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I finally figured out what I wanted...

Started by Andrew Cooper, February 12, 2008, 06:40:12 PM

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Andrew Cooper

I've been a part of The Forge for around 4 years now and during that time I've had the itch to design a game.  That shouldn't surprise anyone here.  Lot's of people here want to design a game.  Well, there was a specific kind of game I wanted to design but I never could quite articulate what I really wanted.  It's like having a real craving for some specific food but not being able to pinpoint which food it is.  So I just soldiered on and tried developing some games anyway.

You can guess what the results of those attempts were.  Each game I designed and tinkered with did something that I liked and had interesting bits and pieces but none of them really satisfied that unarticulated craving of mine.  I poked around with each of the games a bit and then each of them got placed on the backburner of my mind to sit unfinished.

Then one day a week or so ago I was sitting around thinking about games I had played and games I had wanted to play and something clicked in my mind that really identified that craving and let me articulate it.  In the grand tradition of The Forge I'm going to give some of the Actual Play anecdotes that I was think on when I stumbled upon my epiphany.

AP-1:  Many moons ago I played my first game of AD&D.  It was a large group with an experienced GM.  We had 8 - 12 players at any one time.  We played in the Forgotten Realms and it was a pretty standard AD&D game as I've come to learn.  There was lots of combat, scripted encounters, killing things and taking their stuff.  I played an elven mage.

After a while our group started getting higher in levels and more powers and options became available to our characters.  I started considering my character and unconsciously began trying to push my own side plot on the DM.  I had my character search for a good remote location for building a tower.  I wanted a tribe of humanoids nearby (orcs or hobgoblins or something) that I could subjegate and use bodyguards/manual labor.  I looked for ways to capture and train a dragon as a friend/mount.  All sorts of stuff like this.

My DM was pretty nice about the whole thing but I don't think he ever understood why I kept trying to veer off the path of the prescribed plot that everyone else seemed happy to follow.  He indulged me some but most of my plans never amounted to much.  I remember spending lots of time outside the game designing that tower that never got built, training that dragon, planning raids on other nearby humanoid tribes and a whole host of other activities that never really happened in the game.  My own version of "lonely fun".

AP-2:  Another AD&D game that overlapped in time with the game above but started later and continued on for many years.  We had a more reasonable group size, about 6.  We played in a homebrewed world authored by the GM.  My character was a Half-orc Fighter/Priest.  It was another fairly standard game.  The DM came up with adventure plots and we took off to save the world and other fun things. 

Once again, we started getting advanced in levels and I started having grandiose plans.  I collected all the extra loot that the party didn't want (weapons, armor, art, etc) and shipped it back to a place where my character had rented some warehouse space.  I saved my character's money and worked on getting the church very happy with me.  I planned on building a keep/temple.  I had a whole boatload of equipment to outfit my warrior followers.  I wanted to choose a location that put me in constant conflict with enemies of my religion, of course.

As a group we never got around to doing any of this.  The DM always had some other adventure for us to go on and I didn't know enough at the time to raise my hand and let him know what I wanted to do.  Once again I spent lots of time outside of the actual game engaging in "lonely fun" with my plans and schemes.

Here I am now looking back on those experiences (and others) and I suddenly came to the realization that I knew what my craving was.  I wanted to play an empire building game.  I wanted to manage resources, outwit my foes in diplomacy, defeat armies, create magical networks and other cool things.  It explained why I was drawn to the Birthright setting for D&D and also why I was disappointed in it.  It was just some strategic color slapped on the D&D engine.  It really only worked with a good dose of GM Fiat and as a player I can't use my character to outwit, out strategize or outmaneuver GM Fiat.

What I really wanted was the Sim City or Civilization version of a role-playing game.  Strategy and tactics through the agency of my character.

With that in mind, I have turned to the Power 19.  Granted, it's early enough in this process that I only have the first 3 even semi-complete.  But hey!  This is First Thoughts and these are my first thoughts.  I welcome any comments, suggestions, questions, etc.  However, I do have a couple of places that I think need focus at the moment and comments/suggestions in these areas are especially appreciated.

1.) I want to be as succinct but as accurate as possible when saying what my game is about.  The focus really ought to be able to be condensed into 1 good sentence.  Any suggestions on how to categorize or describe the game in an interesting manner are very helpful.

2.) What other fun things could characters do in this kind of game?  If you've played a game like this, what things did you do that were fun?  What did you do that wasn't fun?

3.)  I don't want this game to end up being a standard RPG with resource management slapped on it.  That means I need a really good grasp of what kinds of things the players would do in the game.  I'm having trouble with that at the moment, even though I'm thinking about it hard.  What I currently have still seems like a D&D-Civilization train wreck.  Any suggestions, especially if drawn from experience, as to what fun things players would do are extremely welcome.

Power 19:  1-3

What is your game about?

The game is about empire building/maintenance.  Empire can be defined here as any group or organization that comes into conflict with other groups resources, beliefs and/or goals.  Scope is not an issue.

What do the characters do?

Characters build and run "empires".  An empire can be a lone wizard with a tower and a magical network or an actual empire of millions of people.  So characters are people who want to establish, expand or maintain their power or influence.  Some of the ways they might do this:

*Build strongholds.
*Recruit followers.
*Conduct espionage/diplomacy.
*Fight wars.
*Establish trade.

What do the players do?

Players operate on a couple of different levels.  First they have characters that they play.  They have role-playing scenes in which they act out the persona of their character in fun and interesting ways.  They use their characters abilities to succeed at different tasks at this micro level in order to gain bonuses (or penalties) at the macro level.

The "macro" level as I termed it in the previous paragraph is where the players manage the resources and capabilities of their empires.  They make strategies to expand or maintain their positions and then engage the system, most likely so form of fortune mechanic, to see if they are successful or not.


I could see this being a DM'less game. Or, that is, every player would act as DM of their own little empire.
Good luck on this project, it sounds fun. :)


This sounds really, really cool. Me likey.

Do you have any thoughts on how the Empires would run? Does the Empire replace the character, and have it's own stats, like maybe: Size, Military, Influence, Trade, Magic... the list could go on forever if you're not careful. It seems like the leader of the empire isn't that important really, because he relies on the power of his empire, am I right?

I think having character stats replaced by empire stats would be cool, and the empires could compete easily on a large scope then. You might need a system for ruler interaction though, especially for smaller empires where the powerful ruler makes more of a difference.

Good ideas, keep them coming.
- "aww, I wanted to explode..."


Something I would focus on is the level of abstraction and fantasy you want to maintain.

In a very abstract game, an Empire could come down to a few stats and maybe a few roles and you'd know how things went, while in a very crunchy, real world statistical modeling approach, the game could be mostly comprised of book work. Where along this scale do you see your game falling?

How about magic. Can I raise zombies to replace peasant labor, how about mental domination, the role of faiths and gods, etc...

A third question:
What sort of in-game time scale do you see play being spent on. Empire building seems like it would take months or years while more traditional RPG play uses moment to moment interactions. Where do you see your game falling?

Also, two suggestions:

Resource management might make a good backbone of this system, as it seems to be a major part of civ-type games and simulates the idea of government well. Like, "Your empire has six points, how do you spend them?" "I put 2 in growth, 1 in law enforcement and the remaining three towards erecting that new library."

Since it seems fantasy is what your looking for, standing with various gods or spirits might be a good way to handle natural disasters and such. For instance, if you don't have enough temples to the rain god you risk a drought or whatever.

Nolan Callender


The idea is cool.  I think, however, that making the different levels of detail work together will take some significant effort.

I'd probably break down the various levels as (there are other ways to do it, of course):

Personal -- Individuals are distinguishable and important.  Eg, the wizard of tower Scarymagic is named Fredus and casts fireballs and likes poetry, his hobgoblin forman Zugzug manages the mine, etc.

Micro -- The individual count of things is important, but mostly the individuals are indistinguishable.  Eg, Scarymagic has 284 hobgoblins and allegiance with a tribe of 31 ogres.

Macro -- The empire, mechanically, is defined by a few attributes.  Scarymagic has Military Might 4 and Wealth 3.  It's alliance with the ogre allows it to add 1 to its Military Might in certain circumstances.

Obviously you won't be able to resolve conflicts on the personal level.  If your empire isn't too big, you might be able to do things at the Micro level using a system like Warhammer fantasy battle (which could be an awesome game).  If you want to be able to scale it to any size empire, the macro level might be the only way to go about it -- but then translating between the various levels gets very hard.

For example, what if you lose 23 hobgoblins in a raid?  How does that affect your Might?  How about 24?  And if your mine is out of production for two months?

You might want to think about which level is most important to you, and focus the game on that.


Andrew Cooper

opsneakie -

You raise a good point that I don't think I emphasized enough.  I most definitely do not want the empire to replace the character.  Most of the player's contributions to the game should come through the agency of their character.  I don't want to recreat Civilization, Settlers of Catan or Diplomacy.  Those games are great but they aren't what I'm after.  I'm looking to simulate the experience of Melanie Rawn's character Rohan in the Dragon Prince series or Raymond Feist's character Roo in The Merchant Prince.

Once again, I'm using the word empire here but that is really only a placeholder for some domain or organization.  A merchant guild could be an empire here.  So could a wizard's tower with a couple of apprentices.  So, in defining these empires and in defining the characters I need to find the elements that really define them across such a broad range of types.

Nolan -

Abstraction is something important to think about.  There's a fine line between too much and too little here.  I want the game to be abstract enough that it doesn't get too slow or become an exercise if pure bookkeeping.   On the other hand, I want there to be enough dials, widgets and fiddly bits that it is satisfying to play with.  I can definitely see this as one of the things that gets continually modified in playtest until it gets to the right setting.

I'm still sort of mulling over the setting bits at the moment.  Not sure yet how Magic and Faith are going to tie in.  There should be zombies.  Zombies are cool.  :-)

There will have to be some sort of mechanism for dealing with things on different times scales.  Roleplaying out scenes and having personal battles and stuff really needs to be done on a short time scale as in traditional play.  I want the players to be able to immerse into their characters and really act out those kinds of things.  Once again this is a role-playing game, not Diplomacy.  However, there does need to be a mechanic that allows the group to speed things up and deal with larger chunks of time in a satisfying way.

I admit to be a resource management lover.  I like those kinds of games.  Watching things grow and planning out strategies for expansion are really a lot of fun to me.  I liked that aspect of the Birthright setting for AD&D.  The problem for me was that the resource management part of the game was just barely tied to the AD&D part of the game by a couple of skills and Regency Points.  I want the wargamey-sim part of the system to be much more integrated and relevant to the role-playing part.

james -

I agree that this is going to be some work.  Hopefully it'll mostly be fun work.

I'm not sure that I buy that you couldn't resolve conflict, even macro conflicts, at the personal level.  Conan was king of big kingdom but when he was threatened by some upstart with an army he got off his throne and went out and chopped the jerk's head off.  That's solving a macro conflict at the personal level.  I want players to have that option.  What I want though is for that option to be limited so that players have to pick and choose which conflicts they are going to solve personally.  After all, Conan can't be in two places at once.  If he's over here chopping heads off, he has to leave other tasks to other folks.

How granular I make resources and how they translate between scales of conflict will certainly need some work though.  I'm not sure how I'm going to do it yet.


Excellent comments and suggestions!  Thanks for taking the time to think about it guys.  I appreciate it.


Once possiblility is a system like Pendragon's. In that game, each session represents all the adventuring the characters got done in a year and then at the end theres a solo process where you can take care of your manner and try to get married and such. Perhaps saying each session is a month worth of content (this session is all the important, immediate stuff that happens in December) and then at the end have everyone work out there solo-y empire governing stuff. The trick here would to make the two style of play really reflexive so that empire management decisions would reflect a lot in play and in play experience would greatly effect empire management.

What do you think?
Nolan Callender


Have you seen Reign?  If not, I encourage you to check it out.  It might deliver what you're looking for already, and if not it will be a great source of Hack ideas.

Andrew Cooper


I have not seen Reign but I will definitely take a look.  A question or two about the game though.  How focused is it on strategy and tactics in pulling off good schemes?  Is resource management a big deal with it?  Does it scale down to being a guy trying to establish a single keep and subdue the surrounding lands or do you have to play at the macro level of nations and monarchs and such?

I'm curious about this.


Reign falls into the category of "traditional" RPG with some really cool extra stuff.  I totally can't remember the game terms for the extra stuff but essentially you create your strategic level items as mini characters (albiet with different stats).  These strategic items can stack so you might have your character as the captain of a local crew, which is part of the theives guild, which is part of the city government, which is part of a larger nation. 

You can use these strategic level items (whatever the heck they're actually called) to do things, like take over a rival crew's territory, or rebel against the guild, or whatever; and there's some very interesting "mini-game" type stuff that allows you to do this.  The bulk of play is through your actual PC and there are rules for feeding the two levels of the game into each other.

I believe the game is available on Lulu.  Its a Greg Stolze design powered by a cleaned up One Roll Engine ala Godlike.


Well, it has already been mentioned, but I'd like to ask nonetheless: What do you want that REIGN does not offer? Because that is the game I thought of when I read your first post.

REIGN homepage
REIGN on Lulu

Now, I will try to answer you questions as good as I can...

> How focused is it on strategy and tactics in pulling off good schemes?

Not very much I think, unless I misunderstood your question. The main focus is on the player characters doing stuff to support their company, so that it gets an advantage in the final confrontation.

>Is resource management a big deal with it?

It is a deal, but I cannot estimate what you mean with "big". The "companies" are handled quite abstractly, if that is what you are asking for.

>  Does it scale down to being a guy trying to establish a single keep and subdue the surrounding lands or do you have to play at the macro level of nations and monarchs and such?

It does scale down to being a guy trying to establish a single keep. There are rules for establishing your own "company", an entity similar to what you call "Empire".



I'm attempting something similar with my current design, using a homebrew crunchier version of Fate. My group prefers a system that can handle management of various social/poltical/economic institutions rather than leaving it all to freeform RPing, which sounds a lot like what you want.

I haven't heard of Reign either, though I looked up some reviews while writing this reply. I sounds like it really does a good job of implementing elements like empires/companies/etc., but the ORE engine is kinda uber and I'm not sure how it would fly if you're looking for a grittier resource management type of game (unless you strip off all of OREs bells and whistles). I mean, the resolution is pretty elaborate for combat, but non-combat resolutions seem a bit lackluster.

Anyway, I encourage you to keep with it. I've been in and out of the design community for quite a while now (five years or so). I've seen a bazillion rules-lite storytelling freeformers, but nothing like this. I'd be curious to see how it comes out.

Andrew Cooper

I am going to buy and read and play me some Reign.  From reading the reviews it looks like the game might be a little more abstract than what I'm trying to do.  I want lots of sliders, dials and switches to play with on a fairly granular level.  Reign may do that.  I'll know after I read through it and give it a shot.  Besides, I've never played anything with the ORE system so I really ought to give it a go. 

I think the real challenge here is going to be getting the complexity that I want but having a system elegant enough that it doesn't completely bog down play.  I don't want for a player to declare an action and then have to roll 15 times and reference 3 different charts to see the outcome.  That's going to be tough.  So, I need to be looking at (or developing) a system where a single roll (or whatever) can say multiple things about an outcome.  ORE does this pretty well with the heighth and depth concept when reading the dice.  Mechaton (heh) does this with different die colors and sizes.  I'll have to see what I can come up with.


Does anyone have an AP account of Reign to offer?  I would be very interested to see one, as I too am keen on a game of this type.  I ammostly interested in aspects such as what multi-character groups do and how the individual PC's interact, and how the GM, if there is one, handles the "everything else" part of the setting.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci