Briefing for megagames, what to include and why

Game Handbook

This is a collection of all the common information about the game, along the lines discussed above. It is intended to be given to all participants and the following are generally included:

  • The main assumptions underpinning how the game will go. Some of these might be very general, some very explicit. So, in an operational megagame you might give some information on what you think are the key combat assumptions – maybe that the game assumes that tanks are really ineffective in built-up areas, or that infantry attacks unsupported by artillery are very likely to fail. In a political game you might outline the limits the players are working under – for example you might explain that even though the player is playing the role of President, she might not have absolute power and will need to remember the importance of keeping the electorate happy.
  • A brief summary of the thematic background to the game – time, place, circumstances at the start of the game. If this is a lot (as it might be for an SF or Fantasy game) it can be worth creating a separate background briefing, or point to some really good material online.
  • A description of the main teams and player roles and how they are supposed to interact with each other. You might think this is obvious – and in some cases it might be, but not everyone will be as well read on the background to the megagame as you, as the designer, will be. Don’t be afraid to state the obvious.
  • The timetable for the day. This might not be in the game handbook, but you will certainly need to be clear when the day starts and how the day will be structured.
  • The timescales – how long each part of the game will take, what it represents in real life. So you might say, for example, that each ‘game turn’ represents 4 days of real time, and will take 30 minutes to resolve. Sometimes a more explicit timetable will be helpful, giving start and end times.
  • Guidance on how to play. Including the mood you want to set. This might contain cultural guidance to set the scene for the game. If there are lots of new players it might contain more general guidance on the megagame experience and what to expect.
  • Descriptions of the important game components, the game rules and those parts of the game system that the player will be expecting to interact with. This might not be all the rules, there might be separate playsheets available on the day in the case of very simple rulesets. And of course there may be special rules that only the control team know about.
  • Include a map of the venue layout so that players have a sense of where they need to go when they arrive, and where the other player teams are in the venue.

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Game rules

Not every megagame shares all the game rules and mechanisms with the players, but where it does, these should be explained, ideally with worked examples.
Personally I hate writing the worked examples, but participants tell us they find them really helpful and are really essential, especially for a new game.
I will talk more about the detail of writing game mechanisms and rules another time.

Historical or Scenario Background

Personally I prefer to avoid long historical articles within the game materials, partly out of a wish to keep things simple and also to keep the situation open for players. Too much emphasis on historical prototypes can lead players to mistake the game for a re-enactment and rely too heavily on hindsight than is entirely good for them. A megagame is not a re-enactment. It is an exercise in emerging gameplay and player interaction built around a theme. The game designer sets of the pre-conditions mut has little or no control over the game narrative – that is the job of the players. So a game in an historical or very well known fictional environment does not, should not, and cannot expect to, replicate the events of history or the fictional prototype.
Sometimes a game will have a wealth of background detail that, if included in the Game Handbook would make it large and unmanageable. In the past separate briefings have been used for things like a Gazetteer of places in the game, or a summary of demographic, political and geographical data. Generally this is seen as an optional reference document – though it is worth considering whether such a briefing is necessary if it not going to be used widely in the game. Many players can become overwhelmed by too much briefing material so it is important to find a balance between accessibility and completeness.

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Team Briefings

These contain information specific to the player teams. It is important to ensure that different teams have different information, perhaps a different perspective on the situation and that these perspectives are not always clear to the other teams.
So in a game about a zombie apocalypse, the Police team briefing might focus on protecting the uninfected whilst at the same time ensuring important parts of the city are not infested, whereas the National Guard are focusses on destroying zombies and are unconcerned with civilian ‘collateral’ casualties or the impact of property damage. In a megagame the tensions between team (or player) perspectives is a very important driver of player interaction.

In some cases the differences and distinctions are obvious and know to all. For example, in a megagame about World War 2 everyone would be aware that there are important idealogical differences between the USA, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
In addition to something about the team or player’s attitudes and perspectives, there is often important game information to found in the team briefing.

In an operational megagame, for example this might include:

  • the detailed order of battle of the team’s forces (something that their enemy would not have in anything other than outline)
  • intelligence summary of what is known about enemy forces and their location.
  • Information on the overall command structure and how the team fits into it.
    overall instructions from High Command – the objectives of the team in the game.

In a political game it might include:

  • secret agendas – things the player team is planning that nobody knows about.
    unique information – perhaps some information on the resources or intentions of other teams
  • obvious team objectives, such as ‘get re-elected’ or ‘gain more money than another team’.
  • likes and dislikes. This is very helpful in political games, especially when they theme is not very familiar to the players. Examples: “The Communists are evil and cannot be negotiated with”. “The English can never be trusted”. “President Faart of Silvania is an old friend and a thoroughly splendid fellow”.

The content of the team or player briefing is highly dependent on the game, of course, but there are some things that are useful in all briefings:

  • Thematic background (where needed)
  • Who they are and how they got to be here.
  • Team objectives. These need to be written carefully and should be realistic and achievable. Generally have at least three objectives (more if possible) and at least one of them must be easily achievable.
  • Humour helps too if you can manage it.

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Personal Briefings

In some games, individual players might have their own, personalised brief for the role they are playing. This is especially common in games with a high role-playing element. These briefings will usually have some very specialised objectives, as well as items of information known only to that one player. The principles discussed above apply here too. However, it is important when developing multiple personal briefings to make sure they are internally and externally consistent. A simple example would be if a player briefing says “Your nemesis is Professor Peabody” then Professor Peabody’s briefing should mention the fact too. Or if some key bit of information such as “You have learnt that the political activist Dave Spart is being held in Police HQ” is matched with information on Dave Spart and his whereabouts in the Police briefing. It is easy to miss these things. I have found that using tools like spreadsheets can be very useful in collating and cross-checking player briefing information, as a planning tool before writing starts.

Control Briefing

This will usually contain guidance to Control from the Game Designer on how the game is envisioned, as well as game mechanisms and rules that are opaque to the players.
In this briefing one might include

  • description of the different types of control team member with a short ‘job description’ and an outline of how they interact with players and the other control team members.
  • special rules that only control know about.
  • (where the control team is inexperienced) advice on ‘how to be control’
  • key points of pressure in the game, or areas you think might prove difficult for players with advice on how the game designer want that to be handled.
  • errata, corrections or additional explanations that didn’t make their way into the game handbook.

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Victory, Defeat and Endings

One of the things that does not feature in our megagame briefings are explicit victory or win conditions.
Many people comment on the absence of victory points (or similar) from megagames.
This is a common mechanism in board games and wargames and it intended to tell people who ‘won’ at the end.

Of course with a megagame there are no winners and losers – such an idea would be absurd in a game with 100 participants all aiming to create and emerging gameplay narrative. ‘Winning’ in meaningless outside the broader framework of general objectives and role motivations. And megagames aim, to a greater or lesser extent, to contain an element of consistent real world ‘feel’. Whether that real world is 21st Century Earth or a far distant space colony of the future. And in real worlds nobody counts up the points to see who ‘won’ at the end.

As a megagame designer, the objectives go wider. The designer is creating an entertainment for an audience. How would you feel if, at the end of watching a movie, the movie theatre owner announced that the audience member in Row G, Seat 10 had ‘won the movie’ on points. Telling the majority of players in the game at the end of a day of intense, immersive gameplay that they had ‘lost’ and someone else had ‘won’ because of their arbitrary collection of victory points does not, and cannot, ever feel like any meaningful reflection of the day’s experience.  The person who ‘won the megagame’ might feel good – but what about the 99 who ‘lost’?

Of course for abstract ‘mere games’ this is not a problem, and I will write more in a later post on how all megagames that are in any way a simulation of meaningful interaction must, by definition, contain an element of role playing.

There is another, very practical objection to victory points and that is their strong encouragement of rules-based metagaming. Players look at what earns them points, rather than using their imaginations and the megagame’s context and themes to expand the narrative of the game. Meta-gaming is the enemy of good megagaming. And in any case unless the victory point schedule is exceptionally well crafted they also tend to lead to unintended outcomes – player doing things utterly inconsistent with the theme and narrative in order to maximise victory points through some loophole in the tariff. This has massive negative effects on other players. Creating a coherent and stable VP system that does not encourage aberrant behaviours is hard enough in a six-player board game – it is orders of magnitude more difficult in a 50 player megagame, even if it were desirable.

NEXT WEEK : Being Control

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