Captain on the bridge — Part 2

You’re a powerful warrior battling a huge fire-breathing dragon. You swing your great sword with all your might! Except…, um…, it’s not a great sword. It’s a little lump of plastic sitting on your desk: a computer mouse.

When you play a medieval fantasy game on a computer, the computer screen is a window into a fantasy world. The computer gives you the sights and sounds of a fantasy world, and as long as you’re looking at the screen you can be totally immersed. That’s fine if you have a big screen. Sort of. There’s still the fact that you’re typing on a keyboard or moving a computer mouse, which is not exactly the same as swinging a sword or waving a wand.

But here’s the thing about spaceship bridge simulation games: using a computer can be part of the game. Not only is it okay for the navigation officer to use a computer to plot the ship’s course, it’s what you would expect. You can quibble about what kind of peripherals and user interfaces a computer of the future might have, but it’s certainly possible to visualize a setting where the appearance (and maybe even the processing power) of computers hasn’t changed a lot but the propulsion and other systems of the ship are advanced enough to allow interstellar travel. Using computers adds to the ambience of the game rather than detracting from it as it might in a medieval fantasy game.

In Part 1 of this series I wrote about a tabletop game called Space Cadets where each player has a station on the bridge of a starship. It’s a great game, but the game mechanics are limited by the fact that players have to manually keep track of everything. What happens if you have a computer for each station? Then you have something that can look a lot like what you see in Star Trek and other space-themed movies and TV shows:

“Captain,” the science officer says, looking up from her computer screen, “sensors show an unknow vessel rapidly approaching.” The main screen shows an image of the approaching ship.

“Yellow alert,” the captain says. “Shields up. Comm, open a channel.”

“Aye,” the tactical officer and communications officer say, and use their station’s computers to follow the orders.

“Hailing on all standard frequencies,” the comm officer says. A moment later he says “No response.”

“The unknown ship’s weapons are charged,” the science officer says. “It’s preparing to fire.”

“Stand by to return fire,” the captain says.

Okay, I’m not going to get a job as a screenwriter for the next Star Trek movie, but the point is that with the right programs and a group of players who get into roleplaying you can get gameplay that’s a lot like a TV show or movie. The science officer is not pretending to do what a real science officer might do, she is doing what a real science officer might do. Granted, the data on her screen is fictitious, but it’s well within the capabilities of current computer games to produce very convincing data and displays.

Is there a game that does that? A game where each station has its own computer with appropriate data displays? Yes, there is. It’s called Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator, and it’s a great game. There is a comm station, a navigation station, a weapons station, and an engineering station. There’s also a main screen that can show an image of space in front of the ship or a map of part of the galaxy.

Each player has a job to do, and each player uses their computer to do their job, just like crew members do on the “real” spaceships in the movies.

“But wait,” you say, “how can I feel like I’m on a spaceship when I’m sitting in my family room that looks nothing like the bridge of a spaceship?”

That’s a good question. The answer is that when you get into the game, what’s important is what’s on the screens and not what kind of furniture is in the room or what picture is hanging on the wall. You could say a similar thing about a fantasy game, but even a family room with a picture of Grandpa Joe and Grandma Josephine hanging on the wall can feel like a spaceship bridge if it has computers in it and you’re paying attention to the screens. Sure, you could put some candles in a room and a sword on the wall and call it a castle, but you’d still have all those computers in the room, that look nothing like the things you find in a castle.

If I had to choose between a family room with computers and programs that have a fun and “realistic” game running on them and a room that looks like a spaceship bridge but has no functioning computers, I will take the family room, no matter how good the bridge looks. In fact, a few years ago my family went to the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas just before it closed down. They had a reconstruction of the Next Generation bridge there, and I got a picture of myself sitting in the captain’s chair. I like the picture, and it was fun to be on the bridge, but after standing there and looking at it for a few minutes there’s nothing to do. I’m not even sure where the picture is now.

Isn’t there a way to get the best of both worlds? To have a great-looking bridge that has computers? Yes, there is, but it isn’t cheap. Some people make a room in their house into a bridge, or make a bridge that can be put up or taken down like a movie set. I think there are more people who want to do that, or have started doing it, than have actually done it, but at least one person has done a great job. There’s a link to a video of a great spaceship bridge at the end of this article.

What about virtual reality (VR)? If you really want to be surrounded by a spaceship, why not go with VR? First, that means that everything on the bridge has to have a 3D model and has to be included in the program, which means spending more time and money. A lot more. Game companies are fine with that, but what if I want to make my own games?

VR is great for vision. (At least, I think it is. I haven’t really had a chance to try it out other than a couple of minor demonstrations with Google Cardboard.) It’s probably great for sound as well. But what about actions?

A couple of weeks ago I was looking at the schedule for talks at GDC and noticed that there was a talk about a Star Trek bridge simulation game that Ubisoft is making. I had no idea there was a game like that in the works and at first I was really excited about it. But then I realized that I would have to spend $600 to $800 on a VR headset and controllers, and so would anyone that I wanted to play with. That’s a fair amount of money to spend on games, but obviously it would open up possibilities for lots of other games.

But then I noticed one of the station consoles in the trailer. It was a pretty simple console, with a few sliders on it, and I realized that because of the limitations of the VR controllers, there are limited options for the console. Sliders. Woo hoo.

I am still interested in the Ubisoft game, and I might buy it when it comes out. But when I’m a member of a starship bridge crew, I want to do more than drag a few sliders around while I watch a VR movie. I want to plot firing solutions and decrypt messages and write programs and research mysterious aliens and figure out how to stop the engine core from exploding and vaporizing the entire ship. And I don’t think I can do all of that with a few sliders.

One place where VR could really shine in my game is for away missions. I can totally see crew members putting on VR helmets that let them go down to a planet’s surface and explore on foot or in simple vehicles. Using VR controllers to fire laser beams at a ginormous alien creature that was about to swallow half a dozen innocent bystanders would be a blast. But for the bridge, I want computers that can be used in the usual way, not just with VR controllers.

In short, I want a starship bridge in my basement. I want lots of screens and computer-controlled lights and sounds, and I want the computers to be interesting and useful in a variety of ways, like computers are in real life. It won’t be easy to build the starship bridge and write the software, but with a modular, incremental approach i think it can be done, and I think it will be a whole lot of fun along the way. The journey is the reward.

There’s one other thing I want for my bridge simulation game: great stories. I guess I forget to mention that little detail. I don’t know what Ubisoft has in store for its new spaceship bridge game, but stories are definitely not a strong point for Space Cadets or Artemis.

Stories in bridge simulation games will be the topic of my next post in this series.

Non-compensated links:
Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulation
The Starship Bridge Simulation Network
Spaceship bridge at Kansas City Maker Faire

Compensated links:
Here’s a link to a great book on that tells all about how you can build a cool starship bridge in your basement:
Oops, I guess there aren’t any books like that. Maybe some day I’ll write one…

Captain on the bridge — Part 1

A week or so ago I wrote about my bucket list, or at least one item on my bucket list. This week I’m writing about a dream. The dream is to walk on to the bridge of starship and take command. Just like the captains in Star Trek. I would lead the crew on all sorts of adventures: fascinating exploration missions, daring military raids, and heroic rescue missions. I would also (unlike the Star Trek captains, as far as I know) sometimes take the ship out and roam the galaxy just for fun.

Alas, my dream is unlikely to be fulfilled. There are real spaceships, but my chance of going on one of them is on the wrong side of .00000000000001. To put it bluntly, there is no chance at all that’s going to happen. Even if I did take command of the next version of the space shuttle (did I mention that the chances of that happening are ridiculously small?), no one in my lifetime will go to another star system, let alone going beyond Mars. Even going to Mars in the next twenty or thirty years is a long shot.

So what’s an aspiring starship captain to do? Content himself or herself with watching Captain Jameway or Commander Sisko or Captain Archer? Or maybe channel his or her inner child and watch Star Trek inside a suitably decorated refrigerator box? Fun, perhaps, but much too passive for someone who wants to take command and “boldly go where no one has gone before”.

Well, there are some options: games. After all, where books and movies are passive, games are active. And there are some bridge simulation games where players are the bridge crew of a starship.

A week or two ago I played a game called Space Cadets. I actually bought it a year or so ago, but didn’t get around to playing it until recently.

It’s a fun game. As with other bridge simulation games, there are various stations: captain, engineer, weapons, damage control, shields, sensors, jump drive, tractor beam, and helm. Each station has its own mini game. My favorite mini game is the weapons game, which is more or less a mini tabletop shuffleboard game where you slide a wooden disk along a track to see how much damage a torpedo does. It’s a nice risk-reward tradeoff game: you can play it safe and be almost certain you’ll do some damage, or you can gamble and go for a lot of damage with a big chance that you’ll do no damage at all.

All of the mini games are timed, which adds an element of tension, although when I played there were some games that didn’t take much time. Maybe that’s because the engineer (me) didn’t do a good enough job getting power to the other stations. That meant they didn’t have enough power to do things that take more time.

If each of the bridge officers is in her or his own little world, desperately trying to beat the clock and get a sensor lock or get a torpedo loaded, you might have some tension, but to get real excitement you need the players yelling and screaming at each other, and to get that you need connections between stations. In Space Cadets, the engineering station is connected to all of the other stations because the engineer determines how much power each of the other stations receives. The sensors station is connected to the weapons station because torpedoes will do more damage if there is a sensor lock on the target. And if a core breach is imminent, then all of the players have to work together to prevent it while also doing their regular jobs.

The game I played never got to the core breach level, and there wasn’t any actual yelling and screaming, but the connections between stations definitely played an important role. That shows good design of a bridge simulation game.

Have I found my wish-fulfillment game that lets me command a starship? Not yet. Space Cadets is fun to play and is a great game, but it’s not the ultimate starship captain experience.

One issue that I have with it is that some parts of the game can become tedious. I kept thinking “I could write a program to keep track of this”. There is a mobile app for the timer, which is good, but I kept wanting the app to do more, and it doesn’t. Nor should it, really. Computerizing more of the game could make some things less tedious, and it would allow more complicated rules, but it would also change the game a lot and it would lose its party game flavor. I’ll keep Space Cadets, but I’ll also keep looking for my ultimate game.

When we played Space Cadets, we set the stations out on our kitchen counter. The counter is black with lighter flecks in it and it sort of looks spacey. But the rest of the room is just a kitchen and doesn’t look like a space ship at all, even if it does have stainless steel appliances. A living room or a family room wouldn’t be any better. That’s not a problem if you just want to play a game for a couple of hours. But is it possible to get something more immersive? More on that in a later post. (Hint: I’m not talking about VR.)

In the mean time I’ll get out my crayons and paints and aluminum foil and start decorating that refrigerator box.

Compensated links to
Space Cadets
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Writing and playing adventures

What’s on your bucket list? Going sky diving? Traveling to Europe, or Australia, or Africa? Climbing Mount Everest? Going to Mars, or to the moon, or at least going into space? Yesterday I listened to a podcast (Naked Astronomy) that talked about colonizing Mars and how many people would be there by 2024 (Elon Musk’s goal) or 2030 or 2050. The same podcast episode also talked about space tourism and how you could spend a few million dollars for a few minutes in space. All you need is money. I suppose that’s true for a lot of things on a lot of people’s bucket lists.

I wish my bucket list was that simple.

Maybe that makes it sound like money isn’t an issue for me and that I have piles of the stuff hidden under my mattress or stashed away in a secret Swiss bank account. I don’t. Sometimes I wish I had, but when I really think about it I realize that money won’t buy the thing that’s at the top of my bucket list: writing and playing adventures.

When I say that writing and playing adventures is at the top of my bucket list I don’t mean that it’s my most important goal in my life. And I don’t mean that it’s something that would happen at some well-defined moment, like reaching the summit of Mount Everest. It’s an ability that I want to acquire.

You might agree that the writing part is not easy and is not something that money could buy, but surely there are plenty of opportunities to play adventures, without even spending money. Not really. I’m hard to please. Out of the millions of games that are on the App Store and in Google Play, I have only found a few that I’ve played more than two or three times.

As for tabletop role-playing games, I have played in various campaigns and adventures that I liked. I’m even playing in a good campaign now, although it’s kind of an on-again, off-again thing.

If I really put time and energy into it I could find some good adventures to play in, especially since it’s now possible to play role-playing games over the Internet with virtual tabletop software. But even though playing adventures is part of my top bucket list item, it’s not the most important part. Writing is the most important part. Making adventures. Creating them.

I have written a few adventures that I liked reasonably well. I’ve started writing a whole lot more, more than I like to think about. But they’ve all fallen short of what I expect from a good adventure.

What makes a good adventure? I’m glad you asked.

First of all a good adventure has decisions. That’s what separates games, and role-playing games in particular, from books and movies.

Playing a good adventure makes a good story. The Angry GM’s definition of an adventure is “the smallest segment of a role-playing game that can be considered a complete and satisfying story.” Of course, that raises the question of what makes a good story, and that’s a big question.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading about what makes stories work. It’s a fascinating and difficult topic in its own right, but what makes it even more fascinating and difficult for me is how to take the things that I read and learn about stories and relate them to adventures.

One of the most important things to get right in stories is the characters. Kendall Haven, emphasizes that in his book Story Smart. In another book, Story Sense, Paul Lucey advises screenwriters to write simple stories about complex characters. He’s talking about movies, as opposed to novels or other forms of storytelling, but I consider it to be excellent general-purpose advice. If only I could do it.

Creating good characters in role-playing adventures can be tricky because often combat plays a big part in such adventures and combat often means that the character I worked so hard to create is killed in battle at the end of the adventure.

Speaking of combat, for some players that’s the be-all and end-all of role-playing games. I like having a good battle or two in an adventure, especially if there are interesting tactical decisions to make, but combat is less important to me than other aspects of adventures.

I love mysteries (as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog) so for me a mystery can make a great adventure. Or a mystery make an interesting subplot or component of an adventure. I suppose I could have been less specific and said “puzzles”, but “mysteries” sounds a lot better. One reason is because a mystery almost always means there are story elements involved: setting, characters, and plot, whereas a puzzle might have nothing to do with a story.

Whether it’s a “mystery” or a “puzzle” there’s one essential ingredient: clues. Saying that something is a mystery or a puzzle means that there’s unknown information, and that by itself is as likely to be frustrating as it is to be interesting or entertaining. But throw in some intriguing clues and you’ve got me hooked. That’s one of the reasons why I like debugging computer programs: the challenge of recognizing the clues and using them to track down and fix bugs.

One of my big gripes with traps in adventures is when there aren’t any clues about the trap. You either walk into it or you don’t. If you walk into a trap with no clues you get annoyed and frustrated and it detracts from the adventure. If you don’t walk into it you don’t know it exists and it doesn’t add to the adventure. On the other hand, if there are clues about the trap, and you put them together and figure out the trap, then you get a sense of accomplishment that adds a lot to the adventure.

Last and least are props and scenery. I say “least” because they are definitely secondary to decisions, characters and other story elements, clues, and even battles. And some people will argue that good verbal descriptions are as good as pictures. And there’s evidence for that in the fact that books are still popular even though there are movies and other visual and audio forms of entertainment.

But a good map can add a lot to an adventure. So can a hand-written poem or riddle on a scorched piece of parchment paper. Or a pouch of gems.

Some people like to improvise adventures and can do it well. But those improvised adventures are not likely to have maps and pictures and props so they aren’t as good as they could be.

So, I don’t need ten million dollars to cross off the top item on my bucket list. I just need adventures with interesting decisions, complex characters, intriguing clues, a battle or two, and some maps and props. Easy, right? I wish.

Compensated links to
Story Sense by Paul Lucey
Story Smart by Kendall Haven

About the Angry GM
Here’s a (non-compensated) link to the Angry GM’s article about what adventures are. Keep in mind that “Angry” means “swears a lot”. A lot of the swear words have been partially replaced with comic-style punctuation marks. Even so, I would like the site a lot better if it weren’t so angry. You have been warned.
The Angry GM’s article about what adventures are

What makes a good quest?

Many RPGs (role-playing games), especially computer RPGs, emphasize quests. In fact, one computer game, EverQuest, even has “quest” in its name. Often completing quests is one of the main ways to for characters to advance. There are other ways to advance, but often the other ways are repetitive and tedious and amount to little more than wandering around and killing whatever monsters the character encounters. The term used to refer to that kind of repetitive and tedious activity is “grinding”.

Quests are not supposed to be repetitive and tedious, but unfortunately they often are, and they end up just being another kind of grind: kill 10 goblins, kill 10 gnolls, kill 10 orcs, etc. True, quests usually have some kind of story, but reading the stories isn’t necessary for completing the quests, so they are often ignored. Rather than reading a quest story and looking for clues in the game world, players often search the Web for information about the quest, leaving a beautiful, immersive game world for a third-party web site cluttered with advertisements.

Is there a way to make quests more interesting and fun? I like to think so. But before I get into that, I’m going to define the target by looking at what makes a good quest.

A good quest system provides variety: a variety of quests and (perhaps more importantly) a variety of ways to achieve quests. That means that there are interesting decisions for the player to make. I’m not talking about decisions like “Should I use my +5 axe of decapitation or my +5 sword of walloping?” I’m talking about “Do I kill the guard, disable it, bribe it, sneak past it, or try to find another way in?” Do I try to cross the mountain pass in a blizzard or go through the mines that are full of monsters. (Okay, that’s not my idea, but it is my idea of an interesting decision.)

Good quests are challenging. That means that failure is possible, but there’s a big difference between “challenging” and “hard”. A quest can be hard to complete because it requires the player to make more than one attempt, but if each attempt is the same except for the outcome of simulated die rolls, then the quest isn’t challenging, it’s just hard. It’s a grind. With a challenging quest, there might be only one attempt. That means that failure is that much more painful but success is that much more sweet.

Adding story elements to quests is a way to make quests better. A player won’t care about a character that he or she sees once when getting the quest and again when completing the quest, especially when no information about that character is necessary for the quest. On the other hand if a player character interacts a character from time to time, and hears stories and rumors about that character, and needs information about the character to complete the quest, then it’s a different story. The player will pay more attention to the character and is more likely to care about what happens to the character. Characters are one story element that can make quests better. Other story elements that can make quests better are pacing, timing, drama, and narrative tension.

Good quests draw players deeper into the game world instead of encouraging them to go on a scavenger hunt on the Web. And, completing a quest makes a difference in the world, even if it’s a small one. A change that lasts longer than the respawn timer of the quest monsters.

Is it possible to make good quests? Of course. Then why aren’t there good quests in EverQuest? There are some good ones, but a lot of them are so-so or ho-hum because of the time and expense that creating good quests requires.

Is it possible to reduce the time and expense required to make good quests? Stay tuned…

My New MUD

MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon.  I’ve heard of people say that the D stands for Dimension instead of Dungeon, but I’m going with Dungeon, in spite of the fact that my first MUD isn’t a dungeon.

One of the great things about making a text-based MUD is that it lets me do all kinds of things with world-building that would be pretty much impossible if I had to have 3d (or even 2d) graphics for everything.  I’m fascinated with the idea of generating stories and emergent stories, and MUDs are a perfect platform for working with stories in that way.

I’m using Evennia to make my MUD.  It uses Python, which is my favorite programming language.  It’s powerful, well-designed, well-documented, and has a good community.