I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most RPGs are themed by swords and sorcery; we’re all swimming in the ocean of Tolkein’s legacy and medieval fantasy.

It’s easy to get stuck in the idea of adventuring parties consisting of virtuous healers, metal ensconced warriors and frock wearing fire slingers. We think in terms of wieldable weapons, wearable armor, and quaffable potions. We adventure through sunny fields of centaurs and dark caverns of kobolds. We declare dodge, dodge slings, and sling magic missiles.

Lately, I have been playing with more oranges than apples, though. Specifically, and this is not an advocation to go download and play, I have been keeping up with a mobile game called AstroNest (AN).

As the name implies, it’s science fiction. It’s very much a “daily action points” style casual game. The design isn’t really the point here, though, just the theme. The relevancy to me personally is a bit high since I’ve been designing a space faring MMORPG of a different sort.

There are bits and pieces of the design that are less relevant to the discussion at hand. The casual/incremental genre thing (colonizing planets, which each have facilities to increase money/mineral production/etc), the social game genre thing (making alliances in-game and through Facebook, gifting them daily), and of course the micro-transaction thing (daily “sales” on in-game items). All of these are appropriately themed, but they’re less interesting.

Analogous to the fantasy genre, though, is the combat system. You hire, train, and deploy a stable of commander NPCs. Each planet can be assigned a governor (much like, say, installing a governor in an Endless Legend city) to assist its production, but the real meat is the combat fleet.

The active fleet (adventuring party) has five slots. You assign a ship among four types (races) that determines base damage-per-second, evasion, and resistance. Each fleet member can be equipped with a weapon type (varying in damage, range, and rate of attack), armor/engine type (resistance/evasion), and three special devices (trinkets/jewelry).

Each fleet member then can be assigned a commander which is probably the most interesting design point. There is a little design trickery here that I am particularly fond of as it had me fooled for a bit early on.

Each commander has a name and a portrait; it is presented as a “person”. To get commanders you use “scout tickets”. These scoutings randomize a new commander into your hire pool and you can choose to hire them into your active pool or dismiss them. On a technical note scouting and dismissing heroes also nets you training discs that allow you to advance active commanders’ skills so constantly finding and dismissing them is a large part of the game design.

So you “scout” and find a female commander named Sharon. The interface and overall design make it feel like you’re finding and hiring individuals but the real rub is that every commander named Sharon will end up with the same general stats and abilities. Each commander is an attack, defense or governor. Within those types each will have a subtype for their abilities that boost specific weapon types, planetary facility or defensive/ship type.

I probably spent the first month playing, not realizing that every Sharon would end up the same with small variances quite a bit like Pokémon; each Pikachu you catch will have the same abilities and skill tree but might have slight variance in stats.

It hit me that the AN team took the concept of the fantasy RPG race and themed it into individual people. The base stat modifiers and abilities of each commander were just racial stats. Granted, there are quite a few races by that design, but it serves the same function.

Perhaps not the most interesting revelation but I like the small thematic variances applied to turn what is essentially a bog standard party RPG system into spaceships and lasers. Designing for non-fantasy always feels a bit clunky to me since I get so used to only ever working with the former.

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