Den of Wolves

February 24, 2019

On Saturday 23 February 2019, the Wellington Megagame Collective ran John Mizon’s Den of Wolves Megagame at the Wellington Bridge Club.

There was an impressive turnout for the game, with 44 people taking part as players, Control or Kitchen support. That made it the largest Megagame run in Wellington, even though half-a-dozen of the “usual suspects” were unable to make it due to other commitments. We had players come down from Auckland and Palmerston North, one backpacker from California, another backpacker from Sweden, and four players who flew over from Sydney in Australia. We ran with a control team of six (myself as Mega Control, two Fleet Control, and one each for Council Control, Time Control and Cat Control). In terms of player positions we were missing a first officer for one of the ships, had a media team of two, and unfortunately had a late cancellation from a player in Christchurch due to a real life event. This meant the Star Alpha was missing its First Secretary.

As Mega Control my early game intent was to attack the Survivor Fleet until they jumped, and to then pace the emotional tension of the game so that there was an upbeat every now and then rather than a constant stream of downbeats. I kept a close eye on overall damage to the Fleet, making sure that there were turns without any attacks so that there was a chance for repairs and recovery. I also made some Wolf attacks under powered, so that the Fleet got a couple of morale boosting victories.

Early Game

The lack of a First Secretary made the Star Alpha vulnerable to damage as the ship’s with a full crew were able to focus engineers, materials and repair actions on their ships. This led to a decision early in the game to strip the Star Alpha of useful materials, and to wire it to ram into a Wolf ship (which it did in the next battle, taking out a Maugrim class Destroyer). I adjudicated the loss of the Star Alpha as being worth -1 to Fleet Morale, and with the President, Vice President and Star Alpha crew relocated to the Dione, I increased Food and Water requirements for the Dione by +2 and an ongoing -1 to morale checks due to “incessant whining”.

Mid Game

The mid game was one of slowly escalating damage across the Survivor Fleet, from a combination of Wolf attacks, emergency jump damage, and Wolf sabotage. As the Wolf agents activated their emitter beacons the pursuit track started increasing by +3 per turn!

The Aegis used a SIGINT hint generated by the Endeavour to find out that a future attack would be led by Aethelwulf class Cruisers, and then made use of its cyber capability to narrow down which quadrant of the Fleet map the encrypted Wolf signals (“Big Bad Wolf, this is Lost Sheep, this is Lost Sheep…”) were coming from. They were both coming from the Dione! At this point the crew of the Dione noticed there were two face down special action cards on their table. They had been been planted there by Wolf agents earlier (one hidden under a sign, the other under the Dione’s ship’s cat card). After a little hesitation they flipped them over (not bombs, hooray!) and handed them over to the Aegis, where the Comms officer managed to hack them to send a false signal.

This saved the Fleet from another attack, as the pursuit track had hit 11 and at 12 I was going to bring the Big Bad Wolf out. A succession of jumps then got the pursuit track down to a low level, at the cost of significant damage to several ships. I created a set of emergency jump damage cards for this gae. The “Fire!” card was based on my personal experience in damage control school for the naval reserve – a fire on board a ship is terrifying.

Another resource the Wolf agents had were two one-use Stealth shuttle attacks. These deployed a single special forces unit, equivalent in capability to an Aegis Marine unit. The first of these struck the Dione in an attempt to complete the Wolf special mission to kill the Chief Engineer. This was when the Engineer revealed his Paranoia and Marine Training special action cards, eliminating the SOF unit, and giving the Dione enough weapons and armour to upgrade a security unit to marine quality. The second stealth attack struck the Icebreaker, damaging two stations before being eliminated. This was almost enough damage to lead to the Icebreaker being abandoned

The Chief Engineer on the Dione was acclaimed a hero, awarded a medal, and the Dione stripped its old shuttle for parts (+4 materials) and now had a Stealth Shuttle. Then a Wolf agent – the Ace Reporter – made a personal attack on the Chief Engineer and this assassination was successful, with the Wolf agent then doing a last stand with a knife, wounding several of the Dione’s security unit (the Wolf agents were rated as “007 quality).

This was a high damage game. The Fleet struggled to grow its pool of fighters and pilots and completely exhausted the supply of Engineer counters. As we headed into the End Game, the decision to get materials for repairs rather than strytium ore for jump fuel was going to constrain the Survivor Fleet’s options.

The End Game

Turns 10-11 the Fleet was focused on repairing the critical damage to ships, especially the Icebreaker, which took more damage than any other ship during the game. It was a time when everyone pooled resources for survival. It was noticeable to me that the fuel tanks were dry across the Fleet, except on the smallest ships. The Aegis and the Endeavour worked together (and spent 11 research points) to find a jump destination far away enough to be beyond Wolf attacks. Without fuel it was going to require an emergency jump, so many ships across the Fleet spent Water tokens to cool the jump drives off to make it safe to do yet another emergency jump.

One of the remaining Wolf agents chose this opportunity to wreak havoc on Refinery 124. First an “industrial accident” hit the Captain, the only other player present at the ship at that moment. Then the agent damaged a station, wounded the remaining Security unit, and damaged another station. At this point two Aegis Marine units arrived, and the agent managed to wound them to. So there was a final showdown between the agent and Chief Engineer (who had returned to the ship) and the dice went the Chief Engineer’s way.

This was when I dropped the Wolf Alpha class battleship and the Big Bad Wolf class Carrier (which launches eight Wolf Fighter Squadrons at the end of every Wolf combat round). Here is when the resources spent on repairing and fueling the spinal mount gun on the Aegis paid off. The spinal mount does a satisfying d6 worth of “hits” in one roll. The Survivor Fleet was able to destroy both ships and jump towards a happy ending. If the pursuit track had been higher, I would have given the two ships more escort fighters. The Vulcan only just avoided being lost in space in the emergency jump. Things got a bit grim on the Icebreaker which jumped late due to heat issues. they had a famous last stand between their last Fighter unit and three Wolf squadrons. Having no food or water left they had an outbreak of cannibalism on the long voyage to safety (roll a d6 to see how many units die, they rolled a six, but saved one unit by eating an alleged “Wolf Traitor”).

The last Wolf Agent, the Captain of the Shepherd, decided to abandon the Wolf Cause, as the crew of the Shepherd were now his real family.

The Wolf Pack

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold; And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea, When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Lord Byron, “The Destruction of Sennacherib”

The code words to initiate Wolf contact were “null” and “void”, with the response phrase including either “purple” or “gold”. The code word for the stealth shuttle was “Nineveh”.

As part of casting I asked players if they wanted a simple, complex or byzantine role and if they wanted to be loyal, ambitious, or treacherous. The Wolf agents were selected at random from among the eight odd players who volunteered for treachery. The complexity scale determined how many bonus special action, open resources (what can you do with a Rosetta Stone or the last box of Twinkies?) and personal goals the player got in their sealed envelope.

Because Den of Wolves has been run several times and AARs are easily found online, I did not attempt to conceal the presence of Wolf agents from the players. I did, however, muddy the waters a little. In addition to the three Wolf Agents there were four Fleet characters who were migrants from Wolf loyal to the IC and a player suffering from “Stockwolf Syndrome” who believed they were a Wolf agent, but was really just delusional. There were a number of stolen IC databases around that could be interrogated for clues about recent ship movements (What was the President doing on Wolf three months ago?). At the start of the game I made it clear that Control would never confirm/deny if a player was a Wolf agent – that judgement was entirely in the player’s hands.

Two characters had social special actions that could find Wolves. One of the media team (not the traitor) could ask someone if they were born on Wolf (accent and shibboleth analysis) if they spent a minute talking with them. This would identify both the agents and the loyal citizens, but not the Stockwolf victim. The Warden of the Vulcan could interrogate people on his ship – successful if they could get the subject to smile or laugh in a minute, getting one truthful answer to a question. This could produce a false positive on the Stockwolf victim.

The journalist asked 12 people, but never found a single one of the seven players with “Wolf accents”. It is the nature of sowing seeds for emergent play that sometimes an idea does not flower, and in other cases it takes on a life of its own.

Mistakes Made

I did mishandle the morale rules early on – not sufficiently clear on whether it was a 1d6, 2d6 or 3d6 roll. There was one incident that is making me think about whether I need an explicit X-card in future megagames. I did not pay enough attention to the Council and I screwed up the elections at the end of the game. In hindsight, I should have left that one for Council Control to resolve. I was also too hands on with Fleet combat, wanting to see how the “new toys” I had devised worked in actual play. I should have left Fleet Control to do more of that task.

Setting the Late Wolf ticket price increase in the middle of two major events a month beforehand was a mistake. I should keep the late ticket price to a week or so prior.

Feedback on the game

  1. Enjoyment: did you have fun? (4.6)
  2. Briefing: how well did the briefing enable you to play the game? (4)
  3. Difficulty: how hard did you find the game to play? (3.6)
  4. Rate of Play: how much time pressure? (3.1)
  5. Control: how good a job did they do? (4.7)
  6. Involvement: how was your involvement with other players? (4.2)
  7. Value: did you get value for money? (4.6)
  8. Ticketing: how easy was the lilregie website to use? (4.2)

While this is overall a great result, one player had a game that sucked for them. That feedback has given me a lot to think about for future games. The President and Admiral also seemed to have scores a notch below average. This may reflect the difficulty inherent in such an apex role, or perhaps the need for another support role to help coordinate matters.

  1. Did you read the rules before playing the game? 83% of the players read the rules before the game, with the remaining players reading part of the rules.
  2. Would you be interested in playing Megagames in the future? 89% of the players would be interested in future Megagames, another 8% were “maybe”.
  3. Would you be interested in being CONTROL in a future Megagame? Four people said “yes”. I will be emailing out an invite to people to join the Wellington Megagame Collectives closed Facebook group.
  4. Did you find the Discord channel useful before the game? 55% of the players found Discord useful. By the start of the Megagame we had almost everyone on Discord.
  5. Did you find the Discord channel useful during the game? 58% of the players found Discord useful. A common request in feedback was for a second projector screen to display a feed from Discord.

Marketing and Communication

The three main sources where people first heard about Den of Wolves were Facebook (13), friends (7) and email (6). All other sources were in the one or two range.

The best sources for information that led people to sign up for Den of Wolves were Facebook (19), friends (14) and email (13).

No major surprises here. Our email list of interested players is valuable, but social media sharing and friendship is important. Store posters, while they may only attract one or two people, do have the advantage of bringing in people who are not part of local networks.

Finances

This is the first time I have independently booked a venue. A month before the event we had sold 21 tickets in three months. In the last month we sold another 21 tickets. We are not in a position where we can confidently assume a Megagame will sell out, so selling over 40 tickets was a great achievement. It was a little shot of endorphins each time I got an email from the ticketing website that another ticket had been sold. Ticket prices of waged $30 and unwaged $15 were also a gamble, but advice from friends was that it was comparable to LARP prices and fair for what was involved.

We asked players how much they would be willing to pay for a daylong Megagame, and the average was $34. This is roughly double the answer from previous surveys. Perhaps this is because this game reset expectations, with a waged ticket of $30, compared to the $10-15 of past games.

Major expenses (rounded to nearest $5):

  1. Game license $415
  2. Venue Hire $320
  3. Printing $365
  4. Stationary $70
  5. TOTAL: $1170

Income from tickets is roughly $1095. Around $60 in fees will be deducted and I will be emailing a few people who paid the late Wolf ticket price to offer a $5 refund. All up I came very close to the goal of breaking even – if we had sold the remaining four tickets it would have been just $7 under the costs.

The venue was a good one, with a PA system, projector, 20 car parks and Wifi included in the affordable hire cost. We had access to two major rooms, each of which could seat 100 people, and a connecting area by the Kitchen. I hope we can use it again in the future.

What did not work, however, was the attempt to offer a canteen with a range of food and drink items. I am several hundred dollars in the red on that gamble, although a lot of the items can be kept in storage for a while or given away to friends. The free tea and coffee was appreciated. In future I think I would keep the offering to the free drinks and some kind of honesty box for a sugar hit treat like chocolate bars. Although I specified it would be cash only, many people now do not routinely carry cash and I am not sure I can afford a machine reader. At a coffee cart this morning, the manager told us that his BNZ mobile card reader cost $30 a month.

Thanks

Thank you to everyone who came along and played the game, shared the event with friends, or helped control it. A special thank you to my beloved, Catherine, for help with transportation and the kitchen. Thanks also to our supporters at Counter Culture, Cerebus Games and The Caffeinated Dragon for helping with promotion. Thanks also to John Mizon for designing an amazing game! Now after four months of worrying about Den of Wolves, its time to turn my attention back to Colossus of Atlantis, which will be running at Wellycon on 1 June.


Old Sun Renaissance

January 12, 2019

I am currently reading M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, and thinking about building a dying earth genre setting for a Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition campaign. I’m calling the setting Old Sun Renaissance. I like the idea of a last city where “the wealth of its people lay entirely in salvage” and which “revered stability and poetry and wine merchants; its cousins only revenge.”

For this campaign I am thinking of taking the Escalation mechanic from 13th Age and changing it into an Entropy mechanic. I see it working like this:

  1. Entropy starts at 1 for the party.
  2. Increase Entropy by 1 each round.
  3. If using a powered item, any roll under the Entropy value exhausts its current charge.
  4. When a player rolls a 1, roll 1d20 on the Entropy Event table, and then reset Entropy to 1.
Illustration Credit: Don Dixon

Entropy Event Table

  1. A device the PC was using breaks.
  2. One of the laws of physics is suspended. Probably gravity.
  3. An adversary uses a surprise action.
  4. A spell expires early, or the spell being cast turns out very differently from what was intended.
  5. An NPC runs away. Was it a friend, or a foe?
  6. If it can catch fire, it catches fire. If its already on fire, it explodes.
  7. The sun flickers, plunging everyone into darkness for a round.
  8. All death saves are made with disadvantage next round.
  9. Re-roll temporary HP and keep the lower score.
  10. Ancient machines start activating.
  11. The floor collapses, revealing a hidden chamber.
  12. Drop something small and valuable, like your ring of invisibility, without noticing it is gone.
  13. Re-roll initiative for everyone but the person who rolled the 1.
  14. Temporal surge. Anyone reduced to exactly zero HP next round is immediately restored to full HP.
  15. An ancient dimensional door reactivates, and a wave of faceless enemies starts pouring through. It closes when the next entropic event is triggered.
  16. A device is triggered, and starts loudly counting down, starting from the entropic die value, or three, whichever is higher. Roll again when the countdown reaches zero.
  17. Reduce the number of Death saves allowed by 1.
  18. Proficiency bonuses now equal the entropy die until the next entropy reset.
  19. An NPC changes sides.
  20. Check icon relationship dice.

In play I would expect to refresh the table so the same outcome does not occur too often. I might also need a table for social encounters and exploration. Overall the intent is to prompt something interesting to happen when a 1 is rolled on a d20, and to some extent for the players to be happy that a failure has occurred, because the POW cost of some of their play options has been reset to minimum. You could call this “flailing forward”, where a failure creates a window of opportunity from the chaos that follows the failure.

Entropy Feats

The other use for the Entropy die is to set the power (POW) cost for using Entropy Feats. So when Entropy is 1, it costs one POW to use an Entropy feat. If Entropy has reached 5, it costs five POW. Here are a few examples of Entropy feats:

  • Magic: choose a spell you can cast, you can spend POW and refresh that spell as a bonus action. Increase the Entropy die by 1. From 5th level, if you take an entropy feat a second time with a spell, you can refresh and use it as a reaction action.
  • Final Blow: once per combat, spend POW and declare who you intend to attack. You act last in the initiative round, but add your total attribute score to damage to one successful martial attack (e.g. if using a finesse weapon with DEX 17, add +17 to damage, not +3). If the POW is spent, but the final blow is not attempted, the POW remains expended but the final blow can be attempted later in the combat (with a new POW spend). After using this feat, reduce your HP to 0. This entropy feat can only be purchased once.
  • Ragged Endurance: once per combat, spend POW and gain HD temporary HP. From 5th level, gain 2 HD of temporary HP, and from 11th level, gain 3 HD of temporary HP. You can take multiple uses of this feat.

Generating Attributes

In order to calculate your Power attribute, you first need to generate all of your character’s other attributes. I am borrowing Rafu’s Matrix Method for this, because both point buy and 4d6 drop one would be terrible for what I have in mind. Start by outlining a matrix with the six standard attributes (STR, DEX, CON, etc) and three columns.

  • STEP 1: roll 6d6 and arrange as you wish in the first column.
  • STEP 2: write the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 arranged as you wish in the second column.
  • STEP 3: roll 1d6 in strict order, in the third column, no rearranging of scores! Sum up the three columns to get the score for each of the six attributes.
  • STEP 4: The Power (POW) attribute is equal to the difference between your highest and lowest rolled attributes. For example, if CON 17 is your highest attribute, and WIS 9 is your lowest attribute, then your character has a POW score of 8.

So this is a version of D&D where you want one of your attributes to be low. Which is why point buy and 4d6 drop one are not good character creation tools. My inspiration for POW as a strength based on your weakness comes from a line in The Magicians:

I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in your chest was? A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength.

Grossman, Lev. The Magicians: (Book 1) (p. 217-8). Random House. Kindle Edition.

Gaining More Power

First, POW recovery is based on class HD when you have a short rest, modified by the absolute number of your lowest attribute. For example, if DEX 4 is your lowest attribute, then you get +3 on POW recovery rolls, not -3. On the whole this recovery process advantages martial characters with larger HD and I am comfortable with that. On a long rest, recover all spent POW. Second, permanent POW gains occur when:

  • The two contributing attributes change in value
  • You choose to increase POW rather than gain an Entropy feat when leveling.

I am thinking of allowing a player a chance of increasing one attribute each time they level and do not get a standard feat (which happens at levels 4, 8, 12 and 16). Roll 1d20 + level and score greater than current attribute value to gain a +1 increase. If you fail, you can optionally choose to reduce an attribute by one (as your weakness is exacerbated by the stress of the adventurer lifestyle), and always gain advantage on your next level up attribute increase attempt.

If you get resurrected, you can also choose to drop an attribute by one point. I do not recommend this is a way of increasing POW, but I think its reasonable for a journey to the other side and back.

I might have some relics grant their owner POW, but on the whole my philosophy for a dying earth setting which magic and science are one and the same, is for “magic items” to cost POW to use for a scene.

The level up choice is to either gain one Entropy feat or to gain POW equal to the new level. No choice at level 4, 8, 12, and 16, as you get a standard feat at those levels. I imagine that most players will choose feats at low level, before switching to boosting POW at higher levels.

Next Post

I have more ideas to explore here. I think I have two posts worth of material on icons for the final age of a dying earth, and then at least one post on how I would hack the D&D 5E classes into shape for the setting.



Megagame plans for 2019

January 3, 2019

Happy new year! here are the megagames I am planning to run or design in 2019.

Den of Wolves, 23 February 2019

Den of Wolves is essentially Battlestar Galactica, minus specific IP such as robots with bouncing red eyeballs, with a focus on the politics of the survivor fleet and crisis management. Click on the heading to go to the event page for the game blurb and some links to after action reports from games in the UK.

Den of Wolves is an experiment in using an off the shelf design, and then not hacking the rules! I do have some plans for adding some elements to the game that players can riff off in their roleplaying, but I do not intend to alter any of the mechanical elements of the game. This is also the first time I have run a game in Wellington without piggy backing on a convention, so the cost of the game includes venue hire, as well as production and licensing costs. As we already have players coming from Australia and Auckland, I am hoping for a good local turnout as well.

Tickets for Den of Wolves are on sale here. Unwaged or Control $15, Waged $30. There is a $5 price rise on 19 January 2019.

Image result for den of wolves megagame
Photo from South West Megagames, of the three sheets used to control one ship in Den of Wolves.

Colossus of Atlantis, 1 June 2019

A complete revision of the second version of the game. This is likely to be what I run at Wellycon.

The central premise is that all the players start the game as leaders in the expanding empire of Atlantis, and are members of one of the factions competing to dominate Atlantis, without triggering the wrath of the Gods and the doom of Atlantis. The game will follow a three act structure:

  1. In the first Act of the game, all player versus player options are disabled. This is a learning phase of the game, during which Atlantis will expand over a map of the Mediterranean and adjoining lands with 60+ significant cities.
  2. In the second Act of the game, the player versus player options are enabled and both players and factions can be exiled from Atlantis.
  3. In the third Act of the game, we will find out if earlier player actions mean Atlantis is likely to suffer a deluge or not.

Preview

The game will feature up to eight factions drawn from Ancient Greek myths and history:

  1. The Amazons, a team of women pushing for emancipation
  2. The Aristocrats, a team that seeks rule by the best people
  3. The Democrats, a team that seeks rule by all people
  4. The Medes, a team that supports peace, trade, and magical research
  5. The Monarchists, a team that supports the rule of Kings descended from the divine Poseidon
  6. The Oligarchs, a team that seeks rule by the wealthy
  7. The Stratocrats, a team that supports military spending and war
  8. The Tyrants, a faction that seeks to make Atlantis great again.

Each faction has players with the following roles:

  • Archon – the team leader who represents the faction on the Council of Atlantis, and in any street fighting that takes place in Atlantis
  • Strategos – the team general who commands military units on the main game map
  • Engineer – the team builder of military units, wonders and other technological marvels
  • Priest – the team magician who tries to keep the Gods happy, and can create curses that harm other players and wards/amulets to protect players from disasters
  • Trader – as well as playing an economic role for the team, the trader is also the team spy.

During the game, players will have the option to spend time performing hero quests based on Greek mythology. This might happen if you are exiled from Atlantis for a turn, or if your team chooses to send you off questing. Questing can result in both great rewards and tragic complications.

Flower Power II, second half of 2019

Revisiting one of my best games, which was originally run down in Christchurch in 2006. The premise was a lost colony, settled by peace and nature loving hippies, which had gone through technology collapse, balkanization, warfare, and then recontact with the rest of humanity.

The original Flower Power game was essentially a world war two scenario of mass industrial warfare, with some drug smuggling and COMINTERN intrigue on the side. It definitely resonated with many of the players, who still reminisce fondly about the game today.
Big Map

I now think the best frame for revising the game is to focus on contemporary issues of fragile states, peacekeeping, and counterinsurgency that we see happening around the world today. Where many of my past megagames have involved teams with relatively equal amounts of power and options, Flower Power II will feature factions with asymmetric power levels and options in the game.
I am not sure yet what the player roles in the game will be, but the factions are likely to include:

  1. Offworld aid organisations, trying to uplift local education and economic practices
  2. Offworld civil government representatives, trying to shepherd the planetary government into membership of an interstellar polity
  3. Offworld military commanders, trying to keep the peace
  4. Offworld private military contractors (mercenaries), trying to profit from keeping the peace
  5. Smugglers, trying to make profits from criminal activities
  6. Corporations seeking access to local resources, or contracts to supply offworld goods and services
  7. Planetary coalition government, trying to avoid a return to destructive warfare
  8. Insurgent factions derived from former local governments, spanning a range of ideological positions, and tactics from non-violent protest to terrorism.

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.

ancient-archaeology-architecture-678638

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.

 


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.

TombofAnnihilation_Chult_Player

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.

nba-cover

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.

ARTEFACTS_WONDERS

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.