Thursday, February 2, 2012

Non-Stop, aka Starship by Brian Aldiss

 Today I want to talk about Non-Stop, aka Starship, by Brian Aldiss. The book is best known amongst RPG fans as the primary inspiration for Metamorphosis Alpha by James Ward, the first sci-fi RPG and predecessor to Gamma World.

Metamorphosis Alpha remains, perhaps, the single most intriguing game I have never read, (although that'll soon change thanks to the recent reprint found here). I first heard about MA in an editorial by Roger Moore in Dragon Magazine #177. Moore, in that article, discusses "kinky" games, by which he means RPGs based around unusual or gonzo concepts. He discusses three in particular: Bunnies and Burrows, Metamorphosis Alpha, and Lace & Steel. All three of them held quite a bit of promise to me, but this being before the internet age, I had no way to track down these oldies. I eventually got Bunnies & Burrows, and even played a few sessions, but Metamorphosis Alpha and Lace & Steel continue to evade me.

Out of the three, though, Metamorphosis Alpha really set my young mind afire, and for good reason - not only is the concept solid gold, but it is the "0e" of Gamma World, the first game I ever ran. Since that point, I have been fascinated by the concept of a generation ship and interested in the origins of such an idea.

As best as I can tell, the first author to play with such a concept is Robert Heinlein with his novella "Orphans in the Sky", which sets down a basic framework from which Brian Aldiss expands. In many ways, Non-Stop is a commentary on Heinlein's work, presenting a darker, more complex ecosystem and a shocker of an ending.

It is also eminently gameable. Rarely in literature prior to D&D will you see dungeon crawling evoked so perfectly, as a group of adventurers wander down corridors, clear rooms, and ascend through different levels. One can easily imagine how James Ward thought this was a perfect vehicle for an RPG.

Beyond the  clear parallels, I found two other aspects of this novel fascinating. First, Non-Stop is structured as a mystery, with a series of progressive revelations that reorient one's understanding of the setting that the book takes place in. This reminded me greatly of the mystery component of West Marches, wherein players discovered clues scattered across the sandbox setting that would point towards hidden dungeons and lost treasures. That brought me back to one of the most important components to dungeon design: they are essentially mysteries which work on multiple levels.

On the most immediate level, the question is "What's in the next room?"

On a deeper level, the question posed is "Why is this stuff here?"

As these layers are peeled away, the final question is "How did it come to be this way?"

These questions should not go unanswered. When designing a dungeon, it needs to be more than a random series of rooms without purpose. There seems to be a school that embraces the concept of a mythic underworld, viewing the abnormal physics and obscure origins of such a concept as an excuse to throw out Gygaxian Naturalism altogether. I wholeheartedly reject such a view, as one of the greatest joys a player can achieve is puzzling together the 'reality' of the game and, in doing so, become more invested in said reality.

This is not a refutation of the concept of the mythic underworld. In fact, I love the idea of a semi-sentient, hostile dungeon which casually tosses out natural law - such a place becomes a dangerous, alien environment and emphasizes the foolhardy nature of any sort of 'delve'. I'm not even opposed to Philotomy's assertion that such an underworld's "purpose is mysterious or shrouded in legend". Mysteries often remain as such, and you can structure your dungeon so that the truth never becomes clear, through incomplete or conflicting information.

Instead, what I propose is that such questions should be settled in the mind of the Referee, and when designing dungeon rooms there should be hints which speak to riddles of the underworld. As I laid out above, the three levels of mystery lend themselves to different sorts of clues that are laid within the dungeon:

1. Teasers: These are sense impressions which allow the players to guess at what is in the next room. Does a weird greenish light emanate from beneath the door to the right, while a deep metallic grinding groan from the door to the right? These clues often do not reveal much, but they invite speculation and can invoke a sense of wonder or dread.

2. Room Contents: Although some may see any description of a room beyond a cursory summary of loot and monsters as just "fluff", I find it more satisfying to have a short description with indicators as to the purpose that it serves beyond a place to kill monsters. Sometimes this can be obvious, such as rows of spice jars and hanging pots and pans, while at other times it can seem more obscure, such as the green tentacle jerky hinting at the roper colony deeper within the complex. Best of all is when these clues overlap, alternating tension ("tentacles?") and release ("oh, it's just a kitchen") in short order.

3. Grand Mysteries: Nailing the origin of the dungeon (or, if a larger or older complex, weaving together the narrative threads with explain the 'story' of the dungeon, from conception to its modern state) requires more careful, top-down planning, as the clues have to be interspersed close enough to maintain interest while remaining vague enough to preserve the mystery. Ancient inscriptions, old diaries, long-lived denizens, and the like all should deliver bits of exposition but should always end with more questions asked than answered, at least until the final levels of the dungeon, where the deepest secrets can be revealed. Non-Stop structures this beautifully, and the series of reveals keeps the reader hooked until the final moments.

Beyond the mystery structure, the other element in Non-Stop that I loved was the many factions of the ship: The Greene tribe, Forwards, Outsiders, Giants, the Rats - each of these groups have a different understanding of their ecosystem, and are constantly struggling with one another for resources and control over the ship. As the protagonist, Roy Complain, and his compatriots encounter each of these groups, and come to see their perspective, it not only contributes to the mystery but also makes the ship come alive as a "real" place.

Factions in dungeons are all too often static, even when the adventure background informs us that they're at war with one another. At most, we may see a set piece skirmish triggered when we go into an appropriate room, yet this always sat poorly with me. The dungeon should be a living, dynamic locale where tribes invade, fortify and repel their competition, and the players are an 'eco-bomb' which throws things into chaos, the extent of which they may never understand. The swirling chaos of cause and effect is something that I've spent a lot of time thinking about, but have yet to develop a model to handle this smoothly in a game environment.

Finally, I should mention that there's a great monster race in Non-Stop which I'm totally going to rip off - the rats. A colony of organized, intelligent rats that live in the walls and kidnap men who wander too far from their tribe, these little buggers scared the bejeezus out of me. Mix them with Brown Jenkin from Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch House and you've got nasty little monsters constantly watching the party and probing for weakness.
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