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

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

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.

Ideals

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.

The Armor Problem

We love it when we find solutions to problems in the game, even if it means having to change how the game works a bit. It’s one reason we’ve kept Aes as an alpha for over a year and a half: it’s easy to change what’s rough (as John Lasseter has said).

In the current version of the Metric Steam Engine (the game system that powers Aes), there are five tiers of armor players can choose from. We noticed a problem, though, with how they interact with this: they would either have nearly none or maximum. The middle 3 tiers went largely untouched.

Contrast this with our weapons. Every weapon comes in 5 types, with varying damage and limitations. Larger equalizes require bracing to shoot straight. Larger blades require 2 hands. Players often picked a variety of sizes, from the small to the very large. The problem with armor selection was not an issue with the tiers themselves.

Like weapons, armor also varied by tier in benefit and trade off. Heavier armor soaks more damage. However, it reduces speed and give penalties to dodging attacks. The bottom tier armor soaks a little while giving no penalties, while the maximum tier armor slows an explorer down and makes them easy to hit while absorbing considerable damage. Players were choosing either max soak or max speed and nothing in between.

This problem isn’t new, either. We based how we model weapons and armor on other RPG’s that use a similar increasing rank method. The idea is that rather than trying to differentiate hundreds of different kinds of items, they’re grouped broadly by fundamental characteristics. Players then add whatever flavor they prefer. In these games, developers noted a similar problem: only the first and last tiers of armor were used.

More specifically, most players tend not to utilize much armor at all. Those who used max armor tended to play specialized tank characters. They use faculties allowing them to mitigate the penalties of high tier armor. They are in the minority. Most players simply choose to take no penalties and low soak over even medium armor.

The reasoning, based on this behavior, appears to be that players value a lack of penalties over the ability to absorb damage from being hit. They’d rather leave their dodge higher to avoid being struck rather than be able to take a hit well. What we realized as a solution to the problem was to find another trait of the armor they might value and have the game system encourage players to choose it as a focus. But what?

What we’ve done is restructure health points. In Aes, armor, like all items, has durability. Before, a player had health and body points. Health were combat points that measured the ability to sustain controlled injuries. Body damage was more severe. In our new system, armor durability replaces HP as the first line of points depleted in combat. Health replaces body, where losing health represents taking damage to your physical form.

What does this accomplish? Adventurer’s now have a reason to take the middle tier armor, because higher durability means a higher buffer before serious damage is taken. For non-combat types with low health, this buffer can be very important. Early testing has shown it does change player decision making with armor choice.

We feel pretty good about our solution to this design issue. We’ve also revamped range and speed. We’ll post more on that later.

Good and Evil

When developing Aes, one of the early choices was to have a defined “good and evil.” This dichotomy is central to both genre and design.

The decision to have a good and an evil defined is part of what makes our game heroic. In the 90’s, the trend toward “edgy” blurred the distinction of the two, essentially negating them. By choosing to differentiate, we went with a classical feel to Aes. The core of romanticism is the clash of ideals, and good vs. evil is the easiest starting point for that.

The other main reason to delineate good and evil: conflict. Conflict drives game play. If every faction is just as sleazy as the next, then there’s no emotional connection to their battle. Good and evil helps give it more punch that explorers can attach to. And it still leaves open room for more complex battles, such as between two viewpoints that are both correct in their own way.

Knowing that good and evil would be implemented, the next step was answering the design question: what would be presented as good and what as evil?

The Evil

We began by defining our evil. Artists communicate a lot about their values by what they choose to define as the problems of our world. Even those who have no solution may seek to raise awareness of an issue. The expression of values is one of the defining traits of art itself. Games are a form of art, so making a values determination in Aes was necessary for it to be complete.

The evil we’ve chosen is the dominant groupthink of our current time. For many years – over a decade by some estimates, far longer by others – there has been a kneejerk tribalism rising in various political circles. Social media – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – has been a driving force, as more and more people put themselves into echo chambers rather than challenge themselves to think and debate. Tumblr culture has been particularly toxic, with the tribe mentality driving some on that platform to push those they disagree with to suicide. “Conform to our way or you’re worthless” is a common mantra. With it, the breakdown of communication and empathy between people.

This way of thinking – or rather, this way of not thinking – holds numerous beliefs antithetical to rational human existence, such as:

  • Censorship is fine if we define what’s being censored as offensive.
  • Questioning authority is treasonous if the tyrant is “our guy.”
  • It’s okay to use violence on those you disagree with if they won’t shut up when you tell them to.
  • Your every action is justified if you feel you’re right.

To us, this sort of mentality was an obvious choice to be portrayed as the mindset of our antagonists. And since our genre is steampunk, we filtered that fundamental nature through aspects of the Victorian times. Social Darwinism, colonialism, racial atomism, socialism, and other plainly evil doctrines of the era became the values of those who behaved as unthinking tribes.

These factors gave rise to Zahnrad. There, central planners manage the lives of its citizens, to the detriment of all but the ruling elite. Lacking an “other” to blame for their failure, they created it, giving rise to the tishli. Their “you are not us” feelings lead them to treat the tishli as second-class, little more than objects. Sacrifice and obedience to the state are held up as patriotic ideals. And they seek to spread their views at the point of a gun to neighboring nations.

An interesting digression: when we first conceived of this form of evil, it had a very particular aesthetic. But with the change in political climate, the trappings have changed as well. Now there is more bombast and populism, rather than smug elitism. Still, both forms seem to be coexisting (if superficially conflicting), so we will likely present them as ideological siblings.

The Good

With our evil chosen, we designed the good to be its opposing force. We wanted a solution – a counterargument – to the problem we had defined. If an all-feeling mob addicted to the use of force to get their way was the great enemy, then the great hero had to be opposite: the rational individual, who used violence for self-defense only and who sought cooperation, not conformity.

Fortunately, the Victorian era had a lot to use for this. Positivism, the belief in science as fundamentally good, provided a basis for rationalism’s primacy. Classical liberalism held to a respect for the life and property of every person. And the very nature of the “punk” half of steampunk meant that defying the group to express individuality was expected.

One trap we avoided: utopia. While dystopias work great for gaming since they give explorers something to struggle against, utopias are very terrible – because they lack conflict. So even if we created a nation to contrast with Zahnrad, it could not be written as “it’s perfect.” That wouldn’t be believable; Zahnrad is a believable horror, because it’s based on history. Our contrast should be equally believable, if a much nicer place to live in.

Thus was born Aeneam. A nation where the only laws were in place to protect individual rights: no theft, no murder, no slavery, etc. There was no safety net, but there was no ceiling, either. Everyone treated equally, with value determined by character rather than how well they conformed to the party doctrine. However, while the average person sought to get ahead with cleverness and hard work, there were always those who would lie, cheat, and steal to get their way. And those are who explorers face off against.

Another source of tension within Aeneam: in any given nation that has a good beginning, there will always be internal forces that seek to knock it off its path. At this point in the world, Zahnrad is already fallen and corrupt. However, in its older days, it resembled Aeneam. Aeneam today is starting to see the same forces and thinking that lead Zahnrad down the path of oppression exert themselves. Will history repeat itself? Or will explorers be able to stave off corruption and keep Aeneam on the path of prosperity for all?

Going Beyond

Good and evil are just the starting point to our design. We favor the victory of the good over the evil, because clearly people seeking to control and oppress others are villains and need to be stopped. Authoritarianism in its various forms has been a primary antagonist we’re all familiar with. These are conflicts where the side that ought to win are clear cut.

What we are also looking to embed into Aes is the higher order romantic conflicts, those were two sides could both be right, or where their ideals are at least not clearly evil, yet their goals are opposed. These kinds of conflicts, such as the type Victor Hugo loved to use in his works, put explorers in a much more interesting position of choice.

Aeneam will feature many of these, since its residents and leaders may differ on the direction for the nation, with no stand out “right answer.” In Zahnrad, too, the militias who resist the government will need to determine what lines they are willing to cross for their cause. By leaving these matters to explorers to determine, it gives them a larger role in deciding the long term fate of the world around them.

We hope this has been an insightful look into our design process for Aes. It would be much easier to try and avoid making choices of values when making art, but that would leave you – the player – with a more empty and lifeless world. That’s why we’ve taken the time to really think about these concepts.

Later, we’ll look at how we chose to integrate mechanics for our morality system into the game and broke away from the old “lawful/chaotic” “good/neutral/evil” categories of old.

Version 8 “Tinnabulate Rasa” By the Numbers

This post has been long overdue! Version 8 has been out since April, but a number of technical difficulties have plagued it, preventing us from uploading it to CreateSpace as planned. In the meantime, here are the version’s stats:

  • Pages: 298
  • Faculties: 199
  • Modifications: 364
  • Testing sessions: 6+

As expected, removing content caused a drop in pages from 332 to the current count, a reduction of 34 pages overall. This number is expected to increase, though, as the focus will be more new content in the next version before more cuts to the Expanse are made.

Version 7.5 had 246 faculties, while 8 only has 199. The 47 ones cut were moved to the Expanse and will be used for expansion material. Similarly, 7.5 had 519 mods while 8 has 364. Those 155 mods are now in the Expanse.

Version 8 didn’t only remove content, however. Balms and solvents became playable with this expansion, allowing explorers to heal and damage with chemicals. Aether tinnabulators were also finally implemented, replacing sand shapers. Aether tinnabulators allow for the control of light and introduced needed stealth support. We also did a faculty-by-faculty review, fixing typos and improving wording. This was very helpful for some of the oldest faculties from versions 1 and 2, which were using old verbiage or didn’t explain their mechanics in enough detail.

Sadly, the amount of time since the last post means we’re uncertain how much testing 7.5 had before moving to 8. Version 8 itself came out at HavenCon in late April and has since been at 2 cons and several weekly sessions. We can say that quite a lot of testing did go into it, with aether used several times before release.

Version 9 is planned for release before San Japan – our approximate 1 year anniversary of Aes! Our goal for version 9 is more new content. We already have new and revised talents, a new called shot system, an update to durability, and animal habits done. More faculties and mods are planned, as well.