Arcanonauts! Design Principles and an Example Planet

I have made no secret that my main inspiration for this game is the Outer Wilds, and honestly, if you go play that game, you probably have a pretty good idea of what my design principles are for Arcanonauts.

That being said, I wanted to give you some idea here as to what those principles/aesthetics are here. The following will contain some light spoilers for Outer Wilds. Once we get to the big spoilers, I will tell you. If you have not played this game, I heavily encourage you to do so and do it as blind as possible. It is a marvelous mystery ride that is totally ruined if much of anything is revealed to you about it. That being said, I think you are ok to go forward until we reach our heavy spoilers. I've actually not 100% finished the game but I am enthralled by it so no spoilers for me either in the comments! 

  • Playful Science: I would say that Arcanonouats! like Outer Wilds will play with science without being shackled to realism. The Outer Wilds did this marvelous thing where certain scientific ideas were played with in an exaggerated way that was super unrealistic but used the dressings of real science. That is what I'd like to aim for: playing with the idea of science without dealing too much with realism. That also includes the process of science. Like our wizards will be exploring the world in a "scientific" way. Now real science is slow and methodical and plodding, but our scientific method will be more the fast-paced discovery of Star Trek. It will require: observing phenomena, coming up with a hypothesis about how it works, and then testing that hypothesis. But some situations will require this to be done in moments to avoid death or force the Arcanonaut to experiment with their own life.
  • Lots of Danger, Little Combat: There ought to be danger everywhere, mostly danger that the Arcanonauts get themselves into trying to explore and discover more information, related to their main mission, but also danger that comes upon them unexpectedly and forces them to come up with solutions on the fly. "Adventure Everywhere" is always one of my design principles. However, this danger ought to mostly not be combat with enemies. There are definitely dangerous creatures but they ought to be more like environmental hazards and less like combatants. There is a reason, the Arcanonauts have little combat abilities at character creation. Only one role gets a gun on purpose and its a crappy gun. Danger ought to mostly be in the form of environmental hazards. Even creatures or things that want to hurt the wizards ought to have rules that can be followed to avoid having to do direct combat. That is a major design element that I will focus on next.
  • The Scientific Method: The Solar System is a big interlinking puzzle. Who was the ancient civilization? What were they here for? Is the big major question that unites the whole thing. Then, each individual planet or location ought to be a puzzle in and of itself. Each planet ought to have rules that the Arcanonouts need to understand and then use that understanding to get what they want. This is a matter of player skill not PC skill. While the PCs have skills that can help, these are tools for the players to use to try and figure out how things work and what they can do about it. For instance, the Theory skill is not about coming up with theories about what is going on in front of the PC, it is a skill for bending the principles of magic and science to come up with solutions to problems the Player has identified and understood. For instance: Magic Probe is a spell, but it is limited in its motion. Could it be modified to be more maneuverable? A Theory check could decide how easy this is to accomplish or if it could be accomplished with materials already at hand.
  • Cartoony: There ought to be a certain amount of risk and a feeling of danger that comes from the unknown but the overall aesthetics of the world ought to be cartoonish. Exploring a realistically sized planet is basically impossible. Outer Wilds solved this by shrinking each planet and making there be only a few points of importance on each one. Now, this makes everything a little cartoony, but it also serves to make the universe more digestible in a way I think it important.
  • Wonder: The universe is wondrous. That is why we explore. If there is no sense of wonder, the universe will feel like it's not worth exploring.
  • The Dangerous Unknown: Space is vast and dark. Outer Wilds played with the limits of perception and vast spaces in order to make the player afraid even though the game is otherwise pretty silly. The wonderful thing is that anything could be out there and that is fantastic and wondrous but that also applies to danger. Anything could be out here. Even very big and menacing things. PCs can and should be able to die instantly. While taking damage alone makes it difficult to kill a PC in this game, things that reasonably ought to kill instantly, should. You might give leeway the first time something is encountered, but then again mercy takes away from the tension. However, hinting at the things to come is important for establishing tension and giving players the ability to prepare themselves for what they are going to encounter.
Now I want to take a planet from Outer Wilds and convert it to show how I think this is a perfect example of exactly what I am talking about. This will not be canon for Arcanonauts but I am translating it to fit the setting. MAJOR SPOILERS!! TURN BACK NOW!!

Giants Deep

Giants Deep is a large, high gravity planet in the Solar System. It is a great green ball, looking very much like a gas giant, but its outer atmosphere is liquid with a breathable oxygen atmosphere layer beneath. Then below that, the entire planet is mostly made of water.

  • There is an impassible current below the water, however, one of the lost Arcanonauts is said to have found a way through, but was confronted by a huge creature.
  • The Occulus has glimpsed some kind of station in orbit around the planet fire off some bright object then break into pieces. These pieces appear to remain in orbit around Giants Deep.
Environmental Features:
  • High Gravity: Jetpacking around Giants Deep is nearly impossible due to the high gravity. The cost of all Jetpack maneuvers is tripled and the difficulty of piloting checks ought to reflect the higher gravity. The Ship is powerful enough to where this is not much of a problem for it.
  • Cyclones: The Cyclones of Giants Deep are large roaming tornadoes of water that can pick up the floating islands or anything else caught by them and launch them out of the atmosphere where they float in space before usually crashing back down. 
  • The Current: An upwards current lies just a hundred meters below the surface of the sea. This powerful current stops any that try to go below. Even the Ship's engines are not strong enough to blast through.
  • The Planet Core: Below the Current, there is the Planet Core which is surrounded by an electrical field that will repulse anything that tires to approach and do considerable damage to electrical systems. It will deal 1d6 to anyone that touches it or 2d6 to the Ship. Tuning in to the right channel makes a terrible reverberating sound roar over the comms.

  • Ancient Settlement and Mask Lab: This settlement established by the ancient race has platforms that stabilize and protect the user in the case that the island is thrown into space by the cyclones. There is a lab that works on ancient technology of interest to the Arcanonauts but the main door is broken and sealed. A note left behind by some children indicates that there is a more dangerous way into this lab. If the wizards go into the water, they can enter the lab from below or if they take the more dangerous route they can make their way below while the island is out of the atmosphere. This would be a race against time, requiring a difficult Piloting check and meaning instant death by blunt force if the wizards don't find a stabilizer platform fast enough.
  • Arcanonaut's Retreat: A fellow Arconanout has settled on one of these islands. They are just taking a break. They can tell you that one of your fellows did in fact make their way through the current, but they don't know how and the one that did it has left for another planet from whence they have not returned. This Arcanonaut can tell the party about all the islands and to be careful about the Cyclones, warning them to aim for the water if they should get thrown up by one. They will also say that they have been watching the cyclones for a long time and while most of them turn counterclockwise, a rare few turn clockwise. "Isn't that interesting?"
  • The Launch Lab: This Lab is the planetside base for the Launch station above. It shows that the Probe Launcher was meant to send out a probe in search of what the Ancient's called: the Eye of the Universe, however, the launcher was fatally flawed. It would break apart if too much power would be used. It also mentions that there are three pods of the station: The Command Pod, the Work Pod, and the Tracking Pod. The Tracking Pod, in particular, is quite important because it will show the location of the Eye once the probe finds it. It also appears to have some kind of strange platform different from the others which appears powered down. A scan will reveal a micro White Hole within.
  • The Tower of Quantum Knowledge: There is one large stable Cyclone on the Planet. Going up out of the atmosphere allows you to bypass it. Within there is an island and a tower built by the ancients to teach the principle of Quantum Imaging. There are macro quantum mechanics at work int he Solar System where certain objects oscillate unfixed between positions until they are observed, however looking at an image of quantum objects holds them fixed just as well as directly observing them. The tower holds a few puzzles meant to test their own youngs' understanding of this principle so they can make a pilgrimage to what they call: the Quantum Moon.
  • The Launcher Station: There is an artificial gravity pad for people or Ships to land on, however, its extremely low orbit around Giants Deep poses an issue for landing by ship (Piloting DC: 14). However, anyone who rides up an island or the Ship up on the right cyclone will very easily arrive at the Station. At the station, the Work Pod has decompressed and is destroyed, the Tracking Pod is missing. The Command Pod is intact and it recounts the Ancient's endeavor to find the Eye of the Universe, believing that it is in an extremely distant orbit around the Sun, however, the Tracking Pod is required to see where the Eye is. There is a pad int he Commands pod that allows the user to see the Tracking Pod as if they were standing there. Through this pad, you can see that the Tracking Pod is underwater somewhere.
  • The Planet Core: To get under the Current, the wizards can use one of the clockwise spinning cyclones that push them down beneath the Current. There they will find the Planet Core with its electrical field. To pass beneath the field, the wizards might fly up inside one of the giant jellyfish that are able to pass through the Core barrier. The Jellyfish themselves are electrical but only their caps and exterior tendrils. (1d4 damage/2d4 to the Ship) The interior tendrils are harmless and there is room within the jelly cap for four people. The Planet Core itself has some white corral that appears to generate the electrical field, spreading out of a stony center on which rests the Tracking Pod.
  • The Tracking Pod: The tracking Pod reveals the location of the Eye of the Universe as strange symbols that look like coordinates. The Arcanonauts may not know how to follow these coordinates on their own but maybe an Ancient Ship or Navigational Tool could show them how.
The difficulty in showcasing just one Planet is that the entire System is going to be a huge puzzle with multiple smaller parts that often interlink. In the Outer Wilds, there is a location where the Ancients have created a model to inform about the nature of the cyclones on another planet which, once discovered, helps the player understand what they have to do to get below the Current. The other thing is the other explorer which passed into the Planet Core. He can tell you how to do it, but he is also trapped on another planet.

I've not gone into super-dense detail to keep this short but I hope you can see the kind of thing that I want to put into Arcanonauts! Each planet ought to have something interesting going on, some set of rules that the players need to understand and make work for them to achieve their goals.


  1. I skipped the spoiler-y bits about Outer Wilds but anyway Arcanonauts sounds like a really cool setting / aesthetic / system (and also I really like the name). I've always been a fan of good speculative scifi, where it's not about being realistic for the sake of being realistic, but is still a bit more grounded than straight up science fantasy, and instead leverages the uniquely wondrous aspects of science. I would say Neal Stephenson is the master of this, although he sometimes leans a bit too hard into full on hard scifi. In particular, the neurolinguistics of Snow Crash, while absolutely incorrect to anyone who knows the first thing about neurolinguistics, was fascinating. I was a lab manager in a neurolinguistics lab when I read it and the professor and I used to talk about it now and then. For better or worse I tried to add a lot of this kind of speculative science fiction / fantasy into my Phantasmos campaign setting and also some of my other settings and blog posts. Doctor Who is also good with this sort of thing.

    1. Yes Doctor Who is a good example of playful, speculative science fiction, although it can fall into Science Fantasy very easily. I've never been terribly interested in hard scifi although it can produce some interesting ideas. I find that the idea of speculation hits pretty hard at what I love so much about science fiction: what might be? And what might this mean for us? All these ideas about what the future holds reflect back on how we understand ourselves. You also can get a sense of the wonder which might lie beyond. Star Trek is a good example of this for me. It is hardly especially hard scifi, but it explores the possibilities left open by science.

      Also yes go play Outer Wilds, it is awesome.

  2. I'm really digging the style of this. Can you give an example of the kind of "Wizard Scientific Method" you talk about?

    1. I mostly think of this as a mode of play which will not be too dissimilar to a lot of games. So for the example of Giants Deep, you need to follow the scientific method of: observation, hypothesize, experiment. So if you observe that one of the cyclones moves differently from the others, hypothesize that it must work differently to the others, and then you can experiment by flying into it and seeing what happens or if you have a Probe, you could shoot that in or throw a rock in and see what happens.

      So I'm talking about a kind of play that will be pretty familiar to the OSR but be more explicit in this, because dealing with planetary phenomenon that will always work the same way as the main challenge of play. Uncovering the rules and making the rules work for you will be the way to play.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts