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David A Hill Jr “Ghost Stories on Space Stations”

Posted on July 19, 2010 by davidahilljr

Game Designer, David Hill jumps into our design essay series with some notes on the development of the Maschine Zeit RPG. David tells us about some of the cinematic inspirations for the setting of this new RPG as well as the goals that went into the initial development of the system.

Ghost Stories on Space Stations

    When I advertise Maschine Zeit, I call it, “Ghost Stories on Space Stations.” I wanted to talk briefly on that. Over the years, there’s been this sub-genre of horror films that are fundamentally haunted house stories, set in science fiction environments. The sub-genre really got its chops with the release of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Alien. Looking around at various RPGs, I didn’t feel that the genre had been properly emulated, so that’s what I’d set out to do. What this resulted in was an RPG that, in my opinion, shares a number of conventions with popular games, while eschewing many.

    The first and most important element of Maschine Zeit is that I wanted to trust players. I didn’t want game statistics to get in the way of telling the stories the players want to tell. My opinion is that the players know the genre, and we can trust them to run with that. Therefore, the system was designed enable that sort of thinking. Players have the option to be completely successful on almost anything they wish. It doesn’t have to be a specific type of action. There are certain parameters you’d have to meet, but a little creativity allows for sufficient openness. This rule is governed by a resource management system that allows for certain chances of success, at the player’s choice.

    Secondly, players tell the story. We have a GM role –the Director – but the default play style has the Director and players improvising the whole story. Every time a player does something dramatic with their character, they have a chance to control elements of the story. For instance, if your character risks leaping over a chasm in order to save another from falling to their death, you might get to control three other elements of the scene. The lights in the station might flicker to life, you might see hint of the mineral you came to salvage and the emergency bulkheads might close off the chasm. This rewards risk, and allows the players to drive the plot and develop the story’s direction.

    Now, these specific things could actually apply very well to any dramatic game. A friend told me that he’d love to see the system used for a romantic comedy, for instance. Those elements were used as a canvas for a few very specific horror elements.

    First, we don’t have equipment lists. The way I see it, equipment is a resolution to a conflict, and that’s handled just fine by the system. If you’re making a roll to resolve a conflict, it’s just as easy to say you have the necessary tool available. If the roll fails, the tool might be either missing or not available. In a horror film, this would represent the flashlight’s batteries running out at the worst possible time, or maybe it was dropped and cracked. The character’s gun might be waterlogged.

    Second, we approach everything as an environmental hazard. Mechanically, there’s no significant difference between a malicious ghost and a fall against a rusty corner of sheet metal. We didn’t bother with a combat system, per-se. Everything’s handled by the same basic resolution mechanic. Killing or otherwise destroying threats is very difficult and very dangerous. You don’t see characters in Alien taking out the monster in Act I now, do you?

    These are just a few of the major considerations we made. On the setting side, I wanted to leave it wide open. There’s a timeline that explains the basics, giving ideas why there are ghosts, and why there are haunted space stations for the characters to explore. The goal though was to present all setting information as in-character, and very biased, so there’s no stated truths. Since the game forces the players to improvise, we wanted to leave plenty of holes for them to fill. There are newspaper clippings, blogs and other bits that each seed their own stories. Most of them, you could print out and hand over to the players to prompt improvisation. We’ve used some to spark entire game sessions. To best facilitate this style, each one of the items was written by a different author. We have some amazing talent in the setting chapter, including Jennifer Brozek, Chuck Wendig, Eddy Webb, Stew Wilson, John Kennedy, Filamena Young and others. I think each writer’s voice and personality really came out.

    Lastly, we wanted to present the game in unique formats. From the outset, I’ve offered custom 1gb flash drives, emblazoned with the game’s logo. The digital version of the game (including the one on the flash drive,) includes all the game’s text in HTML5, for ease of use on netbooks, iPads, cellphones, and whatever else you might want to use it on.

    That’s Maschine Zeit. Do you like Event Horizon, Pandorum or Alien? Have you ever wanted to see that sort of visceral experience emulated around a table? Hopefully, we’ve made the game for you. It’s the first official title from Machine Age Productions, and it’s just been released with some positive attention. You can pick it up at, hardcovers are coming soon and we’ll have a full allotment at the Indie Press Revolution booth at Gen Con.

    David A Hill Jr. – 2010

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