The Cold Stars Shone in Mockery

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

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


Art from Starvation Cheap by Sine Nomine Publishing


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

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


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.


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.


Pax Victoria

June 7, 2012

A bit of 2000AD influence here, but the concept for Pax Victoria is an isolated colony world, where a trillionaire businesswoman has established herself as Queen-Emperor Victoria II for a couple of centuries.  Funded by a monopoly on sales of Blood Diamonds harvested from fearsome leviathans of the ocean deeps, Victoria II has established a romanticised neo-Victorian colony world.  The upper tier of aristocracy have access to galactic technology, imported from off-world and maintained by the “Butler” class.  The other colonists are restricted to pre-1900 technology, except for a few educational and medicinal facilities.  So the colony is mainly steam-powered, save for the shuttle port (which galactic regulations require to have modern facilities for dealing with lost and damaged starships, so it has a small atomic power plant).

Victoria II has had a long reign, and through life extension technology she has celebrated a 200 year jubilee.  From time to time she has taken lovers as Prince Consorts, before plunging into decade long bouts of mourning following the consorts tragic early demise.  Her children, the darling princelings, have grown into administrative duties as they have matured.  The local natives are convinced of the divine origins of the off-worlders, and have signed a number of unfavourable 999 year leases, but nothing so bad as to trigger the anti-slavery clauses in the Galactic Constitution.  So while some rebels do strike from the jungles, the Sepoy units of the Imperial Army are usually sufficient to defeat them, and if not, the Imperial Guard has the Maxim Machine Gun 3000, and they do not.

Sadly, the beloved Victoria II has died after a decade long coma.  Tragically, she has neglected to name any of her children as her heir.  The Parliament she established so she could preside over ceremonial openings and closings has little power, although it is seen as a means for the common voter to express their will, all attempts at reform have been crushed by the conservative Lords.  So as the Queen lay dying, her children began plotting their own path to power…

Sequence of Events

Two weeks before the game night, I want teams to be determined and players mailed the background information and first set of options for team decision-making.  I want the teams to be making decisions in three areas:

  1. Their victory objectives for the game.
  2. Their stance on political issues relating to the status quo or societal change.
  3. Their preferred options for force build up.

Victory Objectives

The minimum goal players can select is an inherently defensive one – preservation of their sovereign independence and the territory they control at the start of the game.  Ambitious players can select stretch goals, which could include:

  • build a navy, army, or air force that is stronger than adjacent states/any state/any other two states combined
  • gain control of one/many/all the Blood Diamond harvest zones
  • gain the submission of one/many/all other states
  • capture capitals, forts and other key locations (individual hexes)
  • gain control of all ports in the inner/outer/all seas
  • gain control of the full length of the continental rail networks
  • gain control of disputed territory.

For each stretch goal, you gain an extra option point, but also acquire a victory point penalty (i.e. if you go for Napoleonic world conquest and fail, then you will lose the game of grand strategy, while someone choosing a Switzerland approach may find their goals easier to obtain).  I will describe these in qualitative terms, I will keep the maths hidden until the end of the game.  I would probably have some threshold effects, such as gain +1 action token per additional state you conquer so that world conquest is possible (if not exactly probable) so that players choosing that gamble should at least have a fun time executing it.

Political Issues

The players are Lords.  They run their states like petty fiefdoms.  This does not make them popular, but the players can choose between political stances that will increase or reduce the stability of their states.  Stability will change the chance of either the natives rebelling against the humans, or the common humans attempting a revolution to take power of their own.  Some stances may also change the number of option points available.  The final set of political stances will also determine how many victory points it costs to ally with other players (the greater the difference in stances, the higher the victory point cost).

Some of the stances could involve tradeoffs between:

  • secret police or free newspapers
  • votes for natives
  • independent centres of education
  • maintaining horse cavalry or building an airforce
  • conscription or volunteer armies
  • free trade or protective tariffs
  • allowing free industrial development or maintaining central economic planning
  • supporting the World Empire or balkanisation of the colony.

A stable state may not be as powerful, but it will not be home to the first rebellion/revolution (which is how I can respawn into the game any players whose states are conquered by other teams early in the game).


Options represent an investment of energy, leadership and labour in preparing for the end of the Pax Victoria.  Most of the options are things players will want to do, but it will be impossible to do all of them.  The teams will each pick an option every day in the lead up to the game night (hopefully by consensus, if they disagree I would pick one randomly and reduce state stability).  The earlier a team picks an option, the more powerful it will be for them in the game.  For example, setting up a spy agency early on gives you a lot of spies in the game.  Setting up a spy agency as your last option gives you a small, pitifully underfunded agency.

Options could include:

  • building up the size of the army, navy or airforce
  • artillery or tanks
  • fighters or bombers
  • building up the quality of the army, navy, or airforce
  • spies
  • building various elite units (Guards, Marines, Airborne)
  • expanding Blood Diamond harvesting operations
  • completing railway/canal engineering mega-projects
  • fortresses and other static defences
  • naval bases
  • improving logistics, HQ staff

The goal would be to minimise the chance of one option being a clear game winner.  Ideally at the start of the game the different teams will have a mix of forces and abilities that avoid them being carbon copies of each other.


The design intent is to make Naval power much more important than it was in Flower Power.  The idea is to borrow and adjust the Circle Sea setting from Andrew Vallance’s epic play-by-mail game of yesteryear.  So imagine an ocean on a water world.  Now imagine a comet smacking into the world.  The crater that is left behind leaves a dimple island in the middle, with an outer circle of the crater wall.  Have a couple of straits eroded in the walls and you have two long crescents of land.  Each of the two continents have five teams of players on it.  Each team has at least one land neighbour, and usually 2-3, and has naval ports bordering on two oceans.

So players have some big choices to make.  It will be impossible for any team to have both a superior inner sea navy and an outer sea navy, and an army/air force superior to all of their neighbours.  Each state will be weak somewhere.  This should encourage diplomacy, alliances … and betrayal.


Ground combat will be attrition based in outcomes, resulting in small amounts of positional movement and army losses.  As long as a state has selected options that allow them to train and equip replacements faster than they take losses, their army will remain solidly on the field (unless backed into a corner and forced to retreat, or if being attacked by more than one player at a time).  Ground combat is at the Army level, with elite corps sized units.  Each Army has around ten tokens, which are placed in hexes to represent “front lines”.

The airforce will play a role in supporting army/navy combat, unless a state decides to spend a stupendous number of option points developing a strategic bomber force.

Naval combat is based on having superiority in a sea zone, and is much more likely to result in a decisive battle than ground combat.  Outnumbered naval forces will tend to hide in fortified naval bases, only poking their heads out to do raids.  Naval combat is at the squadron/fleet level.

Turns and Actions

We probably have two map tables for land operations, and a third map table for naval operations.  Assuming a 20 minute turn and 30 players, so 10 players per table, if turns can be executed in 30 seconds, players can be allowed four actions per turn.  If they take a minute to complete, then two actions per turn.  To help focus players, we probably make it hard for states to have more than three combat units per player.

Using a HAT system, each state gets a number of tokens equal to its number of players, plus some tokens based on options.  The default token is “Hasty Assault” (i.e. extra casualties for the attacker), but depending on how the state spent options it may get different, or additional tokens such as “Supply”, “Prepared Defence” (i.e. reduce defender losses if attacked, increase attacker losses) and “Prepared Assault” (i.e. bonus for artillery).

Exhaustion: once an army has attacked, it is exhausted.  It cannot attack again until either the next game turn starts, or some logistic resources are expended in a supply action.  It also suffers a penalty if attacked.  This should make players less frantic to be the first to move … so when a team is called up for an action, they have a few seconds in which they can choose to pass and wait.  In some ways, executing the last move can be advantageous (so the end of the game turn may be 20 minutes +30-120 seconds at random).


Anyhow, that is one possible scenario for next year’s Grand Strategy game.

Classic Housewar Revisited

June 22, 2011

Housewar was a play-by-mail (PBM) campaign I ran for three years in 1991-1993.  It was a gloriously baroque space opera, lovingly hand moderated, and somewhere around 30 odd people took part in its twists and turns.  At the end of 1993 I got an internet account, was elected to the student union exec, and ran out of time to continue a hand mdoerated game.  I had also figured out that my dream of making a living from running PBM games was not going to work – the future was going to be PBeM games, and I couldn’t code worth a damn.

One of the hard bits of shifting years later was throwing out all the Housewar game notes.  They filled a large trunk at the stage, well over a cubic metre of paper.  I still have a few newsletters and maps somewhere, and I think I only got rid of the five and a quarter floppy with the game files last year.

So its interesting to reflect on what I would do differently now, with a somewhat better educated brain, the wonders of modern technology, and a set of time suck commitments that mean that I can’t spend four hours each night rolling six-sided dice as House Illia attempts to repel House Dlan’s invasion fleets.  So here is a list in no particular order:

1. Build a CAD map with layers.  I used to redraw the map boundaries by hand every game turn for Classic Housewar.  Digital would get around that, and layers would allow a more focused display of particular bits of information.  Also, it could be in colour.

2. Have a supporting website, wiki, blog, and e-mail list.  Tempting to add twitter to the list, as the idea of running a game where all orders were limited to 140 characters has some appeal.  I used to get a paragraph of orders from some players, and 10-20 page manifestos from other players.  The shorter order sets usually did better, as NPCs had a bit more initiative.

3. E-mail battle results to the e-mail list, allowing players to verify combat resolution prior to confirming the final result.  This would save me hours of retconning hand moderation clusterfucks.

4. One move every two months, probably taking two weeks for resolution of a move.

5. A stable rule set.  I used to change the rules every turn, often in major ways, as I was reading a lot of military history and strategic studies books and this meant I was constantly finding better ways of making the game “more realistic”.  I’m sure at least one player observed that every turn of Housewar was like it was an entirely new game.  I’m a lot less obsessed by realism now, preferring a focus on particular themes and keeping everyting else simple.

6. Less is more. Start small, allow growth to a manageable point.  Housewar III in particular suffered from a bloat, with unused map portions, way too many rules, and vast fleets of time consuming uselessness.

7. Use Matrix game arguments to establish random events, rather than having a random event table.  Based on past experience, I would be careful to outline the limits of this, e.g. no black holes, supernovaes, or dinosaur killing asteroids.  Also, while it sucks to ahve bad shit happen, seeing that it was other players doing it to you, rather than cruel dice, is I think better in a social game where people will tell stories about it in later years.

8. Balance the initial economy, rather than generate it with random numbers.  In hindsight, taking an economic system from a WWII game where units took 6 turns to build was not great.  Its really hard to plan that far ahead.  Nor was allowing people at war to build 2-3 times as much as people at peace, without them paying some price for it.

9. Limited warfare.  Housewar battles were fairly bloody, being a mix of WWI and WWII naval game mechanics.  Winners tended to take light casualties while the losers were wiped out.  In turn this meant a few defeats led to elimination of a player.  With a design intent that was more looking for persistent inceremental gains/losses moderated by diplomacy and the balance of power, I would aim for a combat system which produced win/lose without always generating massacres.  My current idea here, is that ships automatically put up a bubble shield wall when damaged, that guarantees they survive to the end of that round of combat, at which point the commander may choose to run away.

10. Less bean counting.  No more logistics points.  Only Seth ever got that the logistics subgame meant you needed enough supplies for consecutive turns to gaurantee a successful invasion.

11. Exploration.  Was never really handled well, and for a space game with wormholes you need a clear idea of the costs/benefits of exploration.  Also, changing the map hard copy was tricky. Probably easier with a CAD map.

12. Scenario.  I think I’d want a bit more in the way of background, and what the motivations for the Houses are, beyong survival and power.  Currently I lean towards a “reconstruction” atmosphere following a Saberhagen Beserker style invasion triggered during a diaspora from Terra.  So there would be a rehtorical space for “unity against the alien menace”, even if I never had said menace show up in the game again (because whichever playergot selected as the invasion point would have to be obliterated by it, otherwise no one would take the green gooks seriously, see point 7 on RNG).

13. Leaders. Used to be in quite limited supply, I think I’d make it trivial to recruit at least one more per turn, so that initial poor luck in random talent generation does not ruin a House’s shot at glory.

14. Diplomacy. Could possibly be handled with matrix arguments.  Depending on how leaders work, I might add a dynastic marriage requirement.

15. Technology.  Inextricably linked to stable ruleset.  Allowing players to create new forms of combat unit always leads to a revolutionary change in rules.  Evolutionary change is much easier to handle, where units get minor bonuses/penalties, rather than being instantly invinceable/obsolete.  Could also be handled with matrix arguments.

16. Declarations of war.  Matrix arguments again, and require the players to articulate their war aims (with some defaults if the players have a complate imagination failure, e.g. attacker wants to take over a system, defender wants to keep them), so once accomplished or failed, a subsequent matrix argument can lead to peace.

17. Balance.  A lot more care at setup, power differentials of +/-10% not +/- 100%.  Ultmately still relies on the players, once you push the go button on the game, balance goes out the window.

18. Mars Convention. Make it explicit in interstellar law, “No use of WMD on human colonies.”  In hindsight, I should have realised that having a x2 economic multiplier for war status, and a x3 for DEFCON 1 status would lead to players declaring war on each other and then having a limited exchange of nuclear weapons to boost economic growth in both states.  All very 1984, but it broke the game badly.

19. Ansible. Be a bit more explicit about how the FTL communications work.  I used to handwave it as telepathy between House leaders, but it does affect how non-leader controleld fleet units should work/react.

20. Limit the number of players to 14.  20+ was a bit too much for me to handle.  Can always have a waiting list, or a reserve list for players who forget to submit orders.

Yeah, someday I’ll run Housewar IV. Someday.