(This is a big one. First thing’s freaking last, as usual.)
S P L I N T E R is a tabletop roleplaying game that I began writing and testing back in summer of 2008. I don’t want to sound like buzzword city again, but the game is simultaneously wildly experimental and stringently traditional. How is that possible? Well…
In S P L I N T E R you play as a player who is playing a character (called an Avatar, and keep in mind that yes this predates the movie Avatar) in a game. This has probably been done before without my knowledge in the wide world of indie RPG publishing, but not in anything mainstream that I’m aware of. In any case, the game within the game, however, has much higher stakes than the game itself.
In one sense, S P L I N T E R takes place on our very same planet Earth, in the extremely dystopian future of the year 2741. A massive international mega-conglomerate called GamesCorp controls the world, a world which has globalized on an enormous scale. Human civilization is ruled by a corporate board of directors, and instead of the corporate neo-feudalism of Shadowrun and other classic cyberpunk literature, humanity has been forced into a rigid caste system. All who question and resist are dealt with harshly by the Social Police, and might wind up as cybernetically controlled worker drones. The bread and circuses that distracts the masses of the lower castes from the drudgery and oppression of their day to day lives–and the carrot dangled in front of the middle and upper classes–is The Game.
(If this sounds achingly familiar to you so far, there’s good reason. Besides your obvious dystopian inspirations–your 1984, your Farenheit 451, your Brave New World— this part of the S P L I N T E R setting owes a huge debt to the AMAZING Acts of Caine series of novels by the incomparable Matthew Woodring Stover.)
In a world with countless other games, The Game is the only one that matters–an ultraviolent, cruel, sadistic virtual reality game show which takes place in a seemingly infinite, constantly shifting dungeon-world rendered with over-the-top hyper realism. The Game has many variants, from the short and simple to the lengthy and complex. But even more fascinating than The Game and the world which is it is the cornerstone of society is the world in which the game itself place, known only as the Splinter.
Let me scoop for some degree of eloquence and quote my own rules here.
On the most basic level, the Game’s rules are extremely simple. There is only one rule: survive. But the devil is in the details, and the game is the most complex, detailed, and complete game every designed. Its history is a hundred billion times longer than the history of the planet earth. Its area is infinitely vaster. And its shape is infinitely stranger.
The Game’s board is the largest and deepest ever created: The Splinter. It is an entire world, a universe, all indoors, with no sky but a hundred artificial suns and mechanical moons. It takes the form of an enormous megastructure, an ecumenopolis or Dyson sphere, a hundred, thousand, or million times the size of the Earth. In addition to being nearly infinite in size, the game’s world is constantly changing. The Game’s rooms, zones, structures, levels, and areas constantly shift at varying rates. Sometimes, a new floor will gradually grow or collapse over the course of a decade. Other times, the changes are violent enough and fast enough to cause players to be smashed alive, caught between an expanding wall and a hard place.
The Splinter’s technological level varies randomly from room to room, zone to zone, and level to level. While the majority of the Splinter’s architecture resembles a vast and incredibly intricate medieval dungeon labyrinth, everything from decaying and condemned shopping malls to glistening steel superstructures can be found within its expanse.
The Splinter’s zones span everything from pre-stone age to unimaginably futuristic technologies, indistinguishable from magic, blending with one another chaotically. The technologies found in the Splinter include thousands of strains never before invented by man, alternate paths of invention we never took at hundreds of junctures in our evolution; steam-powered clockwork computers, living guns made of interlocking bones and soft tissues, and devices so complex that the human science still cannot come close to understanding what they are, and how they work.
The inhabitants of the game—and the Avatars taken on by the players—are equally strange, radical evolutionary sports that went down paths of development that humanity never dreamed of. Neither truly antehuman or posthuman, they are humanity seen sidewise. All of them have the ability to spontaneously shape change, and the magic like power to Tune; to reflexively or intentionally change reality in the Splinter through will alone.
The Programmers have long since ceased being able to control on any major level the development of the Game’s setting or its players. They can still insert and extract players, and create minor changes, but they cannot control the development of the game’s world or its inhabitants. This makes the Game more exciting for everyone.
The Game is a virtual reality construct. The Players plug in first-hand, and can control the action. Those who succeed are the world’s rockstars, athletes, and media darlings. Those who fail bleed out in the chair and are forgotten when tomorrow’s fans rise. The richest viewers can plug into VR right in the studio, seeing, hearing, and feeling everything the Players experience. The rest of the world watches their favorite Players glued to their holograph sets. The best games are recorded, the recordings endlessly played and replayed. The Game is not fixed. It is real. Even the death. Who could ever look away?
By choice or misadventure, you have become a Player.
In other words, the Splinter itself is a megastructure of mind-bogglingly epic proportions, with a number of levels so arbitrarily large as to be infinite. It could be an Alderson disk, a Dyson sphere, or a Nivenseque Ringworld; hell, it could be big enough to contain multiple examples of all three. It’s Dark City on steroids. But it is also a randomly generate dungeon which randomly generates itself, and which (eventually) player player characters (Avatars) can influence the growth and alteration of if they develop enough power.
But I’m not going to get into the mind-bogglingly bizarre, House of Leaves-esque (a book I not only hadn’t read in 2008, but didn’t pick up until just now, yet the similarities are there) physics and metaphysics of the Splinter itself. I feel like I’ve given enough Setting and Premise here that if there’s something in it to hook you, hopefully you are hooked, so instead lets talk about rules.
Player Sessions on the Splinter–which in my own playtests have been incredibly few and far between–use an extremely rules lite system that is mercilessly naturalistic. It is practically impossible to build a player character which won’t be killed within a few turns of serious mortal combat, and Players don’t have a better chance of survival when being shot with a gun than, well, players. The reason for this is intentional: as the only world I’ve created which is a true dystopia, resistance is futile. Oh, I certainly want ‘resistance’ to be part of the conceptual space of the game, and it can be glorious, romantic, inspiring, and empower…but it is ultimately futile.
(So far) the Player rules are also very, very rules lite. There are only four very streamlined attributes (Strength, Speed, Wits, Will, rated from 1 to 6) and there is no set list of skills; players make up their own following guidelines in the book. The core resolution mechanic is roll 1d6 vs. a target number between 2 and 9, adding a bonus of +1, +2, or +3 based on skill level (or attribute score, for attribute tests). The system is extremely hard to game in such a way as to make a player any more powerful than any other player, though players can certainly have their own strengths and weaknesses. All of this is intentional, again. Not that much time is meant to be spent ‘playing the Player’, and most of that time should be spent on pure roleplay.
Of course, Player attributes due have their way of influencing Avatar stats, and then there is the struggle for control between Player and Avatar, because in the context of THe Game, Avatars are sentient and living beings that Players ‘possess’.
If the Player rules are rules lite, the Avatar rules for The Game inside the game (where I spent the vast majority of my playtesting time) are, well, emphatically NOT.
Avatars belong to one of seven (playable) Bloodlines. Bloodlines are simultaneously races and classes. Bloodlines are all shapeshifters, and each have three forms. In Man Shape, a Bloodline’s powers and attribute modifications are the least obvious; in Beast Shape they express the most, and Middle Shape is somewhere in between. But I don’t want you to be thinking of something generic and boring like lycanthropes, were-rats, and were-boars. Some examples are:
“Aventine in Man Shape are tall, thin, pale and blonde humanoids with aquiline bone structures, long, narrow noses and sharp, severe features. They prefer to dress in light blues and greens. Aventine in Rione are taller and thinner, though still vaguely humanoid. Their blonde hair is replaced by short, glossy blue downy feathers, and occasionally their bodies are covered in similar down. Their manicured fingernails become razor sharp talons. Their eyes glow bright blue. Aventine in Gyre form are tremendous birds of prey, their feathers ranging from sky blue to midnight blue.”
Aventine are fast and perceptive but physically weak and fragile. They have control over lightning and can induce weakness to magic, and have a commanding glare and (obviously) the power of flight.
” Mnemonics in Man Shape are frail, slight humans with pronounced foreheads, a slightly greenish or bronze colored huge to their skin. They prefer to dress in shimmering golden and silver robes, sashes, and tunics. Mnemonics in Clockwork have exposed artificial pneumatic arms and legs made of gears and cogs, pistons and actuators, the brass clockwork endlessly ticking. Mnemonics in Numidium are glistening golems of metal and machinery, their backs puffing steam as they trundle noisily about.”
Mnemonics are biomechanoid life forms that are brilliant yet oblivious in terms of perception. They can hot-swap or upgrade their arms and legs, can jam the Tuning (I’ll get to that) of others, and most importantly, can invent new technology from spare parts through sheer will alone.
“Tzaetzi in Man Shape are tall and sinuous. They have broad faces, amber colored, almond-shaped eyes, and slightly pronounced canine fangs. Their skin has a pale golden hue, and they prefer to dress in flowing green robes and sarongs. When Tzaetzi shift to Serpens, their reptilian qualities become more pronounced; their skin becomes tough and scaly, their tongue becomes long and forked, their fangs long and venomous, their fore-arms shrivel. In their final form, Ouroboros, Tzaetzi are enormous sixteen-foot long golden cobras.”
Tzaetzi are serpent people, long-lived, wise, and noble. As they become more and more snakelike they become smarter, more perceptive, and more brave, while all of their physical attributes are slightly degraded. They have a hypnotic gaze, deadly venom, the ability to heal by laying on hands, and the sorcerous power to shape reality into the destructive power of fire, frost, and shock through raw tuning.
Why Shapeshifters? A few reasons. The less conceptually interesting reason is that Avatars in S P L I N T E R can shift one or more forms every combat turn in addition to their normal actions and movement, adding a new layer of strategic complexity to combat. The more interesting answer, to me, is that every single Splinter Avatar is a fallen demigod. Gaining experience and leveling up, a process the game labels as ‘Ascension’, is not about learning new things, but recalling previous degrees of power unheard of. By using your Harmonics–unique power disciplines–and Tuning, high level Avatars can meld the very nature of (virtual) reality itself. For thematic reasons I don’t think I need to spell out, the rules mechanics of the Splinter itself are meant to be empowering to contrast the powerlessness of Player sessions, even though by playing The Game, you’re only playing into GamesCorp’s hand…or are you?
But for ‘demigod’ and ’empowering’ do not read easy to survive. In the same way that the very setting of the Splinter is my ‘love/hate’ letter to random dungeon generation (and indeed, I have dozens out of the millions of levels of the Splinter that exist mapped and statted and populated and ready to rock), the level of peril in The Splinter is my simultaneous satire and homage of the early editions of D&D. Death comes very, very cheaply in The Splinter. Sadistic and unfair monsters and traps abound, doors and hallways shift at the worst possible moment, and don’t forget that when you go in, because of the limits of the Port technology, you go in naked and unarmed. Every time. The reason for the brutal lethality level of the game is simple enough: The Game within the game is meant to portray a sick, sadistic, ultra-violent gameshow (which is basically what 1st Edition D&D was). The GM is given sufficient tools not to let their players forget that.
But even if you will probably die, and die often–and as I mentioned above, Avatar death is Player death, but don’t worry, the game doesn’t actually kill its real world players— there is the opportunity to collect a ton of cool stuff and in collecting such stuff become immensely powerful. You see, even though the ‘default’ appearance of The Splinter is an infinitely vast medieval dungeon, there are strata with massively differing technology levels. Likewise, every level is stocked with weapons and equipment that is not just medieval, but also renaissance, modern, cyberpunk, far-future, and the inconceivable devices from beyond the ultimate technology singularity. Within the Splinter–where, as I have not gotten into in this post, there are multiple ideological sects, factions, and tribes vying for power–technology is power. The array of items and enemies that exist in The Splinter is effectively infinite; in fact, the dungeon generation tables and procedures I’ve written include protocol for generating brand new items or enemies whenever treasure or threats are found.
Besides finding stuff, there are also secrets to find. The Splinter at the heart of S P L I N T E R is almost infinitely old, with an ancient, buried history stretching back thousands of milennia. Much of this history should be written in the form of mysterious, enigmatic in-game documents, found like treasure within the game’s universe. Some of these documents I’ve written to provide a jumping off point, but the rest are meant to be written by whoever GMs the game. The actual history of the Splinter can vary from gaming table to gaming table, the only constant is that the documents themselves should be almost impenetrably mysterious, fragmented, rare, and sparse. For in the Splinter may lie some way to actually change the nature of life on GamesCorp’s Earth, since the “virtual” world of the Splinter is infinitely larger and “artificially” infinitely older. But one thing that the forces inside and outside of The Game will make sure of is that if such a Control Room exists, it will be hell getting there.
I just learned this yesterday, but apparently The Splinter was almost agonizingly close to being completed when I chose to end my second spate of working on it in 2009. In the two years sense, as far as I can tell from my file dates, there has been almost no forward movement on the game. But now that I can tell that the core rulebook requires less than 15,000 words of new content to be completed, I hope I can say with total honesty that the day when S P L I N T E R finally approaches the art assets, layout, and (eventually) publication stage is approaching.