Kapcon 2017 AAR – The Colossus of Atlantis

January 23, 2017

img_0259The Colossus of Atlantis Megagame was a success. We had a few last minute registrations that allowed us to run four map tables, with four five player teams and a wandering hero or two in each round. Close to 30 people involved over the entire game. The feedback on the day felt positive, and secondary feedback from other people on Sunday lined up with everyone having a good time and raving about it to their friends.

With the late registrations we started a little late, and halfway through we changed the 30 minute turns to 40 minute turns. We still got through eight of the planned ten turns and were packed up before the LARP needed the space.

The overall outcome was that Atlantis did not sink, and the Atlantean Generals combined their forces and defeated all four of the enemy empires of Leng, Mu, Argartha and Lemuria. The most fun plot element that I observed was the squabbling and plots over who would get one of the five seats on the Ark if Atlantis did sink.

The map game worked well. There is some room for refinement, but I will award myself a B+ for that part of the game. The council game worked okay, but has definite room for significant improvement, so I will only give myself a C+ there. While I had good rules and help sheets for the map game, its clear the Council games needs more support structure to enable the players to make interesting choices, and for Control to be able to stay on top of what is happening. I also need to make the admin more efficient for Control – they had almost no time for breaks.

Now that I have written the above, I will look at the actual feedback sheets the players filled out. I adapted the Megagame Makers feedback sheet, which can be found here.

Enjoyment – did you have fun?

An average of 4.7 (to one decimal place) on a 1-5 scale where 5 is good and 1 is poor. This is an excellent result, and no one rated the game below a 3.

Briefing – how well did the briefing enable you to play the game?

An average of 3.3. Not a great result, so I went and dug a little deeper into the numbers. Seven people did not read the rules before the game – not an unexpected proportion as we had 4-5 people join at the last minute. The average of the six people who did not read the rules for this question and have it a rating was 2.8. The average among the 15 players who did read the rules was 3.5.

Difficulty – how hard did you find the game to play (1 = easy)?

An average of 3, right in the Goldilocks spot. Two people rated the game at 1 (too easy), but no one rated it a 5 (too hard).

Rate of Play – how much pressure (1 = too much 5 = too little)?

Once again a 3, right in the Goldilocks spot. Most people rated it a 3, with five each for 2 and 4, and no one rating it at 1 or 5. we did increase the time for each turn by ten minutes after the lunch break, and there was a bit more pressure on Control than players.

Control – how good a job did they do?

An average of 4.6 is an excellent result. No ratings below 3.

Involvement – how was your involvement with other players?

An average of 4.1. I did not see or hear of any major problems between players and/or control. No one rated this below a 3.

Value – did you get value for money?

4.7. Almost everyone (20 of 23 responses) rated this a 5. At NZ$20 for the weekend convention and no extra fee for the Megagame, its about one-third to one-quarter of the international benchmarks for pricing.

Did you read the rules before playing the game?

15 said YES and six said NO.

Would you be interested in playing Megagames in the future?

22 players said yes and one said no. Looking deeper at the no response, they gave Colossus a 3 for fun and a 5 for value for money. Their specific comment on the game was “Explain how invasions work.” As they were a Philosophos, I was relying on their team Strategos to tell them how invasions worked, as that information was in the Strategos briefing.

Would you be interested in being CONTROL in a future Megagame?

15 people said yes. Which is awesome. Always need more Control players.

How much would you be willing to pay for a Megagame?

I broke this down into two subcategories: day-long and evening length games. For day-long games the range was $15-70, with an average of $32.22. For evening length games the range was $10-50, with an average of $23.83. This is about half the going rate for Megagames in Canada, USA and UK.

This question is of interest to me as hiring a basic conference venue in Wellington starts at around $450 a day. If I have 35 players willing to pay $30 then my budget for running a future Megagame is a little over $1,000. But if I lose about half my players if I charge more than $20 (I had some feedback that the standard LARP charge in NZ is $20), then my budget is only $700. That is enough for one large room in a basic conference venue – which could see a bit of noise pollution in the game. $250 will pay for some printing and game components, but its not going to let you buy premium components or even full colour maps (the last time I got A3 colour printing done a complex map covering a standard gaming table was costing me $150 due to the set up fees for multiple images).

For the immediate future, the safe bet is to attach the game to other conventions, and pass the hat around for donations at the end of the game. I would like to see the community of interested players grow to the point where I can hire my own venue and choose my own dates for running the game. The main disadvantage with Kapcon is that it clashes with Canterbury Faire, the biggest SCA event in New Zealand, and I probably had at least five potential players away at that week long event.

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I also asked people to give me feedback on one thing to keep in future games, one thing to stop, and one thing to start doing to make the game better. Original feedback in plain text, my follow up in italics.

Keep

More team time for general strategy.

Combat upgrades works well.Council interactions were fun.

Almost all of it.

Timing. Role changing, within reason. Changing roles could break the power balance in councils if a team could have multiple positions in the same game role, and the design intention is that each role is essential to a team, and each role is engaging and fun to play (even if it was not your first choice).

Diplomatic wrangling. More reason to do it. Skulduggery – wandering heroes as empire emissaries (or) incentive cards for treachery. I do intend to add more options for players to choose between altruism and corruption.

Complexity level about right.

Confusion from lack of team communication about NPC enemies, multiple rooms and time pressure.

35 people. At 35 players all the game components fit in one suitcase. The game is designed to be scalable, but once you have more than seven players on a Council they will require more time, or the creation of more Councils.

Simultaneous actions.

Alien armada. I think they meant “enemy empire”.

Having a team to assist victory. Keep being strict on times but maybe expand the length of the rounds a little. Council had some great emergent stuff. Control resetting map was excellent. Yes, Control were tasked with helping players by rubbing all the marks off the players laminated sheets each turn.

Alliances short of joining a house for heroes.

Oversight in each room. Being nice. No swearing.

Empires and monsters. I do wonder if having an ambassador for each of the enemy empires would have been an interesting addition to the game.

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Stop

Make sure Control on same page.

So many rule changes. One role per region, i.e. not 2 Strategos in one region. Because we had four map tables, not five, each team had a table with two players on it. I left it with the teams, however, as to where they allocated their leaders, and they could change players between map tables if they wanted to (I am not sure any did so).

Additional rules. modify instead of add.

Maybe limit the number of new rules added in a turn.

Need for clearer rules around council meetings.

Team (a) scoring at the end of the game was horrible! By tables? (b) Wonder scoring is BROKEN. VP for BUILDER + VP Contributors (people who supported construction). Some kind of worksheet. Yes, I needed better worksheets for the end of game scoring (the turn by turn sheets for each map table seemed to have worked okay). Wonder scoring was deliberately broken (a feature, not a bug), but at least one team had an Arkitekton who failed to realise they needed to spend money on Wonder construction, so they lost out on the VP race.

Game was too soft/too easy to win? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we just played well. Yes, you played well.

Rampant player collusion. Although … 5 x str 89 smash 18 monsters … [comment from a Control player].

Time pressure.

Rule change.

Rule changing.

Overspending on wonders.

Dividing the last minute players onto one team was a bit tricky ~one experienced player would have helped. Its hard to find an experienced player when its the first public run of the game – and the one player who had been given a run through the game was promoted to Control when the extras turned up. The problem with rejigging the teams was that many players had already been plotting for a couple of days, and I was loathe to break up their team.

Missing some info that could be on cards i.e. voting cards not clear (I think) that turn values add to VOTE total (and if 1 person [knows?] can get out of hand).

Wonder building as dominant VP. Wonders were intended as a money sink, but I will admit to being surprised at just how altruistic all the players were about giving nearly all their cash to their Arkitekton.

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General meetings between rounds for announcements. I had originally wanted to do this, but on the day I was just too busy. With another Control person to help with admin this would be possible.

Show magikos Orichalcum is sum of compared to the number allocated to Hop/Tri/Col. This calculation was too complex/not clear enough on the reference sheet. I will be changing it.

More time to plan unit deployment. I’m not convinced more time is needed for this.

Maybe add extra time to say what rules are changed each round. If a create a lot of the optional changes before the game starts, then I can have prewritten material to be distributed to update people on changes. Another option is to restrict each Council to one rule change per turn.

Permanent Control over card trading. One way of doing this will be to place the cards by the table where the Council meeting for the players allowed to purchase those cards is.

Come to Canberrra! I’m happy to travel and run the game as long as my travel, accommodation and incidental costs are met. I will also work on a licensed version of the game that anyone can download and run for a small fee.

More motivation for skulduggery, [therefore] rules need to be in there. I think the best place for more skulduggery is in the Council meetings, as the map game is already very busy. It is a goal of my design that Colossus  includes some “prisoner’s dilemma” choices and personal goals that can undermine team goals.

More visible timers. Yes, one of the Control team working on an app for more synchronised timekeeping.

A briefing sheet for wandering heroes similar to other roles, but focused on hero. My bad, these did exist, but I failed to put one in your hands when you turned up halfway through the game.

Maps.

Keep better control of time. And also involve less luck in the win. Time pressure is something Control can always be improving. I don’t think the final win relied much on luck. The wining team had scored well consistently throughout the game.

Refining the voting rules. I think if each Council is given its own rule book with a clear process and flowchart of actions, then a lot of the problems with voting will go away. The player vote cards can definitely be improved with better instructions on the one use vote cards and a clearer display of how many votes each player has.

Online video with rules. I would like to do this, but I would need to get/borrow a decent video camera first.

A DOOM track. Yes, good idea. Need a visual reference for all players/control of what current Atlantis DOOM is. This would also be something that could be tweeted.

More focus on how the council works/voting works – having a GM be able to say do A B C.

Trying to dominate one council completely. I’m pretty sure players were trying to do this, with reasonable success in the game. Allowing a player to permanently dominate a council, makes that part of the game play broken for everyone else.

What next?

I will think about the feedback for a bit longer, and then pen a second post on some possible changes to the rules later this week. I am still committed to running this game at GENCON this year. In the mean time I am keen to hear further comments and suggestions from the players and Control who helped make it all work on the day!


Race, Religion and Rolling Dice – Making plans for GENCON 2016

March 4, 2016

LuigiCastellani_MYTHKELI2While there are 150 days to GENCON, there are only another ten days until the deadline to register events for GENCON, and I will be spending half that time away from the internet. So I only have a few days left to nail down a solid concept to offer as a GENCON game if I want to be sure of getting a table and a blurb in the schedule. The other option is just to trust in Games on Demand, which would also give me a lot of schedule flexibility to go to game design seminars. (The art used here was taken from the Silent Legion artpack)

Race – Halflings

By Halfling, I mean a character with a mixed heritage, with parents from two different “races”, rather than a person of Hobbit-size stature. Tolkien wrote about half-elves and half-orcs in The Lord of The Rings, and in the 1970s this idea entered roleplaying games through Dungeons & Dragons. Race in roleplaying games tends to gloss over real world issues with “race”, a term which is nonsensical in biology (if different “races” can interbreed, then they are not actually different “races”). Race is also a loaded social construct from the worst days of slavery in North America and 20th century totalitarianism, and continues to negatively influence society today.

Instead RPGs tend to focus on cosmetic appearance, access to unique traits or abilities (e.g. the ability to see in darkness), and as a modifier to attributes. Its often a way of distinguishing a character,  can generate some banter around the table, but does not usually drive the fictional narrative while roleplaying in the game.

So I have been thinking about a setting where the premise is that there is a group of humanoid cultures with distinct visual appearances, who can enjoy carnal relations, which can lead to children. These children are referred to as halflings rather than half-men or half-gnomes. Halflings have two core differences from their parents. The first is that they cannot themselves have children (like hybrids in the real world). The second is that they have stronger magical talents – drawing on the inherent gift abilities of two heritages rather than one heritage.

The social consequences of not being able to have children are pretty significant in a world setting with a medieval level of socio-economic development. People are not going to want to see their children marry a halfling, when there will be no natural born grandchildren to pass the family name and lands to. In a world without public health or social welfare systems, children and grandchildren are what you expect to use to help you in your old age. Remember that one of the few grounds for divorce in the middle ages was inability to have children. Dialing up the issue a level, if a culture practices infanticide, then I think that halfling babies would be a common choice for exposure to the elements. In times of hunger, the halfling child is less likely to get food, in times of plague, less likely to get medicine.

I have a couple of reasons for adding some magical talents to halflings. One is that its still useful to have some kind of lever for the player of a halfling character to use in gameplay. The other is that if magic power is real, then like all forms of power it has the potential to corrupt the user, and the potential to be poorly regarded by the community. Nearly every ancient civilisation had laws prohibiting the use of evil magic, such as curses. This would definitely be a setting with gift based magic. You could still have magic gained from study, knowledge and devotion, but gift magic would be a strength of halfling characters. Depending on the local social setting the halfling might be a respected expert, or a despised outsider. Certainly if magic can be a reliable tool, then whatever power structure the society has will seek to control magical resources.

Now lets add an over-the-top fantasy twist. This is inspired by the word Manzer, an old word for bastard, which sounds a bit like monster, and might be related to the Hebrew word “mamzer “(person born from forbidden union, mum=defect, zar=strange/alien). Carnal unions leading to halflings are prohibited because they always result in twins, and one twin always turns into a monster with the onset of puberty. Some might argue that all teenagers turn into monsters, but I digress.

So this twist might lead to societies exerting a lot of control over haflings.  This could take a range from killing suspected halflings, sending them away, keeping them to serve as scapegoats, selling them as slaves, locking them up in prisons, or forcing abandoned orphans to live a life of closely supervised public service. It could serve as a useful marker for all cultures and states in the game setting – how do they typically treat halflings?

The monster twist might be excessive for a setting that seeks to explore concepts of race and prejudice – if the monster halflings are Always Chaotic Evil then the setting racism against halflings becomes reasonable and rationale – unlike the real world where racism is pointless bigotry.

Questions I need to explore on this topic include:

  1. Is racial prejudice (or privilege) a topic that can be fun to explore in a fantasy roleplaying game? I need to do a lot more research on real world topics before I can address this in a roleplaying game.
  2. What are the characters expected to do when confronted with prejudice? Are they trying to change the world to a better place, or just make it a place where they can survive?
  3. How do I make this work in the game mechanics – if its a central part of the game it needs to go way beyond +2 Charisma!

Religion – Build Your Own God

Pitching a roleplaying game where Gods are a central component is not a new idea, both Glorantha and Tekumel addressed this in the early days of roleplaying games. Its also not new to pitch a game as one where the player characters operate at a Godlike level, or can aspire to as part of the “zero-to-hero” progression of the game.

The approach I want to take in a setting is to follow the fiction of William Gladstones Craft Sequence, Glen Cook’s Instrumentalities of Night series, with a touch of Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Tales of the Fallen. These settings invert the traditional sequence of Gods creating sentient life, and instead its sentient life that creates the Gods (which, if you are an atheist, is exactly how it works in the real world). While the Gods are powerful, they remain vulnerable to clever mortals, and can be killed.

Building on from mortal Gods, I want the default mode of play for the setting to be that the player characters are a cabal of magic users, connected to the husk of a dead God. Individual campaigns can answer the question how and why this came about. There are a few things that I think the husk can do for a game that are cool:

  1. The connection to the husk gives the characters a reason to be together. Going a further step, the mystic connection to the husk and other cabal members explains why the players are aware of each other’s actions, even when their characters are in different locations.
  2. As part of the initial setting construction, the players choose the attributes of their husk, and by doing so signal to the game master what they want to see in their campaign. A husk of war and agriculture, should be a different game experience, when compared to a husk of poetry and commerce.
  3. The classic problem of magic using characters exhausting their magical energy is dealt with by allowing the players to choose to draw down energy from the husk. No need to go back to the Inn for a cup of tea and a lie down. This can be a mixed blessing if the character accidentally makes the husk rouse itself from torpor.
  4. Rather than have each character track a sanity, virtue or corruption score, the husk becomes a shared “conflict gauge”. In a way, the party is their own worst enemy, as only through their actions can the husk rouse itself and attempt to possess the body of a cabal member.
  5. As a shared resource, the husk can act like the gang framework in Blades in the Dark. It levels up as the characters level up.
  6. The husk can provide access to traits – unusual attributes and powers – drawn from the divine portfolios the God had mastery over when it was alive and kicking.
  7. As a power source that other people seek to control, the husk can give the characters a set of friends, enemies, and social organisations to interact with.

Questions I need to explore on this topic include:

  1. What is the best way of expressing all the conceptual relationships in game mechanics?
  2. How to best develop all the husk attributes? Is a husk tied to a particular race?
  3. Can the game scale well from low fantasy to high fantasy? What is the intended end game for the cabal?
  4. How to handle the conflict gauge – how common should it be for the husk to rouse and what is the chance of a character being possessed?

 

Pros and Cons of System Choices

I have a few other setting ideas, but I think the Halfling and Husk ideas are my strongest. So here a few ideas on the pros and cons of some different game systems I could use to give expression to these ideas.

Out of scope approaches

I do not think a class/level game system will do the job, unless I just copy something with an open game license (OGL), as trying to balance a class/level system takes a lot of work. Which as a one-person band, I would struggle to do. Same goes for trying to recreate a fully flexible magic engine, as with Ars Magica or Mage the Ascension. I do not think I can build better compared to systems with 20+ years of development. I will need to take a more focused approach to magic.

Old School Approaches

If I were to use an older game system it would be an OGL toolkit system like the D100 system.

Pros: easy for me to build a richly detailed setting to guide player choices, good at visceral combat scenes, lots of existing material to work with, character growth is flexible, potential audience of fans.

Cons: legacy systems influence is hard to shake, mechanic handling time is high in RQ6 (my current D100 system), not so good at handling social conflict, character growth is slow, character skills tend to converge together over time, not a good system for one-off convention games with people unfamiliar with the system.

Powered by the Apocalypse

My experience in playing the *World family of games is limited. Its such a strong break from the traditional physics engine approaches of the game systems I grew up with. But after a lot of reading (Hamish Cameron’s The Sprawl in particular) I have come to appreciate the focus on creating a game experience drawn on a specified fiction. For handling sensitive topics, the players can choose when prejudice is a problem to a large degree. The succeed with consequences approach is also rich for interaction with the husk concept.

A downside is that the players have to be willing to share more of the workload in running the game. I have experimented a little in my current game with throwing choices about what happens next over to the players, and they have looked quite uncomfortable with just choosing an outcome rather than relying on dice or GM fiat. Another little downside for me, is that a system which empowers a group to build its own setting is one where I don’t present a cool setting rich in gritty details for people.

A hybrid fusion?

I do wonder if I can take the fiction focus and other elements (Agenda, Principles, Moves) of the *World family and combine them with some elements of older games. The current game engine drawing my eye is the 2d20 system Mophidius is using for their Conan line. It looks to satisfy one of my personal interests (relatively accurate handling of historic weapons and armour) while also having a mechanic system that could play off the husk idea through the Momentum/Doom pools that empower special player and GM moves within the game.

Pro: dice pool system should work well for the husk, and the traditional mechanics will be easy for a wide range of players to grasp.

Con: probably needs a license or successful product pitch.