Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Because I feel like it, I'll post a little bit from an earlier speculative tabletop scifi RPG I wrote. In the previous post I explained how a game had funky laws about privacy and information, and in this post I'll talk about how the game before that had weird ideas about what an "information economy" really is.

The game was written by me when I was trying to figure out what the "killer app" for 3D printers would be. The final result had very little do with the question, but it might still be interesting.

Unlike the last game I talked about, this game (named 'Seedlings') was not about information for information's sake. Instead, it was about information that can be turned into something real. For example, the file embodying a chair: feed it into a 3D printer, and you get a chair. The file embodying a flower: print the DNA into a seeder, and you end up with that flower.

The difficulty was in the game mechanics. Most RPGs are about killing and looting. The inherently constructive nature of the game made that impossible. Killing someone and stealing their computer is weak compared to getting the file they used to print their computer, at which point you can print an unlimited number yourself.

The core idea is turning information into physical objects, but there's no recurring play in that. Once you've printed something out, you have it. Even if you posit that it breaks, you're still able to print up an identical one. Without some kind of ridiculous conceit, once you've printed something, you have it, done.

The same problem exists with real 3D printers. You just don't need to print that much stuff. The stuff you use new every day is largely food and packaging. The first can't be printed, the second makes no sense to print. If you do need to print something (such as a book shelf or a new iPhone case), you print it and you're done. There's no "rolling ball" to chase, like there is with our never-ending stream of lattes.

Every way I pushed the rule set I ran into trouble. I couldn't find any core mechanic that would sustain an entire RPG. I thought about making it a game about investigation, but those never fly. I thought about making it some kind of strategy/people-management game, but those are poorly suited for paper.

The only thing I could think of in the end was DNA. If instead of using fabricators, I used DNA, I could put in time delays.

Sure, you can print out anything you want, but it will take days or weeks to grow to full size.

This started getting really weird as I pushed it further and further. I drew sketches of the sorts of places you would encounter.

For example, you're walking through suburbia, and everyone's back yard is full of multicolored plants. One mom says to another, "oh, yeah, Jimmie tore up his pants, so I put them in the compost. The denim plants are in bloom, anyway, so I just had him pull new pants off the vine..."

The villainous Doctor Imevil is hidden away on a mountainside. He's growing a new base, and you can see the photovoltaic ferns blooming on his roof. To keep it from giving him away, he's carefully seeded the whole mountainside with them, pretending it's an uncontrolled propagation of a known product, blaming the original researchers who designed the plant.

The 'last mile' is covered by silk-thin tendrils of roots growing from house to house... to tap a phone, you would plant a "tap-plant" and wait for its roots to find the transmission roots.

Although classic pollution is not as much a problem as it was, the sky at night glitters with microscopic organisms battling it out as the city releases swarms of hunter-killer germs to counter today's diseases, brought in on the winds or the planes. These diseases don't affect the populace - the hunter-killers are extremely effective - but you will sometimes find the sidewalk covered in a glittering puddle. You don't want to know what caused the puddle, but you can be sure it's not contagious. Sure, there's no reason for it to glitter, but I take some license.

And, of course, living clothes, adaptive streets, and semi-intelligent plant life.

These don't directly turn into gameplay, but I find that strong imagery really helps me get a feel for the game. Unfortunately, the final rule set ended up being a combination of a strategy game and a detective game, so blah.

Still, the point is that I can't really think of a "killer app" for a 3D printer. The only things I can think of all revolve around evading the law or living in places where there are no stores. But I can think of a million killer apps for "living" 3D printers.

Now if only I could figure out how to make it into a game worth playing.

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