2400 devlog: Habs & Gardens

Habs & Gardens is the very first (and probably only) hi-fi sci-fi 2400 microgame. It features (probably) mundane community first responders, dealing with (most likely) low-stakes situations on a (seemingly) idyllic space station. Find it in the full 2400 series on Itch.io, and on its own and in the 2400 bundle on DriveThruRPG.

Influences

The most obvious influence on Habs & Gardens is the public-domain NASA art that inspired the entire concept. I called it “hi-fi sci-fi” to fit that aesthetic, and also as a simple gag — a counterpoint to the roughness in both setting and production implied by “lo-fi sci-fi” (a term which I explained in my first full post on 2400). Also, I wanted an excuse to play with another typeface.

The second biggest influence on Habs & Gardens is The Stepford Wives — both as an example of what the setting could be (if you want), and what I fervently hoped I could make it not be (when I run it for my four-year-old daughter).

The very sparse rules and prompts in 2400 tend to focus on goals and stakes, risks and consequences. Most of Habs & Gardens, however, focuses on low stakes, at least by RPG standards — “everyday” stuff, but in a sci-fi context, like babysitting a telekinetic, or helping someone who just woke from cryo make friends. You can probably spot a few “Easter eggs” from old-fashioned, family-oriented entertainment, like the washing machine malfunction, “Little Timmy’s stuck in a maintenance duct,” and a huckster trying to get the neighborhood kids to start synth bands. (I got an imaginary electronic cover of “Ya Got Trouble” stuck in my head a lot while writing this game.)

Only a quarter of the GM prompts present “problems that might actually demand attention,” which meant to highlight what I said in the original devlog: “Someplace this nice is worth trying to keep nice.”

And then there’s the final table of GM prompts: The horrifying, hidden, Stepford-style revelations beneath the mask of this seemingly pleasant place. I wrote that table first because it was so much easier; “uncover and battle evil” is in my RPG design comfort zone. The more mundane situations took a lot more effort to write, but were ultimately more rewarding. I knew I’d run this for my kid eventually, and that motivated me to get it done and do a thoughtful job.

(We had fun, but the ice cream monster was a little scary for her.)

The vast majority of the game assumes this setting is not an evil coverup: That this really is a nice place. Not a “utopia” (coined very deliberately from Greek roots suggesting both “good place” and “no place”) — but still, pretty nice. And that demanded I put some thought into what would (and wouldn’t) be in a pretty nice place in outer space. I had to think about how to make the Ring not Stepford — or my own suburban hometown, for that matter.

The (im)perfect setting

In the original Habs & Gardens devlog on Itch, I described the game as dealing with “(most likely) wholesome situations.” I kind of wrinkled my nose at the sentence for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on at the time. I was trying to bust out a devlog quickly and get back to parenting duties, though, so I hit “publish” and moved on with my evening.

Awhile later, a Twitter thread by Jay Dragon (designer of Wanderhome and Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast) helped me understand my own discomfort: The word “wholesome” is overloaded with connotation. It’s a shorthand for some things I did want to associate with Habs, like “optimistic,” “nonviolent,” and (sometimes) “intended for kids.” But as Jay notes, that shorthand is also associated with “dismissing works which trouble the status quo by calling them cutesy [and] niche”; giving space to “bad actors seeking a veneer of harmlessness”; and dubious claims to “moral purity.”

Describing the Ring as a “pretty nice place” — and presenting it as a suburban-looking locale with light-skinned folks on the cover — works great when implying that there’s something nefarious going on. In the real world, that kind of “pretty nice place” sweeps a lot of not nice things under the rug. But when I suggest running Habs as a more earnestly well-meaning environment — the way I mean to run it for my kid — I don’t want to imply that my “suburb of the future” replicates the problems suburbs have today. I don’t mean for the Ring to be a bastion of “white flight,” heteronormativity, and stiflingly conservative gender roles.

I tried to think of ways I could challenge these things just a little bit. The suggested names are gender neutral, and come from a range of cultures. Some roles are described, but nobody here is defined by their job — you don’t have to be a doctor, lawyer, or unseen cog in the capitalist machine to live in my imaginary suburb. “Close relations” aren’t just around cookie-cutter nuclear families, but include best friends, elders, and members of a polycule. And the text doesn’t specify one way or another whether the Ring has an armed police force, but at my table, it doesn’t.

I also wanted to make sure that it’s clear the Ring isn’t perfect. Even “someplace this nice” still has problems. There’s still somebody messed up enough to think it would be funny to poke holes in vacsuits, and somebody who thinks it’s a good idea to sell a fake psi drug. There are still obnoxious neighbors, dangerous accidents, and at least one ice cream monster. There are still a couple prompts in there about “naughty” vandalism — not as a sign that kids need to get carted off to juvie, but a reminder it might be boring here, and it’s up to you whether it’s worth your time to help people find an outlet for those feelings.

I know these details aren’t much, and I’m not looking for a pat on the back for putting in minimal effort to recognize cultural complexities. The ruthlessly brief format means (what I hope are) socially-conscious tidbits must vie for space with goofy things like a neighbor who’s BFFs with their own clone. And honestly, it occurs to me the very concept I aimed for — a “pretty nice place” inspired by decades-old art, but without decades-old baggage — may be simply impossible for a cis, white guy from an affluent suburb to do “right.” (I will be deeply uncomfortable and/or extremely annoyed if white men try to reassure me or argue about any of this with me, so please don’t bother.)

For me, at least, I think it was a healthy exercise to try to imagine what a “wholesome” place might look like if you could excise the foully conservative baggage from that concept. (But no hard feelings if you still decide that the “synth-meat in every pot” is made from ground-up outsiders.)

Combining with other 2400 games

Habs & Gardens is meant to be able to stand on its own, but it should also slot pretty easily into other 2400 games featuring space travel.

Visit the Ring with characters built in another 2400 game who’d likely have a space ship (Cosmic Highway, Eos, Xenolith, ALT, or Orbital Decay). It could be a pleasant stopover to refuel, some reassurance that human expansion into space isn’t all bad. Or it could present a problem to solve — an emergency that required calling in outside help, or a nefarious secret they’d rather you not meddle in.

An “everyday heroes” game might start with characters from Habs & Gardens who need to venture out into the more dangerous reaches of outer space. The very broad skills mean the characters should still be pretty competent, but if you don’t start with a characteristic like “Chessboxer,” you probably don’t have much in the way of combat capabilities — or weapons, for that matter.

A monster movie scenario would work pretty decently on the Ring (as long as your group doesn’t mind, or agrees not to think too hard about, the political implications of being in a situation that confirms they probably should’ve been better armed). Consider using Orbital Decay to build an alien invader. You might even run a “funnel adventure” — every player makes a few Habs characters, and if any of yours survive, one gets to unlock advancement options from Eos for their new life as hardened interstellar adventurers.

If you’re playing Habs earnestly, though — starting on the Ring, and staying there — the “bonds” rule from Eos would be a great fit to encourage building relationships with your fellow Community First Responders. If you want to play up “diversity” in a tropey, sci-fi way, add in alien residents from Xenolith and androids from Inner System Blues. (If you’re concerned about character balance or overwhelming players with too many character elements, the benefits you get from either of those origins could replace either their quality, their skillset bonus, or all their items and credits.)

And if you want to play up Habs characters’ qualities and quirks, ditch the Head/Hands/Heels/Heart skillsets and the “roll an extra skill die” rule entirely. Instead, you could run the whole game like Xot, giving die ratings directly to whatever unique descriptors you want. Just be advised that this could get more annoying with some things than others: Intelligent ape (d8) has obvious but limited utility, but try to remember it’s meant to be a nonviolent game when your buddy says “I’ve got a hunch…” (d8) to scrabble for a bonus on literally every sentence.

Featured image edited from original by NASA

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