Monday, March 27, 2017

“Not with a Bang but with a Whimper”

(From my answer to a Quora question.)

The West Roman empire “fell” “not with a bang but with a whimper”. Historians have arbitrarily chosen 476 A.D. as the date of the fall of the Empire because that’s when Odoacer deposed the last Emperor (who spent the rest of his life comfortably in a seaside villa). The West Roman empire decayed and faded away rather than going down in fire and blood. The two dates that would most stand out to inhabitants of the Empire would have been the two sacks of Rome in 410 and 455. But even then, the first sack was “polite”: Visigoth Alaric wanted to be appointed to high military position within the Empire and threatened Rome to exert leverage (unsuccessfully). The second sack, by the Vandals coming from North Africa by sea, might be a more appropriate date for the fall, as the Vandals dominated the Western Mediterranean. Some might choose the death of the “last Roman”, Flavius Aetius (who had put together the coalition that defeated Attila in France) in 454. But even later than that there were occasions when some recovery might have occurred, with better luck.

Notice I said “coalition”. By 451 the Visigoths had been living in southwest France for decades, and had conquered most of Iberia from the Vandals, Alans, and Sueves who had occupied it soon after the breakdown of the Rhine frontier in 406. (The Vandals were carried to North Africa by Roman ships to take part in an intra-Roman dispute, but ultimately took control of North Africa and many Mediterranean islands.) The Franks occupied northeastern Gaul and were also part of the coalition that defeated Attila. But the “barbarians” did not come to plunder, they came to take advantage of the benefits of Roman civilization, and relied on the Roman administration. They did not intend to destroy the Empire.

Many reasons have been posed for the decay of the Roman Empire, but many of them don’t make much sense because the same conditions prevailed in the East, yet the East Roman Empire lasted another thousand years. For example, the famous historian Gibbon blamed Christianity, but the East was more Christian than the West. Some blamed the lead in water pipes, but all of the Empire used the same kind of pipes. More likely, constant waves of disease depopulated the West, while the much more highly populated East (where most of the big cities were) managed to overcome this. The East also had geographical advantages in defense.

The Empire had been in serious trouble on and off since the crisis of the third century. I suspect people expected Rome to continue because it had always been there, from their point of view, even with barbarian invasions and succession problems such as blighted the third century. Think about this: the Romans beat the Carthaginians in the First Punic War 264–241 BC. From then to 455 is more than 700 years. Go back 700 years in our history and we are at 1300. That’s a very very long time.

So to return to the original question, I doubt that many people thought to themselves “the Empire has fallen”. If they did, it was probably at the sack of Rome in 455. Yet in Italy itself, the real devastation and destruction occurred during fighting between the Byzantines and Ostrogoths in the early sixth century. Even then, there was some prospect that Emperor Justinian of the East would be able to reestablish the Empire in the West, but that prospect was destroyed by devastating plagues that may have been worse than the Black Plague (often called the Justinianic Plagues). The Roman administration (by another name) may have persisted in Iberia until the conquest by the Muslims in the eighth century.

The Empire became a story of the good old days, the golden days, told by older folks to younger folks who had never encountered it. It just gradually faded away, yet the ideal remained even for the Frank Charlemagne, who was crowned Emperor in the early ninth century, much to the disgust of “the” Emperor in Constantinople.

(One place where the absence of Rome was very obvious was in Britain after the Romans pulled out in 410. This is a major event in my historical game Britannia. Britain was the only place where Christianity disappeared along with the Roman administration, to be reintroduced from the continent and from Ireland via Scotland.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Forthcoming (with the usual caveats) Games

Someone on Board Game Designers Forum asked for a preview of my forthcoming wargames. So here it is.

Now, when these will be published, whether they will actually be published, is something I never count on until it has actually happened. I’ve experienced enough failures of intent to be careful. (For example, I was never paid for the original (1982) Dragon Rage, though it sold quite well, owing to circumstances far beyond my control and having nothing to do with board games. And Law & Chaos was at Mayfair for many years (I was paid an advance), then the people who bought it moved on to Catan Studios and I now have it in hand once again.)


Possibly as soon as late summer we’ll see Germania, which despite the “ia” title is not a Britannia -like game. It’s a game of (Germanic) tribal survival in the ruins of the West Roman empire, a combination of wargame and peace game with many Euroish characteristics, but without the fiddliness of huge numbers of bits currently in vogue. (It’s not a puzzle.) A key to a hybrid like this is that the best way to success is to be peaceful, but sometimes others will see that you’re successful and attack you. It has been played where the players never attacked each other directly, but it has also been played where the players constantly attacked each other and had a great time doing so. There are always indirect attacks, that is, invasions of non-Germanic peoples, controlled temporarily by one player or another via the play of cards or other considerations.

The only involvement of dice in the game is in famines and plagues, which are fairly common via event cards. In combat the players use battle cards, choosing secretly and adding the number on the battle card to the strength of the unit(s) in the fight.

Each player has six action points per turn which he can use to create new settlers, improve the land, play event cards, convert settlers to soldiers, and convert units to horse (cavalry). A consequence of using action points in a multi-sided game is that it’s difficult for any player to dominate, even if he has much stronger forces, because he can only move a maximum of three pieces in a turn in the action points system.

When I originally designed the game more than 10 years ago, (it was with another company for a very long time) I tallied the score only at the end of the game. But it makes more sense to tally the score at the end of each player’s turn because, if you play the game long enough, success becomes cyclical, and you might be at a downtime of your nation at the end of the game. You score for holding territories occupied by settlers, and also for improvements built on your territories (or even a town if you can swing it). So the game involves both survival and a simple civilization building aspect. There are only 20-some areas on the board so it can become quite crowded, with a maximum of five players. There is no player elimination because, if your nation is really at a nadir, you can take over one of the external invaders and become the Moors, or the Slavs, the Byzantines or Magyars, or even the Norse or Danes. I don’t recall now if anyone has ever won after taking over an invader, but I recall lots of mayhem caused by player-adopted invaders.

The game uses plastic figures, and can take 2 to 3 hours, or more if you’re like some testers who just kept playing so they could slaughter each other further! (But it’s not really a wargame . . .)

Sweep of History Game

Another game that might appear this summer is presently called Eurasia but may have a different title like Surge of Empires. Again despite the “ia” name it is not Britannia -like, but it is a game where you control a succession of empires on the supercontinent of Eurasia (with North Africa tadded). It is a game of the rise and fall of empires, so over the course of the game a player will control four or five empires, no more than two at a time. There is a card for each empire detailing location of appearance, location of scoring, number of starting armies, and special characteristic. In the standard game they appear more or less in historical order, though there’s an option to have them appear randomly.

This is a game for 2 to 6, though it may only include components for five.

For a long time - this game is many years old - the game was diceless, using a deterministic combat system which is included as an option. But I finally decided that in this particular game the deterministic system was too sterile, too pat, so I replaced it with a simple dice system: roll a die per army, highest sum wins, ties go to defender. Loser loses one army and must retreat. So in a 2 to 1 the two usually win - but not always.

Space Wargame

Instead of Eurasia I might have a two year old space wargame published by the same company. I love space wargames, and this one is, if I do say so myself, “quite elegant”. The result is a two player (or partners, which works very well) civil war for control of a star cluster.

This is a block game but without dice. Any number of blocks can be in a hex but only four can move in a turn. Movement is along wormhole/jump lines, or via hex, although hex movement is usually slower as most of the jump lines are longer than one hex. The blocks are numbered from 1 to 7 except for the leader, but the conflict is not hierarchical (as in Stratego). Instead you sum the strength of the units and the stronger force wins; the winner loses their weakest piece, the loser loses their strongest piece and must retreat. 20 blocks per side in the smaller version, more with partners.

The victory criteria lead to a back-and-forth game where players can threaten victory several times before there’s a conclusion. Some games can be quite quick but up to an hour is more likely. There are 11 valuable systems out of the 27 on the board; if you hold at least seven and your opponent cannot reduce you to less than seven in their next turn, you win. However, each player has a home system, and if you take the enemy home system and he cannot retake it in his next turn, you win. It happens that one player achieves one criterion, then the other achieves the other criterion, and the game continues.

It is very much a game of maneuver, that’s what excellent generalship is about. "Battles are won by slaughter and manoeuvre. The greater the general, the more he contributes in manoeuvre, the less he demands in slaughter." --Sir Winston Churchill

The game has an entire set of technology rules that I really like, but they have rarely been tested; they’ll have to be an expansion, if they ever see the light. This is part of the simplification that is becoming more and more common in games: you design a game and then, even though it works fine as is, you try to find ways to make it smaller and shorter. In this case the removal of technology simplified, and made the package smaller.

It’s difficult to provide titles for space wargames, but this one may be called Crashing Suns: Civil War in the Hyades Cluster.


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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Do’s and Don’ts of RPG Monster Design

[This is adapted and improved from screencasts available on my “Game Design” channel: - search for "monster"]

Fairly close to my heart is devising role-playing game monsters. What expertise do I have in this subject? In the 70s and 80s I made up a lot of monsters that were published in White Dwarf and Dragon magazines, as well as for my own campaign. I designed several monsters that are in the original Fiend Folio. The Princes of Elemental Evil are particularly well-known and even have their own entry in Wikipedia (archomental). I'm also relying in this piece on a panel discussion I attended at GenCon 2015 early on a Sunday morning with, among others, Wolfgang Bauer and Jeff Grubb up front.

Now I'm talking about monsters primarily for tabletop RPGs because there's a big difference between tabletop RPGs and video games. In video games, you have the boss mentality: boss monsters, really big, bad-ass, lone monsters that are very, very dangerous. I have never thought in those boss terms as I'll explain. I've always used a large number of monsters in a big climax led by some powerful leader. But the leader is not individually nearly as powerful as the character group. It's just that with all the other monsters around both the monsters and the leader collectively become very dangerous.

The big difference is that in tabletop RPGs, unlike video games, if you die you don't have a save game to go back to. Bosses are designed with the idea that there's a save game to go back to. They are designed to kill you several times before you succeed. You can't play tabletop RPGs that way, even today with all the easy healing, because if you die you’re dead (more or less). So in video games the purpose of any monster can be to kill the characters the first several times, whereas in tabletop the purpose is to scare the snot out of the players by threatening their characters in some way, but not by actually killing the characters. Death may happen occasionally (just to keep everyone "honest"), but it can't happen frequently, or you're not going to have much of a campaign.

So video game bosses tend to be much tougher in relation to the adventuring party or individual than the monsters you meet at a climax in a tabletop RPG. This is a fundamental difference. Video gamers would be disappointed if almost every time they had a climax they win the first time. They'd feel cheated, that it was too easy. It's a matter of expectations is much as a game functionality.

Of course, there are many ways tabletop RPGs are unlike computer RPGs and many of those are because of "save games" or lack of same. When you're making up monsters I think you should focus on the element of surprise, not just on making them super tough. Some game designers, including R. Knizia and S. Miyamoto ("We want to entertain people by surprising them ...") espouse this view. Likely Miyamoto would say that a major objective in any game is to surprise players, so perhaps the most effective way to design RPG monsters is to surprise the players, and many of my suggestions derive from surprise. A specific surprise is only going to work once, but that's one reason why so many people keep making up new monsters, to provide new surprises.

So what do we look at? Here's a list, then I'll discuss each one:
The Unknown
One Unusual Characteristic (kind of a loop)
Two Types of Monsters Cooperating
Characteristics from two types combined into one
“Worse things than killing you”
Really Smart Enemies
Time Pressure
Relentless Hordes

Fear of the Unknown is the first one. A major reason to make up new monsters is to surprise the players with something they don't already know. The players will probably feel it's more fair and perhaps more true to life if they can derive some of the characteristics of the unknown monsters from past experience or from appearance. "It looks like a giant, it may be about as tough as a giant." "With those big teeth, I bet it bites HARD."

Sometimes it'll be just one unusual characteristic. This may work particularly well if you take a well-known monster and give it a single surprising quirk. The obvious that comes to mind is regeneration. Regeneration is very powerful and should be used sparingly, but if you have an ordinary monster that regenerates, it will surprise the heck out of players, especially when a monster gets back up off the dungeon floor.

A single characteristic can be a focus of an unknown monster as well. Some refs won't want to go to extremes such as flying orcs or regenerating orcs, on the other hand, we don't mind the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz.  I once made up a group of several kinds of lightning spitting monsters roughly analogous to military tanks (in my mind), although the players never realized that. They were big and they looked dangerous, and they were even without the lightning. The catlike ones were faster, sluglike ones really hard to kill, and so on. But it was lightning that set them apart and scared the players, in many encounters with them.

You can take two types of monsters and have them cooperate. Keep in mind the truism, there's hardly anything original under the sun; but combinations of things can provide new experiences, and that can surprise. We see this kind of cooperation whenever a monster type is said to normally employ a different monster type as guards. Of course, powerful monsters may enslave entire groups of weaker monsters and those weaker monsters can nonetheless provide good interference when our heroes show up.

We can also take the characteristics from two monster types and combine them into one. There's the classic owl bear, chimera, gryphon, dragon turtle, and so forth. You can take normally unintelligent monsters and provide them with human intelligence or normally intelligent monsters that aren't intelligent now. Some combinations may not be very believable, and I like believability in games and try to avoid them, but in this the age of TV and movie silliness not too many people care. The standards have changed over the past half century, so you can do things that would've been laughed out of the building, so to speak, 50-60 years ago, which now most people shrug at and accept.

Another way to make monsters interesting is misdirection. Play on the expectations of the players: change the appearance of the monster, pretend to be another monster, change stats (although it's easy to overdo that so I try to avoid just changing the stats of an existing monster).

There are worse things than killing you. Monsters don't have to kill to be frightening. They can turn your bones to rubber. The rust monster eats equipment. Permanent level drain, even temporary can be bad. Characters can be captured - slavers are monsters too. Theft  - lots of monsters that nick your items such as leprechauns. There lots of things you can think of that are not death but will frighten the players. Threaten their characters' well-being, their possessions.

Foreshadowing is something you can do with any monster. It helps foster fear of the unknown.  You can provide clues signaling danger - tracks, even something as simple as noises. Maybe the players will find something in writing that indicates that some intelligent monster is around - somewhere.

Really smart enemies.  Face it, classic movie enemies are often stupid. This is why the Evil Overlord list of vows exists, and if you haven't read the Evil Overlord list I strongly recommend that you do so. . Relatively dim monsters can be cunning: the great boxer Muhammed Ali was often said to be a dim brained man, but he was a cunning boxer. Consider though, you have to put your brain into the monster preparation. If you're not trying to be smart, how can the monsters be smart?

Time pressure is the classic videogame way to make monsters more dangerous. There's just not enough time to do all the characters want to do. But you can do this in tabletop games as well. Time stress leads to mistakes. “Watch out, it’s going to blow up!” or the enemy has diverted water into a room that's filling up with you trapped in it, or there's a fire spreading or the monster itself has some time limit associated with it. There are all kinds of ways to implement time pressure even if you're playing strictly on a turn basis. You know there only so many turns before something happens, you're still under pressure.

Positioning is another thing you can do with any monster. The classic is that you have a balcony that protects otherwise vulnerable archers because they're up there and you're down here on the floor or on the ground. Simple barricades, very low ceilings with/for short monsters: you're going after Duergar and they've kept their ceilings low so that humans have to bend down and are much less effective in every way, especially in a fight. Burrows of monsters can be hard to move around in. Water barriers can make a big difference. You can think of lots of ways to do this, but you have to think of it to make it happen.

You can have societies or factions or groups where the group as a whole may be more effective than the sum of its individual parts. I've often found that a group of monsters, even if individually weak, is more effective than one powerful monster, especially if they're subordinate to a leader that organizes them, a commander or "mastermind."

The last one is relentless hordes. Sheer numbers can be terrifying even if the monsters are individually weak. The Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition "minions" rule is quite brilliantly simple. Any damage kills a minion, but you can have lots of them and they're easy to keep track of (tabletop) because either they're doing fine or they're dead. Relentless hordes are the opposite of the videogame boss syndrome where an often-lone monster is super tough, but try it, you may find it interesting.


I have talked about the Do's and not the Don'ts, now let's look at the other side. The general principle is, give the players a chance, don't spring something on them. Don't rely on them having to die to find out something. (Some people have given a name to that particular characteristic but I don't recall what it is.)  You don't ever want to force the players to die to learn something. I'm thinking in terms of a large set of players of many different attitudes, and trying not to really piss off any of the subgroups.

So, no "invulnerable to everything but X," though that's not so bad IF players know about it ahead of time. For example, we know about iron golem invulnerabilities in the older versions of D&D, which is to say virtually nothing hurts but +3 or greater weapons, and so we have time to prepare or avoid. We don't always manage to do that, but we've got the chance. At least that's what counts.

Another is sudden, unwarned-about death as in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where the carnivorous bunny kills in one attack. (Yes, "Tim" warned them, but it was not a believable monster so the warning had no effect.)

Another no-no: take an innocuous looking thing and make it a super monster, which turns out to be (again) like the Carnivorous Rabbit from Monty Python's Holy Grail. You may think that's funny, but serious players won't think that's funny when they're the victims. (As with everything else, "it depends".)

The golden rule applies. In fact, both golden rules, the general Golden Rule and the golden rule of RPGs. The general Golden Rule, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is pretty good. Ask yourself how you'd feel if such-and-such happened. The RPG golden rule is, "what's good for the players is good for the monsters and vice versa," that is, if the monsters can do something wild or drastic shouldn’t the players also have a chance to do it? And if the players can do something, shouldn't the monsters be able to as well? Think about it. Try to be at least halfway sensible and always put yourself in the shoes of the players and ask yourself how you would react if this happened to you.

Someone sufficiently steeped in the myriads of RPG rules published since 1974 could probably write a book (with many examples) about monster design. But this is enough to provide a guide for the inexperienced.

Lew Pulsipher

Friday, March 03, 2017

Recent screencasts (videos_

I rarely get around to posting individual links to my "Game Design" YouTube channel here, so I decided to list the most recent  screencasts instead.

Nuts & Bolts: How a game can derive from a bit of another?
It's not unusual for a game to use a system that's been successful in another game. But sometimes one game grows out of a small bit of another.

Constraints in games from a player viewpoint (two parts)
Though contemporary gamers (especially video gamers) tend to dislike constraints, practically speaking games ARE merely sets of constraints. Properly specified constraints can make the game especially interesting. for the player(s).

Digital Game Pricing (2 parts)
Some people suppose that there's a "solution" to (over)saturation of the downloadable game market. There are lots of schemes, but I don't see any solutions in this detailed examination.

RPGs: Stifling Creativity?
It seems too many DMs are guilty of letting players push them around, resulting in a waste of time while a player tries to convince the MD that such-and-such wildly unlikely occurrence should be assigned a decent chance of happening. When you enforce the game rules (and physics) you simply the game and keep it moving along, you aren't stifling creativity.

Yes, the dead-kobold wielder actually said "You're stifling my creativity." Poppycock!

Practical vs Reality
Game design is a series of compromises, and major compromises can occur when reality and what's practical in a game clash. Some "practical decisions" result in behavior that has next to nothing to do with reality.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2017

RapierCon and Prezcon 2017

Odd how the focus of game development can move quickly from one game to another. I don’t try to force testers to play any particular game. I bring a half dozen or more games to any game session or convention, and while I may mention first the one I am most interested in playing, I give players a choice.

Just before RapierCon (Jacksonville FL) I had played Rex Anglorum (about the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Dark Ages Britain) several times solo. But for Rapier, which allows you to schedule a game for a articular block, I chose four: freeform (Intro) Brit, Epic Historical Brit, Doomfleets, and Conquer Britannia. In the end, only Doomfleets was played, twice, with the maximum five players each time, and players said they really liked it.

I created Doomfleets to remove many of the constraints that some players (especially Scott Pfeiffer) dislike in Second Edition (FFG) Britannia. And as it had been played - four times solo, then once by others - I’ve compressed it more and more into a shorter, more chaotic game.  The same thing happened after two games at Rapier, as I reduced the standard game from 10 to 7 turns, and the short game from 6 to 5.

At PrezCon, with so many official tournament heats and semis, it’s pretty hard to get several people together for two-three hours to play something like Doomfleets, or even Britannia prototypes. But at Rapier, I’d hauled out my very old (35+ years) two player galactic space wargame to try to remedy what I saw as a problem. It had always been a perfect-information game. I think I must have had chess in mind when I originated it, down to having 16 pieces on a side. But when I last worked with it, maybe 8 years before, I’d feared that it was a solvable game, and that the “solution” might involve the first-mover always winning. (In fact, there are 93 spaces, and unusual movement rules, so it’s probably more complex than checkers, which has not formally been solved though it has been solved by brute force.) My solution was to use blocks to hide the identity of pieces (though not the color, important for movement), and I’d made a new set, but had not tried it.

So at Rapier (or maybe at home?) I tried it on half a board, and it worked very well but needed a little more room. At PrezCon I put it on “my” table and persuaded some gents to play. Four games took about half an hour each including teaching time (the game is quite simple). I also showed it to a publisher, and despite some adventure (one of them doesn’t like having to choose his setup, even though the setup is part of the gameplay) the simplicity and short length were very attractive. But they asked about three players, and about four (which would only work in partnership, I don’t believe in four player competitive block games, too easy to see opposing identities). So Jim Jordan and I worked out strengths for the partners game (down to 7 pieces per player). And now I’m making more pieces.

I decided only at the last minute to take my co-operative space wargame to PrezCon.  I’d hosted a few four and five player games some months before, but wasn’t sure how my latest changes would work out.  In the end, Jim Jordan and I played it four times (working from more than 2 hours down to less than 90 minutes). It was a rarity, me playing on of my own game after the initial solo play, and I enjoyed it. Fundamentally, I strongly prefer good co-op games, hence D&D where you have human opposition. Programmed opposition often leads to the game being a puzzle that can be solved, e.g. Pandemic or Shadows Over Camelot. But casting the co-op as a wargame, complete with significant chance (especially, dice resolution of battles) makes a big difference. It’s a longer game, with more variation, but you’d expect that from a wargame. It worked much as co-ops are supposed to work: we got better, were stomped in first game, barely forced into a draw in second, won third (barely), handily won fourth. We didn’t get to the point of escalating the difficulty (escalation is remarkably easy to do, you just increase one number). Definitely a success at this point, but needs a lot more play, of course (total of only nine so far).

Never a sniff of Rex Anglorum at either con. Never a sniff of the Britannia 3rd edition games at PrezCon, either.I had other games with higher priorities.

I needed some spaceship pieces to replace one of the sets I was using in Doomfleets. (Different shapes for each of four species a player controls.) I couldn’t find my plastic rocket ships (look like V2s). But I stumbled upon Star Trek Risk in the auction store at PrezCon, and was very pleased - and can replace two of the piece sets. I also bought Risk Halo and Clash of Cultures for the pieces.

Jonathan Hagmaier is a recent addition to the Britannia (and History of the World) players at PrezCon. Old enough to have a daughter in college, but not nearly as old as I am, he’s full of cheerful enthusiasm, though occasionally reminiscent of the notorious Mark Smith. This year he lost a very close Britannia final to Rick Kirchner (the most laid-back man I know), with Mark (the least laid-back) a close third. Jon arranged for the participants, plus the GM Jim Jordan, plus myself, to receive a pint glass etched with part of the Britannia cover! Thanks!

People asked me how 3rd edition Brit is going. I could only say, the three games are pretty much settled, but lots of testing for balance is required (the curse of highly asymmetrical 3 and 4 player games). And right now I’m focusing on other things, unfortunately.

PrezCon seemed less crowded than usual, but Justin has been trying to alleviate crowding for some time. The Britannia tournament had two boards in each of two heats (a bit low), and Robo-Rally (my roommate’s favorite) participation was way down. There were 50 in Smallworld, however.

I had it from Justin Thompson himself that more people were at PrezCon than anytime before, which would mean somewhere around 700. Rapier, by the way, which switched from summer to February a couple years ago, had 150; they don’t want more than 200 because the hotel won’t accommodate more.