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.

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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).

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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.

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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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d100 House Rules

March 18, 2018

I am mucking around with a few rule variants for d100 roleplaying games.

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You can’t beat the classics.

Fatigue

I have never met a player who enjoyed tracking encumbrance and fatigue, and I do not enjoy it much as a GM either. I had a lightbulb moment today, and started riffing off the morale rules in Moldvay D&D for a Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition hack intended for a Megadungeon crawl.

Test for fatigue when (a) the first PC or foe is eliminated from the combat and (b) when half of the people involved in the combat have been eliminated.

Resolve the test by rolling 1d100 versus CON. Add an advantage die if fresh (first encounter of the day) or unencumbered. Add disadvantage dice for heavy armour, exhaustion and other factors:

  1. Success – keep fighting
  2. Failure – add a disadvantage die to all skill checks for the rest of the encounter
  3. Fumble – add two disadvantage dice to all skill checks for the rest of the encounter.

Pro – low amount of bookkeeping required, Con – does add a process step mid-scene where everyone needs to roll dice and record a result. The table also needs some shared expectations around when the disadvantage dice get added to the CON check – which requires the GM or game system to signal clearly when they think the PCs are tired or trying to carry too much stuff around.

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Art from the cover of the Conan 2d20 rules.

Mastery

In Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition you score a critical success on a roll of 01%, and fumble on a roll of 96-00%. Which tells you a lot about that game system. Thinking about the Conan 2d20 momentum system inspired me to try adding a second threshold for critical success, and giving player’s more tempting opportunities to spend Luck Points to adjust d100 rolls (using an optional rule, possibly from Pulp Cthulhu).

A critical success is scored on a roll that exactly matches the skill level, or when a roll is made equal or less than the skill’s mastery level.

For example, if the reckless swordsman Fitz the Harsh has a skill of 92% and a Master of 06%, then Fitz scores a critical success on a roll of 01-06 or 92, a success on a roll of 07-91, a failure on a roll of 93-95, and a fumble on a roll of 96-00.

Using the optional Luck point system, you can spend 10 Luck Points to cancel a fumble, or shift any other die roll by one per Luck Point you spend.

Mastery does not increase the way normal skills do. So far my thoughts are:

  1. Start with 01% mastery in the PC’s eight archetype/profession skills.
  2. Gain 01% mastery when Skill level reaches 90%.
  3. GM discretion to grant a point of mastery for milestone achievements in the campaign.
  4. Otherwise mastery improvement requires rolling fumbles equal to the current mastery level to gain +01%. Note: this assumes a table play style where a fumble is adding a complication to the scene (e.g. a dropped weapon), rather than an opportunity for the GM to hammer the character into the afterlife (e.g. an arrow to the eye socket).
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Card from the Dungeon Solitaire deck – available from Thegamecrafter

Initiative

As part of PC generation I am thinking of having the players draw three major arcana cards to represent past, present and future. While I originally thought of just using this for inspiration in shaping the character concept, today I thought of using it to help shape initiative.

  1. A player draws three major arcana cards (there are 33 in the deck I intend to use). If any of the three cards match PC cards, the party as a whole holds initiative and the PC(s) with matching cards gain a bonus action they can call on at any point during the encounter.
  2. If the PCs do not have initiative and there is an NPC nemesis level opponent (Skills at 90%+) the nemesis gains initiative now, otherwise repeat step one.
  3. If the PCs do not have initiative and there is an NPC elite level opponent (Skills at 50%+) the elite gains initiative now, otherwise repeat step one.
  4. If the PCs do not have initiative after nine card draws, the NPCs have initiative.

Initiative is then run using the “popcorn initiative” rule, where the last person to act in the scene chooses who acts next. The last person to act in a round gets to choose who acts first in the next round. Note: there are obvious ways of manipulating this system, lets call it “tactics” and not worry about people setting things up to get two attacks in a row.

An obvious tweak to represent surprise or preparation is adjust the number of cards the party gets to draw.