Imperial Marches

July 22, 2018

This weekends crazy idea is mashing up the West Marches concept, with the imperial succession mechanic of the Empire of the Petal Throne. In order to avoid a debilitating civil war, the Imperial succession is determined by a contest to acquire secrets and relics, and to reach a specific location at the right time, plus defeating any other challengers. But rather than one isolated temple or maze filled with death traps, the contest (and the hexcrawl) takes place on an isolated island filled with ruined temples and labyrinths filled with hazards. There might also be official imperial treasuries and tombs, just filled with loot awaiting early appropriation by an Imperial heir.

 

The main difference from a standard West Marches campaign, is the hard time limit on the finish of the campaign. Perhaps its a year and a day of game time from the start of the campaign. It could be longer, or it could be triggered at any time. Another way to do it, would be to have a final count down to the ritual occurring once one contestant crosses a threshold, leaving everyone else until the the next full moon to join them. For the wrap up, only players who know where the coronation ceremony is going to take place get to have their characters turn up for the finale.

I think the time limit should be known to the players from the start, but another option is for that to be a major game secret as well. The time limit also means that spending a few weeks healing from injuries or recovering from disease is a major setback.

This is something where the greater number of players in a West marches campaign could prove an advantage, as several players could play candidates, while other players play opportunists hoping to back the winning candidate. Each player could have a candidate, sponsoring quests that other characters are sent on. Some definite scope for intrigue and betrayal. Perhaps the true contestants all need some identifier, a relic like object, or a magic tattoo on their skin.

A few other things that could be added into the mix:

  1. Neutral Officials, there to stop the contest from getting out of hand (such as sabotage of supply ships or burning down the ports). But perhaps they can be bribed.
  2. Fanatically Neutral Officials, there to silently enforce the rules by assassinating heirs suspected of cheating, bribing neutral officials, and any trouble makers who look to be fostering civil wars.
  3. Deadly decadent court – perhaps the contest is like the succession for much of the Ottoman Empire, where the new Caliph had the rival heirs executed, raising the stakes of the contest. If you don;t want to win and be supreme ruler of the empire, how do you survive? Hole up as a hermit on the island for the rest of your life?
  4. More imperial factions – perhaps the franchise for the contest is wider than just the imperial family, and a range of guilds, cults, generals, villains and heroes all enter the contest.
  5. A free for all – if anyone can enter the contest, so long as they can reach the island, then there could be a rush of the desperate and dangerous, all hoping to strike it rich. The landscape could be littered with the bones of peasants who had dreams of glory – this could be an ideal set up for a “funnel” session zero, where you start with a large pool of “level zero” PCs and play through the dungeon until the last few survivors “level up”.
  6. Borrow from The Player of Games and have most of the imperial government participating, either directly or through proxies (for the aged and infirm), all competing for their place in the hierarchy after the succession is determined.

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I imagine an island with a north-south mountain range, with arid/desert landscapes on one side, and dense forest/jungle on the other side would make for a good contrast in exploration. A few ports scattered around the coastline provide the safe bases for rest and recovery between expeditions. The local economy is probably having something of a gold rush boom town vibe, which could well attract some criminal gangs or even a pirate raid.

 

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The West Marches of the Dark Sun

July 14, 2018

Even though I am enjoying running Night’s Black Agents in the Third Horizon of Coriolis, I can’t help but cast my thoughts to what kind of campaign I will run next. There are a few ideas that my imagination keeps returning to:

  1. West Marches hex crawl.
  2. The Dark Sun setting first published by TSR for AD&D.
  3. The layered worlds of the city of Alikand from Max Gladstone’s novel The Ruin of Angels, part of the craft sequence.
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Player’s map of Chult, by Mike Schley, from Tomb of Annihilation.

The West Marches…

The West Marches approach is attractive because of the difficulty I have had over the last couple of years in being able to reliably schedule a game when work, illness and other life commitments crop up. It is not that we don’t want to game, its just been getting harder to get myself and 4+ players together, especially with the travel commitments my current job has. There is also an element of nostalgia for a type of exploration play I have not really done since the 1980s when mucking around with D&D module X1 The Isle of Dread. Key elements that were important to the original West Marches campaign include:

1) There was no regular time: every session was scheduled by the players on the fly.

2) There was no regular party: each game had different players drawn from a pool of around 10-14 people.

3) There was no regular plot: The players decided where to go and what to do. It was a sandbox game in the sense that’s now used to describe video games like Grand Theft Auto, minus the missions. There was no mysterious old man sending them on quests. No overarching plot, just an overarching environment.

This stack exchange post expands on the implications are bit further:

  1. Sessions begin and end at the home base.
  2. The players decide where they are going before the session starts.
  3. Session reports are shared.
  4. The world map is shared, and may be unreliable.
  5. Competition between players is encouraged.
  6. Content is loosely tiered – distance from base rather than depth in the megadungeon.

I think one of the key points here, is that a chunk of the campaign work which is usually done by the GM, needs to be done by the players. The players also need to be a bit focused on their goals. For the GM, the key task will be in keeping the session self-contained, rather than ending with a cliffhanger or submerged in a mire. This means three clue mysteries and five room dungeons, not the Mines of Moria or the Masks of Nyarlathotep. There is still a lot of work for the GM to do in terms of fleshing out what each hex of the hex crawl actually contains.

System wise, I think the game engine needs to be simple so it has fast procedural resolution, and not require the PCs to be interlocking in an unchangeable way. A lightweight version of d100 or an OSR system would be a good fit. If I were being bold, I might try Conan 2d20.

Then there is the issue of getting a pool of 10+ players interested in the concept and able to tolerate the metagame elements (e.g. not getting invited on an expedition you wanted to do, missing out on your chance to secure the Head of Vecna), as I do not have strong ties to as many gamers as I did back in my university days.

DarkSun.Dragon

…of the Dark Sun

As much as I like the idea of Dark Sun, I have to confess to never having played it. When it was first released I did not have the money to buy it, and later on I was simply not interested in running an AD&D game. But the mix of godless post-apocalyptic fantasy, planetary romance, swords and sorcery, and the Dark Sun twist on magic causing environmental pollution is a blend I keep coming back to. There is just something about a devastated landscape, where civilisation survives in a small number of oppressive city-states ruled by immortal sorcerer-kings (and Queens), that appeals to me. Unlike other D&D settings, psionic powers were common. It also had subversions of the usual fantasy race cliches: halflings were cannibals, dwarves were (usually) slaves, and elves were desert raiders. One criticism it had back in the day was the meta-plot focus on the ascension plans of the sorcerer’s. A feature of the setting, is that a lot of the choices are bad, and PCs are more likely to be amoral and survival focused as opposed to lawful good do-gooders.

So I think the challenges in the setting from a design point of view are:

  1. What do the PCs do in a setting, where tyranny can be found on every street corner, and points of light are few and far between?
  2. What is the price of magic?
  3. How grimdark will the setting will be?
  4. How to handle psionic powers for the PCs, and how are these psychic powers different from magic?

One potential answer for (1) is to have the PCs as specialists in salvaging useful stuff from the wastelands. For example, if the cities have surviving magitek from the lost Golden Age, then people who can find spare parts and batteries, have a socially useful role, and as a game you can follow dungeon crawl procedures and have a good time. Some kind of Vril technology or similar also fits within the planetary romance genre, and for one city state to have a monopoly on flying machines would make them a powerful foe. Another answer is to have the PCs as agents of resistance groups struggling to make the world a better place, which is a hard job when the reigning tyrants oppose change – the KGB and Gestapo never had access to telepathy and Charm Person spells.

I have a few answers for (2). One is to adapt the “defiling” magic of Dark Sun and diversify it a little, but staying within a general theory of magical power being derived from bleeding off the energy created by rapidly accelerating entropy. So you have “Rot Mages” who accelerate decay of vegetation, “Blight Mages” who cause cancer and disease in living creatures, “Coin Mages” who cause metal to corrode into dust, and “Degenerate Mages” who use energy gained by mutating their own bodies. A second answer I came up with is to say that in the broken world, using magic acts as a call or lure to eldritch monsters and latent curses left over from the cataclysm. The more you use it, the greater the chance of summoning a random horror that will try and eat your brain. A third possibility, is to build on the godless nature of the setting by having a cataclysm that destroyed both heaven and hell, and mages now exploit all the homeless angels by binding them into service with false faith and spilled blood.

Dark-Sun-Defiler

The degree of grimdark (3) is something to discuss with potential players. Dark Sun was a high lethality setting, with blood being spilled by gladiators on the arena sands, slavery in most of the cities, a backstory that featured explicit attempts at genocide, and a strong possibility of bloodthirsty witch hunts if the slightest hint of someone using defiling magic turned up. I think everyone needs to be comfortable with the premise that life is cheap, and a lot of aspiring heroes perish in the wastelands or dungeons of the sorcerer tyrants. Adapting an idea from Tomb of Annihilation, resurrection could be explicitly impossible. Perhaps the cultural norm is to burn the dead to prevent zombies and worse things in a world where there is no afterlife or place for souls to go to after death. I did have an idea that one use for the d100 Passion mechanic could be for testing whether your PC returns as a single purpose revenant for one final death ride of an adventure.

Psionic power is a feature of the Dark Sun setting that never really came up in my teenage AD&D games, although they did feature in the Traveller campaign I played in at university. Psionics are definitely different from magic, in that there are no defiling side effects. So, how exactly do psionic powers differ from other forms of magic?

Are psionic powers more “scientific” than the “fantastical” magic? This might reflect the serious research interest that concepts like “remote viewing” attracted in the 1960s and 70s, but which are now clearly discredited (although you might say that’s exactly what the Illuminati want me to think). It also reflects the influence of John Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, who coined the term psionics and encouraged its use in science fiction stories.

You might think a rational power like psionics could be learned, but in fiction its often the reverse – the apprentice can learn magic from the ancient grimoires, but psionics, you either got it or you don’t. Traveller let you learn psionics, but you had to find one of the hidden institutes first. In Luther Arkwright, you had to roll 58-59 on 1d100 when determining your PC’s distinctive trait to be eligible for psionic powers.

Are psionic powers powered purely from within, unlike “divine” magic or other forms of tapping external energy? The classic tells in visual media of psychics include nosebleeds and the fingers tapping on the forehead. What happens when you run out of psionic power? Does your head explode, or do you just fade out into unconsciousness? Can you permanently lose your psionic powers from overexertion? What about psychic vampires?

Are psionic powers intangible, unlike the tangible effects of magic? In fiction, psionic power is often “information magic”, such as Clairvoyance, Precognition, Retrocognition, Telepathy, and empathy. Where it can cross the grimdark line is when it crosses the line into mental attacks and forms of mental compulsion. That feels much more like it should be a signature power of the tyrants ruling society, not the heroes fighting against them. One way of handling psionic powers might be framing them as investigative tools as in a GUMSHOE game. The other main forms of psionic powers I see in fiction are the ability to manipulate energy and physical objects (like the Jedi do) and to passively boost survival chances.

Is magic the domain of old professors of lore, while psionics is the realm of teenagers used in illicit military experiments? Is psionic power something you age out of? Traveller took that approach, in that the older you were when you learned psionics, the weaker your psionic strength was. Is it a feature of being a more “evolved” species? Can you find “psionic items” the same way you find “magic items”? The science/fantasy split suggests a psionic item is more advanced technology than a magic item would be, for example, a pistol versus a sword.

Going back to the Dark Sun setting inspiration, I think I might package psionics and magic along these lines:

  • psionic powers rely on using internal power sources, i.e. from within yourself.
  • magic powers rely on using external power sources, i.e. exploiting energies associated with places, entities, sacred times, rituals, etc.
  • I would allocate all forms of mental compulsion to magic, and make domination of others one of the signature feats of evil sorcerers. But one option for psionic power might be greater resistance to “charm person” spells.
  • I would restrict most use of psionic powers to the person using them, or perhaps with a heavy restriction, e.g. if you can heal others, you cannot heal yourself, and the healing process may harm you.
  • I am okay with allowing both magic and psionic powers to be developed through training.
  • the key risk of psionics is overexertion and burn out, the key risk of magic is loss of control over the forces you have summoned. A bad day for a psychic might involve a splitting headache, where a bad day for a sorcerer involves setting a forest on fire.
  • this leads to a conclusion that psionics and magic need different resource management systems within the broader game system. The psionic power user is limited by their personal power, while the sorcerer is only limited by how much harm they are willing to inflict on their local environment.

An unrelated idea I have been kicking around, based in part on 13th Age, is the idea of escalation. If casting spells before combat buffs characters so they have an asymmetric advantage for a surprise attack, I think in play you get players wanting to spend a lot of time on planning and maneuver before committing to action. This gets worse if ritual magic that takes long casting times is a feature of your magic system. So an alternative approach is to have the use of magic powers makes subsequent magic use by anyone in the vicinity more powerful as the dimensional barriers are broken down, then its a bit easier for the players to get their PCs to jump in and worry about the buff spell later on.

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The Ruin of Angels (potential spoilers)

The Craft Sequence features a world of post-industrial magic, after a war between Gods and Sorcerers, which the Gods lost. The books often address contemporary social issues through a fantasy lens, like social inequality and the 1%. In The Ruin of Angels, Alikand is an occupied city which has been badly damaged in the war – not just people and buildings, but the fabric of reality itself. Alikand is a place where just turning the corner and looking the wrong way can induce a SAN check, or see you fall through a gap into a version of the city where the war is still being fought between the Gods and Sorcerers. This is a bit like the trope for layered worlds. This is appealing from a game design view, because you can pack more ideas into one location in the game. In Alikand, one of the activities done by the people resisting the occupation is to deliberately venture into the lethal war dimension, in order to salvage books that no longer exist in the real world. I feel this could fit well with the city-state ruled by sorcerer-tyrant element of the Dark Sun setting.

So there is some potential here for a West Marches campaign that is based around Urban hex crawls. You have the city of oppression, which is a “safe” home base, because it won’t make you go insane or be devoured by extra-dimensional monsters. But just a hop, skip, and jump through the mirror is an adjacent dimension with locations that map to familiar places, but which are filled with hazards and monsters. Survive to leave with your loot, and then you can try dodging the secret police squads trying to crack down on relic smuggling.

One way of integrating psionics with the layered world approach, is to tie the different strands of psionic powers to different dimensions that adjoin the city. I’ll admit some influence here from the “warrens” of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The flavour of each set of psionic powers is determined by the dimension layer(s) a psychic is attuned to the right wavelengths for, or some other kind of fluff. So a PC with psionic powers tied to a water filled dimension might be able to avoid dehydration for an extended period of time.

…and that’s enough for tonight.

 


Coriolis with Night’s Black Agents

July 9, 2018

I am running a game of Night’s Black Agents (NBA) in the Coriolis setting. Now that we have half-a-dozen sessions completed, and the basic outline of the Vampires and their conspiracy is known to the players, I think I can post a bit of information about the campaign.

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Night’s Black Agents is a GUMSHOE engine game published by Pelgrane Press with a default setting of secret agents hunting vampires and vampire minions in the modern world. The characters are expected to be competent on par with James Bond and Jason Bourne, but are operating independently of any agency they used to be a member of. The GUMSHOE engine’s core mechanic is to roll a d6, spending points from a pool to boost your chance of success. Points only refresh fully between “operations” with some limited options in play to refresh some points. Investigative abilities work differently – they always succeed, but you can spend points for extra effect. For example, when one of my players went to examine the records at the Prayer Temples on Algol, hoping to track down information on a priest of the Order of Martyrs that no one has seen in almost 50 years, just using Bureaucracy is enough to find the core clue that leads the party closer to their goal, but spending two points meant he got the information in a few hours rather than it taking two full days in dusty archives.

Other things I quite like in NBA include:

  • spending points to just make shit up when you need it: Cover to get new IDs, Network to get reliable NPC help, Preparedness to make sure you packed the rocket launcher when the villain flees in their helicopet
  • MOS – pick a specific ability for an auto success once per session
  • Thriller chase rules – not too complicated, not too simple, they hit the Goldilocks spot for me
  • Heat – a system for tracking how much legal trouble the players are in
  • Conspiracy pyramid – a way of fleshing out the opposition, from street level, to city leaders, to the core leadership
  • Conspiracy reactions – as the players work their way up the conspiracy pyramid, the GM has a set of tools to inspire the conspiracy’s reactions, from bribing the PCs to stop, to assassinating their loved ones and burning their Solace down, to the dread lord Iblis waking to deal with them personally.
  • Our vampires are different – lots of options for customising the vampires to your campaign, and working out what can Block them, what the Dread, and what their Banes are.

NBA is based on the assumption that vampires are evil. There are no good vampires, and no real support for vampire PCs. I like this.

Coriolis is something I backed on Kickstarter in 2016, and is Published by Free League. Like a lot of Swedish games, it has astounding art production values compared to the games I grew up on in the 1980s. The standard game engine is a dice pool system, with a mix of skills, talents, and gear, and the standard mode of play is to assume “have spaceship, will travel”. Where it gets different from the other sci-fi rpg settings is the infusion of religion throughout the setting and game system. Want to reroll? Pray to the Icons, give the GM a Darkness Point, and roll the die. With the Arabic themes, the religion has a lot of the tone from the Abrahamic religions of Earth-That-Was, but the Icons are more of a syncretic Polytheism that can change from world to world.

Coriolis-KS-2

I found enough detail in the available material to quickly flesh out factions, NPCs and local intrigues, but also lots of room for me to just plonk things down as I saw fit. In play I found the deck of Icon cards to be a useful mechanic. When I want a scene complication or a guide to NPC reaction, I draw a card and see what it suggests to me. One attraction to Coriolis is that its not too big a setting, unlike say Traveller’s Third Imperium with its thousands of worlds. If you look at the map below you will see that the travel routes all pass through a handful of key hubs in a few big loops or chains. Depending on PC actions, I am expecting them to spend a lot of time on half-a-dozen locations, and to largely pass through other systems fairly quickly.

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My campaign pitch was along these lines: “It is hunting vampires in space, in a setting that is like Firefly meets 1001 Arabian Nights. I promise you will get to fight the big bad, I do not promise that you will survive the fight.” After some discussion on the mode of play, we agreed to play a high trust game and not use the betrayal rules. I also promised as GM to use Darkness Points (see below) to make scenes more interesting or complicated, not just to increase the damage the PCs were going to take.

My reason for using NBA rather than the Coriolis game engine was twofold. First, I wanted to run a focused game, that had a definite goal, which when reached would see the campaign wrap up. My standard GM practice has been to run open-ended campaigns that last around three years, but I am not getting any younger, and I have a lot of game systems/settings I want to try out. The second reason was that NBA looked like a good system for me to run for a game focused on hunting bad monsters. I have run investigative games in the past (Call of Cthulhu) and I appreciated the GUMSHOE philosophy of making clue gathering straightforward so the game can move on to the next chase or confrontation scene. In play I enjoy saying “If you do not have enough information to make a decision, you need to go gather more information”.

I did make some modifications to the game engines

  • Darkness Points were kept from Coriolis. One way in which Coriolis makes space travel dangerous is that you always gain Darkness Points when you jump between star systems, or if you travel out to the Deep Dark in a solar system.
  • Mystic powers were taken from Coriolis and adapted to GUMSHOE. A player with mystic power gets one ability with their first mysticism rating point, and a second ability if they reach an eight point rating.
  • Cybernetic equipment is treated as a GUMSHOE “special power” that costs five experience points to buy (plus some game world money), but the cost by can be discounted by 3-5 points by taking on complications.
  • Armour was adapted from Coriolis, and is generally worth 1-3 points of protection, but advanced suits get more customisation options. Because Cybernetic Armour can stack with worn armour, I made a specific rule that a PCs Athletics rating is divided by their points of Cybernetic Armour for determing if they are eligible for the “cherry” benefits of Athletics 8+ (the actual Athletics Pool is unchanged).
  • Coriolis has a lot of weapon options, where NBA keeps things to 1d6 damage +/-2 on the damage roll (plus a lot of options for thriller combat tactics). I decided to keep the +/-2 damage cap, but to give some weapons the Boon/Bane feature, where 2d6 are rolled and either the best die (Boon) or worst die (Bane) are kept. Everything else was fairly straightforward, although I have made auto fire Thermal weapons extremely lethal. If a Thermal weapon hits two targets in its arc of fire, the user gets a free bonus attack against all other targets in the arc. All targets means all, other PCs, innocent NPCs, fuel tanks, macguffins, etc, the Thermal weapon hits everything.

You will find more detail on the hacks in this Dropbox File.

Coriolis-KS-5

While I also used some material from Ashen Stars, a version of GUMSHOE for sci-fi adventures in a post-post-scarcity universe, I found when working through its rules that it was just a bit too weird to adapt easily. Too much of the game was specific to the Ashen Stars universe, and required a translation step for use in the Coriolis setting. Having made one use of its ship combat system, I am not sure it actually works in terms of posing a threat to the PCs unless I make very high bids from the NPCs, and in future I might use the NBA chase rules more often. Because I think the tone of the campaign should see the PCs running away from Stealth Cruisers.

Session Zero was a bit cliched. The PCs woke up early from suspended animation aboard the Blue Danube, with a couple of months of memories missing. They disabled the medical robot that tried to sedate them, and explored the ship. Through a glass window they get to see a cloud of black smoke killing hapless people in a cargo bay. At this stage, rather than focusing on escape, the PCs worked their way to the bridge, eliminated some mooks and investigated. In the background I kept a lock counting down. So the vampire attacked them while they were climbing down a ladder shaft. The players shot their weapons at it enough to make it run into smoke, but not before one was bitten. In this campaign, a vampire bite will trigger latent mystic powers. Making it down to the Shuttle deck, the PCs tried fighting their way past bodyguards armed with Vulcan auto weapons, with the regenerating reforming vampire coming up from behind. This was a hard fight, with more than one player on negative health by the time they escaped on the shuttle, and a second PC getting bitten.

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From here the PCs were able to hide in a sargasso of wrecked space ships, and salvage one they could escape the system from. My goals in session zero were to give the players a reason to be together and to gel together, and to demonstrate that without knowledge of the vampires, mere application of firepower is insufficient to “solve” the central problem of the campaign (the mystery of why latent mystics are being shipped en mass to a system filled with space wrecks, which as the PCs have found, includes them).

One thing I asked for from the players, was a unique origin story for each PC. This was to provide at least five starting locations for the campaign where the PCs would absolutely most definitely find some clues about the vampire conspiracy.

So after jumping through the closed Menkar gate, getting blamed for the destruction of the science ship Light of Babylon, and stopping at Sadaal long enough to get false papers, the party headed for Nargar. One of the PCs had been involved with a colony placed near a dead alien structure. Shades of Aliens. Not a lot happened here – much careful sneaking around – but the party did meet Jumuna, a Draconite Knight converted by the vampires, but also romantically connected to a PC. Unsure of their ground, the party chose flight over combat.

Algol is where the PCs currently are. They went there to follow another PC origin story, which involved a tale of a vampire hunting priest. The hope is they will pick up information on vampire vulnerabilities or ways of defending themselves against them. So far they have sold “agricultural machinery” to rebels, visited the important temples and nightclubs, but also contacted a djinn who is willing to help them if they can save Ezekiel Wrath, the priest they are looking for, from an assassination attempt that will take place during the next major Demon Star eclipse (now only two days away). The big reveal from the Djinn is that the vampires are Shaitan, children of Iblis, who in Islamic mythology was either a fallen angel or a fallen djinn. Where humans are made from clay, djinn are made from the flame of the fire, Angels from the light of creation, and Shaitan from the smoke of the fire. One PC survived a terror attack from rebels armed with the guns they sold them earlier in the day.

Feedback from the players on the campaign so far has been positive. We are all enjoying the change of pace from our last campaign using Runequest 6. The system is something we are still learning in play, in some cases we have to unlearn reflexes from more traditional games. We spent too much time sneaking on Nagar, when I could have said “the base is empty of life, tell me how you investigate it”. Anyhow, can’t wait for the next game, as we left it on a cliffhanger with a Courtesan pointing a pistol at a PC who had woken from a mystic experience while in a VR proxy tape booth that put him through the experience of being decapitated by a vampire.


Four Megagame Concepts

June 8, 2018

In this post I will outline concepts for four different Megagames that I might be spending some time on turning into fully developed games over the next 18 months or so. Feedback is most welcome.

1389442808118Watch the Skies: Dragons

This would be a fantasy hack of Watch the Skies, replacing Alien UFO attacks with Dragon attacks. The political scenario for the teams worried about Dragon attacks would be complicated by the adding a Dark Lady who is in the middle of an attempt to conquer and enslave the free world.

I expect the main game roles would convert as follows:

  1. The Scientist becomes a Sorcerer, and takes blood and bone from various slain monsters, plus lore rescued from dungeons, and uses that to research spells (because any sufficiently advanced technology resembles magic).
  2. The United Nations becomes the Grand Council, where the Elves, Dwarves, Free Men, etc all debate how to resist the Dark Lady, what should be done about the Dragon menace, and whether or not inconvenient bits of jewelry should be disposed of in far off volcanoes.
  3. Team leaders remain team leaders, but with more feudal titles and a fear of peasant uprisings. As with WTS, if there are a lot of players, then the espionage function can be taken over by another player.
  4. Military leaders have a dual role that could be split between two players. One role focus is on military operations with armies against the Dark Lady. The other role is focused on individual Hero characters challenging Dragons to fights, exploring dungeons for relics and lore, etc. To keep game play fast, two maps might be needed (and its established in fantasy that large armies find it impossible to find small bands of individuals bearing inconvenient jewelry).
  5. A merchant role focused on trade and the economy could be added, but is not essential.

The teams and other game elements would all be based on easy to recognise fantasy tropes, rather than any specific intellectual property. Possible teams include:

  1. The Elves
  2. The Dwarves
  3. The Crusaders
  4. The Fanatic Caliphates
  5. The Wandering Northmen
  6. The Vestigial Empire
  7. The Horse People.

main-qimg-2e8c75308a30514c28e19b94accd4dd1-cColossus of Atlantis III

My take on ancient Atlantis features giant robots, monsters, rival empires, and ever increasing DOOM threatening to sink Atlantis. Its been run a few times now, and with that experience (plus additional research on ancient Greece and modern boardgames about the Peloponnesian War) there are some significant changes I want to make.

  1. Better maps: I want to move away from abstract maps and make some useful game maps of the city of Atlantis, and the colonial regions of Libya, Asia, and Europa.
  2. More streamlined play: the current version of the game has too many resources (Talents, Cogs, Doom, Vril, Orichalcum, Cities, Armies, Fleets, Colossi) that do too many things and can be simplified. I think combat and monster hunting can also be refined into a card draw system that hides mechanics “under the hood”.
  3. Less is more: an overall reduction in the game components, and placing more emphasis on player driven creative injects into the game (e.g. players describe the Great Wonder they are building, Control then assigns cost and determines game effect from construction).
  4. Using the city map of Atlantis to allow for civil strife to be played out. Rather than moving units around city blocks (like the JUNTA boardgame) I think a drafting mechanism with cards and a large dose of uncertainty is the way to handle coup attempts. It also allows us to have the titular Colossus of Atlantis as a combat unit in the game.
  5. Changing how the factions and Councils work. The approach I want to try is for everyone to have ties to more than one faction, forcing some hard choices about ultimate allegiances in the endgame. Rather than having all players resolve map actions, then team time, then council actions, and then assembly votes (which takes a long time), the game structure will involve more parallel processing, e.g. you can choose to do one of managing your colony, leading an Atlantean army against a threat, monster hunting, or voting in council politics.
    1. One way of doing this may be to have each map elect a Council representative (or two). While being on Council gets you access to the levers of power in Altantis, it means your colonies are not being managed effectively.
    2. The big assemblies where changes are made to the “constitution” of Atlantis would only happen a few times in the game, rather than every turn.
    3. Big projects would be more of a case of the players describing what they want, and Control adjudicating.
    4. Adding a significant trading game – Atlantis needs grain from the colonies, otherwise there will be riots! Atlantis has “cash”, while the colonies have “resources”.
  6. Factions that the game could have include:
    1. Amazons (for the female players, supporting female emancipation and equal citizenship rights).
    2. Medes (a team that supports foreign intervention in Atlantis)
    3. Aristocrats (a team that supports the status quo of a weak High King of Atlantis, limited citizenship rights, and no votes for women)
    4. Monarchists (a team that supports a strong High King of Atlantis)
    5. Tyrants (a team supporting a strong military dominated or Spartan style government)
    6. Oligarchs (a team that supports reforming Atlantis to favour political participation of the wealthy)
    7. Democrats (a team that supports popular rule by male citizens)
    8. Telchines (a team supporting radical change through sorcery and technology)
    9. Cultists (a team dedicated to drowning Atlantis).

Draft-Map1The Reaching Moon

This would be a high fantasy scenario set in the Glorantha world originally designed by Greg Stafford, as represented in one the enduring roleplaying games from the 1970s, Runequest. I believe that a not-for-profit game would be okay under Chaosium’s fan permissions, but I would have to contact Chaosium for explicit authority before spending a lot of time on designing the game.

The big pro for using Glorantha is the incredibly rich detail of the setting.

The big con against using Glorantha is the incredibly rich detail of the setting.

I am still working my way through the PDF of the new Runequest rules that dropped last week, but I think a basic premise for the game would be setting it in the Kingdom of Tarsh, a client state of the Lunar Empire, which is the scene of a civil war with multiple factions. This would take place in the new advanced timeline, where the Dragonrise event and the liberation of Pavis and Prax from Lunar occupation has weakened the formerly dominant Lunar Empire.

The trick here will be in squaring the circle of a conflict with armies, in which individual heroes can be more powerful (with magic from otherworld mythic quests) than entire army regiments. Both need to be important, along with some logistic considerations and the intense diplomacy between all of the religious cults and political factions.

jc-mars1Mars 1938 (or The Queen of Mars)

The idea is inspired by the planetary romance genre, typified by the John carter “Barsoom” pulp novels, and in particular the roleplaying games Space 1889 and Rocket Age, which took the tropes of that genre and added steampunk and 1930s politics respectively. Old Mars is usually portrayed with a breathable atmosphere, but with a dying landscape littered in ancient ruins. This is the Mars of our imaginations, before the scientific probes of the 1960s revealed just how hostile and lifeless the planet is.

The key elements of this genre are Earth as a centre of technology and colonialism, with Mars as the exotic locale filled with hostile tribes and decadent monarchies (standing in for Africa and Asia). The pulp novels largely focus on individual male heroes and the exotic women that they meet and fall in love with. Swords are used a lot instead of modern weapons. For a megagame though, the enduring subject is going to be the encounter of alien civilisations, the difficulties in communicating, and the disasters that follow from misunderstandings.

One of the historical touchstones for the scenario would be the events associated with the Spanish Civil War, with its clash of ideologies (fascists, communists, socialists, anarchists, monarchists, Catholics, and regional independence movements) and foreign intervention (the international brigades, the Condor legion, League of Nation sanctions, etc). The other historical reference would be the relationship between China and other nations during its transition from Empire to Republic and collapse into Warlordism in the 1920s. This saw several wars (both with China and between the colonial powers), corruption influenced by the opium trade, secret societies, unequal treaties, palace politics, heroic sieges, rebellions, coups … all good stuff for megagames.

A note: if its the 1930s then there are Nazis, and in 1938 Adolf Hitler was Time magazine’s man of the year and not a contender for worst monster in history. I would be very explicit in the player briefing that no Nazi uniforms or insignia are to be worn in the game.

My first concept for turning this into a megagame is to focus on one large Martian empire, its internal factions, and the Terrestrial Powers. There can be a Indiana Jones minigame of rescue archaeology and ancient relics. The main game is then divided into three parts:

  1. The first stage of the game is the competition phase with three major components:
    1. The terrestrial powers are trying to gain ideological adherents among the Martian factions, and other goals such as more land, permission for missionaries, open trade agreements, arms sales, etc.
    2. The Martian Queen is attempting to introduce a constitution that can create a modern state system that can preserve Martian independence and the monarchy.
    3. The Martian factions are trying to influence the constitutions towards their own interests (like a game of Credo where Church factions argue at the Council of Nicaea), gain support from the pesky humans without alienating supporters, and gain control of recruits and weapons.
  2. The second stage of the game is the coup phase. This is when factions unhappy with the outcome of the first stage can stage uprisings and coups. This phase will be short and brutal.
    1. This is when we test for assassination – players that have betrayed their principles being more likely to be torn apart in mob violence. Player briefings would be upfront about the risk of character elimination (“Its like A Game of Thrones, on Old Mars”).
    2. The faction that does the best in stage one will control the Martian capital and likely be in the best position for the next stage of the game.
    3. At this point in time we break for lunch, assign new characters to anyone who has been assassinated, and set up the map for the next stage.
  3. The third stage of the game is the conflict phase. This is when we fight out the civil war, and see if any of the factions can achieve a military victory, or if a negotiated settlement occurs. The political actions from stage one will continue, allowing players to do special actions like opening the city gates in the middle of a siege, trigger peasant uprisings, or escape into a luxurious exile.

This was the most popular idea in the player poll at Wellycon, and its definitely the one that most captured my imagination this week.


After Action Report – WTS: Cold War

June 4, 2018

On Saturday 2 June, Wellycon hosted its second Megagame. This year the Wellington Megagame Collective ran a Cold War adaptation of Jim Wallman’s Watch the Skies game. This report is written from my perspective as overall Megagame control.

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Reactor meltdown in the Islamic Republics. Purple meeples are refugees. The poor refugees were kidnapped and gifted to the aliens. Alien “saucers” have landed everywhere – the black wooden blocks are their mission tokens.

Highlights

It was definitely an improvement on my past practice of doing almost all of the Megagame preparatory work myself, and instead having the tasks shared over a wider group of people at an earlier stage of development.

I spent a lot of time on the map, and I think it came out well, but could have been better. It is good to finally find a print shop that handle my weird requests. If I had a better idea of the table size I would have cut the map size down a bit. The map got a bit cramped in Europe – which had more detail than most WTS maps in order to reflect the Cold War geography.

Personal best moment for me was the Non-aligned Movement SOF team making first contact with a Medusan Jellyfish leader in Brazil, where the meeting ended with reciprocal xenophage (the humans ate an alien, and the aliens ate a human). This then became the pattern of human-alien interactions, which made the alien visit to the United Nations exciting (I had to interject a new rule “No eating Control”).

I quite enjoyed the spawning alien units at their undersea bases. While the Aliens did spread their crabs out to increase spawn, they did not reach the truly terrifying potential of matching a Magnificent drone (d12 unit) with a Queen, and spawning a vast horde. As it turned out a combination of tactical nuclear weapon depth charges and massed fleets was able to curb the death ray armed panzer crabs.

Listening to player stories in the pub later on was also a highlight.

Oddly enough the Cuban missile crisis just popped out in 1962 (first turn) just the way player actions and card choices worked.

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The USA-USSR standoff in Cuba was resolved diplomatically.

Problems

Attempts to playtest new mechanics failed. This is something the Collective needs to get better at, and in the long term I would like us to get a state where games are playtested long before we are making the commitment to run them.

Late registrations meant that two weeks prior to the game being run we were uncertain if we actually had the minimum numbers. It is going to be difficult to run Megagames independently of host conventions unless we can secure player registration that makes us confident that we can afford to pay for the venue hire. For host conventions, player registration is essential for confirming our space. Due to increased attendance at Wellycon, we only had half the space we had the year before. If another ten players had turned up, we would have been crowded (and the USSR would have had to share its space with another team table).

It also turned out that both players who said they were bringing +3 guests, were bringing the same set of people – so eight registrations turned into just four registrations. Probably the best way forward here, is to see if we can have an additional charge of $5-10 for when we are at events like this, as that transaction tends to reveal actual commitment.

Late registration also delays casting and team selection, which increases the difficulty of getting briefs to players. It was only after the game was run that I figured out I could customise Meetup.com to send emails to subsets of the attendees rather than spamming everyone.

We only had one media player. Alan did a herculean task in staying on top of everything and then giving a relatively good overview to everyone each turn. Better control over registrations, and more registrations early on will let us add more players to this role.

How did the Cold War adaptations work?

Special actions – players sat on some of these cards because they targeted too much pain at their own nation. I eventually decided to let players sell cards back to me a Resource Point each. In hindsight, I should have made a custom deck for each human team, where all of the actions made more sense for them to play. The Alien special action cards worked well.

UN – Control made it simpler than I had written it up and let the players talk.

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The Medusan Leader addresses the United Nations. “You eat! We eat!”

Military operations – this was the part of the game that took the longest to resolve. The Arms race (building units) could have been handled elsewhere (perhaps an action during team planning). The Logistics (movement phase) took a while because people built a lot of small units. Decision to not charge RPs to move made sense in a one year timescale and I am glad we did not have to figure that out midgame. The human interceptor game did not work out well – it took until the middle of the game for everyone to fully understand how it worked. One bit of feedback in the pub was that this section of the rules would have really benefited from a short explainer video. The aliens managed several 50+ terror turns and got more tech cards than all the human teams combined. This was also in part due to basing restrictions – the aliens were smart enough not to attack regions where everyone could intercept. I did internationalise a UK base towards the end of the game, but I think player actions disabled it fairly quickly.

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South America got hit hard by the Aliens.

Science – lack of alien tech meant most of the funky 60s tech never got finished. The Space Race mechanic worked, but could have been a little faster (either one less space on the track, or double the spaces and faster movement for everyone to feel a sense of progress). There were good Nobel prize awards (France for agriculture – research on Alien Foods). The Doomsday Clock could have had a little more mechanical heft, but it gave the media something to talk about, and helped some Control injects early in the game. The Aliens did so well they ran short of tech cards, and compounding the shortage was an insufficient number of a couple of key card types to finish some of their tech sheets. I did add more alien technology cards via non-player UK and as a bonus for SOF operations and victory against alien ground forces.

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At least one human team got Fusion Power, but no one copied the Alien Death Rays.

DEFCON – stayed at 4-5 for most of the game. The last two turns featured several nukes and a lot of open warfare (USA invasion of France, USSR invasion of China, India, Middle East) and a lot of die rolls where a “one” meant global nuclear war. So while the USSR and USA got away with a lot of invasions in the last turn, and some some emergency +! DEFCON cards, they could have ‘lost” the game there. It was noble of France and Indo-China not to return fire.

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Information Operations – these played fast (good) but players were frustrated at not being able to directly initiate specific zone actions (luck of the draw). People did have some DEFCON cards to get around this (and seeing how static DEFCON was for most of the game I could have had more of them). Playtesting how long this mechanic took would have made it better. Stability – was a prompt for control as to where to spawn refugees and revolutionary units. That worked well enough. Influence – privilege cards for dominating continent zones also seemed to work well.

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The Influence Operation table.

Player Feedback

Enjoyment: 4.8 out of five. So despite some problems everyone had a good time.

Briefings: 3.6 out of five. Room for improvement here – I need to delegate more of the writing burden.

Difficulty: 3.7 out of five (where one is too hard and five is too easy). I prefer too easy to to hard, Control can always add a little more chaos mid-game, but its much harder to make it simpler mid-game.

Rate of Play: 3.3 out of five. Close to the sweet spot of three, and if the military operations had been faster we would have been fine.

Control: 4.7 out of five. Great job everyone!

Involvement: 4.5 out of five. I did check up on players who seemed to be off to one side of the game to see if everything was okay, and they all confirmed they were having a good time.

Value for Money: 4.7. I did get feedback that people would have happily paid a bit more. One visitor who had played WTS in the USA said we had a really great set up. The average that players said they were willing to play for a day long game was $31, for a shorter game $19.50. Preferred length of games was just under six hours (we were closer to eight hours including registration, game, lunch break, debrief, and pack up).

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Alan, the hardest working journalist in the world. Not warm hat in keeping with the Viking theme of Wellycon.

Specific Feedback Comment

I forgot to tell people there were comment boxes on the back of their feedback forms, so we got a bit less text feedback this time. My comments follow in italics.

Keep: “I love the interactions between all the teams and how it was both individual and collaborative.”

Stop: “Nothing.”

Start: “Tighter turnarounds.”

Keep: “The real-world parts! Really cool to resolve the China/Cuban/etc crises.”

Stop: “The UN felt very disconnected from the rest of the game – maybe there’s a way to integrate it more.” Control was taking stuff that happened on the main map over to the UN table, and vice versa. There were a few important treaties too, especially the detente between the USA and USSR. 

Start: “More coming together during the game so everyone could be up to date on what happened.” A key part of how Megagames are different from boardgames is in not knowing everything that is happening, and finding your negotiations/map action have been overtaken by events elsewhere.

Keep: “Science track worked pretty well, would like to see more of that format.”

Start: “More media presence. I feel Alan was a bit stretched with being the only media person.” Agreed, there was no one else to cover the news of his assassination by Soviet agents.

Keep: “The ability to discuss outside the box ideas/turns with Control and their willingness to include them.” I think a key enabler for this, is to keep the overall game engine as simple as possible.

Start: “Control introducing events that change the nature of the game in interesting ways.” I prefer that players drive the game events. This avoids a sense of rail roading. We did do a few things, such as telling one of the French players that there was ancient alien technology inside him, and telling the aliens that the “cosmic seed” they were looking for was on Earth. If we had another completed another turn, these could have escalated the narrative.

Keep: “Combat system.” Well I am glad someone liked it!

Keep: “Open movement between tables except where thematic.” The USSR did try to persuade a couple of key players to a meeting behind the Iron Curtain, just before the USA-USSR combined offensive to purge Earth of alien clients, with a view to detaining the players. Wisely, they declined.

Keep: “Distinct roles.”

Start: “More distinct team leader role.” By not having a lot of mechanical levers to push, the team leader has time for the diplomacy game, and also time to be creative and take proposals for special actions to Control.

Keep: “In general it was excellent. All the mechanics that I saw were straightforward. the timing felt right.” A pub comment from the Soviet leader along the lines that every time he felt things were starting to drag, bing, that is when Control rolled the next turn forward.

Stop: “I felt that the unitary global terror index was a problem. Having all the global governments falling essentially due to actions solely in South America was unsatisfying.” There was a feedback loop from global Terror to zone stability – we reduced stability in the zones where the aliens were most active. The issue with local terror indexes, is that we might be eliminating individual team governments very early in the game. The USSR and USA are also global powers, with global interests.

Start: “Split global Terror per region.” See comment above.

Keep: “Egg-timers/limited time for wibbling.”

Keep: “teams.”

Stop: “All or nothing combat”. The combat was intended to encompass action over an entire year of real time. Army strength formations tend to suffer about 1% losses per day action. But the real reason was to KISS (Keep it simple). Something that would have followed the USA and USSR invasions if we had another turn was the uprising of revolutionary units in the regions they had occupied.

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Rolling the combat dice

Keep: “Nobel prize type nominations and scientific bragging.”

Stop: “No complaints.”

Start: “A little more involvement in strategy from science.”

Keep: “Influence [operations] area was super fun but a little less randomness on outcome would be great.” Because of the lack of playtesting, I built the outcome resolution for speed.

Stop: “Not stop, but the military role was clearly the hardest and the most time consuming. A way to lessen this slightly would be great.” Early briefings, video explainers, an extra Control body to help processing, and moving some functions elsewhere could all happen in a re-run of the game.

Start: “A more detailed combat rule set.” The problem with longer rules is getting people to read them. Short video clips is probably the way to communicate with the modern audience.

Keep: “Creative ideas.”

Start: “Communicating through email the roles (we didn’t realise until we arrived that we could have done more to dress up). More exciting happenings from Control.”

Thank you to everyone who provided feedback. We really appreciate it, and we hope we can use it to make future games better.

What next for the Wellington Collective?

First we have a well deserved rest from our small part in New Zealand’s largest gaming convention. We polled people on what game we should run next. First, the most unpopular designs were:

  1. Operation Unthinkable (USA+UK+allies versus USSR in July 1945)
  2. Shape of Things to Come (WWII as imagined by H. G. Wells)
  3. Invasion 2050 (a future war between Australia and New Zealand)
  4. Aquila Rift (tactical Space Pirates).

I am a little sad that the idea I had done the most preliminary research on (Operation Unthinkable) was the least popular, but I will just park it for the future.

The most popular designs were:

  1. Mars 1938 (A planetary romance on Old Mars, with Nazis)
  2. The Reaching Moon (high-fantasy in Glorantha)
  3. Colossus of Atlantis (giant robots in a doomed Atlantis)
  4. Watch the Skies: Dragons (a fantasy take on WTS, with Elves, Dwarves, Humans, a Dark Lady, and Dragon attacks to abduct princes and royal treasuries).

A will do a subsequent post offering a longer treatment of the four most popular ideas.


Hacking Watch the Skies

May 9, 2018

For its first Megagame, the Wellington Megagame Collective is adapting Jim Wallman’s Watch the Skies (WTS) game to a Cold War setting (WTS:CW). The game will be run at Wellycon on 2 June 2018. If you are interested in playing you can register here. Cost is $19 for the Saturday. This post explores the reasons for the changes we are making to the original WTS game in order to best fit the Cold War element.

Why hack WTS instead of just running the original game?

I can think of three reasons (1) because we can, (2) because we want to, and (3) because we need to.

One of the great things about manual games, like board games, tabletop roleplaying games and megagames, is that the mechanics are transparent to players. If you can play these games, then you understand them well enough to tweak them to your preferences. Computer games, however, tend to be black box technology that is harder to understand and hack.

In gaming, everyone builds on what has come before. There is very little that is new under the sun. Playing around and tinkering with new game concepts and the mechanics to play them is how we come up with cool new games to play.

Choosing the Cold War as a major thematic element of our game does require us to make a few necessary changes to make the game fit with the history, and some minor changes to help evoke the history of the period in the game.

Why the Cold War?

  • its an interesting period of history, lots of chrome for the UN and Science games, plus colour for the Special Action cards
  • a lot of period movies can be referenced, including a range of classic flying saucer and alien invasion movies, and the Dr Strangelove movie to capture the absurdity of mutually assured destruction
  • its an interesting design challenge – can we reproduce the mistrust and paranoia of the Cold War, give players nuclear arsenals, and reach the 1970s without nukes being used?

Choosing the starting year for WTS:CW – why 1962?

1962 is after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion (April 1961), before Cuban Missile crisis (October 1962) and the assassination of JFK (22 November 1963). Its a time when the USA is a global hegemon, but the USSR is still seen as a credible challenger, not yet undermined by corruption and stagnation. By 1962 the old Empires of Europe have largely given way to newly independent nations, but France and the UK are still global powers with bases around the world. I think its a good point in time to drop the players – there is still a lot of scope for creative moves in the great game of geopolitics.

A note on game balance – in the early 1960s the USA had almost 40% of global GDP, and its government budget was over double that of the USSR (the CIA tended to significantly overestimate USSR economic and military strength) and perhaps ten times what the UK or France had. For balance purposes, the USA will start WTS:CW with only slightly more Resource Points (RPs) than the other teams, but dominates the initial influence rankings in many zones of the globe (which gives the highest influence team access to unique privilege cards). The Non-aligned Movement (NAM) will also be a more cohesive political bloc than it was historically, representing a third way alternative to the Super Powers (which France under Charles de Gaulle is also doing to an extent). The relative weakness of the minor powers is represented by imposing a permanent budget reduction if they build the largest size of Army/Fleet units.

WTS covers roughly three months of time per game turn. For WTS:CW I decided that a time scale of one year per game turn was needed in order to encompass the full range of events in the 1960s. It also means that success for the human teams is reaching the 1970s without alien invasion or nuclear armageddon occurring. A couple of changes follow from this. First, logistics is easier. Conventional units can be redeployed wherever you have bases, at no cost in RPs. This also frees up RPs for investment in the Influence game, otherwise overall RP incomes would need to be increased. Second, Public Relations (PR) is more forgiving. PR starts at zero, and can increase to +/- 9, but moves one space towards zero each turn. If PR is positive, +1 RP is gained to budget, and if PR is negative -1 RP is lost. The 1960s was a time of economic growth, and team RP budgets will probably increase during the game.

What features help make WTS:CW a Cold War game?

First, team briefings will highlight the ideological competition and the goal of having a better PR score than your adversaries, secure bases around the globe, and high influence scores in as many zones as possible. Because USA is in number one place at the start, they are the obvious target for all of the other teams. Players should be mistrustful and suspicious of other teams – I want to evoke the fear of the “missile gap” where everyone is worried the aliens are giving military technology to the other teams. An outcome where all the human teams hold hands and sing about the age of Aquarius in order to defeat the aliens should still be possible, but not the most likely outcome.

Second, the map. First, it uses the Cahill-Keyes projection rather than the Mercator projection in an attempt to minimise distortion of the parts of the map I expect a lot of the competitive play to take place in (Africa, Middle East, and Central America). Rather than the mix of colours in the standard WTS map, NATO regions are all dark blue, and Warsaw pact regions are Red. This is a visual signal to players – trying to establish bases or do combat in an opposing alliance region is high risk and can trigger DEFCON 1. The NAM regions are in green. Otherwise each zone has all of its regions the same colour. As with the normal WTS map, postage stamp size states are omitted, and in places several small states are merged together, with a few exceptions such as the French presence in Djibouti.

Note: for WTS:CW Egypt is in both the Africa and Middle East zones, and Turkey is in both the Europe and Middle East zones. The map below is a work in progress, lacking city names and PR/RP tracks.

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The Space Race is part of the Science game. It is handled by a secret RP bid from Scientists, with the winner advancing one space towards being the first to land on the Moon. Lower bids might get an advance, depending on how far back you are from the front runner. Each time you advance you get a choice of reward (PR boost, Influence boost, or Science Credits), with the rewards increasing the further down the track you have advanced.

There only five nation teams in WTS:CW. Many states are still recovering from WWII (e.g. Germany, Japan, Italy) or do not have enough political prominence yet (e.g. Brazil) or are outcasts from the international community (South Africa). It also reflects that I am only expecting 20-30 players, so I would rather not invest time building components that do not get used.

There are two forms of combat between conventional units: regular and irregular. Regular combat is the default system, irregular combat occurs if corporate or revolutionary units are involved. In irregular combat, results are indecisive, with limited casualties (to represent quagmires like Vietnam). In regular combat, the defeated side loses all of their units. Units will be represented with dice, with three sizes of dice (12mm, 16mm and 22mm). The largest dice are rolled first. Each team has only six of the largest dice, so will need to be careful about where they place them. I was influenced in this design choice by the use of dice to represent soldiers in an American Revolution megagame at GENCON last year (see image below).

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In the Influence game will be handled by either the head of state or an intelligence minister (depending on how many players the team has). The Influence game starts with a round of drafting Influence Operation cards, followed by resolving the operations. Each player gets a hand of cards, chooses one, placing it face up in front of them along with any Agents or RPs, then passes the remaining cards on clockwise. The last card is discarded rather than passed on.

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The cards have a hardwired action and target zone (see examples above). After all cards are tabled, they are resolved in the order they were played in. For each operation card an outcome card is drawn (see examples below). For quick play, one outcome card can apply to all of the player actions in that operation phase. The card specifies a success condition for the operation. The number inside the circle is how effective the action is – for an influence action its usually +1 or +2 influence, for a Base action it would be placing one or two Bases in the region. Actions that reduce other team’s influence automatically target the team(s) with the highest influence. Rare black circles indicate a penalty for failure.

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If you have the highest influence in a region, you gain its privilege card. This grants bonuses like:

  • a permanent +1 increase to RPs
  • 1d6 Science Credits
  • choosing a card from the discard pile for use next turn.

I am still working on what causes Stability to change, but it is likely to be a mix of inputs from UN crisis resolution, Terror Track thresholds, Special Action cards, and player actions (e.g. a rousing speech from a team leader may make the world a better place, or plunge it into chaos). The lower stability is, the easier Influence Operations become in a zone. So if you want to defend a region you dominate, you want high stability. If you want to degrade another team’s influence, then disrupting stability is the way to go.

For DEFCON and Nukes I am adapting a mechanic from the Twilight Struggle boardgame. If a team’s actions cause DEFCON 1 (global thermonuclear war) to occur, then they will be judged as losing the game. Political leaders control use of nukes at DEFCON 3-5, Military leaders control nuke use at DEFCON 2.

  1. DEFCON improves by +1 at the start of each turn.
  2. If the Super powers do not build any nukes, or large combat units, DEFCON improves by +1 that turn.
  3. Nuclear test ban treaties and similar actions can improve DEFCON.
  4. Several key actions cause a DEFCON check to be made. If a d6 roll is less than current DEFCON, then DEFCON is reduced by one. These actions include nuke use, direct combat between USA/USSR units, combat in NATO/Warsaw pact regions, coups (attempts to convert another team’s base into one of your own), and playing DEFCON Special Action cards.

The design intent is to allow some scope for player skulduggery, but for everyone to get very cautious about further provocations when DEFCON reaches 2.

We are still three weeks away from running WTS:CW, so all the above might be changed or dropped if playtests show its not working, but the rules and briefings will all be locked down a week out from the game.

What is not changing?

If it is not mentioned above as being hacked, it is being kept from WTS with as few changes as possible. In particular I am doing nothing to the key UFO mission/human interception mechanic, as it is a thing of beauty and underpins the entire game. The process for researching new technology is the same, we changed a few names to reflect the 1960s and added some weird science options and a unique technology for each team.

What about the aliens?

Without giving the twist away, we are not using the default WTS peace-loving Rigellians. As our media references for the 1950s and 60s include a lot of flying saucer attacks and alien invasions, the human teams should be prepared for the worst.


Ready Party One

April 23, 2018

A campaign premise I sometimes pull out and tinker with is “Humanity has fled the destruction of Earth, and now exists in one refuge system.” A static version of Battlestar Galactica without the wagon train to the stars aspect. I sometimes pair this with options like:

  1. All high technology has been disabled by the energy fields that protect humanity.
  2. Some high tech has been disabled (anything that generates signals that the Enemy might detect). Cue some kind of Thought Police/Inquisition to making sure no one dares reinvent the radio.
  3. Human high technology lasts for a while, enabling a dictatorship over other sentient folk in the refuge (each of which has their own way of surviving incursions like the humans until business as usual can resume).
  4. Because other aliens have also done (3) there are a lot of vestigial empires and associated ruins.
  5. Many habitable worlds in the system (due to forerunner engineering) all linked by portals, or by limited space travel. With lots of relic scavenging – like Alistair Reynolds novel Revenger (2016).

Today’s addition to the toolbox is to make the sanctuary a crapsack world, a bit like Ready Player One, where the alternate VR is an attractive past time for the 99% of humanity living on soy paste and recycled water. The twist is that completing quests/dungeons in the VR activates portal travel or other Macguffin devices (or a nice meal, or the admiration of NPCs who watch the stream on replay channels). So in a campaign, you start playing the hard SF game, then when you need to get from A to B in a hurry, you log into the VR and do a quick mythic mode instance and off you go.

The VR is where the former alien hive minds/AIs get to experiment and interact with humanity in a safely contained system. Cue factions and conspiracies dedicated to finding out what is really going on/keeping the truth hidden from the sheeple.

The VR could be divided into nice little theme parks. Samurai World is right next door to Musketeer World and West World, and maybe the bleed over into each other in a few places. Maybe with a bit of digging you can figure out how to access the old forgotten alien VR realms, where the stories are completely different from those nice comforting fairy tales from Earth, where the plucky hero always wins the rematch.

I think the campaign would work well with a mix of game systems. Something crunchy for the “real” world (Eclipse Phase?) and something simple for the “fantasy” world, which could easily be D&D or something a few more baroque buttons and dials like Blades in the Dark. Not more than a one page PC sheet, and damn easy to create a new VR PC as required.

I should note that I have not actually read Ready Player One or seen the recent movie.