The bad: I had to cancel the Grand Strategy game.
The good: Asterix and the Deep Ones was popular, with 16 players over three sessions.
Cancelling the Grand Strategy Game
It is sad to cancel a creative project, but I have had to do this before and will do so again. I would not be doing a service to anyone by trying to run a game which will not provide the fun that it was intended to offer. Before Christmas there were only three signups. With a week to go there are only seven. Unfortunately, Grand Strategy games require 5+ teams to be balanced (or just two teams), and for teams to ideally have 3+ players to allow team dynamics to unfold within the larger framework. While I could have spent all my spare time over the next week building a new design for a smaller number of players, I think I was better off spending the time on polishing “Asterix and the Deep Ones”.
So, any lessons learned?
Promotion – the Kapcon organisers have spent quite a bit of effort to promote the game, I pushed it through my own networks, and the website had enough information for anyone interested in the game to suss out if it was their cup of fun or not. I have only had one potential player contact me to ask questions about the game. I don’t know how much interaction the LARP GMs have with potential players, but I suspect it’s a bit more than that. Still, I could have pushed the game harder, and made more of “recruit friends to join your team”.
Competition – Kapcon offers half-a-dozen or more tabletop sessions, and a LARP in head to head competition with Pax Vicky. Potential players have voted with their preferences, and it is not for what I am offering in that timeslot.
Con structure – one of the reasons the “Grand Strat” works at BOD, is that it has traditionally been given a flagship evening slot on Friday or Saturday night. I get a captive audience, which gives me certainty that they critical mass of players will be present. It was made clear to me years ago that I was never going to get the only such slot at Kapcon, as the Friday and Sunday nights are for social mixing, and not gaming. While I could attempt to run my own event in Wellington, the lukewarm indifference that has greeted my posts about grand strategy games on nzrag.com makes me suspect that I’d just end up losing money on the hall hire. I have to admit to recognising a self-fulfilling prophecy here, because I don;t get positive feedback for my ideas on NZRAG, I don’t read or post there very often … which means I don’t get feedback or promotion opportunities.
It’s too weird – globally what I am offering is a rare type of hybrid game, it’s a mix of giant tabletop boardgame and LARP, and I have only ever run into one other group of gamers who do these games outside New Zealand. So the design community is very small, there are only a few people I can really talk to about these games, and most of them live in London. It is also a type of gaming which has no commercial product on offer, and a limited online presence – it is very hard for potential gamers to learn about this kind of game, or to give it a try and end up wanting more.
Opportunity cost – designing and building a grand strategy game takes me 4-5 full weekends over a 6-12 month period as I iterate concepts, design rules, build maps, playtest, revise, and then finally print and assemble the game (praying for a sunny day with no wind as I glue stuff together). This is a lot of time I could be spending on other projects. There is also a financial cost, I have spent close to $3,500 on my last two designs, and while some of that cost (laser printer, toner, tokens) is available for future games, it is still a lot of money for a hobby. Setting up and running the game also consumes an entire day at the convention, and for 2014, I could have been somewhere else entirely different from Kapcon, having a good time with one of my other hobby groups.
Structural flaws – the boardgame nature of the Grand Strat is such that there is very little scope for improvisation (by players or GMs), it is not a game that can be winged on the night, unlike a table top RPG. It is also hard to walk into a game five minutes before it starts – as we like people to read the rules in advance and to make decisions a week before the game begins. The bespoke nature of the game, a complex set of rules that might only be used once, means that if there is a major flaw in the game, it is difficult to fix quickly. A mistake can cascade through the system, wrecking the game economy and spoiling player strategies. So Grand Strats are high risk/high responsibility games to run, and it’s rarely the player’s fault if things get derailed (I have only had one player deliberately undermine a Grand Strat game, and one do a table flip after a game has finished).
Agency – the team nature of the game may discourage players through lack of a strong character to identify with and role play, and the fact that the player’s desires must be subordinated to the group’s plan if the group is to prosper in the game might also be off-putting to potential players. I do have a good reason for having abstract replaceable characters – character death sucks (I tried a few variations on death mechanics but nothing ever worked in a fun way).
Is it still worth it?
Running these games has always been a peak experience for me. It’s not often that I am the centre of attention and it’s a nice buzz when things go well. I have learned a lot about game design from organising and running these games. I have found, however, that this learning translates into ever increasing amounts of work to get everything right for future games, and a lot of frustration when the games do not go well. The minimum amount of work for a game is pretty formidable, compared to a table top game, where I can get by with a sketch map, half a dozen PC sheets, and about an A4 of sketch notes. It would be really hard for me to offer more than one or two games a year – the group in London manages about four a year, but has a different team designing each game – and this makes improving the design of these games a slow process.
So, it might be time for me to move on from Grand Strategy games, and find something else to do with my time, or perhaps just have a year or two off until I can find the old joy again. Maybe I should just go back to writing LARPs, which is where all this started 20 years ago. A different tack, would be to drop the fantasy, and go for a hard core historical game – World War one could be viable as its the 100th anniversary of it starting this year.
Asterix and the Deep Ones
This went well, with lots of laughter. In the first game I had five players (Asterix, Getafix, Obelix, Fulliautomatic and Unhygenix), in the second game I had four players (Asterix, Getafix, Obelix and Cacophonix) and in the last game I had all seven characters in play (add Vitalstatitix).
Using a known IP made character identification really easy. Using the Call of Cthulhu quickplay system was okay … but one of my conclusions is that traditional game engines with their multiple tiers of Characteristics, Attributes and other character qualities are just a bit too much (a friend described being given three pages of character sheet for a game at Kapcon, which is two pages too many). I could have easily run things off just the straight characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, etc). Giving everyone 90% in a combat skill was a good decision, made the combats true to the original comics, and giving almost everyone low SAN scores made crazy stuff happen – mostly delusional beliefs that the PC was a significant historical character (Cleopatra, Julius Caesar etc). I used luck points in a blunt force way, everyone had 90 and you sent them to change the d100 roll. So if your skill was 50, and you rolled 62 (fail), you could spend 12 luck points to make it a success. No one actually ran out of luck. I treated magic potion as giving the Gauls first strike, a bonus die in combat, and increasing the damage bonus die to 1d6. As per the comics I toned down the blood, and had knock outs and tweety birds circling around heads.
- Asterix – the leader/straight man of the party, no major schtick but usually the person making the talk/spot rolls.
- Obelix – the superhuman strength schtick came in handy many times – carrying boats overland, menhir volley attacks, etc
- Getafix – had the ability to brew potions that could almost anything (restore sanity, dreamless sleep, and water breathing were the ones people came up with), the drawback being you needed a side quest for ingredients and it took time to boil water. I deliberately started Getafix with 10 SAN because after the first night of bad dreams and flashbacks to things a young Druid did in old Egypt, he was always motivated to find the source of the dreams.
- Cacophonix – a strong roll, as any threat to sing would always cause the group to react. One Cacophonix managed to ninja past 100 Deep Ones to rescue his Uncle Malacoustix, and another Cacophonic managed a critical success on a sing roll to wow the surly villagers into enthusiastic applause.
- Unhygenix and Fulliautomatix – not quite so strong roles, but good to have in a fight, and high potential for comedic barbs between each other and Cacophonix, Unhygenix’s fishing skills were also useful for the investigation.
- Vitalstatistix – perhaps the weakest character, unless they exerted their authority over the Gauls.
All three groups followed a similar starting pattern:
- interact with the Roman bridgebuilders and the Gaulish Ferryman
- find out that something (the Deep Ones) is dismantling the bridge each night
- head into the village, noticing the barren fields
- interact with the Britannic owner of the brand new fish and chips shop in the run down village
- head to Malacoustix’s villa
- explore the villa, get trapped by storm/nightfall
- bad dreams, SAN check, sleepwalking episodes
After that the groups went in different directions, although most interrogated the village Chief at some point. For pacing, after two hours I would introduce Deep Ones, and in the last half hour I brought in Old Mother Hydra. All three groups ended with escape/rescue/massive property damage moments of success. Looking at the map – I didn’t need the murky swamp (where clues to the missing Boars could be found). People seemed to spend about half an hour at each location, so it was one destination too far. Perhaps if I had placed the swamp right next door to the village?
I have had a request to run this again at CONfusion in August (depending on whether or not it clashes with Pennsic). I am now thinking about Asterix in Atlantis as a possible name for the next game (apparently there is an Asterix story set in Atlantis so I will have to check that out). Or I could call it The Secret History of Asterix.
A riff on the Fallout computer games, but set in Australia. A bit Mad Max in places. Fairly traditional, in that there was a quest to get a dingus to save a village, but a bit awkward in that the Thug PC more or less had to ignore the Thief NPC (who had stolen his stuff), and we all had to ignore the fat that we knew that a bad guy had bribed the Thug to derail the mission. It was okay, but we ran out of time before we could get to the Sydney Opera House with the weather machine.
Enter the Avenger
This was a fantasy Kill Bill. The idea is that one player takes the role of the Avenger, and the rest of the players take the role of suspects, the Avenger’s intuition, and the gory details of the avenging. The prompt notes were superb, I wanted to steal all of the character/city descriptions for use elsewhere. The player in charge of the avenger never changes, so it can be exhausting for the player, and its painful for everyone if they get struck by indecision. Each confrontation with a suspect is roleplayed, but the rule is that the Avenger can never be defeated. I had fun playing a couple of bad suspects. Fun, would play again.
Nod is a city which can only be entered on one night of the year. Enter, stage left, a barbarian seeking revenge! Another story driven system, like Enter the Avenger, but in this case the other players had more agency (the avenger could be defeated). There were a range of pre-gen characters, such as The King of Worms, the Apothecary, the Cutthroat and the Potentate. Different characters had different areas of authority over which they could control the description of and the associated NPCs, and a big thing they could do a major plot twist/reveal around. This was a round 7 game so we were all tired and struggled a bit. I enjoyed linking things together and getting other players involved in new scenes. I enjoyed playing the Castellan, getting everyone into the castle for the big show down, and I described the Castellan as an Iron Vizier, articulated steel in velvet, dedicated to preserving the status quo. My plans were foiled by the Cutthroat using a plot twist to reveal themselves as the real Potentate. Fun, would play again.
As usual, I skipped the flagship LARP. I did get to the post-con drinks for the first time and it was a pleasant wind down and a good chance to catch up with old friends.