Bridging

February 9, 2017

A tale occurred to me. Inspired in no small part by scenes from Ursula Vernon’s Digger, I give you a short framework for the opening to a story, straight from the top of my head. The premise is something like this . . .

Two wagons, each drawn by two horses and laden with goods for sale, clatter along an unfamiliar road. Ahead the wagoneers see a bridge suspended across a ravine. It is a sturdy bridge, but strange and rough. The strangest is that the ropes are looped around thick polished beams, as though someone were to hook and unhook the ropes every day.

Over the noise of the wagons comes a deep sound as of a giant walking through water. One hand appears on the cliff edge, then another, and the horses rear in panic to see a troll heave itself over the edge, sopping wet from the waist down. The wagoneers struggle to calm the animals, and themselves, as the troll unhooks one of the ropes of the suspension bridge without a word. The bridge sways. The troll goes still.

“I’m hungry.” the troll says, its voice reverberating from cliff to cliff.

As the horses nicker, the people speak with each other in hasty high-pitched tones. They talk of money, and animals, and imbalanced loads. One of them eagerly volunteers to shift goods between one wagon and the next. The other wagoneer, with some hesitation, looks to the troll, standing without motion in a puddle of river water.

“We’ll give you a horse.” the wagoneer says.

The troll watches as the wagoneer undoes and drags over the struggling horse. At last it raises a hand and pulls the beast straight out of the human’s grasp. The wagoneers cannot watch as the horse’s cries end in a snap.

With joint urgency, they finish rebalancing the wagons and look to the troll once again. It continues to stand between them and the bridge, yet now it appears almost thoughtful, dangling a horse by the neck in one hand.

“I have a little one to feed.” the troll says.

At first the wagoneers do nothing. Then they confer, in even hastier tones, of money, and animals, and how they aren’t going to carry boxes on their back, and why they couldn’t just float across the ravine on clouds of optimism if they think they’re getting by this one without trouble, and the one yet to speak to the troll bursts out to it.

“Well why not give us your little one, then?!” the wagoneer says.

The troll staggers, dropping the horse’s remains and ending upright as a tree. The wagoneers are frozen just the same, watching the tremendous creature. Water drips off it unheeded. The wind blows across the ravine.

“Asbjørn!” the troll calls, its voice even louder than before.

There is silence, then a deep sound of water, then one hand appears on the cliff edge, then another, and a troll heaves itself over the edge. It is still the size of a human giant, but smaller than its parent, sopping wet from the chest down.

“Good, you brought your club.” the larger troll says.

“Is it time to eat?” asks the child.

“It is time for you to leave.” answers the troll. With one hand it hooks the rope of the suspension bridge back on its beam, and with the other it takes its meal of horse and begins walking back to the cliff edge.

“What?” asks the child. Its parent says nothing, only climbing down the cliff with its toll.

The three horses struggle against their handlers. The wagoneers are speechless. The troll child looks to them blankly. But the bridge is clear.

. . . So that’s just the start. Obviously it isn’t written out in proper final draft (with, you know, “engaging bits”); perhaps it works best as a script, i.e., for the beginning to a roleplay experience. I know that I want to be there when a bridge troll meets human civilization . . . and harvest festivals . . . and muggers . . .

Anyway, the usual statement applies. If you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

Advertisements

Last time, I discussed how character backgrounds defined the game experience for me even in a massively violence-focused game such as Unreal Tournament. Having the information exist at all created a living story world.

Now I will try to create some myself; perhaps they will be combatants for a first-person game, yes, but perhaps fighters for a Street Fighter-style one, heroes for any of the countless games out there with hireable characters (Shadowrun comes to mind), or otherwise. If I do it correctly, they’ll be more than just puppets waiting to live and die when a player presses a button.

The point of the game is “Violence begets violence.” Little surprise there, yes?

The most recent game I posted involved a post-apocalyptic world with individuals and gangs of looters, all given personality and equipment. I will use character geometry once more, creating one-dimensional or at most two-dimensional individuals as they will not have airtime to develop themselves further. As noted, I have a table of 100 traits now, and I will choose from them via RANDOM.ORG. I also will choose gender and number of dimensions that way.

Because this game is focused on action, what the characters do can be more important to the viability of the whole game than who they are. Therefore I will use the post-apocalyptic loot tables to select “defining equipment,” the tools of the trade brought into play when you select/meet/hire the character. I get:

One-dimensional character. Female, cruel, crowbar.
Two-dimensional character. Female, hopeless and hungry, axe.
Two-dimensional character. Male, sickly and persistent, metal pipe.
One-dimensional character. Female, damaged, flares.
Two-dimensional character. Male, zealous and insular, rifle.

The traits weren’t supposed to be gloomy themselves, but wow, that looks to be a coherent story right there. For the sake of transparency (not that it matters here in any way), I might note I refined the results a little, throwing out the traits of “dainty” and “bookish” because they didn’t fit with the theme. There are plenty of fighting games out there that have the “cutesy character,” someone who “looks weak” yet obviously is going to blow up the entire battlefield, and that’s not needed here.

With that in mind, I choose to duplicate the naming system I established once and again in the post-apocalyptic world: one descriptor for a nickname, and one normal name. Because I’m silly this way, I’ll derive names from my own Space Trader game, chosen at random. Why not?

Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

1-D character: “Heartless” Titania.
Trait: Cruel.
Background: A childhood in the Blasted Zones led Titania to understand survival as coming only at the expense of others. During an early raid on a desert lightning train, she wedged the weather doors partially open on the command crew’s cabin, leading to their death by exposure hours after her raiding party had departed. To this day she uses a crowbar as a tool of both blunt trauma and practical mischief-making.

2-D character: “Ravenous” Aednat.
Traits: Hopeless, hungry.
Background: Like other children of the Blasted Zones, Aednat got used to hardship in the silica pits. Unlike others, the one who came to be known as “Ravenous” got aid in the form of Yaroslava Consortium subdermal tonic implants. Now she outperforms her peers, swinging an axe with the strength of a rad-bull, but at the cost of constant need for nutrition. She will fall the instant she can no longer feed her tech, and she knows this.

2-D character: “Terminal” Proteus.
Traits: Sickly, persistent.
Background: Once buried in the depths of Tavon Mercantile’s research wing on a forced assistantship, Proteus found a way out during open warfare with Yaroslava Consortium. His circulatory system was crippled by a Yaroslava biologic, but he survived by repeated self-administered blood transfusions in the middle of the conflict. He thereafter eschewed high technology and beat his way to freedom with a metal pipe from the facility’s plumbing.

1-D character: “Broken” Emmeline.
Trait: Damaged.
Background: Citizens declared Non-Viable are typically exterminated in MilSec camps or exiled to the Blasted Zones, and Emmeline was no different. Miraculously surviving the same MilSec laser that cut down her brother and sister, Emmeline vanished from the waste carts to resurface years later in a street gang. Calling herself and her gang “Broken,” she is known to fight using incendiary flares despite the shocking burns she causes herself.

2-D character: “Iron” Arcadia.
Traits: Zealous, insular.
Background: MilSec task teams trained Arcadia to terminate rad-beasts that breached perimeter. When promoted to Inquisition, he retained the attitude and work ethic, being known at times not to speak a single word when on assignment. “Iron” is expert in using his rifle at range just as he is swinging it in melee, and reportedly was responsible for curtailing Yaroslava Consortium’s operations in United Galle.

. . . Why yes, I took the opportunity to use my Space Trader game’s random company generator and random location generator as well. What are all these places and how do they work? What’s up with the alleged “technology”? I don’t know, and by the science fiction logic of Unreal Tournament I am absolved of having to care. (Aside from being sure to maintain continuity.)

The key things are that they enrich the world with background and support a healthy plot. Games are culture, as I’ve expanded once already in another violent scenario, and game designers have an obligation to think of what they (designers or games) teach the players. Here we have five characters who would perpetuate violence if left to their own devices, and it sounds very much like the world will lead them nowhere else. Hopefully they are interesting enough that the player will want to bring them to a better resolution.

This blog is, ostensibly, to present online the writing and gaming musings of myself. As stated repeatedly, I possess spare material files on my computer where I get these ideas out of my head, and sometimes they provide also the inspiration for blog posts, like the lengthy four-parter lurking in that tag.

Once upon a time, I had a thought. It was prompted by one of my roommates. If it interests you enough to bring to greater fruition (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

My roommate saw online a discussion about warning future people that hazardous materials had been stored in a location. Given that the materials could remain hazardous for ages after the demise of all humanity, the warning would have to communicate to unknown civilizations with unknown standards.

One guess was to set massive durable metal spikes sticking at all angles out of the ground, hopefully communicating that nothing else should be built on the spot. Would this work? Who knew? Surely an entity could misunderstand anything. And then I started thinking . . .

Stonehenge.

What if we failed to understand the famous standing stones? Well, more than we already do. Imagine an ancient architect being transported to modern day, seeing the tourists pressing eagerly as close as they can, seeing the religious brethren performing ceremonies inside the rings, and recoiling in horror. “You fools! Horizontal repressing stones atop multiple uprising stones! What do you think we buried there?!”

I leave this thought with you.

This blog has had its share of news about my Kickstarter projects — because I’m in them, this is my blog, and I post about my writing and gaming. As discussed by Dave Morris, it can be very inefficient to fund a publishing project on Kickstarter. This has led me to wonder about other sorts of projects, such as videogames.

Videogames seem to do rather well on that site, particularly older properties from the 80’s and 90’s. Say, Shadowrun. Understandable, given that the people who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s are now the young adults spending money on the internet. These digital projects have the advantage of lower “printing” costs (unless the creators will it otherwise) but still need to create a compelling “updated” version of classic content. For instance, Shadowgate (seems to be a theme here) was not promised as “the original game now on your newfangled computer,” but something dramatically expanded. If you’ve read my About page, you know this is what I’ve done for years.

My most recent non-Kickstarter posts were a game design where I developed a whole RPG world and system. Today I brainstorm a videogame project — not because I’m launching anything on Kickstarter, but because I feel like it.

I choose to renew the Temple of Apshai Trilogy.

This was a game from when I was growing up in the 80’s, an era where game mechanics were changing left and right. Long before “health” was standardized to “hit points” (and long before people forgot that a “hit point” was something you suffered, not something you had), Temple of Apshai had a “wounds percentage” that was influenced by multiple factors. You haggled over prices, and, if you looked closely, your loot heap just might include “a partridge in a pear tree.” The game introduced me to role-played character statistics (strength, constitution, et cetera) as well as to “donjons,” “salves,” “parlaying,” and, for that matter, “parrying.”

It’s surprisingly difficult to find a good link for it, though. The most in-depth pages seem to lack the attractive Commodore 64 graphics. However, beyond the graphics, what’s most relevant here is the text: the game came with a large booklet of role-playing-game-style descriptions of rooms, traps, treasures, and foes. Sometimes dramatic, sometimes comedic. Bringing the game back means a new writing project in addition to a careful design project.

As I’ve argued, a well-designed game explores its elements and mechanics fully. It’s possible to go too far and flood something with “filler,” yes, but there seems to be something in general gaming consciousness that leads people to say “Ugh, this game had such a good idea, but they didn’t do anything with it” or “Wow, they really took that idea and did everything they could.” It may be worthwhile to remember Lewis Carroll again:

“‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'”

What I’d like to do, in this hypothetical world where I have the rights, the artists, and the programmers to create a videogame, is to resurrect Temple of Apshai and explore it fully. Here’s how. Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

Step 1: Identify what the original has and where it’s incomplete

The original trilogy consists of three chapters: Temple of Apshai, Upper Reaches of Apshai, and Curse of Ra. The first contains four levels in a single theme, exploring the abandoned underground depths where once dwelled the followers of Apshai, the insect god. The second has four levels with unique art, each the domain of a character from the game world. The third is another single-themed area like the first, but moving on to an Egyptian theme.

The change to a “real-world” Egyptian theme means some fun content but nonetheless could seem out-of-place. New content should explore both the original themes and further “real-world” ones.

The characters utilized for Upper Reaches of Apshai are an odd mix. The game is known to include the Innkeeper, the basic character who tends to your needs and with whom you haggle for purchases, and three other adventurers: Olias the Dwarf, Lowenthal the Mage, and Benedic the Monk. This is four people, but Upper Reaches presents only three — the fourth is an unknown character named Merlis the Mage, whose home you visit instead of Lowenthal’s.

New content should include Lowenthal’s domain as well as other unique areas.

Your basic character statistics develop over the game, and, in at least one horrifying circumstance, lower: some enemies strike you with “a chill . . . ” and your constitution drops permanently.

New content should round out the possibilities for raising and lowering statistics. I only have limited information on the original’s scheme and would have to research this aspect further.

Step 2: Complete the original and expand it where appropriate

I propose that a Kickstarter project promise first to update the game to a modern engine with faithful graphics. Proving that it works would be essential. The text should appear in-game, certainly, and should also emphasize what is so special about this gaming approach: with text, you can draw attention to different senses. So, for instance, when a chamber has the odor of vanilla, the text would place this in bold. And fans of the original would know why this is alarming.

Then I propose unlocking new content in sequence: three more chapters, perhaps with the first unlocked from the start. This allows for a large amount of content available to gamers who wish to design their own adventures.

Beyond Apshai. A similar chapter to Upper Reaches of Apshai, with four unique areas based on characters within the game world. One is the home of Lowenthal the Mage, the missing classic character. A second is for a new druid character from the subsequent Wrath of Eire. A third is a smaller and more distant temple to the insect god, so some “classic Apshai content” would be present even if the project went no further (though the temple would be abandoned so as to maintain mystery about the doings of the cult). A possible fourth could be another area dedicated to Geb, God of the Earth, the patron of Benedic and his fellow monks. This could be appropriate as Geb is the only other (non-Egyptian) god to be so important in the series. Alternately, the fourth could be Egyptian so as to use said content further.

Wrath of Eire. Similar in principle to Curse of Ra, this chapter is a single-themed realm dedicated to Irish mythology. Or at least as much “Irish” as Curse of Ra is “Egyptian,” so it could have referential, ahistorical, and tongue-in-cheek things like serpent enemies. The prevalence of faery curses makes for excellent opportunities in lowering character statistics: a “horde of wee folk” could “twist your features into a grotesquery,” reducing your ego score (the statistic for influence and willpower). Leprechauns are a given, and of course pots of gold, not to mention emeralds (tongue-in-cheek) and clover.

Return to Apshai. This chapter is a direct continuation of Temple of Apshai. Newly-revealed depths in the cave system that the Apshaians excavated lead to more discoveries and more mysteries. The existing lore says the insects dwelled underground before the Apshaians ever settled here, and also that they may be making incursions elsewhere such as near Benedic’s Monastery — there could be plenty to uncover, both humanoid and not, in a subterranean world only partially carved by hand.

. . . And there is a pitch. Will it ever go online? I’m not involved in wrangling rights and I don’t have a development team, so for today it is but a design exercise. It is one I enjoyed contemplating, though, for the same reasons I enjoyed the other game worlds from my childhood (case in point: Lone Wolf), and for the reason that I love solving puzzles. Design is a long and complicated puzzle, and in the end all the best solutions are the fun ones.

This has been quite a series of posts. First I spoke of the people in a post-apocalyptic game world, using character geometry and my own “loot tables” to understand the disposition and resources of the survivors. Then I described the shadow creatures let loose on this world, themed after our human failings of betrayal, exploitation, greed, sadism, and zealotry. Lastly, I spoke of the ethics of the game, of what I was asking the players to do in this world of desperation. This is important because, as I keep arguing, games are culture (I love how the URL looks like a follow-up comment) and thus game designers have an obligation to think of what they teach the players.

But I’m not just here to preach unto the skies. I’m here because writing is fun.

Today I’ll create more humans for the players to face, fight, and/or join in forwarding the plot. I’ll use the same point to the story, asking “Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?” Each will be based on character geometry as before, and equipped by my new-and-improved loot tables. I need to test these further because, of course, it’s basic to gameplay . . . and these tables were the reason I started writing any of this.

So, the tables.

I likely won’t post them because they are far too informal just yet. The key features are the divisions. My post-apocalyptic goodies fall into “food,” “weapons,” or “supplies” categories, and they can be “common,” “uncommon,” or “rare,” with things like household knives and bagged junk food down at the common end, and things like gas cans and sterile bandages at the rare.

A lone survivor gets one roll in each category. A gang for now is between 2 and 20 people (that’s 2d10, gamers) and gets one roll per member, with the assumption that the truly “common” results are then available in multiplicity. The commonality percentages are based on that fact that “common” really should be “common,” a simple lesson learned from Dungeons & Dragons. (Do I have to provide a link? Do I?) That is, 75% common, 20% uncommon, and 5% rare. Technically, there’s 1% out of that 5% for “very rare,” but in my game I just take that as two rolls in “rare.”

(An aside: though I base the logic of those percentages on Dungeons & Dragons, I cannot find this exact pattern in any book, just similar ones. I wonder where I got it.)

So, the people.

I’ll use RANDOM.ORG to generate two groups of gang members, being one-dimensional character classes, and two more two-dimensional characters. I get:

One-dimensional character class. 5 people. Food: 1 C, 1 R. Weapons: 1 U, 1 R. Supplies: 1 C.
One-dimensional character class. 13 people. Food: 4 C, 1 U. Weapons: 2 C, 1 U, 1 R. Supplies: 3 C, 1 U.
Two-dimensional character. Female. Food: C. Weapons: C. Supplies: C.
Two-dimensional character. Female. Food: C. Weapons: U. Supplies: U.

Sounds fun. Next I consult the loot tables for those rarities and smoosh the results together to tell a coherent story.

Now, I noted last time that fighting people is just part of the story, and otherwise the player wants to earn trust and negotiate peace. I didn’t define how to do that. Once the mechanism is set, all these “rival gangs” need some form of “trust mechanism,” like a quest or a topic of appeal. Meanwhile, we can just assume that appealing to or appeasing the personality trait I list here will get you on their good side. ( . . . Wow, looking back over the traits I chose, that will be a challenge.)

Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

1-D character class: Member of Gang 4.
Trait: Petulant.
Description: One of 5 people. Claims a territory of former fresh produce stores, since overrun with rats, which the group now farms for food. Supplements diet with the sugar from old canned soda. One individual has a bow for hunting and defense. Uses saws and bungee cords in a construction effort, reshaping doors, stairwells, and so on, corraling the rats, and stringing up a perimeter wall to slow down intruders.
Dialogue: Idle – “Why am I always the one to [incoherent muttering].”
Idle – “I’m not eating another rat!”
Fight – “Leave me alone!”
Fight – “Can’t anyone keep good watch?!”

1-D character class: Member of Gang 5.
Trait: Insular.
Description: One of 13 people. Claims an old school as territory, abandoned even before the apocalypse, now growing massive beds of plants and fungus. Primarily cultivates the growths for food, but has some canned food as well, and drinks rainwater. Has used hammer and nails to seal all entrances, remaining inside at all times, defended otherwise with improvised weapons. Has gathered bags of ammunition and batteries but has no use for them.
Dialogue: Idle – “This is how life should be. No one gets it like us.”
Idle – “Can’t we stay here forever? We need only each other.”
Fight – “Intruders! Intruders! Rip them apart!”
Fight – “No one invades our sanctum!”

2-D character: “Wild” Adrien.
Traits: Sarcastic, spiritual.
Description: A woman from complex background, used to hiking and survivalism by choice or otherwise. Has several glass bottles filled with collected rainwater, padded in bags, to sustain her or provide makeshift cutting tools as she seeks better supplies and armament.
Dialogue: Intro – “Hey, knight in shining armor! Come to rescue me from down here or just gawk awhile? It’s okay, I got heaven and earth on my side, don’t need anything else. Like a ladder!”
Idle – “Rummage more quietly, you’re drowning out the cosmic vibes.”
Idle – “It could almost be peaceful, really. A shame.”
Fight – “Pray!”
Fight – “Yeah, we’ll be buddies in your next life!”

2-D character: “Hermit” Henning.
Traits: Formal, restless.
Description: A business-suit-wearing woman staying on top of the rubble by never standing still. She keeps only small objects that will fit in her pockets, including a lighter and miscellaneous candy, plus a handgun in an inside pocket.
Dialogue: Intro – “Put down the weapon in your hand and I’ll stop pointing mine at the back of your head.”
Intro – “Thank you. The name’s Henning. Some call me ‘Hermit.’ Now I’ve already cleaned out this place so I’ll be leaving.”
Idle – “We’ve been standing around too long.”
Idle – “You’re very quiet, I notice.”
Fight – “Keep to my side or we’re both dead.”
Fight – “Let’s go, let’s go!”

. . . Interestingly, I found it as much of an invigorating mental exercise to string together disparate “resources” into a coherent “way of life” as I have all the other randomized elements in my posts. Though I won’t deny I did several re-rolls when things just didn’t make sense.

This occasion, by the way, marks an achievement: in a previous character design exercise, I had a list of 72 traits consisting of everything Dave Kosak used as examples or I used/mentioned anywhere on my blog. With the above, my list has grown to exactly 100 traits long. This should be handy for randomization as I do more exercises in the future, but for now I believe I’ve finished this series of posts.

I’ve spent a couple posts developing a post-apocalyptic game world full of people and monsters. The point of the story (or game) is to ask “Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?”

Our modern-day Earth has become darkened by repeated and inexplicable eclipses of the sun, and the vast majority of the population has “vanished into the shadows.” Shadowy creatures terrorize the land and feast on the surviving humans. And, as far as the survivors know, that’s the whole story: it’s now up to them to carve out a niche in the ruined cities, find food and resources, and combat the encroaching darkness.

But when talking about the monsters, I described a morality mechanic: the shadow creatures are thematically connected to human failings, including betrayal, exploitation, greed, sadism, and zealotry. Once a creature has appeared (typically during an eclipse), it often can pass days as it pursues its victims, waiting for them to slip up. A creature will gladly kill and eat its prey, for sure, but there’s a worse fate: if a person performs a crime themed after the creature’s own theme, then that person will be “caught” by the creature, and will fall through the shadows out of this reality. (An event that is either lethal or damaging, depending on final game design.)

Players already know that desperate circumstances (like in popular apocalyptic movies) can lead to “practical” behaviors that are not very “ethical” ones, such as using a human shield or exterminating a rival gang. In a sense, their challenge in my game would be to keep any “ethical slips” out of the watchful eyes of the shadow creatures.

So what am I saying with this game? What am I teaching gamers?

This is important. I keep talking about game designer/cogitator Jonathan Blow, the voice behind the quotes in this animation over here. In the same speech, he also said this:

“Because we feel like games are just entertainment, we don’t really have the sense that we could do things that we might be ashamed of yet. Right? If we’re powerful people, if our medium is powerful, we should have the capability to do things that we should be ashamed of and then make the choice about whether we’re going to do them or not.”

. . .

“When millions of people buy our game, we are pumping a (mental) substance into the (mental) environment. This is a public mental health issue. We have the power to shape humanity. How will we use it?”

I’d hope to do better than Bioshock from Irrational Games (or 2K Games, but c’mon), which he also criticized. During development, the game was billed as one of “mature choices,” but in the end there was next to no choice, next to no moral quandary — just a lot of shooting people. What about me?

Let me define this game’s win conditions.

I’ve noted the cost-benefit analysis of performing unethical acts to get ahead, which I feel is already more mature than Bioshock’s limited choices. But it sounds like you could view it as “Shh, try to get away with as much bad stuff as you can before the SHADOW POLICE catch you!” That’s not what I want at all.

The main villains of the game are, somehow, connected to our own ethical failings. Back in this character design exercise, I mentioned a genre called “Gaiman pantheism,” which I named after Neil Gaiman but didn’t explain. He obviously didn’t invent this, but you can look to him and his series The Sandman for elaboration: the idea that human thought, emotions, belief, intentions, and so on, are what give gods their power, and therefore all gods are real. Now, “generalization alert,” but this exact same principle is used all over the place: this is how game developers made death itself manifest in The Suffering, with power coming directly from “humans killing humans.” In my game, thus, the disaster is powered by humans wanting to be unethical.

The only way to win my game is by world peace.

That sounds unreachable and pointless for game design, but it needs only scope and definition. Give the game a mechanic for reducing shadow infestations when the players broker peace with neighboring gangs. Reward humans for coming together to put society back on its feet. What if the eclipses, which are already unnatural, somehow became less frequent over regions of peace?

In a videogame version, full “world peace” wouldn’t be achieved in play: it would be reduced to a city level. The player would understand two simultaneous goals, being basic survival on one hand (with all the horrible violence it entails, as many people attack you on sight), and earning trust and cooperation on the other. Maybe by “quests,” maybe by plastering propaganda posters, who knows until a real dev team got together? In the end a new city-state is formed and made self-sufficient. Lessons are learned. Triumphant music is played. “The future is bright.”

In a pencil-and-paper RPG, players interested in going further could then use their new resources to liberate neighboring areas from the “armies of darkness,” which become stronger in desperation against the encroaching light. They could rescue survivors with the promise of a functional new society, and struggle against resistant gangs that still see only violence. Once a population of enough hundreds or thousands had become “re-civilized,” the eclipses would gradually fade from the rest of the world too, waiting for a future day when humanity needed the lesson yet again.

Poof, suddenly a post-apocalyptic game full of grim violence is a vast morality play where being on the side of good . . . is good. The implementation might suffer problems and setbacks like any other; but, in principle, why isn’t this sort of thinking more common in game design?

I don’t know, but that’s enough of an essay for now. In my next post I’d like to get back to fleshing out the world some more with human characters to drive the plot and gameplay.

Why not keep rambling? Last time I wrote the basics about a world from my spare story and game files, using character geometry to add humanity and some playable content. Mostly gang members to beat up. But that’s okay, since really I was testing loot tables for a post-apocalyptic world, so put two and two together and I have enough for a playtest with friends.

I didn’t explain the “shadow creatures,” though, which are supposedly representative of the “darkness” inside humanity. You know, the whole point of the thing: “Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?” Today I’ll explain those creatures.

So! Shadow creatures!

If the super-subtle you-don’t-actually-know-this-from-the-start point of the thing is that these monsters are connected to our own human failings, then it’s time to get symbolic. Tons of people have taken the “seven deadly sins” and tried to manifest them in people or beasts, like the artist Joe England and his rabbit version. (Please take it as meaningful that I present this and only this.) For a videogame, it would be more like the monsters in The Suffering, which came about when certain foolhardy individuals asked Stan Winston Studio “Can you, I dunno, design monsters that are symbolically connected to means of execution?”

But I want human failings, so I go back to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and the Inferno. Not his poem, though: my own. After devouring the Inferno in high school, I took it upon myself to write a new one, and the result was the longest poem I ever wrote. I think it even sounded good in a couple places. Not all the “sins” were amenable to game adaptation, so today I choose these five: betrayal, exploitation, greed, sadism, and zealotry.

I’m neither Joe England nor Stan Winston, so I don’t really know how they look, but probably each beast is a scrawny/hulking/gangly/muscular brute/wretch of some sort. In dark colors. More important is how they behave. They are intelligent, most act slowly and deliberately upon spotting prey, and all use a thematically-appropriate means of approach. They will gladly kill and eat you, but each also has a special way of “catching” you: if you succumb to their themed failing (“sin”) while one is hunting you, then you’re in trouble. The very next instant you stand in a shadow, you will fall through reality. The only way to avoid this fate is to kill that monster while remaining in the light. Obviously, this morality-themed “catching” mechanic works best in a pencil-and-paper RPG, with fleshed-out details for what happens when you’ve “vanished into the shadows,” how you get back out, and what lingers afterward. I’m thinking effects like Wizard’s Twilight from Ars Magica or Frag from Continuum.

Anyway, to log those creature details. Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

Betrayal.
Behavior: Lure prey into attractive-looking ambushes to kill and eat them. Prepare dead ends with lots of light so they look safe. Open doors and windows to provide tempting escape routes, then make noises (subtle or scary) to channel victims along.
Catches those who: Leave behind companions in a fight. Lie to get ahead when cooperation is possible.

Exploitation.
Behavior: Set humans to kill each other so as to feast on their remains. Identify those who don’t wish to be noticed (intruders in hostile territory) and make a loud commotion to ruin their stealth, then hide while fighting ensues. Unlock points of entry in a gang’s lair to leave a route for intruders.
Catches those who: Send others to face risks they refuse to face. Use a human shield.

Greed.
Behavior: Devour human food and steal their supplies, then wait patiently for the victims to weaken before striking. Learn what humans value and quietly raid stashes while defenders are out. Locate further resources and despoil them if victims approach.
Catches those who: Sacrifice a companion for material gain. Destroy anything or anyone because “If I can’t have this, no one will.”

Sadism.
Behavior: Use hit-and-run tactics, crippling victims before granting the finality of death. Engage in direct assault, switching from target to target quickly after a strike. Target both humans and their supply stashes, and in the case of food and resources either devour or despoil them.
Catches those who: Kill for amusement. Injure an individual or destroy resources to “make a point.”

Zealotry.
Behavior: Bluntly assault prey, destroying the victims themselves and all signs of humanity’s presence. Use no subtlety, tearing down walls and throwing furniture to keep victims terrified and in their place. Deface corpses to the same end.
Catches those who: Kill for a vendetta, even against the shadow creatures. Evict companions based on ideology.

(“Kill a surrendering opponent” should be in there somewhere, but I’m not sure where yet.)

I won’t write any dialogue for these monsters, but effectively the above themes could be one-dimensional character geometry. Simple enough. And if this were a printed RPG product, then the “catching” mechanic would be part of the basic draw: “Be judged by your actions” and such on the back cover of the book.

Sure, players are pretty good at figuring out criteria and would try to avoid the “sins.” Good game design here must present a cost-benefit analysis. Many unethical actions are beneficial in a post-apocalyptic world, which gamers know as they’ve seen movie “heroes” be led to betray their friends, or played games where the system explicitly let them use a human shield (“exploitation”). The related costs can appear low or manageable since a creature needs to be present before crime results in punishment, and creature frequency is impacted by eclipse status. If this were a pencil-and-paper RPG, perhaps character generation could demand the player choose one flaw they must risk exposing: perhaps an RPG character must have tendencies towards betrayal, exploitation, greed, sadism, or zealotry, just as Unknown Armies has a Passion system.

So what then about my ethical obligations as a game designer? I keep saying that “games are culture,” and apparently right now I’m trying to get gamers into a “morality play” of some sort. That’s a topic that deserves more attention, and I reserve it for next time.

I started writing this to present a single seed of an idea and have a little fun. It has since grown into a fairly thorough four-part series of essays and examples on game design, looking at aspects both mechanical and personal. Writing is, indeed, fun.

When last I wrote a dimensional character design exercise, I referenced the heaps and heaps of spare material writers tend to have around. Whenever an idea strikes me . . .

Okay, let me be more direct than that. “Inspiration” should not be construed as “And thus did my muse place a new and wondrous idea upon my brain, as if from the very ether!” No, an idea may “strike me” because I just played a cool videogame and I want to make one that’s better. Ideas come from anywhere. Therefore I have computer files filled with little story points, character ideas, game systems, one-to-two-line jokes, and whatever else, written tidbit by fun tidbit as I live my own life (and thus live stories).

So recently I found myself writing some loot tables (a player searches for loot, someone rolls a random number, and the corresponding entry on the table states what the player finds). I wondered when I’d have the chance to play a fleshed-out game as envisioned for these tables: sharing the fun is kinda important. In my last character exercise, I suggested tossing more of my personal gaming material up here, like these very tables. Why not mix efforts: why not use the exercise to flesh out the game? It’s almost like it was meant this way!

Huge blog intro done, let’s get to work.

The story/videogame/RPG takes place after human society has collapsed. Yes, I know that everyone and their annoying kid metaphor has done post-apocalyptic tales, particularly post-zombie-apocalyptic. Which is why I have no intention of zombies at this time. There are so many interesting ways for “it all to end,” especially when you realize that “it” doesn’t “all end”: even nuclear obliteration would leave cute little bacteria, and it’s the funniest thing but somehow all these apocalypses leave humans to advance the plot.

“New beginning” is written all over such stories, especially after a healthy dose of “What is the nature of humanity?” Thus, of course, the point of this story is to ask “Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?” In this case a quote from the Broken Saints movie series which I once edited. After making such a big deal last time about how “games are culture,” there’d better be a more meaningful point than just “VIOLENCE!” and learning from the greats is probably healthy.

So a pity I told you the point, because the rest of this is about to get really obvious. The “end” came when a large portion of people in our world “vanished into the shadows,” leaving a vast emptiness of crashed machines and failing social systems. Unnatural solar eclipses started to occur, covering swaths of the world in twilight, and in these areas people would disappear and new terrifying shadow creatures would arrive.

As the moon was often still visible elsewhere in the sky during the eclipses, they were inexplicable as a natural phenomenon. And as an eclipse is a matter of perspective, the very idea of it happening so perfectly reveals it to be a deliberate act: someone or something wanted the sun’s shadow to fall on humanity. Likewise, the shadows cast by spawned creatures do not behave as per physics: their shadows point close to those they are hunting. Even if a creature itself is not backlit, a human standing in the light may see a subtle warning of danger nearby. Survivors are thus advised to count the number of shadows underfoot regularly.

The lot of surviving humans is complex. With no more mass production, resources now come either from scavenging or from creating a new system of supply in desperate circumstances. That’s, say, eating old canned food on one hand, and hunting packs of stray animals on another. Gangs form (of quite mixed membership) to control resources, but easily-looted standards like gun stores are already emptied, so the gangs find themselves in the bizarre situation of claiming greenhouses and pet shelters to survive. People who wander into the wrong territory may be killed, or may be enslaved to labor on purifying drinking water.

Huge worldbuilding intro done, let’s get some characters.

I’ll create some “early-level” characters who drive the player’s experience. I will make two groups of gang members, being one-dimensional character classes, and a two-dimensional straggler trying to survive and make sense of the disaster. I’ll use RANDOM.ORG to tell me the size of each gang, the 2-D character’s gender, and, in consultation with my loot tables (remember those?), the sorts of resources each possesses.

. . . Okay, the random results seem a bit hard to interpret, so I’ll just post the finished products. Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

1-D character class: Member of Gang 1.
Trait: Conspiring.
Description: One of 12 people. Claims a territory of businesses and cheap lodging that once served a shipping area, as the warehouses are uninhabitable (unless one wants to be eaten by shadow creatures) and serve as a protective wall against other gangs. Survives off the contents of multiple vending machines among other scavenged food, has medical supplies, but is poorly armed. Exactly one individual has a gun while the rest use improvised weapons.
Dialogue: Idle – “We’ve gotta take someone down. Someone with goods.”
Idle – “Why aren’t I calling the shots already?”
Fight – “Who let you in here?!”
Fight – “You think you’ve got it all figured out!”

1-D character class: Member of Gang 2.
Trait: Desperately hopeful.
Description: One of 8 people. Claims territory beyond a river (unusable due to runoff trash) in a community garden surrounded by apartments. Has combined several window box vegetable gardens together as well and has nailed an array of tarps overhead around the area. This provides cover, rainwater, and diffuse lighting, while no enemy can approach unseen. Armed for melee, including a fire axe and knives, but is low on all other practical equipment.
Dialogue: Idle – “This should work. It’s working. This should work.”
Idle – “We’re gonna make it, right?”
Fight – “We’ve got it good here! Scram!”
Fight – “Don’t cause any more trouble!”

2-D character: “Dirty” Wesson.
Traits: Resourceful, aesthetic.
Description: One more desperate man in the city, this one nonetheless mildly shaven. Armed with nothing but a wood plank, surviving on nothing but canned soda, his supplies bound well in a bundle of spare clothing tied across his back.
Dialogue: Intro – “Back off! Wait, you’re not with the gang? Finally, help me get this furniture moved, I need to secure the roof. You hold that side. Well?”
Intro – “Good, been needing a second pair of hands. Nasty ones, but whatever. Name’s Wesson; ‘Dirty’ Wesson. Now move these down to the front door before it gets any darker.”
Intro – “Nice view, isn’t it? You can almost ignore the smoke and the spraypaint. Sometimes I can’t tell who’s done worse for humanity: the creatures or the humans. Anyway, next time we can sneak around without getting eaten, we’d better go raiding.”
Idle – “Looks like rot was the best thing to happen to this place.”
Idle – “You sure you didn’t leave something?”
Fight – “Take ’em down clean!”
Fight – “Don’t break anything important!”

1-D character class: Member of Gang 3. (Bonus! These are too fun.)
Trait: Doomsaying.
Description: One of 10 people. Claims a supermarket as territory, though of course the best foods are gone by now, and the group survives on bagged items and rainwater off the roof. Is set for clothing, rubbing alcohol, and other basic necessities, and is mostly armed with knives and glass bottles. A very few have guns.
Dialogue: Idle – “The darkness is everywhere and we let it in . . . ”
Idle – “Just have to wait. Just have to wait for them . . . ”
Fight – “You’ll bring them here!”
Fight – “You’re dead one way or another!”

. . . So here I got to test my loot tables, which seem to give okay results once the dungeonmaster (me) steps in to weave it all together. I haven’t explained a single thing about “shadow creatures”: this is just the surface seen at the start of the plot.

Of course, every word of dialogue is written holding the story’s point or message in mind: human failings and our attempts to go beyond them. Except the “going beyond them” part (“darkness leaving hearts”) doesn’t seem too clear. As it stands, it sure looks someone could make a mindless “VIOLENCE!”-themed game out of this. I will elaborate on themes and the player’s experience in my next post. Conveniently, it all ties in to the mysterious monsters.