the stakes in your operations, negotiations and acquisitions. For example, if you don’t “close the deal” in a given interaction, there’s a chance that the situation might be slightly (or even significantly) different the next time one of your characters travels to that system. Similarly, an off-planet operation might change (for good or bad) in its efficiency, its economics, or even its loyalty. The longer that the game goes on without a quantum jitter of some magnitude, the more the ‘reality drift’ on each subsequent visit.

On the other hand, the ‘quantum jitter’ effect hangs over your head constantly, a bit like the old “Time Bomb” or “Mousetrap” games: it could go off at any time, and the longer the game goes without a jitter, the larger the jitter is likely to be. Minor jitters cause some delays or repairs to off-world operations and ships; major jitters can cause major setbacks. The quatum jitter/reality drift trade-off means that you face alternating sets of challenges.

Note that the pre-Dryas civilization had technology by which they could predict quantum jitters (at least major ones). It may be that one of the cryogen pods that you discover has that technology, and once you have it, you can now map out to some extent the timing and magnitude of upcoming jitters.

Another fun (I hope) task is that of managing and growing the colony. The popularity of city sim and 4X games suggests that many people find this fun (I certainly do). The challenge, as always, is to keep it complex and tricky enough to be interesting without it devolving into micromanagement and spreadsheets.

Through all this, you will recruit characters to help you: traders, miners, diplomats, explorers, researchers, inventors, and various specialized managers for the colony itself. I suggested using some sort of TEPES model (talent, experience, professionalism, education, skills) for the characters, with ‘professionalism’ representing maturity and/or wisdom and/or risk taking and/or ‘scoundrelness’ (think Obi Wan vs. Han Solo). There also needs to be a loyalty attribute — perhaps unknown at first, but revealed by choices the character makes and influenced (for good or bad) by choices the player makes.

The TEPES values, in turn, are mapped across a set of core activities: trading, negotiation, combat, diplomacy, management, repairs, research, espionage, and so on. If I send a particular character on a particular mission, his (or her) success will depend upon his TEPES rating for the activities involved. If he succeeds, his appropriate (or new) skills will improve; his experience will increase, succeed or fail. And I can spend time and resources training him in that field, though his talent will serve as an upper bound to improvement. Likewise, raw talent — particularly with low professionalism and experience — will not in and of itself guarantee success.

At first, you may have a very limited (and untested) set of characters to select from for various tasks. As you progress and grow — and raise the likelihood of humanity’s survival — you may find yourself with a much larger pool to draw from. If you suffer setbacks, you may have fewer options; those with lower loyalty may leave, and you may have fewer choices for replacement. Or you may find that some of your choices aren’t working out, and you have to let them go — but with possible consequences.

Somewhere in here, we need a model for giving orders to characters who are under your control. This may be as simple as a shopping list for traders: a list of goods, with the minimum acceptable quality level of each and the range of prices that will be paid for each acceptable quality level. The trader, then, would be free (in autonomous mode) to travel from system to system, acquiring goods and returning them to Frasgird. The quality of the goods received will have an impact on the construction and/or efficiency of the development created using them.

Similar templates would apply to other orders issued to other characters under your control. You have a mission you need accomplished; you can match it against the list of characters you currently control (or have available) and see who has the greatest chance of success; and then you can send him out. You can even send out multiple characters in a party, increasing the likelihood of overall success and/or to attempt multiple missions on a single trip, but you are risking more characters should things go south somehow.

On to aliens. Part of my plan in the Sundog novels is that there are no ‘humanoid’ alien species (unlike, say, Star Trek), and yet every alien species has the concept of humanoid beings in their myths or religions, though not always in a positive sense. Think of it a bit like the pervasiveness of dragons or dragon-like creatures across many human civilizations. Now, imagine that living, intelligent dragons show up in spaceships, looking for refuge. This is something of the situation that humanity faced during the huida (Spanish for a rapid escape) just before the Earth vanished. Some aliens rejected (or attacked) them outright; others gave them space to live; others welcomed them with open arms.

As for the aliens themselves (and their worlds), I want to avoid the usual pitfall found in games and SF of representing each alien race as having a universal culture (these are peace-loving, technologically advanced aliens), a universal government (with their leader, the Grand Poobah), and a universal climate (all living on a desert planet). Once again, we’re back to the issue of the desired level of abstraction and not getting too deep into the weeds, but I think some detail here will add to the ‘sense of wonder’ in playing the game itself, as well as to the game’s complexity. A simple approach: divide each inhabited planet up into ‘regions’ (in effect, countries or regional blocs), with a government type (see below), a general climate range, and the alien(s)/human mix (# and % of each, and relative prosperity/power index for each). We could also bring in the law/tech/wealth factors used in Sundog. Each region would have its own list of goods available and supply/demand data (again, deriving from this for starters). Likewise, each region would have some kind of vector indicating its relationship with all other regions that it knows about, including Frasgird itself.

I devised this list of government types for BATE; it may be a bit too simple, but it provides a nice starting point, particularly at this level of abstration:

  • anarchy: no government at all — each city within the region is on its own
  • democracy: technology-based rule of the masses; instant electronic voting allows all issues to be put to an immediate vote (at least, by those who are allowed to vote)
  • republic: representational democracy; the masses elect officials who then run things as they think best
  • aristocracy: rule by the “upper classes” or nobility
  • oligarchy: literally, “rule by the few”, usually a ruling council, heads of clans, or military junta
  • theocracy: government based on a single religion and run by religious leaders
  • monarchy: good old-fashioned kings, queens, etc.
  • dictatorship: rule by a single person holding absolute (or near absolute) power.

Note that — once we’ve figured out mechanics and game balance — we can, in effect, drive the level of detail down to the equivalent of individual countries. Thus, while we might divide Earth up currently into half a dozen or so major regions, there are nearly 200 countries. We can figure out the level of detail that provides the greatest entertainment before introducing more complexity than the game warrants.

Now we go back to the ‘multiverse’ effect. Every time you send a character or party of characters through hyperspace to a given star system, there is a chance — based on the length of time since the last quantum jitter and the size of that jitter — that some of these factors for each region on each planet in that system may have changed. Thus, you may find changes in government, population, law/tech/wealth, climate, market conditions, and so on. The more visits to the same system without a ‘jitter’ taking place, the higher the odds that changes will occur at each subsequent visit — and possibly the more dramatic the changes (the multiverses are drifting farther and farther away from each other).

An actual jitter will, in effect, ‘freeze’ those changes in place, while doing some damage to technology (and possibly climate and population as well). It will also reset the ‘odds’ clock back to zero, meaning subsequent post-jitter visits are likely to find the same conditions for a while, and when changes do start happening, they will start out (again) as minor. The larger the jitter, the longer it will take for multiverse effects to start showing up again.

Note that multiverse drift means that Frasgard facilities in other systems may start functioning differently or may vanish altogether. Characters sent out by you have an artifact that allows them to get back to the ‘real’ Frasgird colony, so they are shielded from multiverse drift — but they may be stranded by damage to their ships by a sufficiently severe jitter (which means you may need to send out recovery parties). Likewise, operating facilities on other systems may be damaged by jitter effects and require additional investment of funds to continue operating.

Also — and back to one of the core concepts of the novels and game — multiverse drift is tending towards elimination of the dispersed human population. So you can’t wait too long to contact and negotiate with human settlements in other systems to bring both immigrants and genetic material back to Frasgird, because you may find those populations collapsing or even vanishing altogether in subsequent visits.

Note that Frasgird itself has a major artifact (the source of the protective artifacts that your characters carry) that shields it from drift and allows it to remain the one and only true Frasgird (if you’ve read the Amber novels by Zelazny, the concept is a bit like that, but without the echoes in ‘nearby’ universes). The same artifact provides it some — but not complete — protection against jitters. The more advanced the technology required for colony developments, the greater the chance of that development needing repairs or even outright rebuilding/replacement after a significant jitter.

A thought: a significantly massive jitter (a ‘quantum quake’) could leave Frasgird as the only group of sapients with working starships (not to mention other technology).

That’s probably enough for this post.

 

 

Filed Under: CharactersEconomicsEntertainmentGame DesignMainTrading

About the Author

Webster has been doing game design since 1980, but only has one actual published game to his credit -- Sundog: Frozen Legacy (Apple II, 1984; Atari ST, 1985). This is his second.

Comments (1)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. […] much details on planets? I’ve already made some suggestions in this post. Again, we have the abstraction/sense of wonder balance, wanted to present worlds with interesting […]

Leave a Reply




If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a Gravatar.