Monday, December 15, 2014

The Difference Between Alpha and Beta Playtesting

Alpha playtesting is done in-house, by a group of people who do a lot of playtesting, and under a GM who knows the intent of the rules completely, preferably the designer. The playtesters are encouraged to do strange and exotic combos, max up rarely taken powers and skills, completely overbalance their characters, and generally be supreme rules lawyers, for the purpose of destroying the game. The GM has to make mid-game rules corrections as problems come to light to fix the game. Alpha testing should be performed for as many variations as possible. Rules changes are incorporated back into the playtest package ASAP to ensure a fast iterative cycle. In short, alpha tests the rules.

Beta playtests are performed exclusively out of house, with GMs and players unfamiliar with the game, as if they bought it cold at the store. Their purpose is to replicate the experience of a customer experiencing the product with no experience of the game at all, AND TO SEND FEEDBACK ON THAT EXPERIENCE BACK TO THE CREATIVE TEAM! (Emphasized for the 75 to 80% of beta testers who do not send a word back!) What they are testing is the way the rules are written - are they clear and concise? Do they confuse more than explain? Are they too long? Too short? Is play turgid? confusing? boring? fun? - etc. In short, Beta tests the expression of the rules.

Ideally, the package sent to the beta testers is fundamentally sound mechanically - that's the Alpha team's job - and problems with play should only occur due to poor choice of words. Unfortunately, the ideal is never completely reached, but it should be damned close.

As for the high proportion of Beta testers never sending back feedback, this is due to a lot of reasons. The best is that REAL LIFE just stepped in and flattened you. That happens, and there's nothing anyone can do. The worst reason is the tester didn't want to hurt the designer's feelings - Hey! That's why it was sent to you! I want that kind of hurt! I'd rather that hurt than the one where paying customers have problems!

A big problem is you can't just use the same good Beta Testers - the ones that give you good feedback - for every game. Beta testers get used to the way you write, and can guess what you mean. You don't want them to do that, as that shortcuts the whole reason for Beta testing! So a designer is always frantically searching for Beta testers, and praying that this one will be one of the few, the proud, the responders!

The Necklace - Characters Enter, Stage Left

We started playtesting The Necklace Saturday. This is an alpha playtest - we are testing the rules, not the expression of the rules. The session was mostly creating the company and characters, but we had time enough to play out a bit of game in character by the time we had finished.

We decided to make a troupe of actors traveling in a showboat around the Necklace, presenting shows to customers - and doing a bit of larceny on the side. The PC actors were a Carnivale actor/acrobat, a Javan acrobat/ dancer, a brace of Puck brothers, both magician/puppeteers, and a Rasi singer/actress.

The Impresario who ran the showboat was named Harcourt Fenton - yes, after Harcourt Fenton Mudd! Fenton entered into the actors' lounge and informed them that their last show of the night before had finally paid for their deuterium fuel and docking fees at Araminta Station, the multi-cultural Trading Post they had been trapped at for a long time. They would be finally be able to leave, and perform a show for a new audience, one which hadn't seen their entire repertory already. After that, they could maybe be paid some of what was owed them.

The actors bitched. Fenton's shows were overblown and intellectual, they said. The Macbeth they played in the cat costumes was the worst. Fenton defended himself, accusing the actors of being incapable of understanding his, Fenton's, literary allusions and references. They hissed and booed, and called him a pretentious hack. Hotly, Fenton demanded they put up or shut up! Show him a better script, he said, and he would produce the play.

The two puppeteer brothers produced a script they had written. It was a comedy, and showed the lives of a troupe of poorly and irregularly played actors - with, coincidentally, the same names as they bore - forced to work under the whip of an overly-intellectual and pretentious windbag of an impresario, who made them play Macbeth dressed as cats.

Fenton took the play and scanned through it. At first he derided the script as entirely lacking such vital elements as an actual plot, but it really was very funny, so he decided to cast the play. Of course, he cast it with none of the actors playing themselves, as he thought them all wrong for the parts, and besides, he thought the audience would savor the meta humor inherent in the situation.

The actors told him where he could stick his meta humor, as the audience would just think it stupid. Fenton defended his decision, claiming that the audience were all fatuous baboons who wouldn't know real Art if it shat on their heads, but confronted with something they couldn't understand, would assign their confusion to Art, and think it deep and philosophical, and not just a comedy.

The actors agreed that the audience were indeed a bunch of baboons who wouldn't know Art if it shat on their heads, but held the position that they should therefore not bother presenting them with any actual art at all so tenaciously that Fenton eventually backed down, and allowed them to play themselves, though at their insistence, and on their head be it! He had gone to acting school, unlike this gang of ruffians, and knew what he was doing.

After he left, the actors began to plan a fond farewell mugging of the casino at the trading post - said plans consisting of "Hey! Let's rob the casino before we leave!" "Yeah! Awesome!"

End Act One, Scene One. Curtain falls.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Setting Generation for The Necklace

Here's the example generated play area for The Necklace. Each of these setting elements are further randomly defined as follows:

Example of a Further Description - Asteroid (45)

Roll 15 - Rasi Settlement on Ruins With Builder Gravitics
(Since this Asteroid has Builder Gravitics, there is a River loop arching up and back to the asteroid)
Roll Asteroid Size - 15 - Medium
Roll Asteroid Composition - 11 - Carbonaceous Chondrite
Roll Asteroid Vegetation - 10 - Jungle
Now we need to define the Rasi Settlement. Switch to the Rasi Settlement table.
Roll Settlement Size - 16 - Medium City
Roll Facility 1 - 5 - Deuterium Fuel Tanks
Roll Facility 2 - 18 - Outworlder Bank
Roll Facility 3 - 3 - Airship Yard
Roll Cultural Oddities: Interpersonal - 3 - Casual Adultery
Roll Cultural Oddities: Fashion - 11 - Body Modifications
Let’s give this Rasi city a name - Manaus, a good Brazilian name.
Let’s also define our starting structure! We’ll choose one from the list that makes sense as a starting point:

Example of a Further Description - Structure 0

Choice from Freestanding Structures - Multi-Cultural Trading Post
Roll Size - 15 - Medium
Roll Culture 1 - 5 - Rasi
Roll Culture 2 - 14 - Javan
Roll Culture 3 - 12 - Puck
Roll for Leisure and Culture 1 - 15 - Gambling
Roll for Leisure and Culture 2 - 7 - Nightclub
Roll for Practicalities 1 - 5 - Airship Repair Yard
Roll for Practicalities 2 - 4 - Deuterium Production

Thursday, December 11, 2014

More on The Necklace - Going Nomad

Altisherpas do not live in towns. They live in their city, THE city, built on, in, from, and around their Slowboat Achilles. When Altisherpas get their wanderlust on, which happens every so often, they find a congenial group that feels the same way, and go nomad - they borrow, buy, or lease an airship and head out into the Necklace. There, they find a place to settle for a while - a "camp" - and begin to work it; sowing food crops that will self seed and flourish in the wild, introducing animals they feel would benefit the place, tinkering a bit with genetics, shaping the land, experimenting with the native flora and fauna, and generally changing the place they have settled. After a while, when they agree they have finished, they move on to someplace else, or if they would rather, return to the city.

Altisherpan Outposts

Sometimes an Altisherpan company or institute of learning will sponsor an outpost, where a number of scientists and techs will observe something of interest for long periods of time. The outposts are airships fixed up with labs and stasis storage for specimens, so that when they are done, they can fly back to the city and leave little trace. Sometimes, for exceedingly interesting subjects, the outpost will be semi-permanent, a modified cargo container will house the labs, and the scientists will rotate in and out as required.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Welcome to Detroit Rock City, Mofos!

Ran another session of my 1980s ska band High Strung campaign Saturday. The band is hurting for certain! John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, the geezer sax player, caught the clap from a groupie, because he stopped wearing condoms when his bandmates kept poking holes in them. He's still out of a job and living in the band's practice space. Rusty Trombone has quietly gotten hooked on booze, and is sliding down the slippery slope. The band finally got a gig at the best club in Detroit, and just when they started to play, there was a loud BANG! and the lights went out. A transformer blew out. This being Detroit in the 80s, there were shots in the dark club, people got trampled, and a couple people got shivved. Lief and Wanda, guitarist and bass player, and both vocalists, grabbed their instruments and ran out the back. Doc Brown, the trumpet player, and John packed their instruments and headed off to loot some new instruments in the riot that was sure to - and did - follow. Each nabbed a new bit of brass - and lucky they did! Rusty, the drummer, also went out to loot, but left his drum kit, which like all instruments, he was responsible for. The roadies left it on stage when they packed up the amps and mics, which were their responsibility. Rusty went by a liquor store and, figuring a drink would only make the looting more fun, smashed the window and crawled inside, where the cops found him, drunk and resisting arrest. Someone stole his drum kit, of course. The band had to come up with his bail, so they sold their old instruments, flushed out savings, and generally called in favors to get the cash. When they got him out, they found out his kit had been stolen, so it was back to the junkyard! They found a cracked high hat , some drum hardware, and an old piano stool he could use as a throne. Rusty used his Repair skill to cobble a bass and snare out of the hardware and some large diameter pvc pipe. Hope is getting hard to come by!

Working on The Necklace - Map Generation

Klax and I worked a lot more on the Necklace last night, on setting generation tables. We came up with a sweet method to generate maps of the local area. Set a center point in the middle of apiece of paper. This is most likely a settlement of some kind, but could be anything - a wreck, an asteroid, some godforsaken mat on the River, whatever. It's Where You Are Now. Roll on the main table, take the result - say Rock in the River, meaning an asteroid that has been lodged in the river, making an island - and then roll 1d100. This tells you how far away from the center it is. Go along the river, up or downstream, and put in the a symbol for the rock and a note "Rock" and the distance, like "Rock (54)". Roll again and do the same thing - say "Jungle Ball (27)". Put a symbol for the Jungle Ball approximately 26 units away from the center, away from the River, floating in air. Continue until your local area map fills up to your satisfaction.

Now for each setting element, roll on the proper sub table. So, for "Rock (54)", roll on the Rock in the River table. You roll up a result of "Carnivale Settlement", then the size of the rock (large) the composition of the rock (Nickel-Iron), and the vegetation (forest). For settlements, there is a further sub-table appropriate to the culture (Carnivale) you can roll on to define things further. Say it turns out to be a Large Carnivale town, with a fishing fleet, river port, and mine. There's a cultural sub-table you can use to create the specific Carnivale culture - because Carnivale tech level is so low, each town or village can be wildly different from its neighbors.

The distances you roll are undefined, and you can define them. Travel time is a good way to define things, say the number of hours it takes to get there, and that would depend greatly on the method you use to travel. A fusion jet airship travels a lot faster than a riverboat, which travels a lot faster than a dugout canoe. You could also define the units as kilometers, or days of travel, or whatever. It's all relative.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Tech Level 9 Technology

An essay Albert Bailey wrote on StarCluster Tech Level 9 Technology.

There are a number of technologies associated with Tech Level 9, notably protium fusion, antimatter production and use, and A-grav. While these may sound like unrelated technologies, they are all based on the same principle: the control of weak interaction forces. Prior to TL9, the electromagnetic force was the only force truly under human command.

With control of the weak interaction force, it became feasible to fuse two protons into a deuteron. This meant that it was no longer necessary to sift out the small fraction of deuterium contained in natural hydrogen; it could be created at will. This drastically dropped the price of deuterium to 1-10% of its previous cost. This has boosted fusion back to the main energy source in most location, though solar energy is still competitive in certain situations. Conversion of protium to deuterium produces only a small amount of energy (by nuclear standards) and with thermal and neutrino losses, little or no useful power is produced by the operation. However, the resultant deuterium can be efficiently fused into helium, releasing large amounts of energy. Efficient deuterium production plants tend to be large, so most fusion-based spacecraft use deuterium as fuel and do not contain protium to deuterium converters. There are, however, a few exploration vessels that do carry p-d converters, allowing refueling from any locally available hydrogen source.

Isotopic field generation, commonly known as "A-grav" is probably the most ubiquitous of the weak force technologies. Despite its common name, it actually is due to a weak-force field that pulls "up" quarks in one direction and "down" quarks in the other direction. Since protons consist of two "up" quarks and one "down" quark while neutrons consist of one "up" quark and two "down" quarks, protons and neutrons will be pulled in opposite directions. The direction an object will be pushed or pulled depends on the relative concentrations of protons and neutrons in the body. Humans, being mostly water, are proton rich. Objects of heavier atomic number, such as iron, are neutron-rich. Planetary bodies may be either. While isotopic field generators are now commonly used for local levitation and for planet-to-orbit transfers, care is required: an isotopic polarity that is repulsive over one surface, such as water, may prove attractive over areas containing metal ores. These attraction differences are generally also believed to account for the sickness experienced by most species subjected to strong isotopic fields. The most common explanation given is that sodium and chlorine are both repelled by a field tuned to attract proton-rich materials, but that this is the actual cause of "a-grav sickness" has not been conclusively demonstrated. The short-range "a-grav" fields commonly used to make surfaces repulsive or attractive actually use combined electroweak forces which either attract or repel both proton-rich and ferromagnetic materials. Most common materials are either one or the other, so they are generally quite effective. However, some materials are not, and will be attracted to what is commonly regarded as a repulsive field; as such, occasional polarity reversal is needed to properly clean these materials. For antimatter storage, very strong pure short-range weak field generation is used; both anti-hydrogen and anti-methane are proton-rich. The occasional proposal to use anti-helium is nonsense.

In addition to providing for its storage, weak field technologies have also provided for the efficient generation of antimatter. Previously, proton-antiproton generation was a somewhat hit-and-miss proposition produced by colliding particles together, normally electrons and positrons, also producing a variety of undesired mesons. However, with the application of sufficiently strong and properly tuned combination of electro-weak fields, protons and antiprotons pairs can be directly boiled from vacuum. This does, of course, require significant amounts of energy. Despite the all too common talk, antimatter is not an energy source, merely a very efficient energy storage mechanism.

All the weak force technologies require weakly interactive massive particles (WIMPs) for operation. WIMP concentrations and current flows differ profoundly across the Cluster, making WIMP collection and interstellar transport one of the most important parts of interstellar trade. Systems that would otherwise be unimportant backwaters have become wealthy due to the WIMP currents present. Some extra-stellar regions have been proposed for WIMP collection; however, the transport times and costs currently make this uneconomical.