Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Confessions of a MegaGame Control

My intention in writing this is to explain and explore how an Umpire in a large multiplayer game makes decisions and rulings where there are no rules or mechanics to guide them.

There has recently been a lengthy discussion on Facebook and in the CLWG about the difference that rules can make to the outcome of Megagames. Some want accurate rules that reward informed and intelligent decision making and others prefer to see a narrative structure building ontop of very simple rule set.

I want to add my perspective to the above, as an Umpire (known as Controls in Megagames) who frequently has to operate where there are few rules.

Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos 

I recently was a Control in a Wide Area Megagame. I would suggest that those who do not know what a Megagame is visit this site - What is a Megagame?

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The City Map of Urban Nightmare
What follows is my view on how I worked as an Umpire (the game calls us Control) working in a game that is deliberately light on mechanisms to encourage emergent gameplay.

Two types of Control

There are two types of Control is most Megagames. In my estimation.

The first are the process focused Control. These are usually those who control maps or areas. They ensure all actions are taken in the correct sequence, they ensure that the rules and the mechanics are observed and they maintain the relentless pace of the game. I do not work well as a Map Control. I get overwhelmed.

The other sort of Control are those that manage the interactions of people. They prod and remind players, they drop hints to players, they make decisions outside the basic rules and mechanics of the games. They are often political umpires, small team umpires etc. I am generally this sort of Control. I like to say its because I am a people sort of person. The less charitable say I am just a snowflake Control and cannot take the heat of real Control at the map face.

My role in the game

I was the Federal Players Control. I was lucky in that I had three experienced and strong players who I could trust to pick up their role and go with it requiring minimal intervention from myself as their Control. Their role was to contact the Federal Team who were in another room and tell them what was happening in their State, Mishigamaa. There was one player for the Pentagon, one for Homeland Security and one representing the Whitehouse. They had a few assets like action cards and a few deployable assets like medicines, and, as I surmised, a small team of assistants, bodyguards and drivers.

I knew from the outset of the game that I was not going to be heavily committed in processing mechanisms like the Map Controls would be. My job as Control was to ensure my three players knew what their role was, to enable them to play their game by providing advice, prompts as necessary and smoothing over rules interpretations. Some less charitable Controls told me that my role was merely to hand out counters that the Federal Players had been assigned by the Federal Team after confirming this order with another Control.

But what this role did was to free me to assist where necessary. So as a good, experienced Control I liaised with all the other Controls at the start of the game. It is a great idea to do this as you need to know who to hand over certain game issues to and who to seek advice from. A central tenet of good Control is ensuring there is good information flow between those who need to know. I also discussed how I might be additionally tasked, as I guessed I was not going to be over burdened.

Actual role in game

In the game I still had to look after my Federal Team. But as the game progressed I was increasingly employed as a Control for the Survivalists. This was a very loose "team" of four players who played armed militias usually with some radical ideology. This job was given to me by the Game Control who noticed that these players were attempting to work with the Map Controls but because of their particular needs and style of play they required more attention from a Control than the very busy Map Controls could give them.

Thus I was controlling two very different teams.

I also noticed that one of my comrade Controls was suffering rather from over work, this was Bruce, who was the political control for the State Team. He had three sub teams of about 5 players, the State Governor, the State Police and The National Guard. I did not take any decisions from him but often was able to advise the player on who to talk to and what had happened in some incident I had controlled. 

Making decisions with no rules - or just making it up as you go along

The only defence of such ad-hoc Control work is that Megagames are designed to be like this. They are not boardgames with precise games, precisely delineated playing areas and player roles. Megagames don't have even have winning conditions or victory points.

Perhaps an example is the best way to illustrate this. (Note I have forgotten some of the names of places and organisations and have had to make them up. My apologies to those who were there, only you can know what it was like to really be there.)

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A Player updating the Federal Sitrep Map
Early on in the game I was approached by the Game Control, Brian, to assist with running an attempt by a Survivalist to attack a Federal jail in his State. The Game Control gave me his estimation of the real world situation. A Federal Jail would hold a couple of thousand prisoners, would be heavily guarded and the State Police would be liaise with them. Brian thought the Survivalists had a cat in hell's chance. Be gentle with them. The main reason he was doing this was that he had ruled that the Federal Prison, at Fireton, would not be on one of the City Maps. He did this to prevent it overwhelming the Map Controls and because Federal Prisons are usually in the countryside away from cities.

So in terms of the game mechanics I only had a State Map with some rules about how units could move with a hastily drawn on Fireton State Penitentiary.

So Brian left me with Juan - a Survivalist, Freedom From Federal F***ers (FFFF) and I asked him what his plan was. Juan told me he had a insider in the Penitentiary who was also a member of the National Guard who was going to assist his break out plan. And he also told me that he wanted to do this break out because some of his FFFF members were inside, one of whom was a very valuable asset, a hacker.

I was surprised. Juan spoke to me, I think on Turn 1 or 2. He had a plan, all sketched out in his head. This was not in his brief, nor on his action cards. And there is one thing Control like to reward in Megagames, and it is player initiative and player narratives, so long as they are grounded on real world thinking.

So I asked to speak to the National Guard player. Juan came back with a National Guard player, Joe (sorry name not remembered) who confirmed he was sympathetic to the FFFF and wanted to do right by him. I ruled that it was likely that one of the National Guard players would be a guard in the Penitentiary, so I rolled an effect dice, that was two 6 sided dice (2 d6) - the lower the number the less effective their support would be. I told the players that if I got a 4 or lower they would not be able to go ahead with the plan. What I did not say was that the higher the number rolled would give a better chance for the break out to succeed.

Did you see what I did there?

I made up a rule on the spot.

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A Press Player - Too much fake news.
I have no idea if there is a National Guard rule that you can or cannot recruit prison guards to their ranks. But I thought that the chance of a Prison Guard being in the National Guard was a relatively likely thing. If they like hanging out in uniform with guns and all sorts of kit, they would like hanging out with the National Guard with even more shiny, lethal kit.

So in game terms I made a ruling based on my assessment of the real world and a dice roll to determine the effectiveness of a players guess of what would be a reasonable thing. And I used an effect dice. I also told the players what the chances were of not having sufficient inside support - just a mouthy National Guard guy who thought bigger than he could act. And I also had a rough idea of how the dice roll would add to the next decision I would take. I call this an effect dice. The answer is not a binary yes or no, but a shade of yes but with a +1, or yes with -1 etc.

I could go on about the detail of this incident. But this is essentially what my role demands of me in a Megagame. It is more akin to running a Role Playing Game. So in terms of any discussion about should the game have better rules that reward intelligent decision making, it is irrelevant. There is no way you can make rules for the imagination of the players who like to play in this sort of game.

But what about the larger game?

I'm glad you asked that. This is indeed the tricky element to making these ad-hoc rulings.

Ad-hoc cannot be replicated

I am unlikely to remember the exact ruling I used to determine a special case. So later on when I about to rule on another special I might be inconsistent. Some players might feel such rulings are unjust, and I have sympathy for this position. My defence is that events are rarely so similar as to require adherence to a strict mechanism.

How does this change the larger game.

This is by far the most serious issue with such ad-hoc rulings. An umpire could make a decision that had larger consequences for the game. In UNSOC I did make one of those decisions. I later on ruled that Juan had managed to bluff his way into a bank and get his hacker to spread a Ransomware virus taking down some local, then State and then National banks. I used similar mechanisms to adjudicate the effectiveness of this intervention: an effect dice for each element of the plan, and an explanation of the risks to the players and the odds as I assessed them.

The problem is that now the larger game is effected in a way that the designer never envisaged and the whole game system has to cope with a Governor, the FBI and eventually the President taking time to devote time and resources to resolving a financial crisis, with no rules for doing this in the game. I must admit, I had not really thought this through. I did make the chances of it happening difficult and I had told the player that his hacker had failed in doing a brute force hack of the banking system and they had to resort to using violence to get the password of the bank manager. I thought this was a good hint that his hacker was again not that good.

My plan was for the virus to be rapidly counteracted within the city the hack had taken place. I had hinted that the FFFF hacker was not that good, more of a Script Kiddie. And that the hack would not go much further than the State it started in.

However I had not counted on Juan, who briefed the Press about what he had done, got me as Control to confirm the "there has been a hack on the banking" story to the press player. I did not realise it would go "viral" and get other Control involved. In the end Game Control ruled that the virus had been rapidly countered and the banking crisis averted, probably after extracting some cash or resources from a senior political player.

Let's put it down to Emergent Gameplay!

This is the rare beauty of Megagames

This is why some players love Megagames. And perhaps why some players dislike Megagames.

There are some situations that call for ad-hoc, decisions taken by Controls like myself. From the first group of Map Control you usually get tactics and optimal strategies emerging within the confines of the rules. With the second type of decisions Control take you get Emergent Gameplay.

Earlier I said that there are two types of Control. Now I think about it, there are probably two ideal types of gamers: those who like imaginative, narrative based, emergent play and those who revel in details, procedure and optimal playing strategies. Obviously there are rarely extreme examples of either type, usually we are a blend of both ideal types. I would suggest that LARPers are on one extreme and Chess and Bridge players are on the other extreme.

Future examples

When I get the chance I will go through in more detail one the decisions I took in this game. I still have my notes from one of the wizard wheezes I ruled on. 

I hope that in sharing such examples I will illustrate what it is to be this type of Control in Megagames. And that my example will enable me to receive critical assessment of how a Control should or should not make rulings. I might find that other Controls or Game Designers would prefer it if I didn't do such ad-hoc decision making. I might find that some players would never want to be involved in such make believe events, and can hardly bare to call the games. 

Whatever, I hope the above helps others get a better idea of what Control sometimes does in Megagames.

1 comment:

  1. Good article Nick - one of the things we've discussed is how the fact that there are different control roles really needs more marketing to players. Some would be quite happy doing a map or process role but are put off by something more freeform.