Problems In Designing Fantasy Variants

Stephen Agar and Mark Nelson

The basic ingredient of any Diplomacy variant is a scenario in which several (usually at least five) more or less equal Powers take part in a conflict for domination of a geographical area. The scale of this conflict is not of itself important, it could be a city (as in the variant "Mobtown"), a country (as in "War of the Roses"), a continent (as in "Abstraction"), the planet (as in "Mercator"), the solar system (as in "Apposition"), and so on.

This approach is fine for historical variants; the budding designer merely confines himself to those periods of conflict where a number of competing factions have been battling it out, and ignores those conflicts which were essentially two-sided (for example, the Hundred Years War, the American Civil War, th Franco-Prussian War, etc.). Since the essence of Diplomacy is the ability to have a changing alliance structure, games where the number of protagonists is small are not going to be very exciting or practical.

There are several difficulties in adapting fantasy novels to this basic formula. First, although there may be a superficial appearance in the novel of a number of powers battling it out (Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Ents, etc.) all too often the basic story often revolves round the age-old Good vs. Evil storyline --- a two-sided fight with restricted scope for diplomacy. Second, in fantasy novels the impact of individuals is often out of all proportion to their numbers --- the effect that a Conan, an Elric or a Sauron may have on a campaign may be far more important than the weight of numbers behind him or against him. Third, fantasy novels are, in the end, novels. They are telling a story. While it is possible to place a Diplomacy variant in a fantasy world, if you want the variant to have the flavour of the plot, then you will need to make the rules very complex indeed.

Therefore, the variant designer must make one basic choice before he gets very far in his new design --- is he just going to use the geography of the fantasy world, turning his game into essentially a map change variant (such as "Age of the Young Kingdoms"), is he going to tackle the problems posed by the characters and the plot of the novel which will usually involve Personality Units and special locations (such as "Black Blade"), or is the variant going to be some compromise between the two (such as "Young Kingdoms I" and "Young Kingdoms II").

....While it is possible to place a Diplomacy variant in a fantasy world, if you want the variant to have the flavour of the plot, then you will need to make the rules very complex indeed....

Elsewhere in this issue, we discuss in detail the variants based on Michael Moorcock's Elric novels. A couple of these variants were developed by Stephen Agar. Stephen's initial attraction to the Elric stories was the idea of having a map which consisted of land masses clustered around a central sea, because he thought this would provide an ideal vehicle for Fred Davis's A/F (Army-Fleet) rules. By building the game around the A/F rules he hoped to avoid Lew Pulsipher's warning in Diplomacy World #1 that the worst thing you can do is to simply hunt down a map of some area, split it into provinces and countries, use the regular rules, and call that a good variant. It is much more likely to be a junkheap.

In "Young Kingdoms II," Stephen endeavoured to improve the map balance, add a device for breaking stalemate lines in the form of Chaos Armies, and then threw Elric himself in for good measure.

One inevitable problem in trying to introduce characters from the book is that the ratio of Heroes to Powers is invariably not one-to-one. Some Powers will have no Heroes or "Personality Units," other will have several. Therefore, you must either find counterbalancing Personality Units for the Powers without them (which involves stretching the original story), give off some of the Heroes/Personalities to additional players (which can make the variant need so many players as to either become difficult to get off the ground or introduce players with a lessened degree of involvement in the game), or just accept that the game cannot be equally balanced in terms of manpower.

A surprising number of the plots in fantasy novels also revolve around unequal conflicts --- that is, the forces of Evil are large and powerful and sweep all in front of them, but are ultimately defeated not by the armies of Good but by the Hero. This tends to mean that the Evil player or players start off very strong (hence Mordor's double armies in "Downfall"), which can make the game very imbalanced, or the Personality Units end up dominating the game. The designer then has to come up with some restrictions on alliances in the game to stop the Orcs from teaming up with the Elves and the Ents from crushing the Gondor/Mordor alliance, because such an alliance structure would be contrary to the mythical or historical premise on which the game is based.

When you consider all the chrome which has been added to the various versions of "Downfall" (Personality Units, the Ring, Special Locations, Multiple Units, Cavalry Units, Special Rules, etc.) you can perhaps understand why it has been through nearly 20 revisions. Some versions seek to make the variant more like the book, some seek to make the variant more playable, and it seems that never the twain shall meet.

Mark Nelson
University of Leeds, UK
([email protected])

Stephen Agar
([email protected])

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