Today I will be looking at the details of game play in Tony Bath's Hyboria—and how that game by the end of its run walked like a rpg duck, quacked like a rpg duck, and was...well I leave the word-choice game up to you fine readers. (Check out this interesting parallel thread on DF if you want the backstory.)
In most miniature wargames from the hoary, old days of Kriegspiel and Little Wars to today players play a collective side. The player is most often not just the general or hero but the controller of the actions of all or most of the actions of all the figures or forces represented. Discounting morale rules, special events, or team play more often than not he is the omniscient controller of vast array of little metal or plastic surrogates. This often hold trues even for most skirmish games on a man-to-man scale.
Though Hyboria was in many ways a traditional wargames campaign played through the large-scale clashes of armies and political/economic management, it evolved into a radically innovative a game-play scale familiar to most rpg players today.
For sure, it all started fairly conventionally side vs. side basis, albeit with a creative twist:
“...with Neville Dickinson, I devised a new scheme for Hyboria in which we ran the continent together, worked out events and movement on a joint basis and, when a battle was imminent, tossed up to see which side we espoused. Thus I might command a Vendhyan army in one battle, only to the find the next that I was leading Hyrkanians against my former command.”
As the campaign took on new players—and Bath became more and more immersed in the dynamic of ever-granular world-building—the sea change began in game play:
“I later expanded [the previous system] into my present system, under which I asked various other wargamers to take on the parts of various rulers of Hyboria and to make all the decisions and movements, while I as Controller, Umpire, or Tin God ran the whole affair; made the necessary movements on the master map, fought the battles, etc. Each campaign week every player is provided with a situation report giving him all the information to which he is entitled; he then issues his instructions, based on this information, and I put them into practice.”
In other words the players weren't the controllers of their side, but were shrunk down to the role of a player character complete with all the limitations of only knowing as much as the ref thinks you might know. And the ref now goes from being an arbiter between sides to being the master game master empowered with running all the world's mechanics—and interpreting how the players' actions have an impact on it.
With this shift in role, the players (many who were other titans of British wargaming at the time such as Donald Featherstone and Charles Grant) played the game in the increasingly more devious “out of the box” ways that D&D veterans do:
“...in running a campaign you have to learn to be as unbiased as possible, and to find methods of solving tricky problems, of setting up scales by which to decide just how successful a certain move by a player will be. An example of this is a situation that cropped up quite a while ago in Hyboria, my own mythical continent. Control of the Sea of Vilayet is vital to the interests of Hyrkania, which naturally maintains a large navy; they heard that Turan, on the other side of the sea, was building warships in the port of Agrapur. Hyrkania and Turan were at peace, so Hyrkania could make no overt move, but Charles Grant, the ruler of Hyrkania, gave orders for some old merchant ships to be scuttled in the harbour mouth to effectually block in the Turanian ships. He was of course prepared to deny having any hand in this fortuitous accident! I then had to sum up the chances of success of such an operation, considering the possibilities of challenge by the harbour defences, the accuracy of the scu ttlings, etc. On this basis I set up a dice scale of from 2 to 12, 2 being complete failure and 12 being complete success, and rolled two dice. The result gave Charles a nearly complete success which prevented the larger Turanian ships getting out of port for many months, and the whole thing was an enjoyable little exercise for me.”
This change in game play to out and out first-person role playing was accentuated by Bath's creation of a vast supporting cast of non-player characters, who he called “cardboard characters”. Further he provided elaborate sub-systems for character generation for all the lineages, personalities, expertise, etc. of this cast. Chapter 6: Characterization of the campaign book is a walk through these great systems (many frankly are crying out to be adapted by “modern” rpg gamemasters wanting to play large-scale “end game”).
Breathing life into these characters created a way to give the game roleplaying motivations that helped sustain the overall illusion of a real world with a dynamic of its own. An observation Bath makes explicitly throughout the book. He quotes the following colorful story as an example:
“The situation had arisen in Hyperborea that a certain noble, Lodivarman by name, had raised a revolt with the aid of a large force of mercenary soldiers left unemployed at the close of a campaign... when Lodivarman's money ran out, [the mercenaries] began to loot and ravage the countryside. Lodivarman therefore attempted to disband them.
We—the Controllers, that is—assumed that the leaders of the mercenaries would not be too keen on this and would hold a council to decide what to do. There were eight of these leaders; and since I had gone to the length of setting up characters for everyone down to regimental commanders, it was perfectly easy to look up each leader's character and see what his feelings would be...As it happened two, being cruel, greedy types voted simply to cut Lodivarman's throat; three others, being just as greedy but with considerable cunning, voted to imprison him but to keep him as a figurehead to take the blame for their crimes; the other three were undecided...As a result the vote went 5-3 in favor of Lodivarman's imprisonment, so this is what happened.”
In the next installment in the series I will go back in and peer under the hood at some of Bath's mechanics on character generation, world building, domain management, and other goodies.