Information Rich Combat Mechanics

June 13, 2017

The Modiphius 2d20 system is one I have used a couple of times to run convention games based around the Conan roleplaying game. I am thinking of adapting it for use in a Megagame.

First, a Quick summary of the 2d20 system:

  • You always roll at least 2d20.
  • You can roll up to three more d20s for situational modifiers, such as other players assisting you, to a cap of 5d20.
  • The roll is compared against an Attribute (usually in the 8-15 range) and a Skill (usually in the 1-5 range), potentially generating 0, 1 or 2 successes for each d20 roll
  • For example if you have an Attribute of 12 and a Skill of 3, and you roll 2d20 and get a 12 and a 2, you have three successes
  • If the number of successes equals the task difficulty, you succeed, and for each extra success you gain a point of Momentum
  • You can then spend Momentum to cool stuff in the game
  • Weapon damage is handled by rolling d6s
  • A damage roll of 1 or 2 inflicts damage equal to the roll, a roll of 3 or 4 does nothing, but rolls of 5 and 6 trigger special effects based on the weapon type (e.g. bypassing armour, or extra damage).

It recently occurred to me that I could adapt this as a mechanic for handling Army/Front level combat in Megagames. Traditional wargame mechanics often involve a lot of counting of various factors, followed by some maths as you try and make sure you reach the golden 3:1 ratio considered the minimum to ensure success in land warfare. In a Megagame there is no time for all this counting, you need to be able to take in the situation at a glance and get on with resolution. At the same time I want rich information from the combat result – if we are only doing a few combats each turn, then they need to actually move stuff around on the map and add to the game narrative.

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The situation in Army Group Center’s sector of the Eastern Front on 6 December 1941. This is a German map, the Soviet reinforcements that are about to launch a counteroffensive are not on the map. Sourced from the Dupuy Institute blog.

Generally speaking, formations of Army/Front size are rarely destroyed in combat – the exceptions being encirclement (e.g. destruction of Army Group Center in 1944) and/or running out of space to retreat (e.g. British at the Fall of Singapore in 1942). What is important is how ready is the unit for further combat operations, and what is the momentum on the front.

So I am thinking of a mechanic where we are rolling d10s, and the important factors about a combat formation are readiness, on a 1-10 range, and quality, on a 1-5 range. A rested unit at full strength with brand new equipment would have a readiness of 10 (so most units would be rated nine or less). Quality is something that can be worked out based on historic performance (for World War Two, based on effectiveness scores from post-war quantitative analysis, I would put German units at 5-6, the  UK at 3-5, the USA units at 4-5, and the Russians at 2-3). Units roll a base 2d10, then +1d10 for each supporting unit flanking the enemy. Units then roll 2d6 for damage, but can spend supply points (or play special capability cards) to boost that up to 5d6 (I will have to playtest that cap, or perhaps allow it to be exceeded by special limited use cards).

The force being attacked also rolls for its defence, and the force with more successes is the force that gets Momentum points to spend. Units that are defending get bonus Momentum for defending river lines, urban terrain, mountains and prepared/fortified positions.

So we also rolled some d6 for damage, and while we throw away the 3-4 rolls as in 2d20, in this 2d10 system, the rolls of 1-2 are used for Attrition Effects and the rolls of 5-6 are used for Maneuver Effects.

Attrition Effects

Spend your Momentum points to reduce the targeted unit’s Readiness score by 1-2 points. The defender can also spend Momentum to hold the ground the occupy (the default assumption is that the attack does move the defender backwards) at a cost in Readiness.

In theory with 5d6, if you roll enough 2s you can take a unit from Readiness 10 to Readiness 0 in one attack, in practice its likely to take a while to grind forces down. At a glance in the European Theatre in World War Two, it was pretty hard for any force to sustain continuous operations with land forces for longer than a couple of months (the US/UK tended to run out of supplies first, the USSR to run out of tanks).

Maneuver Effects

This is where it gets more interesting and you can spend Momentum to:

  • reduce your own Readiness losses
  • reduce enemy Political Will (i.e. capture a large number of prisoners, or a city or other vital objective)
  • gain initiative for your side next turn
  • exploit the breakthrough (deep penetration and/or forcing flanking formations to retire)
  • capture enemy supplies that you overrun.

Using the two sets of dice, lets the game create a rich tapestry of potential game information. The downside is getting the players to make those decisions around spending Momentum quickly. This would be the key thing to stress test in playtesting the design.

Doctrine

One way of representing historic doctrine is to programme the first choice a side makes (or perhaps even the first two choices). For example, UK forces could be required to spend their first Momentum effect on reducing their own Readiness losses, Soviet forces on getting a breakthrough, and US forces on maintaining the initiative.

Initiative

I used to own a copy of a game called Renegade Legion: Prefect, which focused on hover tank battles on a planetary scale. The side that had initiative did nearly all of the movement and combat, while the side without basically sat there and hoped for a counterattack to give them the initiative. That concept bubbled to my head while thinking about this hack.

So my plan for this 2d10 system is that the side which starts the game on the attack holds the initiative. The initiative allows you to attack as many times as you like (up to one per Army formation). The side without the initiative gets a limited number of counterattacks. Both sides can spend Momentum on initiative, with a cumulative penalty for any side holding on to the initiative for consecutive turns. Another way of doing that might be to have an escalating supply cost, so you could hit a point where one side runs out of puff, no matter how well they are doing on the map. Frustrating, but a representation of Clausewitz’s theory of the culminating point.

A zero score for initiative could be taken as both sides are temporarily exhausted and spend a couple of weeks (or longer) resting or maneuvering before one side resumes offensive operations. Maybe both sides would be limited to a small number of attacks, like counterattacks.

Recovering Readiness

Units should recover Readiness quickly. Fifty percent of lost Readiness per two week turn seems okay as a starting position for playtesting. In this system I would just about never remove a unit from play, but at Readiness One I would not allow it to initiate attacks. Front lines would also be continuous – if you run out of actual Army formations, you would just deploy a Readiness One Battlegroup counter.

While Readiness should bounce up and down, quality would change only rarely – perhaps reflecting a unit gaining an elite reputation, or being issued with state of the art equipment in sufficient numbers to have an impact on operations (one Super Pershing does not a +1 Quality increase make).

…and now I really need to get back to revising The Colossus of Atlantis. GENCON is only 63 days away.

 


Aquila Rift Feedback

June 7, 2017

Last Saturday at Wellycon X, I ran the Aquila Rift Megagame, with the assistance of five control players and the enthusiasm of 26 players. A lot of the game files are available online, if you are interested in taking a look. Aquila Rift was intended to be more of a casual Megagame, and none of the players had played one before, and only a few had heard of them before Wellycon – although one player had watched the Shut Up & Sit Down Watch the Skies video several times.

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Each map table had roughly 14 systems that players could move between. Blue routes were pirate only, red routes inflicted damage. White markers indicate routes onto other map tables. The Control table has everything needed to run the map game, and one of the committees.

Setup started around 1100 and took a bit over two hours with one other person helping. Travis was also heaven sent when another member of the Control team texted to tell me he had rolled his ankle that morning while tramping. Travis volunteered to drive out and do a pick up so we would not be shorthanded.

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We set up six tables, but only used five.

We had around 19 signups before Wellycon started, so we picked up several people on the day, and also had four last minute cancellations – they felt that they could not commit to a four hour game.

A live action game of Codenames ran over time, so we started late (~4.30pm) and played through to 8.30pm. All up we got through 18 map turns and six committee phases. I was pretty happy with how the interaction between the map game and the committee game worked. There were problems, but in general I think the concept works for the kind of low player number Megagame I can run in Wellington. Every player gets to wear at least two hats. If I could get 60+ players I would focus more on one role per player.

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Richard managed to be both Pirate King and Public Enemy Number One at the same time

One new thing I did this time was to get some video. We did not have a spare person to run the camera, so I just left it in place with a Tripod. I will be teaching myself how to edit video this weekend and then I will try and put the highlights of game play and end of game speeches up on YouTube.

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This ship was almost destroyed in battle, just two more hexes of damage would have finished it off.

While law and order was maintained in some sectors, in others it collapsed, and pirates were able to “put the sector on farm”. The Viceroy gave good speeches, but teams were more united in the search for lost relics than in cooperating for the development of the sector. Some player feedback though t there were too many pirates. There were twice as many pirates as other roles, but only about one more Pirate than there were Patrol and Governor players.

The top five end of game plunder scores in the bank were:

  1. $1,163 – Alya
  2. $986 – Zachary
  3. $708 – Richard
  4. $698 – Jack
  5. $557 – Hannah.

On the whole I was happy with how the game system worked. Combat was the complicated bit, but it seems to have worked out okay – but one person did give feedback that it was too complicated. Where I was surprised, was just how much plunder appeared in the game – it was quite a bit more than in the playtests. This distorted the committee a bit, so if I run Aquila Rift again I would look at the plunder economy first, rejigging the committees second, and making combat simpler as the third priority. The search for the lost ships also seems to have been a good unifying element for teamwork in the game.

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Players were inventive with the dry erase markers.

Number Crunching from the Feedback Forms

I got 20 responses to the feedback survey form. Not to future self, have a few biro pens lying around for this – dry erase pens are not good for writing feedback. People were asked to rate things from 1-5, and high numbers were usually good.

  • Enjoyment 4.55 (high)
  • Briefing 3.6 (room for improvement)
  • Difficulty 3.2 (easy for some, hard for others)
  • Rate of Play 3.45 (not too fast for most)
  • Control 4.125 (good job guys!)
  • Involvement 4.45 (good but several suggestions for more)
  • Value 4.35 (good value).

I am very happy with the 4.55 rating for enjoyment! In terms of support for future games, 85% said they would like to play a Megagame again, and were willing to pay an the average of $27.65 for a whole day game and $18.50 for an evening game. Fourteen people also said they would like to help Control in the future. I think about 75% of the player and control team had read at least part of the game rules before the game.

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In the middle of a map turn.

I intend to recycle a lot of the game structure from Aquila Rift in The Galaxy Will Burn. Some players gave feedback on Aquila Rift that they wanted more politics, intrigue and an expanded faction game. TGWB will definitely have that.

My thanks go out to Wellycon for giving us the space to play in, to my control team of Alan, Dutton, Travis, John and Alistair, and to all of the players for an enjoyable game.


The Galaxy Will Burn

February 9, 2017

The Galaxy Will Burn is the working title of my new Megagame design for Kapcon 2018. A whole bunch of ideas fell in place for this today, but first, progress report on my other games.

Colossus of Atlantis

I am part way working through working out an example of the revised Council mechanics. I decided to start with the Council of War, as that involves a lot of changes to all the systems for interacting with the enemy empires. The options are still a bit too raw for public exposure, but I think the process for the meeting as outlined below should be an improvement.

The Council of War

The Council of War meets in the Diplomacy Phase, after House meetings have finished. The Council of War meets for a maximum of five minutes. All actions at the Council of War are resolved in the following order:

  1. Quorum
  2. President of the Council.
  3. Council Actions.
  4. Research
  5. News
  6. Control administration.

1. Quorum

The Quorum for a meeting of the Council of War is 2/3 (round up) of the Strategos players. If the meeting starts late, the time allowed for the meeting is reduced.

2. President of the Council

The Strategos present at the start of the meeting with the highest Arête score is appointed as President. In the event of a tie in Arête, the older player is appointed. Strategos who are late to the meeting cannot be appointed as President.

3. Council Actions

Starting with the President, each player chooses one Council Action to resolve. After each player has made their choice, the President chooses which player makes the next choice. Each Council Action can only be chosen once per meeting. Players who are not present when it is their turn to act, forfeit their choice of Council Action for that meeting.

If the DOOM Action is chosen, the player must choose a second Council Action. If that action is an Arête Action, it becomes Corrupted.

Control can penalise any player taking too long to make a choice by taking one or more of their Arête cards away from them. Control will give a player a five second warning before doing this.

See below for detail on the different Council Actions available for the Council of War.

4. Research

Each player draws a random research advance. Player(s) that chose a research Council Action draw a second advance. Each player can then purchase one Strategoi research card – these act to upgrade Hero units.

5. News

It is the responsibility of the President of the Council to inform Control of any changes to the game that have resulted from Council Actions.

6. Control Administration

Each Council Action not chosen by a player now has its rewards increased, as indicated on its card.

My goal is to finish the game revisions before the GENCON website opens for game bookings on May 28.

Aquila Rift

This is my space pirates themed Megagame for Wellycon X. I have started a Facebook event for this game, and as usual that will be my recruitment ground for playtests and first comments on changes to the rules.

The current goal for Aquila Riftis to have a playtest set of rules by the end of February. At the moment the two key mechanics I want to nail are the movement and search rules. For movement I intend to have “star systems” connected by “wormholes”. Wormholes will be colour coded: Green (safe), Yellow (chance of delays), Red (chance of damage). I might have some wormholes restricted to a subset of the players, e.g. a route connecting two patrol bases might be coloured blue (no pirates allowed). For movement: all merchants, then all space patrol, then all pirates. When space patrol moves, they can spend fuel to deploy search tokens. If a pirate moves through a search token there is a chance they trigger a fight with a patrol vessel. If a pirate enters a system with a merchant, they then dice to intercept (ship quality counts, spend fuel to boost odds). A pirate that intercepts a merchant, captures the merchant (KISS). Combat only occurs between patrol and pirate ships. If you run out of fuel, take damage and jump to a base.

This is deliberately intended to be a simpler game than The Colossus of Atlantis. The three main player roles will be Governors, Space Patrol, and Pirates. There will not be a complicated trade system – a major reason for people being pirates is that its easier than working for a living. Any trade mechanic which allows players to get wealthy through legitimate trade therefore undermines the rationale for having a game about piracy.

First playtest will be in March sometime.

The Galaxy Will Burn

This Megagame will be a return to my favourite theme, the decline and fall of complex political organisations due to their own internal processes.

The main player role in this game, is that of sector governor, responsible for the administration and defence of several star systems. Every player in the game belongs to a public faction and a secret faction. Memberships do not overlap between the two factions. Your faction wins if at any point all members of the faction have been declared Emperor at least once. Game play is resolved through five minute turns, with a one minute gap between each turn. I may test some of the submechanics for this game (such as movement and combat) at the Aquila Rift game.

After each five minute turn, you must change the game table you are playing at. If you spent the last turn being a Governor at your home map table, this means either:

  1. Going to the Imperial Capital and trying to gain a seat at the cabinet table for the next committee meeting.
  2. Going to another map table, and spending the next turn there as a Raider.
  3. Taking a five minute break to do other things.

After a five minute turn at the Imperial Capital, you must change the game table you are playing at by either:

  1. Taking a five minute break to do other things.
  2. Going back to your home map and spending the turn as Governor.
  3. Going to any other game map table, and spending the next turn there as a Raider.

After a five minute turn as a Raider, you must change your game map table by either:

  1. Going back to your home map and spending the turn as Governor.
  2. Going to any other map table and spending the next turn there as a Raider.
  3. Taking a five minute break to do other things.

After a five minute break, you can return to play as a Raider or a Governor. It is deliberate that the only way you can move to the Imperial Capital is after a turn spent as a Governor. There is nothing to stop you from a life as a pirate (or having it forced on you lose control of your worlds as a result of imperial politics). While there will be some chaos, I am hoping this will lead to some interesting emergent play.

Rising Tensions

Each game turn, the number of recruits available to a player choosing to raid increases by one. If the political decision at the Imperial Capital supports a reign by a Strong Emperor, all the existing Raiders are removed, and the recruitment rate is reset to one plus the number of Strong Emperors in the game so far.

For example, during the first game turn Raiders recruit one ship. By the fifth game turn they will be recruiting five ships. If there is a Strong Emperor at the end of turn five, then in turn six the recruitment rate will be two ships, and in turn seven the recruitment rate will be three ships. If there is a second Strong Emperor at the end of turn seven, the recruitment rate in game turn eight will be three ships.

Each time a Strong Emperor is declared, the number of chairs around the Imperial Capital table is permanently reduced by one. This represents the trend in political systems to become closed to outsiders.

The Imperial Capital

At the start of the game there are 13 seats around the Imperial Cabinet table. These seats are given to the players willing to commit the most money. This is a one round auction – everyone writes and reveals their bid at the same time. The money spent is also your voting power while on the Committee (and you spend some on every vote you take part in). The chair of the committee is the player spending the most money on getting a seat at the table.
Each Cabinet session can address a range of topics, most of which channel perks and kickbacks to the players, but the crucial one is choosing a Strong Emperor. If this option passes, the Cabinet meeting immediately ends.

The Strong Emperor

The appointment of a Strong Emperor immediately ends the actions of all Raider players for the rest of the game turn, and removes all Raider ships from play.

The Emperor then has one minute to make any changes they deem necessary for the continued security of the Empire. Each change must be clearly enunciated and each change must be specific.

  • “mumble taxes mumble rhubarb atomic power mumble” – nothing happens because no one knows what the heck the Emperor meant
  • “The Dagobah system is now controlled by Governor Tarkin” – control of the named system changes to that of the named player
  • “All systems in the Coriolis Cluster are now controlled by Governor Cook” – change is too broad, each of the systems needs to be individually named.
  • “The Sixth Fleet moves to the Hoth system” – the move happens
  • “The Moth ball Fleet moves to the second map table” – change is not specific enough, a system name is needed.

After their minute of glory, each Emperor secretly chooses one of the possible endgame victory conditions and places it in a ballot box. When there is 30 minutes of game time remaining, one of these ballots is picked at random and announced to all players. The Emperor can tell people what option they chose, but is not required to tell the truth!

Victory Conditions

The game could end in any of the following ways:

  1. A civil war – players split into factions, and fight until only one candidate to the throne survives.
  2. Successor states – the faction controlling the most territory at the end of the game wins.
  3. Dark age – the faction with the most atomic power wins.
  4. Hedonistic twilight – the faction with the most money wins.
  5. Republic – the faction with the most status wins.

Combat

My plan is to keep combat simple.

  • Raiders and Battleships roll 1d6 per ship
  • Imperial Dreadnoughts roll 2+d12 per ship

For each matching die roll you have, you lose one ship. Yes, the more ships you have in a battle, the more ships you will lose. The rationale is that the battle is the result of the logistics cost of multiple small encounters.

Highest roll wins the battle.

Resources

Raiding gets you cash, and reduces the resource base of other players. Being Governor gets you a mixture of cash, atomic power, some status, and the chance to gain influence with the Imperial Fleet through successful combat operations against Raiders. Imperial politics can get you any of the above.


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!


Building a better tech tree

June 28, 2016

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.

 


10 Megagame Concepts

June 12, 2016

Here are ten concept outlines for different megagame scenarios. Some are revamps of games I have run in the past, others are new. I am posting these so I can get a sense of what sounds interesting to potential players, so expressions of “like” and “dislike” would both be useful.

I am also making a decision to “pivot” and “rebrand”. In the past I have called these “Grand Strategy” games, often shortened to “Grand Strat” by the Buckets of Dice crowd. The world wide success of Jim Wallman’s Watch the Skies game leads me to think I should adopt what appears to be the global brand name, in order to boost recognition and hopefully attract a few more players.

1. Warring States

This is a historical scenario, set in the Warring States period of Chinese history, from roughly 320 to 220 BCE. I once ran a play-by-mail game of Diplomacy set in this period of history, so I have done some of the needed research in the past. During this era seven major kingdoms competed to be the first to unify the land that became known as China. It was a time of great development in literature, philosophy, technology, economic and military affairs. At the start of the game, armies would be small and based on chariot borne nobles supported by poor infantry. As the game progresses, cavalry, crossbows, iron weapons, and mass conscript armies would be developed.

EN-WarringStatesAll260BCEKey elements of this game:

  1. Combat resolution will be inspired by Sun Zi’s Art of War, i.e. it will rely strongly on psychological factors and bluffing.
  2. Kingdoms will have to make tradeoffs between trying to expand the territory they control, and trying to develop their Kingdom – the surplus from the rice harvest will only go so far
  3. At the start of the game, changes to the map state can only be done by the King (team leader) but only if one of their advisors (other team members) recommends the move. As the Kingdom develops, new developments will allow more options for map interactions. For example, developing professional generals will allow advisors to move armies on the map.
  4. Diplomacy is crucial to success.

2. Sun and Starship II

This is a revamp of the 2012 Buckets of Dice game, and on a theme I have used several times before. It is a space opera scenario in which noble houses in a great space empire compete for power, wealth and glory, while pirates and warlords gnaw away at the borders of the empire. Most (80%) of the players will be nobles organised in teams and some (20%) will be independent “raiders”. Noble team goal is to gain control of the empire, all players are trying to get the most wealth, and glory (from combat victories).

2000px-Spaceship_and_Sun_emblem.svgKey elements of this game:

  1. universal basic income – every player gets $1 of game currency per minute of game time
  2. to represent the decadence of the Empire, whoever is currently Emperor (and a few of their friends) will have access to a table of food and drink
  3. nobles will alternate between time in committee meetings, team meetings, diplomacy and the map, raiders will spend nearly all their time on the map or diplomacy
  4. rather than one committee, there will be seven committees with the following broad functions: Justice – $ fines for nobles. Trade – creates new movement and trade routes on the map. Colonies – appoints/recalls sector governors. Intelligence – determines which “Black Swan” events occur next. Atomic Power – provides the atomic power that makes Dreadnoughts awesome. Defence – appoints/recalls fleet Admirals. Apparatus – screws around with the other committees.
  5. combat will be based on a “bucket of dice” resolution: Battleships roll 1d6 each. Dreadnoughts roll 1d12 per point of atomic power spent. The side with the highest score wins. Battleships with matching die rolls in your fleet are eliminated as casualties (yes, this hurts the stronger side more). Dreadnoughts are never destroyed – they just go to the repair yard for a length of time based on battle damage.

3. Fall of the Elder

This is a new fantasy scenario with teams of elves, dwarves, humans and individual dragons. The different Kingdoms are competing for magic, gold, and land. It is based on the 1970s boardgame “the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. The elves and dwarves start with all the good farming land under their control and control most of the ancient fortresses. Humans start in the miserable wastelands, where the dragons also dwell.

Roberts_Siege_and_Destruction_of_Jerusalem

Key elements of gameplay:

  1. 20 minutes of gameplay represents roughly twenty years of gametime
  2. the elves score points for accumulating magic power (and not using it)
  3. the humans score points for gaining land and breeding more humans
  4. the dwarves score points for accumulating gold (and not spending it)
  5. Dragons score points for eating elves, dwarves and humans, stealing their stuff and destroying anything they can’t eat or steal. You can think of them as 100 ton vultures.
  6. heroes are important, Elves train heroes with magic, Dwarves buy heroes with gold, Humans find heroes when they are defeated, and Dragons … well, they are more anti-heroes.

4. Operation Unthinkable

This is a new alternate history scenario based on the actual British plan to attack the USSR in July 1945, following the defeat of Nazi Germany. Teams are based on the combatant nations at the time (USSR, USA, UK, and France). Most (80%) of the players will be military officers working at the Army level with the other players filling political, naval, or air command roles.

Marcia_nel_fangoKey game elements

  1. this will be a double blind map system, i.e. the teams will have maps in different rooms, and will have limited information on enemy dispositions (fog of war)
  2. the game will last from midsummer 1945 to early winter 1945
  3. army officers will have one of three roles: logistics – making sure the army has enough supplies, intelligence – team communications, command – making attack/defence decisions
  4. air command chooses between battling for air superiority, ground support, or strategic attacks on logistics
  5. yes, the allies will get the nuclear option (at a cost of VP)
  6. the game will focus primarily on the front in north Germany, other theatres of operations (e.g. Italy, Japan, Greece, Iran) will be handled in an abstract manner.

5. The Crescent Stars

This is a new space opera scenario, set in a future where humanity has colonised the stars but is just as disorganised as it was on Earth. The main teams are the Solar Union Colonial Committee, the trading Combines, and the Comitas (the free traders). Independent players are the mercenary captains and the system Dictators. The Solar Union tries to maintain peace and stability while encouraging free trade, while everyone else is trying to make money and gain power over the booming sector trade.

Artist’s_Impression_of_a_Baby_Star_Still_Surrounded_by_a_Protoplanetary_DiscKey game elements:

  1. rather than trading cards, trade deals require the signatures of the players who control the systems the trade route requires. Each trade deal is worth a fixed sum of cash, split between the signatories in an agreed way. Each trade deal has a time limit within which is must be successfully negotiated.
  2. As the game develops new movement and trade routes appear
  3. universal basic income (see above)
  4. the combat system will involve very small numbers of units (not more than a dozen tokens per side) and a conflict between two systems should be resolved in under ten minutes through a card play system
  5. technological research.

6. The Colossus of Atlantis II

This is a bronze age steampunk Cthulhu mythos fantasy game, first run in 2010. At the start of the game the players are all members of an Atlantean noble House, as it starts to use its superior technology to conquer the world. Atlantis being Atlantis, corruption will set in and eventually doom will fall on Atlantis.

Atlantis_map_1882_crop

Key game elements:

  1. robust Athenian style Greek politics (this time we will make sure the democratic constitution cannot be destroyed by the players at the first assembly meeting)
  2. profiting from trade routes, using the negotiation system outlined in Crescent Stars (see above)
  3. universal basic income (as above)
  4. technological research with the goal of building the best giant bronze colossus to smash your way across the landscape
  5. occult research with the goal of summoning the best eldritch horror to devour your enemies with.

7. Pax Victoria II/Flower Power II

SAMSUNGThese are retro-future grand strategy battles for fantasy worlds with World War I to World War II technology. The main change from earlier games is to greatly reduce the number of units, for each player on your team you should only have 2-5 units to keep track of, and to place more of an emphasis on sea power.

Key game elements:

  1. alliance diplomacy and coalition warfare
  2. making tradeoffs between importing off-world technology or mercenaries, and developing you economy or expanding your own military.

8. Crusades II

Revisiting a scenario last used in the 1990s, its a medieval holy war to liberate/defend the sacred sites of several major religions. Within each broad coalition of coreligionists are smaller teams that have their own goals and hidden agendas.

Key game elements:

  1. diplomacy and arguing about religious doctrine
  2. trading spice and sacred relics
  3. rare and relatively important battles, as big armies are fragile
  4. lots of sieges and raiding
  5. limited information about where the enemy armies are (so lots of opportunity for selling information and double crossing).

9. Revelations

And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

A modern day apocalypse with the armies of Heaven and Hell fighting it out over what is left of humanity. Humans can pick a side or go it alone. Did I mention the zombie hordes? Yes, there will be zombie hordes. Learning from the 2011 Apocalypse America game, the economy will not collapse in turn one and leaders should be able to feed their armies for a while.

John_Martin_-_The_Great_Day_of_His_Wrath_-_Google_Art_ProjectKey game elements:

  1. as much gonzo pop culture kitsch as we can cram in
  2. resource scarcity, supplies are unreliable and will be fought over
  3. the map of Earth will be global, but the landscape will have been altered by various disasters and calamities
  4. the number of combat units will be kept at a manageable number (2-5 per player)
  5. to represent the scale of mundane, divine and infernal powers, a polyhedral dice pool “roll and keep best two” combat system will be used, e.g. if ordinary three human armies roll d6s and two Angels roll d12s you might roll a 3, 5, and a 6 for the humans and a 2 and 12 for the Angels, so you keep the rolls of 6 and 12 for a total of 18.

10. The Cold Stars

…the cold stars shone in mockery… – Mary Shelley

This is a bleak post-apocalyptic space opera. Humanity colonised the stars, but then something happened to sweep away most of human civilisation. The survivors hide in deep space or hidden outposts, because they know they are being hunted.

Alcyon_(star)Key game elements:

  1. isolation – this is a limited information game, with different teams being placed in different rooms
  2. exploration – if you make contact with other human survivors, you can start talking with them again, if they don’t kill you first
  3. hidden information, while the broad shape of the map will be clear, small boxes will be used to conceal information
  4. trade – everyone has a clue in the great puzzle, and everyone has something useful for survival, but every trade you make increases the chance that the hunters will find you
  5. the combat system is based on avoiding combat – whatever is hunting humanity has more advanced technology and outnumbers humanity a million to one.

Grim and Gritty, or Glam and Sticky?

June 16, 2015

JoyceMaureira_SORCSPLASH (2)

In which I will eventually consider my own play preferences, but first…

I have been doing a lot of reading on roleplaying game design over the last few weeks.  So much so that I suddenly started dreaming in GURPS mechanics last week. Which is odd, as I have never owned a copy of the GURPS rules, just a few of the setting supplements.

My reading started with me thinking about cooperative magic mechanics, magic mechanics in roleplaying games in general, tropes entries on magic, and some Wikipedia research on shadows and weaving.  I also listened to some podcasts at Narrative Control. Chatting with friends, I got feedback that my pitch was more of a Gotterdamerung/final days pitch than a real post-apocalyptic pitch, which I thought was valid.  This led to me thinking a bit about noir settings – and the very next day Bundle of Holding decided to have a noir themed release.  I am still working through that pile of information (and the rulebook for Ars Magicka 5th Edition from another Bundle of Holding offer a few weeks back), but I think a noir influenced setting might require multiple flying cities (so you can have a Casablanca in the middle of it all).

I can go back and forth on the setting. While its important, trying to build it without a better grasp on system is likely to be a waste of time. Figuring out the best system for the setting depends on figuring out exactly what I want the characters to be doing in the game system and what I want the players to be doing around the game table.  So I need to do some research to try and figure out if an existing game system already does what I want, or if I need to build my own system.

Cooperative Mechanics

Many game systems are silent on the issue of character cooperation to resolve contests in the game. Some games allow one character to assist another, but few of the mechanics I looked at are built explicitly around a group of players all making decisions about the contest outcome. Here are three that I found:

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: everyone makes a roll, if half the characters succeed, the group succeeds. Dull.

Runequest 6th Edition: the extended skill check system can be used for group tasks. The GM sets a difficulty (suggested base is 100), and the characters do skill checks, +25 for a success, +50 for a critical success and -25 for a fumble. Not quite as dull as D&D, but close.

Blades in the Dark: Characters take turns at being “on point” for an operation (which is based on teamwork). One of their options is to lead a group action: all players roll six sided dice, the best roll is used, but the leader takes one “stress” for each roll of 1-3. Players in “backup” roles can also influence this, e.g. by taking stress to roll a bonus die. Extended tasks are handled with progress clocks, which reminded me of the damage clocks in Apocalypse World. Overall I found this system was exciting my imagination, and I plan to run a Blades in the Dark game at Kapcon in 2016.

Magic Mechanics

Starting with Runequest, the sorcery system is close to what I want, but many of the spells are either lacking in obvious utility for player characters, or are too powerful for player characters. In play, I am not sure there is enough width to the spell list to make a combination of magic form 5-6 characters worthwhile.  The current edition also makes magic very all-or-nothing, either a spell overcomes the defences, or it completely fails, and this is a paper-scissors-rock subgame game.

I am not done reading Ars Magicka yet, but its rich and detailed magic system is primarily focused on the individual mage. While the troupe/covenant playstyle is interesting, its not what I am looking for.

D&D/F20 suffers from my dislike of Vancian magic. Too weak at low levels, a campaign killer at high levels.  If I have to rebuild the entire magic system, I might as well look elsewhere.

Note: there are a lot of roleplaying game systems out there that I have not played, or are unfamiliar with. I would be happy to hear suggestions of game systems I should take a closer look at. Information in forum posts makes me think I should take a look at FATE, and in particular The Dresden Files.  I only know the Mage: the whatever games in brief summary.  Heroquest and Riddle of Steel fall in the :too damn complicated” box for me.

Not satisfied with my search for illumination, I have been thinking about my literary influences, and also doing some research on roleplaying game design.

Roleplaying Game Design

Time to post a few links:

The Power 19 are like an extension of the Big 3, and most of the 19 feed off/interact with them, so I will just repeat the Big 3 here:

  1. What is the game about?
  2. What do the characters do?
  3. What do the players do?

Hard questions that are worth answering. I don’t think I have solid answers yet but some initial bullet points are:

  1. The game is about the transition to a post-peak magic society, and shaping the age that is to come (its about surviving the apocalypse long enough to make a difference).
  2. The characters are a cabal of mages, who share a fragment of a broken God, and the sum of the whole is greater than the parts when they weave their magic together.
  3. The players have to decide between escalating or escaping from contests, how much personal gain they want to try and twist out of the cabal, andwhat they want to do with their broken God.

Another part of my research was trying to figure out how dice pool mechanics work. I was sleeping under rock when these came on the scene, and I was intimidated by the wall of d6s required to fire an AK-47 in Shadowrun.  I think I get the concept now, and while an “exploding die” can be fun for criticals/fumbles, I still think my gut feeling is right that throwing large numbers of dice to determine contest outcomes has a big downside in terms of the mental energy required to keep processing the maths.  Star Wars: Edge of Empire has a dice system I would like to know more about, but the game is petrified in dead tree format, so it is going to be a while yet before I get to read it.

RPG Design Patterns was a good read. I think the best insight it gave me was on “Conflicted Gauges”, where is where a mechanic in the game is situationally good or bad.  For example, in Call of Cthulhu a high Mythos Lore skill is handy when trying to remember facts about eldritch monsters, but a disadvantage when trying to make Sanity checks.  There was a lot more in there, but this is going to be a long post already.

The RPG Design Handbook gave me some other questions to think about:

  1. How does the game make players care?
  2. What behaviours are rewarded, and how are they rewarded?
  3. Will the system let the players play the game the way I intended it to be played?
  4. Authority in the game – who gets to decide when the conversation moves forward and the decisions are locked in place?
  5. Credibility in the game – who has the right to challenge the shared fiction, and who gets to win that contest?

Literary Influences (Appendix N)

I think its worth listing some of my literary influences at this point:

  • Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files
  • Steven Erikson’s Malazan Tales of the Fallen (a spinoff from an AD&D campaign converted to GURPS, rpg.net has a good thread discussing Warrens)
  • Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence (I have only read the first two books, but I like what I have read)
  • Mark Smylie’s Artesia comics and first novel The Barrow (one of the best literary interpretations of a dungeon crawl ever).

I have not been influenced by Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, even though I worked back to it when searching for “magic + weaving” on Google.

Play Preferences

My tabletop roleplaying gaming started in the 1980s and was firmly rooted in the first generation of games: Dungeons & Dragons, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, and Traveller. Most of the campaigns I have played in or game mastered, have been in those systems, or a D20 version (like Fading Suns).  Kapcon has been good for being exposed to indie games, but prior to the Bundle of Holding, it was rare for me to look at other game systems on a regular basis.

Its interesting to reflect on my play preferences and how they differ when I am a player or a game master.

As a player I like:

  • rolling dice and sometimes getting lucky
  • being effective in combat
  • having a solid background hook for the character
  • a clear niche for my character
  • progression over time (and don’t make me lose the game in character generation by failing to understand what my character build should be)
  • some kind of direction about what we are doing in the game.

As a game master I like:

  • contest outcomes that give me some direction about what to narrate next – this is the main weakness of the d100 game engines, what does 57 mean?
  • faction ambiguity – players will always attempt to immediately kill anything within line of sight that is flagged “obvious villain”, and will feel like utter failures if you refuse to let them roll for initiative before you finish the opening monologue. So I like shades of grey and intrigue as a GM.
  • a system I am comfortable tinkering with for the house campaign (i.e. I understand everything inside the black box and feel comfortable about pulling level A to get result B)
  • running long, multi-year campaigns (most narrative games cannot do this to my satisfaction)
  • building a detailed setting for the house game and doing prep before each session (when I stop enjoying prep its time to think about wrapping the campaign up)
  • subverting cliches
  • the lightbulb moment when one of the players figures out the big secret!

While there are a lot of grim and gritty roleplaying games out there, there are not a lot of glam and sticky games. These reflects the wargaming roots and the mania for combat simulation. Still, maybe someone will make a game some day about playing 1970s rock stars and their groupies.

What might an ideal cooperative mechanic look like?

I do not have a solid idea yet on how to articulate these ideas as a mechanical expression.  Rolling some dice probably, but if I want something closer to the stories of literature/cinema, then I need a way of divorcing myself from the simulationist mania.  I would like the game mechanics to incorporate these ideas:

  1. The Cabal of Broken Gods: as a resource shared between the players – encourage the players to work together by making it advantageous to do so. Maybe the cabal lets you cast spells known by the other PCs but not by your PC? Maybe the cabal has a bonus pool of magic points? The cabal obviously needs its own character sheet (a character sheet is a promise).
  2. Magic Weaving: the players need each other’s help to cast effective spells, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Other PCs can give a die roll bonus, share the cost, benefit from the cast, etc.
  3. The Tapestry of Shadows: the potential threat of losing control over your character, or otherwise increasing a potential threat.
  4. Betrayal: the potential to twist a cabal weaving to your own benefit.
  5. Escalation: as the contest progresses, the player has to make the decision to escape or escalate. Think of the classic mage duels, no one dies in the first fireball, its a sequence of move and counter-move (and after scribbling this idea down I read about escalation mechanics in Dogs in the Vineyard for the first time)
  6. Going “all out”: a choice by the player to commit everything to the contest, with dire consequences for failure, the last option on the escalation ladder
  7. Escape: so common in literature, so rare in tabletop gaming. I want to make escape a valid choice for players, by having some kind of reward for bailing out of a fight they might lose (e.g. +1 Luck Point), and by making it easy (e.g. mages can teleport).

I am doodling some diagrams, trying to see if I can build some conflicted gauges around 3-5 magic resources.  For example, having a strong talent in Wild Magic could help you create new magic, but might make all your spells harder to control.  Other potential axis are destructive/creative, permanent/non-permanent, clarity/confusion. One thing I want to avoid, is writing up 666 different spells. Much easier to have just a small number of useful spells. Some important considerations for magic in the setting itself:

  • is magic an individual gift, or can anyone do it?
  • is magic powered from within the self, or by tapping into a universal magic force field?
  • is magic a fixed list of specified power, or can the players be creative/improvise on the go
  • is there are hard limit to the magical energy a character can tap – I think this is important because in much the same way players dislike going to zero Hit Points, they also dislike using their last Magic Point/spell, but it did occur to me that I could build into the reward system an explicit bonus for spending that last magic point
  • how quickly does magical energy refresh?

Publishing

I did some quick market research this week. Tabletop roleplaying games make up $15m of the $750m hobby gaming market. Boardgames have a greater share of the market at $75m. Most of the market is taken up by miniatures ($125m) and card games ($500m+).

The bulk of the tabletop game market is dominated by the Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder systems.  Outside of the F20 market are a handful of universal game systems, such as GURPS, or more focused systems, such as World of Darkness that have large followings.

I think if you want to make some money in publishing a new game setting, you have to think really hard about not using some flavour of F20.  If you want to publish a new game system, I think you need to be focused in your efforts. Write two pages, not twenty pages, write twenty pages, not 200 pages.  Having looked through a number of the universal setting free game engines, I would be unconvinced that the world needs another way to roll dice on the table.

Military Muddling

Finally, a shout out for my friends at the Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group in London, who have migrated their old club newsletter into the blogging age. Military Muddling may be of interest to people who are keen on historical game design and megagames.

The artwork in this post was taken from the art pack for The Silent Legion.