Friday, 27 June 2014

Designing a setting: part 3 - technology, cheese, open-endedness and replay value

Way back when I started this series of thoughts, I got some very useful comments on the initial post, which I'm going to pick up on now that we've covered fluff as a key ingredient to a setting. Specifically, I'm thinking about open-endedness, and development/evolution, which means it's 'Mike waffles and ponders' time!

There's a tricky line to draw here. In an ideal world, story development is/should be a given. It's about the fluff - your setting moves along - much as (say) the VBCW setting does - so that there are always new things happening, but not so fast that people don't have time to play with what's available. If we look at the real-world setting of WW2 as an example, in six years an awful lot happens, factions rise and fall, technology advances...

Not all settings get this last bit right. Battletech (I quote this a lot, because as big, sweeping, SF settings go, it's one of the biggest and for the most part best) doesn't, in my opinion. The arrival of the Clans is a massive 'outside context problem', which isn't, in and of itself, an issue - it gives the existing factions new adversaries, the chance for new Alliances. But unfortunately at around about the same time, the Clans bring new tech with them, and the existing factions develop new tech, and it's game breaking tech, and they got that bit badly wrong. One of the core unwritten precepts of the original 3025/6 tech Battletech was that, to sum it up crudely, the only things that could blow a Mech's head off in one shot could only do so at short range. With the advent of the 3050-era tech, and extended range PPCs and Ultra AC-20s (for example), death from long range was suddenly much more likely. To be fair, this is actually a rather dumb piece of brokenness in the rules about the amount of armour and internal structure 'Mechs can have: the rules were originally designed around 3025-era balance, for which they work beautifully.

40K, of course, does this far worse, in that it doesn't really even pretend that what it's doing is advancing the setting - it's just pure 'cheese' - changes to the rules, because it can, and because it wants another pull on the direct line from little Johnny to daddy's plastic.

It's an interesting problem, though. You can make the argument that WW2 has this: bring a Tiger into an early war scenario, and it's massively unbalancing. And if you want to 'follow along' with WW2 as the campaign advances, you wind up replacing all your armies by the end of the war to keep with the story. But at least with any self-respecting set of rules, the game doesn't go out of whack if your forces are from the same period with the setting.

War, though, is a great driver for technology. You can't escape how much military technology advanced during both world wars and then slowed down a large amount thereafter. If your setting is at all high-tech, it's difficult to avoid (Moore's Law, anyone! :D) the fact that technology will and should get better over time unless you've hit some arbitrary, physical or scientific limit (the speed of light, the size of an atom of silicon, the strength/height of a normal human, etc).

Having waffled my way through that (*grin*) I think what I'm saying is that advancing the 'story' of a campaign is great: giving people new opponents and/or new contexts in which to fight enhances the odds they'll stick with your setting, that magic that is 'replay value'. And sure, everyone likes 'the new shiny': the trick is not to do new in-game tech and weaponry for the wrong reasons, not to make it so awesome that you can't, effectively, play the game without it. Introduce it slowly, make it scarce, make it have disadvantages - even if these boil down to 'it's so expensive you can only have 1', or 'you can have that Tech 3 energy weapon, but you need to mount it on a slow, massive chassis that can't use other tech because it needs all the power...'

In short - it's as much a game-design balance problem as anything else. If your developing story starts to lead you towards the new shiny, you need to consider long and hard what it does to the game.


  1. I agree, much as I liked the Clan stuff at the time, the old 'do I fire it and chance the heat?' factor was lost and that was one of the key factors in BT... once you had powerful mechs that could shoot everything they had, it was broken. Even the Black Widows came off worse with 3025 tech against the Clans in most games.

    As for technology, it only develops if your protagonists actually have the means to make use of it. In 1965 the Dominican Republic was still using the Landsverk L60 and Mexico only retired its Greyhounds recently. If your setting removes the availability of technology, it won't advance.

    Some African countries have actually devolved... the Congo for example and others like Zimbabwe have not moved much beyond what they inherited from Rhodesia back in 1980.

    Your choice of setting can effectively halt technological advancement between your protagonists... but if you choose the obvious big players it is hard not to let things move on.

  2. Oh and technology did not slow down after WWII, it just went into different technologies. Conventional weapons were initially seen as a dead-end and the future was with the A-Bomb and its delivery systems.

    While the Korean War sparked development of conventional weapons to keep pace with the Soviets own types, US technology was firmly focused on delivering 'Massive Retaliation' to any Soviet aggression up until around 1959.

  3. Some technologies do destroy balance - examples are Dreadnoughts and the Atom bomb!

    Do we keep them out?

    Also remember some wars or campaigns were heavily unbalanced, so game design comes in here, after all at root what we want from a game is FUN!!!!

  4. Turn up at one of my barbecues some time and I will bore you for England with my feelings on Battletech. Oh, wait, that's not an incentive is it? But I'd say that a particular problem there was that the basic premise of the setting had been that tech was gradually being lost, this year's model wasn't quite as good as last year's… and then suddenly all that was thrown away.

    Or maybe the gauss rifle's just Munchkin bait.

    I think that one problem here is the faction book model. Bring out the New Shiny Faction with New Shiny Tech, and you want people to buy the bits so you make them just a bit better than what's out there already, then some other faction's players feel it can't compete any more… and you get power creep. Better to bring out an era update, which brings everyone shiny new tech at the same time.

    The idea of being able to have a point system which lets you pit any force against any other and have a fair fight is mathematically appealing, but practically impossible. (I've had remarkable success in Battletech by taking old-tech 'Mechs up against new-tech forces: all that new tech costs serious points, which could have gone on armour and survivability.) If you can't do that, the next best thing is to have eras, and I think this is something modern Battletech gets right: you can say "we're having this fight with 3025 tech" and nobody will think you're weird for it. Similarly of course a WWII game.


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