[Star World] Apocalypse World hack for space stories

edited December 2012 in Story Games
Heya AWers!

Rob Wieland and I have been kicking around some ideas for an AW-hack centered around spaceships and their crews since GenCon. We're drawing a lot from BSG, Star Trek, Firefly, and Mass Effect without leaning too heavily on any one intellectual property. The *W games do an awesome job of exploring a setting, and Rob and I both thought exploring space would be a lot of fun.

In essence, you pick character playbooks like normal and then pick a ship playbook that helps to define the universe and your ship. Part of our goal is to make the ship into a character as well, albeit one that everyone plays together.

We've got five playbooks (Captain, XO, Doctor, Cadet, and Engineer) done, as well as three ships (Flagship, Warship, Freighter). You can download all of them, including the basic moves, ship moves, and MC guide here:

Star World 1.0

At this point, we'd love to get some feedback on this thing. I've gone out and roadtested it four or five times and had a great time, but we are eager to hear what others think. We've made use of the alternate harm mechanics that were first outlined by Paul_T here on Story Games. So far, they've worked really well!
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Comments

  • edited December 2012
    Hey, it's fun to see someone incorporating my small hack into a a bigger hack.

    I love your use of two different violence moves (fight with honor vs. fight to win), that's really slick!

    I'm not in love with the stats, though. The names don't really do it for me. Your descriptions of what they're for sound cool, but I'm not sure the moves reflect those very well (although I didn't read through most of the playbooks, so if there are moves in there that do, then maybe it's all good).

    It would be really cool to see more of those types of actions reflected in the game.

    Thanks for sharing!
  • @Paul_T - Thanks, man! We really liked your Harm hack because it made the game a little less "hit point" driven. We tried to do something resembling the Fate stress/consequences system.

    As far as the stats go, what do you feel like is missing? :)
  • Looks interesting!

    I like "The ___ are more (adjective) than us" as a way to produce some preliminary TV-style aliens.

    Re stats: I can see the approach you're going for -- define the characters by how effective they are at their posts, and then show how those skills carry over into activities not directly related to their post. But, for my part (and not to speak for @Paul_T), I think I would personally be more interested in having the characters defined by their personal strengths and shortcomings of character, and then see how those strengths make them effective at their post. In other words, I'd rather see a game where Cool made me an outstanding pilot as well as an impressive fencer, rather than a game where Helm made me an impressive fencer, if that makes sense. It's just a difference of emphasis but I think it has the potential to add some colour. Maybe something like Cool, Charm, Grit, Skill (as in technical facility), and Lore...? I'd suggest making them all adjectives that describe someone's personality (like in AW), or all nouns that describe personal features (as I did in my list).

    How do XP and Advances work in this game? Same as AW? What are the advances?

    Is there a mechanical difference between Exhausting a Link and Breaking it?

    When I replace an Exhausted/Broken Link with a new one, are you going to have a master list of "advanced Links" with their XP conditions, or is that something the MC should make up? Can the advanced Links also be Exhausted and/or Broken?
  • edited December 2012
    [edit: cross-posted with the above post!]

    Hmmm. Let's see:

    The first three are just fine. I just don't like the names! (I would use Command for Helm, and Instinct for Tactics, maybe.)

    But Engineering is really "use tech", right? At least based on the moves as written. That might be fine, or it might be too limiting. I'm not sure what it has to do with "thinking critically".

    Science sounds like it should be broader in scope, like "Reason" or something, and there should be some other ways to use it. Some other moves, maybe. I don't know if the "open your brain" move is the right thing for this.

    Both could potentially use some other moves, perhaps phrased like the "reading" moves (you get to ask the MC questions from a list).

    This is not a very well thought-out criticism! Just a gut reaction.

    Two other things:

    1. I read through the playbooks, and I really like the Cadet! Lots of fun stuff in there.

    2. You never actually explain Links or how they work (especially when it tells you to take a new one). It's an interesting idea, though: it's like a personal relationship Key. Can you tell us more about how these work?
  • @creases - Thanks for the feedback!

    1) The alien thing is stolen from Ryan Macklin: http://ryanmacklin.com/2012/09/generating-a-sci-fi-race-dynamic/

    It works our really, really well in play. Usually I put forward a new alien species and then ask the players to pick from a list of three: "Are the Ga'rinat more wealthy, more influential, or more aggressive than humans?" It's a neat way to get the players to build the universe and declaim responsibility.

    2) Yeah, I can see where you and Paul are coming from with the Stat names. We weren't trying to define the characters by their jobs as much as we were trying to give a name to the kinds of stats that fit the fiction. It's possible the names aren't really helping that. We'll have to think about it.

    3) Advancing the characters works like AW. You mark XP up to 5, then advance in one of the following ways: raise a stat, add a move, etc. We're still working out how we want that to work exactly, but it will be similar to AW. Maybe even have a way to advance the basic moves? Would love your feedback here...

    4) The mechanical difference for Exhausting vs. Breaking is what the next link will be in your "Chain." So if you exhaust a link, it means that you have sorted of played that relationship out and it needs to advance. For example, if you start with the Father Figure link (as the Cadet) and then Exhaust it, you end up as your Mentor's Sidekick. If you break a link, it means that the relationship changes in a dramatic fashion. If you have Father Figure and Break it, you end up as the prodigal protege of your former mentor.

    The advanced links that compose a chain will be provided (although you could obviously make up your own). Eventually they will lead to new chains (like becoming close friends with your mentor) or new Playbooks (like getting promoted). Here's the full chain for the Cadet:

    Father Figure

    __________ is your mentor, whether they like it or not. Mark XP when you go to them for advice on a problem.
    - Exhaust this Link by gaining your mentor’s respect. Claim an Advance and take Sidekick.
    - Break this Link by publicly acting against your mentor’s advice. Claim an Advance and take Prodigal Child.

    Sidekick

    __________ has taken you under their wing. Mark XP when they intervene in a situation you can’t solve by yourself.
    - Exhaust this Link by embarrassing yourself in front of your mentor. Claim an Advance and take Father Figure.
    - Break this Link by publicly ignoring your mentor’s advice. Claim an Advance and take Prodigal Child.

    Prodigal Child

    You have a hostile relationship with your former mentor, __________. Mark XP when you argue with them about your future.
    - Exhaust this Link by coming to terms with your mentor’s influence. Claim an Advance and take Colleague At Last.
    - Break this Link by resigning your commission and joining the crew. Claim an Advance and take the Chief Playbook.

    Colleague At Last

    You’ve earned __________’s respect as a fellow officer. Mark XP when you suggest a plan that they support.
    - Exhaust this Link by saving a crewmember’s life. Claim an Advance and take Band of Brothers.
    - Break this Link by taking command when the Captain is unable to lead. Claim an Advance and take the XO Playbook

    Does it make more sense with the full chain?

    Thanks again for reading it over!

    @Paul_T - Glad you like the Cadet. I think it's a fun playbook.

    I answered some of your questions above (Stats/Links), but I totally get where you're coming from. I'll have to think about it more to see if there might be some Stat names that fit the fiction better.

    As for the limited moves around Engineering/Science, we tried to limit the basic non-ship moves so that we don't overwhelm the players. AW has 8 moves for 5 stats, and I think we're in the same ballpark, and we've got 5 ship moves to add after the basic moves. Engineering and Science both have bigger roles to play in the ship moves, so hopefully that balances out some of the limits in the basic moves.

    That said, I'm totally open to new ideas. Any idea what you would want to see added for Engineering/Science moves?
  • Ah, I missed the ship moves!

    I guess I would want to use those stats to build gadgets or modify tech, figure out what alien technology does, that sort of thing. I don't know if the current design handles those things well or not.
  • Does it make more sense with the full chain?
    It does! Thank you! And I really dig the structure of it. I'm intrigued by the idea of short cutting the XP by futzing with your relationships -- it really incentivizes drama, while still allowing a slower advancement through routine. Cool stuff.

  • The Chains and Links make a whole lot of sense now! Very interesting.
  • @Paul_T - Yeah, we've built most of that stuff directly into the Engineer's sheet. It's fun to watch those characters scramble around, building tech on the spot, reverse engineering alien tech, and generally making the Engineering stat do that kind of stuff. Maybe we should make that more available to other members of the crew...

    @creases - Exactly! We were trying for a more structured sort of relationship that draws on Bonds and Keys. :)
  • edited December 2012
    The alien thing is stolen from Ryan Macklin
    You cannot steal what I freely give away. :D But seriously, I'm glad that was useful for someone.

    - Ryan

  • When you try to steal an idea from Ryan Macklin, roll+Internet. On a ten up, choose 3. On a 7-9, choose 1.
    - He already gave it away for free.
    - The idea proves useful.
    - @nightmacklin does not pursue you.
  • edited December 2012
    This is something of a brain dump. Hope some of it is useful.

    On the list of MC moves "introduce a new alien species" is weird. Somebody fails a roll and it's because of a new alien? Not quite sure I follow.

    The generation of alien species seems like half of the "more than human / less than human" from My Life With Master. I would add the "less than human" part back. "The Krishlik are more wealthy than us but lack compassion." Check out Durance's planet and society generation for another take on this idea.

    I agree that there's a huge disconnect between the names of the stats and what you use them for. Why do I Hold Steady with Helm instead of something else? Just seems arbitrary. In general, the basic moves seem to be more or less identical to Apocalypse World, aside from harm and the tech move ("act under fire" is even mentioned in Manipulate, despite it not existing in this hack, yeah?). I'd be more excited about a hack that really changed the core moves or invented new ones that matched the source material better. Otherwise, why not make it, like, a 5-page set of notes for making some alterations to Apocalypse World rather than going to all this trouble for something that's not that different.

    In contrast, I really like most of the ship moves, though I'm not sure how Hailing Frequencies is supposed to work (are you talking to people on the other ship? but you ask questions of the MC?) and I think some of the questions in Assess a Tactical Situation could be better. The others seem pretty cool, even if some are reminiscent of other moves.

    Of the playbooks, the Cadet's moves are really really cool and kind of hilarious. Well done! The moves in the other playbooks strike me as overly mechanical in many cases, being mostly things that are divorced from the fiction (roll a different stat, use this move instead of that move, take +1 to something) which renders them mostly invisible in play and therefore makes the different playbooks seem less different. That's an easy trap to fall into in many hacks. Nobody will notice if a character is rolling a different stat, for the most part, but everyone will notice if a move forces them to actually do something that's very evocative of their fictional role.

    Finally, the ships look pretty cool. I think I would need to see them in play to have more intelligent comments about them.

    Anyway, that's my initial reaction.
  • @J_Walton - Totally useful. We're just throwing this out there to see what people think, so your brain dump is much appreciated.

    First, you're right that the introduce a new species is weird. I had the idea that introducing a new social relationship would be a good "soft move," but you're right that it doesn't line up at all. We need to send that one back to the drawing board.

    I like the idea of adding in something like Durance's planet and society generation. The alien generation system works well, though, because it's so light. Do you think it might bog it down to have people picking two things?

    Your feedback on the stats are much appreciated. On one hand, we were trying to pull some basic ideas together without reinventing the wheel, but I'm also getting a better sense of the larger kinds of changes we could make. I'm excited to try to figure out ways to get at the source material better, and I do think there's a larger game here beyond a 5 page hack (even if it's not quite there yet).

    Hailing Frequencies doesn't work. This is our third try at it, and I just playtested it. Totally doesn't make any sense. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Same goes with the questions in "Assess a Tactical Situation." I think the overall move makes sense, but we're having trouble nailing the specifics.

    Glad you like the Cadet! I think that one really does have a special zing to it. I can totally see what you're saying about the other playbooks. The "invisible in play" thing really is an obstacle, and it's something we can go back through an improve upon. Thanks!
  • You might want to take a look at something like Diaspora for inspiration. The SRD's online, and it's FATE based so it's not terribly far afield. It's a pretty clear eyed, hard nosed take on what space ships can do, and what they must do, as well as what they can't do. I notice, for example, you don't have anything like electronic countermeasures, and it might help you to get a clearer idea of what the comm officer does if you include that.
  • @creases - Good idea. We're trying to keep the ships simple, but some ideas about new ship technologies would be really useful. My brother is a big Diaspora fan, and I can't believe I forgot to check it out.

    The primary way we are trying to deal with tech in the game is to break it into three categories:

    Standard tech - works every time you use it, adds +1 when you use a +tag, MC can use a -tag to lower a roll by 1. ex: communicators, guns, armor, ship's computer. We think of these as fictional positioning elements that help the characters trigger moves during the game.

    Advanced tech - works when you make a +Engineering roll, grants new and fantastic abilities or outcomes. ex: Medpacks, tricorders.

    Advanced ship tech - works when you make a +Engineering roll, must be refreshed to use again, grants new and fantastic abilities and outcomes for the ship. ex: Transporters, fighter bays, shields.
  • Cool, Mark. Sounds like we're on the same page on some stuff.

    On the "new species" GM move, it might make sense to have something a bit broader. I'm thinking about all those Star Trek episodes where some weird force/creature possesses their ship or some crew member. Something that basically means: "show the symptoms of an alien threat" or something like that. You could even use it to, say, have the Klingon warrior in the ambassador's retinue say something threatening and cryptic, in addition to, like, having the ship's energy suddenly beginning draining away.

    If you like your alien creation already, there's no need to change it. Maybe focusing on how they're better than humans puts a more positive spin on it anyway and pushes the game away from weird alien racism or whatever.

    If you start working on a more unique set of basic moves, I'm happy to help out and offer feedback however I can. Basic moves can be really hard to write (I know Sage and Adam went through hundreds of versions of some of the DW moves), but are really the core of any functional AW hack.

    For "Hailing Frequencies," I suggest just using your scan move when you want to scan another ship with your sensors, yeah? You might have to strengthen or revise the scan move a little, but it seems mostly solid already. And then, if what you want to do is negotiate or threaten the other ship's personnel over the intercoms, you should just be able to use whatever social moves you come up with (like, if this was AW, Seduce/Manipulate or Go Aggro). So maybe you don't actually need it, unless there's something else you specifically want it to do.

    "Assess a Tactical Situation" currently looks a lot like "Read a Charged Situation." If you're having trouble coming up with the right questions, you might try a variation on "Assess the Situation" from The Regiment, which lets the players ask any questions they want, and then keep some record in playtesting of what kinds of useful questions the players tend to ask. Then, you can decide whether to keep the move open-ended or come up with a list of questions based on what information players tend to actually need.

    In any event, a good start and I look forward to seeing where it goes.
  • @J_Walton - Yes! Start of a long process... :)

    I love the "new species" thing. That's exactly what I was going for when I wrote "introduce a new species." Thank you.

    The alien racism thing is definitely something I'm already thinking about. I'm always disappointed when aliens become a cheap excuse to use stereotypes (I'm looking at you, Phantom Menace). Keeping it positive tends to reduce the times that a species ends up being used sloppily. It's something I will eventually want to deal with directly in advice to MCs.

    I'm going to take a look this week at starting the process of developing more unique moves. What did you think of "fight with honor" vs. "fight to win"? That was one place I felt like we had captured a bit of the fiction (the choice between playing fair and fighting dirty).

    Right, I think Open Hailing Frequencies is getting cut. I'll have to think about what I was trying to do with it. I like the assess a situation roll from The Regiment. Good call.
  • What if something that is totally unacceptable for humans is a cultural norm or a fundamental biological imperative for the other race and viceversa?

    I think this would allow to explore some interesting moral and ethical dilemmas. (there was something on this in a blog called Overcoming Bias, I can find it if someone is interested)
  • What if something that is totally unacceptable for humans is a cultural norm or a fundamental biological imperative for the other race and viceversa?

    I think this would allow to explore some interesting moral and ethical dilemmas. (there was something on this in a blog called Overcoming Bias, I can find it if someone is interested)
    Like the Trandoshan tendency to hunt other sentient beings for sport, status, and religious brownie points to appease The Scorekeeper?

  • Like the Yoomans, enslaving and restricting the liberties of a segment of their own population under the arbitrary age limit of 18 earth-years.
  • @Ivan - I love it. Perhaps it could be an MC Move?

    "Present an alien cultural norm or biological imperative"

    If it's a soft move, it might be a norm that is difficult or uncomfortable. As a hard move, it might create instant conflict and/or put the characters in danger.

    (I'd love to see the blog post if you find it.)
  • There you go Three Worlds Collide - or what happens when the Humans meet the Baby-Eating Aliens and the Super-Happy people.
  • @ivan - Wow. That was a pretty amazing intersection.

    I think that's one of the things that this hack might able to do, albeit hopefully on a less immediate and intense timescale. I think the slowburn of cultural conflicts could produce some pretty amazing stories.
  • Thanks to @Ivan and @J_Walton, I think we've added/replaced a few of the MC moves to make them a bit more effective and evocative of the fiction. Here's the new list:

    Separate them.
    Put them together.
    Put someone in a high-stakes situation.
    Trade harm for harm (as established).
    Deal harm (as established).
    Announce off-screen challenges.
    Announce future challenges.
    Take away one of their techs, normal or advanced.
    Activate a negative tech tag.
    Give them a difficult decision to make.
    Tell them the possible consequences and ask.
    Turn their move back on them.
    Make an Alert move, Yellow or Red.
    Reveal an unpleasant truth
    Show the signs of an alien threat
    Present an alien cultural norm or biological imperative


    I think of Alerts like Menaces or Fronts, but we haven't really done much with them yet. I think that I'd like to have something that provides structure to the long-term threats, but that can wait until later.

    Are there others on this list that people could improve on? This is one place that I feel like too much of it is generic and not yet fitting the setting.
  • Very anxious to see how this shakes out. I can't wait to see the next draft. I've finally convinced my group to try something Trek-themed and I think this may be it.
  • @tofarley - Thank you! We are excited to have feedback on it, so please let us know if you give it a shot. Thanks!
  • edited January 2013
    @creases - totally, here's a thought for an EW move...

    Electronic Warfare
    When you employ EW to discover, analyze, or engage an entity or to deny them the same, roll +Comms. On a 7-9 hold one. On a 10+, hold three. Spend your hold 1-for-1 during an engagement to employ EW techniques. GM says how your selected techniques reveal new information or provide a tactical advantage.

    Active EW
    - Electronic Countermeasures - you employ active countermeasures to conceal your own ship's maneuvers and tactics by evading or confusing their sensors.
    - Electronic Counter-Countermeasures - you employ active scanning to detect, track, and target an entity in the presence of ECM.
    - Electronic Attack - you employ active countermeasures to disrupt or spoof their sensors and communications.

    Passive EW
    - Electronic Surveillance Measures - you employ passive scanning to detect, track, and analyze entities.
    - Threat Countermeasures- you employ passive scanning and countermeasures to analyze and counter weapon systems.
    - Signals Intelligence - you employ passive scanning to intercept and analyze their communications and other signals.

    This, or something like it, could give a comm officer playbook some cool battlespace shaping abilities.
  • @Paul_Riddle - Love it. Really cool ideas. What fictional examples are you drawing it from?
  • Drawing from practical examples.
  • I really don't like the aliens thing, and I don't think "keeping it positive" is in any way going to eliminate parallels to racism. The whole format reeks of confusing biological structures with social ones, and what's worse, as a singular an universal type. If x alien is "more honurable than us", then who is they and who is us? Are they more honourable than a Japanese feudal era samurai? Are all of them so honourable, even the ones living dirt poor on the streets?

    Why can't aliens not just have culture, but have more than one culture? Trying to duplicate the way TV treats aliens seems like a recipe for some truly dubious results. It seems to me this falls between two stools - either you go the wrinkly-headed humanoid route, in which case attributing universal characteristics is riding so close to the racist line that the distinction may not even be worth mentioning, or you go for really different, alien aliens, in which case those attributes are meaningless or inappropriate or both. As the alien said, "You did not kick us, therefore you eat babies."

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/y5/the_babyeating_aliens_18/
  • @contracycle - Thanks for the feedback. We're sensitive to these issues, and we're trying to figure out a way to make the aliens have a different culture rather than just human cultures with different serial numbers. We're definitely open to different ways to approach that.

    I think the initial "more than" structure worked well to add a Star Trek-esque kind of starting point for each culture. We're currently batting around some faction rules that would continue to complicate that starting point, and add some of the nuance that you're talking about, with different factions within each culture having a different take on what "more aggressive" or "more honorable" means in practice.

    I also really like this Inhumanities thread, and I think it might be possible to integrate some of this kind of thinking into the game as well: http://story-games.com/forums/discussion/17853/six-inhumanities

    Maybe it would work to start off with a broad cultural lens, as the humans may try to see all Vulcans as being the same, then have the MC pick the factions and inhumanities that deepen each alien culture.
  • Ima just chime in here cause my work is getting rep'd.

    First, Star Trek is basically like militarized space anthropology. Actual anthropologists have be wringing their hands about these issues for like, sixty years now, non-stop. Do to ethnography today is to be hyper self-reflexive; to the point where many anthropologist will only study subcultures within their home culture, and even then be relentlessly self-critical.

    However, that's just the premise - the real conceit is that what the 'aliens' in Star Trek are is a metaphor for a contemporary social issue. Vulcans are just props to explore the dangers of pure rational instrumentality; the Bajorans for issues of occupation, (religious/cultural) terrorism, Isreal/Palistine, Jews/Nazis, freedom fighting, whatever; Borg for issues of assimlation, collectivity, and technology. Especially in classic Star Trek, it was a program that dealt with issues like racism / civil rights with very clearly allegorical aliens.

    In the that model, alien races represent human sociocultural issues made allegorical. Which is fine enough way to handle it.

    Instead of making alien races relative they'd have to be allegorical. This might not be very satisfying, however.

    Also, Jonathan Walton's Dark Heart is pretty critical here and would be a good place to start.

    Star Wars is space fantasy that's highly problematic. If ya'll are going to try and emulate how it handles alien races then, well, you're pretty much fucked from an ethical standpoint. It's not really salvageable. I'm not gonna front tho.

    If you want to do aliens like hard science fiction style, then you're in "You did not kick us, therefore you eat babies" territory. Which usually find to be a tedious thought experiment. So, I can't help you there.

    If you want to honestly integrate Six Inhumanities, then you're gonna have to have to do this thing:

    Go here.

    Those are the things that all human cultures have, more or less.

    Cross just one thing off the list that you think is interesting.

    Proscriptions against murder. Hospitality. Facial expressions. Whatever.

    Think about it for a bit. Speculate.

    Write like a hundred words or so about how not having that thing in their culture works. What changes, what remains the same, why they might not have it. Otherwise, their like generic human beings. Be careful not reproduce existing cultural stereotypes.

    Repeat until you have the number of non-human speculative cultures you want. A dozen is probably good.

    Then just write that in terms of the intergalactic hegemony, humanity is totally (and I'm not fucking around here) at the bottom of the pile.

    If you don't do that, I assure you your game will reproduce oppressive colonial narratives at the table every time.

  • However, that's just the premise - the real conceit is that what the 'aliens' in Star Trek are is a metaphor for a contemporary social issue. Vulcans are just props to explore the dangers of pure rational instrumentality; the Bajorans for issues of occupation, (religious/cultural) terrorism, Isreal/Palistine, Jews/Nazis, freedom fighting, whatever; Borg for issues of assimlation, collectivity, and technology. Especially in classic Star Trek, it was a program that dealt with issues like racism / civil rights with very clearly allegorical aliens.
    Really interesting point. I think that one of the challenges we are facing here is that aliens clearly fulfill different roles in different pieces of fiction. What role should they play in Star World? I think you've gotten to the heart of that question pretty clearly.

    If you want to do aliens like hard science fiction style, then you're in "You did not kick us, therefore you eat babies" territory. Which usually find to be a tedious thought experiment. So, I can't help you there.
    I would agree. I think that eating babies fiction is interesting to read, but I can't imagine it be very interesting to play. I think we want alien characters to be accessible enough that the human characters can build relationships with them.

    If you want to honestly integrate Six Inhumanities, then you're gonna have to have to do this thing:

    Go here.

    Those are the things that all human cultures have, more or less.

    Cross just one thing off the list that you think is interesting.

    Proscriptions against murder. Hospitality. Facial expressions. Whatever.

    Think about it for a bit. Speculate.

    Write like a hundred words or so about how not having that thing in their culture works. What changes, what remains the same, why they might not have it. Otherwise, their like generic human beings. Be careful not reproduce existing cultural stereotypes.

    Repeat until you have the number of non-human speculative cultures you want. A dozen is probably good.
    Yeah, this is really good. I can see an MC resource that could help people do this with aliens. Thank you.

    Then just write that in terms of the intergalactic hegemony, humanity is totally (and I'm not fucking around here) at the bottom of the pile.

    If you don't do that, I assure you your game will reproduce oppressive colonial narratives at the table every time.

    I'm curious as to why you're so absolutist on this point. Isn't there room to tell stories in which the humans are the oppressors? Or do you believe that the players will take that to bad places?
  • I agree that it all hangs on what purposes the aliens are intended to serve. Personally, I find the use of aliens as human allegories perhaps somewhat unavoidable but also the least interesting use to which they could be put. That is, the reason I'm interested in science fiction, and would would wish to play an SF game, is because I find the exploration of what you might call 'potential reality' interesting and entertaining, as opposed to all the other stories in which that sort of discussion of humanity is the focal point. For me, escaping that focus, or at least, illuminating it from a tangential angle or by contrast, is more interesting.

    And thus, for me, an approach which begins from the position of making something different to humanity for it's own sake is rather dull. This tells me nothing about how reality is or might be, but only about what humans find strange. It was interesting to me, as an adolescent, to read the Chanur books of CJ Cherryh, which portrayed a leonine species and consequently altered gender roles. Although males are still dominant in certain specific senses, it is the females that run everything, do everything, make all the decisions, and hold all responsibility. That was an interesting contrast which, by being founded on the reality of lion social structure, is more entertaining than a simple contradiction of human norms. Another example is the aliens in Niven and Purnelle's Footfall. These are base on elephants, and their differences in with humanity come into play in how they interpret surrender. Not only is it more or less inconceivable to them that someone might submit and then rebel, but the only means they have of interpreting such an action is in terms of a rogue male - and so when whole human groups rebel, they think we are collectively psychotic and respond with extreme brutality.

    Both of these examples proceed quite simply from exploring the implications of non-primate social structures. They aren't just abstract counterpoints to human norms, they have a certain value and validity in terms of intellectual curiosity in their own right. You don't have to go as far as the baby-eating aliens, which are exaggerated for comic effect, to come up with an suitably entertaining exploration of difference.



    As a footnote, I'm not sure all those universals really are universal, and I'm a bit annoyed to the use to which the Marx quote was put.

  • Both of these examples proceed quite simply from exploring the implications of non-primate social structures. They aren't just abstract counterpoints to human norms, they have a certain value and validity in terms of intellectual curiosity in their own right. You don't have to go as far as the baby-eating aliens, which are exaggerated for comic effect, to come up with an suitably entertaining exploration of difference.
    Really interesting examples. How would you see that working out in a game? Could the MC put forward those kinds of underlying structures in ways that wouldn't seem over the top to players?
  • Well, I'm not sure I really understand what you mean by "over the top". To me the danger is that they will be underplayed, because our ape brains tend to make us think ape thoughts, and it's probably quite hard to keep an alien mindset at the forefront. And both those examples were mammalian, god knows how hard it would be with something more like an insect or reptile.

    That I think is where system might be called on usefully, to prompt, guide and structure the portrayal of aliens. For the AW rules structure, maybe you could produce alien-specific moves, like for the elephant aliens, "if someone apologises to you, treat them as if they were invisible", or for the lions-like ones, "always be solicitous toward males in case they throw a temper tantrum", stuff like that.

    As for potential OTTness, I don't think this sort of thing has to be rammed down the players throats, although of course if it never comes up it might as well not be there. You could still treat these aliens as people, for the most part, and interact with them that way, I think.
  • edited January 2013
    [xposted with above]

    @MarkT : Yeah, basically. Even if you set it up in the way I suggest, it's going to go bad places too, it just might not default there. The other alternative is just say that everyone's on roughly equal footing.

    I always thought this was cute:

    Humon's illustrated (and explained) animal mating habits.

    The reason I don't mess with it too much is because one: we aren't novelists or authors but players of games. The characterization is necessarily simpler as it's improv. Less time for thoughtful speculation. Two: I find most writing about cat-people or whatever ends up transposing hilarious neoliberalisms and anthrocentrisms onto the aliens despite the author's best attempts at rigor. Even Miéville's Hosts' Language is basically magic. Three: my training is in cultural anthropology and sociology, I find biological determinism and evolutionary psychology not only bad and spurious science but also ethically abhorrent. And four: that's not suggest that my little trick is the only way to do it, though.

    @contracycle : If you have particular critiques of my use of scripture, I'd be happy to talk about it over in the Six Inhumanities thread.

  • That I think is where system might be called on usefully, to prompt, guide and structure the portrayal of aliens. For the AW rules structure, maybe you could produce alien-specific moves, like for the elephant aliens, "if someone apologises to you, treat them as if they were invisible", or for the lions-like ones, "always be solicitous toward males in case they throw a temper tantrum", stuff like that.
    Right! I think that we might look at an alien species that consists of:

    - A player-facing statement: The Udor are more logical than humans
    - The reversal or absence of a human norm ("no proverbs")
    - A set of alien instincts ("to diagnose the problems of others") and moves (such as "reject illogical shows of emotion as a basis for action")
    - Factions within the alien culture that are in tension with each other (group that seeks the expansion of arts and fiction, religious movement, mainstream culture)
    - Some sort of countdown-clock or threat within that culture, probably tied to the factions

  • @MarkT : Yeah, basically. Even if you set it up in the way I suggest, it's going to go bad places too, it just might not default there. The other alternative is just say that everyone's on roughly equal footing.
    Actually, I'm hesitant to establish any sort of setting at all for that reason. I'd prefer that the players work with the MC to construct the setting, with the MC constantly challenging whatever role the humans currently have in the galaxy. If humans are on top, then what are the costs of galactic hegemony. If humans are under the boot of the universe, what does that mean to the human characters who view themselves as heroes. Basically, I want to upend whatever status quo the players construct for themselves, ala AW.

    Humon's illustrated (and explained) animal mating habits.
    I love these. They are such a wonderful way to show the sexual diversity that exists in the reality we already inhabit.

    Thank you both (@contracycle) for engaging on this topic. It's my goal to thrust players outside their cultural comfort zones in ways similar to the way that AW pushes people outside of the gender-identity/sexual-identity comfort zones. This has been a great discussion to further that line of thinking.

  • You're welcome. Anytime. Really, glad that I could help.

    And good on ya!
  • I agree that evopsych and its ilk have been put to really dubious uses. But if you've ever seeing a crowd in a stadium booing a player, or an audience a performer, it's hard not to see the direct similarity with chimpanzees booing a predator. That's one of the moments when our "animalness" expresses itself quite visibly, a behaviour that's probably thoroughly pre-human and retained as what we think of as a cultural habit. I don't approve of the throwing of babies out with the bathwater - just because evopsych has been exploited for ideological ends doesn't mean we should reject awareness of our physicality.

    As for the other, referring to it as "scripture" isn't winning you any points, you know.
  • OK, well, seems to me that issue is unavoidable in a discussion of potential intelligent alien life, whether in games or reality. So if you don't want to discuss it, then I guess you don't, but then it's not clear to me what would be discussed instead.
  • If you're really interested in the "foreign allegory" angle, the two games you really need to check out are Dog Eat Dog (of course) and, perhaps more importantly, Sign In Stranger by Emily Care Boss, which is explicitly about a "Peace Corps in space" approach to investigating difference and community. It's pretty much impossible to find these days, though, so you might email Emily and see if there's a playtest PDF from an earlier draft that she's willing to part with. I like the 2007 version with the Jenn Manley Lee cover. We just played it a while back and damn but I love what that game does.

    The "animal allegory" is also interesting, but since humans can't communicate very meaningfully with primates and dolphins, I'm personally doubtful that we'd be able to meaningfully communicate with aliens at all, even if we recognize them as intelligent. Consequently, I tend to think that aliens are best treated as people, more or less (that's the Planarch approach for monsters, which Nathan pointed out). Humans also have fewer ethical qualms about killing animals, traditionally, so that can take it into potentially ugly territory.
  • edited January 2013
    Looks tres cool! I read this back in Decemeber when you released it to view and was giddy. I love love the ship moves!
  • @J_Walton - Thank you! Great leads. I love Dog Eat Dog, and I'd be very interested to see what Sign In Stranger has to offer.

    As for the animal allegory, I agree. I think that it's hard enough to deal with people that have several inhumanities, let alone life based on a completely different way of understanding the world.

    @Pheylorn - Thanks, man. I think the ship moves are probably my favorite part right now.
  • I don't know about that, efforts to communicate with other animals proceed apace. Quite a while back know, there was a chimp who, pissed off with its trainer, signed to him "you green shit", which I feel made its opinions sufficiently clear. And while we haven't figured out how to talk to cetaceans, yet (perhaps), we do think they have language of some kind, even with differing regional dialects, and efforts are being made to figure out its structure.

    Anyway, any kind of technical alien species would perforce understand math, which would get the ball rolling in establishing a framework by which other concepts can be addressed.
  • Yeah, but at the same time, a game ought to be accessible enough that some normal-ish folks can enjoy playing it without a fetish/PhD.
  • @paul_riddle - I agree! I want to make creating alien species easy enough to do on the fly, but meaningful and complex enough to challenge the players.
  • To that end, keep it simple; but, make it scalable. Then you can target a general audience and still accommodate a hardcore audience.
  • @Paul_Riddle - That's a perfect way to phrase it. I think that the creation of alien species can have a quick, improv-only kind of level and a larger, more in-depth level that allows someone to really construct intricate societies that can challenge the players and drive the fiction.
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