The design intent for the combat mechanics in Romance of the Seven Worlds is to have a quick process that produces outcomes similar to the comics and movies. In particular, combat can lead to units changing sides, or duels between opposing commanders. It is expressly not intended to produce realistic combat outcomes, or to require much in the way of logistics beyond spending fuel to move places.
One of the key factors in the combat system is a desire to limit the number of combat units each player can control. Most players will start the game with no more than one or two combat units, and have a maximum of three to five units that they can command. By limiting the number of units each player controls, we can have each individual unit be rich in information about its capabilities.
Each cube counts as one strength point. Yellow cubes are tech cubes, and count as a strength point for tech battles, when all other cubes are worth zero strength. The other colours used for strength cubes determine the faction loyalty that group of people support:
Black: support the Emperor;
White: support the Rebels;
Blue: support the Nobles;
Orange: support the Guilds.
So the unit pictured above has a strength of seven in Attrition battles, three in Tech battles, and one to two in Sway battles. Note that loyalty cubes may also be important for Pulp Actions targeted at the unit. The above unit is more likely to be sabotaged by the Rebels than anyone else. In Tactics and Chance battles it has a strength of zero.
This is a player versus environment (PVE) combat mechanic. Each game turn Control will pawn a number of meteor swarms in up to five of the zones on the Space Map. Players who control Rocket units can then choose to intercept the meteors and try to destroy them. This costs a fuel token, and you can only intercept meteors in one space zone each game turn.
This is a simple process, where the player rolls 2d6, adds unit strength, and if this is equal or greater than that meteor’s fixed strength rating, then the meteor is destroyed. If the roll is equal or less, then the Rocket takes one hit, reducing its strength. You can keep trying to shoot a meteor down as long as you have time left left in the Warlord Phase, and strength left in your Rocket.
Any meteors not shot down strike the planet in their space zone, damaging bases and units there. This is a bad thing, and players should work together to stop this.
This is a player versus player (PVP) combat mechanic. The usual trigger is a player moving units to a region controlled by another player, and declaring an attack. If in doubt, Control will determine if a battle happens.
First, any of the players involved in the battle draws a battle card. There are seven types of battle card:
Cliffhanger: place a one minute sand timer down, when it runs out draw another battle card. If the Warlord Phase ends before the battle is resolved, then all the units involved in the battle are locked in combat until the next Warlord Phase (you could use a Pulp Action to escape the situation). For each Cliffhanger card draw, all players in the battle add 1d6 to the dice they roll.
Romance: place a one minute sand timer down, players involved in the battle may court each other using the Romance mechanic. Unexpected alliances and betrayals may occur. Otherwise treat as a Cliffhanger.
Attrition: roll 2d6 + Strength.
Chance: roll 2d6. Do not count strength cubes at all for battles resolved by chance.
Sway: roll 2d6 + Loyalty + character Charisma. You only count strength cubes that have loyalty matching your declared faction – this includes cubes on units controlled by other players!
Tactics: roll 2d6 + character Tactics.
Tech: roll 2d6 + Tech + character Science.
If for some reason you are unable to roll dice for your units, your side is assumed to roll a 2 when Control calls time at the end of the Warlord Phase. Character attributes only count if the character is present in the region where the battle is fought.
Astute players will have noted that outnumbering a player 10:1 matters not at all if a Chance battle occurs.
In battles, a tied result causes a duel to be fought between opposing commanders (duels may also take place in other parts of the game and use the process outlined here). Duels are 1:1 fights, no ganging up. At the start of the duel, each player announces the stakes they are fighting for:
Capture: win one duel round to capture your opponent and win the battle;
Wound: win two duel rounds to wound your opponent and win the battle;
Kill: win three duel rounds to kill your opponent and win the battle.
To resolve the duel, each player rolls 2d6 and adds their Dueling score. Dueling ties can be won by playing an Inspiration card. Otherwise keep rolling until one player achieves their stake. Note that while a “Death” outcome for a character can be negated with a Pulp Action, the battle will still be lost. If both duelists achieve their stakes in the same round of dice rolls, then both sides are assumed to have lost the battle for casualty purposes, and the defender retains control of the region being fought over.
The player with the highest score wins the battle. If there are multiple players on one side, their scores are not combined together – it is just the highest score that counts.
The winning player gains control of the region where the battle took place (unless it was already controlled by an ally).
Units lose strength cubes based on the type of battle card used to resolve the battle:
Cliffhanger: as below.
Romance: if peace broke out between the players, no strength cubes are lost.
Attrition: each of your units loses strength cubes equal to your foe’s highest die roll (max six cubes).
Chance: each of your units loses strength cubes equal to your foe’s lowest die roll.
Sway: winner gains all defeated strength cubes with matching loyalty from enemy units.
Tactics: no one loses cubes.
Tech: each of your units loses tech cubes equal to your foe’s lowest die roll (no loss if you have no tech cubes).
If a unit has no strength cubes left, it is destroyed and removed from play. It can be rebuilt later using the normal build action process. Surviving units on the defeated side can disperse and retreat into the local wilderness, or if Rockets are available, retreat to a controlled base on any of the seven worlds.
As various science projects are researched or Pulp Actions implemented, your combat capabilities may change during the game. The core mechanics above will remain, but new bonuses or penalties to the die roll, new battle cards, or different battle card draw process, or casualty process may happen.
As I am running my Romance of the Seven Worlds megagame on 5 June at Wellycon, its time to start posting some explanations about the game mechanics. In this post, its the romance subgame.
The design intent for these mechanics is to reflect the source material, facilitate emergent factions that will surprise us in play, and to tie into the player objectives that should drive gameplay.
Romance is used in a broad sense, covering a wide spectrum of relationships – from bitter hatred and jealous rivals, through mutual respect and platonic friendships, to passionate true love. A megagame is not a dating app and this romance subgame is not an excuse to sexually harass people. Be respectful of the personal space of other players, and do not touch people without their consent. There will be a safety brief about these mechanics at the start of the game.
Romance of the Seven Worlds is inspired by a range of planetary romance novels, comic strips and film serials from the first half of the 20th century, and the classic Flash Gordon movie from 1980. In designing this game, the goal has been to try and replicate the sense of wonder, larger-than-life adventures, and pulp action from these sources, but without the racism, colonialism, and misogyny that were present in many of the stories. In these sources, characters often made quick decisions about whether or not they trusted or disliked each other. We also do not have the time of a weekend LARP to allow slow burn romances to kindle, so the romance rules reflect the original six panel comic strips, which did waste panels on sultry looks and sitcom miscommunication.
The romance subgame is optional – you must choose to opt in to the subgame during casting. All players with characters that can be romanced will have a heart symbol on their character tag. Romance is not restricted by character faction, role, gender or species – you can court any player with a romanceable character.
If you opt into the romance subgame, you will receive an envelope at the start of the game containing cards you can give to your friends and lovers. These might reflect you loaning special powers or character abilities, or a bonus Pulp Action card.
You will be able to “court” other player characters in the game mainly in the World Phase – which is the open unscripted part of the game turn when players are free to move about and do actions as they see fit. You might be able to use a Pulp Action to court in other game phases, and there is a chance that battles can be ended by Romance.
Courting requires your character tokens to be in the same physical space on one of the world maps. You then need to have a conversation with the player who is playing that character role in the megagame. If you both agree, then you can each draw a card from the Romance deck (a deck of playing cards). If the cards you draw are:
Different Colours: nothing happens
Both Red: you are friends.
Both Black: you are rivals.
Both Red and Matching Card: you are best friends.
Both Black and Matching Card: you are bitter enemies.
Both Jokers: you share an unbreakable bond.
A card matches if it is the same value, e.g. the Jack of Hearts and Jack of Diamonds are a best friends match, the Ace of Spades and the Ace of Clubs are a bitter enemies match. Once a relationship is established, you should roleplay the situation to the best of your ability. Specific mechanical effects follow. The card decks will be weighted towards producing friendly results at the start of the game.
You can court a player once per game turn. You can court any number of different players in the same game turn (but this may not be the best use of your time).
You like your friends and should try to help them where possible. You may reveal any, all, or none of your objectives to your friend, and you can change one of your objectives to match that of an objective your friend holds (or vice versa). Keep the playing card to use for Inspiration. You may draw Romance cards again with your friend.
Objectives Note: Most players will start with 3-5 objectives about what they want to accomplish in the game.
Inspiration Note: Inspiration cards can be played to ask Control for the benefit of the doubt in a narrative situation, or to win a tie. Yes, you can win battles through the power of friendship. Inspiration cards are one use. If both sides in a tie play inspiration cards, the value of the card will be used to break the tie where possible (Aces High, Hearts trump). Inspiration cards are one use.
You wish to see ill done to your rival, whether by your hand or that of others. You should not willingly help your rival. Note this rivalry down as a new objective. You may draw Romance cards again to overcome the rivalry only if an appropriate narrative moment occurs (e.g. surviving a duel with your rival, being imprisoned with your rival, both of you have death warrants signed by the Emperor, your true love asks you to reconcile, etc). Return the cards you drew to the deck.
While you can have any number of friends, you can only have one best friend at a time. If you already have a best friend, you must choose between them. Decide to either keep your card for inspiration, or for one of you to carry both inspiration cards. Give your best friend your bonus Pulp Action card (first best friend only). Both of you must reveal all of your objectives, and can change any, all, or none of your objectives to match each others. You may draw Romance cards again with your best friend.
Only the death or disgrace and exile of your hated enemy will satisfy you. Add the elimination of your enemy to your objectives for the game. You can only have one bitter enemy at a time, if you already have a bitter enemy you must choose one feud to pursue. Return the cards you drew to the deck.
Unbreakable Bond / True Love
As for Best Friends, but give them your Unbreakable Bond Pulp Action card, which can always be played in situations involving your partner (normally Pulp Action cards are one use). You can only have one unbreakable bond at a time.
Riffing on Tony Martin’s recent post on traitors in megagames, which made me reflect on loyalty and internal tension in megagame player teams, here a couple of mental tools I use to help me think when crafting objectives for different factions and roles in megagames.
Fear, Honor, and Interest
And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honor and interest afterwards came in.
Richard Crawley (1910), translation of Thucydides history of the Peloponnesian War
In a speech before the Spartans, Athenian diplomats argued that these are the three greatest motives, and used them to explain their reluctance to give up their empire without a fight. Their attempt to persuade the Spartans not to go with war with Athens failed, but I think these three primal motives can be used to build strong objectives for megagame factions and individual player roles. For a bit more on this speech on the meaning of the three terms try this article.
Fear: this objective is about something you are afraid of. You want to stop it from happening, or defer it as far as possible into the future. Pretty obviously, players respond well to clear and present dangers that threaten their game role with harm or loss of agency in the game.
Honor: this objective is something that you must, or must not do, during the course of the game. This is more about how you behave in trying to achieve your other goals. While a player may not appreciate the restriction on their play, I believe that such constraints help encourage creativity. For Thucydides, honor was about maintaining the reputation of the state, and thus deterrence credibility. I have taken a different approach here closer to a modern sensibility for the word honor.
Interest: this objective is about something you desire. You want it to happen, to have more of it, or you want to control it. If nothing else, you can use greed – a desire for more stuff. It is in many ways the reverse of fear as a goal.
For good measure, you can have these personal motives be in tension or conflict, so that a player must choose which is more important to them. If you must always honor your agreements, but when your closest ally threatens to drag you into an unwinnable war, what will you do?
I found the “DNA” idea on a roleplaying forum a few months back. It is an abbreviation for Desire, Need, and Agenda. Alternately it can be Desire, Need, and Assets. Assets are possibly more relevant to a player role in a megagame than an agenda, as the player will create the agenda using their assets to fulfill their needs and desires. I am unsure who to credit with the original DNA formulation, but it is a good technique for helping a GM decide what an NPC is likely to do in a scene without having to refresh themselves on six pages of backstory.
A quick example of a DNA for a familiar character: Dracula
Desires: to be reunited with Mina Harker, who he believes to be the reincarnation of his mortal love.
Needs: human blood to survive, and to retain an appearance of healthy humanity.
Agenda: plans to sail on a ship carrying crates of earth from the homeland to Whitby, in order to establish a base in England closer to Mina Harker.
Assets: a castle in Transylvania, the children of the night, three vampire brides, etc.
Analysing Goals with Criticality
In larping terms, a subcritical game situation might be one in which plot is low and boring, and nothing is likely to change. A supercritical situation might be one in which characters are likely to explode on each other and quickly transform the game outside of playable range as most plots get resolved to the point of non-playability. A system that is critical, however, is one in which many actions are likely to have a substantive impact without destroying the larger system as a whole. In a game, this looks like a situation in which characters can have a meaningful impact without breaking the game.
J Li and Jason Morningstar, Pattern Language for LARP Design
The key insight I got from this reading this section of Pattern Language for LARP Design is that if a faction or player goal can be achieved during a game, the game will be better for everyone if that success or failure leads to a new critical situation with uncertain outcomes and further action needed by players to respond to the change in the state of the game. This is more of a reflective tool, for use after drafting some goals, as you try to imagine what might happen in your game. I recommend reading the entire document, as it has a lot of ideas applicable to megagames.
One of the ideas explored in Tony’s post on traitors was on the role that a combination of active obstruction and passive incompetence can play in stalling the emerging narrative of the megagame. One possible approach, thinking about criticality, is to structure key decision points into the game for the players, that must result in a change in the game, rather than preservation of the status quo. For example, in the last run of Colossus of Atlantis, one faction was always going to be exiled (voted off the island as it were) every time the Assembly met (about three times during the game). They could be recalled back from exile by a later Council vote or Assembly meeting, but I deliberately made exile a hard mechanic in the game to focus player attention and diplomacy.
A Practical Example
In working on a revision of Colossus of Atlantis, I will use these tools for the leader of the House Atlas faction. The House of Atlas starts the game as the ruling royal family of the city of Atlantis and the Atlantean empire. Alas for House Atlas, the high king has been cursed by the Gods, and his wife has borne him only daughters.
Fear: the House of Atlas fears losing control of their traditional role of sovereign, which in accordance with the constitution at the start of the game, can only be filled by a male citizen, born in Atlantis (faction goal). You also fear any weakening in the laws of Atlantis, that currently favour the institution of monarchy, over the interests of the other factional ideologies (Democracy, Oligarchy, etc) that have divided the city of late (personal goal).
Honour: the daughters of the House of Atlas are coming of age, and one daughter must be married each game round, with a respectable dowry, to one of the other player roles in the game (personal goal). While you hold the office of sovereign, the laws of Atlantis allow you to pay for dowries from the Treasury of Atlantis. This is not Ptolemaic Egypt, and your daughters cannot marry anyone in your family (faction goal).
Interest:you want a strong military and prosperous economy for a stable Atlantean Empire. You should be feared and respected by the rival empires of Hyperborea, Thule, and Lemuria, safe and secure from the threat of rebellion or barbarian raiding (faction goal). The people of Atlantis should never go hungry for grain, nor the Gods for libations of wine in the temples (personal goal).
Personal Desire: Poseidon should be the Patron God of Atlantis, as he was for your ancestors (personal goal).
Personal Need:Live long enough to see all of your daughters married, and the birth of an heir to the throne (personal goal).
Agenda: strongly recommend you consult with your daughters before offering their hand in marriage to someone (play hint).
Assets: Palace Guard, Royal Cavalry, keys to the Treasury of Atlantis, a casting vote on any tied council votes.
Criticality:Your eldest daughter gets married, and the treasury is not bankrupt, success! Now the suitors crowd around for the hand of your second oldest daughter, and the benchmark has been set for dowry expectations. Are the happy couple now both playing for the House Atlas team, or another noble house? Is their first child a boy or a girl? What happens if the constitutional amendment to allow women to be citizens succeeds? A witch approaches you offering a herbal remedy to help with your lack of a male heir, how do you respond? You now have three sons-in-law, which one do you designate as your heir? The marriage between your youngest daughter and the exiled Prince of Lemuria is causing the Lemurian ambassador to threaten war, how should Atlantis respond to this threat? Strong military and prosperous economy – how are you paying for both enough wine and enough spears to keep everyone happy?
I think that set of goals should work well, and they have a lot of hooks for interacting with the rest of the team, and many of the other player roles in the game. If I can think of different mixes of Fear, Honor, and Interest and a touch of DNA with similar levels of criticality for the other factions I will be pretty happy.
Next blog post, might be on the topic of adjudicating special actions. I have some ideas rattling around the head on that topic, maybe this time it will not take me six months to finish the post.
So my ambitious plans for weekly posts did not come to pass. Here is the long delayed post on Assassinations in Megagames.
First, by assassination I mean “murder by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons : the act or an instance of assassinating someone (such as a prominent political leader)”. This is the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition. Death from natural causes, in battle, or by execution are all quite different.
Second, the problem. Assassinations are challenging because they directly target a player’s character and/or role in the megagame. Character death and/or role change is a disruptive experience, and has the potential to make the experience of play an unhappy one for the affected player. In chatting about death mechanics in megagame design forums I have definitely run into people who think character death is a bad experience to include in a game. Part of the joy of Megagames, however, is the agency granted to players to try special actions in the game. So how can we reconcile this?
Factors I think need to be considered: (1) An assassination attempt follows a player decision, rather than being a Control inject into the game. (2) An assassination attempt is a secret action, requiring Control adjudication (unless your game is big enough to have a player in the role of assassin for hire, or some kind of assassin’s guild). (3) Some form of mechanical resolution is required, its not a game of rocket tag.
A short digression on bad megagame mechanics:
Pinatas – where players get a free swing and might get lucky
Vending machines – where players put in resources and get what they want
Roulette wheels – where players put in resources and might get lucky.
The reason I think these forms of mechanics are bad in a megagame, is that they do not require interaction with other players. If the best way to get something done in a megagame is to ignore other players, I think the overall game experience is likely to be poor. Combine these with the surprise of an assassination for the target, and players are potentially being told “you’re dead, no saving throw”. Which is not fun.
Now some examples of what I think are good mechanics from a couple of boardgames I like:
Junta – a key interaction in this game is that each player chooses a hiding location each turn (e.g. Home, Bank, Nightclub, Headquarters). An assassination can only succeed if another player successfully predicts where you are hiding. Some locations allow special actions, e.g. being at your HQ allows you to start a coup.
Dune – in battles, subordinate leaders in a faction can be killed. Each leader can play one card for defence (e.g. a poison snooper) and one card for attack (e.g. a projectile weapon), or commit an expendable “cheap hero” to lead in their place. Having a leader killed can cause your side to lose the battle.
Both of these games have elements of bluffing and trying to predict what the other players are doing. The mechanics are all player facing and do not need Control adjudication.
Simulating modern era assassinations
The key insight from the article I read in writing this blog post is that assassination attempts are rarely successful in the way intended by the assassins (or desired by gamers).
From 1875 to 2004, there were 251 serious assassination attempts on national leaders, with 59 successful assassinations. This excludes leaders murdered during coups, or plots that were uncovered before the assassination was attempted. Rounding up, you could call it a 25% success rate. If you include less serious assassination attempts, the success rate drops to around 20%. Assassination attempts are more likely in large nations, autocracies, and states at war, but are still a relatively rare event in modern history (about one every two years).
Firearms were used in 55% of attempts, and explosives in 31% of attempts. Firearms had a 30% success rate, while explosives had a 7% success rate – and explosives tended to produce more collateral damage to other people.
The actual impact of an assassination is relatively small:
Assassinating autocrats has a 13% chance of accelerating a transition to democracy, and a 19% chance of increasing future leadership transitions by institutional means
Assassinating democratic leaders causes no institutional change or change in leadership transition
Successful assassinations have a 25% chance of ending a high-intensity war early, a 33% chance of extending the duration of a mid-intensity war, and have no statistically significant effect on triggering new wars. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is a significant historical outlier.
Failed assassination attempts can allow autocratic leaders to impose repressive measures in their country.
Simulating pre-modern assassinations
I do not have a handy article for success/failure rates of pre-modern assassination attempts. When government is dominated by mainly hereditary dynasties, there is an inherent fragility potential in dynastic succession. Assassinations are usually done by family members or subordinate officials, rather than foreign professionals. An assassination can end a dynasty, install a regent or council of wicked advisors, or replace a weak leader with a strong leader (and vice versa). The stakes are definitely greater than for modern governments.
Considerations for a Megagame
First, is this appropriate for your game? Not all games will require assassins, or perhaps you could make assassination the key focus of the game – a John Wick megagame? In the Survivor: Dark Lord megagame, I started most of the players in service to the Dark Lord, and every 20 minutes the Dark Lord executed one of their minions, and Control drew one random name out of the Assassin ballot box (which players could pay resources to stuff with the names of targets). So by the end of the game nearly all the players had new roles as rebels fighting the Dark Lord. Another way to include assassination in a game is simply to have it occur as a major event in the first Act of the game, e.g. Caesar gets murdered in the Senate, starting a civil war.
Written and oral briefings to the players should be clear about the distinctions between role (e.g. President), character (e.g. Abraham Lincoln), and outline what happens if a character death occurs. I think the main options following an assassination are:
replace with natural heir after a short break, keeping the player in the same role with little or no change to their goals, resources and abilities. This returns the game to the status quo.
replace with new character, keeping the player in the same role, but with different goals, resources and abilities. This can change the game a bit.
replace by shuffling team assignments, e.g. a Vice President becomes President, and one or more other players on the team shuffle into new roles. This is definitely likely to change the game.
Replacements should be made quickly. This means having prepared alternate roles and characters before the game. These roles/characters should be potentially as fun to play as the original, not third tier operatives acting above their pay grade.
Making assassination an interesting experience
My own design assumption is that it can be taken as given that significant leaders have bodyguards, doubles, and secret service detachments, and that they are effective at their job. I do not see “hire more German bodyguards” as an especially interesting decision for players. I think that for assassination actions to be interesting, they need to involve the following elements:
Resources – the action needs a cost of some kind, otherwise players will keep trying it over and over again (Pinatas are bad mechanics). This can include the time taken to set the action up.
Secrecy – the action should be a surprise to the target. This is likely to require Control adjudication to resolve.
Conspiracy – the action should be more successful if more players support the action, and this takes time to organise, and allows betrayal.
Betrayal – a plotter might betray a conspiracy causing it to fail, but in the same vein having a “loyal” person on the target’s team support the conspiracy should increase the odds of success.
Risk – both plotters and target should have skin in the game, with potential consequences for both depending on how the uncertain outcome is resolved.
A simple mechanic
For a modern game like Watch the Skies, if you wanted an approach that simulates reality more than Hollywood movies, you could say assassination attempts have no effect on democratic states (at most you might ask the player to sit down for a minute as their replacement character is sworn in), but for an autocratic state roll a d20:
Resources: A special action card, special agent, and/or a resource token.
Secrecy: If ten minutes are spent preparing the attempt, then on an odd numbered roll, the target is informed who commissioned the assassination attempt, and on even number they are left to guess
If less than ten minutes is spent on preparing the attempt, the target is always informed who commissioned the assassination attempt
Conspiracy: Add +5 to the roll if you are supported by a conspiracy inside the target state (alternately, roll 2d20, use the best result)
Betrayal: Change to the conspiracy bonus to -4 if the plot is betrayed before the action is resolved (alternately, roll 2d20, use the worst result).
Risk: On a roll of 1-15, there is no effect
On a roll of 16-19, the target is assassinated, and the player must sit out for a minute, and then resumes play in the same role. Repressive security crackdowns mean that future assassination attempts in that state later in the game only succeed on a roll of 20.
On a roll of 20, the target is assassinated and the player must be given a new role in the game. Another player on their team must take up their old role.
You could also flip this around, and have the target roll the die, with 1 and other low numbers being the untimely demise of victim. This might allow them the use of any “luck points” or similar resources, and gives them more involvement in the resolution.
A more complex mechanic
For the Barracks Emperor megagame design that I am working on, the assassination mechanics need to reflect the history of that era of Roman history.
First, this is a period of history with a rapid turnover in Emperors, and many failed revolts. It averages out to about one new Emperor every two years between about 235 and 285 CE, with no one managing to create a stable dynastic succession until Diocletian set up the Tetrarchy. Not including character death is a disservice to the era.
Second, There are essentially two main ways that Emperors are murdered. The first way is a decision made just before a battle between rival armies. It was not uncommon for junior officers desiring promotion, or senior officers wanting to collect pensions, to collectively decide to murder an Emperor or Usurper if they thought their side’s chance of winning the battle was low. A bonus of preventing the battle with a quick act of murder, was preserving the Roman army for use against barbarians. The second way is a conspiracy among palace officials and aristocratic members of the Senate. These did not always succeed and often led to widespread purges of the Senatorial class. Which explains why part of the oaths a new Emperor swore before the Senate was an oath not to murder them.
Third, when a character is killed, the player will respawn with a new character somewhere else in the game. I did have people say I should just have an “heir” fill the role of a dead character – but its really clear in the source materials for this period that the heirs or relatives of deceased Emperors and Usurpers were either too young to succeed or were murdered as well. So having having the mutinous commander of a legion re-entering play as the commander of the same legion does not feel right for this megagame.
The KISS design principle suggests there should be one conspiracy mechanic to handle both forms of imperial murder. As part of the wider game system I plan to give each character their own mortality track. When a mortality check is required:
If the roll is a 13, the character dies.
If the roll is 8-12, check that number. If it is rolled again in a future mortality check, the character dies.
If the roll is 3-7, or 14-18, the character survives.
So you pretty much have a 90% chance of surviving the first mortality check, but you are bucking the odds if you survive more than five such checks. Most characters will only test mortality if involved in battle, or in a province struck by disease, but Emperors will have to check at least once every game turn.
A conspiracy check is made (a) before any battle involving an Emperor/Usurper, or (b) if a conspiracy special action is submitted to control with any character named as a target (this will be a limited resource, budgeted to occur not more than once per game turn).
The conspiracy check is done like this:
For a battle, get all the characters with the army in one place. For a conspiracy special action, get all the Senator, Praetorian, and Official characters in Rome together.
Everyone closes their eyes.
Control asks everyone supporting the conspiracy to raise a hand. The Praetorian commander gets to raise both of their hands.
A majority supporting the conspiracy means the Emperor must make a mortality check.
A tie or minority supporting the conspiracy means no mortality check occurs, and the Emperor is told the name of one of the conspirators.
This is relatively straightforward, with a maximum of one die roll, but it should engage all the players involved. The main requirement is the time required to assemble all of the involved players, and some private space where the rest of the players cannot see what is happening. It will need rule clarity – should an absent player default to supporting or opposing a conspiracy, or not being counted at all?
Comments and criticism of the ideas in this post are welcome.
Like many people, I am isolating at home, and have a bit of time on my hands. At least one event that I was hoping to host a megagame at this year has been cancelled, and the fate of the others is uncertain. I am going to try and post a blog article every Monday on megagames, while still continuing to tinker with mechanics for future games. This weeks topic is romance mechanics in Megagames.
The word romance is a bit loaded, so I plan to unpack what I mean by it first, before addressing the topics of safety and mechanical implementation. In Middle English, romance originally denoting a composition in the vernacular as opposed to works in Latin. Early use denoted vernacular verse on the theme of chivalry; the sense “genre centered on romantic love” dates from the mid 17th century. While a lot of current use focuses on the sentiment of love, I am also interested in its use to indicate a literary genre, perhaps most famously with the Arthurian romances.
I choose the Romance of the Seven Worlds name for one of my current megagame design projects for two reasons. One was to indicate an interest in the Planetary Romance sub-genre of science fiction, also sometimes called Sword and Planet for tales where the heroes end up on worlds without modern technology. In these stories, the bulk of the action consists of adventures on one or more exotic alien planets, characterized by distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds. It is the planetside adventures which are the focus of the story, not the mode of travel. The other reason for using the romance world was to indicate that the game would include a specific type of action that occurs in these works – romance between the characters.
I have only had one game in the past where romance was a factor. I ran a fantasy medieval civil war in the early 1990s, in which alliances required marriages between characters. This was a mechanic I took from the board game Blood Royale (Games Workshop, 1987). My recollection is that it worked well enough on the night. The reason my attention has returned to the topic is because I want play in a planetary romance game to emulate the genre that inspired the game. You can see an example of this with the accompanying pictures of a few panels out of Flash Gordon from 1942.
Romance of the Seven Worlds draws on the Sunday newspaper comic strips of the 1930s and 1940s. These comic strips only had a few panels to tell a chunk of a continuing story, rather than just getting to a gag or punchline. So even with a lot of expository text on the panels, it had to develop the story quickly.
These example panels show how characters react to the heroes from Earth – there is an instant strong attraction to, or dislike of the hero. This often disrupts the existing status quo that existed before the meddling Earthlings turned up – witness Prince Brazor’s rapid demotion to Captain Brazor, or Emperor Ming’s sorting of the meddling Earthlings into the categories of Marry, Enslave, or Execute. From this initial reaction follows a willingness to act to restore the status quo, exploit the disruption to gain advantage, or scenes where characters in a love triangle try and resolve who ends up with whom. No skipping straight to the happy ending in a good story!
In the original film serial adaptation of the comics, Doctor Zharkov, was the character everyone else wanted to recruit – he was a man of science! This was a rare thing on Mongo, as everyone seemed to have a laboratory full of Tesla coils, but very little in the way of scientists or lab assistants. If you are more familiar with the 1980 movie adaptation, think about how Princess Aura reacted to Flash. Traditional strategy games are really good at reproducing logical actions, especially when it comes to personal survival. How good are they at creating the kind of action Spock might call irrational? Why does Aura fall for Flash, saving him from execution, when it means angering her father (Emperor Ming) and making her lover Prince Barin jealous? It is bad strategy, but good story.
So the design goal is a mechanic that can emulate the genre. Here are a few different ways I could achieve this.
First, I think its a good idea to put in place some of the safety tools used in tabletop roleplaying games or the various LARPscenes. The LARP guides are likely to be more useful for megagames, due to the number of players involved and the rules having to work without control/GM being present for all interactions. No one should end up in a place where they feel uncomfortable about the romance element in a megagame. My current thoughts on what you need to do at a bare minimum is:
Make the romance element of the megagame one that requires players to opt in during the signup for the game. This may require some key characters to be flagged as requiring a romance opt in (e.g. an Imperial prince or princess with no formal role in the imperial government).
The romance opt in is signaled with an obvious heart symbol on the name tag players wear in the game – no heart, no romance.
Player and control briefings for the game need a specific section covering how romance will be handled in the game. There should be a policy and process for dealing with harassment. Everyone should be playing with the same set of expectations.
Nothing happens in the game until two players with the heart symbol interact with a short conversation, and at least one player asks for romance roleplay. Consent is a continuing requirement.
If anyone wants the romance roleplay to stop, it stops. Everyone needs to understand how to signal this in the game and how to pick up play of the game again after the interrupted scene.
At least one member of the Control team should be a point of contact for people on any issues arising from romance play.
There should also be clear opt-out spaces, where no romance is to take place, e.g. bathrooms, sacred spaces, or dining areas.
I will repeat that this is a bare minimum. I would do a lot more research on sources similar to those linked above before writing the briefs for a romantic focused megagame. If you know of a good resource I should examine, please leave a comment so that I and other readers can follow it up.
Now to get into three different options for implementing romance in different megagames.
Keep it in the Brief
Based on the game design principle of keep it simple, include all the essential elements of the romance plots in the character briefings, and let the players take it from there. Each character that is part of a romance plot needs one or more love triangles to be involved in, and some in game barriers that prevent happy resolution in the first turn. This puts romance in the game, but in a moderately predictable manner, rather than one that facilitates emergent play. A more open approach would be to tell players that they have a goal of romantic liaisons, and to specify a minimum number of such liaisons to ensure something resembling the hilarity of your favorite romantic comedy.
Empress of the Hour
This is a simple approach for games with a focus on trading and resources. The key rule is that all diplomatic deals between different factions require a marriage alliance between two people, and that each marriage alliance lasts an hour. If betrayal on trade deals is normally easy, but marriage alliances can be trusted while they last, the players have a strong incentive for some romance.
A similar option to encourage romance is to have a specific reward. This could be a resource currency in the game, or a “True Love” special action card.
Beyond the Hookup – changing goals
The idea here, is that romance leads to players creating new goals for players to pursue, which will take the emerging play into unanticipated directions.
After spending a minute interacting for the first time, two romance aspiring players interact with Control to draw a card from a playing deck consisting of just Aces, Jokers, and Royals.
If they both draw spades, then their characters have taken an instant, intense dislike to each other. You now have a new goal of trying to make life unpleasant for your new rival.
If they both draw hearts, they are instantly boon companions. You now have a new goal of being helpful to your new friend.
If both draw the same card, they are experiencing “true love” (even if spades, diamonds, or clubs). I have five versions of this true love, tailored for Romance of the Seven Worlds:
Spades: forbidden love. No one must discover our secret love!
Clubs: open love, militaristic. We will overthrow the evil emperor and rule the galaxy together!
Diamonds: open love, chivalric. We shall rule our realm together with great justice!
Hearts: open love, freedom. We will overthrow the evil empire together!
Jokers: besotted/mad love (only death or external force can part you – players to remain within 2m of each other as much as possible for the rest of the game).
As well as changing personal objectives, a player can choose to change factions to join the faction of any of their boon companions. This need not mean a current faction is abandoned.
Unrequited love – if you have a true love match but they will not set aside their current paramour, or they take a new love in their life, then you can choose to add a goal of destroying your rival!
When a match occurs, the cards are removed from the deck and given to the players. As the deck gets smaller, the chance of a match increases, but the number of players seeking matches will probably decrease as the game goes on.
So what we have is a mechanic that acts to change your goals during the game, and potentially changes your team/faction. Why is it random – I am trying to imitate the randomness of cupid’s arrow, creating a surprise for players. Two main objections I can see to implementation, the first is it is a relatively complex mechanic. The second is the true love outcomes might not be what players actually want.
The romance rules should not act as a straitjacket for the rest of the game. For players who find they have become rivals, if they are not enjoying this fact, then in the romance genre there are obvious routes for reconciliation through honorable dueling, or facing mutual enemies and shared dangers. In much the same way that a pulp hero can escape from a death trap, there should be an in-game way of exiting a romantic relationship.
Next Week – Assassination in Megagames
Next week I will post a few thoughts about assassins in megagames. If there is a specific topic you would like me to explore in a future Megagame Monday blog post, please leave a comment. I will keep trying to do a weekly post as long as I can keep finding inspiration.
I have used Sand Timers in the past to help Control regulate the length of phases within a megagame. I am now thinking about how I could use them as both a timer and an action token within the game that is used by the players.
Sand timers could be:
Placed to indicate choice of action, with the sands giving you time to resolve the action
Placed to indicate the location of the action, with the sands either being the time to resolve the action, or the time limit for other players to react to your action, after which the action is resolved
Placed on top of a unit, allowing it to move or attack until the sands run out.
Some potential problems:
Sand timers are often inaccurate
If there are lots of Sand timers on the tables, players may struggle to perceive what is going on (which could be a feature, not a bug), and Control may struggle to resolve timers finishing at roughly the same time
What happens if the Sand timer is knocked over?
Potential for downtime, where a player is just watching grains of sand tricking down
Control cannot interrupt Sand Timers, the sand will just keep obeying gravity.
The potential upside is that the use of Sand Timers could lead to some interesting real time actions, and present a lightweight way of abstracting handling factors like logistics, technology, and strategic acumen.
Now I am going to try and sketch out how I could use this in a megagame, thinking about Colossus of Atlantis. First, they will be used in the military map game. This subgame has three large regional maps (Asia, Europa, and Libya). Each regional map has a number of land, sea, and colony areas, which the factions are competing to control. The faction tokens on the map indicate area control, or are the dice that represent military units and their relative combat effectiveness.
Second, lets give each team three Strategoi (generals/admirals) and four sand timers (one of 30 seconds, two of one minute, and one of two minutes duration). The number of generals and the number of sand timers could be determined by other game mechanics (e.g. to have three generals you might need to hire mercenaries or persuade another team to loan you one of their generals for the turn, while the number and duration of sand timers might be influenced by research and resource bids). In team time the team gets to discuss which sand timers are allocated to which Strategos, and which table each Strategos is assigned too. So a team might say “We have a reward mission to take a colony in Libya, so we send Paul with the 30 second timer, and a one minute timer there, along with all of our reinforcement dice. In Asia all we have to do is defend our colony in the Black Sea and support our Amazon allies who want to attack Troy, so lets send Jane there with the two minute timer. Luigi gets the remaining one minute timer to go make trouble in Europe.”
Third, the process to use the sand timers:
Place the timer in an area to indicate a logical action (e.g. invading to take control, helping an ally, relieve a besieged colony, etc).
Allocate unit dice to the action by rolling them.* The number scored is their effectiveness for the action. If you roll a 1, the unit is exhausted (removed from play for a while).
If no other player intervenes before the sand in your timer runs out, and you have at least one unit die in the area, your action succeeds. Place a control marker in the area and return the unit dice and sand timer to your hand. Control of the area is locked until the next major game phase is started.
If another player wants to respond to your action, they need to put a sand timer down and allocate one or more unit dice to oppose you. The action resolution is delayed until all sand timers in the area run out. Unit dice are stuck in the area until the outcome is determined.
* I suggest that a “roll and keep best two dice” will lead to a better game than “roll and keep all dice.”
It is quite possible for the outcome of area control to be delayed a long time, if players are interested in the area and keep placing new sand timers and unit dice into the area, and completed sand timers return to player hands for use again. Players can see what the outcome is likely to be from the unit die rolls (barring say the use of a Divine Intervention card, or Control calling time on the phase and sending the armies home for Winter) and could use another sand timer to send reinforcements, or ask an ally to help out. A player might even use a second sand timer to evacuate threatened units before the outcome happens. This might not be the mechanic you want for an Operation Barbarossa game, but I think it fits with the back and forth and alliance diplomacy in Thucydides.
We play to find out what happens, and this time Atlantis definitely sank. As we hit game round nine, Atlantis Doom reached 1,317 and Divine Wrath reached 260, crossing the 250 threshold for triggering the endgame after one faction betrayed another. As the earthquakes started, and the waters rolled back as the tidal wave approached, I asked the Archons in the Council of Atlantis what they were doing. The leader of the Tyrants climbed up to the top of the eponymous Colossus for a good view. Another Archon tried sacrificing half the populace to Great Cthulhu, and the altars and streets of Atlantis ran red with the blood of the innocent. The other half of the populace was “busy” following the use of an Aphrodite divine favour special action. One Archon prayed to Poseidon to save them – no luck – maybe they should not have made Athena the patron Goddess of Atlantis? The Archon of the Oligarchs successfully invoked the wrath of Zeus to strike everyone but them with thunderbolts, and so Atlantis sank, with the 1% counting the coins in their vaults and making sure they had enough to pay Charon.
We had just enough players for five teams of four, rather than the eight teams of five players the game was designed for. Marketing is hard, and on a holiday weekend there are a lot of alternatives. Wellycon is also rapidly becoming the GENCON of New Zealand, and with a large con you get a bit of FOMO and its a big ask to get players to commit eight hours to one game. Next year we might do better to run two to three short duration games, with one running from 1030-1330, another from 1400-1800, and then an evening game from 1830 to 2200.
The space we had at the venue was fine for the number of people we had involved. If we had a full complement of 40 players I think it would have been getting cramped. If I had known that the exit door on out back wall was definitely going to be closed to casual traffic, I would have set the tables up differently, e.g. placing the Strategos table closer to the middle. Another option if using the same space again would be to try and get some smaller tables for the factions to have a home base.
Some logistics elements that can be improved on:
Bring a PA system
Have a Control person tasked with emptying “dump bowls” for tokens used at one table that need to be moved back to another table
More plastic tubs to help players move/store their tokens
Use multiple vehicles to transport stuff to the venue.
The map game and combat between generals flowed fairly well in Act I. In Act II everything slowed down as player versus player combat was enabled. The two main factors in this slow down appear to have been the duel mechanic and the use of Divine Favour cards to increase battle strength. This meant that rather than battles being largely automated, every fight required a check pause for resolution, and with 13 maps and four battle rounds, that meant 52 pauses in play. So it is not surprising that the Strategoi went from finishing three full Action Phases in Act I to only finishing one in Act II. Some “bluff” cards might help speed up divine intervention, as might committing the favour cards before battle cards are pulled.
The rough count of finished Megaprojects was that 13 Colossi were completed, against two each of Temples and Wonders, and zero for Architecture. While building giant robots is fun, the disparity in numbers suggests that the value of the other Megaprojects could be increased or better communicated to the players (e.g. a note in the Archon brief telling them that Architecture projects increase their popularity).
The Colossi dominated Sieges, taking part in 70-80% of the sieges and only losing on two occasions. At one stage in game development I had a siege engine mechanic, which posed a threat to Colossi in sieges. For balance I might need to reduce Colossi effectiveness versus cities, or increase the damage they take.
One feature of Colossus was the large number of game currencies: Talents (cash), Tyche (luck), Arete (virtue), Doom, Wrath and eight types of trade goods. Of these currencies Arete would be the one to drop from a future run of the game. It serves mainly as a “bennie” for good play from Control, and Control can probably fudge things in the margins without needing a specific token.
Priest Control observed that the downsides of Divine Wrath (which works a bit like the Terror Track in Watch the Skies) needed to be more clearly communicated to the players, such as a note in all the player briefings that a major crisis happens at every 50 points and 250 triggers the sinking of Atlantis (or a similar catastrophe). I should have built a spreadsheet for tracking Doom efficiently.
Strategy Control wanted a clear visual of which factions were allied with each other. The league oaths pinned to the wall were too far away for reference. Some kind of reference chart at the table or pairs of team flags. If we had run a full Priest game, then priests would have been more involved with alliances. We also had a very fuzzy alliance, where the players specified the outcomes the alliance was intended to achieve, rather than the behaviours the allies were to follow. The question was “Given the abject failure of the alliance to achieve its goals, has it been broken, if so by which side?”
The Archon game worked well, except for Stasis (civil strife/street battles in Atlantis). What was supposed to be a quick playing minigame turned into a half hour marathon. Once again duels slowed the resolution down, and counting the VP proved much harder than I thought it would be. Archon Control suggested rejigging the main Archon sequence of play so that determining vote strength happened before the Debate Phase, which is a good idea.
Archon Disaster/Event cards would have been clearer if they had two options rather than three options, and faster if the default outcome was a “No” vote for option (1) means that option (2) happens. The full set of 10 Constitution articles was only ready for Assembly Adoption by Round 4-5, and only after the last article was rammed in place by the winner of a Stasis outbreak. I suspect that the Act I deck can be just Constitution cards, and then Acts II/III can have the interesting stuff when trying to rule an empire.
In terms of game demands on players, the Strategoi and Engineers appeared to be working at 110% in Action Phases, but only 50% in the Diplomacy Phase. The Herald and Archon players appeared more evenly involved in both phases. I am yet to read the player feedback forms, so we will see if players felt the same way later in this post.
A list of unrelated Control feedback points:
The harvest mechanic needs to be simpler.
For speed of play, player badges and other game materials need to incorporate faction name, colour and symbol.
A red flag for tables where divine wrath has been triggered
More clarity around Wall tokens for colonies
Some grey walls for neutral colonies would have reduced some wild map control swings
Not sure if we needed all 13 game map tiles with just five factions, could have capped it at number of factions +1?
Hero control needed to be clearer
Add sea monsters.
The game ran to schedule, starting on time and completing the expected number of nine rounds of play.
We picked up about ten new emails from people walking past the game. Next year at Wellycon we should have flyers.
Feedback forms were handed in by about two-thirds of the players. The top quantitative feedback (higher numbers are usually better) was:
Enjoyment: did you have fun? 4.5 out of 5.
Briefing: how well did the briefing enable you to play the game? 3.8 out of 5.
Difficulty: how hard did you find the game to play 1 = hard 5 = easy? 3.2
Rate of Play: how much time pressure 1 = too much 5 = too little? 3.3
Control: how good a job did they do? 4.6
Involvement: how was your involvement with other players? 4
Value: did you get value for money? 4.5
Overall a pretty good result.
Tickets for the day were $NZ 22 for players. All of that went to Wellycon, and the game costs were covered by me (the Control team got free tickets to the event, snacks and drinks, and pizza after the game). In feedback players indicated a desire to pay an average of $NZ 29.67 for a similar length game in the future. This would be enough to cover hall hire and half the printing costs of a megagame with a similar number of players.
Marketing – where people first heard of the game – was an even mix of friends, mailing list, and announcements at the Den of Wolves game in February.
Communication – the best source of information that led to people signing up was a mixture of friends, emails and Facebook posts. Not much love for our website or store posters this time around.
Things players wanted kept for future games
My comments are in brackets after the player feedback in italics.
Trade goals had that Advanced Civilisation feel, which suited veteran gamers. (I think the territory objectives were too easily achieved earlier on, I may focus on goals that actually require trading something in the future).
Oaths laws and other interplay mechanics between groups, the group speeches and voting.
Having to perform extemporaneous speeches as the archon was a fun challenge (I think the podium box we brought along helped a lot for the speeches)
Divine favour very much fun
Interaction between the roles was fun and interesting.
It was very fun I like the idea
Herald role linking all the other teams was a great experience and helps reduce time for individual table rounds. (The Herald role was also of way of reducing the number of required Control, by getting players to move items and information between subgames)
Archon debate phase
Things players wanted stopped
Engineers probably had too much to do. (Everyone wants the Engineers to build them more stuff. However, they did have ~11 types of thing they could build, and trimming that list down to ~8 would improve the cognitive load on Engineers)
Split off the hero or streamline, took a lot of time (This may have been less of an issue if we had the players for a dedicated priest subgame, which would have been responsible for all the hero quests)
Little less opportunity for wrath so game can continue for longer.
Cypher was a bit distracting. (I could have done more to push the espionage cards out to players earlier in the game)
More availability of civil war and battle rules, i.e. would have been good to read as an Archon.
Not a full stop, but something that could speed up the civil war would be good.
No to long side quests like street fights and quests
The 20 minutes were too much for doing the diplomat phase, I had time were I was doing nothing. (A thought I had was to shift the “letter” technology development mechanic for engineers into the Diplomacy Round, where the tech being developed is for Atlantis, and factions have different perspectives on whether the tech should be military, economic, cultural, etc.)
Suddenly ending game by wrath of gods as having a lot of fun. (We had pretty much reached the end of the game and our allotted time in the venue. It’s great that people wanted to keep playing, but the Control team were running out of steam)
The stasis phase needs streamlining. I really enjoyed it but it was slow. (I agree, not sure whether I should refine the existing minigame, or handle it in a more abstract fashion, like the voting mechanic in a past game where everyone had to close their eyes, then point at who they supported to win a vote).
Things the players wanted started
More ways to stop big stompy colossi (yes, they were just a bit too strong)
There are many “luxury” roles that might improve the game but we didn’t have the turnout for them. (Yes, I would love to have solo roles for: High King of Atlantis, an Oracle, Historians, Cultists, Mercenaries, foreign ambassadors – but it requires us building up a much larger base of regular players)
More goal based mini stories to keep you invested and excited in your faction. (While we had some scripted injects, I think the ideal in megagames should be for the emergent play that the players create to be engaging.)
Scheduled food breaks. (Mentioned a couple of times. The problem with a food break is that if anyone goes off site you lose an hour of game time. In theory, everyone should be able to find a few minutes in the Diplomacy Phase for food, drink and a toilet break)
Make heralds magistrates. (This was a player choice in the range of options for Constitution articles)
More work on the rules – some still a bit ambiguous.
More ability for players to backstab. (This is on the players I think, the more deals and alliances you make, the more people you can betray. I am reluctant to give strong incentives to betray everyone in a game where breaking oaths triggers Divine Wrath).
Would like to play with the Priest role active. (This was mentioned in several feedback forms. We would have loved to have more players along so that role could have been played).
Colour coded resource tokens cheat sheet (Yes, would be handy)
Team tables for diplomacy phase. (Would be great, and if we had our own venue to ourselves could be done.)
While I will look at tweaking Colossus and I plan to see if running a game in Sydney later this year could work, I have my wedding to help plan for February 2019. So I am not going to be running any megagames in Wellington between now and mid-2020. If other people want to take the opportunity to organise a game, I have the ability to help with maps and tokens.
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.
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”.
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.
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
Enjoyment: did you have fun? (4.6)
Briefing: how well did the briefing enable you to play the game? (4)
Difficulty: how hard did you find the game to play? (3.6)
Rate of Play: how much time pressure? (3.1)
Control: how good a job did they do? (4.7)
Involvement: how was your involvement with other players? (4.2)
Value: did you get value for money? (4.6)
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.
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.
Would you be interested in playing Megagames in the future? 89% of the players would be interested in future Megagames, another 8% were “maybe”.
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.
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.
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.
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):
Game license $415
Venue Hire $320
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.
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.
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:
Entropy starts at 1 for the party.
Increase Entropy by 1 each round.
If using a powered item, any roll under the Entropy value exhausts its current charge.
When a player rolls a 1, roll 1d20 on the Entropy Event table, and then reset Entropy to 1.
Entropy Event Table
A device the PC was using breaks.
One of the laws of physics is suspended. Probably gravity.
An adversary uses a surprise action.
A spell expires early, or the spell being cast turns out very differently from what was intended.
An NPC runs away. Was it a friend, or a foe?
If it can catch fire, it catches fire. If its already on fire, it explodes.
The sun flickers, plunging everyone into darkness for a round.
All death saves are made with disadvantage next round.
Re-roll temporary HP and keep the lower score.
Ancient machines start activating.
The floor collapses, revealing a hidden chamber.
Drop something small and valuable, like your ring of invisibility, without noticing it is gone.
Re-roll initiative for everyone but the person who rolled the 1.
Temporal surge. Anyone reduced to exactly zero HP next round is immediately restored to full HP.
An ancient dimensional door reactivates, and a wave of faceless enemies starts pouring through. It closes when the next entropic event is triggered.
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.
Reduce the number of Death saves allowed by 1.
Proficiency bonuses now equal the entropy die until the next entropy reset.
An NPC changes sides.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
In the second Act of the game, the player versus player options are enabled and both players and factions can be exiled from Atlantis.
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.
The game will feature up to eight factions drawn from Ancient Greek myths and history:
The Amazons, a team of women pushing for emancipation
The Aristocrats, a team that seeks rule by the best people
The Democrats, a team that seeks rule by all people
The Medes, a team that supports peace, trade, and magical research
The Monarchists, a team that supports the rule of Kings descended from the divine Poseidon
The Oligarchs, a team that seeks rule by the wealthy
The Stratocrats, a team that supports military spending and war
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.
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:
Offworld aid organisations, trying to uplift local education and economic practices
Offworld civil government representatives, trying to shepherd the planetary government into membership of an interstellar polity
Offworld military commanders, trying to keep the peace
Offworld private military contractors (mercenaries), trying to profit from keeping the peace
Smugglers, trying to make profits from criminal activities
Corporations seeking access to local resources, or contracts to supply offworld goods and services
Planetary coalition government, trying to avoid a return to destructive warfare
Insurgent factions derived from former local governments, spanning a range of ideological positions, and tactics from non-violent protest to terrorism.