Thursday, 22 April 2021

Making Things Fairer

From day one I've always felt slightly uncomfortable with how Patreon fit into the way I make content.

It's not even been that long since I changed to the monthly model, which felt like a better fit, but something still didn't feel right.



The puzzle finally clicked into place when I saw No Pun Included change their Patreon to a system where all tiers received the same rewards. Data suggests that people support this type of Patreon at the level they can afford to pay. Having greater rewards for higher tiers can feel like punishing people who lack the disposable income to pledge at the higher tiers. So why not grant equal rewards to all tiers, and let people offer support at a level that fits their means?

This idea appeals to my values. After all, the purpose of my Patreon is to offer a way for you to support the public blogposts, videos, and podcasts that you enjoy, without locking content behind a paywall for everybody else. Obviously there are costs that go into producing this content, but I always want it to be available to everybody.

I pitched a couple of ideas to my existing Patreons and they were met with unanimous support.   

So there will be two big changes taking effect immediately. 

1: All tiers now receive all rewards. This includes the weekly editorial, monthly backstage video, voting rights. Higher tiers allow people to pledge further support if their means allow. The only rewards tied to specific tiers are the purely cosmetic Discord roles. 

2: Editorials will be made public the following week. I've never liked having any of my actual game content behind a paywall, even if it's the mostly trivial weekly editorial. As such, these will be sent to Patrons as normal and then posted on the blog a week later.

No action is needed from patrons this time around, just the knowledge that from today things will be operating differently. 

If you want to join or modify your existing support as a result of this then head over to the Patreon page.

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Running a Matrix Game

Disclaimer

This is my first time. 

After last week's post I've continued to run my Sunrise Expansion game, which has largely been a success, but has already flagged up some early mistakes and lessons to take on board for next time.

So with that out of the way, how am I actually running this Matrix Game?

If you want proper expert advice then go here, but I can talk about my own early, scattered thoughts.

For a bit of context, here's the player-facing rules minus the secret briefs given to each player.

This is all happening on Discord, with a private channel for each of the Actors, and public channels for open discussion, out of character questions, and end of turn reports posted by the Referee. 




Answering Questions

With the world being painted in broad strokes, it's natural to get questions.

How does money work in this setting?

I don't have a fleet, can I still get to Mars?

Are there space pirates?

If subjects like this were left out of the brief then the answer is generally something that isn't going to cause a lot of friction or create huge opportunities to be exploited. So money works like it does today, flying to Mars is like hiring a private jet, and no there aren't space pirates. 

But I'm walking a fine line here. If you ask me something about another Actor, then that's probably going to require some actual investigation. I have a special Consultant role for players to carry out this research, but in general you're going to need to use an action to find out your rivals' secrets. 

A lot of crossover with RPGs here. If you declare an action and I think you've misunderstood the fictional grounding, I'll talk it over with you rather than taking it as your final word. 


The Single Action

Now this is an interesting one. All of the guidance I've read for Matrix games hammers home the rule that each Actor's turn consists of a single specific action. So if you want to increase the garrisons on your walls and build a new superweapon, you've got to decide which one is more important. This game has its roots in military training, and the rule exists to force players to prioritise and decide what they absolutely need to do right now.

I'm sure my players won't mind me sharing that I've had to be strict on this! The temptation is always to try and squeeze as much as you can into a single turn, but here it's all about focus. 

Besides, resolving six players all doing different actions is messy enough without adding in secondary actions for each of them. 


Arguments in Asynchronous Play 

Matrix Games are built around a foundation of players declaring actions, then the rest of the table discussing how likely it is to happen. Often it's pitched as arguing, and the action is given a modifier from -3 to +3 relating to the pros and cons drawn up next to it.

I can see why this works for a tabletop environment, but it's not a great fit for playing on Discord with fifteen people in different timezones. 

So I'm embracing a Benevolent Dictatorship for this. Straight-up "one GM, many players" that we're all so familiar with. I look at the Action and adjudicate it all by myself. 

And I actually don't feel like I'm missing out on much by having the players not have to constantly argue about chances of success. Instead it's down to me, and hopefully the players trust me enough that they don't feel cheated out of a fair process. It helps that this is all taking place in a fictional setting, so there isn't much call for Subject Matter Experts. 

I'd definitely like to try a Matrix game with this more traditional argument system, but I don't feel a great sense of loss. 


Leverage

Some Matrix games require an action to have "three reasons why" it's likely to succeed. So I can send a spy into your parliament because:

  1. I have a well established spy network.
  2. We have open borders.
  3. I have sympathisers in your country.
Again, this is a gut feeling thing, but it feels like box-ticking to me. Again, in an educational environment it makes sense for players to be pushing themselves to think of factors that would benefit the action, but I'm just running this for fun.

So I shortened it to just "Leverage". Tell me why this action is likely to succeed. You might still reel off three reasons, but you could just as well give a single compelling reason. 

Then I look at any opposition to the action, which could come from another player's action or from an external factor in the established fiction. 

If there's no opposition then the action is Unopposed and you get your desired outcome. Otherwise I weigh your leverage against the opposition and grade it as Strong or Weak in comparison. Strong leverage needn't be overwhelming, it just means you've established enough to reasonably overcome the opposition. 

We'll get onto what this means for the Outcome below.


Outcomes

There's a concept of "Narrative Bias" in Matrix games, where most dice mechanics are weighted towards the player carrying out the action, so it's easier to impact the world than a 50/50 shot would allow.

This is fine, but I wanted every Action to have some sort of impact. Fail Forward, and so on. 

So my Narrative Bias is "Action is certain, Outcomes are unpredictable"

When an Action faces opposition, I roll 2d6. If the leverage is Strong I keep the high die, if it's Weak I keep the low die.

4+ means the player got their desired outcome, 3 or less means they get something worse. If you want to get fancy you can treat 1 and 6 as Criticals. 

So if you want to kidnap a journalist to silence them, then the kidnap operation is definitely going to happen, but a failure would mean that the action backfires on you somehow. Maybe the location you're holding them is leaked, you get the wrong journalist, or... wait, did I roll doubles on those dice?

When the dice show doubles, I use this as a prompt to insert a "Force of Nature" event if something fits. This represents those chaotic events that occur outside of the influence of any player and make things extra messy. In this case, maybe the driver is hit by a truck, killing the journalist. I'd be careful with these, as you don't want your world to be utter chaos, but it can add a little bit of spice to things.

A good rule of thumb for creating Outcomes is "RAT". 

Reasonable: It feels fair and isn't disproportionately punishing. Killing the journalist might help you in some ways, but it's also threatens to create a lot of heat for you. 
Actionable: It isn't a narrative dead-end. It creates hooks for further actions and attracts the attention of other players. 
Traceable: You can look back at the steps leading to this. Maybe the Journalist was already being targeted by another agency, or the previous turn there was talk of flooding on the roads. This is why sowing a little flavour into your reports can be really useful. 

Early on I was probably letting actions go by a little too smoothly. Just because there's no opposition to an Action doesn't mean that it should be Free. My mantra of the moment is "No Action without Friction". Every decision should leave some sort of mark on the world, and it should never be wholly positive. 

I much prefer Friction to Hurdles. So for the most part I'll give players a way to achieve their action, but give them messy consequences. Feels more fun than saying "No you can't do that" or "You can do X but only after you've done Y and Z to prepare."


Reports

I try to keep these brief, written in the style of a news roundup, and it's simple enough.

If there's a secret action that I need to report privately ("okay, you got your spy into the opposing parliament") then I always give a clue in the public report. No perfect secrets here.

"Newly appointed Senator Grey commented on the attack as an affront to Democracy"

It can be small, like that, but remember that when Senator Grey reveals himself as a traitor in three turns' time we at least want to be able to point back at his existence. Remember: Reasonable, Actionable, Traceable.

Actionable is the one that I still need to work on. Think of this Report like you're writing the initial brief again, trying to draw the players in. Fill it with hooks. The downside of having a game where the players can try anything is that they can become overwhelmed and feel directionless, even with their objectives in mind. Put something right in front of them, and even if they don't bite it'll at least give them a starting point for their strategy. 



Is this still a Matrix Game?

When I've tried to talk to friends about this, the term Matrix Game is really unhelpful. "No it's not The Matrix. No, it's not the Matrix Wargame publisher that make computer wargames."

Of course it's just one step removed, but I'm at least trying to think of a different name to use to pitch this to potential players. Open Strategy Game? This sort of thing is weird enough that it will always require some explanation, but I'll see how it feels in conversation.

Later this week I'm trying something else that's adjacent to this style of play, and hopefully I'll be able to talk about it next time.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Matrix Games from an RPG Perspective

I spoke very briefly about Matrix Games in this post, and since then my fascination has grown enough that I'm actually running one right now. There's a public-facing document but I can't share all my secrets just yet, as the game is ongoing.  



Whether you're interested in RPGs, wargames, both, or even neither, I think Matrix Games could still be a fun experience to try out. There's still a focus on using strategy to achieve objectives, but there's an underlying purpose of the game to put yourself into the shoes of an actor within a specific conflict, and begin to understand not just what you would do, but why. 

Of course I have to put my own spin on this thing, which I'll go into a bit more next time. Luckily the rules are minimal and there seems to be an assumption that every person running it will vary things to suit their group.


Wargame or RPG?

So this all exists in a nice grey area between RPG and Wargame, but perhaps not the one that you see most often. Lots of RPGs use elements of tabletop wargames, including miniatures and big campaign maps, but this comes from the other direction. 

This game looks like a wargame at first glance, with each player (or group) controlling a faction with its own objectives, strengths, and weaknesses, but then the gameplay goes in fully on the Tactical Infinity element of RPGs. You can attempt anything, and then the resolution is divided between human adjudication and dice rolls when necessary. 

So aside from this similarity, what do these games offer to RPG players?


Laser Focus

It should be obvious that I enjoy random character creation and procedural generation in my RPGs. I love going into an Electric Bastionland game with little to no idea of how things will go, but it's always fun to peek at the other end of the spectrum.

Matrix Games are laser-focused by comparison. 

Essentially all Matrix games begin with a problem. So for my ongoing game we have:

Sunrise Materials has started expanding its operations into the asteroid belt, breaching Council protocol that forbids corporations from operating beyond Mars. 

The scope of the specific game is concentrated on this particular problem and the actors involved with it, with a set turn limit after which we will stop and look at how this problem has been resolved. No multi-session campaigns here. 

Sounds like a good one-shot session, right? It really helped me think about the way that I'll handle one-shots in RPGs, and I think I could stand to give them a dash of this focus. Not to necessarily rule out a campaign growing from the session, but starting  with an ultra-clear singular problem that must be addressed, and timing things so that, one way or another, it will be resolved by the the end of the game. 


The Joy of Specificity

This is really just another element of the focus mentioned above, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed creating these factions for the players to control. Every one of them was tangled up with at least half of the others in some way, and had specific and impactful strengths and weaknesses. Some of them have a lot of money at their disposal, others are cash-poor. Some have outright domination of specific parts of the map, others rely entirely on allies for infrastructure. 

Pre-gen characters are nothing new, but I genuinely can't remember the last session where I used them. 

Silent Titans' twist on Into the Odd character creation, with specific characters rather than starter packages, always appealed to me, but could we go further? Lady Blackbird is an obvious example of a game where its established cast of characters are built to interact with each other in interesting ways. 

Weirdly, I think those Murder Mystery dinner-party games could be a useful resource here. I've tried out two or three in my lifetime and I can still remember some of the interactions between characters. 

Maybe the next Electric Bastionland adventure I write will use this approach.


Broad Strokes

This really varies depending on how the Matrix Game is being run. At the start of the game all players receive a generic brief covering public knowledge of the situation, then a private brief detailing their own objectives and starting position in terms of politics, military, economy etc. 

Most guidance I've seen suggests keeping this briefing... well, brief. But of course I had to go further. 

Obviously I tried to do it with three bullet points. 

Partially for the benefit of the players, but to be honest I suspect they would have been just as happy to read a briefing that was a couple of paragraphs long. Mainly, this forced-brevity motivates me to really think about what makes this faction unique. Get their essence distilled down to just the three most important things that the player needs to know.

It relies a lot on reasonable assumptions, which admittedly feels like a potential pitfall. I tempered this slightly by indulging in an entire six bullet points for the general brief that all players had access to, but we'll see how this game pans out. 

So let's say we're running a game in the Warhammer Old World, and our problem is a succession crisis within the Empire. Actors in this situation might represent the Electors vying for the throne, but also the General Populace, the Imperial Colleges of Magic, maybe even one of the Chaos Gods is working their influence in this situation. 

If one such actor is Boris Todbringer then they would already know about the Elector system of the Empire from the general brief, as well as the Emperor's death and the basic identities of the other actors involved.

With those things out of the way we might distil their brief down to:

Boris Todbringer, Elector of Middenland
Starting Position

  • You have a strong military, but they are tied up in a gruelling war against the Beastmen in your woodlands.
  • Among the other Electors you are respected as a general, but they are wary of the relative independence that Middenland has enjoyed under the late Emperor.
  • The Cult of the White Wolf stirs your people into a fervour, currently directed toward fears that a new Emperor would encroach on Middenland's religious traditions. 


It's easy to see how you could follow a similar approach for an RPG character, scaled down to an individual. FKR games in particular seem to do this sort of thing already. 

So that's your starting position, and Turn 1 starts with those fateful words. What do you do?

We all know that such freedom can feel overwhelming, so what are you actually trying to do here?


Self-Assessed Objectives

This is one element that really intrigued me. At the end of the game, all players reveal their objectives and discuss whether they think they achieved them. Ultimately the decision comes down to you, and why lie to yourself? There's no trophy here, and even if you failed then the point of this game is to create an interesting unfolding narrative. 

This sort of freedom lets you really drill down with your objectives. Let's stick with our Boris Todbringer example above.

You could have a really obvious objective like "Be crowned as Emperor".

But let's drill deeper. Ask WHY the Actor would want that. In this case, that leads us to something like "Ensure Middenland maintains its special independence".

So you could do this by winning the throne and favouring Middenland directly, but you could just as much achieve this by reaching a deal with the newly crowned Emperor, or even secede from the Empire entirely. Maybe you just disrupt the whole process so that no Emperor is crowned, stifling any chance of Imperial interference.

It's down to you to judge whether or not you succeeded, so creative problem solving is firmly encouraged. It's possible that every player could achieve both of their objectives, but chances are that some will rub up against each other. 

Some Matrix Games give a giant list of objectives, some just one. For my game I started with the typical three but ended up trimming them down to two. Even more focus, and it lets you create some fun combinations of objectives that seem impossible to achieve simultaneously. Do you go for the double-victory or accept a compromise?

Perhaps Todbringer's second objective relates to a personal matter, or a domestic affair within his domain. He has a sub-plot involving his own succession crisis, with an unfit son as his heir, so he could have "Ensure you have a Strong Heir". 

But let's stick with the domestic, linking back to the White Wolf Cult. These are a powerful organisation within his domain that can be a great asset but a threat if left to run wild.

So we'll settle on the following two objectives:

Boris Todbringer
Objectives

  • Ensure Middenland maintains its special independence
  • Keep the White Wolf Cult under control


I think you could lift this entire objectives system whole-cloth into a one-shot RPG session. Remember, the key to this is that these objectives would not be tied to character advancement. I think that connection would miss the point of this self-assessment system. 

If you need mechanical motivation to try and achieve your objectives? Well, there's a reason I start my rules document with this:

Expectations

  • The goal of the game is to achieve your objectives.
  • The point of the game is to create a credible narrative.

It's a bit of a silly semantic thing, but basically I'm asking you to simultaneously Play to Win and also Play to Find Out. I don't think that's too much to ask. 


What's it like to Run?

My Sunrise Expansion game is just about to head into its third turn of eight, so next week I'll be able to talk a little more about that, but I've already found it an incredibly useful and enjoyable experience. In particular I'll talk about the parallels and differences between running a Matrix Game and an RPG, as well as the specific ways I've handled adjudication behind the curtain.

If you're interested in these games in the mean time, there's a pretty thorough video here talking about running them in a training context. 



Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Project 10 - Commanders

This part of Project 10 has been tricky to get right.

Originally, I gave Commanders all sorts of wacky abilities to represent the armies they were leading, but they felt a bit too incoherent. 

Then I standardised them pretty heavily, with every command either granting a 1 point Trait to the entire army or a 2 point Trait to a single unit. Just regular stuff straight off the unit trait list. It's fine, but lacks a bit of the excitement of the weird stuff.

Revisiting them really got me thinking about what I wanted these Commands to achieve. I want them to give each army some character, even if their units are similar, and give the Commander themselves some presence on the battlefield. 

Equally important is what I really want these Commands to not do.

In some early playtests, I'd have a Command like "Ignore enemy Shields", which is very useful against that shield wall army, but if your enemy doesn't have any Shield units then it's just wasted space. Here I'm not concerned about balance, but I want to avoid anything getting totally neutralised. Similar to the thoughts I had on units.

Stripping things back to the skeleton, I looked at all of the elements that I could reasonably expect to feature in every battle, regardless of army composition.

I got the following ingredients list: Damage, Move, Pivot, Charge, Flank, Shoot, Melee Attack, Disengage, Engaged, Initiative, Support, Broken, Regroup, Commander, Rough, Cover.

There are some edge cases in there, like some armies just won't have Shooting, and some battlefields will lack Rough terrain, but you've got to draw the line somewhere. They just made the cut, but I can't guarantee their long-term safety.

I'm hoping that by sticking to those core ingredients I can get as weird as I want with the actual effects. The latest revision walks the line between order and chaos. I'm aiming for easily understandable, but having that feel of breaking the rules and creating dramatic flourishes, regardless of the army composition. 

1: General

Barrage: Any units that do not move can Shoot twice.

Reinforcements: Supported units recover 2CD of damage.

Exploit: Flank and Rear attacks roll triple CDs instead of double.

Charge: Units can move an extra Measure when they Charge over Open Ground. 


2: Champion

Slayer: If your unit damages an undamaged unit they take double damage, after all other modifiers.

Behead: Your unit causes double damage on any 3s rolled.

Crush: If you charge a damaged unit they double their existing damage.

Rouse: When your unit causes damage they recover that much damage. 


3: Raider

Burst: Shooting attacks within 1 Measure roll twice as many CDs after all other modifiers.

Keen Eyes: Your Units ignore Cover and Concealment.

Manoeuvres: All units make a Free Pivot at the start of the Turn.

Missiles: One unit gains Short 2.


4: Engineer

Explosives: One of your units and all enemies engaged with them suffer 3CD of damage.

Smoke: Your units may disengage in any direction, even through enemy units, as long as they end in Open ground.

Surge: Supported and Supporting units make a Free Move of 1 Measure.

Bane: Enemies cannot reduce Damage taken from Shooting this turn.


5: Warlock

Wings: Your unit gets Fly.

Flames: All enemies within 1 Measure of one of your units suffers 1CD of damage.

Curse: The enemy commander’s unit suffers 2CD of damage.

Shadows: Swap the position of any two of your units. 


6: Sage

Battle Prayer: All units roll +2CD on Regroup actions.

Glory of Battle: Units with 4 or more Damage roll +2CD in melee.

Visions: You decide who wins the next Initiative roll.

Fate: Roll 3CD and keep them aside. You can swap each of these in place of any CD you roll this turn. 


Balance is much wonkier than it was before, but they feel way more fun, which is more important for this design. 

They're also tied to Commander types now, as I continue to hammer out a broad idea of what this setting is meant to be. As always, I'm looking for a setting to serve the game, not vice versa. In that post I just linked I talk about how the old Realm of Chaos books let you add all sorts of weird units to your warbands. You might have a Khornate champion leading a warband of Chaos Dwarfs and Beastmen, or a Tzeentchian Dark Elf Champion with a pack of hydras and gorgons and a few skeleton henchmen. 

I like this approach, where the boundaries between the different factions are a lot less distinct. Both sides in a scenario might have elves and dwarfs, but I've got centaurs and you've got vampires. It feels a bit silly and freewheeling, but I still like it. Feels like something that gets me inspired to model up a unit of wraiths without having to worry about where they fit into some grand plan. 

In my TTS playtests I've mainly been using Warmaster miniatures or an anachronistic mess of historical units. At home I'm building a mix of medieval and fantasy-human stuff from Pendragon. I'm keen to get a bit weirder with some skeletons and maybe some lizardmen. 

My very first attempt at painting 10mm. Even trickier than I expected!

Now, there's an obvious way to make all of this work together. Put the focus on the Commanders, rather than the armies. Your bond might be idealistic, but is more likely to be financial.

You aren't running an Elf Army. You've got an Elf Captain riding around on a stag, sure, and she's determining the Commands you can pick from based on her dual archetypes (Raider and Sage), but your army is much more fluid. 

If your army is going to be 6 units, then one of them can be your personal Retinue. Let's say some Elf Stag Riders (Fast, Impact 1, Tough 1).

The rest are going to come from Mercenaries and Levies. Typically the Mercenaries are the troops that you've hired for this particular battle, and the levies represent the support you can muster from local forces. Guidance is to take 2 Mercenaries and 3 Levies.

Mercenaries are generally more specialised. We'll take a Ballista (Long 2, Artillery 1, Rigid, Clumsy) and a pack of Beasts (Vicious 2). Let's say this part of our army is typically Elven. Maybe the beasts are those old Wood Elf beastmasters that would have hounds, boars, and bears running alongside them. 

Levies tend to be better all-rounders, but still have their focus. We'll take a unit of Riders (Short 1, Fast) to support our Stag Riders, and 2 units of Infantry (Fight 1, Long 1) to guard the Ballista. These are the local human troops. Less a grand alliance of men and elves and more a desperate rabble of locals that are forced to call on foreign help to survive, even if they can't truly afford it. 

Don't like it once it hits the table? Maybe next time your Captain employs some mercenary ogres or dabbles in the dark arts and brings those skeleton horsemen to the table.

You can see the living version of the game here. Let me know if you get it to the table, even if it's just with scraps of paper. 

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Broken Dice Games of Bastion


These games rely heavily on luck, bluffing, pushing luck, and other things that work well in a bar or alleyway. 

The most popular ones are often the least fair.

Of course Bastion has far too many of this type of game to document, so the following are merely a selection.

You need some six sided dice and maybe a scrap of paper or a good memory. 



The Boar Game AKA The Dog Game / Spurs / Trough / Sleighride

Has its origins around the ancient tradition of Boar Racing, now a rarity in Bastion. 

One player rolls five dice. These are the boars, and the boar with the highest score is leading the race. 

A round of betting occurs, where players can place up to one coin on a single boar. 

One player rerolls each die, adding the new score to the previous score. If the roll is a 6 their total score is unchanged.

If this takes the boar above 6 they have "Snouted Out" and are out of the race. 

If there is ever just one Boar in the race then they immediately win. Otherwise, a second round of betting occurs, then each die is rolled one more time and added to the boars running score, with 6s still leaving them unchanged.

The race ends after this third set of rolls. 

The highest remaining boar wins the race. 

If there is a draw, or all of the boars snouted out, then the pot rolls over to the next round. 

If there is a winning boar then the pot is split proportionally based on each player's stake on the winner. Remainders are rolled over into the pot.

This game has a habit of rolling the pot over and producing inconclusive results. When the game ends, any remaining pot is traditionally spent on shared food.



Egg AKA Big Stones / Messy Facey / Mister Facey / Scratch

Take three dice, designating one as the Egg. Commonly white. 

All players must keep their hands behind the edge of the table until all dice have hit the table. 

One player rolls all three dice. 

If the Egg is not the highest or joint highest die they add its value to their total score and pass play to their left. 

If the Egg is the highest, or joint highest, then the first player to grab the egg gets that many points and play continues with them. 

If all dice show the same result the first player to touch the thrower's face takes the dice and adds the value of all three to their total.

First player to reach 24 points wins. 

This game has a reputation for causing eye injuries and pub brawls. Some versions eschew the face-touching rule, but enthusiasts say that something is lost. 

Thirty Sticks AKA Country Snooker / Green Rider / Horsebox

Take three dice. Play is based around forfeits, often taking a drink.

The first player rolls three dice and freezes one of them in the centre of the table, then passes to any other player of their choice. If at least two dice match they can choose to pass without freezing a die.

When only two dice remain, players continue with the same process, again they can always choose to pass without freezing a die if the two dice match, and passes 

When only one die remains the active player must roll the single die and score a value equal or between the two values frozen in the centre of the table. If they fail they must pay the forfeit. If they succeed, both adjacent players pay the forfeit. 

If the player succeeds on this final roll when the two frozen dice show the same value then all other players must pay the forfeit, traditionally the active player hitting them all with a stick. 


Honest Judge AKA Guillotine / Hot Pickle / Pastor's Dice

Each player takes two dice and rolls them, revealing one and keeping the other secret.

The first player states their bid, between 2-12. Play moves to the left, with each player announcing a higher bid. 

Any player can shout GUILTY to doubt another player's bid. If they do this, that player reveals their dice.

If their total on both dice equals or beats their bid, the player calling GUILTY is eliminated from the game and scorned for lack of trust. 

If their total on both dice is lower than their bid they are eliminated from the game and scorned for lying. 

Instead of bidding, a player may reveal both of their dice. They do not bid any further in this round. 

If only one player remains in the round they choose one player to eliminate from the game.

There are so many more interesting, strategic lying dice games than this, but Bastiards apparently get a real kick out of loudly scorning each other while pretending to be completely honest, so this is one of the more popular.


Cut the Tail Off AKA Anchovies / Cannery / Lunch Line 

Players take turns being the Cutter. The other players are the Crowd.

The Cutter takes six dice and rolls them all. They choose one to keep aside, then roll the remaining five dice and repeat this sequence until they have have one die of each number 1-6.

There are three special actions they can perform once each per attempt. 

"Cut the Tail Off" to reduce a die by 1.

"Pull the Stomach Out" to reduce a die by 2.

"Put a Hat on It" to increase a die by 3. 

Immediately after the third die has been set aside, players in the Crowd must decide whether or not to place their support on the Cutter succeeding.

If the Cutter succeeds, all of the Crowd that failed to support them face a forfeit.

If the Cutter fails, they and all of the Crowd that  supported them face a forfeit.






Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Project 10 - Distilling Units

Project 10 has really been keeping me busy.

And looks like these little guys will be doing the same for my evenings.



Order and Chaos

I explained the basics of the system in the previous post, and the tests that I've done so far have really highlighted the weird mix of order and chaos that exists in this game. 

There's no explicit command and control or morale in here. Lots of wargames simulate the fact that a commander doesn't have total control over their units, so sometimes they just won't do what you want, and in the heat of battle they might turn and run or freeze up.

I get this from a simulation point of view, but it's never appealed to me in gameplay. The systems can feel a bit fiddly for me, and I find them more frustrating than interesting. So in this game there are still times you'll want to withdraw a unit so that they can regroup, but that's all in your control. For movement and positioning, units always do what you want them to.

It's a different story once the fighting gets started. 

The Combat Dice you roll for attacks (imagine d6s with the 4, 5, and 6s changed to 0s) really deliver those moments where you line up the perfect flank charge and roll a handful of zeros, or your peasant levies get a sudden surge of bloodlust and cut through an entire unit of knights in two turns. 

Even something small like rolling for first-turn each Round can make the whole battle flip because of chance. You knew that there was a chance the enemy would get a double-turn, but you just didn't want it to happen right now when they've got everything lined up. Now that two-turn peasant-on-knight bloodbath is happening before you even get a chance to respond. 

You get moments that feel great, and moments that feel like you've been cursed, and this is very much by design. Manoeuvres and strategizing feels orderly, but then the bloodshed provides spikes of chaos. 

For now I'm happy with that, but it'll be interesting to see how more players respond. 

The Units

I've always been interested in how mass-battle games handle different unit types. At this scale it's common to have a few unit archetypes with quite specific rules for how they interact with the battlefield and each other. 

Pikes can't move through woods but get advantage vs cavalry. Swords get advantage vs Pikes etc. 

One Hour Wargames, which was the catalyst for this game, has some units that work this way, but most units are just specialised at doing one or two things, rather than being explicitly designed as counters to another unit type. 

On the one hand, this sort of game is often based around a web of hard and soft counters, but I prefer a more subtle guiding hand. Some unit types are made to excel against others, but I don't want it to be an outright paper-beats-rock situation. 

The chaos mentioned above helps with that, but the unit design is really where it comes in.

Units are now defined entirely by Traits, of which there are currently sixteen (and I'm always looking to chop this list down). A typical unit might have two Traits, three if they're fancy or elite, with four being restricted to those that need some weird restrictions to feel right (typically artillery and chariots). 

So let's look at the current list and see if they all justify their place on the page. We'll split them into a few broad categories to help with comparisons. 


Movement

Agile: Each pivot may be up to 180°. You can perform your Movement phase at any point in your turn. 
This is here for your loose units that can't gallop around like cavalry, but get a lot more flexibility for how they use their movement, allowing for some clever manoeuvring. 

Fast: Move 2 Measures in open terrain.
Other than Fly, this is the only way to move further than 1 measure, and works as an all-purpose Trait for cavalry and chariots. The limitation to open terrain is easy to remember and adds a nice little bit of terrain impact. 

Fly: Move 2 Measures, ignoring terrain and enemies.
Super niche trait that sort of needs to exist, but it really is just a better version of Fast. I wanted to avoid complex systems with different types of flight, soaring, landing etc, so this works as a simple approach for your eagles, harpies etc. 

Clumsy: Cannot enter Rough Terrain or Support allies.
This one emerged out of a playtest this weekend, where a catapult unit potentially ended up supporting an infantry unit, which didn't make any sense at a range where their catapult couldn't even fire. It also keeps Chariots from crashing through forests. 

Rigid: Cannot disengage from Melee.
Another one that arose out of necessity to stop artillery crews from fleeing melee with their cannons in tow. Wish I could roll this and clumsy together, but Rigid doesn't apply to chariots, so afraid they both have to stay for now. Could be used for things like Dwarf Slayers, but decided not to for simplicity.



Shooting

Short X: Shoot X CD at up to 2 Measures. Moving and one pivot allowed.
For this game I'm using tight firing lines, rather than a more typical 45 degree arc, so pivoting your ranged units to line up with their targets is key. This really helped me in making the three different ranges feel different. Short is for units with a limited range, but they're able to move and pivot before shooting, keeping them much more mobile than their long ranged counterparts. Great for getting at enemy flanks. 

Long X: Shoot X CD at up to 3 Measures. Moving or a single pivot is allowed, but not both.
This is the one for your blocks of archers and gunners. They're not quite as restricted as artillery, but you'll have to think carefully about positioning them to be able fire most effectively. 

Artillery X: Shoot X CD between 3-6 Measures. One pivot is permitted.
Sometimes feels like this should be able to fire over hills and forests, but for the sake of simplicity we're keeping the regular line of sight rules here. They can be devastating, but so far in testing they've worked as more of a threat, forcing the enemy to break formation to stay out of their sight. 

Breach X: Shooting CD of 1-3 cause X extra Damage.
Essentially, when you do damage you do even more damage, so it's great for cannons, units with guns, or even magical attacks. Works as a soft-counter to Shield, but the Shield still dampens the effect slightly. 

Volley X: Shooting CD of 4-6 cause X Damage.
Sort of an opposite to Breach. You get a guaranteed minimum amount of damage, but it doesn't do much to boost your overall output. Good for softening up a target before sending in a charge, or finishing off a unit that's badly hurt. Soft-countered by Shield, especially when rolling just one Combat Die. In fact, with 1CD it could be considered a hard counter, but you can turn it around if you get at their flanks. 



Melee

Fight X: Roll +X CD in Melee if you have not moved or pivoted this turn.
The Fight/Impact split is working pretty nicely at the moment. Fight is for any unit that's generally designed to form up, stand and fight. Impact is flashy, but Fight wins you the long brawls. It suffers when you get charged in the flank, as you have to use a pivot to turn and face your charger, meaning you have to wait another turn to benefit. Good for blocks of spearmen or other heavy infantry. 

Impact X: +X CD on the turn you charged.
Impact units have the advantage on the charge, so it's great for cavalry, berserkers, anything that you want to hit hard and then flounder slightly after that first hit. It can feel weaker than Fight at times, but if you avoid getting bogged down, and remember to hit the flanks, you'll see the advantages it has. 

Brutal X: Melee CD CD of 1-3 cause X extra Damage.
See above under Breach. Exactly the same, but for Melee instead of shooting. Having them as one trait caused weird issues when ranged units got into melee, so the split was necessary. This is used for line-breakers carrying big two-handed weapons, and monstrous attackers like ogres.

Vicious X : Melee CD of 4-6 cause X Damage.
As with Brutal, this is here as a Melee version of Volley. I chose similar-sounding names for these two pairs to help keep them together in your memory. Used for hounds, hordes, and attackers that go for a sort of "death by a thousand cuts" approach. 


Defence

Shield X: Ignore X damage from each attack to your front.
A very simple rule that's gone through a lot of changes, many relating to the now defunct Armour Trait (largely replaced by Tough below). Originally I didn't want it to only apply to the front, as it felt like a sort of double-reward for flank charges. However, having that counter of a flank attack means that any unit can potentially bypass a Shield if they can get into the right position. 

Tough X: Automatically recover X CD of Damage at the end of your turn.
The other side of the coin to Shield, and still not quite proven on the field yet. This is for units that can shrug off piecemeal attacks and need to be focused on. Works for hordes of orcs, monstrous ogres, and is especially relevant for trolls. Compared to Shield they don't have anything to protect them from just getting wiped out by focused fire or a precision strike, but they're much more well equipped to avoid getting chipped away across a number of turns, or recovering from an early onslaught. 


No Hard Counters

So you do still have counters in here, but they're generally soft. 

Fast units can run down those shortbow archers, and chariots are great at slamming into the flanks of shielded infantry, but those matchups are just one third of the game alongside manoeuvring and the luck of the dice.  

A good example is that Shield previously only protected against ranged attacks, with Armour (now cut) protecting against melee. This was a nice little split, forcing you to think about which units to send against which targets, but then I ran a playtest where I had three Shielded infantry units up against an enemy force of entirely melee units. Now the Shields would have literally zero impact on the battle.

Now things are designed so that every Trait has the potential to impact every battle. Even if you get matched up against an enemy army full of your soft counters, your units will still all be able to do the thing they do. You might be fighting uphill, but you'll still have your sword. 




Distillation in Action

With such broad strokes there's no room for subtle details. You can't give this specialist unit a +10% boost to something because it represents a specific historical factor. You've got to distil those units right down to their essence. Forget the tiny individuals. What does this unit, as a whole, do in a battle.

I'm using Warhammer units to test this out on Tabletop Simulator, but the miniatures I've bought from Pendraken are somewhat more grounded medieval troops, albeit with a suitably anachronistic span of equipment. 

Let's look at how these could be built. Bonus points if you can spot each unit in the image at the top of this post. 

Infantry

Mixed bases of men-at-arms and crossbowmen. I've actually split these further, with one unit's men-at-arms being more heavily armoured and carrying shields, while the other carry mainly spears and other polearms.

Again, let's think about what this unit's purpose is on the field. Clearly the crossbows are providing long ranged fire, so we'll give both units Long 1.

The unit with shields might seem like an obvious choice for Shield 1, but remember we have to think about the unit as a whole, not just the individuals. Is this unit designed to withstand damage from its front? I think you could go either way on this, but on balance I'll say yes and give them Shield 1.

Polearms are generally designed to withstand a charge or counter cavalry. We don't have such hard counters in this game, so giving them Fight 1 means that they can stand up to a charge and apply ongoing pressure to an enemy unit, hopefully forcing them to withdraw. Cavalry are usually Impact units, so we're getting a bit of soft countering in there. 

Shield Infantry: Long 1, Shield 1
Spear Infantry: Long 1, Fight 1

Foot Knights

So I said that most units had two Traits, but remember we're not chasing perfect balance here. It's fine to give a unit three or even four positive traits, just be aware that you're essentially creating an elite unit, and it's good to avoid creating good all-rounders in this way.

With these Foot Knights they're heavily armoured, carrying shields and mostly swords, and they look fancy enough that we can roll out an extra trait for them.

I like to start with any unit by considering how they attack, as most units will be getting one of the attack Traits. They certainly aren't set up for charging in that heavy armour, so giving them Fight seems like the best fit. But I'd argue that these are purpose made for engaging in standing combat with an enemy, so let's give them the full Fight 2. 

Shield protects from the front, but this unit's defensive prowess looks like it would come more from their heavy armour and general hardiness. Tough is a good way to represent this, so we'll give them Tough 1. Now they're really a unit that the enemy won't want to get stuck into a prolonged fight with. 

Foot Knights: Fight 2, Tough 1

Mounted Knights

Pretty much all cavalry starts with Fast. Then a common addition is Impact. These knights are modelled mostly with swords and axes, unarmoured horses, and large shields, so even without heavy armour or lances I think Impact makes the most  sense as an attacking trait. You could make an argument for Fight, but really a cavalry charge is always going to carry a degree of impact. 

Standard charge-focused cavalry could end here, but their large shields do seem to suggest the Shield Trait. However, on balance I don't think this unit is built to withstand damage from the front with their unarmoured horses. We could make them Tough like the Foot Knights, but again I think this smaller unit is best reflected as somewhat less resilient. They're for hitting flanks and weak targets, not standing up to a prolonged brawl.

Knights: Fast, Impact 1

Outriders (Mounted Arquebusiers)

Again we'll go for Fast, as this is a cavalry unit. They're carrying guns, which might feel like they should be Long, perhaps even having Breach to give them extra punching power, but this unit is definitely meant to be more of a mobile threat than a gunline. For that reason we'll give them Short 1. 

If we wanted them to feel like a more elite unit of outriders we could give them Agile, letting them dance around enemy units after firing their guns, but we'll keep them simple for this army.

Outriders: Fast, Short 1

Organ Guns

I can't believe it's taken me this long to realise that organ guns are so named because their barrels look like a pipe organ. I just assumed it was from some bastardised French word. 

So these are artillery pieces, which are slightly awkward in that you really need to give them Rigid and Clumsy so that they can't just act like a regular infantry unit.

These are definitely not built for Artillery range, so we'll give them Long 1.

Volley is a clear fit here, so we'll throw that on there. 

Now because Rigid and Clumsy are both negative, and we only have two positive Traits on there, we'll want to give this thing a boost to avoid it just feeling like a more inconvenient unit of archers. 

Here it's worth remembering that not all Traits are equal. An extra point of Long is generally better than an extra point of Volley (mean damage of 2 vs 1.5). But I'd argue that Volley better represents what this unit is for. I mean it's basically a Volley Gun. 

Organ Gun: Long 1, Volley 2, Rigid, Clumsy. 

Best of all, this entire army fits on an index card.

The Anachronistic Order

Shield Infantry: Long 1, Shield 1
Spear Infantry: Long 1, Fight 1
Foot Knights: Fight 2, Tough 1
Knights: Fast, Impact 1
Outriders: Fast, Short 1
Organ Gun: Long 1, Volley 2, Rigid, Clumsy. 

Clearly not all units are equal here, but every one is specialist in some way. The Foot Knights probably have the most raw power, but they won't stand up to focused fire or a decisive strike. The Organ Gun is arguably a touch weak compared to a more traditional missile unit, but when you absolutely need to cause damage to an enemy it'll do the job. Loose it onto an exposed flank and a near-guaranteed 4 damage is nothing to scoff at. 

You could make any number of match ups using these units and I feel like things would hold together. Obviously lots depends on the Scenarios, and I spoke out against pitched battles for this project, but let's imagine. 

Matchup 1

The Green Band: 3 x Shield Infantry, 2x Outriders, 1x Organ Gun
vs
The Red Order: 3x Spear Infantry, 2x Foot Knights, 1x Knights

Aiming for a relatively balanced matchup here, the main imbalance is the Green Band's ranged advantage vs the Red Order's better melee ability. I think this would come down to how effectively the Outriders and Organ Guns could target the Knights and Foot Knights. 

Matchup 2

The Cerulean Company: 3x Outriders, 2x Spear Infantry, 1x Foot Knights
vs
The Amber Guild: 3x Knights, 2x Organ Guns, 1x Shield Infantry

Putting so much on the cavalry here risks the infantry feeling left out, but there's plenty of shooting to be done. Amber has some real damage potential in the Knights and Organ Guns, so it all comes down to whether Cerulean can counter them with clever manoeuvring. 

Matchup 3

The Indigo Legion: 3x Foot Knights, 2x Knights, 1x Outriders
vs
The Ochre Militia: 3x Spear Infantry, 2x Shield Infantry, 1x Organ Gun

Ochre might feel like the odds are stacked against them at first, but those Foot Knights are going to have a tough time facing so much Long Ranged fire. If the Knights and Outriders can break up the infantry blocks enough to allow the Foot Knights to engage then it might be all over, but I don't think it'll be that simple. 

All three sound pretty interesting to me! I suspect they aren't perfectly balanced, but I'd happily take a swing at playing either side in any of them. 

Units are important, but a lot of the flavour of an army comes from it's Commander and their unique abilities. Next time we'll look at how they're coming along.

Thursday, 18 March 2021

Project 10

In this week's Bastionland Editorial I wrote about following the muse. Working on the idea that's currently inspiring me wherever possible. Making the thing I want to have, rather than what I think other people will like.

Well this is a good example. 

I got my start in serious tabletop gaming through Warhammer Fantasy Battles. I've said that I chose Fantasy over 40k because swords are cooler than guns, but I think I'd underestimated the appeal of seeing a regiment formed up into a block, with banner, musician, and leader in the front. 

Dipping into Warhammer: Total War brought it all back for me. Rock Lobbers, Cold One Riders, Handgunners. I've made my peace with Age of Sigmar, but those bands of high-fantasy heroes in loose-formation just don't strike the same notes. 

Also, I want to go big. I've already got a skirmish game cooking away, so let's go to the other end of the spectrum. But I certainly don't want to spend hundreds of pounds on plastic, then months getting them painted. Where would I even store a full-sized army these days? Time to consider another way.

Last year I picked up One Hour Wargames because it's exactly the sort of minimalist, creativity-through-limitation idea that I love. It's a very simple set of core rules (3 digest pages) that's rewritten for eight historical eras from Ancient to WW2. Each era gets four unit types, and that's it. Battles are based on 4-6 units on each side, smallish board, quick resolution. 

Ran a few test games. It's fun, but I realised what I was missing. 

It needed more chaos. 

So I guess I'm hacking this into my own thing. It's already beyond the point of recognition. You can see me testing out an early version here but as with all games in this early stage, things are constantly changing.

The document isn't ready for sharing yet, mostly being written in note-form that won't make sense to anybody else, but here's the plan. 


Chunky Armies, Smooth Rules

Lots of wargames represent their units as a single multi-figure base, rather than a block of individuals. It's something I'd love to try out, as it's a nice abstraction that also opens up some cool modelling opportunities. I like the idea of treating each unit like its own mini-diorama. 


Lots of cool stuff in the Pendraken Fantasy range. I quite like their Warband rules, too.


I fell deep into the 10mm rabbit hole when I realised I could get a unit of thirty soldiers for just over £5. I'm awaiting delivery of what will be 7 bases of troops. That's a full army with infantry, cavalry, artillery, command units, even a general. Around 130 little guys for less than £40. 

I've gone for big bases. 100x50mm. I want these blocks to feel chunky on the battlefield, sometimes even rigid and inflexible. Embracing the feel of manoeuvring your big regiments around the board. Sort of the opposite of the free-running movement of GRIMLITE. 

But this will be managed through a simple movement system. I don't want lots of order-types, terrain charts or complex command and control stuff that needs cross-referencing during play.

Units can move 10cm. They can also do 2 Pivots of up to 90 degrees, each before or after the move. You can't charge after your second pivot. 

Rough Terrain halts movement when a unit enters. 

Fast units move 20cm across Open Terrain. 

Skirmishers ignore Rough Terrain and their Pivots can each be up to 180 degrees.

Shooting is limited to targets at least partially within a firing-lane directly ahead of the attacker, the width of their base, and limits your movement:

Short Range allows a Move and 1 Pivot.
Long Range allows a Move or 1 Pivot.
Artillery allows 1 Pivot only. 

And that's sort of it for movement. No forced marching or charging or changes of formation. It's loose, but in play you still have to think carefully about your facing and positioning. 


No Points, No Pitched Battles

I had a similar goal to this with GRIMLITE, but the game grew in a way that points were eventually needed. 

Still, I think as soon as you put points costs next to your units you're changing something fundamental about the game. Sure, you can say "they're just guidelines of the relative power of each side" but it still feels like a major change of game philosophy to me.

So I don't intend for this game to have points, but then I also don't want it to have battles that are especially fair.

I've enjoyed reading through the Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game, especially the way that it presents some of the units and scenarios. It's obviously a fantasy setting, but being such a rigorously defined one makes everything feel a little like a historical wargame.

This isn't just a siege scenario, this is a very specific moment from Helm's Deep where the walls are first breached. 

Flaming Arrows don't appear in the Orc entry, but they come equipped as part of the Last March of the Ents because they're the only real hope they have in that battle.

The Quest of the Ringbearer book is filled with scenarios where the Fellowship should win most of the time. The forces of Evil can only really hope to grind them down bit by bit across the greater campaign. 

I want moments like this, not another pitched battle where we line up our carefully constructed 2000pt armies. Our forces are built for the scenarios in a way that makes sense. Maybe one side is outmatched, but let's embrace that. Every battle is part of something bigger. 

It doesn't need to be complex. Just a broad stroke of narrative with some interesting twists on army composition, deployment, and objectives can make a world of difference.


Drama from Chaos

The system of One Hour Wargames is pretty solid, but it's also relatively deterministic. It has attacks do d6 damage with either +2 or -2 for especially strong/weak units. Flank and rear attacks do double damage, tough units take half damage. Fifteen total damage wipes a unit out. No morale, that's all abstracted into the damage taken. 

It creates a clear rock-paper-scissors situation, which can be a fun tactical challenge. But that's not really what I want with this game, especially if I'm embracing imbalanced scenarios.

I want moments of drama to emerge from chaos.

So I'm using this Combat Dice system for damage. This is just a name for d6s used in this specific way. 

Roll a number of Combat Dice (CD) indicated by your unit type (1-3). 

Flank and Rear attacks roll twice as many CD after all other modifiers.

Discard the dice showing 4+ and total up the values on the remaining dice as Damage.

i.e. a roll of 1, 3, and 5 causes 4 Damage (1+3). 

Units that have taken 7 Damage are destroyed

It's swingy by design. Your average unit is attacking with 2 Combat Dice, which could cause anywhere from 0-6 Damage. But the nice thing is that each die averages to 1 Damage. You've got a combination of a very clear average, with a wide swing of results for those dramatic moments.

First-turn is also randomised each Round, so there are going to be times when a player gets a double turn. More dramatic moments born out of chaos.

I want those Goblins to stand a chance of wiping out those Grail Knights with a devastating roll.

If I'm going to create underdogs with the whole No Points, No Pitched Battles thing, then I at least owe them a glimmer of hope that the dice will favour them, and if you're winning I never want things to feel like a foregone conclusion. 


Big Armies, Small Lists

I'm very excited to work with these big bases, especially as the units I've written up so far imply far less homogeny than you'd see on a WHFB table.

The High Elf Infantry unit assumes archers protected by spearmen.

The Orc Warband unit is mostly hand weapons but they have some arrers that they can shoot if the Boss reminds them.

The Plague Monk unit is delicate but potentially hard hitting, representing a block of monks with behind censer bearers, surging ahead for those damage spikes. 

I've not managed to go as far as One Hour Wargames with its four units per era, but aiming for around seven per faction, with three special one-shot Command abilities, has really been a fun exercise in distilling an army down to its essence. 



Project 10

So I'm calling this Project 10 for now, because it's 10mm scale, using 10cm bases, and a 10 decimetre board. If only I could get it to play in 10 minutes.