The Advent is here, and with it come various flavours of Christmas annoyance. Among them, a surprise wargame. That’s what’s been leeching my time this week.
Club Hannilus, our storygamey game development club, ended the long-running Varangian Way playtest last week. We jokingly agreed to play my Christmassy Lapfantasy wargame scenario next time if 6+1 players should be found for it. Surprisingly we did manage to gather the required number of players, so there I was, having to prep and run a refereed free kriegspiel wargame in the middle of my crowdfunding campaign. Fortunately this is such a totally phoned-in scenario, it’s simply not very much GM work to run it.
“Free Kriegspiel” is an obscure category of roleplaying and wargaming: a conflict simulation game that, instead of detailed rules, relies on an informed referee to make judgement calls about the events. The game may have much detailed scenario material, but it’s all about the fictional situation, rather than being complex rules. Dice are used to produce uncertainty, but the target numbers and result interpretation are generally generated by the referee as rulings on the spot, accounting for all pertinent factors.
Here’s a short article about the historical nature of free kriegspiel, in fact, if you’ve never heard of it and want to know the basics. I’ll also link Engle Matrix Games for you, it’s where I first encountered this branch of roleplaying; solid stuff and really weird when you try to understand what it’s trying to do without the necessary context.
If that sounds exactly like the way some people play old school D&D, well, old school D&D is directly descended from this stuff. It’s just become “rigid Kriegspiel” relatively quickly after it cohered; apparently playing without large tracts of official rules isn’t what the majority of the hobbyists would want.
But Christmassy Lapfantasy at least is legit free wargaming: the players each claim a faction in the GM’s pre-made scenario, and the creative goal of the affair is for us to produce a convincing analytical simulation of “how things might go”. There are no formal victory point calculations and no scenario balancing; the goal is to find out what best outcome each faction may reach for themselves, which may involve the player outright deciding what the best outcome for them even is.
I wrote Christmassy Lapfantasy a year ago for my nephew’s birthday party, so it’s been played once before (somewhat perfunctory, what with the time-limitations of a birthday party), but I haven’t put any further legwork into it, so it mostly runs off high concept, some short faction profiles and lots of GM improvisation. The scenario could well be further developed, but I do like it as the thing it is; some snappy hand-outs, some basic structure, and that’s it.
A fairy tale in fantasy Lapland
The core conceit of Christmassy Lapfantasy was that I wanted an operational scale wargaming scenario that could demonstrate the concept of the logistics pipeline to the players. As in, literally the idea that with sufficiently large armies operating in circumstances where looting the countryside is not an option, parallel roads (several roads going in the same direction) become invaluable because the number of roads ultimately determines your logistics bottleneck, and therefore how much army you can supply how far from your logistics base; the size of your army isn’t determined by “building units”, it’s determined by how much you can supply and how far. Despite the scenario being a high fantasy war, the concept itself is real and relevant to historical warfare of the 19th and 20th centuries, from post-Napoleon (his were probably the last major wars where looting the countryside was a realistic logistical factor) until the rise of the land-air battle (which arguably changes this operative reality in its own way).
Did I mention that last year when I was writing this, it was for a nephew’s 14th birthday party? That’s the kind of content you get when you make me your party planner. (The scenario proved popular, which I guess proves how geeky a birthday party it was.) I whipped the scenario up over 24 hours or so, just a cheap dash.
My basic quick-and-dirty concept was taking a modern map of Lapland and pretending that its major road network and habitation patterns reflect fantasy Lapland — “Turja”, as the land is called in the scenario — by interpreting the major roads as the only wagon-passable roadways in the darkness of the Tundra. Towns are scaled down by a couple of magnitudes, to more pre-industrial numbers. The geographical scale and terrain can remain unchanged. The result is a bleak, sparsely populated land brimming with magic.
All the rest I needed to do was putting in some warlike factions that would like to fight over the land of Turja. Here my concept started getting some flesh over the bones as I realized that I could make this fairy tale fantasy, which is something of a painfully gained literary specialty for me — it wasn’t difficult to figure out the magical cosmology and some faction ideas and such, brewing a mix of Lapland-themed pop culture for an immediately entertaining and unique fantasy.
Here are the conflict factions that I ultimately ended up with:
Santa Claus — He lives in Lapland in Finnish lore. An immortal wizard-king adored by billions of children on several levels of reality. Has a potent stronghold at Korvatunturi (again, Finnish tradition) with tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of yule gnomes working for him. The gnomes aren’t much for combat, but Santa has plenty of magic and diplomatic credibility to outweight that.
Staalo Claus — (That’s a funny translation of the already punny original, “Staalopukki”.) An evil counterpart of Santa, Staalo Claus is a jumped-up homeless seita (gnome) who blames Santa for his excessively cruel past and descend into darkness. He comes with horrid monster magic and rulership of the greatest troll kingdom in Turja, the Akka Court, which he seized violently to ascend into the local Sauron-equivalent.
The Snow Queen — Straight out of Andersen, the Snow Queen is an intriguingly ambivalent figure. A mighty sorceress-spirit with weird goal variability so it’s not quite a certainty that she plots to bring eternal winter back to Turja. Doesn’t have much in the way of physical organization, but being the elemental master of winter covers quite a few sins.
Sariola — The kingdom of Sariola is essentially a Finno-emphasizing fairy tale fantasy medieval Kingdom of Sweden. They’re disgustingly heroic in a fairy tale fantasy way, with a faction leader who is literally a prince of the realm sent to Turja to organize colonial affairs for being too heroic down south. Sariola has developed a significant footprint in Turja over the last few generations, and is basically slowly colonizing the frontier.
Arendelle — From the Disney movie Frozen, lifted in its entirety, because why not . Queen Elsa rules a mercantile city-state reliant on its fishing fleets and arctic merchant fleet. I figured that Arendelle is a bit like if the medieval Norwegian root kingdoms had for some reason survived separately into modernity, so Arendelle itself is placed in Tromsa on the map.
Bjarmia — An Ugric tribal polity in the east, around the White Sea. Backwards compared to the others, and closest to something we might describe as a native polity. Remarkable for the influx of wealth that the city of Bjarm has enjoyed over the recent generations from trade in ivory and such; the politics and economics are a bit weird, what with the flimsy agricultural basis, and it’s likely that Bjarmia won’t survive for too many generations on what it’s got going here.
I of course developed a few extra characters for each faction so you could e.g. have two players play characters from the same faction. I think the total number of possible player roles in this right now is ~11 players. The players can choose pretty freely which factions they want to play, although I think that the scenario basically wants to have five or six players at least to have enough action and complexity in the operative space.
In addition to my logistics game dreams, the development showcased opportunities for focusing the scenario on three core activities, which I think makes it a bit special as a wargame scenario of this ilk. Namely, my refereeing of the game focuses on the following player maneuver concerns in somewhat equal measure:
Warcraft is the usual thing you do in wargaming, of course. In this case the focus is on grand strategy, strategy and operational arts. The map basically gets you a relatively clean idea of where your supply depots are, where you can get by road, and thus, where you can project power realistically.
Diplomacy is also not unusual for multiplayer wargames like this. I intentionally wrote the faction goals in the scenario to be pretty flexible, without the alignments being entirely clear. The trolls are so militarily powerful that the other factions basically must jump for some kind of Free Peoples Alliance, of course, but how they do it, and what they’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of unity, is less clear. Plus, I can’t guarantee that anybody wants to play Staalopukki; if they don’t, the high fantasy ersatz-Tolkien scenario takes on a rather different character.
Magic is the uncommon feature piece in the scenario, as far as I know the scene: the factions all have their own magical metaphysics that interrelate in various ways, and magical maneuvers are arbitrated in the same way as everything else, which means that players actually have to know stuff and be able to think magically to get anywhere; there are no spell lists or other buttons to push, you make magic the same way you make war, by positing maneuvers for the GM. Familiarity with cultural history and literary sources helps, as does experience with magical thinking of various sorts, as you explore the magical metaphysics by asking the right questions off the GM and figure out what your witch-equivalent needs to do to get some epic level rituals going.
After getting that far it wasn’t that difficult to create the scenario premise, the conflict we would be resolving:
The Old Gods of Turja have passed, and the land is slowly awakening from the repressive order of life-in-darkness. The passing of divine generations has left a power vacuum in this cold and distant land, a vacuum that a number of mortal kingdoms have already been keen to exploit. Meanwhile, the new gods of Turja, such as they are, are forced to seek a new accomodation of natural law.
In other words: I postulate that the current power politics as represented at scenario start cannot possibly be stable as they are. Take your faction summary, stare at the map and then tell me I’m wrong. Or alternatively, embark on a political and military course to reach an acceptable compromise for your faction and the rest of Turja.
The scenario begins with a High Summit Conference at Santa Claus’s temple-fortress in Korvatunturi, he’s hosting the other factions for a bit of negotiation before the maneuvers properly begin. A bit of a chance for the factions to introduce themselves and develop initial policy papers so they know why they’re killing each other later on.
A note on the colonialism
People from other parts of the world might not care about this world-building detail, but I wanted to be explicit about it: the scenario is set in fantasy Lapland and while the specifics are fantasy, the actual geopolitics depicted are very real: Sweden and Finland really did colonize Lapland from the south. The Norwegians really did colonize Lapland from the north. I don’t quite have the Russians here, not really, but you can pretend the Bjarmians are the Russians in the colonization simile. The factions are fighting over a land that in real life didn’t see major conflict, what with not having apocalyptic magical forces embedded in its soil.
Meanwhile, the scenario does not give a voice to the local natives in any formal kind of way. The fantasy land of Turja does have native Sami living there, and the Bjarmians are kinda-sorta related (enough to play the “greater co-prosperity sphere” card in diplomacy if they’d like), but the sad reality is that the native Turjans are too scattered, too few and too primitive to have a real voice in the power politics depicted here. They’re all but destined to be at most a subject of political action, or simply outright ignored; for many purposes the factions marching across Lapland here might as well treat the land as uninhabited for all the difference the Turjan natives make for the proceedings.
As a friend said: this is a cruel scenario. I very much agree. Wargame scenarios often are.
(I might have included a native faction in the scenario, by the way, if I had a fitting pop culture character to wedge in there. I well might try to work out something if I did more development on the scenario. While fun ethnically Sami high-profile pop culture figures are a bit sparse on the ground, I could just flesh out an original one.)
Interestingly enough this “invisibility of the Sami”, obviously as it reflects real history, has a bit of a tendency to come up in actual play despite my never intending this to be a particularly colonially deconstructive game. The reason is ultimately that players like to give bombastic speeches with cliched political tropes, and blustering about how your faction fights for freedom and the (virtual) people want your faction to win and so forth is easy arbitrary rhetorical fodder no matter what the topic of the game. It does mean, though, that we get to have discussions about how much of a native Lapp Santa Claus is. (Answer: he’s very obviously not. He’s just another colonist who parked his toy factory in the sparsely populated north. That factory exists for the benefit of the south, by the initiative of southerners, and actually goes to great lengths to not employ locals or have anything to do with them. This isn’t a difficult question, just look at who actually tell stories about Santa Claus and visit the theme parks. That’s his people.)
An interesting little political angle to a whimsical fairy tale game there.
How it goes in practical play
As I mentioned above, the premiere of the scenario happened a year go in late November. It was a single-sitting take, so while I didn’t intend the scenario to be very long, we didn’t exactly finish it in its entirety. The birthday crew liked it, although I think it was mostly for the Diplomacy-like basic intrigue framework. You could make counting sheep exciting if you added keeping secrets and plotting behind other people’s backs into it.
The human kingdoms in that first playthrough (correctly) figured out that they should ally with Santa Claus against the murdersome incarnation of winter darkness, Staalo Claus. The Staalo player had solid operational play compared to the teenager confusion of the Free Peoples Alliance, though, and while the trolls were repulsed from driving south, they savaged the kingdom of Arendelle savagely. Good fun, all in all, even if it was a bit more diplomacy-focused than I envisioned in advance.
We’re now playing the scenario again, this time with an adult crew and online, over several weeks, so the dynamic bits are pretty different. We’ll see how that goes; surprisingly well so far, considering how I haven’t put any further thought into preparing the scenario.
Monday: Coup de Main #25
Meanwhile in the Coup de Main in Greyhawk campaign, for a change we had the perfect family-friendly D&D adventure: low stakes, and dogs got to save a human life. It was like if a Lassie movie starred a pack of pug dogs instead of something genetically healthy.
This strange occurrence came about because Rob Banks the 4th Level Thief had fallen seriously ill a mere few nights before the appointed date of his heist. Unlike a sane person, Rob’s solution to his pneumonia was not to sleep it off for the next 3 weeks; instead, he decided that bribing an acolyte of Rao to break into the temple and cast a Cure Disease on him (a hilariously over-level spellcasting ask, but theoretically possible here) would be the thing to do.
For added hilarity, the heist party was, well, your typical D&D party: aside from Rob himself, and the corrupt cleric acolyte We Sell (so clever), they had a couple of magic-users there to offer moral support. One was a prostitution-addicted magic school student while the other was a local baker who also happened to be a poisoner witch. Totally useful skill sets here. What with the heist not being a real adventure (I mean, it’s just a temple), I guess it doesn’t really matter what you bring.
The heist went wrong from the start, as the bursar of the temple figured out the acolyte’s cunning ploy in advance. This being the goody-goody temple of Rao, the acolyte got a stern-talking to for trying to take bribes, and was punished by having to stay out in the temple yard for the night to brush all the temple’s guardian statues before getting to talk with the high priestess in the morning. So of course the acolyte, after the bursar went to sleep, went and let Rob’s gang in anyway. Mercy, decorum and measured punishments really are wasted on these guys. Like getting a ticket for misparking, shrugging and then leaving your car there.
This not being an actual adventure, and the temple of Rao being rather ill-guarded, the rest was just a matter of going through the ritual magic rules procedures. I’ve developed this pretty independent divine magic system that got a nice work-out here, with a 1st level Cleric with 2 HP trying to channel sufficient divine Power to empower a 3rd level spell, and then have the wherewithal to actually craft the spell. Unknown to the players (and yeah, this was the only real adventure element in the scenario), the temple resides on top of a second “heavenly” demiplane temple, and a divine energy release mishap would be specifically the thing that’d send the hapless healers planeswalking.
The funny pug element of the situation was that it just so happens that this temple breeds a special kind of extra-holy temple dog that has an undead turning bark and so on; valuable critters, probably more so than anything else in the temple. We Sell the acolyte was of course one of the dedicated dog-wranglers in the temple, so when they found a bunch of the doggos sleeping in a pile in the sanctum of the temple, that wasn’t much of a problem. (Not that I’d expect pugs to be an issue for murderhobos even if hostile. That would be outright sad.) However, it happens to be the case that among the traditionally useless magic-user spell load the baker witch happened to have Speak With Animals cookies: just feed the animal a cookie and they’ll be able to speak to you! (The character’s a Hedge Mage, which is this alternate caster class I developed for the campaign; their deal is pretty much doing meta-magic via “casting methods”, like this weird non-standard application of Speak With Animals via feeding the animal cookies.)
So the big-brain tactic We Sell went for in accomplishing his magical ritual was taking some of those biscuits, feeding them to the dogs, and then asking the dogs to help him cast the spell. We Sell figured that even as he might not know anything real about ritual magic, the dogs surely would, what with having lived in the temple all their lives and having studied diligently with the monks. Their pack leader was like 7 HD! (Admittedly those are pug HD, so just 7 hit points, but still…)
While We Sell might not be much of a cleric, being young and greedy and all, he was right about this one thing: the dogs totally pulled the ritual off, aiding him at two critical junctures — first by walking him through the myth-meditation required for the spell-crafting, and then stopping him from fainting after the amount of power proved a little bit too much for We Sell. The animal-speaking spell itself doesn’t last for long, but it was enough to explain the situation to the dogs. Pugs being friendly dumb little buggers, they were obviously eager to help We Sell heal a nice human person guy fellow. The pack leader was obviously statistically superior to We Sell as a cleric, and considerably more learned as well.
The only major issue with the situation at the end was that We Sell couldn’t possibly hide the intruding visit in the morning, what with the mess he’d make of the holy mandala as he empowered the spell, so he was pretty much forced to take on the road with Rob and leave his position in the temple. Good riddance to such dishonest acolytes, may the adventuring life fare him better!
Session #26 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 7.12., starting around 16:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.
Thursday: Christmassy Lapfantasy
As discussed in the feature part, we started playing Christmassy Lapfantasy on Thursday with an unusually robust crew of 6+1 players. Fun times for the number of people involved alone; it’s a shame we usually don’t get quite this many people together all at once. Everybody seems to already have their gaming schedules full, otherwise I wouldn’t mind organizing some games for bigger groups.
We played in Discord, and there was various technical foible because why would I figure out in advance how to best implement secret plotting and such. Much more fun doing it during the game. The minor fumbling didn’t prevent the game, though, and I think everybody enjoyed the change of pace. This kind of straight wargaming isn’t the most common fare in our circles.
One thing that I’m sure everybody might rethink if we played more of this kind of thing is the heavy roleplaying affect; people will obviously like to do that, accents and fancy turns of phrase and all, when you get your players from the rpg scene, but you wouldn’t necessarily have to make it into this whole procession. It was especially amusing when in many of the plotting dialogues the players had I was genuinely not sure if they were actually trying to connive something, or if they were just babbling randomly in character voice. “Winter always follows summer, you better remember that my lord…” Well maybe (not quite a guarantee here in fantasy land), but what does that have to do with the price of tea in China? I think it was partly because some players took more time than others to develop their orientation and plans for what they actually were even trying to accomplish in the game.
I won’t go into the minutiae here, as the game’s on-going, but I thought that many of the players pretty much accomplished the creative agenda: take in the pattern of the scenario, and then produce an answer for what the military and political implications for my own faction are. Unlike the first time I played this, when it was instant “all christmas elves to arms, we march to war!”, this time the general tenor is more about negotiation trading rights and building improved logistical connections to bring kingdoms closer together. I fully believe that they’ll find the war in there soon, but it wasn’t quite immediate. Would be pretty hilarious if the troll kingdom pulled some kind of diplomatic revolution despite being ruled by a monstrous insect-elf-serial-killer.
Much of the game has started clicking for the players in the postal play portion after the first session. The session was, perhaps, more of a posturing event of high diplomacy. The simple task of writing a set of orders for the GM is more of a moment for consideration, figuring out what you actually should be doing in concrete terms to lead your faction to victory.
My scheduling plan for the game is that we’ll continue it as long as the players are interested; might be until the end, which could be e.g. 3–4 sessions (with associated postal play), or maybe we’ll play just one more session. Either way, we now have many more players with some superficial free kriegspiel experience than we did before!
Crowdfunding Progress with Muster
I can’t decide if Muster is doing well in crowdfunding or not! At this writing we’re at 1449 €, which is 57% of the funding goal after a week and a half. However, the accumulation of backers has slowed down significantly, so it looks like this might be about as much of an audience as this kind of thing attracts.
Even this scale of support is pretty encouraging, though; if we don’t get funding, I might have to think of something else to crowdfund if we can pull together over a thousand euros; that’s surely enough to get out of the bed for.
Too soon to say either way right now, though. I don’t know how to really influence the matter now aside from becoming an annoying drive-by spammer, so we’ll just have to wait and see. Maybe see about getting reminders posted about the project to the places it’s already been at at the end of the funding period, just in case somebody missed it the first time around.
State of the Productive Facilities
As discussed last week, I should write an outline article about Muster. I’ve brooded on it, but haven’t started typing concretely quite yet. I blame the Christmassy Lapfantasy. Much more fun to play games than work.
I also got a cool comic book concept page from my Muster artist, I’ll need to post-produce that and show it to the backers soon. Making comics is pretty fun, we should do that more often.