Saturday, November 26, 2011

VBAM Aliens Follow-Up

So instead of doing homework for the last couple days, I've been working on some balanced, trope-based races for Victory By Any Means.  Here's what I've got so far:

  • Adaptable - Raises carrying capacity of all owned planets by 20%
  • Fast Gestation - Check for population growth every 6 turns rather than 12
  • Hive Mind - +20% construction capacity, but limited to Collective governments
  • Incomprehensible Language - All treaties have a 50% chance of failure
  • Subterranean - Increases dug-in bonus when defending, halves enemy bombardment points when bombarding owned planets
  • Stalwart Defenders - Each owned planet generates militia units to defend it when invaded.
These guys are very good at filling planets with population and at holding on to worlds, but quite bad at diplomacy.  Tactically, they have no particular strengths or weaknesses.  Collective government is pretty strong (+intel defense, +construction capacity, immune to morale, -science, no elite officers), but in a game with elite officers, that penalty is actually a penalty.  Basically, they're all about the macro advantage afforded by high population.  I'm sad that I didn't find a way to work in the "nomnomnom" aspect of the trope - perhaps a special trait that increases EP yields from eating civilians and/or liquidating infrastructure is in order.  I'm also kind of considering building a trait that gives all this race's ships the Biological special ability from the CMC; not sure whether this should also increase maintenance costs of their units, but I don't know by how much.

  • Advanced Weaponry - +1 Anti-Ship and Anti-Fighter on naval vessels, +1 attack and defense on ground units, +5% military maintenance
  • Environmental Tolerance - +2 carrying capacity on all owned worlds, 10% discount on infrastructure purchases
  • Predictable - -1 penalty to surprise rolls in space combat
  • Robotic - No natural population growth, can artificially build census, 1/3 maintenance on census, +20% construction capacity, Collective governments only, lower difficulty for stealing tech
  • Superiority Complex - Until roll a 10 on 1d10, cannot conduct diplomacy with newly-met empire.  Roll each month; declarations of war and hostility unaffected.
Very similar on a holistic level to the bugs - definitely have a macro advantage for booming econ between being able to control population growth and the discount on infrastructure, but bad at diplomacy.  While the bugs have strong defense, the bots have strong offense, but suffer from high maintenance costs (both on military units and on their own populace), and since robotic census is pretty expensive, you're paying economically for your versatility.  I'm most worried about balance on these guys, but I think I hit the main themes of the trope well.

  • Combat Respect - Treaties with any given power have a 25% chance of failure until you've met their forces in battle
  • Honorable - All bonuses and penalties to breaking treaties are doubled
  • Maneuverable Ships - Increased control over scenario length
  • Martial Prowess - All owned ground units gain +1 to attack, attrition, and d-factor
  • Poor Spies - One point of intel per intel mission is 'lost' and generates no benefit 
  • Professional Armies - Ground unit maintenance costs are reduced, and military elite officer XP costs receive a 10% discount
  • Skilled Commanders - All owned naval units gain +10% command rating
  • Warmonger - +20% bonus to declaring war, 15% chance to refuse any off of armistice
In stark contrast to the bugs and the bots, the noble savages have basically no macro advantages, but are very strong in combat, both in space and on the ground.  They're bad at spying, but OK for defense against spies, and suffer from some diplomatic restrictions.  They're mighty good at declaring war, though...  Also, while the bugs and the bots are restricted to Collective governments, the Savages can choose any flavor of government they like (Military Meritocracy, for example).  As far as the tropes go, I probably could cut out some of the naval bonuses, but they're rather nice.

  • Corrupt - -5% GDP, easier for underworld empires to gain power in owned systems
  • Cunning - +1 bonus to surprise rolls in space combat
  • Elite Diplomats - 10 free intel points per turn which can only be used for diplomatic purposes, and elite diplomat XP costs gain a 30% discount
  • Sabotage Experts - All sabotage missions gain 1 point of free intel
  • Shapeshifters - -25% to failure rate of intel missions, but enemies gain a +15% bonus to break treaties
  • Slow Gestation - Check for population growth every 18 months rather than every 12
  • Sneaky - Reduce the length of pursuit scenarios by 1 turn, pursuer must use one fewer squadron, -10% to chance of being discovered if using stealthy movement
The puppeteers have some serious macro penalties, but gain excellent spies, excellent diplomacy (not only no restrictions like the previous three races suffer from, but bonus intel for diplomacy), and a few tricky tactical bonuses to space combat.  Not a race for a stand-up slugging match, but in a 5-person game, a little plausible deniability could go a long way.  I'm a bit concerned that they might be underpowered, but that's something only playtesting will tell.  I considered the Telepathic and Espionage Expert traits, but I'm not sure hidden forces will be a thing, since we're going to be playing face-to-face / board game style.  If playing by PBeM, substitute Espionage Experts for Sabotage Experts to taste.  There's also no 'dark X' side of the coin here, but I'm pretty OK with that.  Elsewise, hits the tropes fairly well.

  • Efficient Operatives - Maintenance on Intel points if 1/12 rather than 1/10
  • Expert Scientists - -5% to tech investment threshold
  • Friendly - Other powers take -15% to break treaties with this power, -10% to declare war against
  • Gifted Negotiators - 3 free intel points per turn for diplomacy only
  • Logistics Experts - Supply range of 3 starlanes instead of 2
  • Mercantile - +20% commerce income
  • Open Society - All intel missions against this power are at -1 difficulty
  • Unprofessional Armies - Ground unit maintenance increased by 1 per denominator
The merchants are kind of a happy middle ground.  They've got some economic stuff going for them in terms of EP generation, which serves similarly to the macro advantage of the bugs and the bots, but they also have small diplomatic bonuses and a choice of governments.  They have the strategic advantage of long supply lines, but suffer from weak defense against spies and from expensive ground units (justified as having to pay mercenaries).  Think the Italian states of the Renaissance period.  I'm concerned that, as with generalists in many games, the merchants will get stomped by specialists (namely everybody else).  It would be possible to specialize them further, but I'm not sure trade / civilian fleets / supply are a particularly strong thing to specialize in.  Also weird is that they kind of have two cross-purpose traits - Efficient Operatives makes it cheaper to hold on to lots of defensive intel, which is then rendered less effective by Open Society.  Not entirely happy with that; could swap Efficient Operatives for another 'spy' trait of the same price to put a particular spin on them.  Mission Specialist: Assassinate Officer significantly changes the way the race feels, for example, from a bunch of merchants to a race of mercenaries, while Insurgency Specialist puts a more social / cultural powerhouse spin on things (a bit more like modern Japan, perhaps).

So, that's what I've got.  In a five-player match, one of each species, I'm really not sure how things would roll out.  I think the puppeteers and bugs would get along great, as the 10 points of free diplomatic intel can be used to counter the language barrier, allowing treaties with no chance of failure.  This leaves the savages, the bots, and the merchants to kind of hack things out amongst themselves...  That could go quite poorly for the merchants, leading to possibly a "Poland between Germany and Russia in World War 2" situation, or to a small, staged engagement between the merchants and the savages in order to satisfy the savages' combat respect and allow an alliance with the machines...  Really depends on the players, there, and possibly on the order of contact between species.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

VBAM, Aliens, and Traveller

So I've been reading lots of VBAM source, and came across some interesting options between the Campaign Moderator's Guide and the Menagerie.  First, from the Menagerie, custom alien races built on a point-buy system.  I really like the idea of differing alien races, but the issue is that as we saw in Starmada, when you let players customize all of their stuff, you end up with some players having very broken things and some with relatively weak things.  This is pretty OK in RPGs where all the players are working together, but much more problematic in more competitive / PvP games like VBAM.  Thus, I would like to design a set of kind of 'canonical' races which are 1) fairly balanced against each other and 2) ideally representative of standard tropes in science fiction, in the same way that humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, and half-orcs more-or-less represent standard tropes for fantasy demi-humans.  To this end, I've been trying to figure out what those standard tropes are.  Here's what I've got so far, along with examples (I have more examples on a whiteboard at home, but I'm out of town currently, so these lists are not complete):
  • The Bugs - Just what it says on the tin.  They will eat you in the most painful way possible, often with lots of body horror.  Typically can't be communicated with, often have a hive mind.  Examples include the critters from Alien (and their descendants, the Tyranids and the Zerg), things from the Cthulhu mythos, the Vong from Star Wars, the Ithkul / Harvesters from Master of Orion, and the Shadows from B5.  The bugs from Starship Troopers and Ender's Game fall here to some degree, but not perfectly - they're not using people as a growth medium.  Infiltrators, along the lines of 40k's Genestealer cults or Duran from Starcraft, are not unheard of for the bugs, so their Intel probably shouldn't be terrible.  Oh, and they breed like maggots.  They often waste lots of bugpower just to run their enemies out of ammunition, though, so that might need to be modeled...
  • The Scary Robots - Again, a straightforward name.  The Borg, the Drakk from Unreal, the machines from the Matrix, the Cybrids from Starsiege, and the Necrons of 40k all clearly land here.  Additionally, when we look at the psychological workings of these species, we tend to see relentless efficiency combined with a superiority complex.  When we look at it this way, we can also add a number of humanoid societies here, such as the Peacekeepers of Farscape and the Imperium in Star Wars.  Unlike the Bugs, in general people aren't useful to the 'bots in a biological sense - "Exterminate, annihilate, destroy" is the motto, or at best "Domesticate the inferior fleshy creatures", rather than "We will lay our eggs in your spleeeens".  The Scary Robots can often be communicated with, but most of the time they don't care what you have to say (meatbag).  Spying is something they often neglect, due both to their overconfidence and their issues communicating with lesser species.  Some 'religious zealot' cultures may also fall here.
  • The Noble Savages - Warrior cultures, typically with some sense of honor.  Canonical examples include the Niven's Kzin (and their Aslan successors from Traveller), the TNG Klingons, the Luxans of Farscape, the Wookies from Star Wars, possibly the Skaarj of Unreal, and, to take things perhaps a little far, maybe even the Orks of 40k.  The distinguishing rule here is "If you challenge one of these guys to single combat, will they play fair?"  These aliens often lack respect for non-warrior cultures, which they see as soft and decadent, but can come to respect other powers who have proven themselves on the field of battle.  They tend to disdain spies and diplomats, but often breed quickly and are excellent individual combatants, though sometimes poor tacticians.
  • The Puppeteers - Taking their name from Niven's Pierson's Puppeteers, these aliens manipulate other species, time, and space in order to get what they want.  They tend to be introspective, and may also be psychic.  In addition to Niven, the Eldar of 40k provide a good example.  Star Trek's Vulcans also fall here, as well as the Protoss, and the Delvians of Farscape.  One interesting note is that most puppeteer species seem to have a dark side; the Eldar have the Dark Eldar, the Vulcans have the Romulans, and the Protoss have the Dark Templar.  This suggests that the Jedi / Sith duality might also fit in here.  Puppeteers are generally fully open to communication from other species...  but they're likely to get the better end of the deal.  These guys probably also have excellent spies / good intel - it models the "Farseer" aspect nicely.  However, these species also tend to breed slowly, and may be susceptible to corrupting influences, as with the Eldar and the grasp of Slaanesh.
  • The Unscrupulous Merchants - It's said that money makes the galaxy go 'round, and the Merchants are out to make sure it turns their way.  Example species include the Hutts, the Bothans, the Ferengi, the Hynerians from Farscape, and the Bentusi of Homeworld.  While these may seem initially similar to the Puppeteer species, the difference lies partially in the means by which they operate - no supernatural powers here, and while the Puppeteers are likely to have massive, century-long and galaxy-spanning plots backed by prophecies, the Merchants tend to think on much shorter scales and have more modest aims.  They're also very open to negotiation, and are probably decent at Intel; sometimes corporate sabotage is the right tool for the job.  Not particularly warlike or adept at the art of conquest, though very likely to cohabit space with other species.  'Pirate' species might fit here too, just by the cohabitation condition; I feel like Traveller's Vargr are likely here, though Homeworld's similarly-named Vaygr are probably  Savages.
So those are the five archetypes I've identified so far, in addition to vanilla Humans; I've got a couple square feet of mappings of species to categories back home, but this is all I have for now.  So the next step is to develop a mapping from these classifications to VBAM Menagerie traits, and to balance them (update here).

The second topic of interest is the Elite Officer rules in the Moderator's Companion.  These feel like something which could be integrated with an RPG (say...  Traveller) to great effect, which led me to the idea of running a combined VBAM and Traveller game in the same universe at the same game-time.  Probably the best way to run this would be to have one set of players, each of which runs both an empire on a galactic scale and a single character in the crew of a small, Travelling ship.  This creates some really interesting metagame issues, but frees the CM (moi) from having to come up with an over-arching plot, since galactic events will likely be decided by the agendas of the various player-run empires.  Further, since a turn of VBAM is nominally a month of game-time, and the standard unit of time in Traveller is a week, this gives about four Traveller operations per VBAM operation, which would keep the game Traveller-centric, but allow things to unfold on a galactic scale.  Having the second, longer-term game in place also frees up the Traveller characters to do long-term things that they normally wouldn't consider, like spending lots of time training, doing research, or in jail.  On the flip side, given rules for translating Traveller and VBAM Elite Officer statistics, it would become possible for Traveller characters to influence events on a galactic scale as well.  So it'd be a very, very interesting way to run a game, and quite possibly worth the little bit of extra paperwork that it would generate.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Belated OSRIC Playtest Report

So, I ran OSRIC about a week and a half ago now.  It went...  interestingly.  We had 6 players, all from a mostly 3.x background as far as D&D goes, with one having played AD&D at some point, one with Baldur's Gate experience, and one with Nethack experience.  Character generation took a looong time - about two hours.  The issue there was primarily a focus on all the effects of every choice made; "what makes a fighter different from a ranger?", "Can I assign my scores in a way that will let me play a gnome illusionist?", and "What do all of these table entries for ability scores mean?"  We ended up with a half-orc cleric, a human ranger, a half-orc assassin / fighter multiclass, an elf assassin, an elf fighter, and a half-elf MU, I believe.  In retrospect, I really see where the "roll-in-order" rules would've been really practical - such a rule would have greatly narrowed the decision space for the players (by a factor of at least 6 factorial, plus limitations due to racial and class ability score requirements).  Gear went pretty swiftly, thanks in large part to BtBG's adventuring kits, which left the PCs to choose weapons, armor, and hirelings (and chalk.  Lots of chalk).

Having gathered their many porters, the PCs set out for the Deephalls north of Ironbridge.  They arrived, and tracked a party of berserkers who had been out hunting into the dungeon.  The berserkers engaged them, but were slain to a man.  The two assassins scouted ahead, finding first bats, then a pair of rust monsters.  Having never deployed rust monsters before (but having rolled them on the inhabitants table), the looks of sheer horror on the faces of the players were...  pretty priceless, actually.  They managed to block off that part of the dungeon, and turned their exploration in other directions, where they found giant spiders and beetles.  Highlights of this part: the half-orc assassin was poisoned, then told that poison was save-or-die.  He made his save, and his response was "Oh!  That was exciting!"  There's just something about mortal peril that makes life a little sweeter when it continues...  They found their first real treasure webbed up by the spiders, in a trapped stone chest containing a mix of gold and copper pieces.  The assassins went scouting again, with the (still-injured) half-orc failing at his Hide in Shadows and being gored by a pair of giant fire beetles, putting him at -7, but not before he assassinated one of them.  The rest of the party came to his aid, however, and he survived, but had to be carried out of the dungeon.  They found their second treasure in a pile of beetle dung, consisting of a mixture of electrum and silver pieces, but that was where we ended the session - the half-orc's going to be out of action for a week or so, and the rest of the party considered pushing forward without him, but decided against it.  This decision was complicated by the elf fighter, who had rolled lower ability scores than the rest of the party and is out to get them due to envy.

So, mechanically, the game went pretty OK, mostly...  it was very assassin-and-fighter focused, with the cleric and the MU doing very little.  That this changes at higher levels was no consolation to the caster players, who were greatly disappointed with the system.  The assassin players both seemed up to play again, as did the ranger.  The elf fighter was initially offput by his low scores and remained as a 'rearguard' for most of the combats, but later mentioned that he was interested in playing again, if only for the party conflict RP angle.  He also mentioned hirelings as greatly appealing.  So, I'm calling it a reasonable success; 66% of participants responded positively.  As a result, I'm keeping the dungeon around and will restock the parts they cleared out.  I should probably also design level 2 at some point, but they seem unlikely to find a way down any time soon.

Unfortunately, I've become distracted by Victory by Any Means.  It looks like to scratch my Master of Orion and Fields of Blood itches, if I can find time and players...  Maybe I'll get to test it out over winterbreak.