To my tastes, science fiction in RPGs and television is too often about adventure and excitement. The scifi that grabs me, though, is about ideas and their impact on life and society and thought. Joshua A. C. Newman‘s RPG Shock: Social Science Fiction is built on this very premise. I tried it out with a couple of people I’d never played with, and who hadn’t had any experience with games as Forge-y as this. The experience was two-sided: fun and cerebral on the one hand, heavy and somewhat disconnected on the other.
Your gaming group builds a scifi setting around a shock — something radically different from our world. You also create some issues that are social and personal points of interest that you want to explore. Our shock was “AI personalities” and the issues were “mortality”, “corporeality”, and “the value of artificial life”. Then you down ideas and world details, called Minutiae in the game’s lingo, related to the shock and the issues.
This was the really fun part for us. The game book suggests that this phase will probably take 15 minutes or so, but we spent at least an hour at it. The ideas were just way too much fun and reminded me of the kind of science fiction stories that I like: wild, imaginative, speculative, and even fun. Since the mechanics of the game are highly abstract, you don’t have to worry if your ideas fit into the game mechanics. Whatever you can think up, the game supports it.
In our world, the AIs had to inhabit biological bodies, but they could inhabit a lot of them as a sort of hive mind. We also toyed around with the idea that some AIs “bodies” could actually be a lot of bodies, and losing one would be the same as losing a body part to a regular human, but we couldn’t fit that into the game. We toyed around with a lot of ideas that we might want to explore and I was particularly fond of how AIs could develop mental health problems: How does their physical experience relate to their experience of the world?Would the trauma of one body transfer to other bodies and personalities? How would a human-like AI, with an awful lot of computing power, stay sane and not get lost in its thoughts and develop depression? (My own experience of depression involved thinking way too much.)
The intersection of a shock and some related issues works wonderfully and inspired us to cook up a lot of interesting ideas — probably enough for a campaign, to be honest. Our ideas started getting humorous, as well, which turned out to be a good thing. I’ve seen and read an awful lot of dull, serious-minded science fiction that mistakes greyness for intelligence; but some brilliant authors (Philip K. Dick and Stanisław Lem, to pick just two) are both intelligent and fun.
Shock: is built for one shots. If you like the world, you can return to it, but the basic unit of the story is one session, and you can resolve a lot of stuff in one session. The good side is that the stories are compact, meaningful, and self-contained. You don’t have to think about the needs of the campaign or whether and how this one outré story might impact your bigger dreams and plans — just play and see what happens! My protagonist character was an AI, formerly a part of a military squad hive mind AI, but all the others had died and my character become a prophet of sorts. He actually wanted to be mortal (instead of immortal as AIs are), and his goal was to build an afterlife for AIs. His antagonist (every protagonist gets one, played by another player) was the Catholic Church. I named my dude Van Damme 6, and he was a sort of televangelist and collected money to further his cause. One of the game mechanical features of the protagonists are Links, which are important people, organisations, and philosophies — if you’re about to fail in a conflict, you can risk one of the Links and throw dice again, and if you fail, a risked Link will be transformed forever. Van Damme 6’s Links were his creator/coder DayZ and Cartesian Dualism — he was a firm believer in the duality of mind and body. We had some great in-character debates on morality and the function of afterlife (none of which I believed in myself), and I really wanted to risk that Cartesian Dualism, but I always prevailed and nothing major happened to it.
But Van Damme 6 didn’t wait just wait for an official sanction on the afterlife (the other protagonists wanted official marriage rights and rights for AIs to decide for their own bodies) — he also collaborated with DayZ to create that afterlife. And at the end of the game, he wanted to be the first AI to upload his personality to an afterlife, but the Catholic Church corrupted the transfer. DayZ escaped with the container. As a result, the authors and the audience (that’s us, the players) knew that a clandestine AI afterlife had been created, but probably with a corrupted tyrant at its head.
So the ideas that we created were, for me, really fun and exciting and surprising. I’d never have thought that I’d get to play out such an outré story line in such a short time. But there’s a duller side to the experience as well. You see, I wasn’t the only one playing, and the reason I’m only recounting my own character here is because there was so much going on that it was difficult to keep up and I have a hard time remember the other players’ stuff. There were a lot of cool scifi ideas, three different protagonists each with their own story line, an antagonist for each, and the resolution mechanics of the game.
The mechanics are abstract and potentially very cool, but we found it hard to wrap our heads around them. First of all, in addition to all the ideas about the world, you also need to come up with Praxis, that is, the way things are done in this world. You might think of it as attributes or skills, but Praxis is composed of two pairs of opposite qualities — to use an example from the rule book, Violence/Compassion and Buying/Stealing. We picked Reason/Compassion and Diplomacy & Bureaucracy / Radicalism. The good side about this mechanic is that the game doesn’t limit your options: it can accommodate both alien-blasting adventuring and human/AI love stories. The trickier side is that you need to learn what works and what doesn’t, and the rule book doesn’t really help you with it. As such, creating and playing a Praxis is kind of like playtesting a game. It probably suits some people better than others. For us, it added to the cognitive load. I’m willing to try the game again, but just so you know, it can be a handful. The mechanic shows promise and the internet probably offers guidance (I’d be grateful for any links!).
The one thing about Shock: that I don’t much like is the scene structure, and I’m not sure if it’s just a matter of learning to play the game or if the game just doesn’t suit my tastes (or if the game wasn’t suited for us as a group). The session is divided into scenes, and in each scene, there’s one conflict — very basic Forge game design from the 00s. There’s two or three, maybe four scenes per character per story (depending on how the player of the antagonist uses their mechanical resources), and you drive each scene towards conflict, in which you need to spell out non-exclusive intents for both parties.
The small number of scenes feels limiting. It’s entirely possible that the protagonist’s story is over in two scenes. As an idea, that just seems off and wrong. I don’t know how it would work in practice.
The conflict resolution rules might be really good, though. I like how both parties have intents, and both of them might fail or succeed. The process might take the story to highly unexpected directions that I never could have dreamt up just by myself, as was the case with Van Damme 6. But in this first session, it all added to the cognitive load. Maybe it was the all the trying to keep up with all the nifty ideas, various characters and details, separate story lines, and new mechanics meant that our conflicts and scenes drifted towards the very macro and abstract, and we had trouble keeping the story at the characters’ level. The mechanics seemed to create a nifty structure for a story, but we couldn’t quite get into the story. Like I said, I’m not sure if it’s because of our inexperience with the system or because of the features of the system or because the system didn’t suit our collective playing style.
Just writing about the game takes quite a lot. On the one hand, I’m quite happy for the intensely cerebral experience. On the other, I’d like to feel like I’m playing in a story, not just collectively fleshing out the rough outlines for a short story. But it might also be an acquired taste. I’m willing to give the game another try — hell, it can accommodate questions of AI polyamory and Cartesian Dualism! — and I’ll be trawling the internet for more info. Any hints and suggestions are welcome!