Reflections on a Runequest 6 Campaign

April 3, 2017


I seem to be chiming into “sell me on/off Runequest/Mythras” threads a lot on a lot lately. So as my Runequest 6 (RQ6) campaign is winding down I thought I might post a summary of what I think of the system after almost three years of running a campaign for five players.

The Trivial Question – should you get Runequest 6 or Mythras?

The rules are almost identical. Both were published by The Design Mechanism. My copy of RQ6 is a 456 page softback. Mythras is a 304 page hardback. Mythras has stripped out the references to Runes, dropped a font size, reduced the white space in the margins, cleaned up the presentation of Animism magic and spirits, added a few more combat effects, traits, and incorporated errata. The character sheet in the Mythras rules is much improved on the RQ6 sheet.

I will not use Mythras at the game table, simply because the smaller font size is difficult for my ageing eyes to read. Hands down, no contest, RQ6 wins for ease of referencing mid-session.

What is Runequest 6 About?

Runequest 6 is about magic-wielding adventurers who go on missions to kill enemies and take their stuff, for reasons justified by the community they belong to. Your Runequest May Vary, but this is the default premise supported by the rules.

How Does Runequest 6 go About that?

The major elements of Runequest 6 are:

  1. 1970s style character attributes (Strength, hit points, etc) with a few modern touches (luck points, passions, culture, etc).
  2. A D100 roll under blackjack core mechanic, with an extensive skill system that governs almost all character actions.
  3. A gritty realistic feeling combat system, in which the player’s feel their characters are always vulnerable to harm.
  4. A toolkit of options for tailoring magic to your own campaign setting, and five different types of magic, but generally within competent mortal bounds, not mythic levels of power.
  5. Templates for building social organisations. Without these you might as well be playing D&D.
  6. Its a “Rule Zero” game system. You’re expected to ignore rules you do not like, or to add rules if the rules fail to support your preferred mode of game play.

What Does Runequest 6 Reward?

Runequest 6 gives rewards for sessions played, fumbles rolled, and for having the in-game wealth and time to purchase training for characters.

Lets Look at the Rewards a Little More Closely

Session based play rewards whatever the GM feels like rewarding, but in an egalitarian way. The suggestions are to base the reward on the length of time since the last reward (suggested range is two to four) AND how well the characters have performed (mission success) OR how well the characters have been played. It is recommended that everyone be given the same number of experience rolls (so you can ignore mission success or roleplaying prowess and just go straight to number of sessions since the last reward handout, multiplied by a number the GM likes).

Experience rolls can be spent on:

  1. Increasing existing skills – cost one experience roll, results in a gain of +1% to +5%.
  2. Increasing characteristics – by reducing all future experience gains by one OR by spending (1+current value -species minimum).
  3. Increasing or decreasing passions – cost one experience roll.
  4. Learning new skills – cost three experience rolls.
  5. Learning new magical abilities and spells – cost varies from three to five experience rolls for spells, more for creating new traditions .

Fumbles almost never occur in actual play, due to the luck point mechanic, but if they were to occur, then the character who fumbles a skill check (a roll of 99 or 100 on the d100 roll), gains a free +1% to the skill.

Training can improve skills you currently know (but not acquire new skills, you have to have spend three experience rolls for that), but you cannot train a skill more than twice in a row. Otherwise rich characters would never need to go adventuring again.

I think there was a missed opportunity to tie the Passion mechanic to the reward system. Its implied in the option for rewarding performance, but its not explicit so it can be ignored. Overall the reward system is one of small incremental improvement, making RQ6 ideal for campaigns intended to last for years of play.

In my campaign I originally only let players spend one experience roll on a skill increase each time they were awarded experience. Mid-campaign I reread the experience rules and decided this was not what was intended by the rules, and allowed any or all experience rolls to be spent on the same skill. Player behaviour instantly changed – the warriors focused on hitting foes with swords spent the majority of their experience on increasing Combat Style, while the sorcerers spent the majority of their experience on increasing their two magic skills. While 80% skill is good, 95% is better, and 105% is much better. Developing hobby skills or secondary interests feels like its making your character weak.

Is Runequest 6 Easy to Learn?

No its not.

If you have been playing roleplaying games since the 1970s and have used any previous d100 game system, than yes, YOU can pick up and learn to play or GM RQ6 easily. If you are used to modern games with a focused coherent design of rules and roleplaying practice, and a developed setting for play, then RQ6 presents you with an overwhelming number of choices, places most of the narrative authority burden on the GM, and then runs away and hides behind Rule Zero.

In my experience, RQ6 is not suited for modern convention play unless you play with a significantly cut-down version of the rules or with people who already know the game rules. Over the last few years I have had good experiences running Cortex Plus, Conan 2d20, Paranoia, and Blades in the Dark at conventions for players who had never encountered those game systems before. My one attempt at running RQ6 was a painful morass of player indecision (see my comments on death by a thousand options below).

The shorter (and free to download) Mythras Imperative rules might do better here. I note in passing that Chaosium are putting a lot of effort into designing a quickstart set of rules for their next edition of Runequest, and an adventure suitable for convention use.

The rules are about as logical as you can get in a linear text. There are a few things in the GM chapter I wish were more player facing, the animism and spirit information is a bit scattered (corrected in Mythras), and I thought the rules for bartering and haggling might have been better placed in the Skills chapter rather than the Economics chapter.

Can You Lose the Game in Character Generation?

Yes, you can lose the game in character generation by building a character with less than three action points. Action points govern how often you get to act in combat, so building a character with only one or two action points means you get less spotlight time than the other players AND your character’s chances of surviving combat plummet. This is because defensive actions consume one of your actions, and if you are attacked successfully and have no remaining actions, your foe gains a bonus special effect.

To be fair, the GM chapter does provide some advice on Skill selection and how to survive with only two Action Points, but if your GM does not pass on that advice, then you stand a pretty good chance of your first character being pretty woeful. The advice on how to play well with less than three action points … well it applies equally to anyone with three action points as well. I note that in Mythras Imperative, all characters get two Action Points.

In terms of ensuring character survival in combat, I believe the most important factors are:

  1. Action Points – because not giving away bonus special effects when hit is pretty much the most important thing in RQ6 combat.
  2. Luck Points – because it can be used to reroll a skill check, to gain an extra action, or to reduce a wound.
  3. Combat Style skill – you want this to be as high as possible because its used for both attack and defence.
  4. Evade or Acrobatics Skill – Evade is less useful than Combat Style for avoiding moderate amounts of damage because you end up prone (which costs an action to get up from). Acrobatics is more useful than Evade, because in most cases it can be substituted for Evade and a check allows falling damage to be reduced by 75%.
  5. Athletics Skill – because falling from a great height will inflict damage to multiple locations, and a luck point will only cancel one of them.
  6. Swim skill – because fatigue from drowning is a karmic death spiral on steroids.
  7. Endurance – ranked low as it is better to prevent damage through actions, skills use, or the passive effects of armour and shields, and it is better to prevent a critical hit by using a luck point to force an opponent to reroll. I will expand on this when I discuss the skill system below.
  8. Willpower – ranked low as only useful versus certain spells and social challenges.

This encourages a degree of homogeneity among characters. I would strongly encourage players to make sure their character has a minimum POW of 13 (for three luck points), and INT and DEX scores that sum to at least 35 (for three action points).

How Whiffy is the Skill System?

It is a very whiffy system. If you have a skill of 48%, then you will fail 52% of the time. There is an option buried in the GMs chapter to adapt the multistage crafting system to social encounters, which allows you to better handle tasks resolved over a period of time. Its not as detailed as say Burning Wheel’s debate system, but it does the job and I think it should have been up front in the main skill chapter.

One thing that is good, is that when opposed skill checks are being made, the higher successful roll beats the lower. So its more decisive than the early D100 games. If I were starting an RQ6 game again, I think I would try to incorporate fail forward by offering a “success with complications” to a player when both opposed rolls fail.

Another good thing is that a single Combat Style skill can incorporate as many weapons as you think is appropriate to your campaign. This avoids people tracking a dozen different skills. If I ran another RQ6 campaign I would look at bundling other skills together this way, e.g. a “College Skill” could incorporate a package of related Lore and Language skills.

My least favourite feature of the skill system is the incorporation of division into the process for calculating skill checks. A hard difficulty check requires you to reduce your skill level by 33%, which always elicits groans and eye rolls at my gaming table when I ask people to do the maths. Then you try augment your skill with another skill/passion or help from another character, which requires you to divide that skill by five and add it to the original skill. In the RAW your critical score remains at the unaugmented level, but I think its a common house rule to adjust it up to the augmented level for simplicity.

I have definitely encountered people who think this is a simple process, but I disagree. I note that RQ6 has an option alternative for flat +/- 20% to difficulty levels. If I ran RQ6 again, I would be very tempted to use the advantage/disadvantage die system used in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, simply to speed up play. I also note that in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, all three difficulty levels that reduce skills are pre-calculated and written for easy reference on the PC sheet.

System Mastery Shock

You might think an 80% skill is good. But its possible to run into a situation  where you have little to no chance to succeed. This is because on many “survival” checks, such as Endurance, Evade, and Willpower, not only do you have to roll under your skill, but over your enemy’s roll as well. This is an all or nothing check.

So if you have 80% Endurance skill, and your foe rolled a 70% attack against you that dealt you a horrible wound, you need to roll either a critical (01-08%) or a success better than 70% (71-80%). While it fits elegantly with the rest of the RQ6 system, it feels like your survival skills need to be about twice as high as your attack skills to be at a similar level of effectiveness. Now imagine your opponent lucked out and rolled a 07% critical, now your 80% Endurance Skill gives you a 1% chance of success, only a roll of 08 will help you.

This is the reason why if my players had to choose between increasing Combat Style or increasing Endurance, they chose to increase Combat Style. Point for point its a better investment for character survival. It took quite a few sessions of play before we really picked up on this feature of RQ6. After a longer period of time we realised that you could spend Luck Points to force the enemy to reroll their critical successes, and that this was a much better way of ensuring survival than rerolling your own Endurance check.

With Luck, Fumbles Never Happen

One feature of the system is that I found that in play, fumbles almost never happen. My players would see the 99 or 00 on their dice, and spend the luck point to reroll. This is a perfectly reasonable thing for them to do, as fumbling in combat both increases the number of Special Effects gained against you, and opens up more severe special effects to be applied. A fumble only happened if luck points were exhausted, if it was in a relatively safe situation with healers on hand, or in the rare situations where a second 99 or 00 was rolled (so about one chance in 2,500 rolls). I think that happened once during the entire campaign.

As a GM, I felt frustrated by the lack of opportunities generated by the game system to take scenes in unexpected directions. I took this lesson into running Conan 2d20 where I told players that my job in using “Doom” generated by the players was to make the game more interesting for them, not to slaughter their characters with it. In a similar way, I was groping for something to handle long term story arcs, like Fronts in Apocalypse World. But that might be a house rule for another day in the future.

Combat – Death by a Thousand Options!

One of my reasons for starting an RQ6 campaign, was that I was looking for a system with a bit more meat on the bones than the Dragon Age system I had been using for the previous three years. RQ6 certainly delivers on this point with a rich system for conflict that can be tailored to either realistically grim or lighter cinematic heroism. My campaign involved musketeers, so it had some important rule decisions:

  • the players had access to musket pistols, which do 1d8 damage and ignore four points of armour
  • the main melee weapon is the rapier, which does 1d8 damage, and in an interesting quirk, has the same engagement range as a spear
  • only primitive cultures still used shields.
  • the PCs ( and many foes) had access to a combat trait that let them Evade without going prone
  • I allowed Luck Points to be spent to reduce a Serious Wound to a Minor Wound.

Initiative ignores your skill in fighting, and is based on a 1d10 roll plus the average of DEX+INT, minus worn armour. This was pretty much the only step in the game for us where Encumbrance mattered. I have never seen players who enjoy tracking encumbrance or fatigue, and RQ6 doesn’t really change the world on that point.

The key tactical feature of RQ6 combat is to concentrate efforts so your opponents run out out of Actions, so that you start gaining a bonus Special Effects when you hit them.

When my players first consulted the Special Effects table they were overwhelmed by the options. There are just too many of them. Humans stop being able to make good decisions when presented with more than about five options to choose from. Instead of making a choice, the brain just adopts a short cut. So our experience was this:

  • in the first few game sessions, after several minutes of agonising about the choice, the players would finally choose “target head”
  • after a few months the players just started choosing “target head” after a few seconds, and I got to put away the one minute sand timer I had been using to encourage them to make a quick decision
  • after a couple of years the players just said “target head” automatically. About once per game session one of the players would choose a different effect.
  • the only interesting decision was when people got a critical effect and had to choose between target head, maximise damage, and bypass armour.

So for me, one of the big selling points of “why play RQ6 and not another d100 game” ultimately proved to be a bug and not a feature. In a similar vein, I found the combination of a chart of situational difficulty modifiers for ranged weapons, and a second chart of penalties based on range and target size to be so complex as to be junked after one session of use.

One thing we had a lot of trouble with early on was charging into combat. While almost everything else happens in actions, a charge takes an entire five second combat round. This was frustrating to my players, who invariably wanted to exploit a moment of surprise to get into contact with the enemy right now.

Out of all the combats I ran, only one lasted long enough for the fatigue rules to really kick in meaningfully (most of my combats were over in four combat rounds or less, probably due to the lack of shields and the use of musket pistols or sorcery). So I stopped bothering about encumbrance and fatigue, as the handling time did not pay any dividends in game play.

Three things I struggled with as a GM were the Counter Spell and Ward Location actions. Counter Spell allows an incoming spell to be dismissed. Because it took the sorcerer PCs several actions to cast a spell, the game would have been rendered excruciatingly frustrating for them if I had NPCs countering their spells. So I almost never did it. Ward Location is a free action, allowing you to change the hit locations being guarded by a weapon or shield. The damage reduction from passive blocking is usually sufficient to negate an attack, and it does not cost an action. As with Counter Spell, I felt reluctant to use my knowledge of the player’s choices to block their actions. Outmaneuvering was another action in game that I never dared using against the players – if I had an NPC spending one action and making an Evade check to effectively negate the actions of all the PCs facing them, I would have had very unhappy players.

In play I found two activities more threatening than combat. One is climbing, the other is drowning. Climbing involves a risk of falls, and falling damage is realistically lethal and can strike multiple locations. Drowning is dangerous because it inflicts fatigue damage – which rapidly reduces your Swim skill making it more likely to fail the next Swim check.

The price of realism is time. RQ6 combats take a lot of time to resolve – make an attack roll, make a defence roll, choose special effects, determine hit location, roll damage dice, make endurance tests). In a faster playing system, like D&D, the whiff is forgivable as you get another action quickly. In RQ6 when you miss it takes a while to get back to you. So there is a lot of time where players are passively watching the action.

Linear Warrior, Quadratic Mage!

Sorcerers are better than other character concepts in RQ6 because they are more effective in combat. This is because a Sorcerer’s spells can be cast against multiple opponents, and the effect is continuing. This makes Sorcery incredibly disruptive to the action point economy of the RQ6 combat system.

A combatant with 100% combat style and a Longsword used in a two-handed style will inflict 1d10 damage on a hit, assuming it is not parried or evaded. On a critical, the weapon could do 10 points of damage. It still has to penetrate any worn armour. This costs one action to do, and might use up one enemy action on a defensive counter.

A Sorcerer with 100% Skill in Shaping and Invocation casts a Magnitude 1, Range POW, Targets nine Wrack spell. This strikes nine opponents for 1d10 damage to a random location every time the sorcerer takes an action and concentrates on the Wrack spell rather than doing something else. This damage ignores worn armour and can only be resisted with an Evade check (which costs an action point). Spending one action to inflict 9d10 damage, or possibly exhausting nine enemy actions – its hard for the characters who choose not to use magic to feel that their character concepts were a good idea.

Towards the end of my campaign, I attacked my five PCs and three NPC allies with upwards of 30 opponents. The party was camped for the night on a rise of stone in a swamp, and managed to spot the approaching attackers in time to prepare defences. One sorcerer boosted the damage resistance of the party and then locked down nine of the enemies with a crowd control spell, the other sorcerer let loose a fire elemental to disrupt the attack and then wracked another ten of the foes to death. The remaining 11 enemies were dealt with by the other six characters. The dozen odd enemy archers not in the main assault force did manage the odd effective hit (range and darkness reduced their effective skill to around 10%) but if they had stuck around after the main assault was defeated the sorcerers would have pinned and burned them in short order.

Monsters are not Scary but a Heavy Infantry Shield Wall is Terrifying

A single monster lacks the Action points to be an intimidating opponent. Even a Dragon has a mere four action points. Two combat rounds of “target head” special effects should be more than enough to take care of it. The only monsters my players found intimidating in the game were opponents with > 100% combat skill (because every point over 100 reduces a PCs skill by a matching amount), immunity to damage or armour greater than weapon damage, or mystics with the ability to grant themselves bonus actions for parrying/evade actions (suddenly finding out that your opponent has six actions, not three, is a great discomfort to a player).

Groups using the Formation Fighting trait on the other hand … your action points are reduced by one just by engaging them! Now if they are also using overlapping large shields to passively block five of the seven possible hit locations, you can get a long extended sitzkrieg where those fatigue rules start being a deciding factor. In my campaign, when the PCs ran into a formation of shield and spear troops their reaction was to nuke it from range with spells.

Social Stuff – A Strength and a Weakness

I have an issue with with the Seduction skill. As a professional skill its restricted to the Courtesan and Entertainer professions, and its the only way a character can romantically or sexually persuade another character – its explicitly different to the Influence skill all characters have. While its true that you could take the seduction skill as your one elective “hobby” skill option, or Rule Zero it, I just found this weird.

One thing I noticed about RQ6 only after getting into the middle of the campaign was that the light touch for “social effects”. Where combat has 50+ options for extra detail, most social skills have at best four options (for fumble, fail, success and critical success). This does make social interactions play much faster than combat, but its also another reason why I think the default premise of RQ6 is social justified killing with magic, because that is what most of the rules focus on.

A weird thing in my campaign was that my players did not trust their Insight checks. I could tell them after a successful roll that the NPC they were interacting with wanted to help them, and the players would still choose not to trust them. I think that is on them and not the game system.


Supplements for the Game

With a toolkit system like RQ6 a lot of GMs are going to be running home brew campaigns. What follows is my short summary on the available settings and supplements:

  • Mythic Britain: Dark Ages Britain with a potential King Arthur. Its really hard to compete in this space with Pendragon, and while the Winter Council scenario showed promise, the rest of the adventures in the book underwhelmed me.
  • Mythic Rome: reads like a history textbook. I’m yet to reach the point in the book where they start discussing how its a game.
  • M-Space: a homage to 1970s sci-fi roleplaying. I found it uninspiring, except for its explanation of Revolution D100’s extended conflict system, which it does better than the source.
  • Classic Fantasy: a homage to 1970s fantasy roleplaying, its a skinning of Basic D&D into a D100 system. Rather than extra hit points, you get a lot more Luck Points.
  • Korantia: a traditional bronze age fantasy setting. I quite liked some of the background elements, but again, the published scenario I had for it did not enthuse me.
  • Luther Arkwright: a homage to a 1970s comic about a multiverse hopping agent of order. Good, but you may have noticed a retro theme to the RQ6 settings, and this one really nails that classic random generation feel by restricting psionic powers to people who make a lucky random roll.
  • Monster Island: a superb sandbox setting on a jungle island. This was my first RQ6 supplement, and almost everything else from the Design Mechanism has left me disappointed in comparison to this gem.
  • Hessaret’s treasure: a good one shot adventure mixing some urban social interaction, overland journey, and a cave crawl at the end.
  • Ships and Shield Walls: Rules for ships and mass battles. I had to adapt the battle rules for gunpowder but they worked well enough. The second time we had a mass battle, I did not use the mass battle system, as the PCs side would have been wiped out in it (they had 1,000 conscript spears versus 1,000 trained musketeers).
  • The Book of Quests: seven roughly linked scenarios. I found the best of these to be The Curse of the Contessa, with its competing sets of NPCs, while the worst was the introductory scenario Caravan, where all the clues for the behaviour of the big bad monster at the end misdirect the players.

My main creative tools: Silent Legions, which was invaluable for generating cults and great old ones (because nothing from Call of Cthulhu surprises anyone anymore – the moment I told my players they were going to a coastal town, they all collectively muttered “Deep Ones” at the same time), and The Harrowing Deck, which I used for quick generation of NPC motivations, or pulling three cards for a past/present/future structure for a scenario or in game event.

Invaluable for any RQ6 campaign is the Mythras Encounter generator. This allows you to quickly generate any number of NPCs and print them off for use in combat. With the other creative tools I could generate enough material for up to five sessions of play in around two hours.

So you Obviously Hated this Game System?

No. I had a really good time planing and running the game, and my players enjoyed it. Towards the end of the campaign, however, all the players agreed that they did not want to play RQ6 again. Their request was for a simpler and more flexible game system, and I have one player who is dead keen on the Conan 2d20 game – which I backed on Kickstarter and should be getting a pile of supplements for in the middle of the year.

My own ideas about what I want in a game have also evolved. Over the last three years I have probably read more roleplaying game systems than in the previous 30 years. While I was able to bring insights from this reading to bear fruit in the RQ6 campaign, towards the end of the campaign I had reached a point where the RQ6 rules were hindering me more than helping me.

If I did it all over again I would do a lot of things differently based on my improved understanding of the game’s strengths and weaknesses, and by the time I finished adding that layer of adjustments on, the game would only barely be recogniseable as RQ6. I did read through the Mythras Gateway license for people who want to write game supplements using the Mythras rules, and almost everything singled out as a feature of the game system not to be changed, is something I want to change!

I think they key lesson for me, is that I am no longer looking for a simulationist roleplaying game system for running long campaigns with. I checked out the beta for a recent Kickstarter for a realistic combat system, and stopped reading at the point where it said “Roll 14d10 to climb the wall”. My own knowledge of martial arts and history means I just find too many edge cases in the rules that bug me, whereas a game that adheres to emulating a specific fiction or collection of tropes is probably going to be better for me as a GM now. For example, if I want to do a samurai game, then Usagi Yojimbo will do a better job out of the box than me spending three months rewriting RQ6.

But, there is that new edition of Runequest (no edition number) from Chaosium later this year. And the draft rules at GECON last year looked so good … so I am sure I will run some kind of d100 game again in the future.


Hack what you like…

March 23, 2017

As my current Runequest campaign is drawing to a close I have done a little prep on my idea to hack Night’s Black Agents (a GUMSHOE variant for vampire hunting at a James Bond/Jason Bourne level of competence) into a SF setting (with some help from Ashen Stars). I was originally thinking something Star Wars Old Republic era, but I might try the Coriolis setting (Firefly meets Arabian Nights). I have not run GUMSHOE before and it will be interesting to try a new game system that requires a different level of self-discipline from the GM. For NAB you need to build your vampire conspiracy and your vampires before the campaign starts, and then stick to the decisions you made so that the clues the players acquire make sense for analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of their fearsome foes.

I have also been thinking about what to do after the next campaign is finished. While I have some setting ideas I want to explore, I am not sure which system to use, or if my ideas are strong enough to make a serious stab at designing a game. Bearing in mind a comment from a friend recently that he could design eight board games in the time it takes to design one roleplaying game, because roleplaying games are complex.

Key Roleplaying Game Design Articles that Influence my Thinking

These are articles and webpages that I keep coming back to for inspiration.

Vincent Barker, A Quick & Dirty Outline and The Fruitful Void.

Jared Sorensen, The Big Three Questions.

  1. What is your game about? This is the premise.
  2. How does it go about that? These are all the game elements.
  3. What does it reward? This is the game system.

John Wick adds a fourth question “How do you make this fun?”. Other people have added even more questions to the list.

Whitson John Kirk III, Design Patterns of Successful Roleplaying Games.

A few other random quotes on rpg game design:

  • The First law of RPG Design – A game is not about what it is about, but how it is about it (also known as Ebert’s First law).
  • The Rule of Jared – only roll dice when its important.
  • The Mearls Paradox – a roleplaying game that is complete is not a roleplaying game at all.
  • Jared’s Rule of Combat – Fight scenes need to be exciting. Combat does not have to be.

Specific Articles on Magic

Aliette de Bodard, Magic Systems and my world building process.

Brandan Sanderson, Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic (but follow the link to the post on the second law, its the most relevant to roleplaying games).

Roleplaying Game Design is Still a Contested Space

A few recent forum threads gave me a rehash of the GNS debates and similar history from the Forge era. The best concept I gained out of that time investment was the idea of focusing on the fiction you are trying to emulate. It also helped steer me towards realising that my creative agendas fall more in the “gamist” rather than the “simulationist” camps.

The most recent attempt at simulationist design I read, I stopped when it said as an example of play “Roll 15d10 to climb a wall…”. What I would rather have in a game is one die roll, or a dice pool of not more than 6-8 dice

Lessons learned from Kickstarters

There seem to be four kinds of successful gaming product on Kickstarter:

  1. Genuine innovation (the rarest beast).
  2. Ancillary products (dice and other gaming aids).
  3. Next Editions of an established gaming product.
  4. Love Letters to an older game that will never get a Next Edition again.

I also have to say, that after backing 66 projects since May 2013, that I am no longer enthused to back anything that does not at least have a quickstart or ashcan version (for an RPG) or a demo of a physical product (game aids). I think the only really innovative game I have backed is Blades in the Dark. The three games I have been waiting the longest on delivery were all “good ideas” from established designers and companies, but are now approaching two years overdue. While I suspect they will eventually deliver, I think in the last few years Kickstarter has become more of a place to take roleplaying games that are already 80-90% finished.

I do not have any interest in making ancillary products, and I do not have an IP to do a Next Edition with, so that leaves genuine innovation and love letters. Try as I might, I have not figured out a new and interesting way of rolling dice, or changing the practice of play around the gaming table. So that leaves taking the “love letter” approach to writing a game. Here I find my ideas keep returning to the D100 System. The game I would most like to pay homage to is Runequest 2nd edition, which packed an awful lot of game into 120 pages. It did this in large part by making a lot of the setting implicit in the rules, art, and examples of play. not by devoting large amounts of space to fluff text and short fiction.

Of course, there is a Next Edition of Runequest due out this year, and based on the designer blogs and draft I saw at GENCON, its going to be quite good. But there are at least two open license D100 systems on the market that I can use as a starting basis. “Hack what you like, to make what you love” as Vincent Barker put it. So that is where my thoughts are at right now, trying to innovate at the edge of the D100 system, and producing a focused setting with a light touch, the way RQ2 managed.

Now, I need to get back to drafting some Megagame rules…

The Galaxy Will Burn

February 9, 2017

The Galaxy Will Burn is the working title of my new Megagame design for Kapcon 2018. A whole bunch of ideas fell in place for this today, but first, progress report on my other games.

Colossus of Atlantis

I am part way working through working out an example of the revised Council mechanics. I decided to start with the Council of War, as that involves a lot of changes to all the systems for interacting with the enemy empires. The options are still a bit too raw for public exposure, but I think the process for the meeting as outlined below should be an improvement.

The Council of War

The Council of War meets in the Diplomacy Phase, after House meetings have finished. The Council of War meets for a maximum of five minutes. All actions at the Council of War are resolved in the following order:

  1. Quorum
  2. President of the Council.
  3. Council Actions.
  4. Research
  5. News
  6. Control administration.

1. Quorum

The Quorum for a meeting of the Council of War is 2/3 (round up) of the Strategos players. If the meeting starts late, the time allowed for the meeting is reduced.

2. President of the Council

The Strategos present at the start of the meeting with the highest Arête score is appointed as President. In the event of a tie in Arête, the older player is appointed. Strategos who are late to the meeting cannot be appointed as President.

3. Council Actions

Starting with the President, each player chooses one Council Action to resolve. After each player has made their choice, the President chooses which player makes the next choice. Each Council Action can only be chosen once per meeting. Players who are not present when it is their turn to act, forfeit their choice of Council Action for that meeting.

If the DOOM Action is chosen, the player must choose a second Council Action. If that action is an Arête Action, it becomes Corrupted.

Control can penalise any player taking too long to make a choice by taking one or more of their Arête cards away from them. Control will give a player a five second warning before doing this.

See below for detail on the different Council Actions available for the Council of War.

4. Research

Each player draws a random research advance. Player(s) that chose a research Council Action draw a second advance. Each player can then purchase one Strategoi research card – these act to upgrade Hero units.

5. News

It is the responsibility of the President of the Council to inform Control of any changes to the game that have resulted from Council Actions.

6. Control Administration

Each Council Action not chosen by a player now has its rewards increased, as indicated on its card.

My goal is to finish the game revisions before the GENCON website opens for game bookings on May 28.

Aquila Rift

This is my space pirates themed Megagame for Wellycon X. I have started a Facebook event for this game, and as usual that will be my recruitment ground for playtests and first comments on changes to the rules.

The current goal for Aquila Riftis to have a playtest set of rules by the end of February. At the moment the two key mechanics I want to nail are the movement and search rules. For movement I intend to have “star systems” connected by “wormholes”. Wormholes will be colour coded: Green (safe), Yellow (chance of delays), Red (chance of damage). I might have some wormholes restricted to a subset of the players, e.g. a route connecting two patrol bases might be coloured blue (no pirates allowed). For movement: all merchants, then all space patrol, then all pirates. When space patrol moves, they can spend fuel to deploy search tokens. If a pirate moves through a search token there is a chance they trigger a fight with a patrol vessel. If a pirate enters a system with a merchant, they then dice to intercept (ship quality counts, spend fuel to boost odds). A pirate that intercepts a merchant, captures the merchant (KISS). Combat only occurs between patrol and pirate ships. If you run out of fuel, take damage and jump to a base.

This is deliberately intended to be a simpler game than The Colossus of Atlantis. The three main player roles will be Governors, Space Patrol, and Pirates. There will not be a complicated trade system – a major reason for people being pirates is that its easier than working for a living. Any trade mechanic which allows players to get wealthy through legitimate trade therefore undermines the rationale for having a game about piracy.

First playtest will be in March sometime.

The Galaxy Will Burn

This Megagame will be a return to my favourite theme, the decline and fall of complex political organisations due to their own internal processes.

The main player role in this game, is that of sector governor, responsible for the administration and defence of several star systems. Every player in the game belongs to a public faction and a secret faction. Memberships do not overlap between the two factions. Your faction wins if at any point all members of the faction have been declared Emperor at least once. Game play is resolved through five minute turns, with a one minute gap between each turn. I may test some of the submechanics for this game (such as movement and combat) at the Aquila Rift game.

After each five minute turn, you must change the game table you are playing at. If you spent the last turn being a Governor at your home map table, this means either:

  1. Going to the Imperial Capital and trying to gain a seat at the cabinet table for the next committee meeting.
  2. Going to another map table, and spending the next turn there as a Raider.
  3. Taking a five minute break to do other things.

After a five minute turn at the Imperial Capital, you must change the game table you are playing at by either:

  1. Taking a five minute break to do other things.
  2. Going back to your home map and spending the turn as Governor.
  3. Going to any other game map table, and spending the next turn there as a Raider.

After a five minute turn as a Raider, you must change your game map table by either:

  1. Going back to your home map and spending the turn as Governor.
  2. Going to any other map table and spending the next turn there as a Raider.
  3. Taking a five minute break to do other things.

After a five minute break, you can return to play as a Raider or a Governor. It is deliberate that the only way you can move to the Imperial Capital is after a turn spent as a Governor. There is nothing to stop you from a life as a pirate (or having it forced on you lose control of your worlds as a result of imperial politics). While there will be some chaos, I am hoping this will lead to some interesting emergent play.

Rising Tensions

Each game turn, the number of recruits available to a player choosing to raid increases by one. If the political decision at the Imperial Capital supports a reign by a Strong Emperor, all the existing Raiders are removed, and the recruitment rate is reset to one plus the number of Strong Emperors in the game so far.

For example, during the first game turn Raiders recruit one ship. By the fifth game turn they will be recruiting five ships. If there is a Strong Emperor at the end of turn five, then in turn six the recruitment rate will be two ships, and in turn seven the recruitment rate will be three ships. If there is a second Strong Emperor at the end of turn seven, the recruitment rate in game turn eight will be three ships.

Each time a Strong Emperor is declared, the number of chairs around the Imperial Capital table is permanently reduced by one. This represents the trend in political systems to become closed to outsiders.

The Imperial Capital

At the start of the game there are 13 seats around the Imperial Cabinet table. These seats are given to the players willing to commit the most money. This is a one round auction – everyone writes and reveals their bid at the same time. The money spent is also your voting power while on the Committee (and you spend some on every vote you take part in). The chair of the committee is the player spending the most money on getting a seat at the table.
Each Cabinet session can address a range of topics, most of which channel perks and kickbacks to the players, but the crucial one is choosing a Strong Emperor. If this option passes, the Cabinet meeting immediately ends.

The Strong Emperor

The appointment of a Strong Emperor immediately ends the actions of all Raider players for the rest of the game turn, and removes all Raider ships from play.

The Emperor then has one minute to make any changes they deem necessary for the continued security of the Empire. Each change must be clearly enunciated and each change must be specific.

  • “mumble taxes mumble rhubarb atomic power mumble” – nothing happens because no one knows what the heck the Emperor meant
  • “The Dagobah system is now controlled by Governor Tarkin” – control of the named system changes to that of the named player
  • “All systems in the Coriolis Cluster are now controlled by Governor Cook” – change is too broad, each of the systems needs to be individually named.
  • “The Sixth Fleet moves to the Hoth system” – the move happens
  • “The Moth ball Fleet moves to the second map table” – change is not specific enough, a system name is needed.

After their minute of glory, each Emperor secretly chooses one of the possible endgame victory conditions and places it in a ballot box. When there is 30 minutes of game time remaining, one of these ballots is picked at random and announced to all players. The Emperor can tell people what option they chose, but is not required to tell the truth!

Victory Conditions

The game could end in any of the following ways:

  1. A civil war – players split into factions, and fight until only one candidate to the throne survives.
  2. Successor states – the faction controlling the most territory at the end of the game wins.
  3. Dark age – the faction with the most atomic power wins.
  4. Hedonistic twilight – the faction with the most money wins.
  5. Republic – the faction with the most status wins.


My plan is to keep combat simple.

  • Raiders and Battleships roll 1d6 per ship
  • Imperial Dreadnoughts roll 2+d12 per ship

For each matching die roll you have, you lose one ship. Yes, the more ships you have in a battle, the more ships you will lose. The rationale is that the battle is the result of the logistics cost of multiple small encounters.

Highest roll wins the battle.


Raiding gets you cash, and reduces the resource base of other players. Being Governor gets you a mixture of cash, atomic power, some status, and the chance to gain influence with the Imperial Fleet through successful combat operations against Raiders. Imperial politics can get you any of the above.

Colossus of Atlantis – Next Steps

January 29, 2017

First the bad news. I was going to try and run Colossus in Auckland at Battlecry in February, but I have cancelled as work is going to be very busy that week and because Battlecry does not have a confirmed venue due to insurance problems. The good news is that I am still on track to run Colossus at GENCON in August, and I will be designing a pirate themed Megagame for Wellycon in June. The working title for that game is Aquila Rift, and my plan is for the main player roles to be corrupt governors, underpaid space patrol captains, fat merchants, and a lot of pirates. I’ll post more about that in February.

I think the short summary of revisions I am planning is:

  1. Reduce the fountain of Talents into the game to align more closely with the expected spending by players each game turn.
  2. Reduce the fountain of Cogs and to make Cogs valuable to all player roles, by having all players have upgrade cards they can buy.
  3. Make each Council have a path towards defeating the enemy empires.
  4. Make each Council have a path towards a high risk/high gain VP goal.
  5. Provide more structure and clarity for the Council process, and more options for actions that Councils choose between.
  6. Making Challenges and city attacks easier to do in the game.

Some new ideas I want to explore in a future blog post are:

  1. Creating a research process that facilitates emergent play.
  2. Whether there is scope to add some more player roles into the game. I am thinking about Historians, Oracles, and mercenaries from the foreign empires.
  3. A few more bells and whistles on how DOOM is handled.
  4. Monster Blood as a resource.
  5. Reworking Votes (a democratic Athenian concept) into Arete (a Greek concept for virtue/excellence) as a resource used to control Councils and to activate some powerful game options.

The Fountain of Talents

At Kapcon the generals united against the enemy empires, and a large number of talents flowed into the treasuries as a result. Even without this bonanza few people struggled to rebuild lost forces or to fund other options. I want the decision to spend money to be interesting, not trivial.

At the start of the game, you will be able to spend 1-10 Talents per fundable city option (Hoplites, Triremes, and Magikos). So initially 30 Talents of income a turn would be handy. This matches the rough spread of incomes from contesting territory, and the baseline 10 talents per turn from holding your city.

The revision here, is that rather than city upgrades granting you free Hoplites, Triremes, or sacrifices in the city temples, it allows you to spend more talents. So if the initial cap on Hoplite builds is 10, and you upgrade it by five, now you can spend 1-15 talents a turn on building Hoplites. Not being able to so easily replace losses may also make players think more about running away when badly outnumbered.

The Fountain of Cogs

To make play simpler, I will cut down on the number of Cogs spawned into the game, but also reduce the cost of all upgrades or other gameplay options that require Cogs. The Cog income is Turn Number + Vril + (DOOM tokens x Turn number). For example, in turn 3 if you have one Vril token and spend two DOOM tokens then you will get 10 Cogs. This also makes Vril very different from Orichalcum – Vril gets you extra Cogs, Orichalcum gets you a +1 to a city build option that can be reassigned.

Every player role will have uses for Cogs. This means it will no longer be automatic when a team meets that they hand all their Cogs to one person. Cogs will represent innovation. One possible breakdown for what Cogs can be spent on could look like this:

  • Strategos will spend Cogs to purchase Hero upgrades
  • Philosophos will spend Cogs to purchase Sorcery cards (which then require DOOM tokens to play)
  • Arkitekton will spend Cogs to purchase City upgrades, or to gain discounts on the cost of constructing a Wonder
  • Basilieus will spend Cogs to purchase Colossus upgrades
  • Emporos will spend Cogs to create Trade deals.


I have been reworking the City tile, making it more of a left to right read, with tokens being stacked up on the white space to the right, and space for Orichalcum and Vril to the left. This is not a complete revision! In this version, Magikos is compared to each player you face, so if you had a Magikos score of 12, and you fight two enemies with Magikos 13+ you would roll two Chaos dice. If one of then had Magikos 11 and the other Magikos 12, you would roll one Chaos die and one DOOM die, and if they both had Magikos 11- you would roll two DOOM dice.

Defeating the Enemy Empires

I think the Strategos at Kapcon had a good time working together to defeat the enemy empires. What I want to do next time is ensure that every Council has its own path to defeat the enemy empires, so that the decision about which path to take is a more interesting one. The broad themes I am imagining are:

  • Council of War – raiding the enemy empires to weaken them, then invading the enemy empire first with an Atlantean army, with the risk of the victorious commander then marching on Atlantis and making themselves Hegemon of all Atlantis
  • Council of Wisdom – defeating the enemy empires by researching powerful unique spells that strike them with plagues, earthquakes, tidal waves, etc., with the risk of the spells backfiring and increasing DOOM
  • Council of Wonder – defeating the enemy empires by building expensive Wonders that can be used for defence or in battle
  • Council of Law – assimilating the enemy empires through dynastic politics, or funding conflicts within the enemy empire
  • Council of Trade – ensuring peaceful coexistence with the enemy empires through trade agreements, with the risk that if they do attack the enemy empires will be more powerful.

All Councils will have a high risk/high gain Strategy

At Kapcon the council of War earned a lot of VP for all the Houses. The Council of Wonder was the biggest source of VP, but it was open ended based on talents thrown into this sink. Next time I want all the Councils to have a similar set of options that could gain a House 1,000 VP. The themes I am working on for the councils are:

  • Council of War – defeating the enemy empires creates large rewards of talents, VP and other resources (but see below for how I plan to handle it differently), but it also creates an army that might be strong enough for the general to march on Atlantis and make themselves sole ruler (idea taken from The Republic Rome boardgame)
  • Council of Wisdom – researching the path of ascension, finding what is required to become a demi-God, then attempting the heroic quests necessary to reach this goal (with the risk of being punished for all eternity by the Gods)
  • Council of Wonder -making big wonders will still generate VP, but it may be harder to finish projects and the VP will not be equal to the Talents thrown at the project, but if you manage to build seven wonders, you can be responsible for triggering the Golden Age of Atlantis
  • Council of Law – a political path towards becoming High King of Atlantis, such as successfully challenging all other Houses, and managing to sack at least one city controlled by each other House
  • Council of Trade – earning enough talents to complete the Colossus of Atlantis before another House builds it first. Might have another option about turning Atlantis into a Thassalocracy (a trading based maritime republic).

More Options at Council Meetings

While some Councils got a lot of Officers at Kapcon, others were short and thus had less to do. What I plan to do now is to adapt a mechanic I first saw in the Puerto Rico boardgame. Council meetings will have three steps:

  1. Determine how much Arete each player has. The player with the most Arete is President of the Council. Oldest player wins in a tie.
  2. The President makes the first choice among the options in front of the Council. Each option can only be chosen by one player each turn.
  3. The President then chooses who makes the next choice. That player then makes their choice, and chooses who will go next.
  4. Once all players have chosen, adjudicate results and collect rewards.
  5. Options not chosen, increase in value so they will be more tempting next turn.

I would give players thirty seconds to make a choice. I want there to be around 6-7 choices in front of them. Some options will be unique to the Council, e.g. the Council of Wonder builds wonders, others will be common between all Councils.

Common Council Options

These six options will probably be the core options. Each turn you get to pick between these and a couple of the unique council options. I will probably add a twist to each of the corrupted options, so this is by no means complete. This set up is similar to one I used in a version of my Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire baordgame.

  • Arete: gain Arete.
  • Corruption: gain Talents.
  • DOOM: gain a DOOM token and choose one of the other options. The option you choose is now corrupted, flip the option card over. Anyone choosing a corrupted option also gets a DOOM token. Corrupting an option a second time has no further effect.
  • Kudos: gain Victory Points.
  • Research: gain Cogs, a bonus research token. If corrupted, also choose an option from the next deck of cards and add it into the current deck.
  • Scandal: Spend Arete and gain a challenge token for use against one of the other Houses. If corrupted, this option does not cost you Arete.

Note: I am thinking of having a research process that has unpredictable emergent patterns, so that different players will have different costs for each upgrade, thus creating  natural opportunities for trade deals between players. I’ll try blogging about that idea soon.

Unique Council Options

These options will vary between Councils, but their may be synergies between the two councils. Each Council will have one deck for the first half of the game, a second deck for the rising tensions of the second half of the game, and a Last Turn Madness deck for the last turn of the game. These options will be more powerful than the common options, but require a player to either spend some of their Arete in order to be successful, or to roll dice and hope for luck. In order for the madness cards to have their desired effects, I am thinking of inverting the standard turn sequence in the last game turn, i.e. resolve the diplomacy phase first, and the map phase second. This would also mean getting two Diplomacy stages in a row.

I will not try and cover all five Councils here, but looking at the Council of War, its options might be something like this.

  • First deck – Armaments: increase the strength of the Army of Atlantis. Raids: player can attack an enemy empire (resolve on their map table next turn) with their House forces.
  • Second deck – Foreign Wars: Player can start a war with an enemy empire, using the Atlantean army. The war continues until it is concluded (requires multiple victories). More Armaments: the Atlantean army gets even stronger.
  • Third deck – Civil War: player can march the Army of Atlantis on Atlantis itself. This creates a mini-game around whether anyone tries to stop them. If the player succeeds they claim the title of Hegemon and +1,000 VP. Rule Change: make a change to the combat rules, requires majority backing from Council.

Note: I am thinking of adding a map tile to each game table which features the locations of the enemy empires. You need a Council option to move there, so it will not be attacked every turn, but the potential rewards keep accumulating.

If an enemy empire is completely defeated, there is a spoils phase. rather than there being one pool of VP, Talents, etc. to be divided, there will be a number of prizes that the players take turns choosing between. For example, one possible prize division might be:

  • 100 VP
  • 50 VP
  • 10 Cogs
  • 5 Orichalcum
  • 2 Vril
  • 150 Talents
  • 75 Talents
  • Three DOOM tokens
  • Five Arete
  • Three Arete
  • A research token.

Not so easy to split it equally now?

Making Challenges and City Attacks Easier

In Kapcon there were several steps required before you had a shot at attacking a player’s home city. While it looked good on paper, in practice the Court of Law focused on expanding offices. So each Council now has a common option of being able to pick on another player, granting you a challenge token for their House. This token can then be traded around, but can be used in a future game turn to challenge a member of that House. If you get multiple tokens, then you gain a bonus for the attack.

With city attacks being easier, I will look at adding a city upgrade that is defensive walls, but as I want to choke down the supply of Cogs, focusing on defence will have opportunity costs elsewhere.

I will have to do some more thinking on the consequences of a sack. I think for the attacker, defeat and loss of troops is sufficient a penalty. For the defender, defeat needs to cost more than the 30 odd talents and resource tokens they would pick up from the colonies. One potential way to do this, is to have options on the war council that increase/decrease the rewards from sacking cities. Its something to playtest down the track.

Kapcon 2017 AAR – The Colossus of Atlantis

January 23, 2017

img_0259The Colossus of Atlantis Megagame was a success. We had a few last minute registrations that allowed us to run four map tables, with four five player teams and a wandering hero or two in each round. Close to 30 people involved over the entire game. The feedback on the day felt positive, and secondary feedback from other people on Sunday lined up with everyone having a good time and raving about it to their friends.

With the late registrations we started a little late, and halfway through we changed the 30 minute turns to 40 minute turns. We still got through eight of the planned ten turns and were packed up before the LARP needed the space.

The overall outcome was that Atlantis did not sink, and the Atlantean Generals combined their forces and defeated all four of the enemy empires of Leng, Mu, Argartha and Lemuria. The most fun plot element that I observed was the squabbling and plots over who would get one of the five seats on the Ark if Atlantis did sink.

The map game worked well. There is some room for refinement, but I will award myself a B+ for that part of the game. The council game worked okay, but has definite room for significant improvement, so I will only give myself a C+ there. While I had good rules and help sheets for the map game, its clear the Council games needs more support structure to enable the players to make interesting choices, and for Control to be able to stay on top of what is happening. I also need to make the admin more efficient for Control – they had almost no time for breaks.

Now that I have written the above, I will look at the actual feedback sheets the players filled out. I adapted the Megagame Makers feedback sheet, which can be found here.

Enjoyment – did you have fun?

An average of 4.7 (to one decimal place) on a 1-5 scale where 5 is good and 1 is poor. This is an excellent result, and no one rated the game below a 3.

Briefing – how well did the briefing enable you to play the game?

An average of 3.3. Not a great result, so I went and dug a little deeper into the numbers. Seven people did not read the rules before the game – not an unexpected proportion as we had 4-5 people join at the last minute. The average of the six people who did not read the rules for this question and have it a rating was 2.8. The average among the 15 players who did read the rules was 3.5.

Difficulty – how hard did you find the game to play (1 = easy)?

An average of 3, right in the Goldilocks spot. Two people rated the game at 1 (too easy), but no one rated it a 5 (too hard).

Rate of Play – how much pressure (1 = too much 5 = too little)?

Once again a 3, right in the Goldilocks spot. Most people rated it a 3, with five each for 2 and 4, and no one rating it at 1 or 5. we did increase the time for each turn by ten minutes after the lunch break, and there was a bit more pressure on Control than players.

Control – how good a job did they do?

An average of 4.6 is an excellent result. No ratings below 3.

Involvement – how was your involvement with other players?

An average of 4.1. I did not see or hear of any major problems between players and/or control. No one rated this below a 3.

Value – did you get value for money?

4.7. Almost everyone (20 of 23 responses) rated this a 5. At NZ$20 for the weekend convention and no extra fee for the Megagame, its about one-third to one-quarter of the international benchmarks for pricing.

Did you read the rules before playing the game?

15 said YES and six said NO.

Would you be interested in playing Megagames in the future?

22 players said yes and one said no. Looking deeper at the no response, they gave Colossus a 3 for fun and a 5 for value for money. Their specific comment on the game was “Explain how invasions work.” As they were a Philosophos, I was relying on their team Strategos to tell them how invasions worked, as that information was in the Strategos briefing.

Would you be interested in being CONTROL in a future Megagame?

15 people said yes. Which is awesome. Always need more Control players.

How much would you be willing to pay for a Megagame?

I broke this down into two subcategories: day-long and evening length games. For day-long games the range was $15-70, with an average of $32.22. For evening length games the range was $10-50, with an average of $23.83. This is about half the going rate for Megagames in Canada, USA and UK.

This question is of interest to me as hiring a basic conference venue in Wellington starts at around $450 a day. If I have 35 players willing to pay $30 then my budget for running a future Megagame is a little over $1,000. But if I lose about half my players if I charge more than $20 (I had some feedback that the standard LARP charge in NZ is $20), then my budget is only $700. That is enough for one large room in a basic conference venue – which could see a bit of noise pollution in the game. $250 will pay for some printing and game components, but its not going to let you buy premium components or even full colour maps (the last time I got A3 colour printing done a complex map covering a standard gaming table was costing me $150 due to the set up fees for multiple images).

For the immediate future, the safe bet is to attach the game to other conventions, and pass the hat around for donations at the end of the game. I would like to see the community of interested players grow to the point where I can hire my own venue and choose my own dates for running the game. The main disadvantage with Kapcon is that it clashes with Canterbury Faire, the biggest SCA event in New Zealand, and I probably had at least five potential players away at that week long event.


I also asked people to give me feedback on one thing to keep in future games, one thing to stop, and one thing to start doing to make the game better. Original feedback in plain text, my follow up in italics.


More team time for general strategy.

Combat upgrades works well.Council interactions were fun.

Almost all of it.

Timing. Role changing, within reason. Changing roles could break the power balance in councils if a team could have multiple positions in the same game role, and the design intention is that each role is essential to a team, and each role is engaging and fun to play (even if it was not your first choice).

Diplomatic wrangling. More reason to do it. Skulduggery – wandering heroes as empire emissaries (or) incentive cards for treachery. I do intend to add more options for players to choose between altruism and corruption.

Complexity level about right.

Confusion from lack of team communication about NPC enemies, multiple rooms and time pressure.

35 people. At 35 players all the game components fit in one suitcase. The game is designed to be scalable, but once you have more than seven players on a Council they will require more time, or the creation of more Councils.

Simultaneous actions.

Alien armada. I think they meant “enemy empire”.

Having a team to assist victory. Keep being strict on times but maybe expand the length of the rounds a little. Council had some great emergent stuff. Control resetting map was excellent. Yes, Control were tasked with helping players by rubbing all the marks off the players laminated sheets each turn.

Alliances short of joining a house for heroes.

Oversight in each room. Being nice. No swearing.

Empires and monsters. I do wonder if having an ambassador for each of the enemy empires would have been an interesting addition to the game.



Make sure Control on same page.

So many rule changes. One role per region, i.e. not 2 Strategos in one region. Because we had four map tables, not five, each team had a table with two players on it. I left it with the teams, however, as to where they allocated their leaders, and they could change players between map tables if they wanted to (I am not sure any did so).

Additional rules. modify instead of add.

Maybe limit the number of new rules added in a turn.

Need for clearer rules around council meetings.

Team (a) scoring at the end of the game was horrible! By tables? (b) Wonder scoring is BROKEN. VP for BUILDER + VP Contributors (people who supported construction). Some kind of worksheet. Yes, I needed better worksheets for the end of game scoring (the turn by turn sheets for each map table seemed to have worked okay). Wonder scoring was deliberately broken (a feature, not a bug), but at least one team had an Arkitekton who failed to realise they needed to spend money on Wonder construction, so they lost out on the VP race.

Game was too soft/too easy to win? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we just played well. Yes, you played well.

Rampant player collusion. Although … 5 x str 89 smash 18 monsters … [comment from a Control player].

Time pressure.

Rule change.

Rule changing.

Overspending on wonders.

Dividing the last minute players onto one team was a bit tricky ~one experienced player would have helped. Its hard to find an experienced player when its the first public run of the game – and the one player who had been given a run through the game was promoted to Control when the extras turned up. The problem with rejigging the teams was that many players had already been plotting for a couple of days, and I was loathe to break up their team.

Missing some info that could be on cards i.e. voting cards not clear (I think) that turn values add to VOTE total (and if 1 person [knows?] can get out of hand).

Wonder building as dominant VP. Wonders were intended as a money sink, but I will admit to being surprised at just how altruistic all the players were about giving nearly all their cash to their Arkitekton.


General meetings between rounds for announcements. I had originally wanted to do this, but on the day I was just too busy. With another Control person to help with admin this would be possible.

Show magikos Orichalcum is sum of compared to the number allocated to Hop/Tri/Col. This calculation was too complex/not clear enough on the reference sheet. I will be changing it.

More time to plan unit deployment. I’m not convinced more time is needed for this.

Maybe add extra time to say what rules are changed each round. If a create a lot of the optional changes before the game starts, then I can have prewritten material to be distributed to update people on changes. Another option is to restrict each Council to one rule change per turn.

Permanent Control over card trading. One way of doing this will be to place the cards by the table where the Council meeting for the players allowed to purchase those cards is.

Come to Canberrra! I’m happy to travel and run the game as long as my travel, accommodation and incidental costs are met. I will also work on a licensed version of the game that anyone can download and run for a small fee.

More motivation for skulduggery, [therefore] rules need to be in there. I think the best place for more skulduggery is in the Council meetings, as the map game is already very busy. It is a goal of my design that Colossus  includes some “prisoner’s dilemma” choices and personal goals that can undermine team goals.

More visible timers. Yes, one of the Control team working on an app for more synchronised timekeeping.

A briefing sheet for wandering heroes similar to other roles, but focused on hero. My bad, these did exist, but I failed to put one in your hands when you turned up halfway through the game.


Keep better control of time. And also involve less luck in the win. Time pressure is something Control can always be improving. I don’t think the final win relied much on luck. The wining team had scored well consistently throughout the game.

Refining the voting rules. I think if each Council is given its own rule book with a clear process and flowchart of actions, then a lot of the problems with voting will go away. The player vote cards can definitely be improved with better instructions on the one use vote cards and a clearer display of how many votes each player has.

Online video with rules. I would like to do this, but I would need to get/borrow a decent video camera first.

A DOOM track. Yes, good idea. Need a visual reference for all players/control of what current Atlantis DOOM is. This would also be something that could be tweeted.

More focus on how the council works/voting works – having a GM be able to say do A B C.

Trying to dominate one council completely. I’m pretty sure players were trying to do this, with reasonable success in the game. Allowing a player to permanently dominate a council, makes that part of the game play broken for everyone else.

What next?

I will think about the feedback for a bit longer, and then pen a second post on some possible changes to the rules later this week. I am still committed to running this game at GENCON this year. In the mean time I am keen to hear further comments and suggestions from the players and Control who helped make it all work on the day!

The DOOM Economy

December 3, 2016

I think they key thing about the DOOM economy in Colossus of Atlantis, is that I have absolutely no idea what will happen when the game is actually played. This is equal parts exciting and terrifying.


Made in China as a flower pot holder. Can you spot the Alien influence?

Player actions in the game will increase the DOOM score. If the total DOOM score from all player actions hits a secret and predetermined point, the game ends with Atlantis sinking beneath the waves. The team with the lowest DOOM score wins a moral victory. Up to five players can assure personal survival through the cataclysm if “The Ark” Great Wonder has been built. A couple of the other wonders can influence the Atlantis DOOM score, halting its increase for a turn, a one off reduction in score, or allowing House scores to be reduced through sacrifice (which does not change whether Atlantis sinks, but can boost your chance of a Moral victory).

House and Atlantis DOOM scores are public information.

DOOM is a collective action problem inspired by the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Actions that increase DOOM have the potential to benefit the player whose action has triggered the DOOM increase. If your House nobly eschews the use of actions that increase DOOM, you may well save Atlantis, but your rivals who do increase DOOM may outperform you in the game.

DOOM tokens are also a negative feedback loop. They are a way of giving a boost to a player who has not done well earlier in the game, by giving them an option to catch up in effective game actions. Negative feedback acts to stabilize and prolong the game (See chapter 18 games as Cybernetic Systems in Rules of Play by Salen and Zimmerman MIT Press 2004).

Getting into the gritty detail, DOOM is increased:

  • by the number rolled on a DOOM die (a d13)
  • by the cost of each Sorcery card purchased by a player
  • by the value of any Governance cards that DOOM is used to power up for City options
  • by the value of any Governance cards used to activate Sorcery cards
  • for roleplaying reasons (if Atlantis falls into anarchy, or the players are misbehaving)

Each map table will probably have at least one DOOM die rolled on it each game turn. So if we have five map tables and ten game turns, then that will make the Atlantis DOOM score increase by roughly 380. But a player with a DOOM die involved in multiple conflicts might roll the DOOM die four times in one turn. The DOOM ray technology upgrade also allows more DOOM dice to be rolled. So perhaps the upper range of DOOM from normal combat activities is closer to 1,000.

There are 18 sorcery cards. The cost to buy a complete set is 171 DOOM tokens. So if we have seven factions and all the cards are purchased, that is 1,197 DOOM. That is a large investment of DOOM tokens, when most teams will get perhaps 5-10 tokens a turn between all their players.

The cost of Governance cards used to power up cities and fuel sorcery card use is hard predict. The cards have a value range of 1-10, with an average of around 6.5. Higher value cards have usually (but not always) stronger effects. The limit here is going to be the number of DOOM tokens that can be used as fuel.

You get one DOOM token per conflict you lose, and each time you leave a Council meeting without any rewards. Player choice can see rewards distributed evenly, or hoarded by a few. So social inequality increases the chances of Atlantis sinking – I am okay with that as a design feature. The number of conflicts each turn is variable. Again player choice can lead to conflict free map tables. Or there could be a lot of eris on a table, and a player could get anywhere from 1-4 DOOM tokens.

Finger in air time, I expect most players to use DOOM tokens at least some of the time. The temptation to use DOOM will always be there. Maybe it will be 1,000 points of DOOM over the course of the game.

So, if I pick a secret DOOM threshold of 3,000, then its quite likely that Atlantis will sink. If the threshold is 2,000 it will probably sink quite early. If the DOOM threshold is 4,000 or more, then the chance of Atlantis sinking goes down.

So Sorcery cards are equivalent to nuclear weapons. You want some to act as a deterrent force against other players, but you may not actually want to use them in play. Given human emotions, once one House starts using Sorcery, the other factions may respond in kind. Another possibility is the kind of player who likes smashing sandcastles other players build, deliberately maximizing their DOOM generation (social mechanisms in the game might be able to deal with that – its up to the players to spot it happening and do something about it). A House that feels they are losing badly after a series of betrayals may also feel justified in dragging Atlantis down with them.

In my next post on The Colossus of Atlantis I will address aspects of emergent play in the game.

Conflict in Colossus of Atlantis

November 10, 2016

Let us start with two video clips. The first is the Talos scene from Jason and the Argonauts. It neatly demonstrates a Colossus versus Trireme battle. The second is from Oliver Stone’s Alexander movie, the main battle scene (not the best quality sadly). Which I think is a much better take on Hoplite warfare than in the movies Troy or 300.

Design goals

My design goals for conflict between the forces that players control in The Colossus of Atlantis are for conflict to be:

  • Simple
  • Fun
  • have scope for mastery
  • fit with the theme
  • Quick

I have tried to keep conflict relatively simple by:

  • making conflict automatic if two or more players send units to the same region
    • the only exception to this is if a player declares they are a coward (by saying “Phobos!”), and withdraws their forces back to their home city
    • cowardice has a potential cost – you can be fined by the courts, and if you don’t pay, your home city can be attacked (see below for an image of what that looks like)
  • keeping the maths to simple addition (no subtraction, multiplication or long division)
  • restricting the types of forces and the number of possible attacks to four

The maths is simple – add your strength ratings together for all your controlled units. Roll your dice, and add the two together. Highest player wins, both players lose in a tie.

I have two main ways in which conflict is fun. First, you get to roll dice, and you have a chance that each roll will explode (allowing you to keep rolling until the die stops exploding, and adding all the numbers together). Every now and then the Chaos dice will allow a player to pull off a lucky win against the odds. So there will always be some tension in a dice throw. Secondly, when you win you always get rewarded. You get some money, some victory points (VP), and some other useful game resources.


Course of Empire by Thomas Cole [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I believe there is scope for mastery of the game to be demonstrated. This arises from observation of the emergent play – if you can see the choices other players are making in how they allocate forces to regions, and react to them with skill, then you should win more conflicts (and earn more rewards). A cautious player may concentrate their forces on one or two areas. A bold player may split them between four areas, hoping to get lucky and find a region no one else is contesting for a cheap victory. Understanding how the dice can work out will also probably help with system mastery.

Exploding Dice

Because the Chaos die generates numbers from 1-4, and explodes on a four, its actually impossible to get a roll of four on the dice. Four +1-4 gets 5-8, and of a course a second four explodes again. You will roll from 1-3 75% of the time, and then 25% of the time you will roll 5+:

  • 75% of the time you will roll from 1-3
  • 18.75% of the time you will roll from 5-7
  • ~4.5% of the time you will roll 9-11
  • ~2% of the time you will roll 13+

One implication here, is that if you have a one bonus die advantage over your enemy, but they have four more combat strength, then you will have roughly a 25% chance of winning.

The DOOM die generates numbers from 1-13, but only explodes on a 13. So it exploding is a rare event – you might not see it happen in the game.

  • 92.3% of the time you will see a roll from 1-12
  • 7% of the time you will see a roll from 14-25
  • less than 1% of the time you will see a roll of 27+

Intuitively you would think that the d13 has a better chance of giving a victory against long odds, but its good to see it confirmed in the math.


I believe that a megagame conflict system trying to model Ancient Greek hoplite combat for a megagame should keep it simple, following a cultural style of combat where both parties agreed to fight at a particular place, the battle was fought quickly, and the defeated party conceded defeat. I thought about incorporating rules for skirmishers, cavalry, chariots and fortifications, but playtesting showed that this made it too complicated.

I added Triremes after the second playtest, as I redrew the maps, splitting them into one set of six land regions, and a second set of coastal regions, plus one gateway to the hollow earth. This reflects the importance of naval warfare in ancient Greece, and also fit with a change to how trading worked in the game – opening up possibilities for blockades and smuggling.


This relates to simple. A few things have been done to keep play fast. First, all players in a region are in conflict with each other. Diplomacy over forming temporary coalitions just takes up too much time in the fifteen minute game turn. With 13 potential conflicts to resolve, battles need to be done in under a minute. Second, players can resolve more than one conflict at a time. If two players are resolving a conflict in region one, three different players with a conflict in region 5 can be working through that. That is another reason why there will be lot of dice for each game table.

I also removed an early playtest option for spending DOOM tokens to adjust combat outcomes. This created an auction bidding mechanic, which just took too much time. Now you need the right Colossus upgrade (the DOOM Ray) and you spend the token before you roll the dice (a DOOM die).

Part of being quick is in constraining the choices the players can make. Most humans can only effectively evaluate three to five options. More than that and they start taking mental short cuts. So while I have 13 colony regions for players to squabble over, and they each offer slightly different rewards, there are only three types: land, coastal, and hollow earth. The fourth option, attack on home cities is constrained by law and politics. I also only allow four attacks maximum – and no splitting up of unit types. All your hoplites go to one region, and all your triremes go to one region (and it could be the same region).

Right, back to editing the game document!