Saturday, October 13, 2012

Dreams of Orion

It's not very often that I dream of video games (well, at least not now that I run linux...  and have kicked my Dwarf Fortress habit...).  But every now and then, I'll still wake up with a fading memory of Master of Orion.  Armadas in the blackness over Tau Eridani, the crackle of the lightning field generators, the shockwaves of hulls shattered by antimatter warheads...  But there was more to it than that, the Clausewitzian decisive battle upon which the fates of empires hinged.  The spying, assassinations of enemy leaders, sabotage of enemy factories, the gathering of allies through careful diplomacy, sending wolf packs of missile frigates across the border on scouting and raiding missions while trying to tech up to the Next Big Weapon that would let you crack enemy shields or better drives for more strategic maneuverability, and the colonization of dozens of worlds for the purposes of building the great fleets mattered too.  Two hundred turns (and days of realtime) might be spent building up first, even reaching the enemy across the vast distances of space.  And then when the battle became imminent, you looked and went, "Have I done enough?  Is victory assured?  I cannot know the full power of the enemy until it is met, but if I should hold back now, gather more intel, do more research, and perform upgrades on my ships, will the enemy attack before I am as ready as I should hope?  No, now is the time, and I must strike.  May my little virtual alien citizens forgive me if I am wrong and they must pay the price and die by the billions."

I guess what I felt was, in some sense, the allure of the Old School - attachment to what you have earned by means of extensive labor and luck, the virtue of preparation, the cunning application of every form of leverage available to achieve victory, and ultimately exposing your beloved creation to a real risk of utter destruction.  And overall, I feel like the ACKS group has done a decent job of showing the joys of these elements in RPG play to a bunch of 3.5ers.  But...  there is one thing that is lacking in my ACKS game, and that is scope, scale, a sense of the epic, the shattering of continents and the building of civilizations.  Certainly, the domain rules help, but ultimately, should any one PC die or fail, they expose no more than a tiny corner of the world to peril, and the world as a whole goes on, uncaring and harsh as it ever was (for that is the nature of my world).

I think that sense of scale is what I miss about MoO.  And I'd like to bring that back into my tabletop games, along with the other virtues of the Old School I mentioned above (aside - I've been thinking about writing a series on Pillars of Old School Play as I perceive them.  Kind of an Old School Primer For The Recovering New School GM.  Not sure I'm qualified, but it's on the to-do list anyways).

To return to the point, I feel compelled to try to run Victory By Any Means.  This is not to say that ACKS must end (though I do perceive that the second generation of PCs, Carcophan, Garwyn, and Corinth, have largely achieved their immediate adventuring objectives), but that perhaps I should run it for the rest of the semester and then look at wrapping things up and running VBAM in the spring.

Naturally, there are logistical complications (as with any operation so complex as VBAM).  Previously I've had trouble getting people to seriously considering playing VBAM, heavy a system as it (it's kind of funny, that people will chew through a couple hundred pages for an RPG, but won't read 88 for VBAM's core.  I attribute this to the fact that most of an RPG book is options for players, while most of VBAM is solidly in the Rules department).  This is especially funny when you consider the fact that among games of VBAM's sort, tabletop galactic 4X games, it's considered "pretty lightweight actually."  In any case, I think I would have a better shot at making this work if I cut out a bunch of things to make the game easier to run and easier to play, honing in the focus on things which the players consider interesting (read: building spaceships and conquering things) and ignoring or streamlining other facets.  Things I could definitely see cutting out:
  • Diplomacy.  If you have only player empires, it seems fairly viable to let PCs do as they will to each other (which should be fairly hilarious).  That's a good four pages of rules right there.  This way, you can end up with little brush wars without proper declarations of war, backstabbery, and other fun 'realistic' political things.
  • Raiding.  This is a huge pain in the butt that involves rolling d%s for lots of systems.  I'd be OK with adding Raiders to the random event table, but having them be a constant threat to every empire will pull focus away from the player-vs-player struggles.  I'd much rather see PC-backed border and shipping raiders.
  • Towing.  It's kind of a weird edge case and adds paragraphs for dubious amounts of utility.  Dunno.
What does this leave us with?  Income, construction, research, spying, supply, and space and ground combat.  Of these supply is the clear target, and fairly so, but I also think that there is a very good reason for keeping it in the game - without supply restrictions, it becomes relatively easy to blitzkrieg through enemy-held systems, circumventing well-fortified populated worlds and just making a mad dash to bombard or WMD the enemy homeworld.  Without supply, being cut off and surrounded in enemy territory is not nearly so problematic as it is in real life, because by surrounding, the enemy spreads himself thin, and given equality of forces the surrounded group should be able to punch its way out.  Supply helps counter these issues, because the surrounded unit will begin taking supply penalties and have its combat effectiveness reduced before it can break out.  Supply is enough of a pain that it could perhaps stand to be simplified, but cutting it out altogether I think would be a bad plan.

There are a few optional rules whose additions I think would enhance play.  Quick Colony Fleets, maybe Ballistics Packages, the Black Market (ideally as a place for empires to buy and sell old equipment anonymously), possibly Stealth / Concealed Movement from the core rules all seem workable and potentially beneficial.  I also know my players to be terrible gearheads and RPG players, so the prototyping, directed research, planetary facilities, and elite officers rules from the Companion also seem promising (also considering the option of permitting defeated governments to become Underworld Empires as Governments in Exile, but the jury's out on that one).  I'm loathe to set them loose on the Menagerie, but perhaps with a low point limit and a restriction on abilities affecting diplomacy (since those would be annulled).  Other than those, I guess I'm of the opinion that "If someone says 'I want to do X', and there's a rule for X in the Companion, maybe I'll make that rule available," but I don't want to bog things down initially with two dozen optional rules.

Then there are practical organizational considerations.  There are a couple of possible formats I see here:
  • Full PvP, no CM empires, either free-for-all or initially allied in one of several configurations (two large alliances against each other, one alliance against several small unallied powers, or so forth).  This has the advantage of allowing an absolutely impartial moderator, but the disadvantage of secrecy like we saw in the Starmada campaign - sitting around with laptops typing furtively is not a terribly compelling face-to-face experience.  Paired alliances could help with this; then there is less secret communication, and you really just need two rooms for plotting out loud.
  • The MoO approach - in MoO3 at least, you had a bunch of PC empires and one highly advanced, isolationist CM empire (the New Orions).  Whichever player can first conquer the CM homeworld and hold it for some period of time wins.  There's no risk of being steamrolled by the CM empire during buildup, because they're isolationist, but god help you if your first strike doesn't do the job.  This setup provides a clear victory condition, but also sets the players against each other.  They may ally initially, but those alliances will crumble in the endgame.
  • The RPG approach - Small PC empires against a large, CM empire, effectively using the Barbarians at the Gate scenario from the book.  The major concern here is lack of CM neutrality, which works fine in RPGs but is...  a little trickier in wargames.  Also puts a lot of 'load' on the server for management purposes.  It would, however, do the most to promote PC cooperation and open tabletop play.
The MoO approach does seem promising...

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