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MessagePosté le: Dim 18 Oct - 14:30 (2009) Répondre en citant Back to top

Designing the Future: The Story of Writing S.A.

For other game designers, both experienced and would-be, and for those who are into historical retrospectives (hey, such people exist), here’s the story of how S.A. came about.

“Sufficiently Advanced” started with little more than those words. Most of my games start with a basic idea and a working title; that title often becomes official, but just as often gets tossed by the wayside in favor of something a little punchier or, perhaps, something that doesn’t violate another person’s trademark. S.A. started off with its name and stuck with it all the way, and it was really kind of a guiding light for me.

As originally conceived, S.A. was a game about the enduring remnants of humanity. Not the “last remnants,” because that implies that there won’t be any more humans in the future. No, SA’s setting, as originally conceived, had a vastly reduced and equally vastly enhanced population of humanity. They had survived a horrible war on Earth, perhaps a hundred thousand years ago, and now lived quite well in small groups scattered across the universe. Aggression was nearly nonexistent, since all the aggressive people left after the war kept killing each other or being killed by their more-enhanced bretheren. Governmental power structures were gone. Humanity was, in some ways, living in a world created by AIs that humanity had long ago made, and who allowed humanity to continue as a sort of cosmic “thank you” card.

It wasn’t really well fleshed out (which is probably for the best, since I chucked it — it’s a Cargo Cult now), but it had grabbed me, and I was mentally playing around with it. I always toss a concept around in my brain some and see what else it bumps into before doing any writing. Writing too early locks my ideas in place and makes me either end up with a stagnant pile of paper or a general burnout halfway through a game.

While I was pondering, there were two really important things that happened. First was a conversation I had about it with my girlfriend (now wife), and second was a computer crash.

The conversation was a real left turn for the setting. My girlfriend essentially convinced me that humanity without power structures and aggression simply didn’t work: it didn’t make sense for a lot of people, and it wasn’t how humanity operated. Not only do people want structure, some people want power. While I’m not a big fan of “that’s just the way it is,” I did see the sense behind her argument, and started to do some major reorganization. Gone was the idea of a sub-million population, gone was the total dominance of AI and the general niceness of enduring humanity. Governments came back in a big way.

During this conversation, one of my most important influences from the early days of the game was carefully removed and put on a shelf for another time. It’s from a comic book called Stormwatch, and it’s a single line: “And if you think for yourself, what would you need authority for?” It was very, very hard to put that one away, and I think some day I might have to do something with it. I think this must happen to all game designers. The time eventually comes when something that once made a centerpiece of your game — perhaps an idea, perhaps a setting element, perhaps Thac0 — must be excised for the good of the game. Tough to do, but utterly worthwhile.

The crash was one of those horrible, massive, eat-your-whole-hard-drive events. Even a professional data recovery center couldn’t do anything with it. I didn’t have any backups less than five months old, and I had just finished major revisions to Valence (another sci-fi game I wrote, and a good story for another day). To put it mildly, I was crushed. So much work lost, so many old e-mails gone, so much money and time and life, down the tubes. Work on my other sci-fi game, Valence, came to a screeching halt at that point. I’m sure I’ll pick it up again some day, but it won’t be the same. However, losing it meant that I had plenty of time to work on new stuff, and S.A. was definitely on the top of the list. As much as thinking about that crash still makes me sad, it meant a fresh start and lots of attention for SA.

There were a lot of pieces of inspiration for S.A. that year, most of which are mentioned in the book. It certanly didn’t hurt that I read Singularity Sky, The Wellstone, and the Golden Age saga within a few months of each other. Those books, along with the Foundation and Hyperion series, laid the groundwork for S.A.’s technology and general philosophy. Some of the influence is obvious, as in the cases of psychohistory and programmable surfaces. Others are less so, like the reliance on intellectual property group of them) together. If you ever want to “get” the game better, go for these books; they’re all excellent stuff and I almost wish I could have included more.

My physics background means that I come across a lot of interesting scientific articles, and one about light impulses apparently traveling backwards in time became the basis for the Transcendentals. They were one of the keys that put everything else in place: how pieces of humanity got off Earth while everyone else fought there, why the dregs and outcasts of society got to use something as expensive as a wormhole, how humanity found decent places to go in such a sparsely populated universe, and other little bits of important backstory. It sounds strange to say that computers that send information backwards in time enabled the setting to make more sense, but that’s what happened.

Once I had some basic ideas about the setting, I dove into the system. I really write systems much better than I write setting, and as hard as I’ve worked on SA’s game fiction and background info, I worked the system harder. I must have written ten different versions of it. One was diceless in the Amber style, another was diceless in the Nobilis style (that’s where Reserve came from), one used a die-step system (you can see it in the original quickstart, if you can still find a copy), one was a knockoff of Dying Earth’s system, and I even toyed with a d20 adaptation for about ten minutes.

The idea of Twists came, as many of my ideas do, from a misunderstanding. I had read message board threads about games like Prime-Time Adventures and the Buffy RPG, and gotten the idea that importance to the plot could be a character attribute. It could even be properly balanced against the other attributes, not just a general “how badass am I?” meter. My initial idea was to allow Themes to vary from one game session to another, but I eventually decided to nail them down as a balancing point for Capabilities, and leave fluctuating Themes as an optional rule. I later found out that neither of these games did things quite the way I thought, but by then I was quite satisfied with the method I had found.

All of this stuff is in the back of my notebooks from when I was a teaching assistant at UMass. In a lecture class there often isn’t much for a TA to do but sit there, change the projector settings, and write game notes. I did almost all of my work for the first few months with pencil and paper. From there I opened a Livejournal community for the game, so that a few of my fans (mostly close friends) could read and comment as I worked. It also let me operate from any computer instead of being tied to the one at home — this was all before GMail and Google Documents arose. Going through the old notebooks and some of the original journal posts also later reminded me of things that I wanted to put into the setting, but had forgotten about. I hate throwing away old ideas, which is why it takes a forklift to move my filing cabinet.

I can’t underestimate the amount of help a gaming community can give in these kinds of efforts. The folks at the Forge,, and Story Games have all been incredibly helpful, as have the folks who occasionally posted on the game’s Livejournal.

When I thought I was ready, I started writing a quickstart — the bare essentials for running a full campaign. Much of the setting was “finalized” at this point, though I didn’t realize it. There would be more detail added, but none of the later playtests pointed at an obviously missing civilization or a giant gaping plot hole. The system was far, far more complex than it needed to be, and saw at least two complete overhauls after that point. Actually writing the quickstart was pretty fast, since most of it was just compiling information I had posted on the Livejournal. I slapped it together in less than a month.

The first major playtest (beyond a one-shot I ran) was run by Dan DiTursi in Troy, NY. The best thing about it was this: I wasn’t there. I wasn’t able to clarify rules on the spot, I wasn’t able to explain how or why things were the way they were, or make things seem like they worked when they didn’t. The group was on their own, with only the quickstart to guide them. If you’re writing your own game, there is nothing more valuable than a playtest run by someone else when you’re not around. All sorts of questions came up (Is “Chocolate” an acceptable Core Value?) and the answers were incorporated into the next version, the Alpha.

I got to run my own playtest with the Alpha, and found out that I wasn’t using the conflict system. It was complex enough that people didn’t want to bother with it, and so anything that went more than one round ended up getting a Twist thrown at it. I like Twists, but that seemed a little excessive to me, so I went back to the drawing board, with some help from the Livejournal community. The new version found its way into the Beta, and carried over with little alteration into the final version.

We had another playtest after that, run by TauCeti Deichmann. I can’t say enough about this guy’s ideas; there was some really brilliant stuff in that game from both the GM and the players. They played the Twist/Theme system hard, and it paid off. There was a good amount of reshuffling of numbers after that game — nothing huge, just some important tweaks to the system. Some advice from folks over at Story Games helped to improve things as well, and brought in things like the Instant Civilizations rules, the Story Triggers, and more.

I started writing the “Final Candidate” version in the spring of ‘07. It really stretched my graphic design skills. I wanted people to look at this book as a serious work of art, and I needed a lot more tricks up my sleeve if I was going to pull that off.

Obtaining artwork began in the summer of ‘07 and drifted into the fall as well. I think I’ve done pretty well on the limited budget that was available to me, and I really appreciate all the artists willing to make such wonderful pieces for peanuts.

Summer also saw the final writing and reorganization of the book, moving the stories out of their own chapter and into the various civ descriptions. Fall was relatively slow, with some important but ultimaltely minor additions to the book. What was really great about the last few months before publication is the number of people willing to share their considered opinions as to what would improve the game. These “final tweaks” really improved things in my mind, and made the book more readable and sensible.

The book went out for final editing in late October, and for trial printing in November. January was an incredibly stressful month as the postal service lost a set of edits sent overseas from England! We just barely made the deadline for expedited printing and overnight shipping. While biting my nails I found a good site to host a wiki about the game, which hopefully you’ll find useful:

Our first release party was at Genericon XXI, nearly three years after the game’s initial conception. It has been one of the biggest works in my life so far, and I hope you enjoy it.

MessagePosté le: Dim 18 Oct - 14:30 (2009) Back to top

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