13th Age Icons – Old Solar System

This week I have been reading some Leigh Brackett planetary romance novels and thinking about the Old Solar System, the one writers imagined before the early space probes confirmed there was no life on Mars of Venus. There are some games out there that use this milieu of canals and crumbling ruins on Mars, and lush jungles teeming with dinosaurs on Venus, such as Rocket Age or Cavaliers of Mars, as well as some modern works of fiction, such as S. M. Stirling’s In the Court of the Crimson Kings.

The inspiration I had for a game, was to drop Atlantis into the Old Solar System mix. Let us just start by saying the universe and the laws of physics were different before the fall of Atlantis, and thus handwave away the boring bits of modern science. Then we drop the players and their characters into this world at the height of Atlantean power, as its empire stretches across the known worlds of the Solar System in an era of glory and shadows. We can add the “missing world” between Mars and Jupiter that people thought might have once been the source of the asteroid belt, a Vulcan between Mercury and the Sun, and perhaps a Nemesis counter-Earth on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth. Jupiter can have a solid surface, an area equal to one hundred Earths to swallow the armies of Atlantis in endless steppes and insectoid mound cities. The unknown worlds beyond Saturn can be a frontier of dark enigma and alien menace.

Now we all know how this story ends – Atlantis in its hubris angers the Gods and is destroyed in a deluge – so the standard D&D5E campaign of heroic defence of the status quo is not a good fit for the spine of the campaign. After all, the status quo is an imperial power that exploits its military might to colonise and exploit the other worlds. So it is easy for Atlantis to be presented in ambiguous our even villainous terms, and for the player characters to be a band of exiles, rebels, and outlaws. At any rate, part of the creative tension for the campaign is the how, when, and why Atlantis eventually falls.

As I often do at the start of planning a potential campaign, I use the Icons framework from the 13th Age roleplaying game to help think about the major personalities, factions, and organisations for the campaign. At the start of the campaign the players define their relationship with the icons, whether positive/allied, negative/adversarial, or complicated/ambiguous. Icons that are not of interest to the players then fade into the background unless needed as a B plot filler. So here is a first draft of icons for the Atlantean Solar System, mixing some ideas from Ancient Greece and planetary romance tales.

The High King

The High King is the ruler of Atlantis, his legitimacy derived from divine descent in an unbroken line of Kings back to the founding of Atlantis. As the embodiment of monarchy he is the ultimate source of order, law, and justice, and high priest to the traditional Gods of Atlantis. The current High King married a daughter of the morning star, a love match contrary to the advice of the oracles. All of the High King’s children are daughters, so he has no male heir to succeed him as High King. The High Queen is believed by many to have been cursed by the Gods, but the High King will not divorce her. In desperation, the proud High King has begun a search for immortality. Meanwhile, plots and conspiracies begin to form around potential marriage alliances with his daughters.

The Council

Nine noble houses share blood ties to the High King, and by ancient law must be consulted by the High King before new laws can be passed, or any of their number executed for treason. The Council is the embodiment of aristocracy, born to rule, with wealth based on land ownership, with no room for merchants or commoners in their ranks. While the long debates of the Council encompass diverse opinions, conservative views and traditional virtues dominate. As the High King grows weaker, unity in the Council fades, as each arrogant House plots to gain control of the succession to the throne of Atlantis.

The Helmsman

The leader of the Fallen Star, a crashed space ship from outside the solar system. He has become a key advisor to the High King, as the lore the Helmsman and his Nepharian crew have shared has increased the technology and sorcery of Atlantis to new heights. To the envy of many, the original Nepharian crew are immortal, though their children born in Atlantis are not. Powerful people are also jealous of the influence that the Helmsman has over the High King. The Nepharians seek to repair their ship, so they can escape the doom that pursues them from across the stars.

The Vril Guild

The wealthiest merchants of the Atlantean Empire, are the Vril Guild, which has a monopoly on mining Vril from the planet Aschanda, which lies between Shalbatana (Mars) and Neberu (Jupiter). Vril is they key power source for the wonders of Atlantis, its cruel war machines, and every new feat of invention and engineering that the merchant princes can devise. Unlike most of the factions in Atlantis, the guild is open to women. The wealth from this monopoly funds every imaginable luxury and decadence, as well as the ability to influence policy through corruption. Despised by the Council and the Myrmidons, the guild knows gold can also buy a path to the throne.

The Myrmidons

The generals of Atlantis all share views that justify the expansion of the Atlantean empire. While a few see it as the duty of Atlantis to uplift other peoples and bring them the wonders of Atlantis, most Myrmidons see the endless wars as opportunities for glory, loot, and slaves. While excellent soldiers, the Myrmidons tend to be conservative and superstitious, as only the wrath of the Gods can defeat the armies and fleets of Atlantis. The foremost Myrmidon is the governor of the Atlantean possessions on Neberu. As the empire expands and bleeds on the frontiers, demands for conscripts from Atlantis, slave-soldiers from the prison plant of Vulcan, and levies from its tributary states keep growing.

The Tyrant

The most brilliant, charismatic, and treacherous leader from Atlantis now languishes in exile on distant Kayamanu (Saturn). Loved in many quarters for unexpected victories against great odds, they are also hated for their philandering, corruption, and dueling victories against many nobles. The Tyrant indulges in smuggling drugs from the twilight shrouded fungal forests of Kayamanu, designing new superweapons, and annoying distant rivals with multi-layered conspiracies, while awaiting the inevitable recall from exile to deal with some future crisis that threatens Atlantis.

The Orator

The most brilliant, charismatic, and ambitious leader in Atlantis is a rabble rousing hero of the people, and the best admiral in its fleets. Exploiting the decline in the High King’s authority and the divisions in the Council, the Orator offers a vision of a better Atlantis, one where all male citizens can vote for their rulers and their laws, and share equally in the wealth of the empire. Unpopular in the highest circles of Atlantis, but fearing riots if he were to be assassinated, the Orator has been “promoted” to the office of governor of Shalbatana in the hope that the Warlord or the Red Queen will prove his undoing.

The Priest-King

The leader of the ancient Saurian civilisation on Ninsi’anna (Venus), which once had colonies and outposts throughout the Solar System, before abandoning them and withdrawing home in some long forgotten crisis. A tributary state of Atlantis, the Saurian pyramid cities have many wonders and legacies form their Age of Glory. The Priest-King balances sharing some of this lore with Atlantis, against the desires of his people to keep their traditional way of life intact. The Priest-King is also the foremost alchemist of this age, with many elixirs and potions derived from the fecund flora and fauna of the tall forests of dawn star world.

The Amazon Queen

A leader of a hidden city, where women rule. The Amazons once defeated and invaded Atlantis in an ancient war, earning rights of free travel throughout the Solar System. Individual amazon warriors sometimes fight for Atlantis, and sometimes against Atlantis. The Myrmidons would love to find and plunder the secret fortress city of the Amazons, which they believe lies concealed somewhere on the Tellurian Moon. The Amazon Queen has an unmatched reputation for courage, wisdom, and virtue. Like the High King, she also claims divine descent from the Gods. Of late the Queen’s brow is furrowed by dire portents from her oracle.

The Warlord

The leader of the nomad tribes of Shalbatana, the Warlord is the most honourable foe of Atlantis. Pledged to fight until the Atlantean oppressors are removed from the red soil and canal cities of Shalbatna, the Warlord is a dangerous and wily leader of seasonal raiders, professional bandits, and all the dispossessed refugees who have sought refuge from the harsh laws of Atlantis in the untamed dryland deserts. The Warlord faithfully follows the ancient traditions and customs, even when it poses a risk to his cause. His base is usually a wilderness camp or cave system, changing with every passing season.

The Red Witch

The last free Queen of the city states of Shalbatana, the Red Witch is the most implacable foe of Atlantis, seeking vengeance for a family slaughtered by the Myrmidons. The Red Witch uses terror, black magic, torture, assassins, and revolutionaries alike in pursuit of her feud. Some of her followers will occasionally act as mercenaries for other factions, but the Red Witch is unrelenting in her opposition to the works and men of Atlantis. Among the canal people, she is both feared and loved, in the dryland wastes she is considered without honour, but in Atlantis she is feared and hated. Great would be the reward for the hero who can humble her in chains before the High King.

The Storm Wolf

Leader of the pirate clans of the Great Red Storm of Neberu, the Storm Wolf is a fearless, reckless thief. From the safety of storm hidden bases, unassailable to the Atlantean fleets, he raids convoys and cities alike, with swift attacks and rapid retreats. His followers have links to smuggling networks, and other bands of criminals throughout the solar system. The Star Wolf can offer sanctuary to the enemies of Atlantis, for a price, which includes access to the myriad debaucheries of his free city. The Storm Wolf is also infamous for freeing slaves found aboard the ships he plunders, and recruiting them to join his clan.

The Dreamer

In ancient days, the Titans were overthrown by the Gods, and imprisoned in deep and dark places. In recent years one of the imprisoned Titans has begun calling out to people in their dreams. These dreams convey secrets and ways of accessing powers never meant for mortal minds and hands. A hundred cults have secretly bloomed in Atlantis, and elsewhere in the Solar System. Some cultists are content with a few crumbs of power and pleasure, others have become zealots who search for the hidden prison of the Titans.

Hubris

The unifying theme for all the icons is hubris. Nearly all of the icons display elements of excessive pride, self-confidence, arrogance, conceit, vanity and similar traits. They all believe that they are right in the views of what should happen, and that compromise is a fatal weakness. Thus are the seeds for tragedy sown.

Building a better tech tree

I have had a stimulating couple of weeks working on some ideas for Colossus of Atlantis II. One goal for the redesign is to have a better tech tree. Last time the research game was “go fish” in the card deck, followed by “collect a set” trading, and for some of the teams, eventually building a colossi or two. I think I can do better next time. Ideally I want every team to have the chance to put Colossi on the table in time for them to make a difference. I am also keen to move away from people holding large piles of cards for trading – I want trade negotiations to focus on a contract like piece of paper where people haggle over the split of profits.

Tech trees have always been a staple of RTS games, but they go back further, to the old Civilization boardgame (1980), if not earlier.

Some of the design questions you need to consider in building a tech tree include:

  1. Is the research order set? How much choice do you want to give the players – this can be crucial if there is a system mastery challenge where some options are better than others.
  2. Is the research order known to the players? If its known it can be a spoiler, if it is not known the uncertainty will change player strategies.
  3. Can steps on the tech tree be skipped? If players do screw up, is there a catch up mechanic?
  4. How much control do the players have over the research effort?

Technology developments can be great rewards and motivators. Its a way of adding complexity to the game as the players master the core rules of the game, by adding new capabilities to the game mix.

Time is a constraint in megagames. You will only be able to process a finite number of game turns. If you make the tech tree too big, teams will never complete the end of the tree, and this may disappoint the players. This suggests you need to calculate the resource fountain or flow dedicated to research, against the cost of the options. You definitely want a playtest of the system. After several turns what does it look like for teams that focused on research, ignored research, or did a bit of research?

Because technology can be used to change the game rules, you also need to consider how this change is reflected in game state information. All the other players and GMs need to be able to verify and understand the research outcomes. Keeping things simple is always a good idea.

In real life, tech change tends to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. One thing I would not want to do, is to have one option in the tech tree that is a dominant strategy. Some teams will spot it, others may well miss it until it is too late.

Putting this all together in a new package

I usually have about four hours available for a megagame, and get through about eight 20 minute turns, after briefings and delays are taken care of. So I want less tiers of research than I expect game turns. I think the tech tree should be open knowledge to the players, especially as I want to run the game more than once.

Because each team should have five players, that sets the upper bound of research effort each turn – five attempts to generate research points and buy technology cards. That means no more than five branches on the research tree. With the mechanics I have in mind, at the start of the game a player should be generating 1-12 research points a turn. By the end of the game, a player should be generating 2-24 research points a turn.

research2

This is a table I put together quickly, so the numbers might be fine tuned later. It has four tiers of research, although I might extend it to a fifth tier as well. There are two concepts represented in the cost/reward structure – diffusion of knowledge and diminishing returns.

The first team to research a breakthrough pays the highest cost, but reaps the greatest reward in Victory Points. The costs diminish as the knowledge is spread throughout society, but the Victory Points drop more quickly to zero. This can be done by building a card deck, set in a prearranged order, so the cost of the top card is the highest cost, and so on down to the cheapest and last card.

If a team focuses on maximising research, they should unlock most of the tech tree within five turns, granting them three or more turns to enjoy the fruits of their labours. A team focusing its efforts elsewhere, can catch up with a bit of effort.

I do have some problems to work on. First, I need a way to make it clear who gets the privilege of choosing cards first (it could just be random).

Second, because I need to keep the research card decks in one place, but my initial map design has multiple maps where research can be generated, I need to find a way to accurately transmit information about research (do I give the players cards or token chips, or rely on Map GMs to coordinate the information).

I also have not decided exactly what the research will do, but it is likely to be a mixture of:

  1. Adding more units to a team’s force pool.
  2. Improving the capabilities of controlled units (e.g. rolling a d8 rather than a d6).
  3. Changing game rules.
  4. Unlocking new types of units, such as the Colossi.
  5. Allowing the build of ancient wonders of the world.

One option I am considering, is allowing a narrow thrust up the tree to unlock the Colossi at Tier IV or V. But all the branches of the tech tree lead to Colossi (each gives the Colossi a different capability). After all, making a game about giant steam bronze robots, and not letting the players use and enjoy such leviathans, would not be good design.