We posted before about how we approached the themes of good and evil in Aes. It’s a use of contrasts and conflict: the individual versus the mob, the thinking versus the unthinking, and the creators versus the controllers.
We’ve also embedded the idea of balanced complementary pairs: opposite concepts that are not at odds, but rather work together. This is from the Taoist philosophy we’ve used in much of the world building. Taoism uses definitions of both the positive and negative spaces. For example, a vessel is both what it contains and the space within that can be filled. The most famous of these dual constructs is Yin and Yang.
These are some examples of where we’ve employed duality in Aes’s game design.
Concoctions are our liquid based crafting products, equivalent to D&D’s potions or alchemy. We have a couple general categories for our core book: Balms and Solvents.
Normally, games will separate liquids into many different functions. Healing, damage, benefits, impediments, etc. will all get their own categories.
We defined Balms as both medicines and poisons. It is often said that medicines are just poisons with correct dosage. In terms of duality, one restores while the other enervates. A field that covers both giving and taking away energy. While the forces are opposite, they are thematically linked, making them two sides of a coin.
Chemicals that heal and those that hurt have a long relation with one another. Historically, many medicines in the Victorian Era had cocaine, formaldehyde, and other hazardous substances. China’s elixir of immortality had many formulations with mercury and arsenic.
With Solvents, we placed cleaners and lubricants as well as acids and glues all under the same umbrella. Cleaners preserve equipment as acids break them down or cause oxidation. Lubricants and glues manipulate friction in opposite ways. As with Balms, these forces are opposites, but not enemies.
Flair is one of our four basic stats. While most other steampunk RPG’s only provide stats for combat, Flair – and later, Conviction – were our method of quantifying non-combat actions and making them equal to fighting. We wanted a game where adventurers could solve problems through non-violent means if they so chose.
Flair has many uses. One is attracting attention: capturing the attention of a crowd, captivating others in conversation, and intimidating those who might mean you harm. It also does the opposite: stealth. Sneaking past guards, remaining hidden in the shadows, or avoiding conversation at a ball. Flair covers all forms of being noticed, both increasing it and deflecting it, like controlling a spigot of flowing charisma.
Instead of lawful-chaotic or good-evil for our morality, we employ scores (clarity) in 5 ideals. Each represents a positive philosophical idea from the era: autonomy, exchange, invention, self-defense, and volition. An explorer’s clarity in each ideal influences how they’re perceived by those around them.
We measure clarity both as positive and as negative. The positive is the affirmation of these values. For example, a high invention means a love of science. High volition means a strong will. The negative is the unflattering complement of the ideal. A strong negative in self-defense makes you come across as a bully or coward. A negative exchange means you’re inept at social finery.
The same person can have positives in some and negative in others. Being negative doesn’t make you evil, per se. It just means you have a flaw. Thus, being strong in one ideal and weak in another exist in tandem. At the same time, we avoid slipping into relativism since there is a hard number assigned to the ideal as well as a framework for a universal standard of “more of this kind of behavior is good.” There are people who love science more than you – but at no point is hating science considered equal to loving it.
Sex and Gender
Sex and gender are dual aspects of humanity long portrayed in relation to one another. Yin and Yang were deemed the feminine and masculine energies for this reason.
Sex is the biological form of a character. Gender is the sociological aspect. With humans, the two are highly correlated in binary terms of male and female. But correlation is not absolute.
In Aes, as with our own world, there will be punks and misfits who choose to define gender by their own terms rather than accepting social norms. There will also be those whose sex and gender are in opposition and are motivated by that internal disparity. (One of our early player made tishli characters was a transman who used shapeshifting.) It’s a world of radical experimentation with forms – nonbinary bodies are definitely possible for those who wish for them.
However, there’s a bigger twist to Aes: we have nonhuman species, as well, with their own variations in sex and gender. The baihu have the chono, a third sex descended from hyenas. Touzulei, manipulators of biological forms, invent hundreds of new ways to exchange biological information a year, giving them numerous different sexes. The feichong, as insects, have different genders for their males and females based on function.
Duality and Design
For game design, these approaches have several benefits.
Making Balms and Solvents more inclusive improves our crafting system over other approaches. Greater variety means people will have more fun. We wanted someone who chose to specialize in crafting Balms access to both healing and damage. It avoids the “you’re the healer” pigeon hole of many games. It will also encourage more players to use the maker faculties related to those skills.
By having the same stat, Flair, cover both stealth and charisma, players don’t have to choose one over the other. You can be a rogue with a great smile or a soft-stepping bard. While your faculties will give you situational bonuses that may favor one approach over others, your base Flair will be handy in more ways than one. (Our main concern right now is making sure Conviction, which covers resistance and noticing, can be acquired just as easily. It makes sure the mouse and mouse trap are balanced.)
Placing Ideals on a continuum of positive, neutral, and negative gives players far more options with their morality than games that use rigid categories. You can be someone who loves science but overly aggressive in recruiting test subjects. You can be strongly willful, but have a terrible business sense. You can be “good” with room to grow in multiple areas or be the sort who has a lone redeeming feature. Your choice. We’ll write more about the use of Ideals in Aes’s engine at a later point.
Separating sex and gender in character creation enables greater player customization. Many will want the two to be the same, but if someone wants to make them different, they will know the game supports that. It gives us an avenue for defining how fundamentally different the different kindred are from each other and humans. You’re not just “another squid person” – you’re a touzulei who shares their genes through interpretative dance or some other unique methodology. You’re not just a Baihu, you’re a chono who’s experienced discrimination because of how you were born. These story concepts and more are encouraged by choosing to make sex and gender customizable options that act in concert.
We hope this summary of how we’ve utilized duality has helped you think about different approaches to game design.