Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Orphan of the Stars: the Gameplay of Politics

After I had laid out my plans for the pieces of the game, I found it necessary to think my whow the game would play.  This turned into a three-part discussion, starting with high level politics, and I hoped to turn the game from a look at a bunch of stats and into a dynamic series of interesting choices that impacted the players and was impacted by them in turn (you know, gameplay).

Gameplay Philosophy

Of the Politics of Orphans of the Stars

What do players do?

I’ve laid out the core research and the basic ideas of Orphans of the Stars. All we have left to do is consolidate everything and expand it until the players have enough options to play around with and you, as GM, have enough options to build a campaign. But before we can do that, we should stop and think about how it will play, a step I feel too many writers skip (GURPS writers can be especially guilty of this).

Your players sit down at your table. They’ve built their characters, they have their organizations and their lord and their ideology. Okay. Now what? How do you open the session? What crisis do they face? What choices do they have?

Gameplay amounts to a series of interesting choices. You present your players with a crisis, some problem, and then they react and make choices. These choices impact the problem, perhaps even solving it, but that only reveals a deeper layer, and their own choices have consequences that contribute to this new problem. Gameplay should flow from these choices. That’s not to say that the GM shouldn’t be allowed to create a plot (he certainly should!) but the gameplay we design should be sufficiently interesting that it can play out with a minimum of direct GM intervention (that is, I presume the GM would rather “play the game” than make up rules along the way). A good D&D fight has players arguing over ideal builds, the best choices to make, and pondering what interesting encounters might be like. A good game of Orphans of the Stars should be equally compelling.

The highest level: the Grand Strategy

The Rolls of the Lord

In our current model, the players do not rule their domain directly; instead, they serve someone who rules their domain. I happen to approve of this approach, because it prevent the game from turning into a competitive one. The players all work together to support their master, instead of fighting a turf war with one another, which means that they all share a common goal, even if each has their own specialization and their own concerns.

But what do the do? Most of the mechanics for improving upon one’s domain amounts to rolls made to some skill on the part of the lord, and the players have no interaction with this. You once suggested that players could offer complementary bonuses, and I objected, and I’d like to reiterate that: this doesn’t really involve the players “doing” anything other than rolling dice. They don’t need to make plans or make choices, they simply roll their dice and apply their bonus, and if the lord fails or succeeds, they had only a minimum impact on this. The whole process of this would take 5 minutes of work at the beginning of a session and then would be done. But even so, they should have some sort of impact on what the lord does and whether he succeeds. After all that’s their purpose.

The first and most obvious point of choice would be to either support their lord or support their organization or, if multiple possible noble agendas exist, they would need to choose which one to support. That is, if the lord is trying to improve the economy and entice some Navigators to move into his territory and building defenses, while one player is dealing with a traitor in his midst, and another player is trying to recover after a major military defeat, then then need to decide where their time and resources will go (naturally, the lord can order them to do something, but servants always find a way to drag their feet on something they don’t want to do, and find ways to advance something they do want to do). This already creates a sense of choice.

But what happens if you focus your efforts somewhere and fail your roll? What’s happened? Nothing. No bonus, no penalty, no lost resources, no benefits gained (unless the lord succeeds, in which case it had nothing to do with them). Even if they make their choice, they have little sense of control or investment. How does it feel to play this way?

You also cite Monster Hunters as inspiration, and that may well offer us a solution. Instead of offering complementary rolls, or offering only complementary rolls, players can go on adventures, even short ones, and return with a flat bonus. For example, if you decide to support the lord’s attempt to improve the economy, you could go and engage in a military campaign to gain control of some valued resource, or black mail some bureaucrats in the banking system to leverage superior rates for your master, or you could forge a pact with a corporation to open a headquarters on your world. If everyone does something like that, the lord suddenly gains a huge boon to his attempt to improve the economy, the players had an interesting experience, and everyone feels like they contributed. It also makes adventures fractal: individual player actions, moment to moment, exist to support their organization which move month to month, which support the lord, who moves year to year.

But why roll for the lord at all? Imagine the players do everything they can to support their master, and he rolls a critical failure! Then all their effort is lost. The players might do something like spend an impulse buy point or trigger luck, but given that this is one roll per in-game year, it seems cheap that all of their efforts become outshone by the fact that someone in their party has a spare character point or took Luck.

One option might be to not roll at all. Set a difficulty and “take 11.” If the lord has skill 15 and is currently suffering a -8 penalty to his roll, the players need to work out a total of +4. If they get that, he succeeds; if not, he fails. This makes the players directly responsible for the lord’s failure or success, who acts more as a receptacle for their choices than a direct agent himself (other than that he decides what course of action he wants).

If we want to retain a sense of risk, it’s worth having our efforts matter. “Degree of success” will help here: If a lord has skill 15 and has -0 to for his action, what’s the point of helping him? Well, if he rolls a 10, he succeeds by 5. But if you increased his effective skill to 20 and he rolls a 10, he succeeded by 10. What if that was worth more than a success by 5? Failure could be mitigated in a similar way. Fate allows players to succeed on a failure provided they accept a cost. For example, if you’re trying to escape from an opponent during a foot chase, the die roll is not necessarily a pass/fail binary result, but success might mean you get away, while failure means you either don’t get away or you do but at some great cost. If we combine both of these ideas, then every bonus the players bring counts because the consequences of a bad roll can be mitigated, and the benefits of a good roll can be improved. This can even be combined with the “no roll” optional rule above.

Who gives a sh*t? The rewards of service

So, the players help their lord and their lord gets some bonus. That’s… great. So what? Players might feel nebulously good the way a patriot feels good as he bleeds out in a trench somewhere, but I expect players might enjoy it a bit more if their success earned them some reward, especially if their actions supporting their lord cost them resources. Thus, the players invest and get something in return. This makes sense too: as your lord’s star rises, so too does yours.

But what can the players earn? Well, let’s look at what a lord can improve.

Population and Search Modifiers

Population can obviously offer a larger pool for recruitment. If a huge influx of immigrants come into their domain, then generals have more people the can recruit from and spies have more people to milk for information and so on. Thus, this can grant a flat bonus to players who want to recruit for their organization.

If we want more refinement (and why wouldn’t we?) we have to sources. First comes in the form of Search Modifiers. Each major increase improves your chances of finding anything, but we can make that more specific. If you want to find doctors or geisha specifically, we could have a smaller sub-bonus where a particular group, profession, faction or culture becomes easier to find. This leads us to our last possible option for a sub-bonus: ideology. Immigration can bring in new cultures and new ideas, which the players can exploit in their effort to shape the ideaology of their organizations.


The next, truly obvious thing the players might want improved would be increased wealth. Like with population, this has an obvious knock-on effect for associated organizations. If everyone suddenly has more money, then you can buy better toys, offer bigger paychecks, and so on. A rising tide lifts all boats. Of course, it doesn’t have to. Like with population, this doesn’t have to be universally spread. We could offer a handful of bonuses to organizations to improve their own wealth.

If we want additional refinement, the obvious advantage players could gain would be access to specific resources. If suddenly, player coffers overflow with spice or adamantium or space-gasoline or whatever, then their options begin to shift in a new direction. Indeed, pushing for improved wealth might primarily be about improving access to unique resources necessary to advance your agenda.

Appearance, Hygiene and Defenses

All three of these of these stats require some building skill (Architecture and Engineering (Civil or Combat) to improve and represent building structures. While I find it unlikely that a player might specifically benefit from improved defenses, appearance or hygiene, he might push for the building of specific structures that benefit him and advance his agenda. For example, we might have numerous possible buildings that improve one of these three traits, but offer some additional, local benefit as well. For example, a research hospital might improve hygiene while also allowing access to new genetic engineering techniques and a temple might improve the beauty of the city while bolstering a certain ideology.

These three forms of structures even break down along particular lines:

Architecture likely offers cultural and economic structures

Hygiene likely offers biotech advantages and medical facilities

Defense obviously offers military improvements, but also likely logistical ones (roads, harbors, repair facilities, etc).

Literacy and Search Modifiers

Literacy in City Stats is drearily boring, telling us whether or not people can read. But if we understand what literacy really represents, which is education level of the populace, then it suddenly takes on a new and interesting dynamic. A more well-educated populace offers better professionals and better masters of esoteric arts! We might represent this benefit, in a more finely grained way, but allow improved search modifiers to find a certain class of character, or by adding new cultural traits to our population. Improved search modifiers make it easier to find elite agents of a particular sort (Swordsmasters, strategists, psionicists, biotechnical inventors, philosophers) or, if specific enough, allow the recruitment of superior generic workers. In fact, we could even expand this to grant bonuses to skills that allow organizations to improve contact skill levels.

Control Rating and Corruption

Control Rating and Corruption abstract away law and people’s evasion of said law. If we need more specific, concrete benefits, we could create specific laws that the lord enacts, even if the law doesn’t explicitly increase or decrease the control rating. These laws could provide benefits to an organization in numerous ways, since the lord can, by fiat, declare things to be true. Increase the CR while mandating a draft: suddenly, your military organizations have a bonus to recruit. Increase the CR and impose a mandatory tithing and membership to a particular church. Suddenly, that faith gets huge bonuses both for improving its assets and population. Decrease the CR (or increase corruption) and create legal loopholes for corporations who have the right connections, and improve both the local economy and line your own pockets while gaining access to resources.

CR and Corruption already present one of the most interesting sets of choices in the game as they represent a double edged sword: high CR give greater control and higher taxes bring larger revenues, but greater control breeds discontent and higher taxes lead to stagnating and then collapsing economies. I’d like to maintain that concept, and expand it to other avenues, with manipulation of the legal system acting as a sort of swiss army knife that can offer nearly any bonus by fiat… but at a cost, since you’re not really improving underlying resources so much as redistributing them.


This isn’t a trait that exists in City Stats, though there are some possible disasters that can result in a loss of Loyalty, thus I suggest codifying it. Just as organizations have control ratings and loyalty ratings, so too should planets. But again, we can break this down by demographic: certain peoples might be innately more loyal to the regime than others, and others might be more likely to revolt and rebel. This matters keenly for recruitment, as recruiting from a particular group might give you a more loyal organization.

Oh sh*t! The hidden dangers of improvements

So, the lord wants to institute some changes. Alright! The players are likely salivating over the possible rewards they can reap after the reform has come through. But what if the reform fails? Well, in most cases (Wealth being the exception), nothing happens. The project fails, the CR remains the same, etc. But if we want to “fail foward” and allow all player actions to have some sort of impact, then I recommend allowing the reform to always succeed (except on a critical failure) but that increased failure results in increased problems. For example, you might get your beautiful skyscraper, but costs and gentrification have damaged the economy, your changes brought in workers and customers that don’t fit your cultural vision, and your badly designed contracts have resulted in criminal activity and outright corruption, increasing the overall corruption. Good job, hero!

This rather matches real-world politics, where politicians continue to pursue doomed projects that run their locality into the ground because it benefits them. As a result, I suggest that most such failures don’t directly impact the players organizations, at least not immediately (they don’t see penalties as a result of their failure), but that they instead damage the underlying world, its infrastructure, its culture and its institutions. Roundly incompetent and selfish players can drive their world into the ground while still improving their organizations, but eventually, the toll will begin to tell. This means, critically, that on some level organizations need to be grounded in the world around them. Patient players can carefully grow their populace and fore-go personal benefits and reap long-term benefits, while impatient players can seize political advantage now, but at a cost down the road. For this to work, we need to clarify what each element does for an organization in the long-term.

Note that a problem does not necessarily need to stem from an attempt to change a thing. That is, if you try to improve your wealth, the price of failure doesn’t have to be a loss of wealth. After all, that would defeat the purpose of “failing forward.” Instead, you could drive away populations or increase lawlessness, or create stifling regulations.

Existing Disasters

Pyramid #3-54 on page 33 has a list of 6 “temporary” disasters that might serve our purposes. We can reduce: Appearance, Revenue, Population, Hygiene, DB, or increase Corruption. All of these last “until the ruler makes a successful administration roll,” but in our case, we’d want to dispatch one of the PCs to deal with it directly, and using more than just a roll! They become a story, and for several (“Crime Wave,” Public Health Crisis”, “Security Breach”), the actions the hero needs to undertake practically write themselves.

Population and Search Modifiers

The obvious penalty is to drop the overall population, which both decreases the long-term revenue you can gain, and reduces the overall search modifiers, which means players will have a harder time recruiting.

If we want to cut it finer, we can allow the population to reduce in pieces. Given that search modifiers increase at a logarithmic sale compared to the population, a population of 9 million can lose 8 million before the players start to notice a drop in their search modifiers, though they’ll certainly notice a drop in overall income.

We can also reduce specific search modifiers or shift culture as certain desired population begins to migrate away. That is, if we see our population as chunks and pieces rather than a great, unruly mass, we can become more specific in what the players lose through mismanagement.


City Stats offers an interesting insight into Wealth, which is that it differs for different levels of society. What matters for revenue is the average. That means the poor can get poorer (much poorer) without creating a serious problem for the overall average. So, our penalty could be a loss of wealth, but it could represent a demographic-specific loss: certain groups could lose money while others remain stable. This might reduce the overall average wealth of the planet.

Does this matter from the perspective of an organization? Well, currently, there is no impact on the organization’s wealth. You just make a Finance roll and move on. I propose that a wealthier worlds naturally make for wealthier organizations, and the easiest way to handle that would be to say that you get a bonus to raise it up to the average level of your surroundings, and a penalty to raise it above the average. However, I would also argue that many organizations receive direct support from their lord. That is, the lord doesn’t expect his military to be self-funding. Instead, he’s going to fund them. Thus, an organizations’ resources needs some direct tie to the taxation of their world, which means that reduced tax revenues means someone has to make cuts somewhere and, of course, it can’t be to your organization, no sir!

Appearance, Hygiene and Defenses

Interestingly, the disasters in Pyramid #3-54 directly reference all three of these. In a sense, they represent a decay of order: urban blight, public health crisis and security breach, respectively. If we want to break them down further, we can even send buildings associated with these things into disrepair, but I think this violates the theme of creating problems that players can ignore. I would propose, instead, a sort of “anti-improvement,” an entity in the game that causes a problem. For example, if an improvement on hygiene might be a hospital, an anti-improvement might be a cess-pit that’s breaking disease, or a vermin nest. If a temple or skyscraper beautifies a city, a sprawling slum uglifies it, and so on. These “anti-improvements” can have a variety of effects associated with them, and can represent weaknesses that their enemies can exploit, and interesting (read “Dangerous!”) locations that the players can visit.

Literacy and Search Modifiers

Education might begin to slip, though this seems a difficult one. I think I’d more likely pair it with population stuff, because it’s not like people forget stuff on a year-to-year basis, but we do lose knowledge (for example, the US hasn’t built nuclear power plants in such a long time that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find competent nuclear engineers!). I think the same ideas that we find in the population change can apply here: demographic groups begin to lose cultural traits or we begin to lose bonuses to find particular sorts of characters. The former interests me more because, again, players can ignore it at least for a time. You can also introduce new and undesired cultural traits as memes and movements take off that threaten the eventual stability of your empire (like, for example, one group might begin to become intolerant of another!)

CR and Corruption

I don’t think it’s possible for CR to “accidentally” rise or fall, but Corruption definitely matters. Increasing corruption can harm revenues and undermine laws that you want to enforce. Corruption is also a pretty large, blanket thing, so I don’t see a way to slice it too finely, but perhaps we don’t need to. Perhaps a corruption increase is, itself, simply a large thing!

Alternatively, we could associate new organizations with increases in corruption: Criminal cartels, conspiracies of corrupt officials, unruly rebels undermining the regime, etc. The power of these groups could vary. A “weak” corruption increase means that some punks moved in and started selling some drugs. Go in, crush them, and you’re problem is solved. A “strong” corruption increase might mean that the mafia itself moves in, and suddenly you have a pernicious and persistent problem that you might have to learn to live with.

I don’t see a way for corruption to directly impact organizations, but it might make passing laws harder (which would hurt everyone in the long run) and it will certainly result in dropping revenues, which hurts all organizations eventually.


People losing faith in their leadership means fading legitimacy. I think an overall loyalty number could affect the loyalty of your recruits, and perhaps even the ease with which we can pass laws. Disloyal and corrupt people could prove exceptionally difficult to administrate properly! I’d go further an argue that too much disloyalty could trigger revolts themselves as a possible draw-back of a failed reform!

Once again, I’d treat loyalty changes by demographic. Perhaps the aristocracy is on your side, but the Fremen are not. Or perhaps the Fremen worship you as a god, the common man is fine with you, but the aristocracy wants you dead.

Summary: So What do Players Do, Anyway?

When it comes to grand-scale strategic action, you roll (or “Take 11”) once per year. At the beginning of the year, the lord sets out his agenda, and the players can take action to advance those agendas (some sort of adventure or major organizational action), and each successful action they undertake grants a flat +1 to the lord’s final roll. That “taking action” is the core of a players’ activity, as well as arguing with the lord for what the agenda should be. At the end of the year, the lord makes his roll. Then the GM (perhaps with the input of the players) decides on the results. Each “Crisis” grants a post-facto bonus, and each “Benefit” grants a post-facto penalty. Thus, if the lord failed by 3, he could have crises worth +4, and a benefit worth -1, and still get what he ultimately wanted. The benefits should directly help organizations, while a crisis should indirectly harm organizations. That is, it should be possible to disregard the health of your overall world in the short term, but not in the long term, and clever play will balance immediate needs with long term concerns.

What we need for this system

First, we need to define what we mean by “the people” or “the planet.” I suggest a “character sheet” for each world. This contains:

The overall “City stats” for the world, specifically the overarching elements, including, most critically

Total Population

Default revenue

Control Rating


Major points of interest (say, up to 4)

(We might divide some of the above values among them)

Resources and improvements located in each point of interest

Demographic groups strongly present in each location

Major demographic groups (say, up to 4)

Their population level

Their Wealth

Their cultural values (and their unique traits?)

Their Loyalty

For further mechanics, I need to:

Break down the difficulties of the various reform attempts

Offer some concrete ideas as to what an organization or player can do to benefit one of these broad actions

Determine the “price” and “benefit” of bonus and crisis

Determine a series of interesting crises

Determine a series of interesting cultural values (both positive, negative and some with a bit of both)

Determine a series of interesting resources and improvements

Determine a series of interesting anti-improvements (as part of a crisis)

For the actual actions, we also need:

To understand how the larger world impacts the running of an organization

To undersand how we can use the organization to impact the larger world (our actions above).

For that, I’ll need to dive into organizations.

This entire approach is also introspective. It assumes that the lord worries only about managing his domain. Naturally, politics also involves dealing with others’ domains, as they attempt to conquer yours, or you attempt to conquer theirs. Thus, we need mechanics that will allow us to interfere with the agendas of our rivals, and to undermine our rivals directly, and then ultimately even oust them and replace them. For that, I’ll need to dive into political conflict.

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