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Thousand Suns — Designer Notes — Update

August 23, 2007

I’m nearly done the character creation and skills chapters of Thousand Suns. Still tweaking a few things here and there, but they’re about 80% completed to my satisfaction. I need to flesh out the non-human aliens a bit, particularly physiologically. Ever since I made the decision to go with strictly non-humanoid forms for my non-human aliens (as opposed to the human “aliens,” the genetically engineered clades), I’ve been sweating it a bit. Coming up with reasonable — and gameable — non-humanoid forms is tough, since there are so few examples either in gaming or literature.

Next up is the meat of the rules (mostly done already) and combat. Combat is one of those things I’m of two minds about. On the one hand, I don’t want to gloss over stuff that people expect in combat rules. On the other, I don’t want combat to bog down and/or become the focus of the game rules. I think mind_of_richard struck the right balance in Colonial Gothic, but I can’t really use that game as a model, since the nature of late 18th century combat (even in cinematic form) is quite different than that of space operatic combat. I have quite a few ideas and I expect that playtesting will decide the issue in the end (as it usually should).

The meta-setting chapter is also shaping up. I’m still finding myself falling into the trap of detailing too much and not leaving quite as many elements open, despite this being the design purpose of the thing. Writing it has been a very enlightening thing and I’d like to think that I’ve gained a couple of insights into why many RPGs so much detail on their settings. The simplest is that it’s actually harder to write parsimoniously and the design of a useful meta-setting is several orders of magnitude more difficult than a very specific and more constrained imaginary world. Consequently, it becomes exceedingly easy to invent new fluff and chrome for a game setting even in passing and so many game designers and writers do so, sometimes without realizing it. Trying to rein things in and keep options open is quite unnatural and I fight against it even as I profess my allegiance to it.

The big hole in the book at the moment is the starship construction and combat section. Richard and I have already talked about this and we have the basics of what I think will be a very nice system. Thousand Suns itself will focus almost entirely on “adventuring” ships, by which I mean small to mid-sized vessels of the sort that characters are likely to own and use. Capital ships will probably be treated primarily as “terrain” hazards on this scale, since they’re so large and ponderous that their movement is irrelevant. The first supplement to the game will probably be what we’re calling Starship in a Box, even if it’s not literally in a box (though I’d love to be so) and it’ll expand the construction and combat system to cover all classes of vessels and all sizes of naval engagements.

My goal is to ensure that, even if it’s necessary that starship combat effectively be a game-within-a-game rather than just a natural extension of the RPG rules, it should feel both natural and easy to use. In my own experience, Traveller (that is pre-MegaTraveller Traveller) was one of only a handful of SF games I ever played where I didn’t once think about bringing on the starship combats in an adventure. Most other games had ponderous, complex systems that just made me wince and I’d rather just handwave away ship encounters or else not have them at all than use the rules found in most SF RPGs. Another notable exception was FASA’s Star Trek, which had one of the only genuinely RP-based starship combats I’ve ever seen, but it’s rather sui generis and not suitable for imitation. In any event, Thousand Suns will have a good, intuitive, and easy to use starship construction and combat system. I want people to build starships and have them engage in battles against one another rather than flee in terror at the prospect of it.

All in all, things are proceeding well.

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