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My Space Australia
I. What is this thread?
CF doesn’t do well with discussion threads, but I thought I’d give it a shot. This is a place to talk about CYOA games, those you’ve run, those you want to run and those you’ve just played in. What worked? What didn’t? And so forth. We’ve had a few on the forums (they were super popular in certain parts of the internet a few years back, but they’ve fallen out of fashion) and I feel that they make for a good alternative to trying to play a full RPG in a thread.
Hopefully, this thread can birth another game. And then maybe people will add their thoughts to this as they play it.
Some of this stuff will be specific to the Space Australia game, but I also want to talk about the type of game in a more general sense. It is a tad rambly. Just a tad.
II. What is a “CYOA”?
It stands for Choose Your Own Adventure. I previously defined it like this:
This is a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) game. It’s sort of like a Play By Post but more freeform and with no defined player list. Every turn I’ll post an update, with a few options and then you lot get to decide what you would like to happen. With your choices determining the fate of our luckless colonists. Anybody can jump in and have their say on the direction taken by the colony in a given turn. I'll go for whatever gets a majority.
I also encourage you guys to post little side stories, or drawings or whatever. I’m just arbitrating. it’s your colony to run (as a valiant and terrible democracy). Also, it helps me to know what you guys want so I can swing my options to fit that better.
The name comes from a book series I used to read when I was a kid, they were mostly crude knock-offs of D&D modules where you’d have a short passage of text ending with “if you do [x] turn to page [a], if you choose to do [y] then turn to page [ b]”. Of the games I’ve seen, lots have nice art (some are mainly art), however, I’m cack-handed and never spent the time and effort necessary to become a passable artist. So I painted a picture with words! An ugly picture with poor chosen words.
Here are the specifics of the mechanics I used, bearing in mind that this was a 4X type game where I was
heavily ripping off
inspired by Alpha Centauri
Sometimes, we’ll want chance to play a part in what happens. In such cases, I’ll roll dice (3d6). That gives us a nice shaped curve between 3 and 18, where the extremes are pretty unlikely but you’ve got a solid chance of beating a 10. Situations will make that target number higher or lower, and you may get bonuses to those dice.
Supplies are split into Food, and Resources. One man needs one food per turn. Building things will take generic resources.
Population is sort of a resource, in general it slowly increases each turn (I’ll roll 2d6 and take the first from the second, and you gain that many hundred people, with negatives just being zero growth). There’s a max population too, which is the number of people you can house. Going beyond this will first lower morale, and then it will start to have serious knock on effects.
We also have energy. Generally new buildings and projects will need an amount of energy units to support them. Power plants and technology will increase this number.
Beyond this there’s also Morale. This goes Riots-Unhappy-Fine-Happy-Bliss. Riot gives you a -4 on most rolls, Unhappy a -2, Fine is no modifier, Happy is +2, Bliss is +4. Events will move you up and down the morale track. If you have positive morale, you have to pass a difficulty 8 check to avoid slipping down a level.
I have a map with a hex grid overlayed on it, so we can keep track of various things. Hexes need to be explored in order to build on them, most structures are “big” meaning that they fill a hex.
The players also got to pick a faction which changed around their initial supplies and gave them some ability or other. In Space Australia, they chose to play as the overcrowded prison pod (hence the name).
You can see how these evolved in the game itself (just compare the first
posts for how things changed and the options expanded).
III. How about some backstory?
A few months back I decided, having played along with hoodie13’s CYOA game about sentient horny trees in SE++ (primarily driving them towards their own destruction at the hands of an evil magic orb), that I would do one of my own. Now, I’m sure you’d like to hear how I thought about it for a while and drew a map and a techtree and carefully designed factions.
In reality, I just started banging out words. Did an image search for an alien map (settling for one of Mars with a few added cancels), popped a hex grid on it and called it a day. Strike while the iron is hot and all that.
That was in October. 110 turns later (which is about 115 game posts by me, countless clarifications, lots of PMs and, most importantly, an absolute shit load of posts by the players which included art and fiction) we finished. People seem to have have had fun and I think there’s a semi-interesting narrative in there (despite the awful writing and endless typos).
IV. Things that were missed in Space Australia
I didn’t actually have a big mapped out tech tree. I just grew it organically as we went along and you guys said you wanted to do X (sometimes I already had a plan for X, that was fine, it was coming, other times, it meant shoving something in that later became more important than you’d expect, like the drugs).
That said, you did miss one or two things. I hinted there was a structure to compliment the Ministry of Industry, and indeed there was and the Erde had one. You were tantalizingly close to unlocking it for a long time, you just needed to actually train some militia (those ineffective, but super cheap, troops) after having actually taken part in an armed conflict. After that you’d have been able to research The Art of War, which would have let you construct the Ministry of War (I may have called it something else). This would have done two things. First, you would have been able to choose a new trait for your “advanced” infantry (one that gave a small bonus when defending, another that let them reroll ones when confronted by superior forces and the third let them earn resources when they won). These were your equivalent to Palin’s Voice. You’d be able to recruit bog standard infantry for free too (you’d roll a 1d6 each turn, and when you accumulated 10, you got a free size 1 unit)
The other thing was spy stuff. I wanted to open these tech options when you started trading with ReEarth, but you spent forever getting around to it. By the time you did, you’d already become quite good friends and figured out most of their secrets so it seemed irrelevant. That and nobody seemed to be inclined to mention it, and I preferred to let you guys drive. When the Erde rolled around, I realised that it was going to be hard to actually make them anything more than monolithic crazies without some insight. So I introduced Erde_Voice, the blog that (hopefully) let you see that they were happy, despite being fundamentalists sticking to a plan that didn’t really fit the situation.
I think you guys had all your lingering plot questions answered in the end, right?
V. What went wrong in that game?
I made a few mistakes with Space Australia and got into a number of sticky situations. I’ve erased most from my memories, instead choosing to bask in the glory of a mission accomplished, but here are the few that stuck with me.
Each post by me would end with a list of options for the players to vote on. Sometimes there would be more than one, so you’d choose a number and a letter. That wasn’t so bad. What was bad was when I was doing 4 or 5. So I’d have letters, numbers, and various symbols. Sometimes those votes would need to be applied to something (for example, A was usually the option to explore and needed a direction, so I might have a list like A, 2, £, @, %). Doing the vote tally wasn’t actually made any harder, but it made the game a lot less welcoming for a new player who wanted to stop in. And I didn’t like that. I’d have liked to set a hard limit of three things a round, but there were times when there was just pressing action that needed attention.
Time was another problem. For the first weeks, I could do updates once or twice a day no problem at all. It took maybe ten minutes. Little by little, the time to write a post crept up. There were all sorts of things to keep track of (And obviously, more things to vote on, means more stuff is going on). I’d say the average time per post was about 45 minutes. On occasion (particularly in combat, or when I noticed an accounting error) I’d be updating the game over the course of two hours.
Occasionally I found myself struggling with rules. Compared to the other games on these boards, Space Australia, was pretty rules heavy. This was entirely unintentional. I pulled the mechanics out of thin air and was just trying to cover all the bases. The problems were things like morale not having enough granularity (five states Riot/Unahppy/Fine/Happy/OverTheChuffingMoon that corresponded to a modifier that applied to most dice rolls), it always seemed overkill to move an entire notch in response to some situation.
The players also wanted trains, because trains are bitching, and I couldn’t think of a way to bring them. Or more, I had no idea what mechanical advantage they would confer. I regret not just saying “Woo trains” and including their existence in a post. It would have made perfect sense.
In thinking about trains, I made a cardinal error. I asked the players about a mechanical issue. I deeply regret this. Having them put that kind of input in meant they were peeking behind the curtain and generally proposing ideas that they just lacked sufficient information to fully flesh out. So I ended up dismissing their ideas. Nobody wants that.
A side issue, very specific to that game, was the problem of solar energy. Concentrated solar plants were meant to be limited to an equatorial band. Whoops.
That and I was constantly finding annoying errors as a regular of emergent complexity and not having a defined control sequence. So, if I rolled and a mine became “barren” (provides less income) did I apply it that round or did I wait for the next one? If I’m not breaking population into units smaller than 100, then what happens when it takes 0.1k population to make a size 4 iron man squad and they take size 1 casualties? Keeping the working population up to date was a surprising headache. I was tempted to offset some of the work to a spreadsheet at one point, but then I realised it would be easier to write a proper little program to hold the information and auto-updated it. I stepped back and realised I was attempting to make a crude computer game based on something I’d knocked up in an hour. I was looking down a pit of insanity.
Perhaps most important of my realisations was that I did combat wholly wrong. Here’s the mechanics I used in Space Australia.
Every unit has a size and a strength. I'll do an example here of a size 5, strength 5 unit, force A, against a size 10, strength 3 one, force B.
As I said previously, combat is based on rolling [size]d6 and multiplying the score by strength. So Force A rolls 5d6 and multiplies the result by 10, while B rolls 10d6 and multiplies it by 5. I'll do that now.
Force A: Rolls a 16, to get 160
Force B: Rolls a 35, to get 175
So, Force B has won this engagement. That doesn't necessarily mean that A is wiped out though. We need to compare the scores.
B = A : Draw - Light Losses on both sides
1.5A > B > A : Minor victory - Light losses for B, Medium Losses for A
2A > B > 1.5A : Major victory - Light losses for B, Heavy losses for A
3A > B > 2A : Overwhelming victory - No losses for B, Heavy losses for A
B > 3A : Need a new adjective victory - No losses for B, Critical losses for A
Those are just names for how much of the force has been destroyed. I determined which are gone randomly, and round up.
Light = 10%
Medium = 25%
Heavy = 50%
Critical = 100%
These are bad mechanics that nobody should ever use anywhere. I can see now a few more elegant solutions. And like all the best solutions they come from ripping off board games. I should have either lifted the mechanic from Risk or from TI3. I’m not sure which I prefer.
Risk has a dice pool, the attacker rolls dice equal to the number of attacking units (capped at three in that game). The defender rolls dice based on their units (capped two). You then put them in order and highest out of the pairs wins (defenders win ties). You keep doing it until the defender has nothing left or the attacker gives up. This is super simple, and you can have stronger units by letting units roll larger dice, reroll dice, win ties in an attack and so forth.
TI3 works on rolling a d8 (I’d most likely use something a bit bigger) for each unit in combat. Each specific unit has a target number that you need to beat (so crappy fighters have a score of 8, super cool megaships might have a 3). Every successful roll is a casualty. Some ships have multiple health. Again, super simple and lets you improve things easily enough (lower target numbers, have rerolls, certain ships can do more than 1HP of damage to a target, etc. etc.).
So, for the Space Australia example, lets say I’d use a d20. Infantry would have had a target of 18, Iron Men 15 and XXXXs would have had 10 (their vulnerability just comes from them only taking one hit here, possibly each unit could have had two attacks or somesuch). The upgrade to shard weapons would’ve just dropped those numbers by a fixed amount. Fighting behind a defensive perimeter would’ve given +1 on all rolls and so forth. Much cleaner..
VI. Do the numbers matter?
That might seem like a stupid question. A fair bit of drama and conflict arose from the numbers in Space Australia. Energy being slashed by ion storms, overpopulation and food reserves being depleted both happened a few times and caused emergency measures. If I’d been handwaving everything, then maybe these crises would have seemed irritating and arbitrary?
I think given that it was a 4x too, it benefited from tangible numbers associated with things. It fits the genre. That said, if we’d been running some kind of more character-based adventure, maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. And frankly, it would save the DM (or whatever the CYOA equivalent to a Dungeon Master is) a lot of bookwork.
Hoodie’s game didn’t really seem to use numbers either (resources were high/medium/low, although there were oddly specific numbers of tree-people in his society) and that seemed to work out well. The moral, is therefore to think carefully about whether it’s worth bothering with numbers.
VII. What should you be able to do in a turn
Again, this is specific to 4x games, but the way they are generally run is that research takes a “turn”, as does building a castle, scouting the unknown land to the north, training some dragons or firing a kinetic bombardment satellite into orbit. Now, the 4x games that we draw inspiration from obviously don’t equate these things. Each little outpost or town can build its own thing whether it’s a military unit or a new granary. Research happens passively in the background, for instance earning Research Points each turn towards a goal. You can design your civilisation to produce more RP and therefore advance more rapidly.
Now, I know that a few times people were a bit perturbed by exploring some new land taking the same “time” as researching some fundamental facet of science or building a new wind turbine. Obviously, unless your man power is super limited, then these things could easily occur concurrently. Pressing a “research button” also seemed to feel off for many.
I’ve thought about how to change this, and I’ve yet to come up with a good solution. Does each turn have a movement, building and research phase? Do I run these all at once or one at a time? The best solution I came up with was to have research initially behave as it did in Space Australia (i.e. taking an action), but once the labs were established shift to a passive accumulation (players vote on the new tech / tech field, having a vague idea of the goal and then earn RP each turn towards it. Spending a turn to focus on research gives them a give surge forwards, i.e. one big enough to outright complete the early techs). The downside to that is that if the players hold off buying the labs then they my end up being able to take researching that doesn’t do anything. It’s more book-keeping, but I think it’s for the best.
In Space Australia, I wanted exploration to be a challenge (I had a little table for what was encountered in each hex and would roll the usual 3d6+morale to see what bonuses they found. There was a chance that they could have various incidents from poor rolls.). This seemed at odds with allowing any kind of passive exploration. Despite this, it didn’t make sense that a colony would advance and yet still have these mysterious wilds. In the end, somebody suggested having members of the population venture out into the wild to stake a claim on the unknown wilds in the hope of being bought off later. It was a reasonable compromise. Looking back, I should have made an “explorer” trait/unit that would work passively to explore hexes (have it take 3 rounds or something, compared to the explore action that could uncover up to 2 hexes a round by the end of the game.
Ignoring the book-keeping and voting problems, the “best” solution would be to use command points. This is an extra resources related to the colony’s leadership/efficiency, it would start low at perhaps just one point meaning that any action needed their full attention, but slowly they would establish themselves and gain extra CP and therefore be able to do more on a turn (building multiple things, researching, exploring, etc.).
VIII. Should there be any options at all?
Presenting the players with a list of options to choose from at the bottom of each post isn’t essential in CYOA games. Some are more like adventure games where after a post, the players voice what they’d like to do without restriction “Pick up the crab!”, “Wear the crab as a hat”, “Eat the crab”, and so forth. The DM then just picks what he considers the best/most amusing/most popular response and carries on. While I can’t see it working for a 4X, it is absolutely the way to go with some games and it’s important to step back and make sure you’re not just putting yourself and your players in a straight jacket.
IX. That is some incoherent rambling
It really is. This made more sense when I was thinking about it. Less so now that I’ve written anything. Hopefully somebody else has something interesting to say.
X. Will there be a Space Australia follow up?
Maybe! I don't think I'll do one though, so somebody else can deal with the mysterious operation Grey Sky and the revenge of the Silent Colony. I'd like to do another game down the line, but I don't think I'd do a 4X. I think I'd do something more character driven. Maybe something clichéd and fantasy. Or a guy surviving an apocalypse.
XI. I'm lazy, can't a computer do the monkey work for me?
Thanks to ElectrictyLikesMe yes, yes it can. He's put together a couple of python scripts that should make things easier by sorting combat, tracking state and even counting votes. Here's a link: