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Game Design Challenge: Conflict Resolution meets General Relativity

Here's a challenge that came into my head today: Epic scale hard science sci-fi conflict resolution game mechanics. This is not entirely academic. I'm working on modular rules for Planets, my strategic sci-fi RPG, and one of the modules I had down for consideration was "hard science", i.e. no faster than light travel.

So imagine a game that is epic scale: conflicts can take place over multiple star systems. The maximum scope of a single conflict can be limited to a single planet, but the scope of the campaign is multiple star systems. This means that the indirect effects of a conflict must be able to bleed across star systems. But to accord with the laws of physics, these effects cannot propagate faster than the speed of light. If you've read Alastair Reynolds novels, you have a good grasp of the problem (and the possibilities). Is this game possible?

Here's an example. The campaign is about whether or not the horrible entity at the heart of the galaxy consumes all life or not. A conflict happens on Planet Q in which a brave scientist learns some key fact about the nature of the Entity. How do we decide if an when a warrior on Planet H can use that knowledge to create a weapon to fight the Entity?

A few possibilities bubble up:
  • You could isolate distant characters in space time. They cannot communicate. However, allow them to discover facts that become part of the game universe and are then usable across locations. Facts about things that happened in the very distant past would be allowed for example. I can imaging a game where you play a different character every session, collaboratively building a galaxy by discovering its ancient history as you go.

  • Maybe a decade passes between sessions. Each session play picks up somewhere a decades travel from where the last session occurred with players using the same character (having traveled) or a new one.

  • Allow players to set their narration anywhere across a continuity of time. You can set a narration in the distant past and its effects become universal. You might even have a game where the current crisis is rooted in something that happened in the early days of colonization, or even in the past history of Earth itself. How about a star empire about to repeate the error of Atlantis?

I guess one conclusion from all this is that if you include relativity, the past becomes very important. In a certain sense, you could quickly create a game that's all about the past.

Addendum: You know, it occurs to me that what I'm designing is really more of a campaign creation and strategic event metagame than a standalone system. Matt Wilson (for example) is already creating a way cool space opera game and I have no desire to reproduce his work.

Sounds very cool. I used to love Star Frontiers Knight Hawk campaign and war plug in.

You should check out Greg Bear's Anvil of Stars. He specifically addresses the issue of interstellar conflict in an relativistic universe. The civilization and people alive when the ships are sent out, pass away before the conflict is finished. The laws and decisions that have to be made because of this is very interesting.

Also, Scott Westerfeld's The Risen Empire, a space opera, uses some sort of connected particle or something that allows instant communication, but only limited bandwidth is available until the particles are replenished. It's based on a theory that might actually turn out to work.

Yeah, Star Frontiers Knigh Hawk is still high on my list. Those are great book suggestions. I'll check them out. I can never get enough epic sci-fi.


Just a quick question. If you're making a strategic Sci-fi RPG, do you really want conflict resolution? Task resolution supports strategic and tactical manuvers a lot more easily, IMO. Or perhaps I'm mist understanding the kind of strategy you want?



That's a darn good question.

In terms of strategy and tactics, I agree. Task resolution is possibly more suited. In fact, if strategy is my primary goal, I may as well just design a board game.

But to me a huge part of role-playing is the creation of a shared setting, which I think conflict resolution supports much more fully. If I chose the task resolution route, I feel like I have to define player options much more rigidly, to the detriment of overall flexibility.

And really there may be some confusion in how I'm talking. Yes, the game will have strategy. But more importantly, it will have an epic setting; that is, what's at stake in conflicts can be something much larger than a group of individuals.

A fundamental problem of creating a game whose scope is so large, and which is governed by classical relativity, is that there's no strict baseline for sequences of events, and causality, across the entire campaign. Thus a "grand perspective" of the entire campaign simply can't exist. Or put another way, when you shift perspective in the campaign, you the viewer are often going to be violating Einstein's laws and engaging in time travel.

I'm not sure that is such a problem. I think the player can violate Eistein's law without invalidating the "hard science" of the game setting, but I agree, it would provide a truer experience if the player didn't.

What if you chose some point in time, perhaps the origin of some crisis, or the final conclusion of it, and stipulated that all game play must take place within its light cone (i.e. all gameplay must be capable of either influencing or being influence by that particular instant in space time). I think that might work.

Take a look at Joe Haldeman's The Forever War if you want to see how relativistic effects can really screw up a war effort.

Of interest, I've designed a RPG inspired by STL travel concerns, Drift. It has a slightly different take than the crescendo structure you seem to be talking about. Drift is ultimately more personal than space opera, focusing on how the characters deal with time dilation along a circuit of worlds.

On another note, as far as integrating some FTL with STL travel, I wrote a wargame quite a while back about STL ships fighting with FTL weapons. As is, it can really only work with two observer frames, and doesn't quite solve all those technical problems, but that seems the best you can do without actually going through the math.

Much of the problem comes from the simplicity of relativity. It's very difficult to make a simplier approximation (that isn't classical), and when you do, you must be on the guard for the places where that approximation fails.

Actually, Tony, my comment wasn't so much along the lines of "Can't do that" as "Options 1 and 3 are the same deal". It just means you forget about firewalling knowledge between spacetime bubbles. So the brave scientist realized there's a way to find the entity. Then, regardless of where the brave warrior stands in spacetime, he can now make a weapon.

Or if that doesn't quite satisfy, say that information/effects can only occur automatically within the light-cone. But there will still be a bonus to reproducing the original event/knowledge outside the light-cone (since they're universally true, just undiscovered). Maybe the more times/places it occurs, the easier it gets to reproduce.

Ah, I understand now. Sorry about that. :) Relativity does kind of wreak havoc with the classic conception of a campaign. At the very least, instead of a campaign timeline, you've got a campaign spacetimeline.

Tony, be sure to check out Ben Lehman's pithy response at his new blog site to your challenge.

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This idea has been rolling around in my brain for a little while and I think I have a good, workable, solution.

1) This solution requires some sort of valuable, but limited narrative resource.
2) This solution requires some sort of galactic map (or at least a list of how far objects are from each other.)
3) We accept that some of the strategy of this game lies in manipulating the relativistic principles to your own narrative.

So take the warrior. He needs a weapon. A strategic player could, over the course of the game could "plant" the Scientist in history. Describing the thing he is working on, but not really saying what it is used for. The Player can then spend say 1 resource token to co-opt that scientist's invention to his ends (providing that enough narrative time has passed to allow it to reach him.)

Alternatively, the player who is caught off guard has the same warrior, but has not planted the scientist. He could spend 2 or 3 of those resource tokens to back peddle time and create the Scientist in order to justify the warriors creation of the weapon.

This encourages the players to lay ground work for the greater struggle, but gives them the flexibility to introduce "relativistic fiats" at a steep cost.

Count on JD to see how this relates to players working the system. :)

But you're exactly right. The way to make it work is to give the players a *reason* to make it work, and this looks like a good place to start.

I once had the idea of relating gaming styles to D&D classes and prestige classes. I eventually decided that I would have 6 levels of power gamer, 2 levels of Game Master, and then I would take the prestige class, "Enlightened Gamer."

I have seen the destruction that rampant powergaming brings, but it is still and intrinsic part of my gaming style.

If you want a person to behave a certain way then reward what you like and punish what you don't.

Punish everyone. They'll assume they deserve it.

Reward everyone. They'll assume they deserve it.

I just finished reading Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, and it brings up an interesting wrinkle in the relativistic game. In a relativistic war, your enemies weapons are coming at you essentially from your future. As you move towards their base of control, you meet weapons and technology that have had dozens or even hundreds of years to prepare for your arrival. Pleasant thought eh?

Anyway, to give a 10 cent tour of The Forever War, it's basically Starship Troopers, but the hero's five year tour subjective spans over 1000 year objectively. Makes shore leaves somewhat interesting...

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