Friday, November 4, 2022

Building a Bespoke Science Fiction Setting: Valkyrie

 One of the projects I have been working on lately is a science fiction campaign called Valkyrie. It is separate from my Eternal Ocean project, but connected and so far as I'm using them to build on similar ideas and conduct similar experiments.

I'm also building Valkyrie as a toolbox. When I first started working on this blog, I was involved in building a custom Pern-inspired campaign called Ær. Ær was a campaign in which the last surviving members of humanity were stranded on floating islands, and traveled by riding on dragons.

Custom System 

Part of the point of Ær was to have built a D&D-based game system written in my own words and integrating my own preferred rules so that I would have something that easily copied and pasted, which would allow me to make a bespoke D&D clone for every campaign. Allowing me to fine-tune the experience to exactly what I want.

One of the things I love about the OSR is that there are so many cool options. You can find an OGL, Knave, or MotO-driven game tailored to all kinds of experiences.  Want to play a The Three Musketeers style intrigue-laden adventures? 17th Century Minimalist. Want to play a Dark Souls inspired dungeon crawler where your characters keep coming back from the dead? Try Grave. Looking to play a Mad Max-inspired ultraviolent wasteland adventure? Try Mutant Future, The Wasted Hack, or Death is the New Pink depending on how sophisticated do you want the rules to be. Want an over-the-top Wild West story full of cannibals and dark magic? Try Dungeon Crawl Classics with the Umerica setting.

The downside of this is that there's a temptation when you are planning on starting a new campaign to look at the books on your shelf and Google Drive and ask yourself what game you want to play that will fit your setting, or you start to try to fit your setting to whichever game you feel like playing.

Which is fine, but if you have the courage to start hacking, then building a bespoke game for your campaign, you can optimize the experience.

My Ær campaign tragically was poorly timed. A whole bunch of life got in the way of making the game work. Had I been clever, I would have held on to the files, but I ended up deleting them by accident sometime ago.

Campaign Goals

Valkyrie is more ambitious. I am hoping once I have built and tested an engine, and created a map of the Interstellar Union, that I can use a mix of one to one time, open table policies,  and allowing players multiple characters in order to involve three or possibly four separate gaming groups in the campaign, and have each other's adventures contribute to a greater effort:

Preventing the extermination of the human race by a hostile alien force.

Design Coices

In order to make this work the way I want, I needed to build a custom alien races. I wanted a system where hit points and wounds were clearly delineated for the sake of healing and recovery.  I wanted to limit character level development to 10 levels. And, while I wasn't going to have anything like Jedi in this setting, limited psionic abilities that tie into the game's mysteries seems like a great idea.

To that end, I have borrowed a lot of my structure from low fantasy gaming. I have Incorporated an OSR version of the wounds system in my Deathtrap Lite. And imported a variation on the Psion class I wrote for Strange Ways.

For the sake of simplicity, I stuck with an ascending armor class. And rather than adding a lot of crunch I added a system where ranks in skills, mitigating circumstances in the players favor, and certain psionics and cybernetics grant boosts that work similar to the boons and banes system in Shadow of the Demon Lord. They accumulate into d6s of which the player can add the highest. This makes it possible for even the best character to have a bad day, and keeps the math very simple. Likewise disadvantages, naturally hard checks, and dealing with alien tech creates penalty dice that work the same way. The highest d6 becomes a penalty. I want characters to  feel brave and Heroic, but not superheros. This mechanic limits the success rate of the characters in the game.  Especially if I ensure that stats over 14 are rare in character generation. 

By being very careful about how I express and delineate these rules, I can create things that are very easily copy pasted into a new document to let me build a new games. If I want to change from variable advantage and disadvantage dice for a future system, I can do that simply by writing a new section to replace them.

There was a temptation to simply use The Black Hack as an engine. I have played three campaigns using The Black Hack-based games over the years, they are fast, but I find that the challenge level remains flat. Is there some I actually want the power curve that a leveling system introduces. I want the initial struggle to feel hopeless, and the characters themselves to develop a sense of hope, like they can overcome the obstacles put in front of them as they push through the campaign and earn victories while fighting back against the overwhelming enemy.

This is a system where I hope to have a few Star Wars style outer starfighter battles. For that I'm planning on resurrecting and streamlining the usually neglected aerial combat rules from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. But I'm adding some of the best ideas from Tiny Frontier on how to involve everyone in starship battles, and incorporating my own unique twist where all of the human player character classes have special moves they can use to grant bonuses to the team during a starship battle.

I'm also adding a second, less crunchy abstract Star Battle system based on the first Alpha Blue supplement Girls Gone Rogue by Venger Satanis, but given a lot more dynamism, so that more than one PC handles the action.

Still Working On...

I aim to create  a cohesive system. I want to make sure that players are rewarded for doing the things that ensure human survival in the narrative. Obviosuly, building a leveling system that rewards making discoveries, saving lives, and neutralizing threats is going to be key. But alone, that would create a situation where players simply mounted risky offensive after risky offensive, and that is not what I am looing for. The core gameplay loop needs more than that.

I think that, ultimately, the game needs to work with a Wargame in the background that  players can monitor and use to guage what the war effort needs most. to succeed. This will allow playes to guage their choices to increase their overall chance of survival. This means a system of rewards that also incentivises characters to play a long game of technological developmment and politicking as well as battle.

This is the key to good game design: a self-sustaining loop that keeeps the players enthusiastically enggaging in the kind of scenarios you want to make the heart of the game.

Once I have that, I believe the rest of the game will fall into place more easssily.

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