Ghost Ship isn’t anywhere near complete – I don’t even think it’s playable – but as I put a draft together for some friends to look over I thought I might as well put it up here for everyone else to check out. If you’re interested, here’s the main book:
And here’s the Google Drive folder with character sheets and so on:
While a ship piloted by Ghosts can react quicker, travel further and need far fewer resources than a human-piloted vessel, a physical presence is still required for a crew to perform most of the tasks people are willing to pay big money for. The game’s solution for this is drones. A robotic shell housing a modified Ghost core, each drone is precisely tailored for their Ghost and is much an extension of them as a living person’s hand. The core in the drone runs an up-to-date version of the Ghost, experiencing the world from the drone’s perspective. Their experience is streamed back to the Ghost’s main core back in the ship, which is in a trance as they incorporate the drone’s feed into their memory and personality.
Thanks to the delicately engineered link between the two cores and streaming algorithms that prioritise which sensations and thoughts to stream based on available bandwidth, the experiences of the drone core are seamlessly integrated into the Ghost’s mind. Meanwhile, the locally present Ghost core allows the drone to function well even when the signal back to the ship has been cut or the time delay back to the ship becomes too great.
From a design perspective, Drones to a few helpful things:
They give you a physical body, meaning that your interaction with the world isn’t limited to command prompts and communication channels.
They mean there’s a sense of risk and danger to missions that’s a step less severe than the ship blowing up.
They provide a means of customisation and personalization, helping the players express their character’s personality at the table.
Your main choice when picking your drone is its Frame. This gives you the basic environment the drone is built for, and the particular actions it’s proficient at. Frames have three ratings of particular importance: how durable they are, how quickly they can move, and how dextrous their manipulators are.
At game start, there are three Frames available, but more will unlock according to events in the solar system.
The squat, bulky Humanoid frame is impossible to confuse for a human, but still allows you to perform most human-scale tasks.
Pros: High manual dexterity, humans find it easier to interact with, can pick up and operate designed-for-human equipment.
Cons: Low durability, limited space for mods and extra functions.
Light weight and an array of thrusters make this frame perfect at manoeuvring in zero-g.
Pros: Can explore zero-g environments with ease, can run indefinitely on solar power, plenty of space for mods.
Cons: doesn’t cope with gravity, distance from human body plan means it’s not very good at relieving Discarnate stress.
With a rugged chassis and the ability to walk, swim and dig, this frame is great for missions on or beneath the surface of hostile planets and moons.
Pros: High durability, can operate in most environments.
Cons: low dexterity, difficult to retrieve once dispatched to a planet’s surface.
Early experiments with Ghosts found that a physical presence resulted in a substantial improvement in psychological health and wellbeing. This close connection can have its downsides, however, especially when a mission stops going to plan. Here’s a selection of things that can go wrong with a drone:
Its memory buffer becomes too full, meaning that some memories are erased.
It gets destroyed, preventing the transition back to ship-Ghost from being cleanly managed.
It gets isolated, such that it starts operating independently of the ship-Ghost.
It can’t be retrieved, meaning you must go the rest of the flight without incarnation.
Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.
– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
One of the big barriers to human space travel is just how long its astronomical distances take to travel. All but the most die-hard explorer is likely to blanch at spending years or even decades in a tiny tin can barely protected from the void of space.
As a Ghost, many of the standard issues of long-term travel don’t apply: you don’t need food or water, cosmic radiation can’t do anything to a properly shielded circuit, and it’d take a truly catastrophic level of damage to the ship to stop you functioning. Still, it’s not completely plain sailing – that time takes its toll, as you have to cope with mind-numbing tedium and the solar system changing outside of your control.
In Ghost Ship, you won’t be tracking the passing of time with fastidious bookkeeping. All we care about is the magnitude of time passing, tracked as sweeps. A 3 sweep journey is a matter of days, Earth to Luna for example. 7 sweeps will take you from Earth to Mars over a length of months, 9 sweeps will cover the years it takes you to travel between the planets of the inner system and Jupiter, and journeys past Saturn or even to the fringes of the Solar system take even more.1
As it’s only the order of magnitude of time we’re concerned with, calculating the duration of a trip is very simple: just draw a line between your start and end point on the system map shown below and take the highest number you pass through.
The number of Sweeps gives you how long the trip will take, but what matters is how you spend it. To see what opportunities the trip provides, you:
Take a number of d6s equal to the number of sweeps.
Group them according to the value on the dice (all 1s, all 4s, etc.). These are your action sets.
Group all dice that show unique values – this is your scrap set.
Example: you’re travelling from Mars to Mercury (7 sweeps), so you roll 7 d6s and get 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6. This gives you two action sets (two 2s and two 5s) and a scrap set of three dice.
Your sets guide the events of your trip:
Each of your action sets buys you a downtime action, with the action’s effectiveness determined by the set’s size. With these actions you can:
Research your destination.
Talk to your portside friends and contacts.
Bond with your crewmates.
Repair the ship and modify your equipment.
Hack into your own AI substrate to unlock new capabilities.
The group’s scrap sets, on the other hand, bring misfortune: either someone chooses to take a scrap set’s size in dice in Quiet stress 2 or the set is passed to the GM. They can spend these sets to:
Cause malfunctions in the ship.
Create complications at your destination.
Give you bad news from back home.
Reveal unexpected threats – meteorite showers, solar flares, or even assault from unexpected forces.
The group goes around the table taking it in turns to activate an action set and declare an action until all action sets have been used. They must also activate their scrap sets, however, and there’s strategy in pacing this. Group them all together and they’ll compound their effects, so you want to make sure you keep Actions in reserve to deal with problems before they escalate. Working against that is the ability of Scrap Sets to make downtime actions harder, so if you really need to succeed at something you should try to do it before any crises happen.
Shifting your chances
Memories and Aptitudes also play a part, just as they do in more immediate time scales.
A high Acuity helps you effectively multitask. If your number of sets is less than your Acuity, you change one scrap die to match your smallest set. If you have no sets, change it to match one of your other dice.3
A high Focus lets you really concentrate on your chosen tasks. If your largest set is no larger than your Focus, change one of your scrap dice to be a part of it.
Once you have your sets, a relevant Memory lets you do one of two things: combine two sets together into one giant set, or split a set containing 4 or more dice in half. Either way, if you stretched the memory outside its subject or context4 take Glitches equal to the size of the larger set.
Lastly, if a Memory gives you a relevant Skill, treat the set you’re using for that action as if it were one dice larger.
Time isn’t only passing for you; as you reach your destination, you’ll find all sorts of changes have taken place in the system’s different settlements. More on that next time.
Astronomy and/or Kerbal nerds may spot I’ve based these on Hohmann Transfer times – the simplest and most fuel-efficient way to travel between two bodies. Hasty pilots can exploit slingshots or burn more fuel to get places faster, while thrifty pilots can save fuel at the cost of adding sweeps to the time by exploiting the Interplanetary Transport Network.↩
As the tedium of space travel puts strain on your mental health ↩
This means you always have at least one set no matter what you roll unless your Acuity has been dropped to 0. ↩
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.
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.
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.
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.
[FIX] I remember repairingmy 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:
When their skill applies, you get an extra dice on rolls.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!