Thursday, 14 March 2013

Monitors: assumptions

So last time I dropped in a very first draft of some mechanics for Monitors, my implausible spaceships-and-sorcery game of galaxy-ranging sorcerous reptile special agents. "Saurs and Sorcery", you might say.*

I'm leaving that where it fell for now as a rickety framework to pin my game onto, not least while I wait to hear the rest of Dan's views, and then (most likely) shamefacedly redesign the whole thing. At this point it's probably worth thinking about what sort of game I'm trying to fettle up here.

*Seriously, you have no idea how much I enjoyed that.

Ground Rules

One of the core assumptions of Monitors is that PCs are, in fact, Monitors. Though not, necessarily, monitors. Yes, I appreciate the potential for confusion... PCs are part of the galaxies-spanning, warp-jumping, mystery-solving, law-enforcing, crisis-handling Monitor network of special agents. This has a couple of consequences.

Firstly, structurally speaking, Monitors is going to work on the assumption that it's a mission-based game. The characters will explicitly be assigned particular objectives to work on. These may well be vague, and change over the course of a particular adventure, but the basic structure of an adventure is assumed to be "you are sent to investigate goings-on in Alpha Centurai". There may well be recurring villains, links between scenarios and that sort of thing. Players aren't expected to provide their own structure through active exploration or major long-term goals, or by picking up bitty quests (though any of those may be possible).

Secondly, it's explicitly their job to do this stuff. No mucking about with motivation, please. You're not playing carpenters or burger-flippers who have only mild curiosity to draw them into a mystery, and plenty of reason to back out the second things get dangerous. You're a Monitor, part of the tenuous network that keeps the "civil" in "intergalactic civilisation", brings justice to the frontiers, rescues the helpless, investigates the mysterious, and deals with whatever weirdness the universe can come up with. Again, the system might well be able to handle other kinds of PCs - and it's fairly likely you'd end up dealing with the odd mercenary, old friend, love interest, hanger-on, punk kid, loony uncle or other non-Monitor character - but the party as a whole is there for just this kind of situation.

Game Tone

It's also going to be important to know what kind of tone or genre I'm aiming for, to help keep track of whether it's working. Mechanics, characters and all that jazz need to support the tone, or at least not get in the way of it.

I've got to admit, it's tempting to aim for a completely straight-faced game of gritty high-tech action where you just happen to be a power-armoured lizard wizard, but the joke would probably wear thin pretty quickly.

What I'm basically thinking of when I imagine Monitors is an 80s Saturday morning cartoon. Not the slapstick kind, but something cheerfully fantastical like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, full of improbable tech, odd adversaries, and hijinks. Let's try and pin down some specifics (which will have some second-tier consequences).

  1. Death by game mechanics is highly unlikely; maybe even impossible.
    1. the stakes in most situations are not survival, but success.
    2. combat will tend to involve disarming, capturing, KOing, drugging, tasering or otherwise overcoming enemies, rather than hacking lumps off them.
    3. it's a good idea to have a fair proportion of robots, elementals, spectres, slimes, psychic anomalies or demons so the characters can let rip once in a while.
    4. equipment and abilities will tend to do things other than straightforward damage.
  2. Any PC is both multitalented, and more capable than a civilian.
    1. a single character is not an unviable force.
    2. ...combined with point 1, party-splitting is relatively safe, so individual characters can play to their strengths or pursue different goals.
    3. they should have a reasonable chance to succeed at anything they attempt.
  3. It should be fun, without undue respect for realism in modelling or in behaviour.
    1. getting captured and rescued is all part of the fun. Enemies will capture you, interrogate you, hypnotise you, and all sorts of other consequences, but not just kill you.
    2. shadows are unusually deep, and shoes unusually quiet, and beds exactly the right size to hide under.
    3. there are no innocent bystanders, and your trigger claws are never over-twitchy.
    4. injuries, unpleasant experiences and bizarre substances have no tiresome long-term effects, except when you want them to.
    5. monologues take no more game-time than is convenient.
    6. when you meet an old nemesis, you can posture implausibly before actually doing anything, without affecting your chances of success.
    7. uniforms come in Schroedinger sizes.
    8. a plan which is excitingly cool should not have a worse chance of overall success than a straightforward but boring plan.


Whenever Monitors comes up, I give a description something like "spacefaring cyborg reptile secret agent wizards" or "anthropomorphic armoured cyborg warlock lizards", or indeed "spaceships-and-sorcery game of galaxy-ranging sorcerous reptile special agents". This suggests some notable elements the game should include:

  • Space travel
  • Cybernetics and general tech augmentation
  • Sneaking, observing, breaking in, tracking, decoding, arresting and other secret agent stuff
  • Armour
  • Spellcasting
  • Being a lizard

The reason I highlighted the last point, which may seem a bit daft, is that "reptilian" is probably the main distinguishing feature of Monitors from the other eight thousand similar games written by people who know what they're doing. There is frankly no point in playing a game about being an armoured cyborg warlock lizard if you don't feel at least a little bit like a lizard. That means lizardiness (or reptilianity, to be broader) needs to have some distinctive influence on the game.


So, what features do reptiles have that might be interesting to bring into the game? I'm not looking for biorealism here, just for cool things to snaffle.

  • Obviously, scales.
  • Cold-bloodedness, or more specifically, ectothermic poikilothermy (and sometimes bradymetabolism)
    • Metabolic flexibility: poikilotherms may have multiple redundant enzyme systems that become effective at different body temperatures.
    • Bradymetabolism: reptiles' metabolic rates vary a lot; they're sluggish when cold, and even torpid in extreme conditions, but can be very active when it's suitably warm.
    • Water conservation: reptiles don't sweat or pant, so they don't lose nearly as much water as mammals, and are unlikely to dehydrate.
    • Reptiles can survive a wider range of temperatures than mammals by using behaviour. A brief check suggests at least some species can handle 22-40C easily, and use behaviour (basking and burrowing) to handle temperatures below freezing and over 40C, with body temperatures varying from 2.5-35C. Humans can only handle environments at 27-32 for significant periods, and find 42C fatal. Ptarmigans are fine from 4-36C.
    • Survival: reptiles don't use energy to maintain body temperature, so they can survive for long periods with minimal food.
    • Digestion is relatively slow, so some species swallow stones (gastroliths) to help break down food.
    • Water conservation: reptiles don't sweat or pant, so they don't lose nearly as much water as mammals, and are unlikely to dehydrate.
  • Carrier's Constraint, limiting physical activity to short bursts, which true or not (and bipedal or not) would be a bit different.
  • Okay, yes, some reproductive quirks too. I'm not thinking I need to model that.
  • Senses are different from ours:
    • Lizards have colour vision. Their vision often extends into the ultraviolet range.
    • Nocturnal lizards can see in very low light, but have reduced visual acuity due to the structure of the eye.
    • Snakes have less effective colour vision than humans.
    • Many snakes can detect infrared (heat).
    • Crocodilians have colour vision, excellent vision and can see at night. They can see underwater, but can't focus, giving them blurry vision.
    • Crocodilians have dermal pressure receptions that sense vibration, allowing them to detect movement in water very accurately.
    • Hearing in reptiles is poorer than in mammals, partly due to lack of external ears. Many have simple inner ears that can only detect vibrations and low-frequency sound.
  • Reptiles may excrete salt through nasal glands.
  • Geckos, skinks and a few others can shed part of the tail when attacked, leaving a distraction.
  • Snakes, and some lizards, shed their skin in large pieces or a single sheet. Some eat it.
  • Reptiles typically don't smell much as they don't sweat, so are relatively hard to detect by scent.
  • Some reptiles can change skin colour to signal emotions, to modify light absorption, or for camouflage.

Okay, I'm a bit exhausted with all that, so I'll leave things there for now.


  1. Part Two of the Monitors post is up. Mostly it's me rambling about what I think about Stat + Skill systems, and mentioning some alternatives.

  2. Interesting to see how you model this.