Dungeon Diving the Firmament

September 11, 2007

Fingers on the Firmament is one of my weirder game concepts. As I explained it to Justin D. Jacobson:

    Basically, characters reach out into the sky one day and discover that they can grasp the stars and pull on them, yanking themselves into the great void of the universe. They can rock-climb on the heavens, basically: grabbing Sirius and pulling themselves towards it, then grabbing another star, further away. There would be star maps included in the game, so the characters could figure out where they were.

    Eventually, assuming they are uncommonly lucky, they are stumbled upon by some of the other millions of humans who live amid the stars. Billions of other star-travelers are simply lost forever, wandering amidst the void forever, since finding other humans amidst the insane hugeness of the universe is surprisingly rare. But the humans who do find each other create strange mini-societies among the stars, where they try to find those who are lost and create lives for themselves way out beyond the world that we know. Some even try to find Earth, so they can go home.

    The game asks, if such a situation were to occur, what would the society of these dwellers among the stars actually be like? It’s a kind of reconstructed anthropology based on a magical realist premise.

To this Justin suggested adding a kind of Heroes-related premise (warning, I’ve never actually watched that series):

    Players take the role of ordinary individuals scattered… The point of the game is to have them find each other. They’re meant to come together for some higher purpose, but something is trying to prevent it from happening. Why are they meant to find each other, and what is trying to prevent them could be fertile ground for further thinking.

Which sounds great. And then I suggested that we do it using the d20 system. Before you freak out, let me explain how “star diving” might work.

The firmament (i.e. the universe) is so incredibly vast that getting yourself lost is a huge danger. Say you reach out and grab a star, pulling yourself towards it. As you approach the star, especially if the star is very far away, the sky around it will look less and less familiar. Bright stars will become dim and dim stars will become bright. Some stars will become invisible and formerly invisible ones will appear. The constellations that you once knew will no longer be around you as familiar guides. God forbid you grab a particular star and it turns out to be a not a star at all but a far-off galaxy. Thanks to such a minor misstep, you could find yourself wandering the universe alone forever, unable to find your way back to familiar skies.

So when people go traveling, they do it in groups. Each person in the group has a particular role and a set of responsibilities. If everyone does their job properly, the likelihood of people getting lost is very low. And, even if someone does get separated and disoriented, there are procedures that the group can follow, making recovery much more likely than it would normally be. I haven’t got these responsibilities or procedures all figured out yet, but I do want to talk about how a particular journey into unfamiliar space, a “star dive” might work, because the parallels to dungeon diving make me think d20 might be a great system for this.

The group starts in familiar space, probably their home territory, where the stars around them are familiar and, ideally, relatively well-mapped. Now “mapped” can mean “a crew went diving, starting with that star, and never came back; neither did the search party that went after them.” Certain stars may be generally agreed to be off-limits, perhaps because they are very far away and no one’s sure what’s on the other side.

In any case, before going on a journey, the “dive crew” would have picked a particular route. The route may be a simple as picking an unknown star that’s visible from your home territory, but one to which most people in your crew have not been to. Perhaps there’s one or two experienced crew members who can act as guides. Perhaps you’ve borrowed someone from a different crew who claims to know a bit about the star or have once gotten lost somewhere nearby. Perhaps you plan to follow up on a previous dive and continue along a route that’s already mostly plotted or branch off and explore neighboring stars, expanded your familiarity. Perhaps a crew has disappeared and you’re planning to trace the route they took in order to look for them. Perhaps you have no connection to the star or route except for pure curiosity, and you’re just going to take the chance.

Once you start the journey, each “swing” to the next star (swinging on a star, get it?) holds a bit of a risk, especially if you’re swinging into unfamiliar space. Even if your entire group is traveling together, swinging is still an individual act. Assuming that everyone makes the same “grab,” you’ll all end up close to and oriented towards the same star, but you will still arrive seperately and potentially far apart. Gathering the group together and counting heads before you make the next “swing” is recommended. In more familiar space, a rendezvous ever 3-5 “swings” may be plenty. You can just say “Rendezvous at ______” and, if not all party members arrive as planned, the group can trace their steps backward one at a time to try to find missing people.

All in all, traveling between the stars follows the general dungeon dive pattern of Enter New Space + Deal With What’s There + Choose a Direction to Go In + Enter New Space. And once Justin and I figure out the grand premise — what the various crews are trying to do and what’s preventing them from doing it — I imagine that the various ways that you could potentially Deal With What’s There could become more and more interesting.

3 Responses to “Dungeon Diving the Firmament”

  1. tonydowler Says:

    This is one wild idea, and I like it! I’m not sure I can even say what it is about it that really grabs me, but it’s got something very new about it. You were talking about diving groups having a local neighborhood that they stick to. Such a neighborhood could be anchored to a particularly bright star, or even a distinctive planetary nebula so that it’s easy to find your way back to it.

  2. Yeah, I think particularly bright stars are going to be the anchors of the whole network. But bandit crews that want to hide “off-route” might have bases near smaller stars that are harder to find. Or even less predatory crews might have safehouses or emergency meeting places that are slightly less traditional.

    Nebulas are both cool and a problem. There’s so much debris there that only the brightest stars are going to be visible from inside them, and even then that’s not always true. The biggest danger to travelers, by far, is getting to a place where they can’t see the stars. Getting too close to a black hole might do this, or being embedded in gas, debris, or whatever dark matter is.

  3. Yeah. When Jonathan told me about the idea, my reply was basically: It scares me to think about working on it–but that’s a good thing.

    For those who don’t know, this collaboration started when I professed a desire to expose myself to the “hippie” virus and Jonathan professed a desire to wallow in the d20 mud. I.e., we’re stretching our designer wings here, firmly planting ourselves in unfamiliar territory. I, for one, can’t wait to see what results.

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