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Design Retrospective: Shadows Over Sol

Welcome to the latest post in our weekly design series, wherein I talk about the design of one of our upcoming games or review the design of one of our past games. The goal of these posts is to have a frank discussion on game design, both what works and what doesn't.

In this particular post I want to take a look back at the second roleplaying game we published as Tab Creations LLC, and our most popular game line, Shadows Over Sol. It describes itself as a science fiction horror game, and I want to examine not only the mechanics, but how it approaches each of those genres.

Science Fiction and Horror

So let's begin with genre. Shadows Over Sol is a hard sci-fi game set in our own solar system some 200 years in the future. To clarify, when I say "hard sci-fi," I mean the tech in the game doesn't wantonly break any known rules of physics. And in fact, the technological progression in Shadows Over Sol is fairly conservative compared to a number of other games on the market.

I feel it's safe to say that it lives up to its sci-fi brand, particularly if you're interested in more realistic science fiction in the vein of The Expanse, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, Europa Report or even 2001: A Space Odyssey.

On the other hand, one of the most common criticisms we get of Shadows Over Sol is that it doesn't match what some people expect when they hear the word horror. I think in part this the nebulous nature of the horror genre, but it is also likely also a failure on our part to set expectations appropriately.

The truth is that if players come to the game expecting paranormal horror along the lines of Doom, Dracula 3000 or even Army of Darkness in space, they're going to come away disappointed. Shadows Over Sol approaches horror as a tone and in the way the player characters relate to the horrific challenges they face. It's a good fit for a horror game in the vein Alien, Life, Zygote or even John Carpenter's The Thing.

If we were to publish a new edition, I would strongly consider rebranding the game as Dark Science Fiction instead of Science Fiction Horror. It's not that the game doesn't have horror in it, but the change in phrase may be better at setting expectations.

Skills and Experiences

Enough about genre. Let's move on to the mechanics, and one of the mechanics I'm most proud of in the game is in how the skill system and experience systems interrelate.

In Shadows Over Sol there are 25 skills, each rated from 0 (no skill) to 5 (world-class). At the end of a session, the GM will hand out a few experiences to each player, but instead of going into a generic pool of "experience points," each of these experiences is directly assigned to a skill the character used that session. Once a skill accumulates enough experiences, they're spent and the skill increases a rank. In this way, the skill progression reflects the actions that the player characters took in the game.

But that's not all! When a player assigns an experience, they don't just put down a tally mark on paper, they write down the subject of the experience. For example, if the character tried to hack a bank computer the during the session, the player may decide to put one of their experiences in the Program skill and the descriptor they write down for the experience might be "bank systems." In the future, if one of these experiences applies to an action the character is taking, they get a +1 bonus. They've learned from the experience!

On the other hand, one place where the skill system fails is in how it handles skill defaults. That is, if the character does't have the skill the GM called for, but the player thinks the character has a different relevant skill, the character can default to the related skill by using its bonus in place of their stat. This system fails based on the simple fact that the defaulted skill is rarely going to be higher than the stat, and thus defaulting is rarely going to be beneficial. Personally, I would just cut the defaulting rules entirely. (And, in fact, that's what we did in our next game.)

Character Creation

The Shadows Over Sol character creation system is much more streamlined than our earlier games. In it, you select a subculture and geneline, assign points to your stats and skills, pick a few pieces of gear and add together a few scores. With the possible exception of the gear step, the whole process takes about 5 minutes.

That said, for an indecisive player the gear step can bog down significantly. Since this is a science fiction game, I wanted to include lots of interesting gear options. But that also means there is a large gear list for new players to look over. Were I to rewrite the game, I'd probably give GMs the option to either use the full list or to use one of several ready-made short lists based on the campaign's theme. So, there might be one (much shorter) list for scrapper games, one for military games, one for colonist games, one for merchant games, etc. We did later introduce an option similar to this in the Beyond Human supplement.

In character creation, I like the way that a player's choice of geneline and subculture help enforce the themes of the game world, bringing them front-and-center and giving new players a hook to work with when developing their characters.

On the other hand, I'm still somewhat unhappy with the final design of the game's genelines. These packages provide bonus experiences to different stats, depending on how a character has been genetically altered in utero. Some packages provide more bonuses than others, and to balance this, some genelines give a character a bonus or penalty to their Edge (hand size).

This works well enough to balance characters with disparate genelines, but I worry that pumping up a character's Edge too high undermines the horror feel of the game. Essentially, it becomes too big of a safety net, taking away some of the danger. Unfortunately, I don't have a good alternative solution to propose, although basing Edge off a fixed value rather than being modified by Intelligence and Charisma is something I'd like to explore.

Combat

I'm mostly happy with how combat works in Shadows Over Sol. It's tense, it's deadly and having the right gear makes a hell of a difference. These are all traits I would expect from a sci-fi horror game: don't go running into combat unless you're geared up and prepared for it! That said, there are still a few things I might want to tweak in the combat system.

For one, Shadows Over Sol has a three-phase, three-AP system. That is, each round there are three phases in which actions can be taken. Players may declare actions in any of these phases, but the earlier phases cost more than the later phases. In this way, players have to choose between taking fewer actions, albeit earlier in the round, or taking more actions later in the round.

This system works well enough, but I think it could be made even easier by simply having players pick whether they want to act before the NPCs (and act once) or act after the NPCs (and act twice). I would them liberally throw in the ability for some monsters to preempt everyone and take an action at the start of the round.

The other combat design choice I might want to rework is what happens when a character enters their Dying Gasps. Unlike a lot of games, Shadows Over Sol doesn't have a threshold where characters go unconscious and stop fighting. Instead of falling unconscious, characters enter a state called their Dying Gasps, where every Wound increases their Bleeding consequence and every round the Bleeding consequence gives them more Wounds, pushing them inevitably close to death.

This is a flavorful system, and it's intended to serve as a narrative cue to let players know that they need to immediately attend to their health, otherwise their character is going to die. Unfortunately, in practice I've found that a lot of players underestimate the urgency with which this needs to happen, and instead simply keep fighting until they're forced not to, which in Shadows Over Sol only happens with death.

I think it's fine to choose for your character to go down swinging, but ultimately I want that to be a player choice. I don't want players to be sideblinded when their character dies unexpectedly. I mean, sure it's a horror game, but there's more horror to be had in drawing out the sense of impending doom, than in the actual doom itself.

If I were to rewrite the Dying Gasp mechanic, I would ditch the Bleeding consequence and make the "countdown to death" something much more explicit.

Other Systems

When it comes to the other subsystems in the game -- hacking, engineering and vehicular combat -- one of my biggest design goals was to create systems in which all of the players could assume a useful and active role. I've played too many sci-fi RPGs where, for example, the hacker begins hacking and then the other players sit around waiting for 20 minutes as she plays the hacking mini-game; or where the party gets into spaceship combat, only for the pilot and gunner to have an exciting time while everyone else waits for the battle to end.

I didn't want Shadows Over Sol to have this problem, so I created a hacking system where different characters could use their own skill sets to find exploits, and a vehicular combat system where different characters can perform different roles that contribute to the battle (command, engineering, gunning, piloting, etc.)

And in play these systems work pretty well when used properly. Unfortunately, the book doesn't give many examples of play or pointers to GMs on how to employ them. This is something that is sorely lacking. The hacking system, for example, works great when the GM wants to make an entire scene based around getting past a corp's security. But it would be too much to try to employ it every time the hacker does something on the net. Similarly, the game could use some direction on when different spaceship roles are available (particularly in regards to NPC ships).

That's it for the Shadows Over Sol retrospective! I hope its been useful to anyone interested in game design or who might be considering running the game with house rules. Tune in next week for the next post in the design series!