Classic Housewar Revisited

June 22, 2011

Housewar was a play-by-mail (PBM) campaign I ran for three years in 1991-1993.  It was a gloriously baroque space opera, lovingly hand moderated, and somewhere around 30 odd people took part in its twists and turns.  At the end of 1993 I got an internet account, was elected to the student union exec, and ran out of time to continue a hand mdoerated game.  I had also figured out that my dream of making a living from running PBM games was not going to work – the future was going to be PBeM games, and I couldn’t code worth a damn.

One of the hard bits of shifting years later was throwing out all the Housewar game notes.  They filled a large trunk at the stage, well over a cubic metre of paper.  I still have a few newsletters and maps somewhere, and I think I only got rid of the five and a quarter floppy with the game files last year.

So its interesting to reflect on what I would do differently now, with a somewhat better educated brain, the wonders of modern technology, and a set of time suck commitments that mean that I can’t spend four hours each night rolling six-sided dice as House Illia attempts to repel House Dlan’s invasion fleets.  So here is a list in no particular order:

1. Build a CAD map with layers.  I used to redraw the map boundaries by hand every game turn for Classic Housewar.  Digital would get around that, and layers would allow a more focused display of particular bits of information.  Also, it could be in colour.

2. Have a supporting website, wiki, blog, and e-mail list.  Tempting to add twitter to the list, as the idea of running a game where all orders were limited to 140 characters has some appeal.  I used to get a paragraph of orders from some players, and 10-20 page manifestos from other players.  The shorter order sets usually did better, as NPCs had a bit more initiative.

3. E-mail battle results to the e-mail list, allowing players to verify combat resolution prior to confirming the final result.  This would save me hours of retconning hand moderation clusterfucks.

4. One move every two months, probably taking two weeks for resolution of a move.

5. A stable rule set.  I used to change the rules every turn, often in major ways, as I was reading a lot of military history and strategic studies books and this meant I was constantly finding better ways of making the game “more realistic”.  I’m sure at least one player observed that every turn of Housewar was like it was an entirely new game.  I’m a lot less obsessed by realism now, preferring a focus on particular themes and keeping everyting else simple.

6. Less is more. Start small, allow growth to a manageable point.  Housewar III in particular suffered from a bloat, with unused map portions, way too many rules, and vast fleets of time consuming uselessness.

7. Use Matrix game arguments to establish random events, rather than having a random event table.  Based on past experience, I would be careful to outline the limits of this, e.g. no black holes, supernovaes, or dinosaur killing asteroids.  Also, while it sucks to ahve bad shit happen, seeing that it was other players doing it to you, rather than cruel dice, is I think better in a social game where people will tell stories about it in later years.

8. Balance the initial economy, rather than generate it with random numbers.  In hindsight, taking an economic system from a WWII game where units took 6 turns to build was not great.  Its really hard to plan that far ahead.  Nor was allowing people at war to build 2-3 times as much as people at peace, without them paying some price for it.

9. Limited warfare.  Housewar battles were fairly bloody, being a mix of WWI and WWII naval game mechanics.  Winners tended to take light casualties while the losers were wiped out.  In turn this meant a few defeats led to elimination of a player.  With a design intent that was more looking for persistent inceremental gains/losses moderated by diplomacy and the balance of power, I would aim for a combat system which produced win/lose without always generating massacres.  My current idea here, is that ships automatically put up a bubble shield wall when damaged, that guarantees they survive to the end of that round of combat, at which point the commander may choose to run away.

10. Less bean counting.  No more logistics points.  Only Seth ever got that the logistics subgame meant you needed enough supplies for consecutive turns to gaurantee a successful invasion.

11. Exploration.  Was never really handled well, and for a space game with wormholes you need a clear idea of the costs/benefits of exploration.  Also, changing the map hard copy was tricky. Probably easier with a CAD map.

12. Scenario.  I think I’d want a bit more in the way of background, and what the motivations for the Houses are, beyong survival and power.  Currently I lean towards a “reconstruction” atmosphere following a Saberhagen Beserker style invasion triggered during a diaspora from Terra.  So there would be a rehtorical space for “unity against the alien menace”, even if I never had said menace show up in the game again (because whichever playergot selected as the invasion point would have to be obliterated by it, otherwise no one would take the green gooks seriously, see point 7 on RNG).

13. Leaders. Used to be in quite limited supply, I think I’d make it trivial to recruit at least one more per turn, so that initial poor luck in random talent generation does not ruin a House’s shot at glory.

14. Diplomacy. Could possibly be handled with matrix arguments.  Depending on how leaders work, I might add a dynastic marriage requirement.

15. Technology.  Inextricably linked to stable ruleset.  Allowing players to create new forms of combat unit always leads to a revolutionary change in rules.  Evolutionary change is much easier to handle, where units get minor bonuses/penalties, rather than being instantly invinceable/obsolete.  Could also be handled with matrix arguments.

16. Declarations of war.  Matrix arguments again, and require the players to articulate their war aims (with some defaults if the players have a complate imagination failure, e.g. attacker wants to take over a system, defender wants to keep them), so once accomplished or failed, a subsequent matrix argument can lead to peace.

17. Balance.  A lot more care at setup, power differentials of +/-10% not +/- 100%.  Ultmately still relies on the players, once you push the go button on the game, balance goes out the window.

18. Mars Convention. Make it explicit in interstellar law, “No use of WMD on human colonies.”  In hindsight, I should have realised that having a x2 economic multiplier for war status, and a x3 for DEFCON 1 status would lead to players declaring war on each other and then having a limited exchange of nuclear weapons to boost economic growth in both states.  All very 1984, but it broke the game badly.

19. Ansible. Be a bit more explicit about how the FTL communications work.  I used to handwave it as telepathy between House leaders, but it does affect how non-leader controleld fleet units should work/react.

20. Limit the number of players to 14.  20+ was a bit too much for me to handle.  Can always have a waiting list, or a reserve list for players who forget to submit orders.

Yeah, someday I’ll run Housewar IV. Someday.

Dragon Age

March 2, 2011

I had a lot of fun on my first playthough of the Dragon Age computer game, even if I never could finish a second playthrough.  So I am looking forward to Dragon Age 2 in a few weeks.  After looking at the developer’s notes for the tabletop adaptation by Green Ronin, I picked that up as a simple to use RPG.  While I like it, it has a few problems. 

One of these, which Green Ronin has no control over, is that Dragon Age 2 is coming out, and its making some changes to the game system.  I watched some of these in a livecast demo and Q&A session, and they look nifty – I liked the way the new talent trees are presented, and the concept of building cross-class synergy into the trees.  For example, a mage talent can let them do x6 damage versus staggered targets, but to make a target staggered you need a warrior.  All this has made it hard for Green Ronin to release the promised second set for their RPG, although they did put a beta out for playtesting.

Some of the problems, however, are of Green Ronin’s own devising.  In the computer game all three classes (Mage, Warrior, Rogue) have an energy system called stamina.  Part of your stamina pool can be invested in passive buffs, and part left for active sue by talented abilities. Stamina slowly regenerates and healers can help boost it as well.  It works okay.  In the RPG, however, only Mages have an energy resource mechanic – mana – for use with their spells.  Warriors and Rogues get nothing: fundamentally they are back in classic RPG days of swinging a sword repetitively, at least until they get a stunt roll (about a 40% chance) which allows them do funky moves.  The plus side of not have an energy resource is that there is less book keeping involved.

I also found in play, that spell debuffs that work fine in a rapid-moving computer game, such as a paralysis spell that lasts 1d6+6 rounds, are a complete disaster in a slow-moving table-top game where no character has any ability to remove such a debuff (short of GM fiat or divine intervention).

The other big problem, is that while Rogues and Warriors do want to spend their experience gain across a broad range of attributes (strength, dexterity and constitution for offensive and defensive abilities), Mages want one attribute and one attribute only – Magic.  The Magic attribute increases their mana pool, their chance of successfully casting a spell, the difficulty of resisting their spells, and the power of their magic wand (which functions as their default attack if they don’t want to cast a spell).  They have no reason to boost their other ‘primary’ attributes.  This can be fixed, mainly by tying abilities like the spellcasting bonus to other stats (such as Cunning), but I can’t do this mid-campaign (both my mages intuitively min-maxed their characters and howled when I suggested a balancing fix).

Now one reason for wanting all three character roles to have their own resource system is that you can make interesting decisions in-game about when to spend the resource.  It also avoids Flat Mana Battery syndrome, where the mage unleashes hell in the first encounter, then complains of a headache and retires back to the tavern for a cuppa and a lie down … until their mana pool is replenished.  So I spent a little time brainstorming some generic uses for such a resource system within the AGE 3d6 + stunts framework.

(1) Fatigue: allow characters to spend energy so as to succeed on tasks.  So if a target number (TN) is 17 and they roll a 13, then by spending four energy points they can succeed and roll damage.  Players would be encouraged to do this whenever they have a double and potential stunt to use, so while potentially open to abuse, it does give them some narrative control: “I really, really, want to hit the bad guy on the horse fleeing into the distance…”

(2) Stunt Size: allow characters to spend energy to increase the value of their stunt die roll.  I would be inclined to limit this to double the value of the actual roll, or to build in some kind of scaling, otherwise most stunt rolls could be turned into 6s, whch eans the lower value stunts might never be used.

(3) Stunt Effectiveness: allow charcters to spend energy points to boost the efectiveness of individual stunts.  Similar to 2, but the charcter choices are a bit more constrained by the RNG of the initial roll.

(4) Rerolls: a more RNG dependent version of (1), where you spend energy to roll a die again, but there is less chance of success.

(5) Talent Triggers: build energy point usage into individual talents, e.g. letting a rogue do more damage, or additional effects (such as a bleed or stun) with their standard backstab ability.

(6) Last Stand: a special ability that could only be triggered with your very last energy point, e.g. a warrior’s beserker rage, or a mage breaking their magic staff in a fiery explosion.

At any rate, my brain is thinking, and I’ll be trying to deconstruct the Dragon Age 2 talent trees and thinking how they can be reworked into the tabletop RPG, along with some kind of reworked energy system for all three classes.