My usual method of game design sees me blogging about an idea before I actually publish anything. 2400 unintentionally represents a pretty different approach: I mentioned some ideas for an Into the Odd sci-fi hack awhile back here, but eventually decided to just pick a different direction and run with it. Now that that new direction includes 10 micro RPGs (and counting), has spun off into free 24XX SRD with a bunch of template materials, and is inspiring a 24XX Game Jam based on the system, I figured it deserved a blog post.
To be fair, I didn’t entirely skip the “thinking aloud on the internet” step—I just did it mostly through various Twitter polls. I don’t actually think of Twitter polls as scientific data—I’m a researcher in my day job, I know better—but they can get some good conversations going, and get me to think things through. So, in the course of a few months, I went from making an Into the Odd hack to making … something else.
I tried a Knave hack of Mothership called Dropship, but realized I wanted more than just alternate rules for one game. I wanted something super modular, where each rules addendum could fit on a single page. I renamed it Config, and put a full Microsoft Word doc together for it, and started working on the modules—and suddenly stopped because even though Knave’s pretty rules-light, I still felt like it was more rules than I wanted. I didn’t need hit points or levels or even standard ability scores. I wanted something a little more flexible. I kept revising until I ended up with something that looked like a full system built on Electric Bastionland “luck rolls” crossed with a pared-down version of the Soft Horizon rules, with some safety tool advise adapted from Script Change, where almost every item costs only “1 credit” because I don’t feel like tracking every coin.
I called it “2400” because that was the speed of my first modem, so slow that it took several seconds between typing “attack revenant” and seeing text slide by indicating said revenant had already killed me. But hey, 2400 also sounds like centuries from now, so I figured it encapsulates the “retro futurism” aesthetic I was hoping for. (And the name 2600 is already taken.)
I called it “lo-fi sci-fi” because I liked the way it rhymed, I wanted the setting(s) to have a bunch of crappy, broken technology, and I wanted to emphasize that the games themselves aren’t “high fidelity”—they’re these wee tiny hacks that demand a lot from the players and the GM. Being “rules-light” and “low on prep” doesn’t mean that a game’s effortless to run and play. It just means that it’s demanding at different places in the process—in this case, improvisational storytelling, creative problem-solving, and open conversation about whether the group’s happy with tentative rulings.
And I kept the concept behind Config—one-page modules all the way. A one-page supplement of just some simple rules for cyber mods or psi powers sounded dull to me, though, especially for a game that relies on rules so little. So, I decided that each module would be its own self-contained game, each with its own cover image, even, to inspire me to take it a little more seriously.
And then I stuck them all on the same page. It’s kind of a weird experiment on a place like itch.io, where the popularity algorithm and uploading rules favor many small game pages over one collection of games, but I wanted to see how it would do, and invest a bit more time designing one nice-looking page instead of 10+ quickly banged-out pages.
Eventually, a few people online encouraged me to host a jam for 2400 content and hacks, and John Harness of Knucklebone Magazine (and many cool jams!) offered to co-host. He encouraged me to make some templates available to make submitting easier, so I made a CC-licensed 24XX SRD, and we started the 24XX Jam. It runs through the end of this month, and already has 10 entries in addition to my games.
If you’re interested in 2400, there are a couple “demos” available on the 2400 page—the cyberpunk Inner System Blues, more detailed Emergency Rules (without a specific setting), and the time-traveling, world-hopping Tempus Diducit, meant to host characters for any 24XX game. I’m also moving individual games over to DriveThruRPG, in case anybody wants to buy any à la carte (but that site’s approvals process takes much longer).
I’ve got at least a couple more 2400 games I want to add to the collection. After that, I’m not sure what I’ll do next, but I have had some folks ask me about whether I plan to distribute them as a printed zine or something like that, so I’m still pondering how that might work. (A bundle of unbound one-pagers, like some folks are already doing on their own? A longer-form, staple-bound adaptation that combines a few that clearly share a setting, like Xenolith and Eos? Still unsure.) And, of course I’ve got other games in the pipeline now too. But as odd little design experiments go, I’d say this one has been my most successful, and most satisfying, to date. It feels really good to know that I’m not the only one enjoying it, too.
Banner art on this page by Beeple (Mike Winkelmann)