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Uncharted Worlds Post-Mortem Analysis

SeanGomes

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Part 3! This section talks about informal or loosely adjudicated gameplay that I tried to formalize and codify, to varying degrees of success.


Uncharted Worlds Post Mortem – Part III – Formalized Play Dynamics

Prompting: We’ve been seeing this crop up in PbtA in general, often tied to a knowledge skill. While I didn’t codify it as much as I could have (and certainly not to the point of making UW a GM-less game), it was still useful to have stronger guidance as to when a GM should prompt a player to fill in crucial details. Not taking credit for it, just building on the groundwork laid out by Apocalypse World.

Jump Points: This here is my personal favorite “tech”, weaponizing Prompting and turning it into a storytelling tool. From a GMing perspective it has reduced my prep time to almost zero. I’d go in just knowing the bare-bones structure of the initial situation, as if I was tuning in to a Netflix show after reading the episode blurb. It’s rare that the GM gets to experience discovery and surprise. The system doesn't waste time, it gets right to the action (see previous sections about the pace of the game). The system was also malleable enough that you could play the same Jump Point a dozen times and have different stories, different genres, different outcomes, every time. The whole structure has been very well received by the community, because it’s made for one-shots and especially convention games. Heck, one fan has even written and published multiple Jump Point supplement books (which is so awesome). A solid hit, design-wise.

Cramped Quarters: Not gonna lie. The popularity of one caught me off guard. One of the things about PbtA that I never quite liked was the whole Hx system (gasp! blasphemer!). So I just removed it early in design. I got a few comments about that, and set about thinking of alternatives to that system. This was in the time that Uncharted Worlds was much more focused on one setting (more about that in a future section), so I came up with a social Move that was meant to fill in the length of time traveling through space. As I mentioned, I had just come off a Traveller campaign, and rather enjoyed the “age of sail” vibe, where interplanetary travel took weeks, even with warp drives. And I felt that the Doldrums were a perfect, untapped bit of sailing that would translate well. At the same time, I had been re- (re- re-) watching Firefly, and I just loved that scene where they’re all sitting around the table in the mess hall, eating, joking, talking. So the “Cramped Quarters” Move was born. It was pretty simple, just something to randomly generate narrative shifts in interpersonal relationships, with heavy emphasis on player description/control, and without reducing those humps and bumps to numerical values.

Cramped Quarters was so well received, players took time out to contact me and say how much they liked it. That’s nuts. Heck, a regular podcast played a whole campaign of Uncharted Worlds, and spun out several episodes playing off the seeds that Cramped Quarters provided them. And when they moved on to another game, they carried Cramped Quarters over with them and bolted on to their new game rules. I was floored to hear that. I definitely need to follow this one. “Fail Faster - Follow the Fun” was the motto of a former Creative Director at work (who has since moved on to bigger and better things). I definitely need to Follow the Fun here, to recognize that there is more potential in this innocuous mechanic.


Whew. That was a lot more words than I anticipated. Anywho, that’s it for now. I’ll be back later with Part IV (Assets, Advancement, and Skills).
 

Atlictoatl

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I use the Cramped Quarters move in my The Nightmares Underneath game, which is mostly an OSR game (with some PbtA DNA). Like other fans of Uncharted Worlds, it's one I plan to use every time it makes sense for the game, regardless of system.
 

SeanGomes

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This will probably be the last part that deals with individual components of the system. After this, I’ll be examining the wider-scope design decisions and issues. On to part IV... these components are a bit of a mixed bag of good, bad, and ugly.


Uncharted Worlds Post Mortem – Part IV – Misc Components

Assets: There’s a tendency towards “gear porn” in scifi ttrpgs. Pages upon pages of different kinds of guns, and all the minute differences between them. I decided to go a bit different with UW, and greatly expanded upon a small section of Apocalypse World; the Custom Weapon of the Battlebabe playbook. I ran with that, and created lists of narrative attributes, and had players mix-and-match to create their own unique weaponry. The thought was that a character would have the right tool for the job. The system itself was hampered by the whole economy issues I discussed in Part II of the post-mortem, but I still believe the “descriptors” system itself is quite sound. That said, it led to one of the more controversial designs in UW…

One Roll Combat Resolution: Since all weapon upgrades were descriptive tags, they were differentiated by their effects, not by their damage output. They either could do A Thing, or could not. Enemies and NPCs didn’t have hit points, and didn’t need to be tracked. Either you had the tools to kill them, or you didn’t. If a character could justifiably defeat an opponent (given the capabilities of their weapon), then the whole combat was resolved in a single roll. I’ve always disliked multi-round combat grinds; too many multi hour sessions spent resolving a single fight. The one-roll resolution allowed a brisk pace, and kept the story moving forward. Defusing a bomb or fixing a warp drive took the same amount of rolls as smashing a space pirate or shooting down an enemy bomber.

This definitely got the most mixed feedback. Some folks loved it, others bounced off it immediately. I definitely got more pushback from veteran “core” gamers, while new and story-game players had less issues with the idea. Definitely felt like I was stepping into contentious crunch v fluff territory. Folks didn't like that the big bad could be obliterated by a plasma cannon. I often bend over backwards to please (as you'll see in the next section), but this is one of those situations where I dig in my heels.

Advancement: To be honest, the whole “earn xp, level up, grow character” stuff came in pretty late. And I was a bit reticent to implement it. It came from getting too much feedback about leveling up and character growth. So I admit that I caved. And the system was clunky, and didn’t really work, because obviously my heart wasn't in it. The biggest flaw is that starting characters were already “end-game", skill-wise. They were already pretty bad-ass, and had most of the tools they needed to be the quintessential representation of their archetype. Some could have used better Assets, but that's about it. There was no room to grow. Players quickly grew bored of buying new skills, because those skills weren’t part of the character’s core identity. I tried fixing this in the Far Beyond Humanity expansion, adding a bunch of narrative things that you could spend XP on, but the system itself remained flawed. The only good thing to come out of it was the career-specific XP triggers. Probably the only part I’d like to salvage for a future design.


So there we go. Hope it’s been interesting reading so far. Next sections will be more general design philosophies, starting with the issue of Genre and Setting.
 

Lysus

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On the topic of resolution, one of the things I've always liked about Apocalypse World is how easy it is to zoom the resolution mechanic in and out - rolling could be anything from resolving a single blow to finding out what happens over the course of a week-long investigation without having to have entirely separate subsystems for each of the options. When I've run Dungeon World, sometimes a combat will be just one Hack and Slash or Volley to see what happens, and sometimes we'll go blow-by-blow through the entire scene. Did Uncharted Worlds mandate that all combat be resolved with one move or was it open to other options?
 

SeanGomes

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Uncharted Worlds didn't usually go down to blow-by-blow with the combat-specific Move, although you could do so with Face Adversity. The unit of measurement was A Threat (what the hero can handle). The "dials" the GM had to scale a conflict was "how many enemies is A Threat" for the character, given their position, armament, skill etc. With a combat-ready character a dozen thugs could be taken out by a single roll, or a handful of guards, or a single well-equipped mercenary.

Admittedly, part of this was the idea that the characters were Big Damn Heroes (thank you Firefly for that turn of phrase). Like that scene with Captain America in the elevator, or the time River went all abnegation and took out a half-dozen syndicate enforcers, or the gun kata in Equilibrium. One roll, then lots of description.
 

SeanGomes

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Alrighty. On to broader topics. Specifically the biggest flaw on Uncharted Worlds. Or rather the cause of most of the system’s flaws.

Uncharted Worlds Post Mortem – Part V – Setting Agnostic

The original Uncharted Worlds was meant to cleave close to its Traveller roots: A handful of spacefarers on a small ship, flying from planet to planet, looking for opportunities to earn cash and pay off their debts.

I’ve mentioned a few of my inspirations for writing UW in previous parts. Many more are mentioned in the opening paragraphs of the book itself. I’ve drawn inspiration from Starcraft, Warhammer 40k, Dune, Firefly, MassEffect, the list goes on and on. Almost every major sci-fi franchise is obliquely represented somewhere in the skills or the assets or general gameplay. I personally wanted to play games in a lot of these settings (I’d love to run a Terran-based Starcraft game at the height of the Kel-Morian Combine’s revolt, for example). Little bits were added here and there to simulate this or that aspect of those universes.

The big problem was cowardice. I could sugarcoat it, but ultimately my resolve failed. It was cowardice. I was a new designer, and I wanted to please. I desperately wanted this game to be something that people could pick up and use to play in their favorite setting. I didn’t believe in my own ability to write a compelling, original, interesting sci-fi setting.

So I pulled my punches. I didn’t commit to anything. I wrote rules about Debt, but didn’t commit to them because not every setting would require Debt. I had a Move for “Wild Jumps”, but spent a big section talking about how your setting didn’t need to have starships at all, let alone ones that was Jump Capable. I hedged my bets. It was all very tepid, when it should have been bold. The worst part was when I reread my own GM and Player Principles from the early days of design.

“Embrace the Deadly Beauty of the Galaxy”
“Paint in Primary Colors”
“Act with Conviction”

I feel like past me is raging at me across time. I wrote those words of guidance, then didn’t heed them.

And so I made a sandbox sci-fi setting that didn’t even pick a genre. It was nominally a space opera, but there were elements of cyberpunk, dystopia, science-fantasy, and even horror. I offloaded the chore of universe creation onto the gaming table, which went against everything I had tried to build as far as pace and momentum of play.

A bit of feedback I got, which sums it up really well.

“Ultimately, I find UW to be more about mashing everyone's favorite sci-fi bits into a single game, which can be precarious and jarring if one guy is trying to inject a little Doctor Who into the game while another is going full-on Gundam.”

“There's a lot of 'switch-flipping' with a long 'preflight checklist', especially when Far Beyond Humanity is involved:
- Is there Supernatural elements? (YES/NO)
- Are mechs a thing? (YES/NO)
- Are lasers or ballistic weapons rare? (LASER/BALLISTIC)
- Are there aliens? (YES/NO)
- Are there body modifications? (YES/NO)”

This was 100% accurate. Uncharted Worlds tried to be everything for everybody, but it ended up being a mess.


Whuff. Thanks for allowing me to get that off my chest. No updates tomorrow, but I’ll try to specifically address the stuff Atilcoatl mentioned earlier (this part about the whole Setting Agnostic thing was necessary to lay the groundwork.)
 

CaptainCrowbar

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And so I made a sandbox sci-fi setting that didn’t even pick a genre. It was nominally a space opera, but there were elements of cyberpunk, dystopia, science-fantasy, and even horror. I offloaded the chore of universe creation onto the gaming table, which went against everything I had tried to build as far as pace and momentum of play.

A bit of feedback I got, which sums it up really well.

“Ultimately, I find UW to be more about mashing everyone's favorite sci-fi bits into a single game, which can be precarious and jarring if one guy is trying to inject a little Doctor Who into the game while another is going full-on Gundam.”

“There's a lot of 'switch-flipping' with a long 'preflight checklist', especially when Far Beyond Humanity is involved:
- Is there Supernatural elements? (YES/NO)
- Are mechs a thing? (YES/NO)
- Are lasers or ballistic weapons rare? (LASER/BALLISTIC)
- Are there aliens? (YES/NO)
- Are there body modifications? (YES/NO)”

This was 100% accurate. Uncharted Worlds tried to be everything for everybody, but it ended up being a mess.
I had exactly the opposite reaction. This was one of the things I liked most about UW: like classic Traveller (but even more so), it wasn't tied to a detailed background of its own, so it could easily be adapted to whatever universe I wanted to build. If a hypothetical UW 2E were to follow Traveller in settling on a specific continuity, that would be a big change for the worse to me.
 

SeanGomes

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I don’t think I’d ever undertake the endeavor of writing full on detailed backstory and lore. I’m not a novelist or gonzo world-builder. Any hypothetical UW2 would still be firmly a Space Opera sandbox to discover and explore, rather than something to read about in campaign guides.

When I talk about “committing to a setting”, I’m talking about locking down the genre and expectations; establishing the broad strokes decisions of expected gameplay loop, technology level, aliens, tropes, etc. That would allow me to create mechanics that targets and reinforces those aspects, rather than presenting a pick-and-mix buffet of disconnected mechanics to be attached together.

For example, in a hypothetical Uncharted Worlds 2, I think I’d focus on the “small crew on a crappy starship, flying from planet to planet” aspect. I’d work to reinforce those themes and tropes, and create a basic setting framework which would ease players into the game itself. The economy, advancement, and moves could all tie back to that theme.

That said, I do acknowledge (and appreciate) the fact that there are folks who use Uncharted Worlds as a rules framework for their own settings, and I wouldn’t ever want to lose that. I’m currently looking at what Ironsworn does for its campaign start, and I’m quite impressed. I like the idea of formalizing that aspect of collective campaign creation and expectation setting.

To use the whole “flipping switches” metaphor, a future edition would need to have those switches flipped already, and be designed with those assumptions in mind. But I wouldn’t dream of locking those switches permanently in place. I’d hate to lose the versatility and flexibility of the system.
 

Atlictoatl

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To use the whole “flipping switches” metaphor, a future edition would need to have those switches flipped already, and be designed with those assumptions in mind. But I wouldn’t dream of locking those switches permanently in place. I’d hate to lose the versatility and flexibility of the system.
I could see you developing two future products on the UW chassis. One would be the more dialed-in version that you're describing here, where you've done the difficult work of choosing a sub-genre of SF and then designed the game around that. I think that would be a strong choice. While more universal versions of PbtA have been coming out as people play with the engine, the games that seem to do the best for defining a niche seem to best capture that unique PbtA magic.

I could also see you developing a supplement for the 1e of UW, that guides playgroups on which switches to make decisions about and how those affect the game in the short and long term. Essentially, a Session Zero guidebook designed to streamline the process of a table shaping the type of SF game they'd like to play. It might be confusing for the brand to have a 1e and 2e of UW doing different things, both on the market at the same time, but I think there's audiences for each style of game.

It's ironic that even those of us who bounced off the open-ended nature of UW will decry a move to a more focused version, even though I agree that it's best from a game design perspective. That's why you're labeling the broad-scaped version as a failure of cowardice. It's really hard to commit and zoom in, and even the playing audience is going to struggle with that choice, even though many of us understand the value of doing so.
 

ShawnTomkin

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Thanks for sharing SeanGomes SeanGomes . This is really timely for me, since I'm working on a SF expansion for my own game (which is PbtA adjacent).

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.
Can you unpack this just a bit? Do you think the player dissatisfaction was triggered by genre assumptions, or did your game create some explicit expectations through character playbooks or moves? Someone out there invented a clever label for the "take space jobs to keep flying" genre that I can't recall at the moment, but it does seem like a trope that has its roots more in Traveller than in media (with Firefly being a notable exception). Is there a strong assumption that a "PC's in a ship" game is going to have tangible mechanics around debt/money/cargo/etc.?

That very question is a bit key for me at the moment, since my game uses quest-driven gameplay loops (which are, thematically, sworn vows), and wealth and gear is not a factor. For the SF version, there is perhaps a natural inclination to reskin vows as jobs, and add in a bunch of mechanics for debt, wealth and maintenance. But, I think that waters down the thematic heart of the game.

Also I realize I didn't purchase Uncharted Worlds back in the day, so I'll do that now and give it a look.
 
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