#Wargame Thoughts – On being a controlled stochastic determinist

This week I continued playtesting a wargame prototype for a fellow gamer I met at CONNECTIONS 2019. Doing so has got me thinking about wargame design. He never asked me to sign an Non-Disclosure Agreement but I am going to be cautious here and not go into too many specific details and instead talk in generalities.

By way of background, I am from the school of wargamers that generally plays to study and learn. In this respect, I am a simulationist. That said, over time I also developed a taste for games that are enjoyable to play with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. Even then, I still seek out those teaching moments but, like the Teachers Guide to 1775 Rebellion – The American Revolution from Academy Games has shown me, it does not take a “simulation” to make a game “historical” and able to deliver learning moments.

The sorta-secret wargame prototype I am playtesting attempts to recreate the lower operational-level of combat on the Western Front in World War II. Actually, it it much more generic than that. So generic that, although I see the ‘theme’ and the units in the order of battle, it could be set in World War II or the Cold War era. One major item of feedback to the designer is going to be the question: “What are you trying to wargame here?”

The designer has some interesting , even innovative, design ideas but I am not sure they are enough to make a complete game out of. I feel that the designer has focused too much on his innovative idea and forgot about the rest of the game. Maybe I am being unfair; he may be early in the design process and needs a good developer to take his game to the next level.

Another part of the design that bothers me is the designer’s use of a very deterministic combat model. In the designer’s rules-as-written, there is no random determinator (such as dice or cards) used in combat. Attacks use Strength Points (SP) to determine hits. On defense, every SP can take two hits – the first disrupts the SP and the second destroys it. The application of hits is done at the choice of the defender. If hit twice, the defender has a choice of ‘disrupting’ 2x SP (if present) or destroying a single SP. To this old grognard the designer’s approach, although simple, is just too deterministic. I want to roll a die! I want to see if that lone SP defending can defy the odds and make that heroic last stand and sell itself dearly to slow down the offense. I don’t want to play McNamara’s war and reduce combat to a simplistic accounting exercise. I am a ‘controlled stochastic’ combat modeler, not a strict determinist.

“Controlled stochastic?” That’s an oxymoron, you say! To further explain, I don’t want just to reduce everything to just a random roll of a die. A combat roll must be balanced and ‘make sense.’ In 1775 Rebellion the dice have Hit, Flee, and Command results. Regular units have a better chance to hit whereas Militia units have a higher chance of fleeing. A simple application of a stochastic element balanced by history. In this prototype, maybe artillery attacking a unit in an Open Hex scores a hit on a roll of 1-5 on a d6. Against a unit in a Rough Hex a hit may only be on a roll of 1-4 and in the Woods hits only on 1-3. Some criticize this approach as “Yahtzee combat” but to me it is a simple way to introduce the vagaries of war using controlled stochastic determinism.

Feature image: Trevor N. Dupuy, father of the Tactical Numerical Deterministic Model (TNDM) and the Quantified Judgement Model (QJM). Read about Col. Dupuy and TNDM/QJM at the Dupuy Institute.

#Boardgame Playtest – The Shores of Tripoli from @fortcircle

Thanks to Alexander and Grant over at theplayersaid.com, designer Kevin Bertram (keviny on BoardGameGeek) of Fort Circle Games (@fortcircle or fortcircle.com) came onto my radar with his game The Shores of Tripoli which is in playtest. According to the BGG entry:

The Shores of Tripoli is a card-driven war game that plays in forty-five to sixty minutes. One side takes the Americans, who try to stop the Barbary pirates and perhaps even send the Marines in to take Tripoli. The other side takes the Barbary pirates and capture as many merchant ships as possible or even take on the frigates on the American navy.

As a naval guy at heart, a game about the Barbary Wars deeply appeals to me. What appealed to me even more is the fact Kevin is offering a print-n-play playtest kit to anyone who asks. I took Kevin up on his offer and have been messing around with the game.

I have a love-hate relationship with playtesting. I love to do it, but I hate that I always seem to never have enough time to provide feedback to the designer. I try to do what I can but it never seems enough given the generosity of a designer to share their design with me before it goes primetime. Thus, I was actually a bit hesitant reaching out to Kevin for a playtest kit.

But I am glad I did.

The Shores of Tripoli is not ready for primetime, yet; but the core of what could be a very good game is there. The Fort Circle motto is, “Creating fun, easy to learn, historical board games.” What I have played so far is fun. With some rule book polish it could be easy to learn. The game looks to be a fun exploration of the lesser-known history of the period.

I owe Kevin some feedback. I have a commented version of the rules ready and I am going to send it to him. Not that my feedback is anything special. I am not a technical editor nor a game designer by training or education. But Kevin is putting his heart out there in this game and from what I have seen it’s worth my time to try and help him get this game going.

If the topic of The Shores of Tripoli appeals to you and you want to help a fellow gamer then reach out to Kevin and help him get this game out there. The topic and approach is a good fit and soon enough you may have a fun, easy to learn, historical board game on your table.


#RPGThursday – “These are the voyages….” Star Trek Adventures Starship Shakedown

The latest version of the Star Trek Adventures RPG Living Playtest from Modiphius includes Alpha Shakedown Cruise – Starship Operations v1.1. This is the first glimpse into the rules for starships in STA. Given the very prominent role starships have in the Star Trek universe these rules will likely be a major part of any adventure.

Going through the rules, several parts jump right out at me:

  • STA uses the “Ships as Characters” approach; i.e. ships are described much like characters
  • In keeping with canon sources, Power is a vital starship commodity that is limited but can also be used in support of actions
  • Crew support gives the PCs a version of an “on-call” NPC that can be used to Assist, as an Advantage, or as an Alternate PC; this is a great GM tool
  • Starship Combat has several very loose definitons (like ranges); does this empower a more narrative approach?
  • Crew Roles are an attempt to ensure that all the PCs have a role to play (i.e “share the narrative”) in starship combat
  • Power can be used in combat to create Momentum but at the risk of a Complication
  • The Attack Task may require three (3) die rolls
  • Inflicting Damage may require up to three (3) die rolls.

Mangledduk (Photobucket)
Without starship construction design rules it is hard to see how scaling will work. The lack of the rules also make some of the ship designs appear suspect. For instance, my beloved Constitution-class cruiser (for the 23rd Century missions) has a Power of 7 and Independent Phaser Power which means the phasers can’t use ship’s power for firing (and cannot be boosted with extra Power either). A 24th Century Galaxy-class starship has a Power rating of 6 although the phasers can use power, cause more damage, and have several additional attributes that the Constitution-class phasers don’t have. At first glance this seems counterintuitive; surely the Galaxy-class has far more power than an old Connie, right?

The number of rolls in combat also concerns me. When making an attack, the ship can Assist (just like a character) which is a separate die roll. Then the PC makes the Attack die roll and if successful then the System Hit table is consulted. That’s already 2-3 die rolls. THEN, to inflict damage, Challenge Dice [CD] are rolled with a possibility that another [CD] roll from Soak is needed and, if necessary, yet another [CD] roll if there was a Crew Breech hit.

The ship Assist condition is concerning, and actually reveals a deeper potential conflict from the “ship as a character” approach. The Assist Rule on p. 14 of the v1.36 states:

In combat or other situations with pressure, assisting a Task is considered to take up a character’s turn.

So, does the ship get a Turn like a character or not? This gets to a deeper question; is the ship really just a character or a tool? Reading the v1.1 Shakedown Cruise rules, it seems that the designer has firmly concluded that ships are characters and not tools. The problem is that the ruleset needs to reflect this clearly with how and when the ship acts as a character and when (or if?) it is simply used as a tool.

Playtest Example – Lexington vs. Klingon D7

To try out the rules, I ran a small scenario. The Federation starship Lexington (the 23rd Century Constitution-class from The Original Series) is investigating a colony that suddenly stopped sending messages.

As Lexington drops out of warp, Captain Moore Directs, “Science Officer, make a sensor sweep.” This lets Captain Moore Assist on the task using his Command skill. Captain Moore’s roll is a Success. Mr. Shelor, the Science Officer, attempts the Sensor Sweep. First we have to roll the Starship Assist, which ends up as a Complication (interference?) which increases the Difficulty of the Sensor Sweep to 2. Mr. Shelor (finally) makes his task roll, rolling 2d20 and getting a Success and another Complication. Given the Assist from the Captain, the Sensor Sweep (barely) detects a Klingon D7 at Long Range (2 Zones), but the GM notes the Complication makes it a poor quality sensor lock which will add +1 Difficulty to any other sensor or combat operation for the rest of this turn.

The Klingon D7 gets their first of three actions this turn. The GM spends one Threat in place of Power and Warps the ship two zones, or into Close Range (0 Zones).

At a glance from the Captain, Lt. Niemec, the Communications Officer, Opens Hailing Frequencies. Maybe the Klingons just want to talk! Once again the ship can Assist, and rolls a 1 on 1d20 adding two Successes. Lt Niemec’s task roll of 2d20 gives her two more Successes which translates into Success with three Momentum. The channel to the Klingons is open. Lt Niemec decides to immediately spend one Momentum to Obtain Information. Stating the channel is open but the Klingons are apparently unaware, the question asked is, “Are the Klingons going to shoot?” The GM truthfully answers, “Yes.” With two Momentum left, Lt. Niemec could Keep the Initiative and pass the action to the Navigator for a Tactical event (i.e. firing) but knowing the Federation would never fire first, instead adds the two remaining Momentum to the Momentum Pool. The GM rewards Lt. Niemec with a point of Determination as she has upheld the values of the Federation in the face of a sure threat.

The Klingon D7 acts as expected and Fires Weapon. The D7 fires their Disruptor Cannon. Given the range (Close) the Difficulty is 2 (actually it is Difficulty 1 but since this is the second action by the D7 this turn the Difficulty is at +1). The Klingon Weapons Officer gets lucky and scores two Successes getting a Hit. Rolling on the System Hit table, the damaged system is the Lexington’s engines. Disruptor Cannons roll 7 Challenge Dice [CD] for Damage and thanks to their Vicious quality each Effect is an extra point of damage. The [CD] roll is 3, 4, 5, 6, 6, 6, 6 (wow!) for 5 Damage and 5 Effect or a total of 10 Damage! The Lexington’s Soak value of 3 reduces this to 7 Damage. This reduces the Shields from 10 to three and causes a Breech against the Lexington’s communications systems, adding +1 Difficulty to all future tasks involving that system.

Captain86 (DeviantArt)
Having been fired upon, Lt. Cmndr. Varg at Navigation makes a Tactical action and fires the Lexington’s Phaser Array. This is usually a Difficulty 1 task but remember the bad sensor sweep makes this Difficulty 2. Once again the ship can Assist and gets a Success. Lt. Cmndr. Varg decides to use one Momentum from the Momentum Pool and rolls 3d20, getting Success with Momentum (two Momentum counting the extra Success from the ship). Since the Lexington’s Phaser Array is Versatile, two extra Momentum are added from the Success for a total of four Momentum. The System Hit is Structure. As Lt. Cmndr. Varg prepares to roll the 6 [CD] for damage, he declares that he will use one Momentum point to make the hit a Penetrating hit which will ignore two Soak. The [CD] are 2, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6 for 4 Damage with two Effect. This is a horrible roll, so Varg spends another Momentum to reroll the two 3’s and the 4. The new [CD] roll is 1, 2, 5, 5, 6, 6 for 7 Damage with four Effect. A single Soak reduces this to six Damage against the shields (from 9 to 3) and a Breech against the D7 Structure. The Breech reduces shields to 0, life support is failing and the ship is crippled.

The D7 crew immediately tries to repair the Structure. This would usually be a Difficulty 1 task because of the single Breech, but given this is the third action this turn it is attempted at +2 Difficulty. The GM spends a Threat to add an extra d20, but the task attempt fails. The GM immediately spends his last two Threat for another action and announces the  D7 self destructs.

As the Lexington spends the next few hours rebuilding the damaged communications system, questions remain. Why were the Klingons here? What were they doing? What was so important they would die for?

As you can hopefully see, there is much “roll-playing” and not so much “role-playing” in the above example. It continues to appear that the rules of STA favor mechanics over narrative play.

Star Trek Adventures – Alpha Shakedown Cruise Starship Operations v1.1, ™ and ©2016

Star Trek Adventures – Alpha Shakedown Cruise v1.36, ™ and © 2016

#StarTrekAdventures – Hailing Frequency (Re)Open

Last week I wrote about how I seemingly had dropped off the Star Trek Adventures RPG Living Playtest email (err….”Datapad”) distribution. A few days later, I was hailed by Chris Birch of Modiphius and sent the latest playtest documents. I really appreciate the gesture as after my snarky comments I could totally understand not ever hearing from the playtest again.

Datapad courtesy Memory Alpha

This weekend I went ahead and reviewed the v1.36 rules. I must admit they are better than the earlier version. Some of my earlier concerns have been dealt with, others remain, and a few new ones were introduced:

  • Without the character generation rules it is difficult for me to see the difference of Values and Traits
  • I am concerned that there could be too many rolls involved, like when Assisting the assisting PC makes a full Task roll followed by the action PC making another full Task roll
  • Advantages, Complications, Determination, Momentum and Threat all seem to be coming together and mechanically (and narratively) balancing each other
  • The rules seem schizophrenic on whether it is the GM or players who make certain calls; please pick one direction and go with it!

The Alpha Rules for starships were also included in this release. Ships are played like characters with many of the same rules. I first experienced this approach to starships in RPGs with the Cortex Classic Battlestar Galactica RPG (though I now know it was done earlier than that). The rules seem to work, though without ship design rules its hard to envision how ships will scale against each other. I have hope that I can do my Vanguard setting; the Original Series Constitution-class cruiser is “Size 3” whereas the Next Generation Galaxy-class is “Size 4.”

This version of Star Trek Adventures has improved enough over the first one to renew my interest. In this next week I will dig into the rules a bit deeper and try to get a playtest session going.

#StarTrekAdventures – Playtest loss of comms

Courtesy the-gadgeteer.com

In late 2016 I signed up and participated in the Modiphius playtest of their new 2d20 System Star Trek Adventures RPG. I even expressed some of my earliest thoughts here. When given the chance, I submitted feedback through the online survey since that appeared to be a condition of continued playtesting (a condition I agree with…give feedback to keep the privilege of continued access to playtest materials).

Having not seen anything for a while, I went poking around the Modiphius forums to see what was new. Apparently the v1.3 playtest rules were released on-or-about January 16. I don’t recall seeing it, so I checked my email junk and trash folders to make sure it didn’t get routed to the wrong place.

Nothing found.

Did I accidentally get left off? I admit my feedback was not totally positive, but I was still interested in trying more.

Notice the word “was.”

Modiphius probably just made an innocent mistake, but by doing so they forced me to reconsider my involvement in the playtest program. Do I reach out to Modiphius and ask (pretty please) to be put back on distro? Or do I let it go?

Upon further consideration, I am fine that I got dropped off. The new Star Trek Adventures was not capturing my imagination to any great degree. Indeed, recent releases from Stellagama and Gypsy Knights Games supporting play using the Cepheus Engine/Classic 2d6 Sci-Fi is much more interesting to me. I also have my ongoing occasional Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Edge of the Empire RPG campaign to consider. I could make some excuse about having “limited bandwidth” to play RPGs but the reality is the 2d20 System just doesn’t draw me in.

Bottom Line: It actually doesn’t bother me that I dropped from the playtest because I ain’t gonna miss Star Trek Adventures. I wish Modiphius the best of luck because the hobby needs quality publishers.

Playtest Update – Mongoose Traveller 2nd Edition (Public Beta)

The Mongoose Traveller 2nd Edition RPG playtest continues. Sometime in September Mongoose rolled out a “September Revision” for download. I actually didn’t find it until this weekend; after an initial spurt of dedication I rolled back on my playtest efforts. This weekend I “reengaged” a bit.

To Mongoose’s credit, many of my initial issues have already been cleaned up. “Traveller Creation” has been cleaned up with missing parts (like Commission rolls) showing up. For me, the “Skills and Tasks” chapter is the one I focused on before and I am happy to see many of my issues with the Boon & Bane mechanic were addressed. Maybe too well addressed; whereas the first draft used Boon & Bane (too) liberally this draft has the mechanic present, but little guidance on HOW to use it. With Boon & Bane being replaced in many places by die modifiers the “Combat” and “Encounters & Dangers” chapters are cleaner. “Equipment” is equipment; with the release of Central Supply Catalogue (CSC) (in a word document only) lots needs to be cross-checked. “Vehicles” has a dogfight rule which, although great in concept, suffers from total unrealism (both combatants must be within 1 km to initiate a dogfight). I still need to dig deeper in the “Psionics” and “Trade” chapters.

My greatest disappointment remains the “Spacecraft Operations” and “Space Combat” chapters. Without the publication High Guard (coming soon to another word document) for spacecraft there is actually little that can be done. At this point, to do a real playtest of spacecraft combat I must make more-than-a-few assumptions based on what I know of Mongoose Traveller 1st Edition as well as Classic Traveller. In my opinion, this is a MAJOR FOUL for a core book. I strongly believe the CORE RULES should be able to stand on their own – these don’t. I also have doubts as to the marketing strategy for the 2nd Edition, i.e. to be useful a player will have to buy BOTH the 2nd Edition Core Rule Book AND High Guard. Good for Mongoose; bad for my wallet.