I have used Sand Timers in the past to help Control regulate the length of phases within a megagame. I am now thinking about how I could use them as both a timer and an action token within the game that is used by the players.
Sand timers could be:
Placed to indicate choice of action, with the sands giving you time to resolve the action
Placed to indicate the location of the action, with the sands either being the time to resolve the action, or the time limit for other players to react to your action, after which the action is resolved
Placed on top of a unit, allowing it to move or attack until the sands run out.
Some potential problems:
Sand timers are often inaccurate
If there are lots of Sand timers on the tables, players may struggle to perceive what is going on (which could be a feature, not a bug), and Control may struggle to resolve timers finishing at roughly the same time
What happens if the Sand timer is knocked over?
Potential for downtime, where a player is just watching grains of sand tricking down
Control cannot interrupt Sand Timers, the sand will just keep obeying gravity.
The potential upside is that the use of Sand Timers could lead to some interesting real time actions, and present a lightweight way of abstracting handling factors like logistics, technology, and strategic acumen.
Now I am going to try and sketch out how I could use this in a megagame, thinking about Colossus of Atlantis. First, they will be used in the military map game. This subgame has three large regional maps (Asia, Europa, and Libya). Each regional map has a number of land, sea, and colony areas, which the factions are competing to control. The faction tokens on the map indicate area control, or are the dice that represent military units and their relative combat effectiveness.
Second, lets give each team three Strategoi (generals/admirals) and four sand timers (one of 30 seconds, two of one minute, and one of two minutes duration). The number of generals and the number of sand timers could be determined by other game mechanics (e.g. to have three generals you might need to hire mercenaries or persuade another team to loan you one of their generals for the turn, while the number and duration of sand timers might be influenced by research and resource bids). In team time the team gets to discuss which sand timers are allocated to which Strategos, and which table each Strategos is assigned too. So a team might say “We have a reward mission to take a colony in Libya, so we send Paul with the 30 second timer, and a one minute timer there, along with all of our reinforcement dice. In Asia all we have to do is defend our colony in the Black Sea and support our Amazon allies who want to attack Troy, so lets send Jane there with the two minute timer. Luigi gets the remaining one minute timer to go make trouble in Europe.”
Third, the process to use the sand timers:
Place the timer in an area to indicate a logical action (e.g. invading to take control, helping an ally, relieve a besieged colony, etc).
Allocate unit dice to the action by rolling them.* The number scored is their effectiveness for the action. If you roll a 1, the unit is exhausted (removed from play for a while).
If no other player intervenes before the sand in your timer runs out, and you have at least one unit die in the area, your action succeeds. Place a control marker in the area and return the unit dice and sand timer to your hand. Control of the area is locked until the next major game phase is started.
If another player wants to respond to your action, they need to put a sand timer down and allocate one or more unit dice to oppose you. The action resolution is delayed until all sand timers in the area run out. Unit dice are stuck in the area until the outcome is determined.
* I suggest that a “roll and keep best two dice” will lead to a better game than “roll and keep all dice.”
It is quite possible for the outcome of area control to be delayed a long time, if players are interested in the area and keep placing new sand timers and unit dice into the area, and completed sand timers return to player hands for use again. Players can see what the outcome is likely to be from the unit die rolls (barring say the use of a Divine Intervention card, or Control calling time on the phase and sending the armies home for Winter) and could use another sand timer to send reinforcements, or ask an ally to help out. A player might even use a second sand timer to evacuate threatened units before the outcome happens. This might not be the mechanic you want for an Operation Barbarossa game, but I think it fits with the back and forth and alliance diplomacy in Thucydides.
We play to find out what happens, and this time Atlantis definitely sank. As we hit game round nine, Atlantis Doom reached 1,317 and Divine Wrath reached 260, crossing the 250 threshold for triggering the endgame after one faction betrayed another. As the earthquakes started, and the waters rolled back as the tidal wave approached, I asked the Archons in the Council of Atlantis what they were doing. The leader of the Tyrants climbed up to the top of the eponymous Colossus for a good view. Another Archon tried sacrificing half the populace to Great Cthulhu, and the altars and streets of Atlantis ran red with the blood of the innocent. The other half of the populace was “busy” following the use of an Aphrodite divine favour special action. One Archon prayed to Poseidon to save them – no luck – maybe they should not have made Athena the patron Goddess of Atlantis? The Archon of the Oligarchs successfully invoked the wrath of Zeus to strike everyone but them with thunderbolts, and so Atlantis sank, with the 1% counting the coins in their vaults and making sure they had enough to pay Charon.
We had just enough players for five teams of four, rather than the eight teams of five players the game was designed for. Marketing is hard, and on a holiday weekend there are a lot of alternatives. Wellycon is also rapidly becoming the GENCON of New Zealand, and with a large con you get a bit of FOMO and its a big ask to get players to commit eight hours to one game. Next year we might do better to run two to three short duration games, with one running from 1030-1330, another from 1400-1800, and then an evening game from 1830 to 2200.
The space we had at the venue was fine for the number of people we had involved. If we had a full complement of 40 players I think it would have been getting cramped. If I had known that the exit door on out back wall was definitely going to be closed to casual traffic, I would have set the tables up differently, e.g. placing the Strategos table closer to the middle. Another option if using the same space again would be to try and get some smaller tables for the factions to have a home base.
Some logistics elements that can be improved on:
Bring a PA system
Have a Control person tasked with emptying “dump bowls” for tokens used at one table that need to be moved back to another table
More plastic tubs to help players move/store their tokens
Use multiple vehicles to transport stuff to the venue.
The map game and combat between generals flowed fairly well in Act I. In Act II everything slowed down as player versus player combat was enabled. The two main factors in this slow down appear to have been the duel mechanic and the use of Divine Favour cards to increase battle strength. This meant that rather than battles being largely automated, every fight required a check pause for resolution, and with 13 maps and four battle rounds, that meant 52 pauses in play. So it is not surprising that the Strategoi went from finishing three full Action Phases in Act I to only finishing one in Act II. Some “bluff” cards might help speed up divine intervention, as might committing the favour cards before battle cards are pulled.
The rough count of finished Megaprojects was that 13 Colossi were completed, against two each of Temples and Wonders, and zero for Architecture. While building giant robots is fun, the disparity in numbers suggests that the value of the other Megaprojects could be increased or better communicated to the players (e.g. a note in the Archon brief telling them that Architecture projects increase their popularity).
The Colossi dominated Sieges, taking part in 70-80% of the sieges and only losing on two occasions. At one stage in game development I had a siege engine mechanic, which posed a threat to Colossi in sieges. For balance I might need to reduce Colossi effectiveness versus cities, or increase the damage they take.
One feature of Colossus was the large number of game currencies: Talents (cash), Tyche (luck), Arete (virtue), Doom, Wrath and eight types of trade goods. Of these currencies Arete would be the one to drop from a future run of the game. It serves mainly as a “bennie” for good play from Control, and Control can probably fudge things in the margins without needing a specific token.
Priest Control observed that the downsides of Divine Wrath (which works a bit like the Terror Track in Watch the Skies) needed to be more clearly communicated to the players, such as a note in all the player briefings that a major crisis happens at every 50 points and 250 triggers the sinking of Atlantis (or a similar catastrophe). I should have built a spreadsheet for tracking Doom efficiently.
Strategy Control wanted a clear visual of which factions were allied with each other. The league oaths pinned to the wall were too far away for reference. Some kind of reference chart at the table or pairs of team flags. If we had run a full Priest game, then priests would have been more involved with alliances. We also had a very fuzzy alliance, where the players specified the outcomes the alliance was intended to achieve, rather than the behaviours the allies were to follow. The question was “Given the abject failure of the alliance to achieve its goals, has it been broken, if so by which side?”
The Archon game worked well, except for Stasis (civil strife/street battles in Atlantis). What was supposed to be a quick playing minigame turned into a half hour marathon. Once again duels slowed the resolution down, and counting the VP proved much harder than I thought it would be. Archon Control suggested rejigging the main Archon sequence of play so that determining vote strength happened before the Debate Phase, which is a good idea.
Archon Disaster/Event cards would have been clearer if they had two options rather than three options, and faster if the default outcome was a “No” vote for option (1) means that option (2) happens. The full set of 10 Constitution articles was only ready for Assembly Adoption by Round 4-5, and only after the last article was rammed in place by the winner of a Stasis outbreak. I suspect that the Act I deck can be just Constitution cards, and then Acts II/III can have the interesting stuff when trying to rule an empire.
In terms of game demands on players, the Strategoi and Engineers appeared to be working at 110% in Action Phases, but only 50% in the Diplomacy Phase. The Herald and Archon players appeared more evenly involved in both phases. I am yet to read the player feedback forms, so we will see if players felt the same way later in this post.
A list of unrelated Control feedback points:
The harvest mechanic needs to be simpler.
For speed of play, player badges and other game materials need to incorporate faction name, colour and symbol.
A red flag for tables where divine wrath has been triggered
More clarity around Wall tokens for colonies
Some grey walls for neutral colonies would have reduced some wild map control swings
Not sure if we needed all 13 game map tiles with just five factions, could have capped it at number of factions +1?
Hero control needed to be clearer
Add sea monsters.
The game ran to schedule, starting on time and completing the expected number of nine rounds of play.
We picked up about ten new emails from people walking past the game. Next year at Wellycon we should have flyers.
Feedback forms were handed in by about two-thirds of the players. The top quantitative feedback (higher numbers are usually better) was:
Enjoyment: did you have fun? 4.5 out of 5.
Briefing: how well did the briefing enable you to play the game? 3.8 out of 5.
Difficulty: how hard did you find the game to play 1 = hard 5 = easy? 3.2
Rate of Play: how much time pressure 1 = too much 5 = too little? 3.3
Control: how good a job did they do? 4.6
Involvement: how was your involvement with other players? 4
Value: did you get value for money? 4.5
Overall a pretty good result.
Tickets for the day were $NZ 22 for players. All of that went to Wellycon, and the game costs were covered by me (the Control team got free tickets to the event, snacks and drinks, and pizza after the game). In feedback players indicated a desire to pay an average of $NZ 29.67 for a similar length game in the future. This would be enough to cover hall hire and half the printing costs of a megagame with a similar number of players.
Marketing – where people first heard of the game – was an even mix of friends, mailing list, and announcements at the Den of Wolves game in February.
Communication – the best source of information that led to people signing up was a mixture of friends, emails and Facebook posts. Not much love for our website or store posters this time around.
Things players wanted kept for future games
My comments are in brackets after the player feedback in italics.
Trade goals had that Advanced Civilisation feel, which suited veteran gamers. (I think the territory objectives were too easily achieved earlier on, I may focus on goals that actually require trading something in the future).
Oaths laws and other interplay mechanics between groups, the group speeches and voting.
Having to perform extemporaneous speeches as the archon was a fun challenge (I think the podium box we brought along helped a lot for the speeches)
Divine favour very much fun
Interaction between the roles was fun and interesting.
It was very fun I like the idea
Herald role linking all the other teams was a great experience and helps reduce time for individual table rounds. (The Herald role was also of way of reducing the number of required Control, by getting players to move items and information between subgames)
Archon debate phase
Things players wanted stopped
Engineers probably had too much to do. (Everyone wants the Engineers to build them more stuff. However, they did have ~11 types of thing they could build, and trimming that list down to ~8 would improve the cognitive load on Engineers)
Split off the hero or streamline, took a lot of time (This may have been less of an issue if we had the players for a dedicated priest subgame, which would have been responsible for all the hero quests)
Little less opportunity for wrath so game can continue for longer.
Cypher was a bit distracting. (I could have done more to push the espionage cards out to players earlier in the game)
More availability of civil war and battle rules, i.e. would have been good to read as an Archon.
Not a full stop, but something that could speed up the civil war would be good.
No to long side quests like street fights and quests
The 20 minutes were too much for doing the diplomat phase, I had time were I was doing nothing. (A thought I had was to shift the “letter” technology development mechanic for engineers into the Diplomacy Round, where the tech being developed is for Atlantis, and factions have different perspectives on whether the tech should be military, economic, cultural, etc.)
Suddenly ending game by wrath of gods as having a lot of fun. (We had pretty much reached the end of the game and our allotted time in the venue. It’s great that people wanted to keep playing, but the Control team were running out of steam)
The stasis phase needs streamlining. I really enjoyed it but it was slow. (I agree, not sure whether I should refine the existing minigame, or handle it in a more abstract fashion, like the voting mechanic in a past game where everyone had to close their eyes, then point at who they supported to win a vote).
Things the players wanted started
More ways to stop big stompy colossi (yes, they were just a bit too strong)
There are many “luxury” roles that might improve the game but we didn’t have the turnout for them. (Yes, I would love to have solo roles for: High King of Atlantis, an Oracle, Historians, Cultists, Mercenaries, foreign ambassadors – but it requires us building up a much larger base of regular players)
More goal based mini stories to keep you invested and excited in your faction. (While we had some scripted injects, I think the ideal in megagames should be for the emergent play that the players create to be engaging.)
Scheduled food breaks. (Mentioned a couple of times. The problem with a food break is that if anyone goes off site you lose an hour of game time. In theory, everyone should be able to find a few minutes in the Diplomacy Phase for food, drink and a toilet break)
Make heralds magistrates. (This was a player choice in the range of options for Constitution articles)
More work on the rules – some still a bit ambiguous.
More ability for players to backstab. (This is on the players I think, the more deals and alliances you make, the more people you can betray. I am reluctant to give strong incentives to betray everyone in a game where breaking oaths triggers Divine Wrath).
Would like to play with the Priest role active. (This was mentioned in several feedback forms. We would have loved to have more players along so that role could have been played).
Colour coded resource tokens cheat sheet (Yes, would be handy)
Team tables for diplomacy phase. (Would be great, and if we had our own venue to ourselves could be done.)
While I will look at tweaking Colossus and I plan to see if running a game in Sydney later this year could work, I have my wedding to help plan for February 2019. So I am not going to be running any megagames in Wellington between now and mid-2020. If other people want to take the opportunity to organise a game, I have the ability to help with maps and tokens.
On Saturday 23 February 2019, the Wellington Megagame Collective ran John Mizon’s Den of Wolves Megagame at the Wellington Bridge Club.
There was an impressive turnout for the game, with 44 people taking part as players, Control or Kitchen support. That made it the largest Megagame run in Wellington, even though half-a-dozen of the “usual suspects” were unable to make it due to other commitments. We had players come down from Auckland and Palmerston North, one backpacker from California, another backpacker from Sweden, and four players who flew over from Sydney in Australia. We ran with a control team of six (myself as Mega Control, two Fleet Control, and one each for Council Control, Time Control and Cat Control). In terms of player positions we were missing a first officer for one of the ships, had a media team of two, and unfortunately had a late cancellation from a player in Christchurch due to a real life event. This meant the Star Alpha was missing its First Secretary.
As Mega Control my early game intent was to attack the Survivor Fleet until they jumped, and to then pace the emotional tension of the game so that there was an upbeat every now and then rather than a constant stream of downbeats. I kept a close eye on overall damage to the Fleet, making sure that there were turns without any attacks so that there was a chance for repairs and recovery. I also made some Wolf attacks under powered, so that the Fleet got a couple of morale boosting victories.
The lack of a First Secretary made the Star Alpha vulnerable to damage as the ship’s with a full crew were able to focus engineers, materials and repair actions on their ships. This led to a decision early in the game to strip the Star Alpha of useful materials, and to wire it to ram into a Wolf ship (which it did in the next battle, taking out a Maugrim class Destroyer). I adjudicated the loss of the Star Alpha as being worth -1 to Fleet Morale, and with the President, Vice President and Star Alpha crew relocated to the Dione, I increased Food and Water requirements for the Dione by +2 and an ongoing -1 to morale checks due to “incessant whining”.
The mid game was one of slowly escalating damage across the Survivor Fleet, from a combination of Wolf attacks, emergency jump damage, and Wolf sabotage. As the Wolf agents activated their emitter beacons the pursuit track started increasing by +3 per turn!
The Aegis used a SIGINT hint generated by the Endeavour to find out that a future attack would be led by Aethelwulf class Cruisers, and then made use of its cyber capability to narrow down which quadrant of the Fleet map the encrypted Wolf signals (“Big Bad Wolf, this is Lost Sheep, this is Lost Sheep…”) were coming from. They were both coming from the Dione! At this point the crew of the Dione noticed there were two face down special action cards on their table. They had been been planted there by Wolf agents earlier (one hidden under a sign, the other under the Dione’s ship’s cat card). After a little hesitation they flipped them over (not bombs, hooray!) and handed them over to the Aegis, where the Comms officer managed to hack them to send a false signal.
This saved the Fleet from another attack, as the pursuit track had hit 11 and at 12 I was going to bring the Big Bad Wolf out. A succession of jumps then got the pursuit track down to a low level, at the cost of significant damage to several ships. I created a set of emergency jump damage cards for this gae. The “Fire!” card was based on my personal experience in damage control school for the naval reserve – a fire on board a ship is terrifying.
Another resource the Wolf agents had were two one-use Stealth shuttle attacks. These deployed a single special forces unit, equivalent in capability to an Aegis Marine unit. The first of these struck the Dione in an attempt to complete the Wolf special mission to kill the Chief Engineer. This was when the Engineer revealed his Paranoia and Marine Training special action cards, eliminating the SOF unit, and giving the Dione enough weapons and armour to upgrade a security unit to marine quality. The second stealth attack struck the Icebreaker, damaging two stations before being eliminated. This was almost enough damage to lead to the Icebreaker being abandoned
The Chief Engineer on the Dione was acclaimed a hero, awarded a medal, and the Dione stripped its old shuttle for parts (+4 materials) and now had a Stealth Shuttle. Then a Wolf agent – the Ace Reporter – made a personal attack on the Chief Engineer and this assassination was successful, with the Wolf agent then doing a last stand with a knife, wounding several of the Dione’s security unit (the Wolf agents were rated as “007 quality).
This was a high damage game. The Fleet struggled to grow its pool of fighters and pilots and completely exhausted the supply of Engineer counters. As we headed into the End Game, the decision to get materials for repairs rather than strytium ore for jump fuel was going to constrain the Survivor Fleet’s options.
The End Game
Turns 10-11 the Fleet was focused on repairing the critical damage to ships, especially the Icebreaker, which took more damage than any other ship during the game. It was a time when everyone pooled resources for survival. It was noticeable to me that the fuel tanks were dry across the Fleet, except on the smallest ships. The Aegis and the Endeavour worked together (and spent 11 research points) to find a jump destination far away enough to be beyond Wolf attacks. Without fuel it was going to require an emergency jump, so many ships across the Fleet spent Water tokens to cool the jump drives off to make it safe to do yet another emergency jump.
One of the remaining Wolf agents chose this opportunity to wreak havoc on Refinery 124. First an “industrial accident” hit the Captain, the only other player present at the ship at that moment. Then the agent damaged a station, wounded the remaining Security unit, and damaged another station. At this point two Aegis Marine units arrived, and the agent managed to wound them to. So there was a final showdown between the agent and Chief Engineer (who had returned to the ship) and the dice went the Chief Engineer’s way.
This was when I dropped the Wolf Alpha class battleship and the Big Bad Wolf class Carrier (which launches eight Wolf Fighter Squadrons at the end of every Wolf combat round). Here is when the resources spent on repairing and fueling the spinal mount gun on the Aegis paid off. The spinal mount does a satisfying d6 worth of “hits” in one roll. The Survivor Fleet was able to destroy both ships and jump towards a happy ending. If the pursuit track had been higher, I would have given the two ships more escort fighters. The Vulcan only just avoided being lost in space in the emergency jump. Things got a bit grim on the Icebreaker which jumped late due to heat issues. they had a famous last stand between their last Fighter unit and three Wolf squadrons. Having no food or water left they had an outbreak of cannibalism on the long voyage to safety (roll a d6 to see how many units die, they rolled a six, but saved one unit by eating an alleged “Wolf Traitor”).
The last Wolf Agent, the Captain of the Shepherd, decided to abandon the Wolf Cause, as the crew of the Shepherd were now his real family.
The Wolf Pack
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold; And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea, When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Lord Byron, “The Destruction of Sennacherib”
The code words to initiate Wolf contact were “null” and “void”, with the response phrase including either “purple” or “gold”. The code word for the stealth shuttle was “Nineveh”.
As part of casting I asked players if they wanted a simple, complex or byzantine role and if they wanted to be loyal, ambitious, or treacherous. The Wolf agents were selected at random from among the eight odd players who volunteered for treachery. The complexity scale determined how many bonus special action, open resources (what can you do with a Rosetta Stone or the last box of Twinkies?) and personal goals the player got in their sealed envelope.
Because Den of Wolves has been run several times and AARs are easily found online, I did not attempt to conceal the presence of Wolf agents from the players. I did, however, muddy the waters a little. In addition to the three Wolf Agents there were four Fleet characters who were migrants from Wolf loyal to the IC and a player suffering from “Stockwolf Syndrome” who believed they were a Wolf agent, but was really just delusional. There were a number of stolen IC databases around that could be interrogated for clues about recent ship movements (What was the President doing on Wolf three months ago?). At the start of the game I made it clear that Control would never confirm/deny if a player was a Wolf agent – that judgement was entirely in the player’s hands.
Two characters had social special actions that could find Wolves. One of the media team (not the traitor) could ask someone if they were born on Wolf (accent and shibboleth analysis) if they spent a minute talking with them. This would identify both the agents and the loyal citizens, but not the Stockwolf victim. The Warden of the Vulcan could interrogate people on his ship – successful if they could get the subject to smile or laugh in a minute, getting one truthful answer to a question. This could produce a false positive on the Stockwolf victim.
The journalist asked 12 people, but never found a single one of the seven players with “Wolf accents”. It is the nature of sowing seeds for emergent play that sometimes an idea does not flower, and in other cases it takes on a life of its own.
I did mishandle the morale rules early on – not sufficiently clear on whether it was a 1d6, 2d6 or 3d6 roll. There was one incident that is making me think about whether I need an explicit X-card in future megagames. I did not pay enough attention to the Council and I screwed up the elections at the end of the game. In hindsight, I should have left that one for Council Control to resolve. I was also too hands on with Fleet combat, wanting to see how the “new toys” I had devised worked in actual play. I should have left Fleet Control to do more of that task.
Setting the Late Wolf ticket price increase in the middle of two major events a month beforehand was a mistake. I should keep the late ticket price to a week or so prior.
Feedback on the game
Enjoyment: did you have fun? (4.6)
Briefing: how well did the briefing enable you to play the game? (4)
Difficulty: how hard did you find the game to play? (3.6)
Rate of Play: how much time pressure? (3.1)
Control: how good a job did they do? (4.7)
Involvement: how was your involvement with other players? (4.2)
Value: did you get value for money? (4.6)
Ticketing: how easy was the lilregie website to use? (4.2)
While this is overall a great result, one player had a game that sucked for them. That feedback has given me a lot to think about for future games. The President and Admiral also seemed to have scores a notch below average. This may reflect the difficulty inherent in such an apex role, or perhaps the need for another support role to help coordinate matters.
Did you read the rules before playing the game? 83% of the players read the rules before the game, with the remaining players reading part of the rules.
Would you be interested in playing Megagames in the future? 89% of the players would be interested in future Megagames, another 8% were “maybe”.
Would you be interested in being CONTROL in a future Megagame? Four people said “yes”. I will be emailing out an invite to people to join the Wellington Megagame Collectives closed Facebook group.
Did you find the Discord channel useful before the game? 55% of the players found Discord useful. By the start of the Megagame we had almost everyone on Discord.
Did you find the Discord channel useful during the game? 58% of the players found Discord useful. A common request in feedback was for a second projector screen to display a feed from Discord.
Marketing and Communication
The three main sources where people first heard about Den of Wolves were Facebook (13), friends (7) and email (6). All other sources were in the one or two range.
The best sources for information that led people to sign up for Den of Wolves were Facebook (19), friends (14) and email (13).
No major surprises here. Our email list of interested players is valuable, but social media sharing and friendship is important. Store posters, while they may only attract one or two people, do have the advantage of bringing in people who are not part of local networks.
This is the first time I have independently booked a venue. A month before the event we had sold 21 tickets in three months. In the last month we sold another 21 tickets. We are not in a position where we can confidently assume a Megagame will sell out, so selling over 40 tickets was a great achievement. It was a little shot of endorphins each time I got an email from the ticketing website that another ticket had been sold. Ticket prices of waged $30 and unwaged $15 were also a gamble, but advice from friends was that it was comparable to LARP prices and fair for what was involved.
We asked players how much they would be willing to pay for a daylong Megagame, and the average was $34. This is roughly double the answer from previous surveys. Perhaps this is because this game reset expectations, with a waged ticket of $30, compared to the $10-15 of past games.
Major expenses (rounded to nearest $5):
Game license $415
Venue Hire $320
Income from tickets is roughly $1095. Around $60 in fees will be deducted and I will be emailing a few people who paid the late Wolf ticket price to offer a $5 refund. All up I came very close to the goal of breaking even – if we had sold the remaining four tickets it would have been just $7 under the costs.
The venue was a good one, with a PA system, projector, 20 car parks and Wifi included in the affordable hire cost. We had access to two major rooms, each of which could seat 100 people, and a connecting area by the Kitchen. I hope we can use it again in the future.
What did not work, however, was the attempt to offer a canteen with a range of food and drink items. I am several hundred dollars in the red on that gamble, although a lot of the items can be kept in storage for a while or given away to friends. The free tea and coffee was appreciated. In future I think I would keep the offering to the free drinks and some kind of honesty box for a sugar hit treat like chocolate bars. Although I specified it would be cash only, many people now do not routinely carry cash and I am not sure I can afford a machine reader. At a coffee cart this morning, the manager told us that his BNZ mobile card reader cost $30 a month.
Thank you to everyone who came along and played the game, shared the event with friends, or helped control it. A special thank you to my beloved, Catherine, for help with transportation and the kitchen. Thanks also to our supporters at Counter Culture, Cerebus Games and The Caffeinated Dragon for helping with promotion. Thanks also to John Mizon for designing an amazing game! Now after four months of worrying about Den of Wolves, its time to turn my attention back to Colossus of Atlantis, which will be running at Wellycon on 1 June.
I am currently reading M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, and thinking about building a dying earth genre setting for a Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition campaign. I’m calling the setting Old Sun Renaissance. I like the idea of a last city where “the wealth of its people lay entirely in salvage” and which “revered stability and poetry and wine merchants; its cousins only revenge.”
For this campaign I am thinking of taking the Escalation mechanic from 13th Age and changing it into an Entropy mechanic. I see it working like this:
Entropy starts at 1 for the party.
Increase Entropy by 1 each round.
If using a powered item, any roll under the Entropy value exhausts its current charge.
When a player rolls a 1, roll 1d20 on the Entropy Event table, and then reset Entropy to 1.
Entropy Event Table
A device the PC was using breaks.
One of the laws of physics is suspended. Probably gravity.
An adversary uses a surprise action.
A spell expires early, or the spell being cast turns out very differently from what was intended.
An NPC runs away. Was it a friend, or a foe?
If it can catch fire, it catches fire. If its already on fire, it explodes.
The sun flickers, plunging everyone into darkness for a round.
All death saves are made with disadvantage next round.
Re-roll temporary HP and keep the lower score.
Ancient machines start activating.
The floor collapses, revealing a hidden chamber.
Drop something small and valuable, like your ring of invisibility, without noticing it is gone.
Re-roll initiative for everyone but the person who rolled the 1.
Temporal surge. Anyone reduced to exactly zero HP next round is immediately restored to full HP.
An ancient dimensional door reactivates, and a wave of faceless enemies starts pouring through. It closes when the next entropic event is triggered.
A device is triggered, and starts loudly counting down, starting from the entropic die value, or three, whichever is higher. Roll again when the countdown reaches zero.
Reduce the number of Death saves allowed by 1.
Proficiency bonuses now equal the entropy die until the next entropy reset.
An NPC changes sides.
Check icon relationship dice.
In play I would expect to refresh the table so the same outcome does not occur too often. I might also need a table for social encounters and exploration. Overall the intent is to prompt something interesting to happen when a 1 is rolled on a d20, and to some extent for the players to be happy that a failure has occurred, because the POW cost of some of their play options has been reset to minimum. You could call this “flailing forward”, where a failure creates a window of opportunity from the chaos that follows the failure.
The other use for the Entropy die is to set the power (POW) cost for using Entropy Feats. So when Entropy is 1, it costs one POW to use an Entropy feat. If Entropy has reached 5, it costs five POW. Here are a few examples of Entropy feats:
Magic: choose a spell you can cast, you can spend POW and refresh that spell as a bonus action. Increase the Entropy die by 1. From 5th level, if you take an entropy feat a second time with a spell, you can refresh and use it as a reaction action.
Final Blow: once per combat, spend POW and declare who you intend to attack. You act last in the initiative round, but add your total attribute score to damage to one successful martial attack (e.g. if using a finesse weapon with DEX 17, add +17 to damage, not +3). If the POW is spent, but the final blow is not attempted, the POW remains expended but the final blow can be attempted later in the combat (with a new POW spend). After using this feat, reduce your HP to 0. This entropy feat can only be purchased once.
Ragged Endurance: once per combat, spend POW and gain HD temporary HP. From 5th level, gain 2 HD of temporary HP, and from 11th level, gain 3 HD of temporary HP. You can take multiple uses of this feat.
In order to calculate your Power attribute, you first need to generate all of your character’s other attributes. I am borrowing Rafu’s Matrix Method for this, because both point buy and 4d6 drop one would be terrible for what I have in mind. Start by outlining a matrix with the six standard attributes (STR, DEX, CON, etc) and three columns.
STEP 1: roll 6d6 and arrange as you wish in the first column.
STEP 2: write the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 arranged as you wish in the second column.
STEP 3: roll 1d6 in strict order, in the third column, no rearranging of scores! Sum up the three columns to get the score for each of the six attributes.
STEP 4: The Power (POW) attribute is equal to the difference between your highest and lowest rolled attributes. For example, if CON 17 is your highest attribute, and WIS 9 is your lowest attribute, then your character has a POW score of 8.
So this is a version of D&D where you want one of your attributes to be low. Which is why point buy and 4d6 drop one are not good character creation tools. My inspiration for POW as a strength based on your weakness comes from a line in The Magicians:
I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in your chest was? A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength.
Grossman, Lev. The Magicians: (Book 1) (p. 217-8). Random House. Kindle Edition.
Gaining More Power
First, POW recovery is based on class HD when you have a short rest, modified by the absolute number of your lowest attribute. For example, if DEX 4 is your lowest attribute, then you get +3 on POW recovery rolls, not -3. On the whole this recovery process advantages martial characters with larger HD and I am comfortable with that. On a long rest, recover all spent POW. Second, permanent POW gains occur when:
The two contributing attributes change in value
You choose to increase POW rather than gain an Entropy feat when leveling.
I am thinking of allowing a player a chance of increasing one attribute each time they level and do not get a standard feat (which happens at levels 4, 8, 12 and 16). Roll 1d20 + level and score greater than current attribute value to gain a +1 increase. If you fail, you can optionally choose to reduce an attribute by one (as your weakness is exacerbated by the stress of the adventurer lifestyle), and always gain advantage on your next level up attribute increase attempt.
If you get resurrected, you can also choose to drop an attribute by one point. I do not recommend this is a way of increasing POW, but I think its reasonable for a journey to the other side and back.
I might have some relics grant their owner POW, but on the whole my philosophy for a dying earth setting which magic and science are one and the same, is for “magic items” to cost POW to use for a scene.
The level up choice is to either gain one Entropy feat or to gain POW equal to the new level. No choice at level 4, 8, 12, and 16, as you get a standard feat at those levels. I imagine that most players will choose feats at low level, before switching to boosting POW at higher levels.
I have more ideas to explore here. I think I have two posts worth of material on icons for the final age of a dying earth, and then at least one post on how I would hack the D&D 5E classes into shape for the setting.
Den of Wolves is essentially Battlestar Galactica, minus specific IP such as robots with bouncing red eyeballs, with a focus on the politics of the survivor fleet and crisis management. Click on the heading to go to the event page for the game blurb and some links to after action reports from games in the UK.
Den of Wolves is an experiment in using an off the shelf design, and then not hacking the rules! I do have some plans for adding some elements to the game that players can riff off in their roleplaying, but I do not intend to alter any of the mechanical elements of the game. This is also the first time I have run a game in Wellington without piggy backing on a convention, so the cost of the game includes venue hire, as well as production and licensing costs. As we already have players coming from Australia and Auckland, I am hoping for a good local turnout as well.
Tickets for Den of Wolves are on sale here. Unwaged or Control $15, Waged $30. There is a $5 price rise on 19 January 2019.
Photo from South West Megagames, of the three sheets used to control one ship in Den of Wolves.
Colossus of Atlantis, 1 June 2019
A complete revision of the second version of the game. This is likely to be what I run at Wellycon.
The central premise is that all the players start the game as leaders in the expanding empire of Atlantis, and are members of one of the factions competing to dominate Atlantis, without triggering the wrath of the Gods and the doom of Atlantis. The game will follow a three act structure:
In the first Act of the game, all player versus player options are disabled. This is a learning phase of the game, during which Atlantis will expand over a map of the Mediterranean and adjoining lands with 60+ significant cities.
In the second Act of the game, the player versus player options are enabled and both players and factions can be exiled from Atlantis.
In the third Act of the game, we will find out if earlier player actions mean Atlantis is likely to suffer a deluge or not.
The game will feature up to eight factions drawn from Ancient Greek myths and history:
The Amazons, a team of women pushing for emancipation
The Aristocrats, a team that seeks rule by the best people
The Democrats, a team that seeks rule by all people
The Medes, a team that supports peace, trade, and magical research
The Monarchists, a team that supports the rule of Kings descended from the divine Poseidon
The Oligarchs, a team that seeks rule by the wealthy
The Stratocrats, a team that supports military spending and war
The Tyrants, a faction that seeks to make Atlantis great again.
Each faction has players with the following roles:
Archon – the team leader who represents the faction on the Council of Atlantis, and in any street fighting that takes place in Atlantis
Strategos – the team general who commands military units on the main game map
Engineer – the team builder of military units, wonders and other technological marvels
Priest – the team magician who tries to keep the Gods happy, and can create curses that harm other players and wards/amulets to protect players from disasters
Trader – as well as playing an economic role for the team, the trader is also the team spy.
During the game, players will have the option to spend time performing hero quests based on Greek mythology. This might happen if you are exiled from Atlantis for a turn, or if your team chooses to send you off questing. Questing can result in both great rewards and tragic complications.
Flower Power II, second half of 2019
Revisiting one of my best games, which was originally run down in Christchurch in 2006. The premise was a lost colony, settled by peace and nature loving hippies, which had gone through technology collapse, balkanization, warfare, and then recontact with the rest of humanity.
The original Flower Power game was essentially a world war two scenario of mass industrial warfare, with some drug smuggling and COMINTERN intrigue on the side. It definitely resonated with many of the players, who still reminisce fondly about the game today.
I now think the best frame for revising the game is to focus on contemporary issues of fragile states, peacekeeping, and counterinsurgency that we see happening around the world today. Where many of my past megagames have involved teams with relatively equal amounts of power and options, Flower Power II will feature factions with asymmetric power levels and options in the game.
I am not sure yet what the player roles in the game will be, but the factions are likely to include:
Offworld aid organisations, trying to uplift local education and economic practices
Offworld civil government representatives, trying to shepherd the planetary government into membership of an interstellar polity
Offworld military commanders, trying to keep the peace
Offworld private military contractors (mercenaries), trying to profit from keeping the peace
Smugglers, trying to make profits from criminal activities
Corporations seeking access to local resources, or contracts to supply offworld goods and services
Planetary coalition government, trying to avoid a return to destructive warfare
Insurgent factions derived from former local governments, spanning a range of ideological positions, and tactics from non-violent protest to terrorism.
This weekends crazy idea is mashing up the West Marches concept, with the imperial succession mechanic of the Empire of the Petal Throne. In order to avoid a debilitating civil war, the Imperial succession is determined by a contest to acquire secrets and relics, and to reach a specific location at the right time, plus defeating any other challengers. But rather than one isolated temple or maze filled with death traps, the contest (and the hexcrawl) takes place on an isolated island filled with ruined temples and labyrinths filled with hazards. There might also be official imperial treasuries and tombs, just filled with loot awaiting early appropriation by an Imperial heir.
The main difference from a standard West Marches campaign, is the hard time limit on the finish of the campaign. Perhaps its a year and a day of game time from the start of the campaign. It could be longer, or it could be triggered at any time. Another way to do it, would be to have a final count down to the ritual occurring once one contestant crosses a threshold, leaving everyone else until the the next full moon to join them. For the wrap up, only players who know where the coronation ceremony is going to take place get to have their characters turn up for the finale.
I think the time limit should be known to the players from the start, but another option is for that to be a major game secret as well. The time limit also means that spending a few weeks healing from injuries or recovering from disease is a major setback.
This is something where the greater number of players in a West marches campaign could prove an advantage, as several players could play candidates, while other players play opportunists hoping to back the winning candidate. Each player could have a candidate, sponsoring quests that other characters are sent on. Some definite scope for intrigue and betrayal. Perhaps the true contestants all need some identifier, a relic like object, or a magic tattoo on their skin.
A few other things that could be added into the mix:
Neutral Officials, there to stop the contest from getting out of hand (such as sabotage of supply ships or burning down the ports). But perhaps they can be bribed.
Fanatically Neutral Officials, there to silently enforce the rules by assassinating heirs suspected of cheating, bribing neutral officials, and any trouble makers who look to be fostering civil wars.
Deadly decadent court – perhaps the contest is like the succession for much of the Ottoman Empire, where the new Caliph had the rival heirs executed, raising the stakes of the contest. If you don;t want to win and be supreme ruler of the empire, how do you survive? Hole up as a hermit on the island for the rest of your life?
More imperial factions – perhaps the franchise for the contest is wider than just the imperial family, and a range of guilds, cults, generals, villains and heroes all enter the contest.
A free for all – if anyone can enter the contest, so long as they can reach the island, then there could be a rush of the desperate and dangerous, all hoping to strike it rich. The landscape could be littered with the bones of peasants who had dreams of glory – this could be an ideal set up for a “funnel” session zero, where you start with a large pool of “level zero” PCs and play through the dungeon until the last few survivors “level up”.
Borrow from The Player of Games and have most of the imperial government participating, either directly or through proxies (for the aged and infirm), all competing for their place in the hierarchy after the succession is determined.
I imagine an island with a north-south mountain range, with arid/desert landscapes on one side, and dense forest/jungle on the other side would make for a good contrast in exploration. A few ports scattered around the coastline provide the safe bases for rest and recovery between expeditions. The local economy is probably having something of a gold rush boom town vibe, which could well attract some criminal gangs or even a pirate raid.
Even though I am enjoying running Night’s Black Agents in the Third Horizon of Coriolis, I can’t help but cast my thoughts to what kind of campaign I will run next. There are a few ideas that my imagination keeps returning to:
The Dark Sun setting first published by TSR for AD&D.
The layered worlds of the city of Alikand from Max Gladstone’s novel The Ruin of Angels, part of the craft sequence.
Player’s map of Chult, by Mike Schley, from Tomb of Annihilation.
The West Marches…
The West Marches approach is attractive because of the difficulty I have had over the last couple of years in being able to reliably schedule a game when work, illness and other life commitments crop up. It is not that we don’t want to game, its just been getting harder to get myself and 4+ players together, especially with the travel commitments my current job has. There is also an element of nostalgia for a type of exploration play I have not really done since the 1980s when mucking around with D&D module X1 The Isle of Dread. Key elements that were important to the original West Marches campaign include:
1) There was no regular time: every session was scheduled by the players on the fly.
2) There was no regular party: each game had different players drawn from a pool of around 10-14 people.
3) There was no regular plot: The players decided where to go and what to do. It was a sandbox game in the sense that’s now used to describe video games like Grand Theft Auto, minus the missions. There was no mysterious old man sending them on quests. No overarching plot, just an overarching environment.
The players decide where they are going before the session starts.
Session reports are shared.
The world map is shared, and may be unreliable.
Competition between players is encouraged.
Content is loosely tiered – distance from base rather than depth in the megadungeon.
I think one of the key points here, is that a chunk of the campaign work which is usually done by the GM, needs to be done by the players. The players also need to be a bit focused on their goals. For the GM, the key task will be in keeping the session self-contained, rather than ending with a cliffhanger or submerged in a mire. This means three clue mysteries and five room dungeons, not the Mines of Moria or the Masks of Nyarlathotep. There is still a lot of work for the GM to do in terms of fleshing out what each hex of the hex crawl actually contains.
System wise, I think the game engine needs to be simple so it has fast procedural resolution, and not require the PCs to be interlocking in an unchangeable way. A lightweight version of d100 or an OSR system would be a good fit. If I were being bold, I might try Conan 2d20.
Then there is the issue of getting a pool of 10+ players interested in the concept and able to tolerate the metagame elements (e.g. not getting invited on an expedition you wanted to do, missing out on your chance to secure the Head of Vecna), as I do not have strong ties to as many gamers as I did back in my university days.
…of the Dark Sun
As much as I like the idea of Dark Sun, I have to confess to never having played it. When it was first released I did not have the money to buy it, and later on I was simply not interested in running an AD&D game. But the mix of godless post-apocalyptic fantasy, planetary romance, swords and sorcery, and the Dark Sun twist on magic causing environmental pollution is a blend I keep coming back to. There is just something about a devastated landscape, where civilisation survives in a small number of oppressive city-states ruled by immortal sorcerer-kings (and Queens), that appeals to me. Unlike other D&D settings, psionic powers were common. It also had subversions of the usual fantasy race cliches: halflings were cannibals, dwarves were (usually) slaves, and elves were desert raiders. One criticism it had back in the day was the meta-plot focus on the ascension plans of the sorcerer’s. A feature of the setting, is that a lot of the choices are bad, and PCs are more likely to be amoral and survival focused as opposed to lawful good do-gooders.
So I think the challenges in the setting from a design point of view are:
What do the PCs do in a setting, where tyranny can be found on every street corner, and points of light are few and far between?
What is the price of magic?
How grimdark will the setting will be?
How to handle psionic powers for the PCs, and how are these psychic powers different from magic?
One potential answer for (1) is to have the PCs as specialists in salvaging useful stuff from the wastelands. For example, if the cities have surviving magitek from the lost Golden Age, then people who can find spare parts and batteries, have a socially useful role, and as a game you can follow dungeon crawl procedures and have a good time. Some kind of Vril technology or similar also fits within the planetary romance genre, and for one city state to have a monopoly on flying machines would make them a powerful foe. Another answer is to have the PCs as agents of resistance groups struggling to make the world a better place, which is a hard job when the reigning tyrants oppose change – the KGB and Gestapo never had access to telepathy and Charm Person spells.
I have a few answers for (2). One is to adapt the “defiling” magic of Dark Sun and diversify it a little, but staying within a general theory of magical power being derived from bleeding off the energy created by rapidly accelerating entropy. So you have “Rot Mages” who accelerate decay of vegetation, “Blight Mages” who cause cancer and disease in living creatures, “Coin Mages” who cause metal to corrode into dust, and “Degenerate Mages” who use energy gained by mutating their own bodies. A second answer I came up with is to say that in the broken world, using magic acts as a call or lure to eldritch monsters and latent curses left over from the cataclysm. The more you use it, the greater the chance of summoning a random horror that will try and eat your brain. A third possibility, is to build on the godless nature of the setting by having a cataclysm that destroyed both heaven and hell, and mages now exploit all the homeless angels by binding them into service with false faith and spilled blood.
The degree of grimdark (3) is something to discuss with potential players. Dark Sun was a high lethality setting, with blood being spilled by gladiators on the arena sands, slavery in most of the cities, a backstory that featured explicit attempts at genocide, and a strong possibility of bloodthirsty witch hunts if the slightest hint of someone using defiling magic turned up. I think everyone needs to be comfortable with the premise that life is cheap, and a lot of aspiring heroes perish in the wastelands or dungeons of the sorcerer tyrants. Adapting an idea from Tomb of Annihilation, resurrection could be explicitly impossible. Perhaps the cultural norm is to burn the dead to prevent zombies and worse things in a world where there is no afterlife or place for souls to go to after death. I did have an idea that one use for the d100 Passion mechanic could be for testing whether your PC returns as a single purpose revenant for one final death ride of an adventure.
Psionic power is a feature of the Dark Sun setting that never really came up in my teenage AD&D games, although they did feature in the Traveller campaign I played in at university. Psionics are definitely different from magic, in that there are no defiling side effects. So, how exactly do psionic powers differ from other forms of magic?
Are psionic powers more “scientific” than the “fantastical” magic? This might reflect the serious research interest that concepts like “remote viewing” attracted in the 1960s and 70s, but which are now clearly discredited (although you might say that’s exactly what the Illuminati want me to think). It also reflects the influence of John Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, who coined the term psionics and encouraged its use in science fiction stories.
You might think a rational power like psionics could be learned, but in fiction its often the reverse – the apprentice can learn magic from the ancient grimoires, but psionics, you either got it or you don’t. Traveller let you learn psionics, but you had to find one of the hidden institutes first. In Luther Arkwright, you had to roll 58-59 on 1d100 when determining your PC’s distinctive trait to be eligible for psionic powers.
Are psionic powers powered purely from within, unlike “divine” magic or other forms of tapping external energy? The classic tells in visual media of psychics include nosebleeds and the fingers tapping on the forehead. What happens when you run out of psionic power? Does your head explode, or do you just fade out into unconsciousness? Can you permanently lose your psionic powers from overexertion? What about psychic vampires?
Are psionic powers intangible, unlike the tangible effects of magic? In fiction, psionic power is often “information magic”, such as Clairvoyance, Precognition, Retrocognition, Telepathy, and empathy. Where it can cross the grimdark line is when it crosses the line into mental attacks and forms of mental compulsion. That feels much more like it should be a signature power of the tyrants ruling society, not the heroes fighting against them. One way of handling psionic powers might be framing them as investigative tools as in a GUMSHOE game. The other main forms of psionic powers I see in fiction are the ability to manipulate energy and physical objects (like the Jedi do) and to passively boost survival chances.
Is magic the domain of old professors of lore, while psionics is the realm of teenagers used in illicit military experiments? Is psionic power something you age out of? Traveller took that approach, in that the older you were when you learned psionics, the weaker your psionic strength was. Is it a feature of being a more “evolved” species? Can you find “psionic items” the same way you find “magic items”? The science/fantasy split suggests a psionic item is more advanced technology than a magic item would be, for example, a pistol versus a sword.
Going back to the Dark Sun setting inspiration, I think I might package psionics and magic along these lines:
psionic powers rely on using internal power sources, i.e. from within yourself.
magic powers rely on using external power sources, i.e. exploiting energies associated with places, entities, sacred times, rituals, etc.
I would allocate all forms of mental compulsion to magic, and make domination of others one of the signature feats of evil sorcerers. But one option for psionic power might be greater resistance to “charm person” spells.
I would restrict most use of psionic powers to the person using them, or perhaps with a heavy restriction, e.g. if you can heal others, you cannot heal yourself, and the healing process may harm you.
I am okay with allowing both magic and psionic powers to be developed through training.
the key risk of psionics is overexertion and burn out, the key risk of magic is loss of control over the forces you have summoned. A bad day for a psychic might involve a splitting headache, where a bad day for a sorcerer involves setting a forest on fire.
this leads to a conclusion that psionics and magic need different resource management systems within the broader game system. The psionic power user is limited by their personal power, while the sorcerer is only limited by how much harm they are willing to inflict on their local environment.
An unrelated idea I have been kicking around, based in part on 13th Age, is the idea of escalation. If casting spells before combat buffs characters so they have an asymmetric advantage for a surprise attack, I think in play you get players wanting to spend a lot of time on planning and maneuver before committing to action. This gets worse if ritual magic that takes long casting times is a feature of your magic system. So an alternative approach is to have the use of magic powers makes subsequent magic use by anyone in the vicinity more powerful as the dimensional barriers are broken down, then its a bit easier for the players to get their PCs to jump in and worry about the buff spell later on.
The Ruin of Angels (potential spoilers)
The Craft Sequence features a world of post-industrial magic, after a war between Gods and Sorcerers, which the Gods lost. The books often address contemporary social issues through a fantasy lens, like social inequality and the 1%. In The Ruin of Angels, Alikand is an occupied city which has been badly damaged in the war – not just people and buildings, but the fabric of reality itself. Alikand is a place where just turning the corner and looking the wrong way can induce a SAN check, or see you fall through a gap into a version of the city where the war is still being fought between the Gods and Sorcerers. This is a bit like the trope for layered worlds. This is appealing from a game design view, because you can pack more ideas into one location in the game. In Alikand, one of the activities done by the people resisting the occupation is to deliberately venture into the lethal war dimension, in order to salvage books that no longer exist in the real world. I feel this could fit well with the city-state ruled by sorcerer-tyrant element of the Dark Sun setting.
So there is some potential here for a West Marches campaign that is based around Urban hex crawls. You have the city of oppression, which is a “safe” home base, because it won’t make you go insane or be devoured by extra-dimensional monsters. But just a hop, skip, and jump through the mirror is an adjacent dimension with locations that map to familiar places, but which are filled with hazards and monsters. Survive to leave with your loot, and then you can try dodging the secret police squads trying to crack down on relic smuggling.
One way of integrating psionics with the layered world approach, is to tie the different strands of psionic powers to different dimensions that adjoin the city. I’ll admit some influence here from the “warrens” of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The flavour of each set of psionic powers is determined by the dimension layer(s) a psychic is attuned to the right wavelengths for, or some other kind of fluff. So a PC with psionic powers tied to a water filled dimension might be able to avoid dehydration for an extended period of time.