Prologue for Solar system

21 February, 2010 at 11:45 am (game design, Solar system)

Two friends were visiting me and we talked roleplaying, so I figured we might as well try a thing that’s been on my mind.

Design goals: To have a game that is easy for everyone to get into, but so that a longer campaign can be set up in the process or created in play by stringing a series of scenarios together.

  1. Set up a strong vision for a game world. Have people contribute, ask questions, answer them, so on. If there is glitches have someone (the GM, probably) take creative responsibility for the whole deal. Someone, again probably the GM, should write down details like names that would otherwise be forgotten. We had a city somewhere in the future where the rich built their homes above those of the poor. Eventually the poor were living in sewers where rubbish and prisoners were also thrown. This was iterated a number of times, but still it is the poor ones who keep the city living by using all that is thrown to them.
  2. Set up a goal. GM should have a few ideas ready, but if someone makes a more interesting suggestion, go with it. This should not take too long. We had a sick person in the underworld who needs a medicine that you can’t get but above.
  3. Players create characters who are motivated by the goal. They should be pretty freely adding detail to the goal.  Also, and this is important, name the characters. We had the sick person being some sort of prophet and spiritual leader with unknown motives and the characters were a cybernetic, still approximately human, mercenary called Zack and a wanderer secretly from the city above, called Nils. Both had their own motives for trying to save the leader.
  4. Players state one question about their character that they would like to know an answer to. We had: What is Nils willing to do and believe to live a thousand years? Can Zack become the master of his own life?
  5. Players state a question about one other player’s character that would like to learn. We had these being restatements of the original questions though with different emphasis: Does Nils really want to live forever? Does Zack even have a mind of his own (or he a mere follower)?
  6. Physical descriptions of the characters until everyone has some sort of mental image of them.
  7. Are the characters in order? Everyone interested in at least their own character and have some sort of image about the other characters?
  8. Does everyone have something about the game world?
  9. Brainstorm how the mission could be solved. This is quasi-play in that people should be getting comfortable with their characters and brainstorm about how the goal could achieved. The game world should be getting some flesh around the bones at this stage.  GM is free to participate. End this stage when there is at least one viable plan that could work.
  10. GM should now have a a list of questions about the characters that the players are curious about, a strong vision for the world, and knowledge about what the characters will be doing. GM should think some obstacles to show how fascinating the world is and some situations somewhat related to the questions. Don’t try to push all that in, but do add it to play when natural.
  11. Right now, you should have a game world, a situation going on and a bunch of characters ready for action with a rudimentary plan. So go at it. Play.

Since half the goal is to prepare for Solar system play and create characters, we added some rulesey bits. When characters tried to do something with risk and interesting consequences, players rolled three fudge dice, summed, added two if the characters was very good at it and 1 if the character was good, else only the roll. Positive result was success. GM was free to give a bonus or penalty dice or two if situation warranted it. I went pretty light with the dice, saying yes much of the time. Players might want to keep track of what their character is good at.

So, you have played and probably answered some questions that were posed – at least the goal should be resolved to one direction or the other. Most of the questions about the characters are probably not answered (unless you had lots of time and very focused and aggressive play, in which case you might want to use a more focused rules set to help with it), and that’s okay.

Talk a bit. Are the unanswered questions still interesting? Did any new questions arise? We had a few new ones.

Now, supposing there still are unanswered questions about the characters and supposing you want to make Solar system characters out of them, here’s what you should do. Select skills as normal, though you have made many of the choices in play. Assign resource pools as you will. Turn questions into keys so that the question itself is the buy-off condition. The ways the key gives experience should be inspired by the question and the play. For example: Is Zack merely a killer? 1 xp – kill someone out of necessity , 3 xp – kill someone when other methods would have been sufficient, buy-off – the question is definitively answered.

I imagine that after each session of play there would be reflection and some of the questions would be noticed to have been already answered and probably new questions posed. It doesn’t really matter if the questions are answered affirmatively or with a negative answer, as long as they are answered.

Why have such a prologue?

Many players, especially those less used to roleplaying, often have trouble starting to play, so the prologue is a situation where characters and the world are fleshed out and play starts slowly. Further, there is a clear purpose and motivation to go for that, which hopefully reduces the barrier of entry.

There is this phenomenon where players create characters, start playing them and notice that the character actually is quite different from what the mechanical bits would say, or maybe the game world is quite different from what they imagined. A prologue mitigates this effect by having the player play the character and only then create the mechanical description in detail.

Additional bonus is the episodic nature of play. You can have a self-contained prologue, then maybe different players, another linked situation that builds on the previous one, and soon you’ll have a vibrant world and a fair number of interesting characters. My gut feeling is that the prologue format becomes restrictive and abrasive if used with established characters and setting, but maybe not. A quick pass through the list might very well be useful even in longer games.

Further refinement

Thus far there’s been one impromptu session, so obviously further playtesting is in order. One particular issue I’d like to focus on is if players should ask genuinely new questions about each others’ characters (which might create too much clutter but also inspire new ways of looking at the characters) or if they should refine the questions the players themselves posed, which would make them sharper and enhance a shared sense of what the characters are about.

4 Comments

  1. Tommi Brander said,

    http://solarwiki.janus-design.it/it/node/4 contains the text of Solar system, licensed under Creative Commons.

  2. Tommi Brander said,

    Comment from a player:

    Wasn’t checking if keys were bought off supposed to be a group vote?

    My response: Yes, maybe, but that certainly demands playtesting and hopefully a freeform discussion will be more comfortable and effective solution.

  3. Sami Koponen said,

    I like that!

    The way I see it is that you start off with an NPC (see rules about them in the Solar System Eero edition) and if the character seems to be interesting enough, you can flesh it out as a full player character.

    As for the first part concerning the game world: My personal experience says that the GM should have a good starting point, a sort of spring board for the player contribution. Second it’s handy if the GM takes a chairman position about the development. That is, not just waiting for others to come up with brilliant ideas but tease them out with good questions. Naturally the more active the players are by themselves, the more the GM can lean back. I suppose that you played with experts, so there probably wasn’t any lack of player initiative, so my point isn’t so much about your gaming.

    Actually, now that I think about it, brainstorming how a mission can be solved sounds a bit like pre-playing. It’s like an easy landing into the use of imagination, what role-playing is all about. You don’t have to play a character yet nor know any rules, just imagine how a mission could be solved. Depending how full the description is it might even make the actual play unnecessary: “One way to gain an audience to the king is to meet a royal messanger in an inn, give him enough drinks so that he passes out, take his signet ring, rush to the castle and tell the guards that you have urgent news for the king”. This is not to say that you do anything backwards, but that this here could be a key to role-playing Lite version ™, an interesting introductionary version of roleplaying.

    • Tommi Brander said,

      Playing as NPCs: Yes, there is similarity.

      Game world: GM should have something prepared. If I ever choose to pursue the idle thought of publishing something like this, providing story seeds will be a high priority.

      Pre-playing: Good point, thanks. I usually think that pre-play activities used as a substitute for proper play are a bad things, but maybe thinking of them as techniques to be used when appropriate is more fruitful. Here, in particular, the planning stage hopefully works better as pre-play, since extensive preparation tends to that direction anyway. Here, making it explicit might actually reduce it, or at least get people in the right mind-set to enjoy the activity.

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