Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #64:

Galactic Empires, Part Three: Building a Hegemony

by Shannon Appelcline

March 14, 2002 - Two days ago we opened Skotos' newest game, Galactic Emperor: Hegemony, up for a limited beta. It's a game based on Space Empires, which I described at length in last week's article, Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #63, Galactic Empires, Part Two: Expanding into Space. In case you didn't read last week's article, let me repeat one vital piece of information: Space Empires is a strategic war game game with diplomatic components.

And, as some of you might have already discerned, yes, that is somewhat of a departure from the games we've had in the Skotos community to date.

This week I want to talk a bit more about that, and how Space Empires actually does fit into our vision of Skotos.

What's a Skotos Game?

To answer the question of how a strategic game fits into the Skotos community I've asked Sherman to set the wayback machine to March 2000, almost exactly two years ago. At the time we were talking about our first Skotos science-fiction game. It was to be called Vortex and, much like the science-fiction games we've come out with since, it was to be a wide departure from the prose-based roleplaying games that are closer to the center of our business. (I discussed Vortex briefly in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities#15, Welcome to the Twenty-First Century. Go ahead and read about; I'll wait.)

Because Vortex was so different from the other stuff that we were doing at the time, it caused us to question what a Skotos game really was — what it meant to be a "storytelling" game, a term we'd bandied around pretty loosely to that date. It made us really think, and in the end we decided that there were three qualities that were central to all Skotos games; we further decided that we'd only be producing games if they met at least two of these qualities. They are:

  • Backstory. Something to build the stories of the present day upon, like the hints of what came before the New Awakenings, which underlie Castle Marrach; or the myths of the battle between the Sun and the Moons which are at the heart of The Eternal City.
  • Roleplaying. The simple ability to take on the persona and characteristics of another person.
  • Required Interactions. In other words, interactions with other players might not form the only route of "success" in a game, but they would definitely be the most efficient path. In Castle Marrach, this is clearly the only way to go, because socialization is the heart of the game. However, even in The Eternal City, where you could spend your time training and killing monsters, you're not going to find the true heart of the game until you start interacting with other people.

Space Empires, as it originally existed, caught our eyes not only because it was well designed and well implemented, but also because it met one of our three criteria. You had to engage in diplomacy to achieve the best success in the game. Without it, you were almost certain to go down in flames.

So, after we'd resolved some design limitations, which I discussed at depth last week, we started to work hard to figure out how to add one or two of our other required factors, to give this terrific strategic game a storytelling sheen — something that could make it even more memorable and allow for more different types of play.

And that's what I'm going to talk about this week. A lot of this is still theoretical, because much of it is still under consideration. But, figuring out how to add roleplaying to a game, even theoretically, should be of interest to any Skotos StoryBuilder.

Building a Back Story

Building a backstory was really the easiest thing. Long before the release of Galactic Emperor: Succession we'd decided to create a science-fiction universe that could support several games. Thus we had the story basis for Hegemony long before we brought it over to our site. We had alien races, a long-lost founder race, ancient artifacts — really, everything that was required to form the broad outlines of a fun SF universe.

When creating a backstory I think it's best to settle on one really exciting, evocative idea and make that a center piece of your background. It'll give your players something to hold on to — and it'll also give you a core to build around.

In Hegemony I knew that I'd need to offer some method for all the players to come together and meet, despite the fact that they were spread across the galaxy — despite the fact that space travel was pretty slow. One of my coworkers suggested that the players could appear as holograms in a space station, and I went from there ...

A neutron star sounded pretty memorable too, so I stuck my space station inside one, and by then it became obvious that we were talking about some pretty awesome technology being required to prevent the station from getting squashed down to a pinpoint instantly. Thus it became clear that the space station must be a product of the technology of the Shining Ones, said long-lost founder race.

And from there, everything else fell out nicely. Access to the space station (Abode) has recently opened up, and the races of the galaxy had discovered the secrets of FTL technology within, which itself was causing the galactic wars that were just starting up. It was a nice interweaving of story between two facts: the necessity of a space station and the fact of a brewing war.

Also, it was very simple story. It had what entrepreneurs call an elevator speech ("Having unearthed ancient technologies the Overlords of the galaxy prepare for war"). But, there's a lot of complexity in the story too — in the whole universe. There are a number of alien races, all interacting in a historical backstory. There's the secret of the Shining Ones. You can see some of that complexity over in the Galactic Emperor: Succession Galactic Encyclopedia. The timeline and the alien guides are going to form the basis for similar files over at Hegemony, as time allows.

So, backstory was dealt with pretty easily, although presenting it to the players, and letting them truly become a part of it is something that'll be an issue in the months to come.

Building Roleplaying

I believe that encouraging roleplaying is pretty easy too. I think it's an innate ability and desire built into just about every one of us. You just need to provide your players with crutches that can help them get started. Whenever I create a new character in a roleplaying game I usually jot down 1-3 personality traits. Things like "morose" or "unfeeling" or "trickster". I've suggested a similar technique in the Players' Guides I wrote for Castle Marrach and The Eternal City. There I propose that people pick an adjective and a noun to define their character, like "happy-go-lucky warrior" or "bad-mouthed healer".

With Hegemony I had to figure out how to expand this concept into a strategic science-fiction game.

Science fiction games have an advantage for roleplaying in that the standard trope is that each alien race has a stereotypical personality. Klingons are "angry warriors" and Ferengi are "cheating traders". Wookies are "angry navigators" and Hutts are "slimy traders". (Do we see some repetition here?) Thus, races seemed to be the obvious way to bring roleplaying into an SF game.

Unfortunately a strategic game has a disadvantage of being abstracted from roleplaying. When moving your ships around or building up your resources or blowing up your enemies you're more likely to be thinking about the best way to do things, and not how a character would do things.

The obvious answer in Hegemony seemed to be to create races and then to integrate those races into the strategic part of the game, so that each one had slightly different abilities. Thus, a player would get roleplaying hints from his character in two ways — from a description of the race and also from what he could do in the strategic interface. Clearly his gameplay would be necessarily directed toward an appropriate type of gameplay for his race (or, at least it would be if he wanted to win). It's a clear extension of the idea I wrote about in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #38, The Game Is what the Game Is. Gameplay develops from the way systems are built within a game; in this case racial advantages and disadvantages will encourage racial styles of play and thus racial roleplaying.

I haven't worked out all the specifics yet, but I suspect there will be warrior races which are slightly better at combat and spy races which are slightly better at getting information about their enemies and nomadic races which typically have faster ships. And lots more.

Designing a Chat Theatre

Once we get races integrated into Hegemony, which might well be months away, I'm pretty sure there will be a nice basis of roleplaying within the strategic game. But, I want to offer something more than that, to really draw together the Hegemony playerbase into a living community. Thus, we created a Chat Theatre to go with the strategic Hegemony game. It's called Abode and I talked about its construction a bit last month in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #61, Building Block Examples: The Hologram Nexus.

In the first part of this series of articles, Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #62, Galactic Empires, Part One: Failing at Succession I offered a number of reasons why our previous science fiction game, Galactic Emperor: Succession failed. One that I didn't really talk about was the problems with Succession's own Chat Theatre.

Succession was built in a beautiful space station, 3 or 5 times as large as what I put together for Hegemony (maybe more). It included terrific maps and very cool dynamic rooms which renamed themselves based on who was doing the best in the game (so that the leading Overlords always got the choicest locales).

Unfortunately the space station was also largely purposeless. There were only two useful rooms — the Council Room, where you cast your ballots, and the Throne Room, where emperors were crowned. The rest of the place ... was just space.

When designing the Abode Chat Theatre for Hegemony I did my best to make sure that everything was essential, so that players wouldn't feel the need to ignore much of the game. To do that I started out by asking the question, "What use would players have for a live chat environment?" I came up with two answers:

  1. Discussing Diplomacy & Strategy. These are already a core of Hegemony and will just be enhanced by a live environment. Thus I started out by building four "Diplomatic Sanctums" where Overlords can have private conferences.
  2. Resolving Disagreements. Since diplomatic agreements are a heart of Hegemony, disagreements concerning them are inevitable. Thus I envisioned an area where disagreements could be decided by a third-party arbiter.

As noted, I built four Diplomatic Sanctums. The Tribunal area was composed of two rooms. Then, I built two other rooms that were, essentially, hallway between them, for a total of 8 different rooms, which is most of Abode.

However, I wanted to give the station just a little more character, so I came up with excuses for two more places within the game. They're not actually core to my concept of why people will come to the station, so I needed to think up ways to make these places useful too. These two additional rooms are:

  • The Starscape Observatory. A place to look at the universe(s). There's not much exciting here right now, but eventually players will be able to call up galactic war maps from within this room.
  • The Computer Bays. I'm slightly less sure on the purpose of this room. My best current guesses are a reference library, just to add to the in-game back story, and a statistical calculator, that can be used to make certain statistical analyses of opponents' forces. I might well do both.

I stuck those last two rooms on to some of the hallways I already had and ... bingo! ... instant station. And hopefully it'll prove to be more totally used than the Succession station was.

Figuring out the utility of your rooms one-by-one isn't a bad development principle for any prose game.

Making a Chat Theatre a Success

Overall I think we've got a Chat Theatre for Hegemony that's pretty cool. The rooms have cool names and good uses; the alien bodies are very well described, thanks to some of my co-workers; there are some neat maps; and it takes advantage of the terrific Skotos social parser.

But, I'm fairly certain it's going to be a struggle to get people inside Abode, for two different reasons.

First is the old, familiar ramp-up issue. There won't be people in the Theatre, and there won't be much to do there on your own — unless I put that statistical analysis software in — and as a result players won't find other people, and they'll get bored and move on. And so, there won't be people in the Theatre ...

Second, Abode isn't a requirement of the Hegemony game. I have no doubt that it'll enhance the gameplay for some percentage of the users. They'll like the opportunity to meet their foes and allies face-to-face, to brag, beg, and bribe. But, Hegemony is a good enough game on its own that those players who would like the Abode experience may never know what they're missing.

So, I expect the ride of getting Abode off the ground to be a little bumpy. I've got some ideas for what to do. Once the community gels a bit more I'm going to try and host some chats there, just to talk about Hegemony. I'm also going to integrate Abode usage a little more directly into the strategic display, so that you can automatically suggest Abode meetings\ times from the Diplomacy option.

I wouldn't be surprised, however, if I have to work even harder to make Abode work.

(Of course if Abode usage does start ramping up, I've got some really weird ideas of how a full StoryTelling game could be created there. Imagine a space station that's not just the hub of the universe, but the hub of the multiverse. Imagine it filled with Overlords from all the realities, coming together for diplomacy, strategy, and judgement. But, at the same time, continuing stories are being told in Abode. Some people will be just roleplayers, some will be just strategists, but they will all overlap, inhabiting the same world, and it'll be just a little bit like real life in that fashion.)

A silly vision, perhaps. I'll be very content if we can just make Abode an interesting part of the Hegemony strategy game. But, I'll also keep looking to the stars ...

Glue, Beautiful Glue

I wanted to finish up this week with one last reason why we think Hegmeony is a great addition to the Skotos community. I already talked about the two big ones — that it's a great strategy game (see last week) and that it matches our criteria for a storytelling game, if we can get the roleplaying expanded (see this week).

There's also another reason: it's beautiful glue.

We're creating more than just a bunch of individual game communities here at Skotos. We're trying to create a meta community — a place where folks from all over the world can come together and share not just who they are within our games, but who they really are too. And I think Hegemony can help us meet that goal.

It's a short-term game, so even if you play Marrach or TEC you can definitely bop over there for a single game if you want. Even better, you can arrange for games with groups of your in-Marrach or in-TEC friends, and thus get to know them in a different context. Or, you can work out animosities from a game in a fun way. Tired of all those Duelist players picking on your Watchmen players? Request a private Hegemony game where Duelists can kick Watchmen butt.

No doubt about it, Space Empires is a great game on its own, but because of the type of game it is, it can also contribute a new, diversionary experience for other folks in this community.

And that's it for me this week. For the first time in months (since October, really) I have no plans for what game design topic I'm going to discuss next week. But, something will come to me ...

I'll see you in 7.

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