Friday, December 17, 2010

The Wargame DNA of the RPG

A few years ago, I helped out a family friend, Craig Besinque, in designing and playtesting a block-based wargames, which ended up being called Hellenes: Campaigns of the Ancient World.

Craig is pretty well-know in a certain element of the wargaming community - which is like being well-known in the RPG community, except that wargamers tend to be a bit more community-oriented than most RPGer's.  He's designed games like WestFront and EastFront for Columbia Games, so it was really interesting to learn about board game/wargame design from him.

In brief, here are the things I learned working with Craig.

1) Designing wargames is unlikely to make you rich.  You are working in a niche market, with a fairly small customer base (as customer bases go).  They are a reliable base, though - willing to spend money on quality product.  This is presumably also true for RPG's - something anyone wanting to design RPG's should heed.

2) You had best be good at math.  Craig has a Masters Degree in Mathematics from (I believe) UCLA.  He can do fairly complex probability in his head.  I suspect that it's a good thing he's not into gambling, or he would be cleaning up on

3) Game balance is all-important.  Moreso in this context than some others, since Hellenes was designed to be a fairly short 1v1 wargame.  Balance in this context is very similar to what balance means in chess - there should be no sure, or even preferred, route to victory.  If there is, the game is "broken" and considered by most people to be unworthy of being played.  Which will kill your sales (or even your chances of being published) - see point 1.

4) You can design whatever you want, but if you stick to certain material constraints, there is a much better chance that your game will be published.  In this case, Columbia games had certain pre-packaged numbers of blocks and decks of cards.  If you used a different number of blocks in your game, it meant the game cost more, which would be a factor in the publisher deciding to release it.  Likewise, if you use cards, try to stick with the same number of cards as a standard deck of cards, for the same reasons.

To further explain this point, we should examine a different game - Railroad Tycoon.  This game has a ton of different blocks, tiles, markers, plastic trains and whatnot with it.  It's a pretty good game, but now out of print.  I think that's probably because all the bells and whistles (hehe) cost more that it's worth to produce the thing.

5) You must playtest.  Then, playtest more.  Then put it out there and get others to playtest it.  That is the only way to get good game balance - see point 3.

6) If you want to design a historical boardgame, you must start with the historical part.

It's nice if the game can reflect historical realities, but you should pick what realities you reflect - they should be ones that create interesting possibilities and trade-offs.  Guns or butter decisions are what make wargames interesting.

Ideally, players should be making decisions that reflect those that the actual historical sides would have made - in the case of Hellenes, the Athenians need to decide how much of their fleet to take out of the city, whether to focus on attacking Spartan coastal provinces, how much effort to spend putting down revolts, and how many resources to apply to land armies vs the fleet.

7) Limiting resources is a good thing.  When you can't do everything, you have to make decisions about where to allocate a very limited pool of resources.  This makes each decision a difficult one, requiring much deliberation.  Combined with point 6 - it means you can never do everything you want, and you're always making interesting decisions about what you can do.

Many RPG's use one or more of these design principles.  Interestingly, older versions of games like D&D tend to use less of them, despite the fact that they are closer, genetically-speaking to those old wargames.  Specifically issues like game balance, playtesting and limiting resources don't seem to have been foremost in the minds of the designers of say, 1e Dungeons and Dragons.  It's a hybrid game system, and the designers seem to be focused more on the overall experience than applying the lessons of wargame design to the new system.

In more recent years, things have swung back around.  4e, for all it's flaws, pays much more attention to 2, 3 and 7.  It would have been nice if they spent more time on 5, though.  Curiously, it's frequently panned by fans of the older editions - which is kinda weird, since it owes much more to the initial inspiration for D&D than many of those old editions did.

Ultimately, helping to design a boardgame was a great experience - it's really changed how I look at both RPG's and computer games.  I feel like I have a much better view of the decisions that were probably made in the design phase that resulted in the game I'm playing, which makes it easier to mod games, and strangely, easier to like each system for it's own merits/flaws.  To understand something is to lose the fear of it, after all.

Monday, December 13, 2010

OD&D, Session 6

It's never a good idea to leave the person who plays the thief alone with the DM.  I'm just throwing that out there as a general RPG rule.  Never leave the thief alone.  With the GM.  Things will occur that most of the rest of the party probably don't want to occur.

As de-facto party leader, I suppose Fingolfin should have been surprised when we loaded up the cart for "Operation Get the Lazy Bitch Elves Their Magical Thingy Back" and found 2 large, unplanned barrels of wine in the back.

"I bought them", proudly announced Hanz, the resident thief (and ex-Black Eagle staffer).  "Why?"  I responded.  Then decided that I didn't really want to know, but figured we could work with it, and rolled.

Now, I'm not going to say that the decision for Alexi to pretend to be a prisoner was totally motivated by desire for revenge for his getting us involved in this merry cluster-frack, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a consideration.  So with a certain degree of relish, we had him strip down, inflicted a few cosmetic bruises, tied him up in the bottom of the cart, and headed south from Luln for Black Eagle Barony and sunny, friendly Fort Doom!

A travel video about Fort Doom would go something like this:

"Set like a festering sore in the reeking western marshes of Karameikos, the main industries of Fort Doom are fishing, slavery and incompetent plotting.  Tourist attractions include slums, hovels, and wretched masses cowering from their master's boot.  The friendly local inhabitants are mostly fisherfolk, who are kept roughly in line by hostages, held by the jackbooted thugs who make up the rest of the population.  If you're lucky, you'll see some of the exotic orcs, goblins or other horrendous monsters that the friendly and hospitable Baron uses to terrorize his subjects.  Truly, the holiday destination of the Duchy!"

So yeah - nice place.  We got into the city with no problems (guards at gate drunk, also apparently developmentally disabled), and approached the eponymous fort.  True to form, the sergeant of the guard proved to be fat and obnoxious, challenging us upon approaching the gates.  Some judicious display of the captured Iron Ring badge (a ring, made of... wait for it... iron.) and a properly arrogant attitude saw us through the gates.

Then operations really started.  We generously "donated" one of the wine barrels to the gate guards, which went over about how you'd expect - no drinking on duty issues here.  I informed the sergeant that we had magic items to put in the tower, and was told I needed a pass.  Apparently those are given out by a lieutenant Garand or somewhat.  So off we went, prisoner in tow, to see the Lt.

We'd also acquired a neat magic item, a Horn of Plenty - which makes... food.  Awesome.  But it looks magical, so into a sack it went.  Informing the Lt that we had a magical horn which "blows holes in walls" - which is what I wish we'd gotten, I expedited the pass process by offering to test it in his office.  Pass acquired, we headed to the tower.  Once inside the tower, we put the main evil cleric-guy (who lounges around in his boxers while on guard duty) to sleep, looted his stuff, then headed upstairs, where we encountered a complaining old man.

It quickly became apparent that the old fellow was an alchemist, and no fan of team Black Eagle, so we promised Nicholai that we'd help him escape, if he helped us find the magic whoosis.  He agreed fairly quickly and said that Lt. Demetrios (or something roman anyway, I wasn't taking notes) might have it in his office.  We burst into the Lt's office on the second floor, and discovered a bit of a scene.  The Lt and a fellow in tight black leather were sitting very close to each other - "discussing" something or other.  Whoops.

So we cast sleep on them.  Heheh.  I don't know how anyone makes any headway against the elves - that spell is pure murder in OD&D - 2d8 hd, area effect, no save.  Love it.  So they went to sleep, and we killed them, and discovered that the gem was already being moved - the mage Aurelius was planning on taking it out to the Baron, who is enroute here from someplace, and he's just waiting for an escort from the main keep.  This is just the gatehouse to the main keep - apparently.  Which explains that negligence, drunkeness and general slothful attitude.

There are 2 places this Aurelius might be - either the dungeon or the inner barbican, the entrance into the keep proper.  I figure it's easier to do a quick check of the barbican before we go to the dungeon, so we head off in that direction.  The barbican is closed, but there are guards up top on the wall, so I ask them if Aurelius is still waiting there for his escort.  They say "Yes, but it's a secret, so keep it quiet."  Smooth boys, smooth.  So I tell them to open up, as I have Aurelius' things.

They do - whoohoo!  Then we see that there are a lot of guards in here.  So we cast sleep on them.  Whoohoo!  Snoozing.  One of the other things that we found in the tower was an elven cloak, which Hanz the thief is now wearing.  This is an OD&D magic item, so none of this sissy, +5 to sneak rolls 3e crap.  This makes you totally invisible unless you roll a 1 on a d6.  So Hanz uses it to sneak into the barbican and finds Aurelius, some thief, the watch-commander and a bunch more mooks.  At this point, we're out of sleep spells, so we do it the old-fashioned way.

By backstabbing the wizard.  Who dies.  And then we burst into the room.  Didn't quite manage surprise, although I'd be pretty fucking surprised if the person I was having an argument with sprouted a spear point in mid-shout.  We carve down the guards, and after a few rounds of pretty rough rolling, get into the spirit of the thing and take out the watch-captain and the thief-guy.  We also find the gem, some magic rings and a few other nice things.

Then, downstairs and out the front.  At this point, we discover that an orc patrol has come in from the city, and is milling around the front gate.  We turn it into a party with the other barrel of wine, and I discover one of the reasons for the thief/dm rule.  Hanz poisoned the wine.  Not "keel over after drinking" poison.  No, giant ant venom apparently blisters the interior of the stomach/bowels, incapacitating the victims in a few hours.

Leaving everyone to their "party", we hurry out the gate.  But Hanz stays behind.  Once again, we log off and leave the thief alone with the DM...

I find out the next day that Hanz snuck into the dungeon, backstabbed the jailor, stole the keys, released and armed the prisoners, met a friendly ogre and gathered a handful of "followers", who all meet us just outside the city walls.

So, for our next session, I'll be figuring out how to get out the Black Eagle Barony with an ogre in tow.  Oh, and the magical geegaw lets us cast charm person, ESP and some other spells a few times a DAY.  That shouldn't be a game-breaker.

Friday, December 10, 2010

OD&D, Session 5

When a session starts off with a map of your campsite, and the DM casually mentions, "so you're sitting around the fire..."  NO GOOD CAN COME OF IT.  Things will be coming out of the bushes.  Horrible things.  With swords and teeth and biting and aaaayyyy.

And that is how our last session started.  Fortunately (I suppose) what came out of the darkness was a guy on horseback.   Shouting.  Shouting about "They're right behind me, they'll kill us all, AARRGH".  Upon reflection, it would have been smarter to just conk him over the head and give him to his pursuers, but instead we stupidly asked, "Who's after you?", like a bunch of dumbasses.

'Cause, it's obvious that whoever is after him is a Bad Person.  And will attack us.  So it was no surprise when he told us that he was pursued by agents of the Iron Ring, a bunch of slaver-assholes who would no doubt attempt to kill/enslave us just for being here at the same time he was.  He's pretty fucking lucky it was our camp he rode up to, and not, say, a travelling minstrel-show.  He'd have been screwed.

Immediately, aforementioned Bad Person and thugs showed up - surrounding our camp, conveniently.  The leader loudly instructing his men to "Kill them all".  Talk about lack of due diligence on his part.  Rule 1 for slaver/bandit: Identify potential threat level of target.

I won't say I didn't warn them though - my character, Fingolfin the elf, shouted loudly (at the darkness) "if you attack our camp, we'll put you all to sleep, and then I'll personally nail you to a tree."  It seemed like a reasonable threat.

So they did.  And we did.  I had a wooden mallet, and the thief had some iron spikes.  The slaver leader seemed... distressed when we woke him up by driving in the first spike.  He was also markedly uncooperative.  More so that I would expect someone to be when one is crucified, one's men have been hung, and a pair of wolves are sniffing hungrily around one's feet.  I'd be positively fucking loquacious at that point.  But he just cursed and spat and generally made an ass of himself.

Then somebody shot a crossbow at us from the bushes.  But the wolves ran him down pretty fast.  These guys aren't learning.  They're also not telling us WTF is happening, so we asked our "guest" Alexis why he was interrupting our evening with the shouting and the blood.

Apparently, the forces of the Black Eagle Barony, upon whose metaphorical doorstep we now trod, had stolen a magical gem doohickey from the elves in eastern Karameikos (presumably because the elves were busy snorting pixie-faerie dust off each other's naked backsides and having unprotected elf-sex - because really, what else is there to do when you're immortal).  The gem is REALLY important because you can do mind control with it - notwithstanding that Charm Person is basically mind control and a level 1 spell.

Alexis is part of a rescue mission sent to retrieve it before all manner of horror can befall the faire realme, but all his friends have been killed by the Iron Ring, and now he's on his own and wants OUR help.  There are apparently more slavers about, so we're "encouraged" to hurry along to Luln.  So we packed up the campsite and headed off down the road - we're all out of sleep spells, so no reason to push our luck.

Arriving in Luln in the morning, we hurry to a cobblers shop where Alexis has allies.  Walking in, we are immediately ambushed.  If I didn't know better, I'd say this nitwit was trying to get us killed.  2 ambushes in a row starts to stretch the bounds of credulity.  Fortunately, we'd had enough time to rest up, so most of the ambushers got unaccountably drowsy, and we didn't have much difficulty taking out the rest of them hand-to-hand.

There was a rough moment when a wizard popped out of a side room and cast magic missile, mainly because nobody in the party can survive a full-damage magic missile.  Luckily, he shot it at the NPC, who has a few more HP's, so everyone survived.  After some mourning over his friends, Alexis took us to yet another location, an inn.  There we meet another of his buddies, who explains more about the missing mcguffin, and gives a potential plan for retrieving it.

And boy, is the plan a doozy.  Amigo wants us to hide in a turnip cart, sneak into Fort Doom (great name - love that subtle, understated villainy), go through the dungeon, which they stock with monsters specifically to devour prisoners, and finally, break into a vault-tower where they store magical items.  Oh, and do it all in the middle of a garrison of soldiers and orcs.

A quick poll of the party reveals absolutely no interest in: a) the plan or b) retrieving the gem at all.  So we decide to go with our own plan.  Next time - breaking into Fort Doom.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Half-Made World: A Book Review

Wow.  This book came out of nowhere and blew me away.  It's without question the best new author pickup I've had since I randomly picked up Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville.  Half-Made World has a lot of Mieville-esque elements to it, in fact.  The novel is 1-part western, 1-part steampunk and 1-part horror, with a solid dash of fantasist, stirred just the right amount.

To an RPG gamer, especially one raised on the tradition of D&D, this book brings an interesting twist to the concepts of Law and Chaos.  The fantastic, "half-made" west of the novel is a place where many of the traditional ideas of the western are taken from the realm of the psychological and made real.  The world literally gets less real, less "formed" as one moves further west, and the western ocean is a sea of raw chaos from which gods, spirits and creatures form spontaneously.

Contesting for this potential country are the opposing forces of the Gun and the Line.  The Gun is represented by the Agents - criminals and anarchists with supernatural powers who rely on subversion, sabotage and stealth.  They prefer to avoid direct confrontation, and instead work through cats-paws and unknowing dupes.  The chaos and lawlessness of the old west is a clear influence on the Gun, and the fact that their powers are granted directly by the spirit-infused weapons they bear makes the metaphor even stronger.

The Line, on the other hand, is represented by the Engines - massive locomotives possessed of malign intelligence that plot and scheme to spread their railway tendrils and industrial-hell stations across the land.  Thousands of Men of the Line serve them - hammered into faceless cogs by the infernal sound of the engines.  Black-clad, gas-mask wearing and using steampunk weapons like motor-guns and heavier-than-air helicopters, the Line are methodical, unstoppable and terrifying forces of "progress".

The two forces clash in the "unfinished" west as they both try to capture an old man, once general of the fallen and near mythical Red River Republic - the Camelot of the west, that once defied and fought off both the Gun and the Line, until it was torn down by both Powers.  The main characters, a female doctor from the settled north and a rebellious Agent of the Gun, flee from the Line into the far west, where they encounter the last remnants of a fallen history, and things far worse cast up out of the chaos of the western oceans.

The book has great characters, a setting that manages to be both fresh and familiar, and a great mythic-horror-western feel.  Lots to recommend here - I haven't heard of Felix Gilman before this, but he's on my must-read list now.