Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Closed System

I spent the entire morning doing research relating to child sex abuse (mainly comparing Paraguay to other countries in North and South America) which was...well, depressing, to say the least. But it was a favor to my wife and relates to her work here and gives me a chance to "contribute." Just so people don't think I'm blowing off the blog for watching Netflix shows or something (that was the other week).

ANYWAY...closed systems. Lately (the last 24 hours), I've been reflecting upon two television shows of the 1970s that I find quite interesting, especially with regard to the nature of their settings as "closed universes." One is, of course, the 1974 serial Land of the Lost (still have to finish that looooong post...this isn't it), the other is the short-lived 1972 cartoon Sealab 2020.

I never had the opportunity to view Sealab 2020 when it was on TV...I wasn't born till '73, after all. But I did regularly watch the parody show Sealab 2021 when it was first running a few years back (funny, funny weirdness), and last year I was able to pick up the original series on DVD from the Warner Archive. My son digs it (as do I), and it's quite interesting from the point of view as an action-adventure show that involves no combat with antagonists...simply the hazards inherent in conducting scientific research in a hostile (undersea) environment.

Need Dyson to map this thing.
Both Sealab (with its undersea complex located on "Sea Mount" underwater mountain, natch) and Land o the Lost (with its pocket universe) are closed environments...there's a limit to the amount of exploration that can be performed by the characters. In LOTL, individuals exiting one side of the map simply end up entering the map on the opposite side (this phenomenon is a key element of the first season). The folks of Sealab are restricted based on the hostility of their environment...while they might exit the 'Lab to explore the surrounding ocean, there's only so far they can go due to needing to replenish air supplies. All their adventures take place within Sealab itself, or within close proximity to its safe enclosures.

I'm just looking at the concept in RPG terms...most RPGs make their bread-and-butter by being open environments where exploration might take a character "anywhere." Even when there are some geographical limits -- like "Planet Earth" or "Medieval Europe" -- those "limits" are so vast as to be not terribly limited. I'm trying to think of an RPG that has a truly limited setting of exploration...Paranoia's Alpha Complex is vast (and adventures can take characters into the "outside world") and I don't think spaceship Warden was particularly limited in size for Metamorphosis Alpha (though MA isn't a game I've owned, or had the chance to really study).

No, RPGs don't shut their people into small box environs unless they're designed for short games with very specific objectives (usually examining tragic tales within the confines of a session or two sessions play) I'm thinking indie games like My Life With Master and Dust Devils. Even then, I don't suppose the environment has to be particularly confined...but the scale of the game is such that exploration of "the greater world" doesn't usually have the chance to occur.

Anyway, it's an interesting idea. The recent "thing" I was working on has a fairly small scale, but that was an accident of design (based on the game setting) rather a purposeful choice. The thing about the closed setting is it seems to really, truly limit "how far can this game go;" not just in terms of what can be explored, setting-wise, but what can be explored character-wise.

I mean, talk about a big fish in a small pond...if a character (or characters) have nothing to do but probe the confines of a single mega-dungeon (a possible D&D-ish example of a closed environment), how high in level do they really need to go? Without the possibility of building castles or exploring other planes, what's the maximum level you really need?

For some reason, my brain is drawing a correlation between such "closed systems" and board games like Dungeon!...there's no character development/advancement in the board game, there's simply roles that you play (elf, hero, wizard, etc.). Your role provides you with a certain degree of effectiveness, perhaps some different options, but the role is completely static...closed, just like the environment. Is there room for character development in such a setting? Should the elf, at some point, grow in experience to the point that she can take out one of the blue dragons or black puddings inhabiting the 6th level? Or should they always be out of her reach (sans the use of a magic sword).

Would a Land of the Lost RPG ever see the Marshalls developing the skills to take on Grumpy the tyrannosaurus? Or operate Enik's time portal?

I never played something like GURPS: The Prisoner (based on another show with a closed environment) so I don't know what one would do in such a campaign. It would seem there is room for  a series of "adventures" within such confines...a serial television show is able to come up with a number of different stories/"sessions" after all. But is it enough on which to base a game? With a limited environment, you really need some kind of win scenario or endgame, no? Otherwise, you reach the actual (if imaginary) limits of your environment and your stuck just ripping down the continuity of the the way the 3rd season of LOTL had people and monsters of all sorts just "wander in" to its closed confines.

That's what I'm thinking about today. Well, that and how Paraguay really isn't a great place to raise children. Oh, and bolt-action rifles...but that's for a completely different (and totally off-topic) reason.


  1. One idea I'm kicking around for a mega-dungeon is to have the PCs start in a cavern town with a big door leading to a "Tower of Heaven". The Tower of Heaven is full of monsters, traps, treasure. If you climb it you can escape to the world above. This sort of would fit a limited environment since the PCs have nowhere to go but up (or explore side caverns I suppose)

  2. my planet psychon setting has world divided into hexes with barriers - each a unique zone which players intrude into pssibly fix or explore or find everything then move on - i give them level ups whe they solve the main problems of the hex