Ghost Ship: Character Basics

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Ghost Ship‘s characters are in the rare position of being purely virtual entities, which means that they don’t have many of the stats that characters often do. Instead, their abilities are defined by three things: the intrinsic strengths of their mind, their background and memories, and the stresses they have come under. The first two are determined by the backgrounds you take in character creation, and the third accumulates during play.

Backgrounds

There are a bunch of backgrounds to choose from, falling into 3 categories.

There’s your anchor: the living person who your character feels the strongest connection to. Examples: your children, your mentor, your brothers in arms.

There’s your embalming, which is the reason why your character went through the scanning process. Examples: you were wealthy enough to book a scan, you have memories someone wants to make money from, you stole someone else’s place and are now pretending to be them.

And finally there’s your unfinished business: the reason why you’re out risking your afterlife in space instead of making do with whatever simulated paradise you ended up in. Examples: you have dependants that still need your help, you have a drive to explore, you can’t stand being confined.

Each background gives you a point in two Aptitudes and a Memory – see below.

Aptitudes

Ghost minds are measured on four Aptitudes, rated from 1 to 5:

  • Focus: your ability to maintain concentration over long periods, spot fine detail, and remain committed to your goals.
  • Acuity: your ability to quickly process new information, adapt to changing circumstances and multitask.
  • Knowledge: your ability to understand the world, remember pertinent information and make inferences from observations.
  • Empathy: your ability to understand others, predict what they’re going to do, and make an agreement.

When your character acts in the world, you pick the two most appropriate Aptitudes (Example: Focus/Knowledge to study fluctuations in Sol’s magnetic field, or Empathy/Acuity to keep an exploration party happily working together). Then you pick the higher, roll that many d6s and look for the highest value. A 6 is a full success, 4-5 is a partial success or success at a cost, and a 3- is a complete failure.

Memories

While Ghosts have an academic knowledge of the events of their life, they only have the processing bandwidth to keep a handful of memories fully vibrant, alive and emotionally meaningful. These memories are the cornerstone of a Ghost’s identity and a powerful tool in their arsenal, but also their greatest weakness.

Each memory has four elements:

  • A [SKILL]. The memory should evoke one of the game’s skills, though you shouldn’t feel the need to use that particular skill’s name as the verb of your sentence.
  • A Context: Something important about the environment you were in – place, time, etc.
  • A Subject: Someone you were doing the thing for, with, or to.
  • An Action: Something you were doing.

Examples:

[FIX] I remember repairing my son’s house after the hurricane tore it apart.
[DECEIVE] I remember hiding finance data from my sister so she wouldn’t realise I’d run our company into the ground.
[PILOT] I remember piloting down the first colonists to land on Mars.
[PREPARE] I remember packing as many of my family’s possessions as I could into a bag before the tsunami hit.

Memories have three levels of application:

  1. When their skill applies, you get an extra dice on rolls.
  2. When you’re dealing with the subject of a memory, or a situation that’s a memory’s context, you add the two Aptitudes together to find your dice pool instead of taking the higher.
  3. When you’re dealing with something that reminds you of a memory’s subject or context (your call), you can stretch the memory to give you the second effect at the risk of gaining glitches in the memory.

Take enough glitches and the memory becomes corrupted – its context, subject, action or tone can all change, though only ever one at a time. You may find yourself fighting alongside your sister instead of your brother, healing them instead of fighting, or even fighting against them.

Stress

Finally, there’s the psychological toll your new state takes on you. Stress accumulates in three categories: Self, Discord and Quiet.

Self stress is gained as you begin to realise you’re not the person you used to be. Causes include finding evidence your memories have been corrupted, coming up against another instance of yourself, and casting off the memories of your life and instead prizing your new state.

Discord stress is the dysphoria caused by the conflict between your human mind and your digital state. Going without a physical presence for too long, suffering the destruction of a drone you’re currently inhabiting, and hacking into your core code can all cause Discord stress.

Quiet stress comes about less from being a Ghost and more from the rigours of long-distance space travel. Going years without new experiences and only interacting day-to-day with the same small group of people gives you Quiet stress, but too much stimulation can too – whether it’s diving too quickly back into the frenzy of society or hooking yourself up to a whole planet’s data feeds.

Stress builds up over time unless healed by the actions of your crewmates. As you cross certain thresholds you pick up Quirks – semi-permanent maladjustments that affect how you interact with the world. These are tied to the stress type that caused them: too much Discord stress could convince their character that the drone they’re inhabiting is, in fact, human flesh and blood. An excess of Self stress, on the other hand, could have a character doubting that they were ever human, or grow paranoid about which of their desires are theirs and which were programmed in.

Too much stress and your Ghost unravels, unable to hold its fragmented mind together. This is as close to death as Ghost Ship characters come and even after dissolution reactivated backups can gain stress as they come to terms with the lost time.

Other Character elements

That’s pretty much it as far as character mechanics go. There’re other details like your name, the characters mentioned in your background and memories, the type of drone you prefer piloting and the form your avatar takes, but those are mostly fiction-based rather than mechanical.

Altogether, this gives you a character sheet that looks something like this:

 

Next Time: Interplanetary travel and the march of history

Announcing Ghost Ship

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With What Ho World and Wizards Aren’t Gentlemen out to backers for reading and playtesting I’ve started working in earnest on one of my backburner concepts.

My next game is one I’m calling Ghost Ship. Here’s the pitch:

It’s the near future. After your death you woke up in a computer, a brain scan activated posthumously to say goodbye to family, turn over crucial information, or as a condition of your will. Once the flurry of bereavement and bureaucracy died down, you were given a choice – request deactivation or spend eternity in a simulated paradise. You took a third way.

Humanity’s interstellar ambition has faltered and stumbled in the face of the sheer hostility of space towards life. But you’re different. You don’t need to breathe, and power is much easier to provide than food or water. Out there in the black, you can find a new purpose, even as you explore how your simulated state is changing you.

Ghost Ship is a game about crews of uploaded minds piloting ships through the solar system, hoping to find fortune and a second life out in space. In part, it’s about the adventure of travelling through the void – the strange hazards of deep space, and the amazing surprises you find on the way.

It’s also about how the experience of ‘dying’ changes you. Your memories of life before the upload give you strength when you draw on them, but as you strain them they can be twisted and altered: you might find yourself remembering your husband’s marriage proposal instead of your wife’s, or even swap a memory with another character.

Finally it’s about how humanity adapts to the stars. As you run missions the solar system will change with you – new colonies will be founded, resources discovered, technology discovered and wars waged.

Inspirations

My fiction touchstones are The Expanse, the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror, and most importantly Elevator Music by The Indelicates.

Gameplay-wise, I’m looking at Torchbearer/Mouse Guard’s adventure/town phase divide, Psi*Run’s memory mechanics, and the way Invisible Inc uses a power economy to make ability choice meaningful.

If you’d be interested in tracking the game’s development, follow this blog or discuss it on our Facebook page!

The Fifth Season and a perpetual apocalypse

I’m currently reading NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season – winner of last year’s Hugo Award – and it’s excellent if exceptionally grim. The basic gist is that it takes place in a land constantly wracked with extreme geological turmoil. Society has been shaped by the constant pressure to survive, such that people count the regular eruptions that make the world uninhabitable for months or years at a time as a fifth season that just happens a bit less regularly than the other four.

Every bit of civilisation is geared towards preparing for the next Season, from constant maintenance of food stocks and fallow land within a settlement’s walls to strict organisation of the population into castes so that everyone knows and is prepared for their role. Inexplicable artefacts from long-gone DeadCivs scatter the landscape, underlying how long this turmoil had been going on for.

Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of Legacy. It wouldn’t take many edits to replicate this setting in-game: the main thing that would need to change is the idea that each turning of age represents another step towards building a new civilisation. In a Fifth Season-inspired game, each Turning of Ages would instead be a Season of turmoil and danger in which each family has to retreat to safety and trust in their supplies, and there would be no question of escape from the Fall.

There’s another thing the book does structurally that for me really underlines the constant danger of this world. Its story jumps between three different time periods, and in each you know that the safety and community the characters find won’t last as you’ve seen that it’s gone in the later periods. I’m still tossing around ideas for how you’d create a similar effect in-game, but you could maybe jump around at each turning of age rather than progressing linearly forward. After one age you might look a few centuries back, after the next age a couple of generations later.

Now this does cause issues for things like homeland map keeping and a sense of achievement/advancement, but there are some ways around that:

  1. Start with the assumption that the map will be wiped clean after every Age, except for the artefacts of the Before that you uncover.
  2. Assume that knowledge gained can be lost, and knowledge lost can be retained. That way you can advance your family and take those stats into the next age even if it was chronologically far in the past – it’s simply that your family in the present is rediscovering old glories.
  3. If the Apocalypse is ever-present, I’d give everyone a new basic move based on sensing its movements to demonstrate that awareness of disaster is a constant part of their mindset. For example, people in the Fifth Season have sensing organs in the brain that let them detect tremors in the earth and incoming eruptions before they happen (with the implication these were engineered in when things had only just started going south). You could add something like a hyper-awareness of astronomy if your problem was solar flares, or the ability to, say, read the psychic maelstrom that occasionally ramps up and drives outsiders to madness. In The Fifth Season some people can use the sensing organs to manipulate the earth and shape volcanic activity – maybe rewrite some moves of the Remnant in your game to fit the tone of the apocalypse.
  4. Focus your play agenda on either experiencing all the different ways communities have tried to survive or coming to an understanding as a group on the cause of the Apocalypse and a way of fixing it. This may help provide some direction, even as you jump around the timeline.
  5. Maybe don’t decide when you start an age where it falls in the timeline – let that grow organically as you pick through the ruins of prior ages and create the things later generations will find only fragments of.

What Ho World deck printing update

What ho,

Production is still moving apace on What Ho World – it’s nice to see it getting progressively closer to completion!

What Ho World deck proof

I got my physical copy of What Ho, World! from DriveThruCards today. Overall I’d say I’m very happy with it, especially as what little damage there was from its shipping to me won’t be an issue with the method I’m using to ship it to you. Here are some pictures:

 

Rulebooks

One of the effects of going with DriveThruCards for printing is that I had to adjust the deck size to 90 cards instead of 100. With the smaller deck size, I wasn’t able to fit as much of a rules explanation as I’d like in the cards in the deck. To augment that, I’m trying out online manuals with links to them on the deck’s cards. I’ve made one for What Ho, World! and one for Wizards Aren’t Gentlemen. Give them a look and let me know what you think!

What Ho World: Playtest Report

It was the introductory meeting for Oxford University RPG society today, which gave me a great opportunity to see how people who never roleplayed before enjoyed What Ho, World. Overall, it was very positive! We spent a lot of the session laughing, and every character had a fun plotline. We had a blackmailing butler accumulating a hoard of antiques so he could sell them all and retire to the country, a general winning a golf tournament by default after arranging for his rival to suffer a clothing malfunction, and a pioneering inventor trying to sweep the country’s theatres with his one-man orchestra.

System feedback was less positive. It’s clear that the procedure of play needs a lot of tightening up and quite a bit of simplifying. With:

  • 8 moves per player with multiple options.
  • 4 different token types.
  • A scene framing procedure that forces you to choose 2 of 4 detailed entries every scene.
  • Goals to build up progress towards.

…it’s just all a bit unwieldy in play. I initially thought I needed to gut whole sections of the game, but I think I’ve found a way to keep most things intact while reframing certain elements so they work better. The first thing to try is giving a player a single discard pile rather than tracking per-move card spends. I’m also going to really simplify the scene framing procedure and make sure that when I give a player a choice it really matters rather than slowing down play. Fingers crossed it makes a better game!

Still, it was a fun time, and it’s a really encouraging sign that the game can produce that experience with 4 people who’ve never roleplayed before. It’d be great to hear how it goes when I’m not there to nudge things along, but my ability to arrange those playtests is limited – not many people willing to print off an entire deck for a game that isn’t even finished!

Legacy: Mirrors in the Ruins out!

Hi all,

Legacy: Mirrors in the Ruins is now out!  We’re going with an Advance PDF system for this release: we’re holding off on activating print-on-demand until early customers have had a chance to flag any issues with the book. In return, everyone who buys the game in its first month will get a discount when purchasing the physical book.

Mirrors in the Ruins brings a different perspective to Legacy by placing players in the role of the monsters that live in the wasteland – the robot swarms, alien invaders, mutated animals and aquatic raiders that normally take the role of antagonists in post-apocalyptic stories. Even monsters must struggle to survive in the wasteland, so what happens when they clash with human survivors? Will they find a new way of existing together in this altered world, or will they repeat the mistakes that lead to the Fall?

As well as 8 new playbooks – 4 Families and 4 characters – Mirrors brings new Family moves covering subterfuge and conspiracy, rules for hostile environments, vehicles and non-player factions, and Mega Projects. These grand schemes may be built over several Ages, and permanently change the Wasteland once completed. There’s a lot to see in this book – I hope you check it out! Many thanks to Douglas Santana, whose ideas and words were crucial to making this book.

Legacy: Mirrors in the Ruins coming soon!

Mirrors in the Ruins

We’ve just sent the (hopefully) final PDF of Mirrors in the Ruins to playtesters – assuming no huge errors are found, you should be able to get your hands on it within the week!

As a reminder, it includes:

8 playbooks, showing the perspective of the inhuman things that haunt the wasteland. Each ‘type’ of creature – uplifted animals, raiders from the depths, robot swarms, and stranded aliens – comes with a family and character playbook, which can be freely mixed and matched with existing Legacy playbooks.

Mega-Projects: Civilisation Wonder-style grand projects Families can embark on to change the face of the wasteland.

A new stat for Families: Sleight. Sleight allows you to hide your family’s actions, conspire in secret, and protect yourself from espionage. The playbooks in Mirrors give the game a bit more of an antagonistic cast, so we decided to add this stat as an optional tool to flesh out conflicts between families and NPC factions.

Play advice for all the above!

I’ll post here when it’s out, but am happy to answer any questions you have in the meantime!

What Ho, World! in its final 48 hours

Only 48 hours left on the kickstarter for What Ho, World! We’re past 150% funded, which is amazing – I’m really looking forward to getting this game printed and having a proper physical copy in my hands.

If you’ve managed to avoid my endless promotion of the game over the past month, What Ho, World! is a hybrid roleplaying game/card game based on the genteel, free-wheeling and farcical stories of P.G. Wodehouse, Fred and Ginger musicals and so on.

Over the course of a 2-hour game, you’ll make characters like the naive but well-meaning Gadabout and the stoic and wise Servant, be tasked with challenges like retrieving an embarrassing document or ridding yourself of a small but annoying dog, and call on the gossip of your fellow servants or an unexpected cosh to save the day. It’s all based on the Apocalypse World school of RPG design – discrete chunks of rules for particular situations in the story that only get involved as much as they need to then get out the way again. I’ve heavily modified the system, removing dice rolls or a GM so that the deck of cards is all you need to play.

It’s a fun, light group storytelling game that I’m really happy with – please do check it out!

We went to Nine Worlds Fanfest, and so should you

This weekend we went to Nine Worlds Fanfest in London. Here’s my thoughts immediately following, as a fan and as a creator:

As an attendee:

The entrance to the con

This con really demonstrated the best sides of fandom – people experiencing earnest joy in whatever their fandom means to them, while being mature enough in their perspective to have conversations about how it could fall short. Plus, everyone was just so respectful and interested in what other people had to say. They really promoted a feeling of equality: even when writers/creators were on a panel, it didn’t have that feeling of superiors and supplicants you can get at other cons; instead, you felt like these were peers of yours who were worth listening to due to their experience in the subject.

Highlights:

  • Seb Atay‘s talk on the implied narrator/implied author in games was an interesting application of literary criticism to computer games in a way I hadn’t considered.
  • Grant Howitt running Dr. Magnethands for a big room of increasingly drunk superheroes and villains. I got to play Postman Pat in deep cover on the moon, and what more can you really ask for?
  • The costumes were amazing! I think my own Jesse Custer was a bit too subtle to be recognisable, but I was happy to give over my costume chips (also a very cool idea) in recognition of a hand-knitted dalek dress, a superbly-executed WicDiv Lucifer, and an ambulatory bowl of petunias.
  • Getting recommendations for stuff outside my experience and comfort zone, both on the Chinese SF panel and the comics recommendation panel.
  • Nine World’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Gender-neutral bathrooms, quite spaces, badge labelling for pronouns and willingness for interaction, and a constant awareness of the accommodations they may need to make to ensure all sorts of people fully enjoy the con. Really a glimpse of a better way of being.

Lowlights… pretty few, to be honest. The hotel’s food was overpriced and a bit poor, and it was a shame the final quiz filled up 15 minutes before it started and they had to turn people away – we were really looking forward to it and it meant our con basically fizzled out. Apart from that it was wonderful and we’re strongly considering coming back next year.

As an exhibitor:

Our table at the start of the expo on Saturday
Our table at the start of the expo on Saturday.

It was our first con to sell at, and there were big lessons to take forward.

Printing

We should have printed more stuff! We ran out of physical copies of Legacy: Life Among the Ruins and Ultranormal Encounters, and I’m sure we would’ve sold out of Echoes of the Fall if there were copies of the core book to sell with it. We got some good advice that it’s perfectly fine to overproduce: that way you need to do less work next con.

Book Ratios

Nobody wants to buy expansions without the core. Obvious in hindsight, right? We brought equal numbers of the core book and Echoes, and that was a mistake. For future cons, I think we’ll bring half again as many copies of Legacy as we do Echoes (and Mirrors I suppose).

PDFs: Great for physical stores

Selling PDFs worked really well. We had a sheet of labels with a DriveThruRPG discount code on them, and stuck those to UFO Press business cards (or inside books if people bought the book+PDF combo). Of our customers that bought a book, about 40% topped it up with PDFs, and 1/3rd of our sales were PDF-only.

Representation matters

It really reinforced my commitment to attractive and diverse art. I’d printed out a set of Legacy playbooks and laid them out on the table, and they were often the first thing someone looked at when they came up to our table. There were some very kind words about the diversity of the art, and I’m reminded of something Keiron Gillen said at the Dragons and Diversity panel: diversity isn’t an obligation for creators, but an opportunity. People’s reactions to seeing themselves as heroes in my game’s art where they had been ignored by other games made it completely worthwhile, and was legit one of my highlights of the con.

What are people looking for?

A lot of people reacted better to being pitched a group storytelling game than a dice-and-GM roleplaying game. Similarly, I got many comments that it was nice to have a post-apocalyptic game with more of a positive slant. A lot of this is due to the particular demographic at the con, I bet, but it’s got me thinking how to reach out to people outside of standard RPG venues who might have been put off by bulky rulebooks and grimdark settings. Cons, I guess, are a big part of that, but I’d be interested to hear about other suggestions.

Kickstarter backers are real people you can talk to

London has a lot of Legacy Kickstarter backers! Quite a few people came up to the booth after recognising Legacy as a game they’d backed, and it was great to reconnect with them and hear their stories of playing the game (or discussing how hard it is to get through a pile of Kickstarter rewards). Plus I got to hear about a London Indie RPG meet up that sounds fun and I’ll try and check out.

Selling as a supplement to the con experience

I don’t think I’d want to sell for the whole con; even if that got me 3x the sales it wouldn’t be enough to break even when the hotel fee, vendor fee and book printing are factored in. As a thing to do as part of a con I was already planning on attending, though, it let me jump between the creator and fan sides of the con and see what it’s like on either side of the line, get the word out about UFO Press and our games, and pay for the book printing and con tickets with a bit of money to spare. I can’t see us turning a profit on cons we go to for quite a while, so we’ll likely still only go to cons that have stuff we’re interested in going to and experiencing, but if you’re in a similar position I can’t recommend Nine Worlds highly enough.