Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Mage Wars: World Turn Overview

A starting point for my tabletop RPG is making a game where the rules for the hex map and campaign are as clear as the procedures for a dungeon crawl. For the most part this means breaking up campaign time into discreet World Turns. The GM doesn't prepare a story, but instead stats up factions which function on the hex map analogously to how monsters function in a dungeon crawl - except that factions take moves before they are discovered by the PC's. (In a way, random monster encounters function analogously to hidden traps.) There's rules for keeping track of faction moves off camera, and procedures to inform the players of those moves via rumors and news. The PC's basic goal is not to conquer each hex, like a dungeon crawl, but simply to survive. The world is always changing, so to survive the PC's need to explore the map and collect McGuffins.
It's not meant to be structure for structure's sake. By giving discreet rules for various game objects, I'm opening up mechanical possibilities that normally would be limited to the dungeon scale. Event cards introduce factions, factions can use McGuffins, McGuffins can create terrain, terrain can put event cards into the event deck, and so on. Structures enable elaborate chains of cause and effect far beyond what a GM can prepare. Railroading in the classic sense is not required.
The central thread is the idea of a “game structure” as found on thealexandrian.net. Essentially, there’s one basic action the players know they can take that will always move the game forward. Even when there are other moves that may elaborate the action, the essential path is assumed. For example, in a dungeon crawl the basic action is clearing rooms, killing monsters, and taking loot. If in doubt, go to the unexplored room and kill stuff. If you’ve got time, admire the tapestries.
The other purpose of the World Turn structure is to create a system to pour game objects into. With a system in place I know what game mechanics can express and what potential values they may have. This also gives me the ability to set up Legend of Zelda / Metroid style games, where certain areas of the map open up as certain items / abilities / NPC’s are discovered. It also allows a GM to have a checklist of game objects s/he can add to or subtract to customize the game for his or her particular campaign.
The basic game structure is as follows. The GM reveals a certain amount of hexes - each known as a "territory" - and starts the PC’s in one of those territories. Within each territory are a number of "location" cards, which are face down until the PC's explore them, find a map, etc. The starting location is a settlement. Usually the known areas are limited to the starting settlement and the neighboring territories, 1 or 2 more distant settlements, and the territories in between. The GM draws three event cards and chooses one to be the initial investigation goal of the adventure. He informs the players in advance of character creation what that goal will be. The players construct their characters’ backgrounds to answer the following questions:
  • Why would my character be going on this particular mission, with these particular people (the other PC’s)?
  • Why does my character care about the starting location / settlement? What is my character attached to?
  • How / where did my character get his or her powers?
By the end of character creation both the GM and the players have a clear idea of who the PC’s are and how they fit in with the mission, each other, and the starting location. With the initial setup completed, what follows is the basic procedure that repeats itself as the campaign develops.
 The PC’s travel through territory hexes until they reach the location where the rumor they are investigating has occurred. They make Search/Investigate rolls to see what phenomena are in play. They can make Lore, Technology, or Nature rolls to see if their characters know anything about the phenomena they encounter. If they do not, they can make Gather Information rolls to see if anyone in a local settlement knows something, or knows of someone who might know something. In this way the Gather Information rolls eventually lead to the experts who can answer their questions and provide a solution to the problem, which itself is a new mission. Sometimes an expert will demand compensation for his or her assistance, which can be circumvented with an Influence roll. Gather Information roles will always work, given enough time, but provide answers much slower than lore, technology, and nature roles, which have the possibility of failure.
 As the PC’s are conducting this investigation the GM is drawing additional event cards and making faction moves. Poor gather information rolls increase the chance that an enemy faction finds out what the PC’s are looking for, and allows them to interfere with the investigation. The PC’s may also be slowed down by random monster / magical phenomenon encounters. The characters may also wander off the initial mission and explore locations just for the fun of it – or to score badly needed supplies - and events may occur which directly affect the players if they happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Also, distant events are recorded in settlements as rumors, which can be uncovered by curious PC’s through Gather Information rolls. Sometimes PC's may decide that such rumors are more important to their characters than what they are doing at the moment, and the adventure goes in a new direction.

Some events are isolated one-offs that are simply interesting. Other events are grouped around the nefarious activities of ideological factions or particularly powerful forces such that enough events from the same group will threaten to disrupt or damage the world - or at least something the PC's care about. Fortunately, there are so many ways the world can end so it takes quite a bit of time for any one of them to come to fruition.
In short, events are Doctor Who plots. The PC’s are in a race against time to head off each potential way the world could be destroyed or damaged. Sometimes ideological factions are in opposition to each other, and the PC’s can only defeat one faction by teaming up with another, even if they oppose its fundamental goals.
Play proceeds in this way until the PC’s are unable to respond to events in time and the world does, in fact, get destroyed. But that’s OK because in this game the planet getting destroyed isn’t really the end of the world. Territories can be raised from the ocean, pocket universes can be created, new settlements can be founded, refugees can be lead to safety, etc. – so if a party realizes they are truly screwing up, there are still a few escape hatches. On the other hand, even if the players succeed in staving off the end of the world, the world simply levels up with them and finds new ways to destroy itself.
Mage Wars is The Walking Dead meets Legend of Zelda meets Magic the Gathering. The world is trying to kill you so you must explore to survive, but hurry, there’s no time to waste. Supplies are limited and you can’t get this until you get that, but there are winning combinations if you’re lucky. This is expressed through a clear cut structure that gives the players a sense of what to do next (if they don't already have a particular agenda) and allows the GM to skip past the boring parts.
And that's basically what's I'll be playtesting over the next few months, once I create enough game objects (items, monsters, factions, etc.) to populate the beautiful hex map tiles that Santiago is creating.

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