Duality in Aes

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.

Sex and Gender in Aes

When we designed the character sheet, one thing we included was to have two separate boxes for sex and gender. This has attracted some attention from our players, since most have never seen that in any RPG before.

We treat sex in biological terms. Sex is determined by the biological attributes an explorer has. Gender, on the other hand, is the societal identification that explorer takes with regard to those biological attributes. For humans, baihu, qinglong, and zhuque, these two tend to be both binary and in sync. Male sex will typically mean male gender and female sex will be highly correlated with female gender. Binary sex is average for them and their societies assign their gender roles based on it.

Where the differentiation adds to the depth of the world is for the kindred who don’t follow the human normal arrangement. Sex binary is not a universal. The feichong, insects, are not wholly sex binary. Some versions exist with a third sex that contributes necessary enzymes to the reproduction process. The touzulei, who can manipulate life, have created myriad ways of reproduction with dozens of niches to fill.

Gender has greater variations, even among those kindred that tend to have binary concepts. Part of the punk aspect of steampunk is allowing explorers to defy what is average for a given society. A man can present as a woman and vice versa. Such subversion of Victorian mores are part of the steampunk genre. (The Constantine Affliction plays with this as a central theme.)

Tishli, predominantly female, have complex views on gender. The aggressive nature by which their masters in Zahnrad assign them a rigid place in society (i.e. economic slaves) leads some of the free tishli to question many kinds of apparently rigid structures, including how they present their sexual identities. The male tishli are deliberately genderqueer, since by design they are meant to represent the subconscious values of their creators. These creators have a false notion of masculinity (the bull-headed machismo stereotype), so they create the male tishli in response to that false image. They are a rebuttal to an argument that is only perceived to exist.

With baihu, the hyena variants are matriarchal, with males forced into a submissive role. Touzulei have as many genders as they do sexes, since they alter their forms and presentations on a whim. The sea going qinglong have variants that play with the “typical” gender roles, such as seahorse versions with males as the child caregiver. There are feichong that differentiate the gender between females based on their place in the hierarchy, with some breeding as others are expected to be asexual workers.

And, just as in the real world, there are those whose mental identification (gender) don’t align with the physical form (sex) they were born into. (Though, in the world of Aes, such a situation is much easier to fix thanks to evo control.) while it’s possible to play a transgender character in almost any game, we felt that splitting sex and gender made it at least somewhat implicit that it’s fine to do so here. As opposed to leaving it as an undocumented feature.

Currently, there’s a transgender character in playtesting: a biologically female tishli who identifies as male, who acquired shape shifting and identity theft abilities. Now they prefer to present themselves as male in more ways than one. At GamExpo, we had a bi-gender character, as well. Both did so to explore role-playing opportunities and to create explorers they thought were interesting.

We didn’t split sex and gender to be trendy or pander. Issues regarding transgender individuals are serious and deserve earnest discussion moving forward. Our decision to split sex and gender, rather than treat them as synonyms, was not an effort to try and make the game seem more legitimate by inserting that discussion into Aes. It was done because, in the context of the game world and the game’s themes, differentiating the two allowed for greater depth of lore and expanded options for players.

The questioning of what constitutes normal is where Aes draws much of the punk side of steampunk. At the same time, we avoid sweeping generalizations condemning all aspects of normal or deeming all rebellion as foolish. If an explorer wants to dig into the issues around a gender-sex disconnect they can. If they want to go with the average and have the two synchronize, they can do that, as well. Sex and gender, especially through a Victorian lens, are fascinating topics to explore, which is why we’ve put them in our game.

Kindred and Adaptations

We recently finished development of a major game element for Aes: the playable races.We followed in the traditional sci-fi RPG mold of having these races – here, called kindred – arise from evolution in the world, rather than created by magical or mystical forces as in fantasy RPG’s. The only “new” race arose from scientific creation, a protean species to harken back to the steampunk theme of creating new life. (This is a theme that will be drawn from in other ways down the road.)

Why do we have non-human races in Aes? An essential part of an RPG is the ability to be something other than human. This has numerous benefits. For one, it adds diversity to the game world. New and interesting conflicts can arise from the relationship between different factions.

Second, they can promote exploration, as beings able to traverse climates hostile to human life, such as under the ocean or volcanoes. Third, they allow for symbolism, as a way of representing the best or worst traits of humanity distilled and simplified. Elves and orcs are commonly employed examples.

Lastly, there are numerous role-play benefits, as well. Putting yourself in the role of someone who isn’t human requires extending your own thoughts and perspective to match. It can give fresh challenges for experienced and new players alike, as well as allow for fresh takes on the same scenario.

Why do we use the terms “kindred” and “adaptations” over the more common “races” and “traits?” Race is a term that’s rather muddled in modern language. In game terms, it typically means a species that is distinct in genetics and physiology from another. Traits, likewise. Race in this sense means something that has arisen after millennia and more of natural selection to choose certain traits that are now common in the population. New races are slow to form as off-shoots of the main ones.

We prefer “kindred” because it has less of a connotation for hard genetic differences. We like the idea of representing smaller differences that can arise from culture and geography, rather than the large gulfs of different species. For example, the kindred in the core book will be generalized versions, a mash-up of the most common traits. Later versions will explore the nuanced differences based on regions. Adaptations reflects both the behavioral and physiological changes we make as we grow used to new environments.

For example, humans who live in Aeneam are acclimated to living free at the cost of having to deal with greater risk. Residents of Zupcanik, though, have had to handle the abominations that roam the countryside due to the wild experiments of the Gefahr family. These two kindred – kinfolk – will have different adaptations to their environment. They’re both human, their the same race, but what they’re good at will be very different due to their different surroundings.

Currently, the plan is for the core book to have seven distinct kindred, each one representing the main races of Aes. Expansion materials will then add kindred and adaptations as possible, such as for nations or different environments. Later on, we’ll post about the seven kindred as well as how we designed adaptations.

Qualitative Faculties

Feats are a key component of many games. They’re also known as abilities, specialties, talents, skills, and a host of other terms. Their purpose is to give an explorer what sets them apart from normal people, what makes them above the rabble or gives them a fighting chance at changing the world around them.

Feats are often clear cut bonuses and stat boosts dependent on situations or triggers or an expansion of abilities. For example, a feat might grant a bonus to avoid being grabbed. Or could allow an explorer to lift more than normally allowed. Feats tend toward a hard quantitative aspect, expanding on mechanics and rooted in numbers.

A direction we’ve gone with feats in Aes – called faculties – is to balance the usual quantitative format with a qualitative format. Qualitative faculties work not by giving hard definitions of what they allow an explorer to do in terms of game mechanics, but instead via metaphor and description. For example, instead of saying “+2 to notice a detail,” we say, “You can thread a needle without having to look.”

Aes is intended to be centered on story telling and role-play more than combat. Qualitative faculties mesh with that goal wonderfully in several ways: interactions with the Invisible Hand, as a game running tool, to encourage careful consideration, and increasing variety of play styles.

First, they improve the dynamic between player and Invisible Hand. Debates over, “Do I succeed?” happen regularly. With quantitative feats, this is often a matter of adding numbers and haggling for a specific quantity. The numbers can bog down the sense of immersion. With qualitative feats, this flows differently. Now the explorer has to be creative to justify being able to accomplish a task. They need to plead their case with cleverness over rules. This makes debates over “Am I successful?” ones requiring even more immersion, as the explorer has to search for an in-world justification.

Second, they provide a great tool for the Invisible Hand. Fudging the dice in favor of players is a time honored tradition. Qualitative faculties allow for even more leeway. Circumstances could grant an explorer extra bonuses. Knowing what their explorers are capable of in terms of metaphors, they can create richer contexts for them to explore by deliberately tying it in.

Third, it rewards lateral thinking on the part of explorers. Numbers provide only so many ways to employ them. A metaphor or description, though, is open to interpretation. We deliberately write them open-ended for specifically this purpose. An explorer could find a new way to spin or re-frame a sentence to see new uses and applications. Word association and brainstorming of possibilities are encouraged. At the same time, the Invisible Hand retains the power to quality check and hold them to high standards, so that not just any word salad goes through.

Last, and this builds on point three, by being open to individual interpretation and use, it keeps the game fresh. Quantitative feats can become stale, as their uses are explored thoroughly by those who love them and they become central to established archetypes. Number and mechanical oriented feats are often pinned down to a single targeted use, taking their utility from how they can be combined with other feats.The replay value derives from inter-feat interactions.

However, qualitative faculties provide greater flexibility within the feat – intra-feat interpretations. Two characters with the exact same faculty could be employing them in very different ways. Take the “You can thread a needle without having to look” example. One explorer may emphasize the needle part, using it to craft micro-inventions. Another could focus on the “without having to look,” arguing it lets them get around penalties from being blind while sniping. An inventor and a sniper, both employing the same faculty to improve their ability. Thus, it defies easy characterization of the “This feat is best for snipers only” sort found in many games.

Now, there are problems and issues with qualitative faculties. For one, not every player is as comfortable with the written elements of games as others. Reading disabilities are not uncommon even among role-players and some may have English as a second language. This can cause issues for some players through no fault of their own and game runners need to be mindful of this.

Second, there are players who don’t like open-ended things. To them, numbers are comforting and definite. They like sticking to what’s solid rather than something “squishy.” This is why also including quantitative faculties is important, so these players can also have something to latch onto. Gaming preferences cover a wide span and there are people who want their abilities to be straight forward and predictable.

Third, it can increase the complexity of the game’s language. Aes is intended largely for all ages, so that even someone in middle school can join in. Advanced language skills can represent a barrier to this goal. It also reduces the speed with which a player can pick up and play, since they have to think and contemplate when reading these faculties. During con demos, I have noticed that qualitative faculties are rarely chosen, with players tending to prefer simpler ones for their first run through.

An exception has been Psychoanalytics, which several players have found a fascinating concept, enough to overcome the textual barrier. This speaks of the need to make sure that any qualitative faculty – as well as feats in general – need to sound interesting. The higher the cool factor, the more a player will put up with to use it. A good maxim for any game designer.

Qualitative faculties will be one of the key design traits for Aes, since they provide the game a longer span of time before growing stale and tie in wonderfully to the principles of role-play and discovery at the core of the game. So long as we make them awesome, they should appeal to a broad section of players and improve game play for everyone!