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.