Designing Uncharted Worlds 2nd Edition

Back when I was designing Uncharted Worlds, writing about my thoughts and design process on G+ provided me with a measure of stability and motivation. It was a very positive experience to get feedback, impressions, and ideas from the community. And even if no one responded, the act of organizing my thoughts and writing them out still had a “rubber duck” effect.

Assuming this kind of thing is kosher, I’ll be using this thread as a general design-blog-journal-thingy, and being able to poll the community, get feedback, etc. I’m hoping to find that same place of safety and energy here in trying to design Uncharted Worlds 2nd Edition (UW2).

First up, though, a bit of a postmortem of Uncharted Worlds. What worked, and what fell flat…

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Part I - Postmortem

A few months ago I wrote up a fairly lengthy post-mortem of Uncharted Worlds; where it succeeded, where it failed, and so forth. I figured I should repost a condensed version here as a foundation to the changes I’ll hopefully be writing about in the coming weeks. A more complete/rambling version of the postmortem can be found here.

What Worked (What I’ll be keeping or pushing further)

  • Archetypes: Constructing a custom “playbook” out of an Origin and two Careers ended up working super well, and is probably the crowning achievement of UW. Definitely keeping this almost unchanged.

  • Stat-neutral Moves: This a contentious one. Most of the situational Moves were rarely used and took up too much mental bandwidth, and the neutral Move (Face Adversity) did almost all the heavy lifting. Will push this further, drastically cutting down to just “core” Move while improving their guidance and usability. Moving the situational Moves out of the GM’s mental bandwidth.

  • One-roll combat resolution/no clocks: Another contentious one. Each triggered Move would act as a branching point in the narrative, rather than an increment towards a resolution. I’ll be keeping this mostly intact, though I have some designs for the core Move (mentioned above) at will hopefully add a bit of strategic depth and decision-making.

  • Cramped Quarters: Another sleeper-hit, like Archetypes. This is probably the most exported mechanic I’ve ever made; people have brought it over, whole-cloth or in spirit, to dozens of other games. Will push it a lot further. It might even be the vector I use to solve some of the problems I cover below.

What Didn’t Work (What will need to be redesigned/thrown out)

  • Economics: Wealth, resources, and acquisitions are an intrinsic part of the space opera/sci-fi experience. I tried too hard to hand-wave money, and it ended up causing more problems than it solved. Currency doesn’t need to be tracking individual credits, but it needs to have a reasonably sized denomination.

  • Factions: Not a complete failure, but certainly clunky and hit-or-miss at best. Factions were too restricted, too nebulous, and didn’t interact enough with the other mechanics. They’ll need a solid re-design to make them feel more present and alive.

  • Advancement: Characters started too strong, with too many skills. Then they had nowhere to go, power-wise. Folks quickly ran out of skills they wanted. This also ties in with the Economy issue. Without visible monetary growth, “xp” had to pick up the slack. One good piece of this was the ‘Xp Trigger’, which rewarded acting within your career choices.

  • Excessive Genre Neutrality: Too much design space given to being wishy-washy, and trying to cover every permutation of sci-fi. Caused a lot of confusion, hemming and hawing during “session 0” and big tone clashes (people expecting Gundam, the Expanse, and Doctor Who out of the same game). While I don’t intend to create a fully-fleshed-out gonzo space opera setting, I need to at least pick a few core elements (tech level, FTL travel type, aliens, etc) and commit to them.

Whew. Gets a little easier to write every time I go through it. We learn from the past so that we can go on to make exciting new mistakes.

I’d be happy to unpack any of those topics further, if anyone has questions. Otherwise I’ll try to post design updates in this thread every so often.

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is the title homage to the Mass Effect soundtrack?

I have not been here long but it seems similar to the Freebooters 2e thread. As I said before, your post mortem is dead-on! I would gladly try UW 2e based on what you think needs to be fixed.

The only other issue I saw is that it could have improved startup time if you prepackaged some of the skills. For example, I could never really tell what pairings would make a daredevil pilot or lab scientist but I am sure I could have made them somehow.

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Funnily enough, the name Uncharted Worlds was a riff on *World style games (which was the PbtA/BarfForthApocalyptica style at the time). Apocalypse World begat Dungeon World which begat Uncharted World(s). I believe the exploration suite called Uncharted Worlds was in Mass Effect 2, which I had only just started playing at the time, and wasn’t aware of the name of that piece until someone pointed it out later.

Absolutely. Not having enough premade content or guidance was one of my big stumbles. While it’s not part of the game itself a the time, I should include that in my postmortem of the production. Along with “don’t send out the books yourself, you yutz”.

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I’m really excited to see what you do with 2e and am selfishly pleased you’re willing to share early ideas on here ^___^

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I look forward to more here. Especially about the economies and default setting direction.

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I don’t know if this fits here but I wanted to point out that I used a random phone rpg Star Traders rpg to determine my factions and debts, world designs, and economy. Most of it worked seemlessly, except I had to decide if item X was a Tier 1 - 4 good and how much space that good should take up in an entirely arbitrary way. I just thought I would mention it was a possible reference for UW v2

I realized I did not add here WHY I the Star Traders rpg game by the Trese Brothers worked so well. I thought maybe I should add this as a separate topic. Feel free to check it out.

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The seems like a pretty good analysis - one of the things I found about the first edition was it felt a tiny bit lacking in character. I think you capture that in Genre Neutrality point - if I read Dungeon World or Apocalypse World, even though there are loads of blanks in those settings, everything about the text has a very clear and definite character that conveys the spirit of the game. With the career paths ( which I love as a concept ) the playbooks have less of that super-distinctive personality so I think finding ways to drive that through the text and the play examples is even more important.

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Actually, you might not need to force the genre details onto the gamers. You could do something like Ironsworn for setting where you add a few details but also create a checklist of setting questions for session 0 to facilitate the startup instead.

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First off, thank you to everyone who commented so far. I’m heartened by the interest. (There’s always that voice, isn’t there? The one that wonders “does anyone care?”)

Part II - Mission Statement

While I’m sorely tempted to dive right in, rip out the mechanical guts of UW, and start tinkering, I think it would be more useful to both me and the project to take a step back and define UW2’s mission statement (as corporate-buzzword-y as that is). What am I trying to accomplish. What experience am I trying to evoke. By defining a clear goal for the game, I can subsequently use it as a reminder or point of comparison. I need to consciously refer back, and see if it encourages the players to achieve the goal of the game, or if it runs counter to the spirit of the game.

UW’s goal was nebulous. It was more-or-less “Common Space Opera Tropes: The Game”. Early designs were all about that “do jobs to escape debt” kinda thing, but I never followed through on that goal. (I spent a long time flagellating myself about taking the middle-of-the-road coward’s way out and going as generic as possible, I won’t rehash it all here).

So this is UW2’s Goal going forward:

Find your independence out among the stars.

I’ve thought long and hard about what aspects of UW that I liked most. At the end of the day, I have to like what I’m making, or I’ll lose my passion for it. This goal sums up that preferred loop, that core element from which all others branch. Allow me to break it down:

  • FIND your independence out among the stars. Previous drafts of this goal had “Fight for” or “Claim”. But I realize that part of this has to be a journey of self-discovery. You have to discover just how you will achieve your goal. I don’t want to curtail that freedom to choose your own methods, from combat, to diplomacy, to discovery, to exploration, to commerce. It’s YOUR stellar path to independence.

  • Find your INDEPENDENCE out among the stars. The balancing act between civilization and freedom will be one of the core conflicts of UW2. The heroes may take on contracts or exchange favors with all kinds of factions, but only in order to ensure their continued independence from any of them. The threat of being locked in chains (metaphorically or physically) should always be at the back of the characters’ minds. The three most important loyalties are to your ship, your crew, and yourself.

  • Find your independence OUT AMONG THE STARS. There needs to be a focus on “moving on”, continually travelling from planet to planet, from adventure to adventure. Getting bogged down in the same place for too long changes the pace and tone of a game. Strong incentive towards “knocking the dirt off your boots” and see what the universe has to offer.

So yeah, that’s the current design goal. It doesn’t overly restrict the genre (I do want to keep the flexible sandbox-y nature of UW), but it does help shape the expected play. If nothing else, it’ll hopefully prevent me from designing dead-end or free-spinning systems.

I’m aware that “Find your independence out among the stars” is not exactly unique or distinctive compared to some sci-fi games where you swap minds with robots or travel through alternate timelines or what-have-you. That said, part of UW’s strength was that is was flexible, approachable, and unencumbered. I’m hoping this allows me to keep that aspect while still sharpening the focus somewhat. That said, I’m totally open to thoughts/opinions about it.

As a side note: @Deckard mentioned the Ironsworn Session-0 to establish the broad-strokes setting foundations, which is tech that I’ll most certainly be incorporating (with Shawn Tomkin’s blessing).

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Hells to the yes. I would say that goal so captures in concrete words what I think I was seeking in Traveller.

Also it perfectly encapsulates the fictional touchstones - Firefly/Serenity; the Last Starfighter, Star Wars (what is episodes 4-6 but one long coming of age story); even to some degree Star Trek - that five year mission to seek out new worlds and define what you (insert rank or role, or even the Federation as a whole) are.

Love it.

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Hey Sean, I’m super excited to see you here. I actually signed up just to follow this thread!

I really like the core three moves you were boiling UW2 down to over in the previous forum. Are your thoughts still in that space?

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Please no! I don’t want this to become another World of Dungeons!

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Hiya! Glad to see you.

I’ve got plans for the whole Core Move vs Specific Move design that I’m reasonably happy with, but it’s one of this things that has to be laid out all at once or it’ll give a bad impression. Thats coming next, I just have to sit down and compose it.

Also there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with World of Dungeons :slight_smile:

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what was your strong response in reply to?

There is definitely something to creating simple games for one shots but… There is something to wanting a longer game to have more depth

The possibility of stripping most moves in the game in favor of only 3 doesn’t sound like an improvement. In my mind, UW2 could use a few clarifications and a few details, not an enormous abstraction of the mechanics. Perhaps, I misunderstood though?

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Alright. It’s taken me a while to get to this, because this is The Core Move and all. So far I think I’ve gone through 5 or 6 iterations of this, and I’m very open to feedback. Also: Warning, this might be long.

Part III – Core Move

As I mentioned previously, after years of running UW and lots of feedback, I found that the catch-all “Face Adversity” Move did the majority of the mechanical heavy-lifting. It didn’t take up a lot of mental run-time for the GM, unlike the other, more niche Moves. Moving forward, there will be three Core Moves that every character has:

  • Face Adversity (Action Move)
  • Get Involved (Helping Move)
  • Seek Opportunity (Downtime Move)

We’ll just cover Face Adversity for now, and I’ll cover Get Involved and Seek Opportunity at a later date.

So here we have the Move in its current incarnation:

Example_FaceAdversity

In a way, this Move is 5 Moves, each with different consequences. The consequence-per-stat section at the bottom serves to set player expectations and act as a guideline for GMs. It’s definitely more of a learning tool, and I fully expect veteran players to glaze over it as they grasp the mechanics.

The Move also accounts for disadvantageous situations, making it much more costly to attempt something while on the back foot. Note that Face Adversity can be used to overcome dangers or create advantageous situations, allowing players to chain actions back-to-back in order to dismantle a particularly dangerous situation. Interesting side note: while any main consequences are determined by the methods employed (stats), the “disadvantage consequence” is determined by the cause of the disadvantage.

I’m aware that some folk are not fans of generic Moves in PbtA-style games. And while I generally see them as positive, I do agree that they don’t have much in the way of “flavor”. The problem is how to preserve the GM’s mental-runtime by not forcing them to remember the nuances of a dozen unique, esoteric, situational, quirky Moves, all while using Moves to create flavor and move the story forward in interesting directions.

To resolve this, I’m leveraging the other big success of UW, the careers system. Each character will have two unique Moves, granted by their career combination. This will allow Moves that are character-appropriate, and push the kind of gameplay that the career should be pushing. Here are three examples:

Example_CareerMoves

Since these are on the character, the triggering and resolution of these Moves will be player-facing. They’re generally stronger and more interesting than a standard Face Adversity, but much more restrictive.

Obviously, these are all in early phases. Lots of tweaking to follow.

I’m very interested in folks’ first impressions. This will be the main way the players interact with the game, so I want to make sure it’s non-threatening to new players, while being robust enough to create interesting play.

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Hmmm. I like theidea of boiling down moves to this thatreally are needed. That said, I’m not a big fan of World of Dungeons either. Face Adversity does feel very generic. By that I mean it really doesn’t have anything specific to this genre. I guess it’s the fallback move of Defy Danger.

As a reasonably green GM of PbTA games, it does make life easier, but I now find myself wondering what would happen without this move? Would other, more gene-specific moves fill in that void with something more colorful?

Or perhaps this move with a pick-list added would give it more flavor & fictional drive?

I do like the idea of playbooks giving characters other, more specific mores to this effect: that’s a win.

I can’t wait to see what you do with this!

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