Theme As Glue

I recently took some time away from the design of A Billion Suns to focus on its setting. Oddly, doing this really helped boot the design of the game forward.

This is a science fiction game, and that makes things quite daunting. Creating an original-feeling science fiction setting is nigh-on impossible, as the genre is so well explored by imaginative people the world over. Happily, it’s also a very open genre, offering a very broad scope. Also, as this will be an Osprey Wargames “blue book”, the setting will want to be only sketched out, providing a lot of latitude for gamers to apply the ruleset to their own setting of choice.

However, two months ago I felt like I had reached a point in the design of A Billion Suns where the uncertainty of the setting was holding me back from adding detail to the game, and in particular was slowly down the design of the scenarios, in-game objectives and victory conditions.

Known Knowns

As I began sketching out the outline of my setting, I knew a couple of things already.

I knew that I wanted this setting to exist in the same universe as Gaslands. My hope is that by placing A Billion Suns far in Gaslands’ future it actually strengthens and enriches both settings. The settings can make thematic callbacks to each other and cross-pollinate their key tensions and assumptions.

Knowing that I wanted to cast forward from Gaslands allowed me to anchor the setting on a few foundational truths. Firstly, in ABS, Mars is the centre of the human sphere, not Earth. If Earth was our cradle, Mars was our first real home of our own.

Secondly, this will be a setting without an “evil empire”. Society will be hyper-commercial, 21st century capitalism thrown forward. In place of evil empires, we have an endless melee of corporations, seeking to discover, claim, expand and consolidate for profit and more of the same. These grow from the same corporations that ruled Mars during the Gaslands setting, and so it just draws that line forward.

Corporate Life

Rooting the setting in the commercial battleground of interstellar corporations provides (for me) an amusing set of language which I can use as a lens to recast the game. Getting the setting in place has allowed me to start discovering the tone more confidently and begin to lace the game rules with more evocative and internally coherent language. I have been able to start renaming concepts and sub-systems that weren’t quite jelling into the overall whole with more interesting and fitting names.

As an example, a whole sub-system referred to variously and without gusto as tactical points, energy, and burn rate got a rebranding to “Operational Expenditure (OpEx)” and it’s explanation shifted from the fear of being court martialled for reckless squandering of the precious resources needed to fight the war for the survival of the species to the fear of being demoted or worst for recklessly squandering company resources on an unprofitable enterprise.

While the former might seem grander, it’s somewhat tired path and I want to find fresh ways to look at the same sci-fi tropes again. The latter fits with the new whole very naturally. You are an admiral operating within a commercial enterprise. You have a budget and an objective and left to get the job done. If things start to go wrong, you can call in reinforcements, but you are going to have to explain yourself to the board.

Another example of how the theme strengthens the mechanical scaffolding of the game is the tech tree of fleet-wide special rules that you can use to upgrade your fleet. This system is my current answer to the challenge of writing a balanced “build your own faction” system (more on that in a future blog post). The leaves of the tech tree have been called perks, upgrades, skills, powers, disciplines and other things. Now that the faction you are designing is a corporation, these things are /obviously/ called “competitive advantages” and now it makes a ton of sense way you can mix and match them.

Theme As Glue

Having a more clear idea of the emerging themes of the setting has allowed me to more confidently move beyond the basic mechanics of the game. Once the “physics engine” and core reward cycles are in place, it’s proven difficult to fill in the next level of detail without having a strong idea of what the people in the setting are up to and what they care about.

As I think back three years, the same thing actually happened on Gaslands. The basic mechanics for driving around and shooting were working fine, but things like scenarios, victory conditions, factions and perks were all accelerated by working on the detail of the setting.

For the kind of games I write, I’m pretty sure at this point that the detail of the setting doesn’t matter a jot at the start of the game design cycle. To start a new game design I just need a thing that is cool and a new mechanic that excites me. However, there appears to come a time when I struggle to get to the next level of clarity on what is going to make a game fun without the setting being somewhat fleshed out.

From a certain point, setting acts as a sort of thematic glue, sticking previously disparate mechanics and sub-systems into a narratively satisfying, evocative and internally consistent whole.

I’m not going to share too much more of the setting yet, as much of it is still to be established and developed, and rest assured the game still plays just as well if you want to overlay your favourite sci-if IP, but you are going to love what this setting permits as far as compelling gameplay.

If you want to find out more, consider signing up to be a playtester!