Balancing Function With Simplicity

I’m a simulationist. When I make a game, I want it to handle the situations that I throw at it and I want the whole thing to be elegant. The problem I have is, I’m always adding more situations that I want my games to work under.

For example, in the Energy System (the system that is powering Protector and Jump Temp) the function of things like vehicles is pretty simple. The problem I’ve been having is how many passengers a vehicle can carry. On the one hand, I could just say “use common sense.” A motorcycle can carry one or two people and a car can carry four or five and be done with it.

But then I wanted to throw a light airplane in the equipment list. How many people does it carry? One? Four? Twelve? How big is a “light” airplane?

That’s a bit of a minor issue, but not simulating things like passengers properly leads to weird issues. For example, a motorcycle is probably a little faster than a car, but the car can probably travel further. As things are, they kind of balance each other out and motorcycles cost about the same as a car, which is an odd result.

That kind of thing really bugs me. There are structures in place to handle this kind of problem, but the system handles everything in terms of challenges and I’m not sure what kind of challenge “passengers” are and if I want to spend time in game even handling that.

I could write it off and say “Adding one passenger costs one die” and that could work. The problem with that is it’s one more rule to add to the system.

I had to half add a rule for money. In reality, all I did was explain how to handle money in the existing framework, but it had to called out and explained. I’d rather not have to add a special rule for passengers.

I’ll work on it. . .

Aliens In Jump Temp

Yep, it's ugly

You can have your bumpy headed aliens that you’re likely to see on shows like Star Trek, but if you’re serious about your science fiction, you want to have alien aliens.

With that in mind, the aliens in Jump Temp are not humans with bumpy heads. Not only do they look weird, they’re darn hard to communicate with. Considering an alien is likely to have very different thinking than humans, it would seem unlikely that they would speak languages that we’d easily translate. The closest thing we have to an alien language on earth is whale song. So if it’s hard to talk to a creature that breaths air like we do, imagine how hard it would be to understand a creature that breaths ammonia at pressures that would crush our lungs.

There are three races established in the Jump Temp book. Two were discovered before they achieved space flight (no prime directive here!). One, the Neamasta, have their own starships and maybe a different FTL technology. They’re being very secretive and although humans have allowed them into our space, they have not returned the favor. What are they up to? What are they hiding? The book leaves that up to you. I know what I’m going to have happen in our gaming group, but the idea is to establish the world and then let the players find their own way.

Jump Temp Starmap

central starmap

I realized it would be very helpful to have a star map for Jump Temp so I started looking for a real map of stars. I ran into Winchell Chung’s HabHYG maps and though, “Perfect!” only I realized his warning about the 30 parsec maps being accurate, that they were unusable due to the number of stars in them. I then realized I needed to reduce the number of inhabited stars in the map but I couldn’t do that without re-drawing the map. I also wanted to indicate where alien worlds were. I resolved to re-draw the map for myself. Which proved to be far harder than I thought, which is saying something because I thought it would be pretty difficult.

I ended up getting a new web server running (my old development one died a bit ago) and fired up the ol’ PHP code to read the HabHYG dataset and draw the maps for me. I’m very happy with the results even though there’s a lot of crowding going on. I’ve never used PHP to create an image so this was really new to me. It took way less time than I thought it would. The above picture is the central region, about 15 parsecs square.

I still can’t show the whole map in one image. If I make the text bigger, the stars start to crowd each other so I split the map into regions.

Thanks to Winchell for the dataset!

Drive

I was leaping down the rabbit hole that the internet is, and found a comic called Drive that has some very similar ideas to the game I’m working on Jump Temp.

The comic story and the game story are actually very different, but there are key elements that show a similarity. The drive tech is discovered by accident and while it can be modified and recreated, no one knows why they work. The other is a class of characters that are very short lived, are big and strong. And there are no shields.

Okay so other than that, the two stories are very different. I just thought it was a little weird. And you should check out Drive if you haven’t already because it’s funny and well done.

Jump Temp and Protector

We’ve been playing two games that run on the Energy System lately. Jump Temp is a space opera that’s near future maybe 50-100 years from now. Protector is alternate history where aliens attack earth and super heroes save the world, are idolized, take over the world and then are hated.

We’re having fun in both. Jump Temp had the players transporting an alien government official which I would have loved to spend more time on but it was getting late after character generation. In Protector, the heroes were investigating a newly formed volcano off the coast of Scotland and found a giant lava snake and lava coated robots. Pure fun! I’m looking forward to continuing both games.

My last post was about getting larger numbers represented in the system and that’s really opened things up as far as functionality. It’s also brought a lot of clarity to the system. The thing is that the Energy System just plays differently than any other system I’ve played. As GM I have to keep reminding myself that small challenges are ok. The idea that a hero is invulnerable to small fries hasn’t happened yet. I have a feeling that we’ll get there, so I’m working on tweaking the system so that it doesn’t.

It also paces itself differently and I’ve been struggling to not fall into old habits formed from every other game I’ve played. I’m starting to feel the system’s flow a bit now and that’s good. I wonder how other GM’s would handle it though.

Although I tried to keep the concepts in the game to a minimum, they are a bit alien to players but after a play or two they’re starting to get the ideas. Heck, I’m trying to write the games using the simple concepts and I don’t always get it right. Things like money are a challenge to handle but I’m getting that nailed down.

All in all, the game takes adjustment, but it does things that I’ve always wanted in a game. It organically handles normal RPG fare like combat, but also deals with something like a space flight being mentally fatiguing. Most of our last Jump Temp game was the new crew dealing with two transits they had to make. The interesting thing is, the players enjoyed it! The Artificial Intelligence character wasn’t challenged by the trip though and the player lamented that he wasn’t getting in on the action.

So we’re having fun and the Energy System is maturing. Watch this space!

Large Numbers In The Energy System

I was having a problem with large numbers in the Energy System. The problem didn’t show up until I started to work on a super hero game using the system. In it there is one vastly powerful superhero that is part of the background story. To use the character in a game required rolling 30 or more d20s and adding up all those dice. It plainly didn’t work.

This is mainly a problem because the system doesn’t scale to things like simulating a WWII battleship or a starship. It was beyond the system, until now that is.

To give you an idea of how the system works, a player gets abilities that grant them die steps. For instance, a skill with four die steps would take a skill from a starting d6 up through a d8, then a d10, then a d12, and then to a d20. Each step making the roll more effective, but d20 was the practical limit of dice steps since most people don’t own d30s or d40s.

The solution is to make a second tier of dice steps. That may sound overly complicated at first, but in for most characters it doesn’t come up so it’s a special case rule. If I was making a space opera, it might be needed more frequently to simulate vehicles or space ships.

So how would a second tier work? If a skill has 8 dice steps, or the equivalent of 2d20 it equals a 1d4x10. If another 4 steps (another d20) is added, the die becomes 1d6x10 and so on. If the character or equipment has 28 dice steps (7d20) they get a 1d20x10.

Is there anything past that? Of course! If you combine the total of 56 dice steps (2d20x10) it becomes 1d4x100. Add another 28 steps for a total of 84 steps* and it becomes a 1d6x100 and so on. 196 steps equals 1d20x100, two of those then flips to 1d4x1000 ad infinitum.

There is one problem with this though. One of the core concepts behind the energy system is that when you roll a die and get a one, the die depletes and can’t be used again until regenerated. That still works under the system, but one of the big draws of higher dice steps is that they deplete less often. A 1d4x10 either never depletes (since it never rolls a 1) or it depletes far more often than a d20.

I could say that if you rolled a 1d4x10 and got a 10, you then had to roll a d10 and if you get a 1 on that die, you deplete the die. The problem is, even though that technically works, it’s kludgy and adds a step for something that is going to be pretty rare. I think it’s better to say, that the die can take damage (which works similarly) but not deplete on a roll of one.

*This is a totally ridiculous number at this point, but I’m offering it to show the system could handle very very large numbers if needed.

Superman Apologetics

My son and I just went to go see Superman vs. Batman with some friends. Both of us were a bit behind on the background story. I hadn’t seen any of the recent Superman or Batman movies but I was aware of their plots. My son never saw a Batman or Superman movie, ever.

So I’m a bad geek dad. It’s not like I haven’t been trying to catch him up on about fifty plus years of movies. It’s really hard to keep up with popular culture when you’re trying to show your kids where it all came from. I just haven’t gotten to DC superheroes yet. I’m still trying to find time to show my kids Forbidden Planet.

Anyway, I had to do a lot of explaining about the DC universe and it’s history. The funny thing is I knew a lot of the comics the new movie referenced even though I don’t think I’ve looked at a DC comic in a decade.

Superheroes are a fun subject to discuss on a scientific level, they really make zero sense on the surface, so trying to wriggle out a plausible explanation for how they might actually work is a lot of fun. Superhero apologetics.

Superman is probably the best example of an impossible superhero. His abilities are beyond any other hero and therefore stretch credibility the most. So when my son asked, “So if Superman gets his powers from the sun, how does he get that much power? He’d have to absorb huge amounts of sunlight.” I was very proud that my thirteen year old really gets the idea that energy doesn’t come from nowhere.

It would be no fun though to just agree with him and end the conversation there. So I had to try and figure out how Superman’s powers might just work.

This is what I supposed.

Superman obviously could not get enough sunlight to power his abilities. So maybe our sun doesn’t power him, maybe it gives him his powers. Suppose you took a plant that photosynthesizes light to another solar system and the different radiation there, reacted differently with the process of photosynthesis which produced different molecules of sugar than fructose. These molecules altered the plant in some way. The radiation isn’t giving the plant food to power it, but the altered molecules give the plant an ability it didn’t have before. Maybe something like that is happening to Superman?

This is backed up by his reaction to radioactive Kryptonite and that a nuclear warhead detonating near him, almost kills him, something taken from The Dark Knight Returns as is a bulk of the movie. It’s said that these other types of radiation “drive the sun’s rays from his cells” which is kind of nonsense. However, in The Dark Knight Returns, superman draws “the sun’s” power from a sunflower. This also doesn’t make a lot of sense since the solar radiation in a plant is stored as sugar. So Superman’s abilities come from sugar? Maybe his cellular biology is different enough that simple sugars alter his biology.

Ok, that doesn’t get us anywhere near explaining him though. It’s just the start. To move on, I’ll draw on some more old school comic book history.

The next ingredient comes from John Byrne who rebooted the Superman series in 1986. He offered, what is to this day, the most intriguing description of Superman’s powers. Martha Kent comments that tight fitting clothing that young Kent wore, never seemed to tear or rip. Loose fitting clothing (like a cape) were prone to damage though.

Byrne seemed to suggest that Superman’s invulnerability was a force field that extended a millimeter from his skin surface.

The other bit comes from Superman himself though. Puzzled, he comments that when he picks something up and then starts flying, he no longer feels as if he’s using his muscles to lift the object. His ability to fly gets transferred into the thing he’s lifting.

So again, Byrne seems to be suggesting that Superman’s flight is a form of telekinesis.

This points to one thing to me. Superman’s powers might not be physical, they might be mental. Not consciously accessed, but subconsciously. Maybe even his “heat vision” might be a subconscious reflection of his mental abilities. It would make more sense than having cutting lasers built into his eye sockets.

That doesn’t fix the energy in energy out problem though. Mental powers should still require energy. Or should they? Maybe, just maybe Superman’s mind is able to do things like alter quantum states. A lot of things in physics seem when reduced to their most fundamental level, to simply be there because a law says they’re there. Some physicist are looking into the possibility that our universe is a computer simulation. Maybe Superman has the subconscious ability to alter values in the universe’s code?

“If we are living in a simulation, then everything is software, including every atom in our bodies, and there may be ‘back doors’ that the programmers left ajar.” – David Brin

Maybe Superman is accessing back doors. As such, he does not exert force in the traditional sense. He’s rewriting the universe. When viewing Superman from that standpoint, he begins to make a lot more sense.

Everything Is Light

I’ve completed my first Novella length work and I’m really excited about the result. Based on the original short story I posted here some time ago, the story grew very organically. I’ve heard from writers that their stories sometimes just appear on the page as they write and that was the case with Everything Is Light.

The story follows a simple trapper from what would be the equivalent of a bronze age town, but residing in a different universe from ours. The physics of this world are different from ours and follow their own laws and logic. Our main character Airin is drawn into a hero’s journey, where he’ll have to choose between the possibilities opened up by a genius ready to change everything.

The story is suitable for young adults and has several illustrations. It’s a quick read for an accomplished reader and a fun jaunt through another world.

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

I Didn’t Do It!

Want a murder mystery party game? I Didn’t Do It! is a great game for up to eight players. Each player is a suspect except one who is the investigator. The suspects have to account for themselves over the last 24 hours, only they may not be able to substantiate everything they say, and more evidence can contradict what they’ve said.

The mechanism for finding the murderer isn’t to establish evidence, it’s by finding inconsistencies in the alibis that the suspects give that the investigator hones in on who the murderer is. So, say enough to be convincing, but don’t say too much or you might become the prime suspect.

New Direction

I’m moving in a new direction. Something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now but couldn’t because of game my ongoing game development. I’m learning a new programing language so I can start coding for iOS devices.

I have to start my plans out small so that I get some experience and actually accomplish something. With that in mind, I have a few ideas that could be turned into apps without having to become a master coder.

In the long run though, I’d like to make a game platform. Something like an RPG’s game engine that allows you to take a game wherever you want. But that’s a bigger goal that will be built on the experience of building some more utilitarian apps.