Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Ancients: Background

"As was well-reported at the time, and well-remembered by survivors, during the fall of New London, our artillery made an exchange of fire with the enemy walkers.  Despite many direct hits against them, their machines did not appear to suffer.  The sole exception was one of the smaller types, struck by shell at some weak point, or perhaps felled by one of its fellows' misdirected beams.  By chance it crashed near the position in which I commanded a company of Gurkhas.  Seized by curiosity, I resolved to make a quick reconnaissance of the crater where it had fallen.  

"With Lieutenant Peason (subsequently a casualty) and two Gurkhas as a patrol, we approached the ruin of the machine.  The first of many horrors to assail my senses was the stench, like rancid milk or a great mildew, that arose from the translucent fluid that coated the wreckage. Drawing nearer, we perceived that it flowed from the shattered carapace, and must have filled its interior.  Clambering over the splayed and ruined machine, we gazed into the interior.  There lay a creature which God Himself could scarcely have created more deliberately to inspire my revulsion. My first impression was of a hairless ape, with fish-white skin, and great bulging forearms.  The crash had ruined its rear quarters.  Two small, almost vestigial legs thrashed in the blood-tainted fluid of its nest.  A tail or stinger of prodigious size, more like a third much larger leg than an extension of the torso, lay pinned in the metal.  The monster turned at my approach. It possessed no discernible head, though a face of sorts nested between its lumpen shoulders and underbelly.  An asymmetrical cluster of ebony eyes glared at me, and its needled proboscis snapped feebly at my outstretched hand.  Appalled, I emptied several rounds from my revolver into it.  At that point, a rumbling of the earth heralded the approach of the enemy, and I hastened away. 

"By day's end, New London had fallen, and Peason and my Gurkhas had all been burned to ash.  Thus I believe I am the only Earthman to have witnessed our enemy's mortal flesh and to have lived to report it."

--- Major Edward Oswald-Smith, reporting on the destruction of New London, October 3rd 1914.

A fluke. Wikipedia.

The Ancients

The Ancients are a cruel and highly advanced species.  They brought other intelligent races to Mars as slaves and build magnificent cities, before their Civil War laid waste to Mars' surface.  Even in their decline, they remain terrifyingly powerful, ruling mysterious closed cities, and sallying forth periodically to ravage, rage and cull any Humans or Brutes who have the temerity to live free.

Biologically, the Ancients are amphibious creatures, who require a fluid medium to moisturize their skin in order to breathe. They are quadrupeds, with two large arms, and two small legs.  They lack a head, and have their sense organs and mouth on the underside of their torso. Martians are hermaphrodites, and each adult individual possesses a large ovipositor.  This resembles and outsize tail or stinger.  The Ancients exude sperm from sacs under their arms, which are absorbed by nearby Ancients via skin contact.  They then use their ovipositor to implant fertilized eggs into a food source, where they gestate as thousands of parasites and eventually devour the host.  Any large animal will serve for this purpose, but the cruel ancients prefer to implant their young into an intelligent creature, so that they may contemplate its suffering.  The emerging Larval Ancients devour each other, until only a few individuals remain, to be raised in a crèche.

Unlike the Brutes or the Humans, who clearly share biological traits with other species found on Mars, the Ancients seem unrelated to other Martian fauna. Only the Martian worm, a loathsome parasite found in stagnant rivers or pools, bears any resemblance to an adult Ancient. Indeed, Mars entirely lacks the large swamps that would seem to be the Ancients' favored environment.  This leads free human savants to speculate that the Ancients originated on another planet altogether. 

Ancients spend most of their lives in artificial vehicles and structures.  Their sprawling palaces contain low pools and gentle waterfalls (plus plenty of meat/prey).  When they venture outside, they contain themselves in walkers or saucers, the core of which is a sealed fluid capsule.


The Ancients' society is founded on cruelty, shaped by an epiphany they term the Awakening. In the Awakening, the Ancients of old collectively realized the purposelessness of life.  An intelligent being could measure its worth only by the imposition of its will upon the universe, and (especially) upon other creatures.  The Awakening led directly to the Civil War, in which the Awakened Ancients turned upon those Ancients who disagreed, and ultimately each other in an orgy of violence, as each Ancient attempted to assert the superiority of its will. 

Only a handful of Ancients survived the Civil War, and most organized their surviving cities into a hierarchy of domination and cruelty.   These Dominators constitute the majority faction of the Ancients. The ranking Ancient Dominator rules lesser ones, who acquiesce in exchange for the opportunity to periodically dominate other creatures in their turn.  A subordinate Ancient may endure years of slavery and domination, awaiting with desire a promised month, or week, or hour of license. Thus, in addition to the cruel whims of the ruling Ancient, lesser Ancients and the slave races of the city have also to endure the predations of subordinate Ancients exercising their periodic rights to equipment and authority. By the conventions of the Ancients, subordinate Ancients, loosed onto such expeditions of violence, need not honor any conventions or pacts their masters may have made with the free cities or nomads in their domains.  Thus, Ancient war-machines and armies sally into the wastes, looking for settlements to devastate, or even flora and fauna to destroy.  The Ancients ongoing predations explain why Mars has never recovered, ecologically, technologically, or economically, from the Civil War.  

The majority of Ancients, following the teachings of the Awakening, are secularists and nihilists.  However, a few Ancients have observed the seemingly impossible feats of the nomadic shamans and human priests.  These Ancients recognize the existence of Martian spirits, but they do not venerate them.  In typical Ancient fashion, they seek to dominate, destroy and impose their will upon the spirits, and, in so doing, to partake of their power.  They call themselves the God-Eaters, and their veneration of the ways of the Worm, give them terrible mystical power.

A very few Ancients reject the teachings of the Awakening.  Known as the Restorers, these Ancients desire to overthrow the Dominators, rebuild their ancient Empire, recover their technological mastery, and enslave again all the races of Mars. These Ancients value cooperation among themselves, and wage a running guerilla war against the more powerful Dominators.  Though less capricious, the Restorers can be just as cruel towards the other races of Mars, whose independence they view as an affront, and to whom they ascribe values only as tools.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Mars: Religion and Magic (Background)

Horus. Wikipedia.
Hare for hiding,
Falcon for seizing
Jackal for its mate,

Dragon for might,
Beast for endurance,
Serpent for mysteries.

Worm hates them all.

-- Martian Proverb

The Free Human cities and the Brutes share a common religion - the worship of the Animal Powers that can grant success or failure in the harsh Martian wastes.

For every species, every place, even every stone or cloud, there exists a governing spirit.  Some receive only local veneration, such as the spirits of city, of clan or of ancestors.

More universally recognized are the seven Great Spirits, which possess wider power over Martian life: Hare, Falcon, Jackal, Dragon, Beast, Serpent, and Worm. Each merits their due, even Worm the Destroyer.

The Great Spirits are sometimes associated with the different Martian races.  The triad is a sacred number on Mars, representing wholeness and balance.  There are two triads of Spirits, considered generally benevolent.   Hare, Falcon and Jackal originate from Earth, and share an especial closeness with Humans.  Dragon, Beast, and Serpent are all scaled, and may originate from the Brute's original home-world.  As they seem to watch over Brutes especially.  The Ancients, however, have only a single totem creature, Worm. Worm breaks the pattern of completeness.  Some whisper that He devoured his two unknown Brothers, and drove the Ancients to madness.  Until the return to life, Mars will know no healing. 

The nomadic tribes (Brute or Human) worship and venerate the Spirits either individually or following the heads of their family lineages.  Mystics, shamans, and other dedicated religious specialists also exist, following a variety of traditions.

Humans of the Free cities often anthropomorphize the Spirits, representing them as animal-headed or featured gods. A formal priesthood, centered around cult images and temples serves the needs of most of the populace.  Individual magicians work alongside this formal structure, focusing on magic use of the Spirits' powers.

Outsiders disagree on how far the Ancients recognize Spirits. Their iconography and behavior suggests that if they do, they venerate Worm exclusively.  Their slaves often share worship and beliefs with free populations, but darkened or perverted in some way. 

Each Spirit governs certain traits, reflected in its followers, shaping their behavior even on the battlefield, and unleashing miracles and magic.  However much the ignorant Colonists deny such things, Mars' spirits do not sleep quietly.

Chinese Hare. 1333. Wikipedia.


Hare embodies swiftness and deception. A trickster god, he melts into the dunes and the scrub, leading pursuers to misfortune. Always mercurial, worshipers invoke him with trepidation.

Brown Falcon. Wikipedia.


Birds of prey soar on the desert thermals, seeking prey.  When Falcon's keen eye spies a weakness, he swoops, seizing and rending with his talons. When danger strikes, he flies mocking out of reach.

Ethiopian Wolf. Wikipedia.


The wild canids of the Martian wastes travel in pairs or packs, and range in size from tiny scavengers to rangy predators.  Whether he manifests as a married pair, or a pack of kinsmen, Jackal's strength lies in his coordination with his fellows to bring down larger prey and defend his own.

Komodo Dragon. Wikipedia.


The great lizards of the Martian desert wait in the sun, lazy-seeming and slow until they strike.  Then they spring, clutching prey in their indomitable jaws.  Few escape their bite.

Rhinos. Wikipedia.


Herd-beasts and herbivores wander the Martian wastes.  Beast survives where others cannot, and his sun-scarred hides shows the scars of failed attacks.

Red Milk Snake. Wikipedia.


Secretive Serpent is master of magic.  When he bites, his venom destroys larger foes; when he goes to ground, none can find him in his holes; and when he dies, he sheds his skin and lives again.

Earthworm. Wikipedia.


Worm burrows in flesh and rot.  He causes disease and madness, feeding from the suffering of others. At best, he may bring renewal by destroying the weak and ending life.  But on Mars, the balance he might serve has become skewed, and Worm's is now the descending spiral.

Geek Notes

Because of Mars' deep ecological crisis, a religious system based on the Animal Powers seemed an appropriate way to show the deep reverence its peoples have for continued life and wise adaptation to the desert. There is an obvious Native American feel, with a strong African element, but I do not intend it to parallel any particular earthly culture.  The Free Human cities are part of the same religion, but with a Egyptian sort of twist to their iconography.  (Worm makes me nostalgic for old World of Darkness, but honestly, what other animal better embodies corruption?)

Game mechanically, the different Spirits will be the basis of Doctrines for the armies.  Potentially, it gives seven different "spell lists" for the Brutes and Free Humans.  I also intend the Worm to be an option for the Ancients, too.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Asymetrical Scenarios and the Defender's Advantage

The Problem

Infantry scenarios present a serious difficulty for the game designer.  In such warfare as we are trying to simulate, the defender possesses a natural advantage in weaponry and tactics.  From Verdun's trenches to Monte Cassino's slopes, to Normandy's hedgerows, the machinegun and the mortar make a mess of attacking infantry. The problem is particularly exacerbated in asymmetrical scenarios, where there is an attacker and a defender, each with a different victory condition. A successful attack requires superiority of numbers, of tactics, or special equipment (most notably the tank). One truism of warfare admonishes the attacker to gather at least a 3:1 advantage at the point of attack.

Yet, it is also a powerful convention of the beer and pretzel wargame that players will meet with equally-pointed lists.  Anything else doesn't seem fair or fun. 

How can the game designer reconcile a natural "defender's advantage" with war-gaming conventions?

Previous Approaches

Flames of War takes place on a 15mm scale: it can have lots of armor without being out of scale. In asymmetrical scenarios, Flames of War reduces the defender's advantage by temporarily halving the defenders force.  Its defensive scenarios usually require the defender put half of their force into reserve.  For the critical first few turns, therefore, the attacker has a numerical advantage. Over time, as the defender's force enters the board, the attacker's advantage degrades.  Thus, the defender plays with a standard list, but with (effectively) a reduced force.

Warhammer 40k negates the defender's advantage largely by increasing the game's level of carnage.  Cover is not particularly effective in 40k, and there's no mechanism for suppression. So there is less of a defender's advantage than in a more "realistic" game. Moreover, all 40k's scenarios are symmetrical.  When both players must move, there is no defender to benefit.

I'm not happy with either of these solutions. 

Asymmetrical Lists?

I propose breaking with wargaming convention and requiring each player to prepare two lists for each game: an attacking list and a defending list.  Both lists must have the same core. The natural scale for my game (dang, it needs a name, doesn't it?) revolves around the platoon, so the core will be a platoon, usually of three squads.  The attacking list will have a large addition of points, which it should spend on aggressive equipment, such as vehicles, additional troops, and so forth.  The defending list will have a smaller allotment of additional points, which it should spend on defensive equipment - machine guns, fortifications, etc. The final ratio will give the attacking list about 150% to 200% more points than the defending list.

In an asymmetrical scenario, one player will use their defending list, while the other attacks.  (In tournaments or other such games, the players can randomly determine who attacks and who defends.) 

In a symmetrical scenario, both players will use their attacking list.  (In symmetrical scenarios, both players must maneuver and leave their fortifications, so they will need attacking equipment more than defending equipment.)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Thinking About Scenarios and Objectives


Most war-games have scenarios, game variants players can select, that have differing victory conditions. Sometimes these conditions may be as simple as a time limit and a tally of kill points. He who kills the most wins. Most scenarios are more sophisticated, dictating deployment zones, turn limits, special conditions and so forth. The heart of most modern scenarios are objective markers.


Objectives are token which one side or another must capture in order to win a scenario. Usually, they are slightly larger than a typical infantry base. They are also typically different than normal terrain -- no matter what awesome stuff players model on the base, it doesn't block line of sight or act as terrain. I've seen games use objectives in a number of different ways:

Sudden-Victory Objectives

If a player captures one of these objectives, then they win (usually at the start of the next turn).  Flames of War uses sudden-victory objectives in all its main scenarios. The objectives are usually asymmetrical -- player A must capture player B's objectives.  Player A must defend their own, but can't win just by holding it. 

This system can produce any number of interesting scenarios.  For example, the basic Flames of War "Free for All" scenario consists of two A objectives and two B objectives, on opposite sides of the table. Player A must capture the B objectives while defending his own A objectives.  More complex variants of this set-up add reserves, ambushes, and so forth.

Sudden-victory objectives are particularly good for asymmetrical scenarios with an attacker and a defender.  In many Flames of War scenarios, such as "Hold the Line" and its variants, the attacker must take objectives to win, but the defender has no corresponding objectives of his own.  He must defend objectives for a number of turns. 

Point-Based Objectives 

In this variant, control of an objective generates points, and the points are needed to win.   The current edition of Warhammer 40k's objectives do not trigger victory or defeat until a particular turn. At the end of the game (which is randomly determined), both players tally the number of points they have generated to see who has won.

Warhammer 40k's scenarios generate between two and five objectives, which players alternately deploy on the board.  Normally, players end up with a board that looks like Flames of War's free-for-all, with two in each player's deployment zones.  But it can also produce some strange set-ups.  Sometimes one player will put all the objectives in their enemy's deployment zone, if they have a very aggressive army they don't want to split.  Sometimes, there will be only two objectives -- a scenario my local group calls "roll dice and draw" because of the difficulty of capturing such a well-defended point.  And sometimes an odd number of objectives will favor one player over another mercilessly. 

The objectives need not always be worth the same number of points.  In the I-95 gamer's "Domination" scenarios or Warhammer 40k's  "The Scouring Scenario", each objective is worth a different number of point -- how many may not be revealed until it is captured.

In some scenarios, an objectives' points may contribute each turn to a tally.  If a player reaches a certain tally, then they win.  I-95's "Domination" scenario uses these mechanics.  So too does Flames of War's multi-player Battalion-level scenario.

Oddball Objectives

Finally, there are funky objectives. Saga (which usually doesn't use objectives at all) has a cart scenario, in which one player must intercept and kill a moving cart.  The cart is thus a kind of objective. Similarly, Warhammer 40k has a scenario where players fight over a moveable objective, like a free-flowing king of the hill.

Objectives can also combine with other types of victory points or conditions, such as points for killing enemies, time limits, and so forth.