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Friday, December 28, 2012

Back to basics: the ants



I haven’t blogged in a bit – again – but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy. At school, we’re plowing through staging a production of Les Miserables, and having a great time. (Also saw the movie today, so we’re pumped to get back to work on it next week… I digress) In my limited down time (and I’ve had a little bit this week), I’ve been on to the next project. I’ve got a smattering of an idea for how to re-work many of my long-term concepts for Army Ants into a new game engine, and I’ve been doing some reading of my old Ant stuff. As I did with Mythweaver, I’ve gone back to the beginning (which stretches nearly 20 years now) and have started to inventory the good, bad and ugly of previous editions of the game. I’ve done my ‘ultimate edition’ of Mythweaver that takes the best of everything that’s come before – now it’s time to do that with Army Ants.

Right away, I know that this is not going to use the same game engine I’ve been tinkering with for the last few years – the Resolute system that has been the backbone of Mythweaver and Resolute. This project is going back to basics, to many of the key concepts from the first edition of Army Ants (the first RPG came out in 1997). In fact, it’s going further back than that. 

The first RPG I ever wrote was in a spiral notebook, and it was called ‘Battlefield’ (maybe 1984?).  The game was built backwards – it started with a map I drew of a fortified island controlled by a mercenary warlord. It had a castle fortress, a volcano that had been engineered as a missile silo, a small airfield, a missile base, a beach, a small jungle. We wanted to create a huge mission group (dozens of soldiers – fighter pilots, bombers, airborne rangers, a platoon of marines) that would launch a multi-pronged attack on the island. The rules existed only to allow us to do this. I spent about a week coming up with the rules for how we’d make it work, and we spent some of Friday night, and all day Saturday, besieging the island with our squads of troops. There were no miniatures involved- this was all pen and paper role playing- and we were just as concerned with the individual abilities of each commando (they all had names, personalities, inter-group dynamics) as we were with the larger tactical units. In fact, we spent much of our time in the prep sessions creating characters for each fighter pilot, each grunt, and each saboteur who would take part in the assault.

I don’t mean to over-glamorize this, or to sell myself as a prodigy game designer at 13 years old. It was an ugly, clunky little game that we had to hold together with duct tape and chicken wire to get through the weekend, but at the end of it all, we all felt that we had ‘simulated’ in some way this assault, and were satisfied that the mechanics had fully supported our immersion. Yeah, I know. We didn’t talk that way, or think that way, but this is what ‘that was awesome!’ meant.

So there’s design goal #1. The game – whatever it looks like – has to allow you to do that. You have to be shift back and forth between individual missions, and the game must fully support every aspect of a large-scale military siege, but do so in a way that allows you to attack an entire fortified island on a number of different fronts in a single weekend. It’s NOT a wargame. It’s an RPG that allows you to take your RPG characters into a wargame scenario, and continue to roleplay through it. While some systems I’ve published have included some mass combat rules, this game has to include mass combat as a central part of the narrative.

To go a step further, the large battles in the original Star Wars trilogy operate under exactly the sort of the dynamic I’m looking for. You have these huge battles happening, but it’s all just the backdrop for the smaller character-driven stories happening within it. You aren’t worried that you have just lost 8 combat interceptors and you are going to take a penalty to your next tactical roll – you are worried that 8 of your allies (I just had breakfast with those ants!) are now a smear mark on the side of the canyon, and the other characters swear solemn oaths that they will be avenged!