Science Fiction: Humanity, Technology, the Present, and the Future
I, Robot, the game
I’ve been passionate about TTRPG since high school, and this is not my first attempt at making one (actually the first time I played a TTRPG, it was one of my own creations, I wanted to save myself the trouble of reading a whole D&D book, the irony). At first, I was drawn to RPGs as a way of increasing immersion and agency, letting the players and the DM make their own choices, and suffer the consequences. RPGs was a space of perfect freedom, a spaced freed from both the dullness of everyday life and the constraints of linear (or semi-linear/railroaded) medias.
And today it’s exactly the same. Though at the time, I just thought it was the coolest thing ever (and still do), I now have a much deeper appreciation of what roleplaying means to me. It’s about collectively building a narrative, making our own myths in our own little groups. It’s about experiencing momentous choices and heart-wrenching emotions, after loosing in a grand sacrifice a character to which we’ve all been growing attached to for months or even years.
In experimental psychology and moral philosophy, they love to take part in “thought experiments”. The point is to confront a subject with a made-up, improbable and ludicrously balanced dilemma, and observe the answers through several iterations with different subjects to try and extricate a few specific answers, which often take the form of rigid rules.
This to me doesn’t teach us anything about anything. Moral decisions in these experiments are pruposefully rid of emotional reactions, social ties and aesthetic impressions, and the observers aim at being as abstract as possible. One could go so far as to say that they are not even moral decisions anymore, but choices between options that seem to be the right answer.
But there is no right answer in moral dilemmas. And I don’t mean to say that each one has their own right answer (although we all have different answers, and none could be the judge of which is the best). I mean that a moral dilemma presents us with impossible solutions, which both contain “good” and “evil”, pain and relief.
However, moral dilemmas are not my direct aim in RPGs. Most of our decisions, though sometimes intricate, are not understood as “moral conundrums”. Most of the time, it’s about making a tough decision, accepting the necessary consequences, or on the contrary, about finding the courage to refuse the purportedly “inevitable”. And almost all the time, it’s just about making a statement about oneself. Pardon my French, but I do believe that “l’existence précède l’essence”. And in the context of RPGs, it means that the stuff of a character is their decisions (then comes the form, the appearance, the flair or the falvor). And embodying a character is the fictional commitment to certain lines of conducts and decisions in specific conditions, and it’s also observing one’s own engagement with that character. There is plenty enough of “murder-hobos” in RPGs to shun the idea that we make the same decisions as our characters.
SO. What are we getting at? First, let’s look at the stuff of this RPG. After much hesitation, I finally settle to adapt Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, and to reuse a few of his plots and mathematical problems in my “encounters”.
I initially thought that I could come up with more new situations, and task the players with solving them like chess grandmasters. But ultimately, I’m not that good at maths and logic. So I intend to simply reuse the problems, and give them ethical and emotional twists. I want to depart from the dynamic established in the two short stories we’ve read, between the two men (one cool and rational the other hot-tempered, but ultimately both cis-white-male thinking), and try different approaches with different characters (probably palyer made, because character-building to me is the core of player-implication in RPG)(I’ll have to make a character builder, and make up a few parameters).
My main goal here will be replayability of the same scenarios with different characters. How can different characters, and most importantly different webs, and different compositions can come into play. For the rules and character sheets, I’ll try to focus as much as possible on the relationships between characters, rather than their personal abilities.
Let’s see how this plays out:
First off, every player will play a human character, cause this is what we’re to trying to get to the “bottom” of. Robots will be NPCs and antagonists (but maybe I’ll make an exception, might be very interesting, but I have to get a more thorough understanding of the rules before allowing that).
1. Game rules
Skill checks will be handled with percentile dice (d100). Success is secured when the roll is lower than the characteristic.
Characteristics will be mutable (like health bars, for example), and will be determined by maximum value rather than fixed value.
The three main characteristics are “Health”, “Composure” and “Vigor”.
Health checks will happen when an action requires strengh and agility.
Composure checks will happen when an action requires focus and thinking.
Vigor checks will happen when an action requires endurance and perseverance.
Most of the time, failure in one of these checks will result in a downgrading in one or more characterstic, further decreasing the chances of future success.
Example: Donovan has to handle electrical stuff to prevent overheating in the vehicle. His health is 60/80 (he’s quite strong but he’s been roughed up), his composure is 60/60 (he’s not exceptionnaly stable but he’s been holding up so far), and his vigor is 80/100 (his very energetic and has some vigor to spare). He rolls a d100 for a composure check since his task required concentration above all. FAILURE: he rolls an 72, that’s over 60, so it’s a fail. The heater goes haywire. Everybody in the vehicle loose 5 health points, and Donovan looses 5 vigor points for undertaking the task, and 5 composure points to express his frustration. SUCCESS: he rolls a 42, that’s under 60, so it’s a success. The heater is stabilized. No one looses health points, Donovan still looses 5 vigor points for undertaking the task but might be rewarded with composure points to express his satisfaction.
To make the choices more meaningful, the costs and consequences of each challenge and check will be spelled out to the players before they choose what they want to do.
What is the point of this? Well it’s first and foremost a question of who will be tasked to do what, and to what point. Who will risk their lives and sanity? The weakest are also the most likely to fail. Eventually I think I’ll add more specific skills (althetics, engeneering, medicine, etc…) which will apply modifiers to the rolls to balance that out. Are we still sending the beefy one to carry something even though their’s exhausted and hurt? What sacrifices will have to be made and by who. I don’t expect that every character will come out alive of every scenario. The goal is the present the players with an impossible situation, and let them outsmart the GM.
In accordance to the game’s rules, the three rules of robotics with be spelled out as follows:
1. A robot may not lower a human character’s health score, or, through inaction, allow a human character’s health score be lowered.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must not allow its own health score to be lowered as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
It is important to note that the robots are not programed to take into account the mental health and well-being of their masters. To a robot, protecting someone means protecting their body.
My main hesitation at this point in the project is the medium. The simplest solution would be to write the rulebook and the scenarios on a pdf, improvise a character sheet and we’re all set. But I wonder how digital ressources can come to our aid here. VR would be an interesting immersion choice (not to put the player directly in the shoes of the character, so as to not impede their agency, but simply to immerse them in a certain visual universe), but would separate the players from one another, which as my point but not my aim. On the other hand, sound design and ambiences should definitely play a major role in the game design.