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Shadows Over Sol is our upcoming science fiction horror RPG using the Saga Machine system. Set in the early twenty-third century, humankind has reached out across the solar system, bringing a splintered and broken culture along with it. Humankind might be alone in the universe, but it’s long been its own worst enemy.
Shadows Over Sol is scheduled for the first round of it’s open beta test later this year.
When I first set down to design the new edition of Shadows Over Sol I wanted to make sure that rules were adapted well to the genre. As a science fiction and horror game, it calls for significantly different assumptions than the mythic fantasy game we did in Against the Dark Yogi. In order to start designing the rules adaptations, I first set down and examined the general truths surrounding science fiction and horror genres.
Horror is a difficult genre to do well in a role-playing game. In many ways the power fantasy and exploratory agency that make up many RPGs run counter to the horror genre. This is not to say that these cannot be meshed, bur rather that doing so takes an extra degree of care and forethought.
That said, I want to examine here some of the truths about the horror genre, and how it has influenced the game design.
Horror Axiom #1: Science fiction is largely about speculative technology and culture. Without access to new tech science fiction loses much of its essence. At the same time, horror is largely about being unprepared for the horrific situation. Imagine Alien or The Thing if the protagonists had the best of the best sci-fi tech. They would cease to be horror movies. Sci-fi horror requires striking a balance between these two competing goals.
This was a key point when designing the gear and wealth systems for Shadows Over Sol. I wanted to make sure that players had enough fun science fiction tech to play with, and furthermore had the ability to acquire and use this tech. At the same time I also wanted to make sure that the system had ways to keep the gear in check, keeping it from steamrolling over horror scenarios.
At character creation every PC gets a certain number of purchases that she can use to acquire new gear. This allows her a great deal of choice, and the ability to outfit herself with some cool gear, while at the same time ensuring that no character is going to have gear for every possible situation.
In play every character has a certain number of encumbrance slots, and most pieces of gear will occupy a slot. Stay with me here, I know that encumbrance is a dirty word in some gaming circles, but think of it like this: In sci-fi a character abilities are largely defined by what tech she has. The spy is going to have some fun covert ops tech. The engineer is going to have cool robots or toolkits for constructing things. The gunbunny is going to have a wide selection of weapons.
In Shadows Over Sol gear does a lot of the special ability heavy lifting that traits did in Against the Dark Yogi. So you can think of your current load-out of gear as your ability set in the given situation. Encumbrance slots in Shadows Over Sol are a point of game balance, as they essentially ability slots.
Horror Axiom #2: A good horror story is all about the tension. It’s about the impending doom, the oncoming desperation, the inevitable moment of shock and terror. Then—once the moment of violence arrives—it’s swift, it’s brutal and it’s a game-changer.
This influenced my thinking about the combat system in several ways. In horror you need to know that something terrible is coming and ultimately it needs a degree of inevitability, otherwise the situation doesn’t resolve as horror. At the same time the players need enough capability and agency to really affect the situation and make a difference.
In the Shadows Over Sol combat system actions are declared at the beginning of the round and then executed in phases—moves, manipulating the environment, tricks, then finally violence. What I want here is for players to see the violence coming as long as possible when resolving the actions in the round. That builds suspense. I also want to maximize the ability for characters to stave off the violence another round by messing with the environment or trying tricks. This delays the inevitable and draws out the tension.
That said, the violence does finally occur, it’s pretty brutal—it it wasn’t there wouldn’t be the dread or tension waiting for it to happen.
Horror Axiom #3: Analysis is the enemy of horror. Really, the more you know about something—understanding its capabilities and limits—the less horrific it is. This is counter to a lot of science fiction where exploring and understanding new situations is a common theme.
This axiom is perhaps less of an influence when designing whole subsystems rather than an influence when designing specific gear or specific horrific elements of the setting. The key element here is that there can’t be an easy way to fully understand the source of the horror. There are no Star Trek-style tricorders for analyzing the capabilities of creatures, nor is there any database of common monster facts. For the most part player characters are figuring this sort of stuff out as they go, probably making some mistakes along the way. And this fits right in with science fiction’s exploration themes.