Uncharted Worlds Post-Mortem Analysis

SeanGomes

Retired User
#1
Back in 2015, I published Uncharted Worlds. It was my first foray into game design, writing, publishing, kickstarting... a lot of things, really. Over the last four years I’ve learned a hell of a lot from feedback, observations, and re-reading my own work. I definitely took the criticisms to mind, whenever I came across them (I guess the book didn’t offend many people, since criticism was almost always even-handed and well thought out, no real toxicity, much to my relief.)

I decided to do a full-blown breakdown of Uncharted Worlds. What worked. What didn’t. Where things could be improved for a hypothetical 2nd edition. So I thought I’d share it with you folks, maybe it'll be useful or interesting.


Uncharted Worlds Post Mortem – Part I – What Worked
I’m normally really negative about myself and my own work, so at the behest of my friends I’m making an effort to put the positives up front. Yay for impostor syndrome.


Cascading Failures/Rising Tension: The prevalence of chain-reactions, rising tension, and snowballing consequences was positively received. Can’t take much credit, it’s a common advantage of the PbtA philosophy. Nonetheless, the flattened stat ranges (capping out at +2) meant that the dice result curve tended towards the “Success with complications” results, which allowed for just enough pressure to keep the plates spinning. This ended up being pretty well balanced.

Stat-Neutral Moves: Despite their being 14 total Moves in base UW, Face Adversity, Get Involved, and Assessment proved to be the most used, most versatile, and easiest to remember Moves. The other circumstantial, stat-based Moves felt like variations or knock-offs, and needed reference material. This came as a bit of a surprise, because “generic” Moves have rarely felt right in more traditional/purist PbtA design, yet here it created a system that was easy to remember, and thus easy to resolve and keep the flow and pace of the game going.

Archetypes: Origin/Career/Career worked REALLY well to create a wide diversity of character tropes/archetypes/playbooks without significant glut. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about this system, and it’s probably the stand-out “tech” that UW brings to the design table. In fact, I recently learned that in the Baker household (that created Apocalypse World and started this whole PbtA thing), the Baker kids are using Uncharted Worlds’ Archetype system to make their own game (insert giddy squee here). Not to say that it’s perfect. The careers need fewer, more important choices, better sequencing during character creation, and overall greater mechanical attachment to these core choices (especially Origin, which was sadly forgettable as the game went on). But still, this turned out right. Huzzah.


That’s what I’ve got for now. I’ll write up and add Part II to this thread soon. Don’t worry, I’ll get to the juicy self-flagellating “what I effed up” in no time.
 

Lysus

Unbelievably Fancy Ostrich
Validated User
#2
I'm definitely curious to read more. I haven't read Uncharted Worlds myself, but I did go through a lengthy character and setting creation for a campaign that unfortunately never got off the ground. To be clear, this was something of a mashup of Stars Without Number and Uncharted Worlds and we were by no means doing things by-the-book, but I'm interested in hearing your perspective on how everything worked nonetheless.
 

Atlictoatl

Looking for Operations/Culture employment
Validated User
#3
Subbed. Origin/Career/Career was a crucial development to the PbtA engine. Even if that's the only thing you'll ever do right in your entire career, the rpg world is a better place for your presence. And you've certainly done more than that right, with more to come.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.
 

SeanGomes

Retired User
#4
Subbed. Origin/Career/Career was a crucial development to the PbtA engine. Even if that's the only thing you'll ever do right in your entire career, the rpg world is a better place for your presence. And you've certainly done more than that right, with more to come.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.
This is super kind of you, and was a big boost to my morale on an otherwise pretty dark day. Thank you. :)
 

SeanGomes

Retired User
#5
On to Part 2. Perhaps the most obvious point of weakness in Uncharted Worlds is the economic model. As in most games, the overall gameplay economy of UW is broken down into multiple interconnected sub-systems. Or at least, they should be interconnected… I’m getting ahead of myself.


Uncharted Worlds Post Mortem – Part II – Clunky Economics

Debt: I always liked the idea that Debt drove the universe, and that players were encouraged to do things for Factions to alleviate that Debt. But I ended up being too gentle in the implementation. The Debts just sat there. They lacked urgency, unless the GM specifically chose to twist the knife. There were a number of sub-systems, like “calling in a favor”, that should have interacted with Debt, but that mechanic was too buried. To work as intended, Debt would have had to be part of the core gameplay loop. A constant looming threat. Instead the system felt vestigial, and could be mostly ignored. Debt may have had an occasional impact during an Uncharted Worlds campaign, but it required way too much GM legwork.

Wealth (or lack there-of): Uncharted Worlds was written at a personal crossroads between the twilight days of a long-running Traveller game, and binge playing Mass Effect 2. Coming fresh off of Traveller, I didn’t want a system that required players to nickel-and-dime every MCr. But eschewing any form of wealth accumulation created narrative confusion and dissatisfaction. Players appreciate the ability to measure, accumulate, and compare their wealth. It doesn’t have to be granular, but it can’t be hand-waved. It was a big ask to fight against player expectations like that, and it would have taken a better system than this to win them over.

Acquisitions, Cargo, and Markets: Without a wealth/currency system, the process of acquiring tools and gear became a Move. Balancing it to make it interesting but not exploitable created a mess of a sub-game that had too many variables and fiddly bits. The interactions between Debt, Markets, Factions, and Cargo were rather ham-fisted. Overall, the system was so non-intuitive that players rarely purchased stuff.


In trying to streamline the economy and remove accounting, UW ended up with a hand-wavy, not-really-functional system of acquisition and debt that relied too heavily on GM and player buy-in. The strain was fairly obvious. Additionally, lack of "tangible" wealth and spending stripped away a significant source of player motivation, while debt didn't add enough motivation. Even the “gear up” player-drive was hampered, since acquiring new assets was a bit of a chore.

So yeah. I stumbled when it came to implementing a fun, compelling system to replace the accumulation and spending of wealth. I was trying to fight against a lot of player expectation, and I lost that battle. Live and learn.

I'm always open to questions or whatnot. In the meantime, I'll try to get Part III (Prompting, Jump Points, and Cramped Quarters) written up for tomorrow.
 

1of3

Registered User
Validated User
#6
Interesting reading your observations about your own game. Might this lead to a second edition?

Stat-Neutral Moves: [...]This came as a bit of a surprise, because “generic” Moves have rarely felt right in more traditional/purist PbtA design, yet here it created a system that was easy to remember, and thus easy to resolve and keep the flow and pace of the game going.
Interesting. Any idea why that might be so?
 

SeanGomes

Retired User
#7
Interesting reading your observations about your own game. Might this lead to a second edition?
I believe it will eventually become a 2nd Ed, but I'm not quite ready to start working in earnest towards it. Too many things going on in my life at the moment, sadly. But yes, I want to make a better UW, because despite the flaws the game was well received and I know I can do better. One day.

Stat-Neutral Moves: [...]This came as a bit of a surprise, because “generic” Moves have rarely felt right in more traditional/purist PbtA design, yet here it created a system that was easy to remember, and thus easy to resolve and keep the flow and pace of the game going.
Interesting. Any idea why that might be so?
My personal feeling is that the increasing tension needed to maintain a certain storytelling pace at the table. Each Move (generic or situational) was a "one roll resolution"; there are no clocks or hit points. So each Move was a branch point in the scene, rather than an increment towards a resolution. In order to maintain the pace demanded by the fiction, the GM couldn't afford to stop and look up custom, situational Moves out of a list of 14. From observation (including self-observation), most GMs tended to keep a couple of Moves in memory that they could bust out to quickly resolve a situation.

That said, generic Moves put significantly more strain on the GM's creativity to come up with a situation-appropriate consequence on a Partial Success or Failure. This was both a blessing and a curse; a veteran GM could keep twiddling the nobs of difficulty in fun and sadistic ways, while a less experienced GM would have to refer back to the "GM Moves" section. The generic Move didn't constrain the result, but didn't provide guidance on how to resolve it either.

Which brings up another point: My observations were of GMs who were comfortable enough to play in public, or run a game at a con, or record their podcast. This absolutely skews my findings towards veteran (or at least confident) GMs.
 

Atlictoatl

Looking for Operations/Culture employment
Validated User
#8
That said, generic Moves put significantly more strain on the GM's creativity to come up with a situation-appropriate consequence on a Partial Success or Failure. This was both a blessing and a curse; a veteran GM could keep twiddling the nobs of difficulty in fun and sadistic ways, while a less experienced GM would have to refer back to the "GM Moves" section. The generic Move didn't constrain the result, but didn't provide guidance on how to resolve it either.
If I had one singular criticism of UW, it would be the generic Moves, and it's for this reason. In PbtA parlance, UW didn't pick a specific genre of SF gameplay and then tailor its Moves to tell the players or GMs how to be in that genre. UW was clearly written to be a genre-agnostic SF game, and that's definitely a strength of it, but that puts more pressure on the GM to understand the elements of the sub-genre of SF that they're playing.

As your Moves got more specific, I had an easier time of it. But I was coming from highly specific games, like AW and Urban Shadows. I have a bias towards PbtA games with specific, finite lists of possible results.

That said, it's cool that it was ultimately a strength for players who were less purist or traditional in their expectations of UW. And, to be honest, it's why I wanted to run a UW game... I wanted to see what it would be like to run a game that mostly used generic Moves to advance things. Sadly, we spent so much time in world-building that the game never really got started. To a large degree, that's my fault, though I do think that the very broad "any SF" approach of UW can lead to that, if the GM doesn't go into consensus world-building willing to be a little more traditional by drawing firm boundaries and expectations. A future version of UW might be served by providing a template (even specific questions) for how to quickly build enough of the sub-genre assumptions and tropes of the gameworld that Session Zero can be contained and play can start reasonably quickly. (Ironsworn does a good job of this, if you're looking for a model.)
 

SeanGomes

Retired User
#9
You are absolutely correct, and I have planned an entire section of this post-mortem dedicated to just that. I'm totally bookmarking this discussion for later, if that's cool with you.
 

Atlictoatl

Looking for Operations/Culture employment
Validated User
#10
You are absolutely correct, and I have planned an entire section of this post-mortem dedicated to just that. I'm totally bookmarking this discussion for later, if that's cool with you.
*thumbs up*

I should note that my comments are based in my experience as a predominantly PbP gamer. It's easy to get stuck in the weeds in Play-by-Post.
 
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