Open Design: ZIGGURATTI


#1

Hey, fam!

I’m Chad. I wrote Cryptomancer and SIGMATA. In my spare cycles, I like to make smaller games to take bigger risks on designs, refine things before they make it into a “big” game, explore interesting themes, and generally be a weirdo. Small games also make it fun/easy to develop stuff in the open, with input from others (whether they are designers themselves, or just genre-heads).

I figured Gauntlet might be a good place to do this, so here goes…

This morning, I got the idea for ZIGGURATTI, so I made a cover image (with edited stock art which I would eventually buy), and wrote out the “hook,” which covers what players do in the game and what it’s all about. What we have below is literally everything I’ve done or thought about with this project. If you ask me “Are you going to do XYZ?,” the answer is straight-up “I don’t know, I just got here.”

So instead of asking me questions, I’d like to ask you… where do we go from here?

(PS, next post will have the write-up… can’t post two images…)


#2

For visually impaired:

OVERVIEW

ZIGGURATTI is a cyberpunk game about serfs trying to survive and thrive in a technocratic arcology that is structured like a feudal state. Players assume the roll of “burdens,” serfs marked for banishment, deprivation, or death because they either can’t or won’t do the work that their birthright demands of them. To survive, they have banded together with other burdens who refuse to yield to the arcology’s brutal order. Their very existence is an affront to the society they were born to, but they have each other, and they will not be denied the right to live.

The burdens’ story takes place inside a “ziggurat,” one of the few dozen arcologies supporting human life in the wake of extinction-level climate events. The ziggurat’s enclosed environment protects millions of people from extreme temperatures and toxic air. Inside, its physical structure mirrors its socioeconomic structure. Society is ordered in four castes: serfs, knights, clergy, and zigguratti. The serfs inhabit the lowest, broadest, and most populous layers of the ziggurat. Above them are the knights (the ziggurat’s enforcers) and the clergy (the ziggurat’s economic elite). Above all are the reclusive zigguratti, who only a handful of serfs have ever met or seen. The zigguratti make all the decisions for the ziggurat. Their will is made public through the clergy, enforced by the knights, and obeyed by the serfs.

The serf is born indebted to the zigguratti. The costs of sustaining human life on a planet no longer suitable for that endeavor are staggering. It would take a lifetime for a serf to pay back their debtors, which is why their lifespans have been extended through cybernetic augmentation.

Cybernetic augmentation is so ubiquitous in the ziggurat that it is mundane. Every serf, at a minimum, has a wireless neural jack to interface with technology and an augmented reality (AR) overlay that, among other things, visually identifies caste membership. In addition to these mandatory technologies, serfs often undergo additional (mandatory) augmentation to support the work they were born to do. “Miners,” for example, who leave the ziggurat to salvage the ruins of abandoned cities, often have strength-enhancing modifications, along with heightened toxin-resistance in case their hazard suit tears. As a general rule, the less cybernetic augmentation someone has, the less likely they are to be a serf.

The burden, then, is the serf who cannot or will not pay their debtors. They have been flagged in everyone’s AR overlay as persona non grata. To feed them, shelter them, or do business with them is to risk burden status yourself. If you see a burden eating, it is because they have stolen food. If you see them sleeping, it is because a knight has not yet shown up to enforce vagrancy laws.

The ziggurat is not a prison, and the zigguratti are not its wardens. The burden may do what they wish. The zigguratti simply needs all serfs to either work or die.


#3

I really really like this. It reminds me The Spire, in a good way. I like the idea of technology and augmentation as an imposition, because there’s a very interesting tension. The serfs will want to use the technology that literally enslaves them to fight back… but will they be able to?

You are defining the setting and the premise here, do you have an idea about the kind of stories this game will tell? Is it a game about organizing an insurgency? Or it’s about surviving as a serf and squeezing between the powers of this world? I’m asking because cyberpunk tends to be about individuals just scrapping by, but this screams “figure out how the serfs can unionize and push back”.


#4

Thanks for the reply! A couple people have been seeing it the same way, as leading up to insurrection, but honestly, as a designer and an irregular warfare wonk, I sort of want to take a break from insurrection. So when I was first scheming this up, I actually had this vision of characters living on the periphery of society and making spaces for themselves. Think vagrants/squatters who just want to get by, but get chased out of public spaces, or evicted from abandoned buildings, or have tent cities destroyed. Basically, the stories I’m conceptualizing here, are about carving out spaces for life, and that life being “messiness” the austere and awful powers cannot tolerate.


#5

I feel like the notion of “social credit” is a clear forerunner to the world being presented, so any lessons learned as that’s being implemented today might apply.

Beyond that:

  • Augmentations aren’t just a thing people get - they require maintenance, or the user’s health is impacted. People both able and willing to service a burden are a resource. There might also be a hard choice: somehow get your augmentations removed, but then lose value to your community (who depend on your skills to help them, and vice versa).
  • The economics of using AI or robots must be such that people are more affordable to augment than replace. Or, someone has convinced the leaders that maintaining a diverse human gene pool is worth the cost of human serfs.
  • Is it possible that some people are literally “invisible” to the AR rigs used by higher castes? Someone might consider a tent city an eyesore, and find it more convenient to just make everyone see (or unsee) something nicer. China Miéville’s The City & The City has a similar thing going on.

#6

Okay, this has gotten under my skin.

So, based on your discussion with Caleb (and the bits I chipped in); I can see this going one of two ways:

-A game of Small Rebellion. Formation of anarchist and communist communes, gardening, re-inventing human spirituality, helping someone else survive, who would not other wise.

  • A game of grand rebellion.

In the later game, it would be really interesting to explore how the characters force themselves to stick to the fight. As they start to win victories, as they start to win, the Zighuratti are going to have more reason to destroy the Characters, or worse, destroy their will to fight. It would be interesting to offer the characters reform, personal wealth, relief for a loved one, and have those olive branches be the greatest threat the revolution faces.


#7

Miner might be a possible playbook, if playbooks reflect the designed occupation. If it works this way, then playbook decides possible range of augmentations.

Also possible is that augmentations are improved as the serf proves it’s value, further indebting him.


#8

Fantastic idea.

I like the idea the game is focused on building a community/creating a space for the burdens to live and exist. Lots of possible conflicts and opportunities for adventure and jobs there. Getting resources, conflict with knights and clergy, doing favors, doing runs outside the Ziggurat for resources or to smuggle people and resources from other Ziggurats, conflicts with other burden enclaves who have different needs and priorities.


#9

Thanks for all the great ideas, gang! This is great!

I think I also like the “small rebellion” / “anarcho-community” take more than a larger insurrection narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I love insurgency stories, but I think there’s a different potential here.

As cyberpunk genre game, I definitely see elements of action/adventure/espionage as well as film noir love triangles, etc. But that being said, if the game is about building/defending anarcho-communities, what are some good ways to represent that in both game mechanical and setting terms?


#10

Other randomness:

  • To continue the analogy, does the “church” in this world ever offer sanctuary (in the legal sense)? Are there members of the clerical caste who either buy into some pro-human message they’re asked to sell to the laity, or let empathy win out?
  • Are there other supportive members of the upper classes who provide social cover, technical expertise, or other assets to these small outcast communities? Why?
  • Who is playing around with the technology in this world? I can imagine a band of merry pranksters who figured out how the AR tech works, and are exploiting the upper crust’s indifference by projecting holograms around themselves that look like the AR social-credit report. You’d see through the scam immediately, if only you disabled your augments and really looked at the people around you. But most don’t.

#11

It’s interesting you bring that up @astralfrontier … I was just thinking about the idea of people in the clergy caste “sponsoring” a serf who would otherwise be a burden. In some ways, it actually sounds kind of gross/patronizing, and maybe that’s appropriate. There may be cases where “sponsorship” comes with stipulations/arrangements that just as dehumanizing than what serfs already endure. Going further on this… if the sponsor runs out of money, or gets bored with their sponsoree, or doesn’t “approve of their lifestyle,” etc., they can likely revoke sponsorship. This would probably mean the “sponsored” serf basically has bad credit (as opposed to no credit).


#12

Another idea that just hit me. If the main default implant supports caste recognition, then it can be hacked to incite a rebellion or it could be hiding there’s a way to rise inside the caste system, as a label/database record can be changed


#13

How do the implants constrain the serfs, if at all? Would that define the community they are building? Aren’t the serfs tracked by their lords and hunted, to be brought back to work? It sounds like community building might be nigh impossible without some implant hacking. And what if what they are doing is trying to reconnect with each other and heal each other as part of community building? What if the challenge is which community to build? Hive mind, Microcosm of Ziggurati, Preimplant society, etc.?


#14

In the Middle Ages, bishops used to sponsor students, providing them things like winter clothes. Of course, there’s some surviving poetry/drinking songs from the period attesting to stingy benefactors giving cloaks with the (warm) lining cut out, and other cost cut gifts.

The classic ‘give charity to look good, but actually extend less than the minimum required to make a difference.’


#15

As far as gameplay mechanics, it might make sense for the community or conclave or whatever to have their own playbook, similar to how Blades in the Dark does it, where it advances along with the characters, and players can give it certain bonuses and upgrades. Maybe there are associated costs or resources that need constant attention and this fuels the game. Maybe at the beginning of each session there is some sort of roll to determine what the enclave needs, or a job that the burdens needs to accomplish.

Do Not Let Us Die in This Cold Dark Winter is a game designed to supplement a fantasy RPG. It’s about the characters helping a small town survive a winter. Lots of resource management and difficult decisions about food, fuel, medicine, etc. I thought about this game a lot when considering what the mechanics of Ziggurati would look like.

The Quiet Year and Microscope also come to mind, though they focus more on the overarching narrative and building a map and a timeline respectively. While those games might give us tools to better define the world of the Ziggurati, they might not help if we want to get into the nitty gritty of managing and defending a fledgling group of outsiders.


#16

@Sohkrates Thanks for the ideas and useful references. I’m wondering if the needs of the community are identical to the needs of the burdens, but at scale. The way I’m sort of seeing the trajectory here, the burden will be seeking (and often denied) 1) food, 2) rest, and 3) “freedom” (time to think, or play, or create, or socialize, or stay mentally healthy).

Much like the knight who comes by and kicks the burden as says “you can’t sleep here,” the knights come by and “kick” the tent-city, or destroy the habitation the burdens built between the ziggurat’s walls. Or destroys the hydroponic garden making food (because it’s a threat to the economy of “work for food”). Or destroys the improvised community center/stage (“If you are idle, you should be using your spare cycles hooked up to the mainframe, so it can use your augmentation’s processors to mine bitcoin”).


#17

Just sort of thinking/typing out loud here, but it probably does make sense for player burdens to not only be of a serf background, but also knight and cleric, who became a burden when they fell out of favor, committed a crime, had an accident/sickness, had their fortunes dry up, or were caught supporting other burdens. The burden is below the serf, after all. Burdens from knight/clergy castes may still have their knowledge of and relationships in those castes, which is a double-edged sword.


#18

And of course, you could always have the memory tampered special Ziguratti that tried to take it all form himself and got expelled down. How much they retains in his memory could be related to one of their moves.


#19

Just banged this out in the 15 minutes before a meeting. Dystopian AF…

"SELLING DREAMS

The sick, injured, or otherwise invalid serf can still earn their keep by loaning the processing power of their augmentations to help the Zigguratti mine for crypto-currency. Serfs call this process “selling dreams,” as it requires a willing participant to enter a controlled coma and permit the Ziggurat mainframe to take over their neural jack. Once connected, the processors of their augmentations start churning away at cryptographic computation, solving equations to generate wealth for the Zigguratti. The comatose body twitches and writhes during the process, and the strain on the augmentations is lasting. Some “dream sellers” report visceral nightmares throughout, others awake feeling drained and lifeless after spending weeks working in their sleep. However, a serf selling dreams is not want for food, as they are tube fed throughout the process.

There are some serfs who have become career dream-sellers, periodically waking to interact with a world they’ve become increasingly alienated from. They stay awake until the rumble in their stomach becomes unbearable, and then return to their sold slumber.

Unfortunately, dream selling is not always guaranteed means of subsistence. Dream sellers must select which crypto-currency they are to help mine before they enter a coma. If they’ve chosen wisely and generated wealth for the Zigguratti, all is well. If the value of the currency they’ve generated does not surpass the costs of feeding them, the tube stops flowing, and they are stirred awake by immense hunger pains."


#20

A thought on drones/automation… perhaps one of the primary reasons that the Zigguratti even bother to augment serfs, instead of replace them all with drones, is as an insurance policy against (frequently attempted) major system compromises by other Zigguratti. Serfdom can be conscripted into an “emergency army” in the case that the drones turn on their masters. In a sense, human beings are more reliably loyal to power than machines are…