Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Destiny Disrupted

As usual when reading historical works, I find my thoughts turning to gaming.  The current source of inspiration of Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansari.  Some notes so far:
  • Ansari argues that "the Western World" is civilization as arose around Mediterranean trade, while "the Middle World" (Arabia to India, Persia, and the 'stans) grew up primarily around land trade routes, with the intersection on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean being a perennial area of cultural exchange and conflict.  This is interesting from the ACKS perspective, where the prototypical Auran campaign world (and a number of other campaign worlds, like my own Shieldlands and Omer's Barbarian Conqueror King) are built around the Mediterranean model.  It might be worthwhile to roll an ACKS setting along more Middle-World land-trade lines.
  • Lots of good place-names to steal that my players have probably never heard of.
  • It's sort of sad how quickly Islam went downhill (in terms of charitable / egalitarian social virtue and unity of the umma) after the first two caliphs.  Power corrupts, so it goes.
  • The manner in which Medina and the bedouin tribes were united under Muhammed and Abu Bakr is interesting - there existed political factions, and the early leaders of Islam unified them.  These coalitions were then threatened by the death of Muhammed and the resulting Wars of Apostasy.  This ties into some thoughts on poltical deficiencies in the ACKS domain game I've had recently - I think I want a system where the resources present in a domain are more-or-less static, and there exist factions with some form of power (military, economic, moral authority over the masses, whatever) who contend for the resources in that domain.  Players then attempt to either gain influence over existing factions (befriending their leaders or membership, doing favors) to gain their resources and allegiance, or destroy them through intrigue or fire and sword and replace them with personal factions (extended henchtrees) of their own construction.  Uniting existing factions is a quick and convenient way to streamline your domain, make management less of a hassle, and extend your capabilities out onto larger scales (ie, a coalition of county-grade factions might be able to operate as a duchy-scale faction if unified).  But, as is apparent, I have yet to flesh out a system for this.
  • The divide between the Mu'tazili rationalists and the conservative ulama (religious scholars responsible for generating, verifying, and clarifying religious law) during the Abassid caliphate is fairly interesting, particularly the way the Abassids allied with the Mu'tazili first (seeking to escape the power of the ulama) and then ended up yielding to the ulama's moral authority over the general populace.  Not unlike the attempts by Western monarchy to break the power of the church, but less effective.  Another good example of the Factional Domain Game in historical action.
  • There's an interesting note in the section on the Crusades: "Usamah idn Muqidh described the Franks as being like 'beasts, superior in courage and fighting ardor, but in nothing else, just as animals are superior in strength and aggression.'"  Combine with reports of Crusader cannibalism (it turns out that supplying your sieges in deserts is hard) and the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, and an amusing inversion comes to mind; what if one were to cast the orcs not as the Germanic barbarians invading Rome, but as the Frankish (or "Franj") barbarians invading the Middle East?
  • Looking back at the original assassins, we see an organization much more interested in causing political strife / preventing unification / propagating fear than in making money.  I would like to see ACKS' assassin guilds operate similarly.
  • As bad as the assassins and the Crusaders were, the Mongols did a very effective job of Chaotic/Evil.  Particularly notable were the utter destruction of a city whose original name is lost and which is now known only as Shahr-i-Gholghola ("the city of screams"), the breaking of the assassins after an attempt was made against Hulagu Khan, pretty much everything Tamerlane ever did, and this aside regarding the sack of Baghdad in 1258:
The Mongols had a proscription against shedding royal blood; it ran against their traditions...  So they wrapped the [Abassid] khalifa and members of his family in carpets and kicked them to death.
Anyway, good inspiration, and I'm still less than halfway through (though I expect things will get a bit more modern, hence less useful for RPGs and more useful for wargaming, shortly).

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Review: Sufficiently Advanced

I was on rpgnow the other day to pick up a copy of Petty Gods at Tenkar's suggestion (free, incidentally) when I stumbled across Sufficiently Advanced (which also has an SRD).

This game is way, way outside my normal fare (and hence may not be interesting to my typical audience) and yet it seems plausibly awesome.

I guess I would characterize it as a hardish-science transhumanist diceless strategic story game driven primarily by ideological conflicts.  That's a mouthful, so let's break it down.

Hardish-science: Written by a physicist, and generally everything here falls under plausiblish.  Direct conversion of matter to energy is postulated, and with abundant energy come atomic transmutation (through nuclear processes) and plausible FTL through bent spacetime (both Alcubierre-style warpdrives and wormholes).  With FTL comes the possibility of time travel (which is used primarily to explain prescient AIs).  It's a bit softer than the sort of grungy, one-system near-future SF I've had on my mind since Schismatrix, but it's within the realm of "plausible given sufficiently-advanced technology".  Notably absent are violations of thermodynamics and conservation laws (many of the entries in the Technology chapter include a description of their waste heat) and psionics, though extensive cognitive enhancement and weaponized memetics are present.  Full marks from me for averting the Jedi Problem in favor of mentats and cognitae.

Transhumanist: A medium-powered character in SA2 is functionally immortal (immune to aging, capable of regenerating lost limbs), has a neural computer capable of backing up their memories, dermal nanites which provide extensive sensory capabilities, implanted energy weapons comparable to modern antitank artillery, and subdermal armor to match.  Massive enhancements are the norm, with characters at the top of the scale capable of generating wormholes, mentally simulating a small city (which does raise the question - can an intellect capable of simulating a city simulate a city containing itself simulating a city containing itself simulating a city containing... ?  What about simulating a city containing multiple adversarial intelligence of similar strength?), and surviving reentry naked.  Uploaded intelligences and groupminds are supported during character creation.  The limits of the flesh are no longer binding.

Diceless: This one's straightforward at least.  Character generation is deterministic; you just pick your stats.  Conflict resolution is also deterministic, based on the relative stats of the opponents.

Strategic: One trouble with deterministic conflict resolution is that if you go up against a superior force, you will lose.  Strategic, then, refers to maneuvering the situation into one which favors your strengths and forces an opponent to rely on their weaknesses.  This requires intel about an opponent's abilities, which is fortunately readily available through nanotech, cold-reading social abilities, and some mentat-y story mechanics.

Story Game: Narrative mechanics abound, and the main tradeoff during character creation is that the higher your raw mechanical, technological stat-power, the less of the narrative control currency you'll be able to use.   Conflict is also resolved in a very story-game fashion, with each side inflicting complications on the other and then describing the action that resulted in those consequences.  I also really like the inclusion of Plots and Projects, which are long-term ways to influence the setting (with potential results including scientific discoveries, building a city, or shifting the beliefs of a population).

Driven by ideological conflicts: In the absence of natural threats on scales smaller than supernovae, conflict (in the narrative sense) must come primarily from interaction with one's fellow posthumans and with oneself. One of the main sets of stats each character has is Core Values, ie beliefs, which contribute substantially to his abilities.  Some Core Values are chosen, while others are inherited from a character's home culture.  A plethora of sample cultures are presented, ranging from the Cognitive Union (a society of people conditioned through their brain-computers to borglike cooperation; core values Obedience and Order) and Nanori (so full of nanites that most other cultures classify individual Nanori as weapons of mass destruction; CVs Emergence and Evolution) to Oldworlders (space-amish; CVs Tradition and Simplicity).  I really, really like a lot of these cultures (and also some of the more minor, cross-culture ideological factions); very Schismatrix, and there are some of these that part of me can point to and say "Forget wizards, I want to be that when I grow up."  These cultures are driven into conflict by their differing value-systems, and so too are PCs likely to be motivated against their opponents (and each other) by their value systems.  The rules note at one point that PCs are sufficiently powerful that often the question isn't "can we do X?" so much as "how can we do X in a manner in accordance with (all of) our beliefs?"

Overall, I'm pretty impressed.  Like Sine Nomine's Stars Without Number, this is definitely a science fiction game written by a well-read fan of the genre for other fans of the genre.  Unlike SWN, though, SE2 is essentially optimistic on every level, breaking with both gaming tradition and common science fiction tropes to celebrate a mostly-bright future that feels foreign enough to be plausible.

Other things: as noted on the rpgnow page, this is sort of a beta; the art's not done.  There were some typos but nothing Mongoose-grade.  The organization wasn't great; I'm not sure starting with character generation was the right choice for a game so off the beaten path, mechanically.  I had a lot of questions while building a sample character for the first time which were eventually answered by reading the rest of the book, but which were not immediately obvious.  Could use a sort of conceptual glossary up front maybe?  The five universes (sort of starting conditions in terms of inter-civilization relations) are pretty good; I really liked The Divide (bit of a spy-thriller milieu) and Sublight.  I'm conflicted about the organization of universes vs cultures; universes came first, which meant that I had to infer / gradually pick up data about the civilizations mentioned.  This is either a triumph of "show instead of tell" or a failure of organization, and I can't decide which.  A number of pieces of very short (almost all <1 page) fiction are present in the universes and civilization descriptions; I enjoyed most of the ones I read, and they contributed to the "showing" of civilizations, but they definitely increased the pagecount by a bit in a book that was already not short for the degree of mechanical complexity in the system.  The last 10% of the book is designer's notes, including a chart of "if you alter this subsystem, you should expect changes to cascade to these other subsystems", which is glorious.

Review conclusion: It's been a long time since I gamed, but I kinda want to run this.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Board Games V: Pathfinder Adventures Card Game, Alchemists, Pandemic

And lo, there were games!

Pathfinder Adventures Card Game (hereafter PACG): Jared picked this up recently and was very excited to play it.  It was interesting and fairly fun if not what he expected (something closer to Sentinels).  Six locations, four PCs.  Each location and each character has a deck; a PC's deck represents their available HP, and their hand provides them resources for exploring locations.  Each location deck contains monsters, obstacles, loot, and either a henchman or the adventure's villain.  Defeating a henchman closes the location where it was found, which means that no further exploration there is possible and the villain cannot flee there if he is defeated.  If you defeat the villain without closing all the locations, he gets shuffled into a random one, along with divine blessings in the remaining locations.  It's possible to temporarily close a location when the villain is defeated if you have a party member there, which encourages the party to spread out; our D&D mentality and some of the mechanics (bard's support ability, ability to pass cards to other players at same location) encouraged us to bunch up, two players at each of two locations.  We fought the villain twice before we ran out of time (there's a turn limit), and because we were concentrated we were unable to close many locations to him.  As a result, we lost.

There is a campaign mode, where you alter your character's deck over iterated games (and also alter your character's limits on certain types of cards in your deck; ie, I had a ranger, and with sufficient experience I could gain access to spell cards).  I think there's some promise in the deckbuilding aspect of the game, but I'm not sure I'd want to play a proper campaign; there's a lot missing compared to the RPG experience.  Fun, but not the same sort of fun.

Alchemists: Took a benadryl before this and was pretty fuzzy; came in last by a fair margin.  Oh well.  It seems the meta has developed since last I played, with lots of turn-3 debunks where the debunker didn't actually know if they were correct, and used it to gain information.  There was some discussion of playing Master Mode next time, where this is not feasible.

Pandemic: An unforeseen chain outbreak in Asia got us.  So it goes.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Mechmusics, OGRE, Morale

If I were going for postcount, this could probably be multiple (unrelated: initially typo'd "multiple" to "mule pile")

Point the first: some decent background music for SF ground combat.  Gave me the "tech-heavy military SF" itch again.

Which OGRE sort of fills but also sort of doesn't.  The only design is in defense force composition, which while still an open problem is a very different animal from Starmada, Battletech, or Traveller-type design.  One thing I will say for OGRE though is that it handles attrition nicely - as soon as one side can't take an action, the game is over.  The nature of the battle between implacable machine and humans making a last stand mean that morale is immaterial, so you have neither forced actions ("failed morale, must retreat towards map edge") nor denied actions ("pinned, can't fire this turn").  In this way, it avoids complexity.

Admittedly, a lot of wargames ignore morale effects, but it's nice to have a reasonable excuse.  Should find more wargames with war machines and slavering aliens born to die ("this for the swarm!"), and I guess human troops either heroic, desperate, or hopped up on combat stimulants.  Maybe that's part of why 40k is popular; they have morale rules, but they're not nearly as central to gameplay as in (say) Stargrunt, and plenty of things basically ignore them.

Also wargames are problematic because of scalability (often hard for 4-5 players at once to play with quick turn lengths), tendency to minmax in competitive environments, and somebody always loses.  These are things which RPGs handle relatively well.  Do people play wargames in the 3+ vs 1 "coalition of players and a referee in non-competitive campaign" mode?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Kickstarters

Two kickstarters launched this week which I found of interest; perhaps you will too.

Autarch launched for The Sinister Stone of Sakkara.  I've been saying ACKS could use a good low-level introductory adventure for a while now, and along comes a chance for me to put my money where my mouth is.  The sample texts I've seen so far look a bit verbose for my tastes, but we'll see.

Howard Taylor of (Archive Warning!  Do not click if you have anything to do today!) Schlock Mercenary launched The Planet Mercenary RPG.  It sounds from the notes like it's going to be a fairly straightforward game, and the book is going to contain a lot of new details about the Schlockiverse.  As much as I love the universe notes that Taylor occasionally puts beneath his comics, I'm not sure I want to shell out $20 for a book of them (I don't think I know enough other Schlock fans to actually assemble a group to play the game, so it seems most likely that I'd end up reading primarily for fandom's sake).  I'm also, as a pdf gamer, somewhat put off by the use of custom cards as a game mechanic.  So I think I'm going to give this one a pass, despite the fact that it looks entertaining.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Board Games IV: OGRE, Lords of Waterdeep, Alchemists

Was at the Gamerhaus yesterday for a playtest of an RPG combat system some friends are working on, and ended up also playing videogames and OGRE and then coming back today.

OGRE: Matt played defense again, this time with three howitzers clustered in the rear-center and six heavy tanks spread out in front of them, with infantry in front of them.  I considered attacking straight down the centerline, but shifted to attack from the left when I reached howitzer range, and was engaged first by three of the tanks and supporting infantry.  I burned my missiles to disable two of the tanks, and lost my main gun to the first round of stacked fire.  I overran probably three tanks in the next two turns and surrounded three hexes from the howitzercluster at 31 tread units (ie, the least possible number of treads with which I could reach and overrun them in one move).  Matt had some horrible luck attacking my treads that turn, and so I did succeed in overrunning one howitzer and destroying the other two with my secondary weapons, leaving three tanks and some infantry on the field.  The tanks did a number on my secondary batteries, but because they had to be at range 2 to fire I was able to chase them down and ram them.  The infantry then succumbed to antipersonnel fire.  At the end of the game I think I had one secondary cannon and seven AP weapons left, and was probably at 25ish tread units.  A much better showing for the defense than last time; heavy tanks mean business.  I think three potential mistakes were not engaging and doing tread damage before I was in howitzer range, not moving the right-side group sooner (which let me engage the two groups not-exactly separately but also did not force me to ever engage his entire force at once) and clustering the howitzers so tightly that if I got one of them I was going to get all of them.

Today, we played Lords of Waterdeep, Sentinels, Niagara, and Alchemists.

Lords of Waterdeep: This was my first time playing.  I enjoyed this game; it was slightly work-replacement-y, and felt sort of like a cross between Manhattan Project and Colosseum, in that the worker allocation model was similar to Manhattan Project and the many-resources allocation model for completing quests felt somewhat similar to Colosseum's resource allocation to shows.  My Lord gave bonuses for commerce and warfare, but I drew a thief-engine plot quest in my opening pair and so ended up doing a lot of skullduggery instead, which ended up hurting me a little; I had a good lead in the midgame, but after lord bonuses were factored in I tied for 2nd/3rd of four players, with 1st place winning via completing a pair of 25-point quests in the last two turns.  Honestly saving up adventurers and then nabbing a pair of good quests near the end, rather than completing lots of small quests, is probably not a bad strategy.  The game also left me with some food-for-thought regarding the ACKS domain game, namely that a simplified subsystem for resolving "we hire some adventurers to take care of X for us" would be pretty handy.  I also sort of wish I'd taken the time to read the flavor text and have a chuckle at the emergent narrative (of, for example, the City Watch building a thief engine), but it was a long enough game as it was.

Sentinels: We got wrecked by villain board-clear after a fairly promising start and due in part to lack of board-clear or healing of our own.  Happens.

Niagara: First time playing this as well, and was not a fan.  Felt very treadmilly; oh I'm down at the top of the falls again, maybe I'll actually make it one tile upriver this turn...  nope.

Alchemists: A relatively new game, and a pretty hilarious simulation of academia.  The conference deadlines are always one turn too close, and the results you end up publishing to meet them are usually wrong, but the grant committee doesn't care.  I'm not a huge fan of the reliance on a smartphone / mobile app, but the "information hidden from all players, which they must actually deduce for themselves" element that it made possible was really good.  It was the first real game for all of us, and Mistakes Were Made - Drew used the wrong two ingredients for something, Matt misrecorded an experimental result early in the game and ended up with some incorrect deducations later, I misunderstood the rules for debunking an incorrect published result...  but these things happen.  I was behind all game because I was focused on correctness over meeting conference deadlines, and was pleased to discover that this actually worked out alright at the end of the game, when my fewer-but-correct publications were worth more than inaccurate publications that were produced early for grant points, and so I came back to second place by a point (it was a very tight spread overall, with third and fourth only a few points behind me).  Would play again.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Further Thoughts from Transformation of War

I keep not finishing this book, because suddenly it's midnight and I have to sleep.

Most recent observations:
  • Van Creveld's notes on the differences between Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim traditions of holy war are pretty interesting.
    • The Hebrew Old Testament holy war came in two flavors - one was ordered by God and commanded the utter destruction of an enemy tribe and all of their possessions, livestock, and buildings, lest the righteous be tempted by the works of the unclean.  The other was undertaken against an enemy (heathen) tribe without divine command, and involved killing all of their males and taking their women and possessions.
    • Christian holy war originally resembled Hebrew holy war (being inspired by the Old Testament) though with a different organizational structure (army rather than tribe), and softened rapidly during the crusades from being wars of extermination to being wars of subjugation.
    • Muslim holy war was originally a perpetual struggle between the House of Submission and the House of the Sword, and expected to end with either the death or conversion of pretty much everyone.  In practice, the whole multiple-caliphates thing has complicated this a bit, and the policy has tended to soften over time towards subjugation without necessarily conversion.
    • Heh, that'd be a fun mechanic - bonus reserve XP for getting proper last rites and burial, and lots of bonus reserve XP for dying on a mission from the church.  Or Iron Heroes-style glory points that let you interfere from beyond the grave and get canonized...
  • VC's distinction between existential war and rational war was very interesting to me.  He argues that rational war is that carried out with the rational interests of a government or organization in mind and a calculus of gain and loss used to measure the effectiveness of operations, while existential war is what occurs when a people is faced with oppression or extermination and resolves to "sell their lives dearly", with no regard for their own safety or the rules of war.  He notes a number of circumstances in which technologically-and-organizationally inferior groups have defeated rational forces through existential warfare (albeit at typically at tremendous bodycounts), and also notes that any sufficiently-long rational war tends to eventually become an existential war as the combatants' resources are stretched thin and the war's political justifications cease to adequately justify the bodycount and personal sacrifices involved.  This supports my long-held notion that in war and many other endeavours, those who are willing to sacrifice everything for their ends tend to be the most likely to triumph, but are also usually left wondering if it was worth it.  This "by any means necessary" theme is one which I have explored with several characters, and which I occasionally exercise in board/wargaming as well.  I have also witnessed the rational dungeoncrawl rapidly become the irrational, existential dungeoncrawl of extermination ("They killed Monty!").   So this seems a useful distinction to me in understanding strategy and the conduct of war and life in general.
  • Some of the historical mentions of cultural circumstances which made the conduct of war very different from our own would make for quality gaming.  Most notable:
    • In Greece, the city-states each claimed divine origin, and so to destroy or found a city-state would be to act against the gods.  Hence, war was largely confined to the borders and to trade interests.
    • The "just war" notions of the Roman and Medieval periods occasionally caused leaders to eschew certain advantages (fortifications, river crossings, ranged weapons) during battles, to prove that they actually had the moral high ground.
    • Likewise, just-war considerations led to small-unit battles deciding the fate of provinces by agreement between both concerned rulers.  This would make a lot of sense for adventuring parties...
  • Unfortunately, the end of this chapter, which attempts to counter the notion that every war is based on the community or nation's "rational interest" by arguing that interest is too broad a term to be useful, is largely sophistry bordering on philosophy.  Disappointing; sufficient evidence was laid out earlier that the conduct of war is often too disjointed to be rational.  No need to beat a dead horse with a featherduster for five pages, as is done here - it just makes the author look a bit silly in my estimation.
  • The chapter following, on why individuals fight, isn't much better.  A lot of philosophizing on the nature of man and woman and why folks risk their lives.  There were a few insights buried in there, though:
    • Honorable combat, as opposed to murder, massacre, and other crimes, is distinguished by rough parity of forces and risk of death for everyone involved.  The greater the risk, the greater the honor. 
      • This is particularly interesting because it was written before the beginning of the Drone Wars, which are the ultimate in combat without risk for the combatant. 
      • This is also particularly relevant to RPG gaming, where we see a lot of combats with utter disparity of forces and little risk of death for one side.
    • A weak force needs a great deal of morale to initiate war against a strong force, but every victory it earns (and even some defeats) serve to boost that morale.  A strong force fighting a weak force loses a lot of morale if defeated, and may even lose morale from dissatisfying victories which look more like massacres than proper battles.
    • In conducting anti-insurgency operations, it behooves a conventional force to try to avoid atrocities by imposing onerous regulations on the troops in the field.  If obeyed, these impede combat effectiveness and hurt morale ("We can't return fire until we've checked the regs and called battalion HQ...").  If disobeyed, discipline suffers, atrocities crop up, and scandals ensue.
    • There was a really hilarious two-paragraph note about automation in warfare and artificial intelligence, to the effect that computers are unsuitable for battlefield operations due to their inflexibility, and that if we can reduce war to equations soluble by computer, that form of war will come to an end because it won't be worth fighting.  On some level this did reflect our experience with Starmada - we took apart its equations and solved them and then there was no game.  On the other hand, I think if we really wanted to build deeply, truly scary autonomous systems, the binary nature of the transistor would not stand in our way.
  • The last chapter was pretty good, but with a fair bit of rehash from Rise and Decline of the State.  His hypotheses on the return of assassination and other "beheading the snake" sorts of operations seem to have come to pass, though I am, in the networked age, less optimistic about their effectiveness at destroying guerilla organizations than MvC was at the time of this writing.  It is also interesting that he argued that a new set of rules of war were likely to emerge, but I haven't heard of that happening yet.  Could just be a while in the making.
  • He also makes the point that religious warfare is coming back, and that Islam is attractive to pragmatic rebels because it does not shun violence like modern Christianity does.  One prediction he makes is that secular ideals will be fought and bled for and acquire religious overtones as a result.  This is something I hear on the internet from time to time, that liberal atheistic humanism needs to militarize (compromising its principles) because The Believers Are Coming For Us.  I am very curious to see how this plays out.
  • Professional soldiers may be hindered relative to their guerilla opponents by rules disallowing them to loot, which reduces their incentives to fight.  Interesting perspective. 
Anyway, that's enough Van Creveld.  Next book on my agenda is utterly unrelatable to gaming, so I...  guess it's probably going to get a bit quiet here.  Quieter than it's been, even.