Game Design: Exploration MechanicJune 26, 2013
So I’ve had a stroke of inspiration, set off by my last post/article. After writing it, I started writing a “how do I apply this to my RPG design?” post, since I want the space module for my RPG to be just as awesome as Star Citizen intends to be. Well, I hit a tiny problem: the sensor operator is an absolutely terrible role for a player to have. Below I’ll describe why, and how I fixed it!
Why So Bored, SensOp?
So, the sensor operator. The very first role I tried to convert from my Star Citizen article to my RPG, I discovered was the most boring role on the planet. Why? Because he doesn’t actually do anything besides repeat what the GM says.
Think about it. “What asteroids are out there?” “There are some normal ones, some iron ones, and one possibly really dense one.” “Hey guys, I found a possibly really dense asteroid!”
“Where are the enemies coming from?” “Behind you.” “They’re coming from behind!”
“Where’s the nearest port?” “30.6 light years.” “The nearest port’s just over 30 light years away guys!”
What does the sensor operator do, exactly? Well, due to how RPGs work–the GM is responsible for providing all information about the world to the players, as it is his world in his head operating by his rules–the sensor operator, who provides all information about the world to the players… he, uh, just repeats whatever the GM says. Sometimes after rolling some dice.
I realize that this is why skills like Gather Information or Research in the d20 system always were so goddamn boring to take. Not just because any mission-critical information wouldn’t be sealed behind a die roll, but because what information those skills did provide was going to be provided by the GM, and repeated word for word by the rolling player.
So yeah. Sensor operator. Just a mouthpiece for the GM. Bo-ring.
My first solution to the issue was to provide the sensop more choices and active thinking. Maybe he can only scan certain sections of the map… but that requires the GM to draw a map. Or maybe he’s provided a heap of data and he has to sort through it (like political boundaries, warp lanes, resource claims, corporate locations, settlements, etc.) except that’s even more content generation. This is how I think I’ll have to handle sensops in combat–the GM will provide very one-dimensional information to the sensop about enemy locations, like angle and distance, and the sensop will need to track that data over time to determine velocity and keep the gunner pointed at the same enemy rather than accidentally switching targets (“Which one was the one I shot a second ago?” “Er, I don’t know, they switched positions, I don’t know… the one on the left?”)
Requiring the sensop to sort through data might work in small scales like combat, but over the course of an entire starsystem it becomes a huge burden of labor for the GM, and probably won’t be that fun for the sensop anyway.
So my second thought was: well, what if all of that data was abstracted to dice roll tables, and the sensop got to judge the value of various rolls, maybe reroll a number of times till he gets the best option… like, he can roll one set of data for a good-looking asteroid, with decent metal content and low risk of piracy, and then roll another set of data, with like high metal content and slightly higher piracy risk, and then he’d get to choose which info to relay to the commanding officer.
The problems with this idea was that it required a ton of dice rolling… and the rolling would never end. Don’t like the asteroid you found to mine? Roll again. And again. And again. And again.
You could set artificial limits, like you can only roll 6 times, or something, but those are very artificial-feeling. I couldn’t come up with a method that didn’t feel like just a way of saying “Stop wasting everyone’s time” in a natural manner.
But the idea was good besides that (besides the fact it was terrible! :P). The idea of a sensop getting a platter filled with asteroids and he gets to pick the best one to mine… that appealed to me on many levels. It involved active thinking, weighing decisions, making choices… and not just, minor choices, but game-shaking choices. It also appealed to me because it meant that the RPG could be used as a sandbox, with the players creating and finding their own content to explore without a huge amount of work for the GM.
But the problem was the dice. Without artificial restrictions, players could theoretically roll dice until they hit all 6′s and get the BEST ASTEROID EVER. So I thought… why not remove the dice? Make it a point-buy system, or a template-applying system… essentially, not character generation rules, but world generation rules.
So the rule ended up something like this:
There will be six stats for asteroids. Dunno what, but they’ll be important ones: piracy/law enforcement, corporate claims, metal/mineral richness, size, porousness, and so on.
The Narrator gets say on the starting stats, both to help flavor the particular starsystem (pirate-systems start with high piracy, or heavily-mined systems are generally low on minerals) and have some general control over the course of the story. However, the players get to increase any of the starting stats based on their skill level. Are you the best sensor operator there ever was? You get 6 points you can ‘buy’ improvements with. You can also increase that pool by worsening some categories of stats. This latter ability to ‘sell’ points is intuitively understood as the player ‘widening the search parameters’ to find better results (the sensop would naturally shy away from pirate bases when finding asteroids to mine–but if he was willing to get a little closer, that’d be all the more asteroids to prospect…)
Finally, after the sensop has selected a target (see? Active thinking, decision making, weighing options!) the pilot will bring the ship over, land it, and they can all begin mining.
(Side note: I don’t know if I’ll actually include a full-on mining game in my space module… however, I didn’t want to discount the possibility without exploring how to best design the mechanics).
However, once the mining is underway, the GM will ask the sensop to roll his skill checks for each category. Every time his skill check fails, the number decreases by 1–that rock isn’t as rich as you thought, there are more pirates in space than you thought, and so on.
Expanding the Rule
After I had the idea in my head, as with every other mechanic I come up with, I ask: can this be applied to other aspects of the game?
The answer was a resounding YES. Holy crap. Researching the Necronomicon or a treasure map at a library? This mechanic is perfect for balancing out various aspects of the results (sanity, accuracy, quantity of information about certain topics, etc.). Trying to design a contract for your mercenary company? This mechanic is perfect for balancing pay rates, morality, distance from home, danger, etc. Trying to find a village in your medieval fantasy adventures? This is a great system for designing it.
Somehow, attempting to make sensor operator not the most boring role on the planet has uncovered a method for turning the most boring aspect of some adventures–contract negotiation, generating villages, research, prospecting–into interesting minigames in their own right. Perhaps not fun in the sense that combat or intrigue are fun, but at least not incredibly boring… which is honestly better than I could have hoped for.