Capsule Reviews of various RPG stuff

April 14, 2015

A few one paragraph reviews of various roleplaying game PDFs I have been reading over the last few months.

Dyson’s Delves, by Dyson Logos

“Being a collection of maps & adventures set under the earth”.  153 pages. $9.99 from Drivethrurpg.com. Old school fantasy dungeon crawl maps. The first half are keyed with generic encounters, the second half are just the maps. One 11 level dungeon, and another 49 individual location maps (tombs, mines, bridges, throne rooms, monasteries, etc.).  I have found it useful for off the cuff dungeons and planned encounters. There are quite a few people making a few coins by publishing old school dungeon crawl maps.

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Magical Theorems and Dark Pacts, by Dyson Logos

“Being a treatise regarding Magics, Sorceries, and Dark Arts for Fantasy RPGs”. 161 pages. $9.99 from Drivethrurpg.com. Old school renaissance (OSR) with 13 magic using classes, some familiar looking spell lists from Labyrinth Lord, 28 pages of magic items, and a few monsters. I found the section on magic items useful, lots of good ideas to borrow for my tabletop games (I now try to always have a 1d100 chart of wondrous junk and treasure for the players to encounter while shopping).

Eldritch Skies (Savage Worlds), by John Sneads

A roleplaying game of cinematic Lovecraftian SF. 196 pages. $14.95 from Drivethrurpg.comEldritch Skies extrapolates from the Lovecraft canon into a future where human governments make deals with aliens and start exploring the depths of space in the post-revelation era. Its a pulp game, much more optimistic and hopeful in tone than classic Call of Cthulhu. PCs are likely to work for the UN agency OPS, trying to protect the remaining secrets of the Great Old Ones, and to prevent aliens from harming humanity/earth. I’m not really familiar enough with Savage Worlds to judge the adjustments it makes to the system, but PC generation and play looks straightforward. Bonus points for allowing PCs to be Deep Ones or Half-Ghouls. Rather than Sanity, you have a rating for exposure to hyperspace. From a design point of view, I found the notes on the fate of alien species (ascension into hyperspace, extinction due to carelessness, or cautious stasis) to be useful for any setting where you might want to think about the implications of Drake’s Equation.

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A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe (2nd edition), by Joseph Browning and Suzi Vee

This book aids the creation of a generic Western European medieval world consistent with D&D (3rd edition). 194 pages. $14.40 from Drivethrurpg.com. Its history plus Fireballs, Resurrections, and magic swords/wands. I think it succeeds in adding a touch of realism, but for me its almost a valiant failure, because D&D magic would be so subversive of what happened historically – Castles and Knights just don’t make as much sense in a world with flight, invisibility, etc. So for me, the real value is just the plain historical guff on crop rotation, manorial tithes, etc.

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Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, by Jason Durall

This book updates and reprints the Amber diceless roleplaying system with a new setting. $19.99 from Drivethrurpg.com. I am not sold on the diceless system – on the one hand it pushes for a character ranked first in an attribute to always win contests with that attribute, elsewhere its clear that other characters can negotiate, argue, twist to another attribute, etc to win – despite not being first rank.  It did, however, make me interested in exploring rules for campaign settings where the players design all the PC races (because really, why should the GM decide Our Space Elves Are Different?), and then also design the enemy races (spend lots of points to build the big bads/masterminds, spend no points and create a race of pitiful mooks). The Grand Stair, and its infinite doors linking all the worlds together is a solid idea for any campaign setting. The Dwimmerlaik were also an interesting great enemy race.

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Red Tide: Adventure in a Crimson World, by Kevin Crawford

Another OSR product.  $7.99 from Drivethrurpg.com. The language of OSR systems is familiar to me from the D&D games of my youth, so its easy for me to ignore it and focus on the cool ideas in the setting. TLDR Red mist drives people crazy/mutates them, people flee on boats to an island crawling with Orcs, which the mist does not extend to. Flavour is oriental, with demon worshiping Samurai, and Chinese cultural elements. The Orcs are not just mindless savages, and their background gives them a lot more depth than they usually get in D&D. Favourite bit though was the Dwarves, the reason they accumulate gold, is because its essential for forging spirit weapons/armour used in the afterlife to fight a vengeful Goddess the Dwarves have rebelled against.

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Torchbearer, by Thor Olavsrud and Luke Crane

This is a wonderful homage to the dungeoncrawls of yesteryere, with modern mechanics to improve story telling (based on Mouse Guard). $15.00 from Drivethru.rpg.com. A key focus of the game is on rigid accounting for time and inventory. Torches, rations and other supplies are all carefully tracked. If you don’t have room in the sacks, you cannot take the loot with you. The black and white artwork really reminded me strongly for the Fiend Folio and the Steve Jackson Fighting Fantasy books. An interesting tough, is that one way of increasing your XP, is to increase your chance of failure on an important dice check.

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Chuubo’s Marvellous Wish-Granting Engine, by Jenna Katerin Moran

This is a Nobilis spin-off, some kind of pastoral kids growing up story telling theme. Not my kind of thing. I stopped reading after about twenty minutes. YMMV.

Nobilis: the essentials volume 1, field guide to powers, by Jenna Katerin Moran

A lot more comprehensible to me than Chuubo’s, but still a struggle for me to read and complete. $19.95 from Drivethrurpg.com. The accompanying side bar text is very evocative, some of the best I have ever seen. The illustrations were a lot more perky than usual for roleplaying games, even when handling some difficult topics. The background world concept, Estates (your role as a fundamental expression and guardian of the universe) and Domains (home bases), was also quite nice. Mechanics are very text based, even though there are some numbers in there, its a conversation resolution system, not a dice fest. I think I would struggle to run a game with this, unless all the players had spent a lot of time with the rules beforehand.

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Rocket Age, by Ken Spencer

A retro sci-fi future past. $19.99 from Drivethrurpg.com. Its ray guns and Flash Gordon rockets within the Solar System, with a 1930s setting. So the Great Powers are being colonial bullies on Mars, and the Germans are developing war technology to conquer the solar system with. The artwork is solidly in that retro art deco style, which I like. Lots of alien species. Its take on a Barsoomian style Mars is quite engaging, and I like it more than the Space: 1889 take on red Mars and its canal civilisations, but there is plenty of room elsewhere in the system for different flavours of adventure. Main mechanic is 2d6 + Attribute + Skill +/- modifiers compared to difficulty setting.

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How the Bundle of Holding is influencing my game design

March 3, 2015

I have a problem with the Bundle of Holding. I am buying new roleplaying games faster than I can read them. This is forcing me to curtail a slow reading of all the gaming goodness I am downloading off the internet. It also means that if a book I am reading is failing to catch my attention and set fire to my imagination, the temptation to close the file and pick another one is strong.

One of the things that is really striking, is that when a game uses something incredibly familiar, such as a task resolution system based on “Die Roll + Attribute + Skill”, then it really needs something in its theme, setting, or another mechanic that it incorporates in a novel way.  Of course, too much in the way of unfamiliar setting, character roles and mechanics makes me want to read something else as well. One of the game design books I read recently put it succinctly as “Same, but different”.

Today I thought roleplaying games are a bit like crimes. You need all three of:

  1. Motive – what exactly is the design intent for the player characters, mighty-thewed heroes or pluck investigators doomed to insanity? Its really nice to have something beyond “You all meet in a tavern, an old man approaches you…”  Yes, as GM I can establish a reason for the players to be together, but its good when the game is inherently designed to gel the party together, and keep them together long term.
  2. Method – what tools are the mechanics giving the players for interacting with the world? Fortune’s Fool used a Tarot deck to resolve all matters of chance and conflict in the game, and I loved how in character generation you could build a character who was lucky or really skilled in different ways.  The Edara: A Steampunk Renaissance game, used a”d12 + Attribute + Skill” and I could easily skip 90% of the mechanic rule chapters because I have seen it all before in a hundred different game systems.
  3. Opportunity – what does the setting let us do that we cannot already do elsewhere? Its really hard these days to try and find a genre that has not already been well covered in the last four decades of roleplaying game design. The market for genre mash-ups is also becoming pretty saturated (Zombies and Flavour of the Month, I am so over zombies). When people do come up with a really good new motive or method for roleplaying, you can see the subsequent spin-offs as its developed for expression in every conceivable gaming setting.

The sign of a good game is that you want to immediately use one of its motive, method, or opportunity design elements in a game you run in the future. The sign of a great game is that you don’t dare divorce any of these elements from the other for fear that the magic will fade away.

I am not sure how well my current roleplaying campaign manages “Same, but different”, although it is meeting the key litmus test of the players have fun, keep turning up, talk about the game between sessions, and are sad when they have to miss a session due to other commitments.

  1. Motive – the players are agents of Tarantium, members of a musketeer regiment used by the Imperial government for all those plausibly deniable missions. I avoided the constraints of a strictly military campaign (players having to obey orders from NPCs) by having most of their “episodes” involve away missions with vague orders and a lot of latitude for making their own decisions.
  2. Method – I used Runequest VI, because its a system I can intuitively design in without working too hard. Nothing too original in my adaptations, adding muskets to the standard Renaissance swords and armour, a mechanic similar to Call of Cthulhu’s sanity rules, and giving the players a range of social organisations to belong too for some roleplaying flavour and niche difference.
  3. Opportunity – I really wanted to run a setting with flying cities and a high magic feel, and I was dissatisfied with the published “flying fantasy” game books. I did all the background maths to make sure that the food and logistics/politics of the setting made sense (not that I would dare bore the players with crop yields and river boat cargo volumes). This meant I made a game based around “Go somewhere interesting, do something dangerous, go home and report, then take a month off to recover”.

My current roleplaying game design thoughts have been focused on a transhuman setting, where an alien Empire has colonised Earth in much the same way the United Kingdom established the Raj in India (one part commerce, two parts corruption, one part conflict, one part “oh fuck what we have gotten into now”).  While I have looked at some published settings, such as Eclipse Phase or GURPS Transhuman, the way they lock humanity into the Solar System is just a bit claustrophobic.  River of Heaven had some appeal as a d100 system based on a system very close to Runequest VI, but it was not quite transhuman enough for me, and it did not really explore the social and psychological effects of restricting travel to sub-light speeds (plus I wanted a FTL mechanic of some kind). As an aside, I think its rare for an “alien invasion” scenario to focus on the cultural impacts of the “out of context” problem, most books and visual media go for the plucky and violent humans versus the incredibly stupid aliens. Handling it the other way might be too uncomfortable a reminder of how “western civilisation” treated the rest of the world until very recently. Anhow, what I am thinking of involves:

  1. Motive – the aliens are paternalistic overlords of most, but not all of humanity. A key decision for the players, is whether or not they support the alien domination for the benefits it brings (climate control technology, immortality for talented people, peacekeeping forces, etc) or if they are supporters of the cause of human independence and freedom.  I would like to use the Icon system from 13th Age, so I would build a range of factions that support or oppose the Alien Empire, or which have a more ambivalent view (such as a smuggling syndicate). Each of the factions would have a use for agents willing to risk their current physical existence in exchange for material rewards or advancement of their personal passions, as well as providing a home base and resurrection point for when that TPK occurs on a suicide mission. The big background mystery plays off Drake’s Equation – humanity is surrounded by a sea of inhabitable worlds where pre-space flight civilisations have been destroyed, and the Alien Overlords are a little curious as to why Humanity was not treated the same way by the legendary “Bane Star”.
  2. Method – while I want to use the Runequest rules, a transhuman setting where bodies are replaceable and upgradeable means the value of the traditional fixed gaming characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, etc) is subverted. Who cares if you rolled a Strength of 5 on your birth body, when you can buy a Strength 18 off the rack? Runequest places more emphasis on key secondary attributes (Action Points, Strike Rank) and Skills (1-100% scale).  A key thing for quick play, would be an electronic character sheet in which you can change your body template and associated characteristics in two button pushes.  As well as having a full range of cybernetic and biological augmentations, I would want to rebuild the combat system to be fast and violent within the transhuman flavour of electronic warfare, high-tech weaponry, powered armour suits and energy shields. One such change would be eliminating Luck Points – essential in Runequest VI RAW because otherwise character’s die – its just not needed in a transhuman setting where players can restore their characters from their last backup, or a salvaged cortex stack.
  3. Opportunity – “Have disposable spaceship, will travel”. I am imagining a universe where a basic spaceship for six people costs about as much as a modern car does, can be fabricated within a day, and its cheaper to recycle it for parts and buy new, than to leave it parked in dock for a week. A spaceship will last less than a year before its engines burn out or it exhausts its fuel supplies. But in the mean time, it will cover 10 Light Years per week. Its a universe where almost anything can be fabricated in the “two credit” store in an hour, but if you want a signature weapon or suit of powered armour, then you carefully take your copyrighted blueprints to a master crafter and spend a few days making it out of premium materials. In a universe where you get a new body when your character is killed in combat, gear is even more disposable than ever before.  I also like having a modular ship design system, where the players choose from a limited set of customisation options and can build their spaceship in a few minutes.

…and that’s all I have time to write this week. Spending more time on SCA martial arts is changing my hobby-life balance around a bit, so the future holds significantly less time playing World of Warcraft for me than was the case for the last few months.


13th Age Mechanics in Runequest

February 22, 2015

This is post is some thoughts I have been having about applying some of the concepts and mechanics from the 13th Age game system published Pelgrane Press to the Runequest 6 rules from Design Mechanism.  13th Age is a d20 system with mechanics to promote interesting storytelling, while Runequest is the classic d100 system that has realistic grit and crunch (Rolemaster may have more specifically gory criticals and Harnmaster may have the most realistic medieval combat system, but Runequest is my preferred system to design worlds with).

I first heard about 13th Age when I saw the promotion for the 13th Age in Glorantha kickstarter. I was intrigued, and after reading some favourable blog reviews decided it looked worth backing. Having now read the 13th Age rules, I wish I could have included a lot of these big ideas when I was designing my current campaign world (Tarantium: musketeers from flying cities versus agents of evil empires and cults of ancient horror).

One Unique Thing

Every player character has one unique thing about them that separates them from every other individual in the campaign’s universe. This defines both the character and the universe by exclusion. The intent is that it provides a special flavor to the campaign and can assist the GM in determining how your character can interact with characters and story in the campaign. Your character’s unique should not provide general practical value in combat. That is not the intent. The intent is to open up story arcs and fun roleplaying opportunities.

I love the way this empowers the players when they are creating their characters.  I like to say yes when my players have cool character concepts. When I had a go with picking a unique for a character in a one-off D&D 5E game I took the first thing to pop into my head “Raised by ghosts”.  There is a lot of scope for character concepts that are well developed at the start of play (e.g. “I’m the Emperor’s bastard daughter”) and leaving things open to be developed in play (e.g. “I have a mysterious birthmark”).

Not providing an advantage in combat should help with game balance.

In a Runequest game I would allow the unique to override campaign restrictions (e.g. no one in Tarantium has skill with animistic magic), allow people to choose weird and exotic backgrounds, or to play various sentient races that are not usually open to players.  The core of Runequest is the Skill system, so I would also consider any requests for a player to spend Skill points on Skills that would not usually be open to a starting character (e.g. I’m a thief with training in a school of sorcery).

Icons and Relationships

The 13th Age Archmage Engine supports the concept of icons. An icon is a powerful NPC (non-playable character) that has a strong influence on the world outside of your campaign, yet may indeed aid or oppose your character over the course of your campaign, depending on the relationship your character has with the icon. Icons have their own story, alignment, and personality. The general knowledge and history about them may vary in depth and accuracy; they may be well-known or mysterious. They have their own relationships with other icons, too, which may be friendly, tolerable, or acrimonious. Your character may have relationships with certain icons. This relationship, if it exists, can be positive, conflicted, or negative.

The descriptions for icons are usually for very powerful individuals, or a small number of closely aligned and powerful entities.  Most write ups have 13 icons, although I was reminded of the Major Arcana from a Tarot deck a lot when reading . I think icons are useful when world building, as they force you to focus your design on your best ideas (and you should be able to come up with 13 strong ideas for icons). A problem I have in running campaigns, is that while some original ideas fade into the background, the number of NPCs and factions tends to proliferate at a rapid pace, and the campaign can end up a little unwieldy as a result.

Icon relationships can be handled with the Runequest Passion skills. Just to differentiate them, I would call them Icon Passions, and any other passions would be Private Passions.  Roll as per normal at the start of each episode in the campaign, with a critical success giving an unambiguous advantage, and an ordinary success an advantage with some complications. I think I would encourage the party as a whole to have at least one common icon relationship, as this gives them a reason to be together as a group.  I would be tempted to rebuild the character sheet, so that the unique is right in the middle-top of the front page of the character sheet, and then immediately adjacent to the unique description are the character’s icon relationship/passions, and their private passions. Then you can figure out where to put the characteristics and skills. I would then place all of the combat related stuff on a completely separate character sheet.

Pelgrane have a short blog on creating new icons. This puts emphasis four things about icons:

  • Connections: all icons are social by nature (Dragon under a mountain is not an icon, Dragon overlord of a city state surrounded by zombies is an icon)
  • Goals: all icons want something, and pursue it by any means available
  • Geography: most icons have a centre of power somewhere, and this may reflect the campaign scale (a game based in a single city state will be very different from a game involving 1,000 star systems)
  • Falvour: does it help make the game interesting?

Magic item quirks

Every magic item in is alive, in a sense, and possesses a personality you have to interact with when you start using the item, establishing and maintaining a rapport with it. What that rapport means varies from item to item and is usually controlled by the GM. Some items talk with their user. Others communicate in bursts of emotion or slight motion. Each item has a personality that is largely defined by its quirk. What you can count on as a default is that nearly all magic items want to be used and used well.

A feature of roleplaying campaigns, is that players tend to always accumulate more stuff. So much stuff that when you cast Detect Magic at them, they glow like a Christmas tree. The quirk system essentially says, if you rely too much on magic items, then you sacrifice some control over your character.

This is also relatively easy to work into Runequest using the Passion system. So your magic bonus can be directly linked to the level of Passion you have for that magic item (i.e. if you have adopted your Magic Sword’s Passion for “Kill all sorcerers” at 60% then you can augment your Combat Style Sword by +12%, but at the tail end of the fight you need to make a Willpower check not to start attacking the party’s own sorcerers). I have noticed that most of the players in my campaign have sunk a lot of skill points into having a good Willpower skill. So I think that rather than doing a straight Willpower versus Passion check in conflicting situations, you can make the Willpower check Easy for people with just one magic item, and then increase the difficulty grade by one for each additional magic item carried. If playing at a high campaign tier (100% skills, Mastery and Infinity rules, then increasing the number of magic items allowed before the difficulty grade is increased makes sense).

Escalation die

The escalation die represents a bonus to attacks as the fight goes on. At the start of the second round, the GM sets the escalation die at 1. Each PC gains a bonus to attack rolls equal to the current value on the escalation die. Each round, the escalation die advances by +1, to a maximum of +6. Monsters and NPCs do not add the escalation die bonus to their attacks. If the GM judges that the characters are avoiding conflict rather than bringing the fight to the bad guys, the escalation die doesn’t advance. If combat virtually ceases, the escalation die resets to 0.

The escalation die is an explicit cinematic bonus for the PCs as a fight progresses, unlike the karmic death spiral of attrition to Hit Points and expenditure of luck points as a Runequest fight plays out.  It might be something to try, but its not going to fit every Runequest campaign.  A lot of other feats and special abilities in 13th Age are also tied into the escalation die reaching a certain level.  So you could rework various Runequest Gifts and special powers to tie in with the Escalation die, but it would be a lot of work.

A +1 in a d20 game is equal to +5% in a d100 game. Tracking 5% modifiers is a bit fiddly, but an eventual bonus of 30% is huge in Runequest, as not only will characters hit more often, but those attacks are more likely to overcome the target’s defences.

Stuff that does not translate so well

A lot of the combat abstraction for armour and weapons, levels and hitpoints, simply won’t go into a Runequest system without changing it into something unrecogniseable. Some of the various feats, race and class abilities can be retweaked into the Gift system (which Runequest is more sparing with in allowing characters access to, as they usually come with a concomitant geas, passion or other roleplaying limit).  The minimum damage rule, where any miss results in damage to the enemy equal to character level, makes a lot of sense in a D&D style mountain of hit points boss fight, but not so much in Runequest where both PCs and NPCs are likely to have very similar hit point totals.


The Core Problem

January 6, 2015

On the way to work this morning, I started reading the Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design.  While the book has a roleplaying game focus, many of its concepts translate over well into designing a boardgame.  The fifth chapter “Seize the Hook” by Rob Heinsoo had three useful nuggets of advice:

  1. Design a game you want to play but can’t because no one else has designed it yet.
  2. Don’t be satisfied with your design until you’ve found the key mechanical hook that captures the game’s theme, creating an experience that’s something like the experience being portrayed in your game.
  3. Understand and follow through on the full implications of your game’s mechanical hook.

Design a game you want to play but can’t because no one else has designed it yet.

I want to play a game about the decline and fall of a Galactic Empire, and I have not seen a game that really captures what I want, although some come close.

The strongest influences on my original conception, are the “Foundation” novels by Isaac Asimov, the Long Night in the Traveller RPG, other classic SF titles like Poul Anderson’s “Dominic Flandry” novels, and some geopolitics theory I was studying for fun at the tail end of my Masters degree.  While for years I called my game design project “Housewar”, of late I now call it “Sun and Starship”, a play on the “Spaceship-and-Sun” emblem of Asimov’s Galactic Empire.  As a lot of the SF concepts were drawn on real world historical examples, I added to my reading with scholarly discussion of the fall of ancient civilisations. Adrian Goldsworthy’s book “How Rome Fell” was important here. It focused on the surviving sources, and the role of minions in brutally murdering weak Emperors when it looked like their pensions were threatened. Great history, but a game in which the key players are killed by NPCs is unlikely to find a wide market.

Don’t be satisfied with your design until you’ve found the key mechanical hook that captures the game’s theme, creating an experience that’s something like the experience being portrayed in your game

Years of trial and error have shown me that trying to build a game on declining resources is hard. Its difficult because shrinking resources is not fun for players. They see the pie getting smaller every turn, but the struggle to tell if their share of the remaining pie is bigger or smaller than their rivals.  Some of the main mechanic styles I have tried include:

  • event-card/action choice driven mechanics, like “We the People” and “Paths of Glory” (which were too random)
  • Cabinet games with bouts of warfare, like “Junta” and “Republic of Rome” (which took too damn long)
  • home-brew systems ranging from the minimalist (half-a-dozen counters per player) to monster games with a thousand counters, that often tried to be an economic game, a military game, and a political game, and did all three quite badly.

Nothing ever quite seemed to work, either because it was too reliant on random events, or because a necessary part of the game, the “who is the Emperor” sub-game, dominated the rest of the game and excluded a lot of potential strategies for game play. It boiled down to “if you are not Emperor, you are losing”.

So now I have a clear conception of a key mechanic, which is that rather than a random event causing a point of downwards decline, a player action will cause a point of decline, triggering a random event that adds some colour to the game.  I have found two ways of doing this:

  • making it desirable to build expensive special power “Dreadnoughts” in an arms race dynamic where players cannot afford to be left behind, with each Dreadnought build causing decline
  • requiring the player who is Emperor to push the Decline along a little (or a lot) each time they take an action turn

I also need to accept that I can’t make a 2-3 hour game be all things to all people. This means sacrificing a lot of the chrome that had remained with the game for years (such as Decadence auction bids and “Blame” games for attacking other player’s Glory scores).

Understand and follow through on the full implications of your game’s mechanical hook.

I think they key to expressing the theme, is that the Galactic Empire is going to collapse, and it is going to collapse due to the player’s actions. This means that for the game’s design to work, it has to reliably deliver a collapsed Galactic Empire, a complete wreck of civilisation, not just a half-empty ruin. This collapse also needs to clearly relate to actions done by the players during the game, and these actions should be logical for the players to do, not forced on them unwillingly. Most of the mechanics I have tried over the years could not deliver the full collapse in a reasonable playing time.

The Core problem

No matter how I build a game map, if the Core is a key VP spot, then blocking access is a way to make other players lose. This defeat is usually clear mid-game, and feeling like you cannot win is not fun (the only thing less fun is being completely eliminated from the game and having to watch the other players fight on for two hours to determine who actually wins).

One way around this, is to connect the Core to every other part of the map.  From this I make the intuitive leap, is a 2-D map the best way to chart a 3-D space empire?  If I recall some reading I did years ago, for 3-D mapping, a sphere of space can generally accommodate 12 similar sized spheres around it (think of oranges in a big net bag). Trying to represent this simply in a 2-D map is difficult. I did have one map version with eight adjacent sectors to the core sector, but even then 2-3 players generally ended up controlling all eight access points. It just seemed like an iron law of geopolitics, any fixed node of importance could not sustain multiple factions in adjacent power projection positions.

I tried a lot of variations of map + senate games (mixes of Junta and republic of Rome) where a political sub-game could change who controlled the Core. While this worked to an extent, it increased both complexity and the time to play the game. It also had the problem that I never had to change adjacent territorial control – so after a political change in Emperor, one of the adjacent military powers would “restore order” in the Imperial Capital.

Another option was to increase the number of VP scoring sectors, but trying this led to players avoiding the core, leaving it under one player’s control for the bulk of the game. Its easier to defend remote provinces with limited points of movement access, then it is to defend core nodes with large networks of connections.  More recently I have been trying to increase both the sources of VP, and the quantity of VP sourced through them. But as my last playtest showed, even a passive gain of +1 VP per turn, in a game where 100 VP was required to win, cascaded into a 30 point VP lead by the time we were half-way through the game.

The King of Tokyo Solution

In King of Tokyo, you are either a giant monster in Tokyo, or not (but want to be as soon as you kick the current “King of the Hill” out). It makes for an amazingly simple game board. A bit simpler than I want for my theme, but I think I can work something like this:

  • the only permanent map space is the Imperial Capital, the Core sector of the Galactic Empire
  • the player who is Emperor, occupies this Core sector, until kicked out, or they choose to flee into exile
  • two related mechanisms will encourage change of the throne, first, the reigning Emperor cannot collect Power to do further actions, once they exhaust their power they should abandon the Core sector, and secondly, the other players have an option to “Plot”, that will over time escalate their effective strength for an attack on the Core to a point where an easy victory is probable
  • now I still want lots of combat and battle fleets elsewhere, but I think I can handle the map through a deck building exercise, by saying each card is a sector in space, connected to other sectors by wormhole tunnels … and that part of the decline theme is that wormhole tunnels eventually collapse, removing those linked sector map cards from the game. So as the game develops, the players will be desperately expanding into new map cards, trying not to have major forces in a sector when civilisation collapses there.

Next Steps

The next step here, is to do a bunch of mathematics around how many actions I expect players to do in 2-3 hours, and setting a Glory scoring mechanism that fits the bill. Having decks of cards potentially helps me scale the game to the number of players, by reducing the deck size to match lesser numbers of players. I also need to go check out a lot more board game design discussion forums. This is something I have neglected in recent years, and as the summary at the end of this article on game design makes clear, there is a lot more out there these days than Consimworld!


Second Sun and Starship Playtest

January 4, 2015

SAMSUNG

Over the Christmas break four of my friends at Big Gaming Week agreed to give the prototype a quick go, as we only had two hours available the goal was to see who could accumulate the most glory.  We managed to complete four game turns.

Turn one everyone started with nine Atomic Power. In turn 2 Alan and Dennis remained on nine Atomic Power, while Tim and Tony had 12. In turn 3 the Atomic Power spread was 10-14, after Tony attacked Tim’s territory. For turn 4 the range was tighter, 12-14 Atomic Power. Turn 4 saw an effort to unseat Dennis from the Imperial Throne,  which saw his Atomic Power income for a hypothetical fifth turn drop to 11, with the rest of the players on 15-21 Atomic Power.

In terms of what Atomic Power could be spent on, I had changed the rules from one Atomic Power per unit moved, to one Atomic Power per type of unit moved. This allows a lot more movement, at the cost of each game turn taking a little longer.

The variable cost of Dreadnoughts, however, was found to have too great a chance of rendering someone powerless and unable to act. The design also greatly limited what you could do in another player’s turn (very little unless actually attacked). So being powerless could trigger a karmic death spiral. While the Atomic Power mechanic is based on Cthulhu Wars, it is being used to purchase the equivalent of six Great Old Ones over the course of the game, rather than just one stompy beast of destruction and horror.

The final glory scores were:

  • Alan – 15
  • Tim – 25
  • Tony – 32
  • Dennis – 63

Dennis’ score came mainly from passive Infinite Actions of reigning while in control of the Imperial Capital for almost the entire game. While only +1 point per action, the other players found themselves in a weak position to attack the Imperial Capital, and reluctant to commit to an action that helped all of the other players, but would place them in a position of weakness.

We hit a final Fall value of 3-4, and only had a few Dreadnoughts per player on the map. So in a time sense it still feels like it is taking too long.

The feedback on what was fun:

  • choosing Dreadnoughts
  • dice mechanic in combat

Based on feedback from the last playtest I capped the number of dice that could be rolled in combat (weaker side rolls two dice, stronger side rolls three dice) and gave the winner a clear bonus (choose loser retreat destination, or double Glory, or use a Power die number to increase damage).

The feedback on what was NOT fun:

  • Emperor control was too important
  • downtime between player turns was too long
  • movement is “sticky” (if a Dreadnought was in the wrong place it took several actions to rectify)
  • inability to defend territory/fight defensively when attacked
  • falling behind on power.

I was asked why I didn’t allocate all Bases in the set up. The answer to that is that years ago I had an extensive set up process for Housewar, on a map that had four distinct spiral arms and playtest groups of five players. You tended to win the game in the set up, by dominating one spiral arm and forcing other groups of players to fight in their respective spiral arms. This lead to intense meta-gaming in the initial set up (one playtester used to growl at other players if they dared look at “his” spiral arm, and some playtesters would form set up alliances that lasted the rest of the game).

Tech cards were okay, but there were way too many of them. The number of bonus combinations should be reduced.

Ideas for the next playtest

In order for the Dreadnought purchase mechanic to work, I think I should design the rest of the game economy around the fact that players need to spend either big lumps of power, or little lumps of power, depending on the situation.  So what I am thinking of having is:

  • representing Atomic Power as a six sided die placed on the map (using something like the Dice Dock from Corsec Engineering)
  • the rules would refer to the die as a “Base”
  • when a player spends Atomic Power, they remove dice pips until the cost is met
  • as an action a player can increase Atomic Power at one controlled Base
  • My current idea for exactly how much power that increase should be is that the target Base is increased to six, and roll a die (Skull = reduce another player’s Atomic Power by one, Starburst = +1 Glory, number = increase Atomic Power at a second base by that number), so the Atomic Power gain is likely to be 6-9 points.

Rolling just one die keeps things simple. As a bonus the granularity of the 1-6 range of the Base compared to the binary 0/1 of a Base counter is that it is easier to develop Decline/Fall or Pirate stuff in the game to adjust Atomic Power by +/- 1 than it is to place/remove Base counters.

King of Tokyo

The next big idea is to borrow from the King of Tokyo game, where the Monster in Tokyo scores more points, but is vulnerable to all the other players in the game.  I will do this by making it so that the Emperor cannot use the Increase Atomic Power action while Emperor. There will still be useful bonuses from being Emperor, but it should be a case of play the role until kicked out or reduced in power and forced to flee into exile.

I can also make the Imperial Capital more vulnerable by making it have Wormhole Gateways to every sector on the map.  This makes it so that all players will nearly always be able to attack the Imperial Capital (a major problem in this game has always been players being locked out of geographical proximity to the Imperial Capital, which I have mitigated by increasing the number of Glory sources and the flow of points from those sources). Then there is the idea of Plot tokens (see below).

Pacing of the Game

While the Dreadnought build increasing Decline and eventually causing the Fall is a good mechanic, it is still on the long side.  So my new idea is to keep that mechanic but add the following:

  • when the Emperor takes a turn, they MUST increase either Decline by +1 or Fall by +1
  • each time Decline is increased, draw a “minor” Decline event card (only one card, regardless of how many points Decline increases by) that has a one-off effect on the game
  • each time Fall is increased, draw one to three “major” Fall event cards that have persistent rule changing effects on the game.

I expect an Emperor with a substantial lead advantage to start pushing the Fall counter up the track to try and trigger the End Game in an advantageous position.

The Decline events should do things like:

  • all players place a Pirate token
  • all players remove a Battleship
  • all players lose one Atomic Power
  • change the Monument Track value (needed as the play sequence no longer needs an end of turn phase)
  • trigger Fall (could have one such event for each player in the game, as more players always extend the game playing time)
  • all players gain a Plot token (see below)

Reducing Downtime between Turns

My idea here is to allow each player one simple Reaction move each time another player takes a Turn. These reaction moves are intended to be quick … if you have not done it by the time the active player finishes their move, then you don’t get the reaction move (with perhaps a five second count down for anyone still dithering).  My current ideas for reaction moves are:

  • move one Battleship one sector
  • build one Battleship in one sector (this reinforces the idea of Battleships as “popcorn”)
  • take a Plot token (these can be used to boost your effective combat strength for attacks against the Emperor only, but are discarded when the Emperor changes or when used)
  • use Pirate to steal one Atomic Power.

Movement and Combat

I still lean towards a player’s turn being either Movement or Combat, not a combination of the two.  If this is the case, then I am happy to expand movement so Dreadnought positions are less “sticky”, allowing players to move as many units as they are willing to spend Atomic Power on moving.

Map-wise, I am thinking about building hex tiles, and having the number of tiles based on the number of players in the game. This makes the map scale to the number of players. The other option (which requires a lot more hard thinking) is a double sided map cut in two large sections, flipping the sections to get a map for 2, 3, 4, or 5 players (the approach taken in Cthulhu Wars).

Combat – I am pretty happy with the way this is working out.

Endgame

With the Base die idea, the current method of determining End Game power (Glory score at start of the End Game) will not work.  So what I can do instead is:

  • the player with the most Glory when the End Game is triggered is the Last Emperor
  • only the Last Emperor can gain Glory (+1 each time they take a turn only), and the last Emperor still wins automatically at 100 Glory
  • only the Last Emperor can build Dreadnoughts (but no new Dreadnoughts are placed in the Shipyards)
  • Starbursts now reduce enemy Glory in combat rather than increasing your own Glory (and if you roll more Starbursts you can double the enemy’s loss of Glory)
  • Strength lost in combat also reduces Glory
  • any player reduced to zero Glory or zero Dreadnoughts is eliminated
  • once any player is eliminated, the Final Countdown begins (there are 13 remaining player turns in the game) and the player with the most Glory at the end of that is the winner of the game.

Sun and Starship Playtest

October 19, 2014

Managed to get a playtest done for my boardgame design on Friday night. After a last minute cancellation due to health, we had three players, and completed the game in four and a half hours.

Some things worked very well, especially the Dreadnought construction mechanic and the way it interacted with the Decline & Fall of the Galactic Empire. Combat mostly worked, although there was an issue with “pure victory” not giving enough of a benefit to the winner. The game flow was about what I expected, early expansion, combat when the empty space for easy expansion ran out, a pause, then further fighting, a pause for a round of monument building, and then a quick descent into the abyss of the endgame.

Housewar Playtest 002

The Blame/Decadence mechanic did not work well. Partly due to an early Rotten to the Core event that removed Blame from Corruption in the Atomic Power collection phase, and partly due to there not being enough sources of Blame. So next playtest I will add more options for acquiring and manipulating blame.

The players mainly stayed with 10-15 Glory points of each other, which seems to justify a high glory score model, and they reached Glory scores of 50-60 by the time the End Game was triggered.

The players collected 197 Atomic Power during the game, and spent 53 Atomic Power on Dreadnoughts (roughly 27%). Only two of the 14 Dreadnoughts built in the game were destroyed prior to the endgame.

The Fall Track was at 12 after the second turn, 10 after the third turn, 6 after the fourth turn, and the endgame was triggered in the 5th turn.  So it declined at about the expected rate.  Atomic Power inflation did occur, and this makes the later turns slower, so I may think of reasons to have big power sinks to speed play a little. The playtest did show that becoming powerless was a bad move, running out of power before the other players made you quite vulnerable to raids on your territory.

Housewar Playtest 015

The endgame was a three way civil war, largely fought between a coalition of Blue and Yellow versus Orange (which included the Purple Imperial Battleships). Orange fought quite well, but really couldn’t outlast the determined attrition of two players. At the end Blue had two Dreadnoughts left and Yellow had three Pirates. In a four player game, it would have been much riskier for two players to go all out against the Last Emperor, as the fourth player could sit on the sidelines.

On the whole, the design feels very promising. I’ll be making some tweaks and trying to get another playtest done in the next few weeks.



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