Building a better tech tree

June 28, 2016

I have had a stimulating couple of weeks working on some ideas for Colossus of Atlantis II. One goal for the redesign is to have a better tech tree. Last time the research game was “go fish” in the card deck, followed by “collect a set” trading, and for some of the teams, eventually building a colossi or two. I think I can do better next time. Ideally I want every team to have the chance to put Colossi on the table in time for them to make a difference. I am also keen to move away from people holding large piles of cards for trading – I want trade negotiations to focus on a contract like piece of paper where people haggle over the split of profits.

Tech trees have always been a staple of RTS games, but they go back further, to the old Civilization boardgame (1980), if not earlier.

Some of the design questions you need to consider in building a tech tree include:

  1. Is the research order set? How much choice do you want to give the players – this can be crucial if there is a system mastery challenge where some options are better than others.
  2. Is the research order known to the players? If its known it can be a spoiler, if it is not known the uncertainty will change player strategies.
  3. Can steps on the tech tree be skipped? If players do screw up, is there a catch up mechanic?
  4. How much control do the players have over the research effort?

Technology developments can be great rewards and motivators. Its a way of adding complexity to the game as the players master the core rules of the game, by adding new capabilities to the game mix.

Time is a constraint in megagames. You will only be able to process a finite number of game turns. If you make the tech tree too big, teams will never complete the end of the tree, and this may disappoint the players. This suggests you need to calculate the resource fountain or flow dedicated to research, against the cost of the options. You definitely want a playtest of the system. After several turns what does it look like for teams that focused on research, ignored research, or did a bit of research?

Because technology can be used to change the game rules, you also need to consider how this change is reflected in game state information. All the other players and GMs need to be able to verify and understand the research outcomes. Keeping things simple is always a good idea.

In real life, tech change tends to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. One thing I would not want to do, is to have one option in the tech tree that is a dominant strategy. Some teams will spot it, others may well miss it until it is too late.

Putting this all together in a new package

I usually have about four hours available for a megagame, and get through about eight 20 minute turns, after briefings and delays are taken care of. So I want less tiers of research than I expect game turns. I think the tech tree should be open knowledge to the players, especially as I want to run the game more than once.

Because each team should have five players, that sets the upper bound of research effort each turn – five attempts to generate research points and buy technology cards. That means no more than five branches on the research tree. With the mechanics I have in mind, at the start of the game a player should be generating 1-12 research points a turn. By the end of the game, a player should be generating 2-24 research points a turn.


This is a table I put together quickly, so the numbers might be fine tuned later. It has four tiers of research, although I might extend it to a fifth tier as well. There are two concepts represented in the cost/reward structure – diffusion of knowledge and diminishing returns.

The first team to research a breakthrough pays the highest cost, but reaps the greatest reward in Victory Points. The costs diminish as the knowledge is spread throughout society, but the Victory Points drop more quickly to zero. This can be done by building a card deck, set in a prearranged order, so the cost of the top card is the highest cost, and so on down to the cheapest and last card.

If a team focuses on maximising research, they should unlock most of the tech tree within five turns, granting them three or more turns to enjoy the fruits of their labours. A team focusing its efforts elsewhere, can catch up with a bit of effort.

I do have some problems to work on. First, I need a way to make it clear who gets the privilege of choosing cards first (it could just be random).

Second, because I need to keep the research card decks in one place, but my initial map design has multiple maps where research can be generated, I need to find a way to accurately transmit information about research (do I give the players cards or token chips, or rely on Map GMs to coordinate the information).

I also have not decided exactly what the research will do, but it is likely to be a mixture of:

  1. Adding more units to a team’s force pool.
  2. Improving the capabilities of controlled units (e.g. rolling a d8 rather than a d6).
  3. Changing game rules.
  4. Unlocking new types of units, such as the Colossi.
  5. Allowing the build of ancient wonders of the world.

One option I am considering, is allowing a narrow thrust up the tree to unlock the Colossi at Tier IV or V. But all the branches of the tech tree lead to Colossi (each gives the Colossi a different capability). After all, making a game about giant steam bronze robots, and not letting the players use and enjoy such leviathans, would not be good design.


Rebellion Bingo

June 13, 2016

A_cavalry_patrol_sabring_the_rioters_in_the_streets_of_ComanestiThis is an idea for a taxation-rebellion mini-game mechanic, useful for megagames set in agrarian economies where the peasants do not really care who is in charge, so long as they do not “tax” too much of the harvest.

Each tax region in the game gets its own “bingo card” with a grid of boxes. If control of the region changes, the player who lost control gives the province card to the player gaining control.

When a player desires tax income, they queue for the appropriate map GM’s attention and present the Tax Card. The player indicates which boxes on the Tax card they wish to strike out, and these are filled in with a permanent marker. The map GM then consults a master reference to check if any of the boxes struck out triggers a rebellion. This look up step is likely to be the most time consuming step in the process, so I am continuing to think of ways in which this process could be refined. Keeping the number of boxes to a small number, say a dozen, would be one way of managing the information. Another might be to draw the boxes in a pattern shape, making it a bit easier to visually identify.

As an additional modifier, some boxes do not trigger rebellion, but just increase the future strength of the rebellion. If a player strikes these, the GM can give them some feedback on grumblings of discontent among the peasants.

This might interplay with military actions, in that raiding a province is represented by harvesting tax in a just conquered province, and then leaving as the peasants erupt in rebellion. Some experimentation is required to determine a hard cap on how much tax a player can collect in one action, otherwise someone is sure to say “I’ll tax all 20 boxes right now thank you”.

Tax regions that are likely to be more rebellious could have more than one trigger box to start a rebellion. Some trigger boxes could be made conditional, such as “trigger rebellion only if tax collector’s capital region is more than X distance away”. Another twist could be a “insurrection” modifier, where if there are rebellions in adjacent tax regions when a player collects tax, then they must strike out an extra box without collecting revenue.

Conversely there may be options a player can implement to reduce the chance and strength of rebellions. Keeping a garrison in the province is an obvious one. Another is allow structures or organisations to be built (e.g. Palaces and Bureaucracies) that reduce the number of boxes struck out when you tax.

10 Megagame Concepts

June 12, 2016

Here are ten concept outlines for different megagame scenarios. Some are revamps of games I have run in the past, others are new. I am posting these so I can get a sense of what sounds interesting to potential players, so expressions of “like” and “dislike” would both be useful.

I am also making a decision to “pivot” and “rebrand”. In the past I have called these “Grand Strategy” games, often shortened to “Grand Strat” by the Buckets of Dice crowd. The world wide success of Jim Wallman’s Watch the Skies game leads me to think I should adopt what appears to be the global brand name, in order to boost recognition and hopefully attract a few more players.

1. Warring States

This is a historical scenario, set in the Warring States period of Chinese history, from roughly 320 to 220 BCE. I once ran a play-by-mail game of Diplomacy set in this period of history, so I have done some of the needed research in the past. During this era seven major kingdoms competed to be the first to unify the land that became known as China. It was a time of great development in literature, philosophy, technology, economic and military affairs. At the start of the game, armies would be small and based on chariot borne nobles supported by poor infantry. As the game progresses, cavalry, crossbows, iron weapons, and mass conscript armies would be developed.

EN-WarringStatesAll260BCEKey elements of this game:

  1. Combat resolution will be inspired by Sun Zi’s Art of War, i.e. it will rely strongly on psychological factors and bluffing.
  2. Kingdoms will have to make tradeoffs between trying to expand the territory they control, and trying to develop their Kingdom – the surplus from the rice harvest will only go so far
  3. At the start of the game, changes to the map state can only be done by the King (team leader) but only if one of their advisors (other team members) recommends the move. As the Kingdom develops, new developments will allow more options for map interactions. For example, developing professional generals will allow advisors to move armies on the map.
  4. Diplomacy is crucial to success.

2. Sun and Starship II

This is a revamp of the 2012 Buckets of Dice game, and on a theme I have used several times before. It is a space opera scenario in which noble houses in a great space empire compete for power, wealth and glory, while pirates and warlords gnaw away at the borders of the empire. Most (80%) of the players will be nobles organised in teams and some (20%) will be independent “raiders”. Noble team goal is to gain control of the empire, all players are trying to get the most wealth, and glory (from combat victories).

2000px-Spaceship_and_Sun_emblem.svgKey elements of this game:

  1. universal basic income – every player gets $1 of game currency per minute of game time
  2. to represent the decadence of the Empire, whoever is currently Emperor (and a few of their friends) will have access to a table of food and drink
  3. nobles will alternate between time in committee meetings, team meetings, diplomacy and the map, raiders will spend nearly all their time on the map or diplomacy
  4. rather than one committee, there will be seven committees with the following broad functions: Justice – $ fines for nobles. Trade – creates new movement and trade routes on the map. Colonies – appoints/recalls sector governors. Intelligence – determines which “Black Swan” events occur next. Atomic Power – provides the atomic power that makes Dreadnoughts awesome. Defence – appoints/recalls fleet Admirals. Apparatus – screws around with the other committees.
  5. combat will be based on a “bucket of dice” resolution: Battleships roll 1d6 each. Dreadnoughts roll 1d12 per point of atomic power spent. The side with the highest score wins. Battleships with matching die rolls in your fleet are eliminated as casualties (yes, this hurts the stronger side more). Dreadnoughts are never destroyed – they just go to the repair yard for a length of time based on battle damage.

3. Fall of the Elder

This is a new fantasy scenario with teams of elves, dwarves, humans and individual dragons. The different Kingdoms are competing for magic, gold, and land. It is based on the 1970s boardgame “the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. The elves and dwarves start with all the good farming land under their control and control most of the ancient fortresses. Humans start in the miserable wastelands, where the dragons also dwell.


Key elements of gameplay:

  1. 20 minutes of gameplay represents roughly twenty years of gametime
  2. the elves score points for accumulating magic power (and not using it)
  3. the humans score points for gaining land and breeding more humans
  4. the dwarves score points for accumulating gold (and not spending it)
  5. Dragons score points for eating elves, dwarves and humans, stealing their stuff and destroying anything they can’t eat or steal. You can think of them as 100 ton vultures.
  6. heroes are important, Elves train heroes with magic, Dwarves buy heroes with gold, Humans find heroes when they are defeated, and Dragons … well, they are more anti-heroes.

4. Operation Unthinkable

This is a new alternate history scenario based on the actual British plan to attack the USSR in July 1945, following the defeat of Nazi Germany. Teams are based on the combatant nations at the time (USSR, USA, UK, and France). Most (80%) of the players will be military officers working at the Army level with the other players filling political, naval, or air command roles.

Marcia_nel_fangoKey game elements

  1. this will be a double blind map system, i.e. the teams will have maps in different rooms, and will have limited information on enemy dispositions (fog of war)
  2. the game will last from midsummer 1945 to early winter 1945
  3. army officers will have one of three roles: logistics – making sure the army has enough supplies, intelligence – team communications, command – making attack/defence decisions
  4. air command chooses between battling for air superiority, ground support, or strategic attacks on logistics
  5. yes, the allies will get the nuclear option (at a cost of VP)
  6. the game will focus primarily on the front in north Germany, other theatres of operations (e.g. Italy, Japan, Greece, Iran) will be handled in an abstract manner.

5. The Crescent Stars

This is a new space opera scenario, set in a future where humanity has colonised the stars but is just as disorganised as it was on Earth. The main teams are the Solar Union Colonial Committee, the trading Combines, and the Comitas (the free traders). Independent players are the mercenary captains and the system Dictators. The Solar Union tries to maintain peace and stability while encouraging free trade, while everyone else is trying to make money and gain power over the booming sector trade.

Artist’s_Impression_of_a_Baby_Star_Still_Surrounded_by_a_Protoplanetary_DiscKey game elements:

  1. rather than trading cards, trade deals require the signatures of the players who control the systems the trade route requires. Each trade deal is worth a fixed sum of cash, split between the signatories in an agreed way. Each trade deal has a time limit within which is must be successfully negotiated.
  2. As the game develops new movement and trade routes appear
  3. universal basic income (see above)
  4. the combat system will involve very small numbers of units (not more than a dozen tokens per side) and a conflict between two systems should be resolved in under ten minutes through a card play system
  5. technological research.

6. The Colossus of Atlantis II

This is a bronze age steampunk Cthulhu mythos fantasy game, first run in 2010. At the start of the game the players are all members of an Atlantean noble House, as it starts to use its superior technology to conquer the world. Atlantis being Atlantis, corruption will set in and eventually doom will fall on Atlantis.


Key game elements:

  1. robust Athenian style Greek politics (this time we will make sure the democratic constitution cannot be destroyed by the players at the first assembly meeting)
  2. profiting from trade routes, using the negotiation system outlined in Crescent Stars (see above)
  3. universal basic income (as above)
  4. technological research with the goal of building the best giant bronze colossus to smash your way across the landscape
  5. occult research with the goal of summoning the best eldritch horror to devour your enemies with.

7. Pax Victoria II/Flower Power II

SAMSUNGThese are retro-future grand strategy battles for fantasy worlds with World War I to World War II technology. The main change from earlier games is to greatly reduce the number of units, for each player on your team you should only have 2-5 units to keep track of, and to place more of an emphasis on sea power.

Key game elements:

  1. alliance diplomacy and coalition warfare
  2. making tradeoffs between importing off-world technology or mercenaries, and developing you economy or expanding your own military.

8. Crusades II

Revisiting a scenario last used in the 1990s, its a medieval holy war to liberate/defend the sacred sites of several major religions. Within each broad coalition of coreligionists are smaller teams that have their own goals and hidden agendas.

Key game elements:

  1. diplomacy and arguing about religious doctrine
  2. trading spice and sacred relics
  3. rare and relatively important battles, as big armies are fragile
  4. lots of sieges and raiding
  5. limited information about where the enemy armies are (so lots of opportunity for selling information and double crossing).

9. Revelations

And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

A modern day apocalypse with the armies of Heaven and Hell fighting it out over what is left of humanity. Humans can pick a side or go it alone. Did I mention the zombie hordes? Yes, there will be zombie hordes. Learning from the 2011 Apocalypse America game, the economy will not collapse in turn one and leaders should be able to feed their armies for a while.

John_Martin_-_The_Great_Day_of_His_Wrath_-_Google_Art_ProjectKey game elements:

  1. as much gonzo pop culture kitsch as we can cram in
  2. resource scarcity, supplies are unreliable and will be fought over
  3. the map of Earth will be global, but the landscape will have been altered by various disasters and calamities
  4. the number of combat units will be kept at a manageable number (2-5 per player)
  5. to represent the scale of mundane, divine and infernal powers, a polyhedral dice pool “roll and keep best two” combat system will be used, e.g. if ordinary three human armies roll d6s and two Angels roll d12s you might roll a 3, 5, and a 6 for the humans and a 2 and 12 for the Angels, so you keep the rolls of 6 and 12 for a total of 18.

10. The Cold Stars

…the cold stars shone in mockery… – Mary Shelley

This is a bleak post-apocalyptic space opera. Humanity colonised the stars, but then something happened to sweep away most of human civilisation. The survivors hide in deep space or hidden outposts, because they know they are being hunted.

Alcyon_(star)Key game elements:

  1. isolation – this is a limited information game, with different teams being placed in different rooms
  2. exploration – if you make contact with other human survivors, you can start talking with them again, if they don’t kill you first
  3. hidden information, while the broad shape of the map will be clear, small boxes will be used to conceal information
  4. trade – everyone has a clue in the great puzzle, and everyone has something useful for survival, but every trade you make increases the chance that the hunters will find you
  5. the combat system is based on avoiding combat – whatever is hunting humanity has more advanced technology and outnumbers humanity a million to one.

Musketeers versus “Godzilla”

May 29, 2016


14 May Session

There was a fight with the handbag unicorn demon. It was pretty awful, with people getting arms broken and faces chewed up, a vigla’s head getting ripped off.
The Eclipse Demon of Variable Name slowed time down during a lightning flash and offered people bargains. Vitus agreed to lose 1 MP forever, in exchange for mana and healing. The other PCs refused, but Magistrate Karen Ivanovich appeared to make a deal, as she also started healing. The Eclipse Demon specifically refused to treat with Talia, as she is still bound to the Raven Queen. Karen eventually called the Demon to heel, and some conversations followed during which you learned:
  • Karen got sent to activate a weapon to deal with the two sleeping powers (NB Karen does not know that the party is responsible for releasing them)
  • Karen’s other choice of suicide mission was leading the forlorn hope against Fort Zurgan
  • Vitus used Witchsight to discern a death rune marked on Karen
  • Karen revealed the presence of a Moon Gate in the Warden’s complex on the Island of Monsters.
The party then healed up and proceeded to the mine and its sealed vault. Karen revealed that what was inside the vault was Prince Umal, son and grandson of Mal. The mine entrance was the scene of a massacre, and Secundus could tell that the bladework was in a longsword style he was familiar with. The elevator was damaged, so the party made two trips for safety (and in the background I began keeping track of a countdown clock).
Outside the vault, the party encounters Maranth, first Sword of the father. She warns the party to back off, they refuse, so Vordar assassins materialise and attack (and Maranth exits stage right). In this fight a key role is played by the unicorn handbag demon, as its gibbets a couple of the Vordar. Pyrias is badly wounded by an early critical hit to the leg, and if I recall correctly both Talia and Pyrias are incapacitated by mid-fight. Vitus gets disarmed, loses the lantern, and Secundus manages to fumble and set himself on fire from the lantern oil. Vitus casts wrack and starts burning the Vordar, and the accumulated losses see the last two Vordar teleporting out (although one of them took enough damage to die on rematerialising I think).
The party enters the sealed vault – which requires using the horn of the unicorn demon as the key to bypass. The outer room was a library, the inner room contained a laboratory and the imprisoned husk of Prince Umal. There is bargaining, Umal desires revenge on the Maxlace family, who experimented on him, as well as the life blood of a willing sacrifice. There is some bargaining, and Umal eventually agrees to spare one member of the Maxlace family – but the party must choose who is live. In exchange Prince Umal will deal with the two sleeping powers that have awoken.
On the way out, there is an earthquake while people are in the damaged elevator. There are some narrow scrapes and bruises, but the party escapes alive, and walks back to the Maxlace mansion. Where they are welcomed by Karia Angel Eyes, who is only too delighted to inform that Prince Umal has revenged himself on her father, and dragged her useless sister Daria away to find the Spear of the Black Emperor in town.
In the far distance, the rumbling cannonades of the assault on Fort Zurgan can still be heard as the party tries to get some sleep. Its unlikely to be pleasant dreams with not one, not two, but three ancient powers of great evil converging on the poor town of Aldarsh…

28 May Session

This session started with passion changes and arete checks to reflect decisions made in the previous session, with Crozane dropping his passion for protecting the innocent and increasing loyalty to empire.
Plans were debated – the problem with warning people in Aldarsh was the issue of “What happens when they ask us how exactly it us that we know that the sleeping powers have awoken?” not even the plight of those near to their hearts could swap the party from leaving the Maxlace mansion and its temptations. Vitus did project his sight into the town, and found Alfandi skirmishing with the Garrison, and civilians being murdered in the streets. Vitus searched for Florenzia, finding that the hospital had been overrun, but Florenzia had made it to the town citadel, where she was extracting mana crystals.
The party decides to sleep. Arete checks are made, Crozane fumbles, and experiences a nightmare where he is in a warehouse in Aldarsh, being sacrificed by Vordar, over and over again. At sunrise there is a round of failed Willpower checks, so little magic regeneration happens.
An Imperial Frigate passes overhead, travelling to the west. Its on fire. Its a dark day, with feeble sunlight, constant rain, thunder and lightning.
Lady Karia Angel Eyes offers the party a champagne breakfast. By late morning Talia is the only one both sober and clothed. People regain Luck Points from carousing and start on a liquid lunch, when Anander Rotrant turns up to guilt trip the party into actually doing something about the crisis they have caused. The party realises that their chances of escaping overland on foot, or defending the mansion against a horde of swamp elves are pretty slim, and getting behind the town walls might be the sensible thing to do.
On the way into town, Talia crits Perception, and spots a swamp elf ambush. While the Alfandi outnumber the party 10:7, they are mooks (50% skills, 2 Actions, knocked out if reduced to 0 HP in any location). Because of the wet weather, I make the check for firing pistols harder, and only Talia and Secundus score hits. Vitus is the only player badly injured in the fight, taking nine points to his right leg, but with a couple of critical hits from Karia and Anander the fight turns towards the party quite quickly. Talia captures a couple of the Alfandi alive, and then proceeds to try a ritual to regenerate the mana storage gem acquired earlier. Talia does not get the first sacrifice right, but Karia assists with the second and +13 MP are placed in the gem (and Talia loses a few arete points).
The party reaches town without further incident, but can see that the garrison is unsettled. They go to their old hotel, but the first floor is burnt out, and the second floor hallways is strewn with bodies. So they park the NPCs at the Maxlace townhouse and go to the citadel. Its crowded with petitioners, and the party balks at paying a 500 silver bribe to see the commander. So they go off to the new imperial temple, find its packed, think about going to the old imperial temple, but realise its probably flooded. So they go back to the citadel, pay the bribe, see the commander, and get a commission to find a Vordar death cult inside the town walls and deal with it.
Using a mix of sense blood and project sight they find where the cult is probably set up – the warehouse owned by von Schenke, where they went to a party earlier in the week. They case the joint, detecting wards and a few ways in. They sneak up an alleyway, and Talia neutralises the wards. Vitus scouts with his projected sight, but something inside can see him, and he takes wounds to the head and leg fleeing the scene. The party then gets Secundus to use brute force and ignorance to batter their way in. Now the party can see Marantar, first sword of the Father, who challenges Pyrias to a duel, which he accepts.
Pyrias has four actions per combat round, but Maranth is a mystic with six actions, three of which must be used for parrying or evading. Both duellists have high combat styles (>90% for Pyrias and 110% for Marantar). Its a very long fight – four combat rounds, almost twenty seconds, but while Pyrias is outclassed, the whip Maranth wields just doesn’t do enough damage to seriously threaten Pyrias. Maranth eventually casts some damage boosting folk magic, but Pyrias manages to get a critical hit to disarm her, followed by a second critical hit which she fails to evade to kill her. Her blood, however, is the trigger to activate the runes covering all the surfaces of the warehouse interior. Vitus starts setting the warehouse on fire, Pyrias and Secundus argue over who should get the whip, Crozane picks up the body and hears a “run away little boy” voice in his head, Talia just runs for it, but stumbles and falls over (eventually being the last one out of the building). While Vitus manages to endure the fire damage, he fails to resist against magic and is overwhelmed.
Outside the burning building, the party realises that Vitus is now a beacon, calling the father towards him. Two attempts are made to steal boats to flee downriver, but everyone in the party fails two boat handling checks in a row (its not a common skill in flying cities). So the party heads west, with an improvised sled to carry Vitus. They run into stragglers from the Imperial army, the assault on Fort Zurgan has failed. As they near the now abandoned Camp Fortitude they see the Mother and the father in the distance. Shrieking and hammering the earth, the ancient powers turn towards camp Fortitude and begin moving towards it like Godzilla coming up on Tokyo. Pyrias lost an arete point for suggesting it was his musketeer’s duty to shag the Mother Monster.
At this point the standard RQ rules went out the window as being unable to handle a mythic encounter and I improvised wildly. What the party was able to do was turn the fort powder magazine into a giant land mine, with the magazines copper sheath roof being ripped up for shrapnel. The party then hid in a barracks building, and used a cheap folk magic spell to light the magazine off when the ancient powers began battling over the fort.
Vordar assassins attack the party, but three are killed in the first round, so it does not take much effort to eliminate the remaining two. Belnath, the vordar cult leader, attempts a mythic level attack on the Mother, but rolls a 00 fumble, so I rule him as devoured on the spot.
I gave the ancient powers 100 mythic hit points, and allowed the powder magazine explosion to do 1d100 damage to them. Whichever monster gained the advantage in a combat round did 1d10 mythic damage, and we had a round where they tied and both inflicted damage on each other. Magic warps the neighbourhood, and makes it both difficult and dangerous for the PCs to intervene, they leave the barracks building before it is destroyed, and shelter against the interior wall of the fortress. Crozane and Pyrias are splashed by “mother’s milk” and the acid forces them to abandon most of their armour and equipment. Talia is taken out by a surge of plant rune energy, collapsing into an orgasmic heap.
The Empress Alexandra, the largest battleship in the Imperial Fleet appears in the distance. Unlike the small frigates it can travel safely in the poor weather.
Prince Umal intervenes with the spear of the Black Emperor, and does 1d10 mythic damage on the monsters. The Alexandra unleashes a 100 gun broadside. Both of the great monsters are down. The Eclipse Demon then turns up, attacks Umal, and gets its wings broken. Karen Ivanovich, who was presumed dead, also turns up (its a safe bet that the Eclipse Demon resurrected her, and her being alive allows her to rollback some of Umal’s power). The Alexandra starts to turn, and the party quickly relocates so as to not be between its guns and Prince Umal. Karen manages to grab the black spear, and runs. Umal smashes the Eclipse Demon into a cloud of feathers and eyeballs, then chases after Karen. Talia casts a spell to entangle Umal, which allows Karen to escape, and then the Alexandra hammers Prince Umal with a second 100 gun broadside.
So, a victory of sorts for the Silent Legion, with three ancient powers defeated. But it might have been better if the party had managed to not unseal the ancient evils in the first place…

A character generation system for D100 games

May 9, 2016

dice-160388_1280Just mucking around with some ideas for a character generation mini-game, riffing off Revolution D100 and Amber. There is just something about the 3-18 range for primary attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Charisma, etc) that just feels right for gaming. Even if it just nostalgia for my misspent youth sending fighters into the AD&D’s DMG random dungeon generator/blender. In a similar style, a percentage based skill system is one that is intuitive for use in play – you have a good idea of success/failure odds. But so many games never really use the numbers generated in the 3-18 range – they get used instead to generate secondary attributes that are the ones which get used in game play.

One of the options in Revolution D100 is to use the 3-18 attribute scores as resolution points in conflicts, so Charisma might be used in a verbal debate, Dexterity in a chase scene, and so on. With individual contests costing 1d6 or 2d6 resolution points, then sooner or later a 13 in an attribute will prove better than a 12. I am not exactly fond of either random 3d6, or point allocation systems, and inspired by the competitive character generation system used in a couple of diceless roleplaying games I have come up with this mini-game:

The six primary character attributes are: Strength (STR), Dexterity (DEX), Constitution (CON), Intellect (INT), Will (WIL), and Charisma (CHA).

  1. Each player makes a secret bid from 3-18. This bid must be unique to this player, e.g. if you have already made a bids of 17 and 18, your bids must be in the 3-16 range. Players may not collude on bids.
  2. Players reveal all bids simultaneously.
  3. The player(s) with the highest bid allocate the bid to one of their six attributes, and gain +1 Hubris.
  4. The player(s) with the lowest bid allocate the bid to one of their six attributes, and gain +1 Tyche.
  5. The player(s) with other bids allocate the bid to one of their six attributes, and make a notation next to it that they have gained +Skill.
  6. Bid allocations are public knowledge.
  7. If there is no clear distinction between bids due to tied bids, then Hubris trumps all, and Skill trumps Tyche. For example if everyone bids 18, everyone gets +1 Hubris and no Tyche of Skill awards are made. If Half bid 18 and half bid 16, the high bids get +1 Hubris the other bids get +Skill, and no one gets +Tyche.
  8. After all bids have been resolved, all players check and compare the characteristic scores across all the characters:
    1. If your character has the highest number in an attribute (even if this was not originally a winning bid) gain +1 Hubris.
    2. Repeat this process for Tyche (lowest number) and Skill (other numbers).

Tyche lets you minimise any harm to you, reducing it to a one point, even if it would normally be a situation that clearly should result in death such as bring trapped in a burning building, public execution, being abandoned in the middle of an ocean, etc. Tyche points refresh at the end of the current mission. I figure every player will want at least one point of Tyche, so everyone is likely to try and make at least one low bid for an attribute during the character generation mini-game.

Hubris lets you turn any roll into a critical success, but each time you do this you gain Nemesis points equal to the tens roll. Hubris points refresh at the end of each session. The minimum Hubris gain each session is equal to the base Hubris score. When Nemesis reaches 100, the GM will send a suitable Fury to punish the character. I figure every player will want some Hubris to drive the action forward, but too much of it is obviously tempting fate.

Skill is a bonus to initial character skills. So if you had STR 12 and DEX 9 and they were not Skill scores at any stage of the character generation process, then your initial combat skill would be (STR+DEX) 21%. If both were Skill Attributes, then your initial combat skill would be at least 42%. If your DEX then turned out to be the lowest DEX score in the final comparison, but STR remained a skill score, your final starting combat skill would be 54%.

If we nudge the attributes up a little, to more heroic levels of 15 and 13, but keep the other variables the same, then the final starting combat skill would be 71%. That is probably the sweet spot, as I have seen a fer articles opining that 65-70% is the sweet spot for making players feel that their characters are competent.

Doing some quick maths – its impossible for a bid of 18 to ever grant Skill during PC generation, so the best possible Skill combination is 17+16, which is 33. So the best possible initial skill would be 99%. Which is not something I anticipated when I threw this together.

I must try and corner some people to do a run through of this at the next convention I go to.

Avoiding the Setting/Mechanics trap

April 14, 2016

“Setting or mechanics first” is a common roleplaying game design question. Its a bit of a trap, because each complements the other, and design is an iterative process. Sure, if you create a compelling new setting, you might do a long brain dump first. Vice versa, if you devise a new way of rolling dice/shuffling cards no one else has thought of before, that likely needs some careful number crunching before you show it off to the world for feedback.

In trying to find some design space to wiggle around in and create something new, I have been much more character focused. I have found my players are pretty much happy with any setting that fits “same, but different” and for the mechanics, the simpler, the better.

My current campaign is a fantasy world with musketeers and awakening great old ones. It uses the Runequest 6/Mythras system, which is a toolkit I wanted for bounded character power, crunch detail, and combat verisimilitude – following the simple and easy Dragon Age system of my previous campaign, which suffered from the classic problem of “bloated Hit Points” means nothing really threatens the characters unless its Save or Die!

Thinking about Jared Sorensen’s Big Three Questions (+bonus from John Wick) …

  • What is your game about?
  • How does your game do this?
  • How does your game encourage / reward this?
  • How do you make this fun?

… I think its clear to me that while my players are having fun with intrigue, duels, seductions, and running away from tentacles, that I did not quite tune the campaign’s themes to the RQ rules adequately.

I had not played RQ with the Passion mechanic before, and I can now see that the game would have been better if I had emphasized musketeer behaviour with the passions. While the characters have been getting into trouble a fair bit, almost all of the hard choices are dealt with by passing a “loyalty to empire” passion check. I should have sat down and thought more about the characters, and less about the setting, and identified the passions needed to make the game more like the classic musketeer novels.

I now think that hacking the Sanity mechanic from Call of Cthulhu into a Virtue stat has not worked out too well. Its just taken a bit too long for interesting consequences to turn up, and while that has now happened for one corrupted character (who is now burnt by sunlight, and can only regenerate magic points through self-inflicted pain) I am now looking at corruption mechanics in other games (e.g. Urban Shadows) as doing the job better.

I also wants a game that plays much faster. I now find the combat too detailed, and the handling time for resolution means that as GM I am not feeling a lot of joy in resolving combat scenes. The social mechanics lack the fine detail of the combat mechanics, and that has been a bit of a problem in trying to figure out just what the heck a die roll in front of me means when an Influence check is done. Reading *World games has brought home to me that you should really not ask for die rolls unless something of consequence will actually happen for both success and failure outcomes. Maybe I want something closer to the ‘duel of wits’ mechanic in Burning Wheel?

I have been reading a lot of game systems lately – I am drowning in content from PDFs delivered from Kickstarters and Bundles of Holding – and one that looks really promising to me is the 2d20 system for Age of Conan. The quickstart rules looked like they would satisfy my real life history/martial arts knowledge with some rules for reach and guard stances (which on first reading were significantly more intelligible than those in RQ6) plus a core mechanic that generates a shared resource for the party (something I have been trying to develop myself).

I would like to have a go at designing and publishing a game, and the main obstacle for me at the moment, is trying to come up with an idea for what the characters are about, that has not been done before. I do not want to sink a few years spare time into a ‘fantasy heartbreaker’. Like doing a PhD, I want to try and push the boundary out a bit and build something original. You want to find the “Aha!” idea that has people go “Wow!” about the game when you explain it to them, not shift their eyes sideways to the clock on the wall above you.

I found a new way of looking at characters – which is to think about what you want them to be capable of doing in the setting (and being more specific than just choosing a setting on somewhere on the zero to hero scale). When I recast my core game ideas into a capability framework I get characters that can:

  1. make a choice about the community they identity with (mixed heritage characters are free to go either way)
  2. cast spells and can always cast spells (no running out of magic points)
  3. change the community they exist in (to paraphrase Marx, “the point is not to understand the setting, the point is to change the setting”)
  4. always cooperate with each other (because magic, and because I think it will make for a better game).

Working backwards from that I end up with a game concept that is “orphan street kid mages in a city of spies”. Which is a bit like Blades in the Dark but at least I didn’t end up with a Dogs in the Vineyard clone again.

Changing tack, I was thinking about how to express in game mechanics something that made character’s different and fun, and hit on the Greek word “hubris”. Rather than having luck, fate, fortune (or to stick with the classical theme, Tyche) points being the character meta-currency to influence the game I thought I could call it Hubris to reflect both the kind of behaviour player characters often indulge in, and the kind of behaviour I thought power-hungry mages should be inclined towards:

  • Irrational pride or confidence.
  • Violent or excessive behaviour.
  • Shame, humiliation and gratification.
  • Sexual crimes, prostitution, theft of public or sacred property.
  • An act that offends the Gods.
  • Presumption towards the Gods.
  • Violating the bounds meant for mortals.
  • Lack of humility, modesty, respect or timidity.
  • Faustian bargains for knowledge and power.

Along with Milton’s “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” quote, I found this quote, that really seemed to gel with the idea of mixed race characters who do not belong to any established community and have a lot of questions to answer about their identity:

If you were born Somewhere, hubris would come easy. But if you are Nowhere’s child, hubris is an import, pride a thing you decide to acquire. —Sarah Vowell, GQ, May 1998

Riffing on *World I can use Hubris and rename Fronts as Nemesis. Nemesis is the inescapable agent of downfall, the retributive justice for wrong-doing and presumption, the balancer of too much good fortune. So any time a player uses Hubris to succeed in a task, a possible complication is the countdown clock on one of the Nemesis fronts advancing. I could also use Hubris in a way similar to Corruption in Urban Shadows, a route to advance your character, but not necessarily one you want to indulge in too often.

…and that I think will give me a neat little mechanic for the setting, which fits the capabilities I want the characters to have.



Race, Religion and Rolling Dice – Making plans for GENCON 2016

March 4, 2016

LuigiCastellani_MYTHKELI2While there are 150 days to GENCON, there are only another ten days until the deadline to register events for GENCON, and I will be spending half that time away from the internet. So I only have a few days left to nail down a solid concept to offer as a GENCON game if I want to be sure of getting a table and a blurb in the schedule. The other option is just to trust in Games on Demand, which would also give me a lot of schedule flexibility to go to game design seminars. (The art used here was taken from the Silent Legion artpack)

Race – Halflings

By Halfling, I mean a character with a mixed heritage, with parents from two different “races”, rather than a person of Hobbit-size stature. Tolkien wrote about half-elves and half-orcs in The Lord of The Rings, and in the 1970s this idea entered roleplaying games through Dungeons & Dragons. Race in roleplaying games tends to gloss over real world issues with “race”, a term which is nonsensical in biology (if different “races” can interbreed, then they are not actually different “races”). Race is also a loaded social construct from the worst days of slavery in North America and 20th century totalitarianism, and continues to negatively influence society today.

Instead RPGs tend to focus on cosmetic appearance, access to unique traits or abilities (e.g. the ability to see in darkness), and as a modifier to attributes. Its often a way of distinguishing a character,  can generate some banter around the table, but does not usually drive the fictional narrative while roleplaying in the game.

So I have been thinking about a setting where the premise is that there is a group of humanoid cultures with distinct visual appearances, who can enjoy carnal relations, which can lead to children. These children are referred to as halflings rather than half-men or half-gnomes. Halflings have two core differences from their parents. The first is that they cannot themselves have children (like hybrids in the real world). The second is that they have stronger magical talents – drawing on the inherent gift abilities of two heritages rather than one heritage.

The social consequences of not being able to have children are pretty significant in a world setting with a medieval level of socio-economic development. People are not going to want to see their children marry a halfling, when there will be no natural born grandchildren to pass the family name and lands to. In a world without public health or social welfare systems, children and grandchildren are what you expect to use to help you in your old age. Remember that one of the few grounds for divorce in the middle ages was inability to have children. Dialing up the issue a level, if a culture practices infanticide, then I think that halfling babies would be a common choice for exposure to the elements. In times of hunger, the halfling child is less likely to get food, in times of plague, less likely to get medicine.

I have a couple of reasons for adding some magical talents to halflings. One is that its still useful to have some kind of lever for the player of a halfling character to use in gameplay. The other is that if magic power is real, then like all forms of power it has the potential to corrupt the user, and the potential to be poorly regarded by the community. Nearly every ancient civilisation had laws prohibiting the use of evil magic, such as curses. This would definitely be a setting with gift based magic. You could still have magic gained from study, knowledge and devotion, but gift magic would be a strength of halfling characters. Depending on the local social setting the halfling might be a respected expert, or a despised outsider. Certainly if magic can be a reliable tool, then whatever power structure the society has will seek to control magical resources.

Now lets add an over-the-top fantasy twist. This is inspired by the word Manzer, an old word for bastard, which sounds a bit like monster, and might be related to the Hebrew word “mamzer “(person born from forbidden union, mum=defect, zar=strange/alien). Carnal unions leading to halflings are prohibited because they always result in twins, and one twin always turns into a monster with the onset of puberty. Some might argue that all teenagers turn into monsters, but I digress.

So this twist might lead to societies exerting a lot of control over haflings.  This could take a range from killing suspected halflings, sending them away, keeping them to serve as scapegoats, selling them as slaves, locking them up in prisons, or forcing abandoned orphans to live a life of closely supervised public service. It could serve as a useful marker for all cultures and states in the game setting – how do they typically treat halflings?

The monster twist might be excessive for a setting that seeks to explore concepts of race and prejudice – if the monster halflings are Always Chaotic Evil then the setting racism against halflings becomes reasonable and rationale – unlike the real world where racism is pointless bigotry.

Questions I need to explore on this topic include:

  1. Is racial prejudice (or privilege) a topic that can be fun to explore in a fantasy roleplaying game? I need to do a lot more research on real world topics before I can address this in a roleplaying game.
  2. What are the characters expected to do when confronted with prejudice? Are they trying to change the world to a better place, or just make it a place where they can survive?
  3. How do I make this work in the game mechanics – if its a central part of the game it needs to go way beyond +2 Charisma!

Religion – Build Your Own God

Pitching a roleplaying game where Gods are a central component is not a new idea, both Glorantha and Tekumel addressed this in the early days of roleplaying games. Its also not new to pitch a game as one where the player characters operate at a Godlike level, or can aspire to as part of the “zero-to-hero” progression of the game.

The approach I want to take in a setting is to follow the fiction of William Gladstones Craft Sequence, Glen Cook’s Instrumentalities of Night series, with a touch of Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Tales of the Fallen. These settings invert the traditional sequence of Gods creating sentient life, and instead its sentient life that creates the Gods (which, if you are an atheist, is exactly how it works in the real world). While the Gods are powerful, they remain vulnerable to clever mortals, and can be killed.

Building on from mortal Gods, I want the default mode of play for the setting to be that the player characters are a cabal of magic users, connected to the husk of a dead God. Individual campaigns can answer the question how and why this came about. There are a few things that I think the husk can do for a game that are cool:

  1. The connection to the husk gives the characters a reason to be together. Going a further step, the mystic connection to the husk and other cabal members explains why the players are aware of each other’s actions, even when their characters are in different locations.
  2. As part of the initial setting construction, the players choose the attributes of their husk, and by doing so signal to the game master what they want to see in their campaign. A husk of war and agriculture, should be a different game experience, when compared to a husk of poetry and commerce.
  3. The classic problem of magic using characters exhausting their magical energy is dealt with by allowing the players to choose to draw down energy from the husk. No need to go back to the Inn for a cup of tea and a lie down. This can be a mixed blessing if the character accidentally makes the husk rouse itself from torpor.
  4. Rather than have each character track a sanity, virtue or corruption score, the husk becomes a shared “conflict gauge”. In a way, the party is their own worst enemy, as only through their actions can the husk rouse itself and attempt to possess the body of a cabal member.
  5. As a shared resource, the husk can act like the gang framework in Blades in the Dark. It levels up as the characters level up.
  6. The husk can provide access to traits – unusual attributes and powers – drawn from the divine portfolios the God had mastery over when it was alive and kicking.
  7. As a power source that other people seek to control, the husk can give the characters a set of friends, enemies, and social organisations to interact with.

Questions I need to explore on this topic include:

  1. What is the best way of expressing all the conceptual relationships in game mechanics?
  2. How to best develop all the husk attributes? Is a husk tied to a particular race?
  3. Can the game scale well from low fantasy to high fantasy? What is the intended end game for the cabal?
  4. How to handle the conflict gauge – how common should it be for the husk to rouse and what is the chance of a character being possessed?


Pros and Cons of System Choices

I have a few other setting ideas, but I think the Halfling and Husk ideas are my strongest. So here a few ideas on the pros and cons of some different game systems I could use to give expression to these ideas.

Out of scope approaches

I do not think a class/level game system will do the job, unless I just copy something with an open game license (OGL), as trying to balance a class/level system takes a lot of work. Which as a one-person band, I would struggle to do. Same goes for trying to recreate a fully flexible magic engine, as with Ars Magica or Mage the Ascension. I do not think I can build better compared to systems with 20+ years of development. I will need to take a more focused approach to magic.

Old School Approaches

If I were to use an older game system it would be an OGL toolkit system like the D100 system.

Pros: easy for me to build a richly detailed setting to guide player choices, good at visceral combat scenes, lots of existing material to work with, character growth is flexible, potential audience of fans.

Cons: legacy systems influence is hard to shake, mechanic handling time is high in RQ6 (my current D100 system), not so good at handling social conflict, character growth is slow, character skills tend to converge together over time, not a good system for one-off convention games with people unfamiliar with the system.

Powered by the Apocalypse

My experience in playing the *World family of games is limited. Its such a strong break from the traditional physics engine approaches of the game systems I grew up with. But after a lot of reading (Hamish Cameron’s The Sprawl in particular) I have come to appreciate the focus on creating a game experience drawn on a specified fiction. For handling sensitive topics, the players can choose when prejudice is a problem to a large degree. The succeed with consequences approach is also rich for interaction with the husk concept.

A downside is that the players have to be willing to share more of the workload in running the game. I have experimented a little in my current game with throwing choices about what happens next over to the players, and they have looked quite uncomfortable with just choosing an outcome rather than relying on dice or GM fiat. Another little downside for me, is that a system which empowers a group to build its own setting is one where I don’t present a cool setting rich in gritty details for people.

A hybrid fusion?

I do wonder if I can take the fiction focus and other elements (Agenda, Principles, Moves) of the *World family and combine them with some elements of older games. The current game engine drawing my eye is the 2d20 system Mophidius is using for their Conan line. It looks to satisfy one of my personal interests (relatively accurate handling of historic weapons and armour) while also having a mechanic system that could play off the husk idea through the Momentum/Doom pools that empower special player and GM moves within the game.

Pro: dice pool system should work well for the husk, and the traditional mechanics will be easy for a wide range of players to grasp.

Con: probably needs a license or successful product pitch.


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