Hacking Watch the Skies

May 9, 2018

For its first Megagame, the Wellington Megagame Collective is adapting Jim Wallman’s Watch the Skies (WTS) game to a Cold War setting (WTS:CW). The game will be run at Wellycon on 2 June 2018. If you are interested in playing you can register here. Cost is $19 for the Saturday. This post explores the reasons for the changes we are making to the original WTS game in order to best fit the Cold War element.

Why hack WTS instead of just running the original game?

I can think of three reasons (1) because we can, (2) because we want to, and (3) because we need to.

One of the great things about manual games, like board games, tabletop roleplaying games and megagames, is that the mechanics are transparent to players. If you can play these games, then you understand them well enough to tweak them to your preferences. Computer games, however, tend to be black box technology that is harder to understand and hack.

In gaming, everyone builds on what has come before. There is very little that is new under the sun. Playing around and tinkering with new game concepts and the mechanics to play them is how we come up with cool new games to play.

Choosing the Cold War as a major thematic element of our game does require us to make a few necessary changes to make the game fit with the history, and some minor changes to help evoke the history of the period in the game.

Why the Cold War?

  • its an interesting period of history, lots of chrome for the UN and Science games, plus colour for the Special Action cards
  • a lot of period movies can be referenced, including a range of classic flying saucer and alien invasion movies, and the Dr Strangelove movie to capture the absurdity of mutually assured destruction
  • its an interesting design challenge – can we reproduce the mistrust and paranoia of the Cold War, give players nuclear arsenals, and reach the 1970s without nukes being used?

Choosing the starting year for WTS:CW – why 1962?

1962 is after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion (April 1961), before Cuban Missile crisis (October 1962) and the assassination of JFK (22 November 1963). Its a time when the USA is a global hegemon, but the USSR is still seen as a credible challenger, not yet undermined by corruption and stagnation. By 1962 the old Empires of Europe have largely given way to newly independent nations, but France and the UK are still global powers with bases around the world. I think its a good point in time to drop the players – there is still a lot of scope for creative moves in the great game of geopolitics.

A note on game balance – in the early 1960s the USA had almost 40% of global GDP, and its government budget was over double that of the USSR (the CIA tended to significantly overestimate USSR economic and military strength) and perhaps ten times what the UK or France had. For balance purposes, the USA will start WTS:CW with only slightly more Resource Points (RPs) than the other teams, but dominates the initial influence rankings in many zones of the globe (which gives the highest influence team access to unique privilege cards). The Non-aligned Movement (NAM) will also be a more cohesive political bloc than it was historically, representing a third way alternative to the Super Powers (which France under Charles de Gaulle is also doing to an extent). The relative weakness of the minor powers is represented by imposing a permanent budget reduction if they build the largest size of Army/Fleet units.

WTS covers roughly three months of time per game turn. For WTS:CW I decided that a time scale of one year per game turn was needed in order to encompass the full range of events in the 1960s. It also means that success for the human teams is reaching the 1970s without alien invasion or nuclear armageddon occurring. A couple of changes follow from this. First, logistics is easier. Conventional units can be redeployed wherever you have bases, at no cost in RPs. This also frees up RPs for investment in the Influence game, otherwise overall RP incomes would need to be increased. Second, Public Relations (PR) is more forgiving. PR starts at zero, and can increase to +/- 9, but moves one space towards zero each turn. If PR is positive, +1 RP is gained to budget, and if PR is negative -1 RP is lost. The 1960s was a time of economic growth, and team RP budgets will probably increase during the game.

What features help make WTS:CW a Cold War game?

First, team briefings will highlight the ideological competition and the goal of having a better PR score than your adversaries, secure bases around the globe, and high influence scores in as many zones as possible. Because USA is in number one place at the start, they are the obvious target for all of the other teams. Players should be mistrustful and suspicious of other teams – I want to evoke the fear of the “missile gap” where everyone is worried the aliens are giving military technology to the other teams. An outcome where all the human teams hold hands and sing about the age of Aquarius in order to defeat the aliens should still be possible, but not the most likely outcome.

Second, the map. First, it uses the Cahill-Keyes projection rather than the Mercator projection in an attempt to minimise distortion of the parts of the map I expect a lot of the competitive play to take place in (Africa, Middle East, and Central America). Rather than the mix of colours in the standard WTS map, NATO regions are all dark blue, and Warsaw pact regions are Red. This is a visual signal to players – trying to establish bases or do combat in an opposing alliance region is high risk and can trigger DEFCON 1. The NAM regions are in green. Otherwise each zone has all of its regions the same colour. As with the normal WTS map, postage stamp size states are omitted, and in places several small states are merged together, with a few exceptions such as the French presence in Djibouti.

Note: for WTS:CW Egypt is in both the Africa and Middle East zones, and Turkey is in both the Europe and Middle East zones. The map below is a work in progress, lacking city names and PR/RP tracks.

WTS-CW-2-solids-names-cities

The Space Race is part of the Science game. It is handled by a secret RP bid from Scientists, with the winner advancing one space towards being the first to land on the Moon. Lower bids might get an advance, depending on how far back you are from the front runner. Each time you advance you get a choice of reward (PR boost, Influence boost, or Science Credits), with the rewards increasing the further down the track you have advanced.

There only five nation teams in WTS:CW. Many states are still recovering from WWII (e.g. Germany, Japan, Italy) or do not have enough political prominence yet (e.g. Brazil) or are outcasts from the international community (South Africa). It also reflects that I am only expecting 20-30 players, so I would rather not invest time building components that do not get used.

There are two forms of combat between conventional units: regular and irregular. Regular combat is the default system, irregular combat occurs if corporate or revolutionary units are involved. In irregular combat, results are indecisive, with limited casualties (to represent quagmires like Vietnam). In regular combat, the defeated side loses all of their units. Units will be represented with dice, with three sizes of dice (12mm, 16mm and 22mm). The largest dice are rolled first. Each team has only six of the largest dice, so will need to be careful about where they place them. I was influenced in this design choice by the use of dice to represent soldiers in an American Revolution megagame at GENCON last year (see image below).

2017-08-19 19.23.38

In the Influence game will be handled by either the head of state or an intelligence minister (depending on how many players the team has). The Influence game starts with a round of drafting Influence Operation cards, followed by resolving the operations. Each player gets a hand of cards, chooses one, placing it face up in front of them along with any Agents or RPs, then passes the remaining cards on clockwise. The last card is discarded rather than passed on.

screenshot-2018-05-09-12-04-20.png

The cards have a hardwired action and target zone (see examples above). After all cards are tabled, they are resolved in the order they were played in. For each operation card an outcome card is drawn (see examples below). For quick play, one outcome card can apply to all of the player actions in that operation phase. The card specifies a success condition for the operation. The number inside the circle is how effective the action is – for an influence action its usually +1 or +2 influence, for a Base action it would be placing one or two Bases in the region. Actions that reduce other team’s influence automatically target the team(s) with the highest influence. Rare black circles indicate a penalty for failure.

Screenshot 2018-05-09 12.11.08

If you have the highest influence in a region, you gain its privilege card. This grants bonuses like:

  • a permanent +1 increase to RPs
  • 1d6 Science Credits
  • choosing a card from the discard pile for use next turn.

I am still working on what causes Stability to change, but it is likely to be a mix of inputs from UN crisis resolution, Terror Track thresholds, Special Action cards, and player actions (e.g. a rousing speech from a team leader may make the world a better place, or plunge it into chaos). The lower stability is, the easier Influence Operations become in a zone. So if you want to defend a region you dominate, you want high stability. If you want to degrade another team’s influence, then disrupting stability is the way to go.

For DEFCON and Nukes I am adapting a mechanic from the Twilight Struggle boardgame. If a team’s actions cause DEFCON 1 (global thermonuclear war) to occur, then they will be judged as losing the game. Political leaders control use of nukes at DEFCON 3-5, Military leaders control nuke use at DEFCON 2.

  1. DEFCON improves by +1 at the start of each turn.
  2. If the Super powers do not build any nukes, or large combat units, DEFCON improves by +1 that turn.
  3. Nuclear test ban treaties and similar actions can improve DEFCON.
  4. Several key actions cause a DEFCON check to be made. If a d6 roll is less than current DEFCON, then DEFCON is reduced by one. These actions include nuke use, direct combat between USA/USSR units, combat in NATO/Warsaw pact regions, coups (attempts to convert another team’s base into one of your own), and playing DEFCON Special Action cards.

The design intent is to allow some scope for player skulduggery, but for everyone to get very cautious about further provocations when DEFCON reaches 2.

We are still three weeks away from running WTS:CW, so all the above might be changed or dropped if playtests show its not working, but the rules and briefings will all be locked down a week out from the game.

What is not changing?

If it is not mentioned above as being hacked, it is being kept from WTS with as few changes as possible. In particular I am doing nothing to the key UFO mission/human interception mechanic, as it is a thing of beauty and underpins the entire game. The process for researching new technology is the same, we changed a few names to reflect the 1960s and added some weird science options and a unique technology for each team.

What about the aliens?

Without giving the twist away, we are not using the default WTS peace-loving Rigellians. As our media references for the 1950s and 60s include a lot of flying saucer attacks and alien invasions, the human teams should be prepared for the worst.

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The Cold Stars Shone in Mockery

November 7, 2016
Kapcon registration has gone live, so I will do another post on progress with the Colossus of Atlantis meagagme soon. In the meantime, here are my musings on running a SF campaign next year, based on an email I sent out to my current play group.
Feedback I have on what my players want in an SF game:
  • the current campaign’s episodic/story arc structure seems to work well
  • party should have access to a ship, not be stuck on a station or planet
  • a mix of aliens is okay
  • posthuman/transhuman elements are worth a look.

I was recommended to watch Dark Matter (party wakes up on a spaceship with no memories, the ship has a cargo of weapons and some locked doors) and the Expanse (for a greater dose of realism in space). My recommended reading to my players was Altered Carbon (FTL is only possible via uploaded minds, central protagonist is an Envoy, a type of troubleshooter trained to use whatever tools are available to solve problems). Other media recommendations are most welcome. The title of the post is from a line in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. My current go to place for insight on spaceships and SF tropes is the Atomic Rockets website.

jeffbrown_cover

Art from Starvation Cheap by Sine Nomine Publishing

System

Past feedback was that some of my players would prefer not to use a D100 system in the next campaign (so that rules out Eclipse Phase, River of Heaven, Revolution D100 or M-Space). One issue identified was never actually feeling like your characters were competent, or not being able to judge your relative competency against opponents, which was really brought home by watching how an 80% Endurance skill meant next to nothing if the blow taking you down was a critical hit (you had to both roll a critical yourself, and have it exceed your foe’s roll, so that 80% baseline skill might only end up with a 3% chance of success). I have also found a few elements of the RQ6/Mythras system to be fiddly (adjusting skill chance by dividing/multiplying skill level, a lot of die rolls lead to boring outcomes, and choosing combat effects after the skill roll is made is an immersion crushing waste of time). I do have some ideas to retool D100, but that would take some work.
I have backed, but not yet received a few SF kickstarters, which might arrive early next year:
  • Bulldogs! (Fate based courier missions/salvage teams)
  • Mindjammer (Traveller based agents for the Culture-like Commonality in a universe where thousands of years of STL colonisation happened, and FTL is only a few centuries old)
  • Coriolis (Firefly meets Arabian nights, with mysticism in the dark voids of space)
  • SF ports of Blades in the Dark (Apocalypse World derived system that is probably the most mind bending system I have read in the last year or two)
I have a few other SF games lying around, mostly in PDF format:
  • Firefly (Cortex+ dice pool system)
  • Edge of Empire (Star Wars dice pool system)
  • Stars Without Number (old D&D in space)
  • Strontium Dog (Traveller, focus on mutations and bounty hunting)
  • Nova Praxis (Fate)
  • Cepheus (OSR Traveller clone)
  • Fading Suns (D20 decadent nobles in a declining empire)
  • Rocket Age (retro 30s pulp)
  • Eldritch Skies (Savage Worlds, near future with Cthulhu)
  • Numenera (Cypher D20 system)
  • Night Witches (okay its a WWII game powered by the Apoclaypse, but on reading it I thought its completely adaptable to a SF game where everyone is a fighter pilot on the losing side of the Great Patriotic Space War)
The problem with nearly every SF game that tries to handle transhumanism, is that there is lots of paperwork when shifting bodies, and its pointless to spend character generation resources on physical attributes, when you can buy better in-game. As such I don’t think any first generation lineage game engine can cut it. Eclipse Phase is weirdly over complicated for what it tries to do. Zak Sabbath had a simpler OSR take on this issue.
I lean towards something more descriptive, like Cortex+ or Fate, but that means buying into the abstractness of plot point meta currency systems, and being in tune with not trying to track every last plasma round and credit chip. The alternative is to drop the mind uploading/body hopping aspects of transhumanism. If I did that, then I might build the combat engine around fighting to the point where the PCs combat armour is knocked out, rather than fighting to the point where carbonised brains splatter the bulkheads. At which point why not go full Mecha?
None of the Apocalypse World hacks for SF look like a finished product to me.
So far I am not sold on any particular game engine – more suggestions are welcome. Systems I have not looked at much include:
  • Ashen Stars (Gumshoe variant, good for investigations)
  • Fragged Empire (creatures created by humans after humanity’s fall)
  • Polaris (a French game, looks blue)
  • Corvus Belli Infinity (a 2d20 roll under Target Number game , so I have some familiarity with that from Conan, and its going to be used for the John Carter of Mars game as well).
I am not fond of the level of detail and 3d6 systems used in GURPS/HERO systems. After playing Dragon Age and D20, I am not fond of hit point bloat systems, so while I could retool Fantasy Age into “Space Age”, that would take some work. I don’t see any ports of 13th Age into an SF setting yet either.
Do you have a system recommendation, or preference for one of the above game systems?
The Cold Stars Setting
I am thinking of mixing the following:
  • Earth colonised by aliens, like the British Raj, there has been some uplift, but much of the alien ways remain incomprehensible
  • At least one group of aliens has mucked around with humans and enabled psionic powers (its a way to establish character exceptionalism), and the concept of a psionic gestalt could provide another reason for why the PCs are in a party together
  • Several powerful alien races, and an ongoing cold war, and humans can be clients to various alien patrons, so there is background tension, espionage, boundaries that are forbidden to cross, Casablanca zones, and no one wants a war to break out with dinosaur killer level kinetic weapons
  • FTL: entry into FTL space is easy, the hard part is getting out again – you need to home in on a beacon signal or specific type of variable star signature, before the heat build up inside your ship kills you.
  • The characters are specialists in dealing with colony worlds where the beacons go dark, so they have a good ship and a job that gets them into trouble. They also have a license that keeps all of their high tech equipment functional, but if they go dark themselves, then it all stops working four weeks later when it realises it has not received the latest security update.
A Future History
The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy has future history as a colonisation-empire-collapse pattern, although it assumes that human beings will be doing the colonising. TvTropes also has a standard future history, similar to the above and a standard Sci-Fi setting. The “Consensus Cosmogony” (to use Donald A. Wollheim’s phrase) is as follows:
  1. Exploration and colonisation of the Solar System
  2. World War III
  3. Interstellar exploration and colonisation
  4. First contact with aliens
  5. The cycle of empires
  6. The final empire
  7. Humanity’s final fate (these days its likely to be some kind of singularity ascendance, in the old days it was white togas and flared shoulders for everybody).
The key insight here, is that most visions of the future recycle the past. Not every SF work follows this pattern. In Andre Norton’s “Star Guard“, humans are only allowed off Earth to act as mercenaries for other aliens, and this occurs in quite a few other series, such as Jerry Purnelle’s “Janissaries” books. In The Course of Empire, by Eric Flint and K. D. Wentworth, humans are sepoy soldiers for aliens who have conquered Earth. Which is getting closer to what I want for a setting I think.
The Raj Pattern
The Raj Pattern for Sci-fi could be summarised as:
  1. Present day – human princes feud among themselves, while in the background the planet begins to burn from climate change
  2. First contact – aliens become involved in trade with Earth, and by “divide and rule” tactics quickly establish permanent outposts
  3. Alien influence grows as governments outsource their core functions in exchange for trinkets and longevity
  4. Alien influence consolidated in corporate governance that effectively controls all taxation on most of Earth
  5. Human rebellion/mutiny against their alien corporate overlords is quashed
  6. The real alien government turns up and implements direct rule, while still trying to help the poor primitive apes to ascend the ladder of civilisation
  7. The Great Big Space War – humans have a choice, help their alien overlords, passive resistance, or active rebellion.
  8. Independence?
In terms of how it relates to PCs, its the value/loyalty choice in step seven. At any other point of the cycle prior to that, the smart money is on the aliens.
I am thinking that a lifepath character generation system makes some sense, if it gets player engagement with the setting. Traveller used to have as a feature death in character generation. In a Transhuman setting, you could have a conflict that causes players to roll 1d10 to see how many times their character was KIA and restored from backup.
Espionage
I found a few blog posts on espionage in SF. Sadly the series does not seem to have been concluded. Its key points:
  • spy stories are about tension, in particular, they are about middle class apprehensions, the current threats to personal comfort
  • part of the tension comes from familiarity with the world – and SF worlds will inherently be unfamiliar (even if they do adopt the Consensus Cosmogony)
  • there are two strategies for coping with this:
    • stress glamorous, exotic locales, so in SF, ham up the alien and the weird
    • focus on quotidian elements, so in SF, keep it human and current tech
  • using technological Macguffins leads you into Technothriller territory (which tend to be more black/white morality than the grey quotidian novels which draw on the threat of betrayal to ramp up tension)
  • in speculative fiction, “while the underlying themes may get representation in the narrative’s plot, it is harder to overlay those themes onto our real world because their relationship to our world is more oblique”
I did a search for Cold War rpgs a while back, and found a few – most of which had an occult focus with the Cthulhu Mythos or similar. I suspect its harder to do the betrayal theme in a long running campaign with the 4-6 players you usually have in a tabletop campaign. If a Firefly game can be summarised as “get a job, stay flying”, then an espionage focused Cold Stars game could be described as “find a secret, stay alive”.
Cold Wars
Being old enough to remember watching the Berlin Wall come down, just in time for my end of year Political Science exam on the Cold War, I can remember the fear of nuclear war. Its abated today, and shifted to the rogue state. So in an rpg reflecting modern fears, its not so much the alien invasion, its the one shot dinosaur killer strike from a splinter faction or rogue captain with a ship and an FTL drive (which is the key problem with reactionless drives, every merchant captain controls a world killer).
A thought a had a while back, to represent this tension, is to just ask the players if the world ends in fire at the end of every game session., if any of the players says ‘yes”, then the campaign is over. Time to move on to a post-apocalyptic game?
Technology in the Future
Currently on Earth, technological change is increasing at an exponential rate. It is increasingly difficult, even for experts, to remain on top of this change. This makes SF games date quickly. It also means that any single person trying to figure out how people will behave and what physical items will look like in the future has some problems. I have a few present-day topics that I want to explore:
  • social inequality
  • automation
  • 3-D printing
  • the shared economy
Social Inequality
One reason to have aliens in the setting is to create an “upper class” that human characters can never truly be part of. I have a couple of different ideas for implementing this mechanically in the game. One is to have the players roll dice to see which one of them has a privileged background. That character starts with property and cash. All the other characters start in debt. Another is to invert the benefit table from Traveller, with each term of service prior to start of play leading your character ever deeper into debt.
Automation
The future of warfare is likely to involve human-machine teams, where the sharp end of conflict is conducted at machine speeds. Human decisions remain important for starting and ending conflicts, and for resolving complex situations not anticipated by software. In space warfare, I simply don’t see any reason why humans would be climbing into turrets to shoot at piloted fighter craft in line-of-sight ranges. Machines will do that job better than we can. The important human decision is around hiding, running away, starting the fight, or trying to surrender before the ship explodes. In other fields, I think close quarters urban fighting is likely to remain a human skill set, but everyone will be using drones to make their perception checks, and calling in precise-strikes from networked assets.
One idea I had for implementing automation in combat is to make the PCs make a survival check in each round of combat. The PC with the worst roll takes one point of damage per combat round, e.g. in round three they take three points of damage. If you can’t win quickly and break the enemy’s lock on your location, you need to run before the rest of the drone swarm turns up. At any rate, I think SF games need to move beyond replicating World War II or Vietnam in space.
3-D Printing
I had this idea of disposable spaceships. Order it, a 3-D printer makes it, its engines are good for a few jumps, then you recycle it when you dock because that is cheaper than paying the docking fees for three days. Amusing, but I suspect players prefer a more permanent home. It would be a universe where you only own what you choose to carry. Escalated to a mass scale, it gets you lots of small starter colonies that no longer have functioning spaceships, and are always interested in imports of up to date printing templates and OEM printer gunk.
Shared Economy
This flows from automation, the current trends in copyright and licensing, and social inequality (I donate money to EFF.org to try and stop this from happening). While there will always be work for humans, the amount of work that will propel people into the property owning class will diminish. Everyone else will end up using major items on a time share basis, with no true ownership.
What the characters spend their time on is pretty important, as different games will vary the emphasis on:
  • trading, aka spreadsheets in space
  • movement between points in space, is it routine or risky
  • fine tuning gear, aka more spreadsheets in space
  • relationships between characters, love and hate in a tin can
  • character archetypes – broad roles and competencies
  • character skills – specific competencies, less niche protection
  • old school character attributes (strength, charisma etc)
  • character values – passions, drives, triggers.

I asked my players what they preferred to do in games. For the most part my campaigns have been old school (there have been dungeons, monsters and loot) with the addition of lots of social action with NPCs and grey morality – hopefully giving the players meaningful choices about who their friends and enemies are, and whether they are heroes or “the baddies”. I am still thinking a lot about what the core character activities in a Cold War in Space game should be.