Roleplaying, Negotiation, Death and Nukes

It is a common enough trope in megagames that if nukes are available then someone will either want to get their hands on one, or fire one off. In games where assassination is possible someone always wants to do an assassination. Even when assassination isn’t possible, practical or realistic, someone always wants to conduct an assassination.

And, of course, this is entirely reasonable in many ways. Megagames are games. In being games they naturally encourage playfulness. A game designer offers players a sandbox in which they can act out all sorts of extreme options that perhaps wouldn’t happen in real life, and with no real life consequences – nobody actually dies. Playing in the purest sense.

Those who view the megagame as essentially a realistic simulation of ‘real life’ (or at least containing some semblance of what we think of as real life) sometimes find extreme player behaviours frustrating, annoying even, as they are not ‘playing the game properly’. That is, not constraining their actions to those seen to be within the ‘arc of believability’ around the game.

This is an entirely reasonable expectation. If one were running a megagame set in a historical period, say Napoleon’s campaigns in Germany in 1813, you would expect players to act within the doctrine, attitudes and belief systems of the time. Anachronistic behaviours on the player’s part would spoil what we call the ‘duty to history’ and result in a game that felt nothing like the period piece it was intended to be. But the line is thin. Back in the ’90s, Brian Cameron and I ran a game on this subject and in that game the Austrian Emperor made a separate peace with Napoleon halfway through the game. This was playfulness, because as Emperor he could choose to do pretty much what he liked. Foolish, but not historically unprecedented. But this was a disaster for the other Allies, and for the game, because without a united alliance facing them Napoleon’s armies were unbeatable. The game stopped at 2pm.

Lesson learnt – that not all playfulness can be allowed in a megagame. Players are encouraged to have a free hand, but Control must say ‘no’ not only to the outrageous and the impossible but also to actions destructive to the game and that might reduce or diminish the experience of all the other players.

So this brings me on to the allowability of death and assassination.

From time to time players come to me at games and say “…he is being really annoying and so how can I assassinate him?”.

There are different answers, depending on the game and situation. It might be simple “Just roll a six” or “Do you have an assassination card?”. It might be more complex but still possible, in game – perhaps the player coming up with a complex deployment of special forces, or an elaborate poisoning plan.

Or, the answer might be a flat “you can’t”.

The important point here is not the methods or possibility of assassination but the motivation behind the question. Why is player behaviour – “..being really annoying…” such that the only solution is to assassinate the player character? And this influences whether control should encourage or discourage assassination as an aspect of emerging gameplay.

What is really going on here? I see a number of possibilities. It might be that the player in question is being obnoxious in character, and the assassination is entirely game-relevant (or even part of the game design). In this case, events simply take their course.

It might be that the player in question is being personally obnoxious. This is an issue for game control. Assassination isn’t the answer because the issue is about out of character behaviour. Game Control needs to intervene to explain acceptable standards to the player who is being obnoxious. Dealing with the obnoxious is an entirely separate (and complex) subject.

However, in my experience it is most often the case that the player in question is blocking some action that the would-be assassin wants to happen. This is important because the issue here is about how players negotiate and engage with the game. And many players, particularly those inexperienced in both megagames and negotiation see a ‘kinetic negotiation’ as the simplest way forward. This might not be an assassination. It might be launching nukes, or starting a war.

This is understandable, but in resorting to simplistic violent actions the players are missing out on a very rich and satisfying seam of megagame gameplay, namely, successful negotiation.

So what can a player do when another player is standing in their way and refusing to cooperate?

Here are some hints:

  • Never take refusal at face value. They may only be refusing as a starting position.

  • Find out what they do want. Most players or teams have their own objectives. In a well designed megagame these will be multi-layered. You might be able to get them to to do some of what you want in return for your support with something else. Rarely are megagame objectives binary or zero-sum. There is nearly always some lever, and the competent player will seek to understand what these are and use them.

  • Bring pressure to bear via other teams. They might block you alone, but if more players or teams keep pushing they may have to change their position. Forming temporary coalitions to achieve something. Or another team might have what they want, and you can work through a third party.

  • Be prepared to give something without return. Be prepared to be generous. Sometimes other teams intransigence is a mirror of your own intransigence. It is surprising how making the first step creates a more open atmosphere in negotiations. If you block and ‘play hard-ball’ do not be surprised to find everyone else treats you the same way. Just saying ‘give me what I want’ repeatedly is not a negotiation tactic.

  • Be nice. Yes, really. Smile, make a joke, be cheerful. I know it sounds cheesy but this is a tried and tested way of getting people on your side, even if they don’t agree or can’t (or won’t) help you. And this is just a game – belittling people or being an arse isn’t fun.

  • Openness and honesty works too. There is a school of thought that says you should always keep all your cards close to your chest, reveal nothing about your objectives or intentions. And there is some wisdom in that. But there are times when at least some openness really helps in finding where two sides can arrive at a win-win position. And win-win is mostly what megagames are about.

Or, of course, you can skip all of that an just assassinate the other team’s Prime Minister.

Washington Conference

Except that, of course, in a megagame it nearly always achieves nothing. Except possibly causing out of character bad feeling and resentment. Your negotiation position hasn’t been improved. The other team are less inclined to help you and nothing has been unblocked.

The same goes with arresting, kidnapping or abducting inconvenient players. It might seem like a good idea to remove an obstacle, but generally it merely backfires and in doing so removes an entire layer of fruitful negotiation and gameplay.

And what does death even mean in a megagame?

I get the distinct impression that some players seem to think that the player they have assassinated is going to just disappear from the game, perhaps hoping that Control will send them home or lock them in a cupboard or something.

A megagame player is a paying guest in a social event. They will always be re-inserted into the game in one form or another. Usually back on the same team they came from (perhaps in a different role, but usually in the same team because people like to take part in games as part of a group of friends).

In some cases ‘dead’ players are re-roled into spare roles that the game designer has set aside for just such an eventuality. So, in game terms, it is often the case that in-game assassination achieves little or nothing. Much the same can be said of the real world – few assassinations in history have made much difference (apart from perhaps uniquely the assassination in Sarajevo in 1914).

On the same tack I also have players asking to kidnap, imprison or abduct other players. A moments thought would tell them that the megagame organisers are not going to accept the idea that a player is left for hours twiddling their thumbs in a corner as a ‘prisoner’ – especially if the primary the motivation for the arrest is to remove that player’s ability to take part in the game. Arresting / kidnapping someone is not a solution to your negotiation / roleplaying challenges.

Everybody Dies

If you find yourself considering arrest / abduction / assassination as serious in-game options (especially when this is not an explicit part of the game system) then consider also whether you are missing something important. If this is all you can think of because its become a bit difficult then you probably have missed something. Some lever, some avenue of influence, some aspect of their objectives or aims that you’ve not yet found out about. Think about this – it will really make a difference to your megagame experience.

Influence, Creativity and Books

Every game designer brings all sorts of experiences into their game designs, subject matter and the philosophy of their games,  One of my earliest influences was being in the privileged position of having free access to the Ministry of Defence Whitehall Library during the later 1970s and early 80s.  This library contained a huge collection of books on all manner of military subjects, many obscure and therefore deeply interesting (to me at least).  Much of its collection was, sadly, sold off – the Admiralty Library part of the collection has moved to Portsmouth-  and the remaining books are now part of the Defence Academy Library now I believe.

In among this were copies of RAND Papers on wargaming, political-military game and related subjects.  Naturally, in those pre-internet days this was a gold mine of amazing material, not available to the general public, let alone to hobby gamers.  As we would say nowadays “It quite literally blew my mind!” 

Nowadays pretty much all of this is freely available on-line with only minimal searching – which is a brilliant opportunity for the new generation of game designers.

Access to this library, in conjunction with a group of enthusiastic fellow gamers, enabled me to experiment with ideas from the USA in ways not available to mainstream gamers then.  I was particularly lucky in having a group of wargamers that formed the core of Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group to try out these ideas and approaches.  And although at that time megagames had not yet become a thing – much of the thinking about multi-player, wargames or political / military games had its inception for myself and my circle of friends around that time.

Out of this came many game ideas – some examples of games arising directly out of the use of the MOD Whitehall Library being:

  • A multiplayer double-blind map wargame for a 12 players or so on the battle for Kharkov played around 1980.  By modern definitions, pretty much a proto-megagame.  (I think I still have the typewritten materials somewhere – briefings duplicated by using carbon paper!).
  • My WW2 brigade-level map based wargame rules STONK,
  • A map-based political / military game, using an obscure book called ‘Nightmare In Detroit’ describing the race riot in Detroit in 1967, that was first run for students at the Army Staff College Camberley at some point in the early 1980s.  The ideas behind this game subsequently evolved over the following decades into the core of the megagame ‘Urban Nightmare’. (note: Thanks to the internet I now have my own copy!)
  • My first serious operational megagame Operation Market Garden,
  • My attempts at gaming revolutionary warfare as a play-by-mail game – the ‘Vietasia game’ I run with Paddy Griffith and others as players – of which nothing now survives as far as I know.
  • My Civil Disorder Wargame, about rioting in city streets (the first version written about the time of the Brixton Riots in 1979).

The big ideas in all of these that were startling for me as a young (and opinionated) wargamer were:

  • Wargames do not have to be about toe-to-toe kinetic warfare between historical armies.
  • Toy soldiers are fun, but ultimately they are only representational markers.  The toys, counters, models you use are only useful to the extent that they are fit for the purpose of playing the game.  Interestingly, this led to many mainstream wargamers insisting that I was ‘anti-toy soldiers’ as if that was a thing! 🙂
  • It is possible to design a wargame about anything involving an adversarial situation.  It might not necessarily be a war, or a battle, or involve armies.
  • Maps are great!

So for me libraries have been an important formative experience influencing my creativity and an opportunity to seize ideas.  Of course now, I have access to pretty much any book, ever, via the internet.  But – there is something about wandering around vast rows of shelves containing tens of thousands of print books and having one’s eye caught by a surprising book title – or be drawn out of curiosity by a dusty ancient volume languishing on a top shelf.  Ideas that would never have come to you otherwise.  Sometimes it is nothing – but the impact of serendipity on my game designs has been significant.

So if you get the chance of visiting a major library – any library – then do so – before they all vanish into the mists of the internet!

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Not A Megagame, its a…

What is a megagame?  This one crops up on the Megagame Makers Facebook group every so often, and elsewhere.  So I’ve talked about the elements of a megagame before now – particularly in this post.

I have described a megagame in other ways in the past too.  “It’s like a board game, but not a board game. Its like a wargame, but not a wargame.  It’s like a role-playing game, but not a role playing game”.  Recently, someone said to me … “Ok, but what does that mean?”.  Fair point.  Here goes.

A megagame is like a board game because it often has a playing area (a map or game board), its has game components such as counters, cards, and tokens.  And it has rules of the game that the players follow.  It is not like a board game in that the rules of the megagame game are not immutable – the Control team can, and will , modify the game as it goes along to enhance player experience or respond to the emerging narrative.  Megagames are also not like board games in that they rarely have fixed victory conditions that must be achieved to ‘win’.  In fact ‘winning’ in the trivial sense is something that megagames cannot include by virtue of their size, scope, complexity and social nature.  You cannot ‘win’ a megagame any more than you can ‘win’ going to a movie or ‘win’ attending a dinner party.

A megagame is like a wargame because it often has adversarial situations, and fighting or some sort of conflict represented.  And by the formal definition of a wargame, most megagames are wargames.  A megagame is not like a recreational wargame in that it will usually be much more fast-moving (certainly than most recreational wargames) and the rules and procedures much more broad-brush – effectively a synthesis of the main features of the tactical or strategic situation.

This means that the megagame contains a lot less technical detail – something anathema to the traditionally detail-hungry historical wargamer.  Megagames tend also not to be merely two-sided, or zero-sum games.

A megagame is like a role playing game in that the players in it take on roles, often with specific characteristics and their game experience feels in many ways similar to a role playing game where they are playing a President or a General or an Alien Invader.  A megagame usually differs from the more usual role playing game in that, like the wargame, there is a lot less character specific gamification (character statistics, experience points, skills development etc).  This is usually because in the time available it is hard to make those aspects of the role playing game meaningful in the game situation.  Players in a megagame often have less freedom around the scope of their role than in a normal role-playing game.  So in a megagame, the players are given a situation briefing which tells them what their objectives are (though obviously exactly not what they should do to achieve them).  This contrasts with conventional role playing games where the players are in a more flexible situation and can pretty nearly freely choose how to develop their character , attitudes and objectives within their game theme.

A megagame is like a LARP (very like a LARP) in the same way it is like a role playing game above.  In megagames there is also the opportunity, that some take, to dress up for the part.  It is with some reluctance that I generalise about LARPs but the main difference, it seems to me is that LARPs require dressing up and total immersion in a way that megagames do not and that the LARP follows a more pre-determined narrative structure, often with a clear ending or denouement.  The creation of clear ending / grand finale aspect is quite literally impossible for the megagame – which is all about emerging gameplay – in a megagame the ending that emerges might be a single dramatic and memorable event, or it might be a collection of small events that contribute to the overall narrative.

Naturally, it is easier to say what a megagame isn’t.  But sometimes that helps us when describing what it is.

The key thing for me is related to expectation management.  Those who have not yet been exposed to a megagame can find themselves in difficulty because they join the game with the expectation that a megagame is, for example, merely board game with a few more people in the room.  My experience over the years is that this isn’t the case – for me there is definitely something different that happens when a large bunch people get into a room and start playing a megagame.

 

 

Prevarication is Under-rated….

So one of the things that when game design is in its most intense phases, is the urge to do something unrelated.  This week I have been working a lot on two major projects – a serious game on Housing Policy for the University of Stirling, and the  ‘A Very British Coup’ Megagame.

So naturally I have had to take breaks from the creative process.  The first was to play with the idea of Stone Paper Scissors… (inspired by a cartoon I saw a few years back)…

..and then, a day later I couldn’t resisit taking the joke a step further…

I’m not going to complete the set with ‘paper:paper:paper’ – someone else can take a stab at that!

Today, the very silly idea of Megagame Top Trumps came to me for no good reason.  So I designed the first 9 cards of the deck.

The idea will remain in this state I think, unless or until:

a.  I get the inspiration and energy to make the rest of the pack – there would be about 100 cards in it I would guess – though I don’t have data on every megagame I know about so some of the stats would be … gasp … made up!

b.  Some card-making genie would take the idea and create a whole bunch of better looking cards –  (cough)TomMouat(cough).

There is a serious point here as well.  The creative parts of game design cannot be forced.  When they are, the end product is at risk of just not working – so my practice is to work in spurts of creating new things, interspersed with boring admin and making things (like lunch).

And recharging the creative energies by doing something pretty much unrelated – sort of.