Drafting objectives in megagames

September 30, 2020

Riffing on Tony Martin’s recent post on traitors in megagames, which made me reflect on loyalty and internal tension in megagame player teams, here a couple of mental tools I use to help me think when crafting objectives for different factions and roles in megagames.

Fear, Honor, and Interest

And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honor and interest afterwards came in.

Richard Crawley (1910), translation of Thucydides history of the Peloponnesian War

In a speech before the Spartans, Athenian diplomats argued that these are the three greatest motives, and used them to explain their reluctance to give up their empire without a fight. Their attempt to persuade the Spartans not to go with war with Athens failed, but I think these three primal motives can be used to build strong objectives for megagame factions and individual player roles. For a bit more on this speech on the meaning of the three terms try this article.

Fear: this objective is about something you are afraid of. You want to stop it from happening, or defer it as far as possible into the future. Pretty obviously, players respond well to clear and present dangers that threaten their game role with harm or loss of agency in the game.

Honor: this objective is something that you must, or must not do, during the course of the game. This is more about how you behave in trying to achieve your other goals. While a player may not appreciate the restriction on their play, I believe that such constraints help encourage creativity. For Thucydides, honor was about maintaining the reputation of the state, and thus deterrence credibility. I have taken a different approach here closer to a modern sensibility for the word honor.

Interest: this objective is about something you desire. You want it to happen, to have more of it, or you want to control it. If nothing else, you can use greed – a desire for more stuff. It is in many ways the reverse of fear as a goal.

For good measure, you can have these personal motives be in tension or conflict, so that a player must choose which is more important to them. If you must always honor your agreements, but when your closest ally threatens to drag you into an unwinnable war, what will you do?

DNA

I found the “DNA” idea on a roleplaying forum a few months back. It is an abbreviation for Desire, Need, and Agenda. Alternately it can be Desire, Need, and Assets. Assets are possibly more relevant to a player role in a megagame than an agenda, as the player will create the agenda using their assets to fulfill their needs and desires. I am unsure who to credit with the original DNA formulation, but it is a good technique for helping a GM decide what an NPC is likely to do in a scene without having to refresh themselves on six pages of backstory.

A quick example of a DNA for a familiar character: Dracula

  • Desires: to be reunited with Mina Harker, who he believes to be the reincarnation of his mortal love.
  • Needs: human blood to survive, and to retain an appearance of healthy humanity.
  • Agenda: plans to sail on a ship carrying crates of earth from the homeland to Whitby, in order to establish a base in England closer to Mina Harker.
  • Assets: a castle in Transylvania, the children of the night, three vampire brides, etc.

Analysing Goals with Criticality

In larping terms, a subcritical game situation might be one in which plot is low and boring, and nothing is likely to change. A supercritical situation might be one in which characters are likely to explode on each other and quickly transform the game outside of playable range as most plots get resolved to the point of non-playability. A system that is critical, however, is one in which many actions are likely to have a substantive impact without destroying the larger system as a whole. In a game, this looks like a situation in which characters can have a meaningful impact without breaking the game.

J Li and Jason Morningstar, Pattern Language for LARP Design

The key insight I got from this reading this section of Pattern Language for LARP Design is that if a faction or player goal can be achieved during a game, the game will be better for everyone if that success or failure leads to a new critical situation with uncertain outcomes and further action needed by players to respond to the change in the state of the game. This is more of a reflective tool, for use after drafting some goals, as you try to imagine what might happen in your game. I recommend reading the entire document, as it has a lot of ideas applicable to megagames.

One of the ideas explored in Tony’s post on traitors was on the role that a combination of active obstruction and passive incompetence can play in stalling the emerging narrative of the megagame. One possible approach, thinking about criticality, is to structure key decision points into the game for the players, that must result in a change in the game, rather than preservation of the status quo. For example, in the last run of Colossus of Atlantis, one faction was always going to be exiled (voted off the island as it were) every time the Assembly met (about three times during the game). They could be recalled back from exile by a later Council vote or Assembly meeting, but I deliberately made exile a hard mechanic in the game to focus player attention and diplomacy.

A Practical Example

In working on a revision of Colossus of Atlantis, I will use these tools for the leader of the House Atlas faction. The House of Atlas starts the game as the ruling royal family of the city of Atlantis and the Atlantean empire. Alas for House Atlas, the high king has been cursed by the Gods, and his wife has borne him only daughters.

Fear: the House of Atlas fears losing control of their traditional role of sovereign, which in accordance with the constitution at the start of the game, can only be filled by a male citizen, born in Atlantis (faction goal). You also fear any weakening in the laws of Atlantis, that currently favour the institution of monarchy, over the interests of the other factional ideologies (Democracy, Oligarchy, etc) that have divided the city of late (personal goal).

Honour: the daughters of the House of Atlas are coming of age, and one daughter must be married each game round, with a respectable dowry, to one of the other player roles in the game (personal goal). While you hold the office of sovereign, the laws of Atlantis allow you to pay for dowries from the Treasury of Atlantis. This is not Ptolemaic Egypt, and your daughters cannot marry anyone in your family (faction goal).

Interest: you want a strong military and prosperous economy for a stable Atlantean Empire. You should be feared and respected by the rival empires of Hyperborea, Thule, and Lemuria, safe and secure from the threat of rebellion or barbarian raiding (faction goal). The people of Atlantis should never go hungry for grain, nor the Gods for libations of wine in the temples (personal goal).

Personal Desire: Poseidon should be the Patron God of Atlantis, as he was for your ancestors (personal goal).

Personal Need: Live long enough to see all of your daughters married, and the birth of an heir to the throne (personal goal).

Agenda: strongly recommend you consult with your daughters before offering their hand in marriage to someone (play hint).

Assets: Palace Guard, Royal Cavalry, keys to the Treasury of Atlantis, a casting vote on any tied council votes.

Criticality: Your eldest daughter gets married, and the treasury is not bankrupt, success! Now the suitors crowd around for the hand of your second oldest daughter, and the benchmark has been set for dowry expectations. Are the happy couple now both playing for the House Atlas team, or another noble house? Is their first child a boy or a girl? What happens if the constitutional amendment to allow women to be citizens succeeds? A witch approaches you offering a herbal remedy to help with your lack of a male heir, how do you respond? You now have three sons-in-law, which one do you designate as your heir? The marriage between your youngest daughter and the exiled Prince of Lemuria is causing the Lemurian ambassador to threaten war, how should Atlantis respond to this threat? Strong military and prosperous economy – how are you paying for both enough wine and enough spears to keep everyone happy?

I think that set of goals should work well, and they have a lot of hooks for interacting with the rest of the team, and many of the other player roles in the game. If I can think of different mixes of Fear, Honor, and Interest and a touch of DNA with similar levels of criticality for the other factions I will be pretty happy.

Next blog post, might be on the topic of adjudicating special actions. I have some ideas rattling around the head on that topic, maybe this time it will not take me six months to finish the post.