Agora is a science fiction game that may or may not ever see print. It's a supremely idiosyncratic design that produces exactly the sort of gameplay that I had long wanted to see: a sort of mash-up between Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri video game and the television show The West Wing.

I designed it, wrote it, playtested it… but when the last playtest campaign was finished, I never needed to play the game again. I was done; I had experienced what I had wanted. To reach publication, though, the entire things needs a heavy rewrite for tone, and with my desire to make the game a reality evaporated, that much work is a big hurdle.

So it sits on my hard drive, waiting…

I recently came to the conclusion that the Agora ruleset, while pretty tight mechanically, need to be rewritten with an actual voice rather than the dry, technical-manual presentation found in the most recent edition. I struggled with how to do this for some time, but then genius struck in the form of an assassin droid in the video game Knights of the Old Republic. What better voice to guide players through destroying their enemies and conquering the last remnants of humanity (oh, and rebuilding civilization) than good ol' HK-47?

Dev Purkayastha has posted some thoughts on the Story Games Boston playtest of Agora. I'm really happy that SGB — folks who tend towards game designs that are very different than my own — are giving Agora a crack, because I get some fantastic differing perspectives on how my game works. It also shows me what I need to explain better for audiences that aren't me, my friends, and my design partners.

Early playtest feedback has been giving me a lot of good stuff to consider and mull over. One thing that I've been hearing a few times over, though, is a desire for a one-page cheat sheet for play procedures, which I can totally understand. Agora is a complex game, and the big picture of the beast would be a handy thing to have.

I took the six core procedures that players will encounter in a given turn and wrote quick bullet-point summaries of them. Then, with a little ghetto-hypertexting via text color, I came up with the following Agora Turn Guide:

At some point I'll make an Incident Guide that handles Creating Incidents, Audience options, Burnout, and Fallout — but it's my impression those aren't critical right now, whereas the turn flow certainly is. The Turn Guide is in the playtest package, as well.

The local Los Angeles Strategicon was this last weekend. We attended (with little Prudence, her very first con!), and had a blast. I did not run the IPR booth at Gamex this time around, which was sort of awesome. It meant I had lots of time to just hang out, chat with friends, and play lots of games. I barely noticed not having a 'home base' to fall back to.

Friday night we checked in and all that and then I settled down to play Montsegur 1244, a structured freeform game which is getting a lot of play and buzz. I went into it expecting it to be not-my-thing, and I came out of it knowing that it was not-my-thing. Lack of strong character goals and a blindness to the parts of historical context that I really dig into were the big problems for me; I was also sort of an odd man out in our (randomly-generated) situation: everybody else was playing the sex-and-family bits of the situation, whereas I was the only one playing the religion part of the set. Which all sounds more negative than it really is — everybody else was having a blast, and it's a nice little package of game-situation.

Saturday morning started off with In a Wicked Age, which Will calls, "The game I don't like that I have fun with every time." Which is pretty spot-on accurate. We played in God-Kings of War (best for cons) and ended with a giant naval battle determining the fate of an empire. Schweet.

The Descent is the final step of character creation in Agora. It's like a little mini-scene, and is totally stolen from DitV. Here's a full, top-to-bottom example of a Descent that I just wrote and am rather fond of. This is how you start a game of Agora:

Judson’s Descent, Start to Finish
Now it’s Judson’s turn to play his Descent incident. To his left sits Colin, who will be running the obstacle. Judson decides to play his character, Admiral Wargrave, through the Battle Above Agora.

He sets the stage: “Wargrave’s battle group, a handful of destroyers clustered around the command carrier Kingsrook, is laying waste to the ranks of Diamond and Uprising warships over the north pole of Agora. The battlegroup operates with pure military precision, with each part doing its job and every soldier putting Wargrave’s commands into effect. We have the last Alliance carrier in our sights when the transmission about the Peace comes in.”

Judson also rolls in his ideals and resources. First his 3d8 Legionnaire ideal, which rolls 2, 4, and 6, then his 2d10 Hierarchy ideal, ending up with 3, two 6s, 7, and an 8. By rolling in so many ideals, he’s making sure he’ll get to write the incident’s opportunity. He then rolls in the Kingsrook itself at 5d6, rolling a 1 as well as 3, two 4s, and a 6. He could narrate a bit more to represent these two ideals and one resource, but he’s pretty much covered all that with his opening narration.

He has, however, rolled a 1, which he must place immediately. Since he does have the largest ideals pool (his five versus Colin’s zero), he can define the opportunity now. He writes his goal, “Maintain command over Hierarchy forces post-landfall.”

The complete rules of Agora 3.0, first draft, run at 12,000 words and 33 pages. That's without examples.

Mostly I'm posting this for comparison once I finish writing the examples...

Nine months ago, we started the Agora 2.8 alpha playtest. Tonight, we finished our story and completed our portrait of Agora.

Sixteen sessions, over twenty years of fiction. Forty-nine opportunities came and went. We saw the rise and fall of empires, the foundation of new religions, and the establishment of the rule of law and representative democracy — won after many hard-fought battles. One character went from a refugee with fifteen resource dice to a world power of ninety dice.
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I need to put out a special thanks to my stalwart playtesters: to Meg, Alex, and Seth, who weathered through the entire thing, and to Joshua, Judson, Andrew, and Joel who poked their heads in for a session or two. This was a fantastically successful playtest, with loads of valuable feedback. The many changes that we made did not change the nature of the game, but refined and improved it, and there's no better thing that you can say about a playtest.

I have perhaps two more pages of rules to write, and then about twenty pages of examples, and then Agora 3.0 will be ready for beta playtest. I am incredibly satisfied with the design and the play that it produces, and am really looking forward to seeing how it plays out on other folks' tables. If you're interested in giving the big A a spin, watch this space for details!

Writing the Agora 3.0 rules. Every once in a while, I think to myself, "I feel like I've written these rules a dozen times already." And then I realize: "Oh wait, that's because I have."

So our last session of the Agora 2.8 playtest went swimmingly. There was a threat from the unknown, electoral politics, debate over the character of a nation, and very intense character confrontations. It was exactly how Agora is supposed to play. Luckily, I was recording the playtest. Since it's so beautifully emblematic, I decided to clean it up a bit, remove the dead air and whatnot and post it up here for any of you who are interested in seeing what Agora play is like. It's now just a little over an hour long, full of political maneuvering, debates over the nature of good governance, and our cats meowing in the background.

Download the Agora AP audio file here.

Playtest that went at full-blast until two in the morning. Is Agora finally taking off?

Played the sixth session of the Agora v2.8 rules this evening. We managed three scenes in three hours, which is better (we've been managing two scenes in three hours) but not where I want the game to be. For all of its complexity in play, I am trying to make it relatively quick -- I want scenes to range from 20-40 minutes, not an hour.

And so this is the place, right, in game design where you have a relatively functional set of mechanics, but it's not firing on all the cylinders. You playtest and playtest and playtest, making rules tweaks and adjustments, and you keep plugging away at the playtests, and eventually you start to lose sight of the target. The game generates play, sure, and you become very familiar with the type of play that the game is (presently) producing... but that's not it, and you're not really sure what "it" is supposed to feel like any more.

And then you wonder if there really is an "it" that you were aiming for when you wrote the original version of the rules three years ago, because at this point you can't remember what the impetus was, except that part of the rules started out as a little mental exercise, a joke really, and kind of grew from that, and maybe that's all the game really is: a joke grown out of proportion. Was there ever a game? Was there even an idea of what the game would look like?

And you look at your sales record, and you look at all the avalanche of games that are now being produced, and you wonder if the effort you're putting into this is worth any expected payoff — not just in terms of sales, but in play and players and fellow-gamers and sharing something that you think is cool. Because, if you can't remember what that thing was that you want to share, what are you even working towards, here?

...

So last night we're playtesting Agora, and Alex and Judson are all, "Man, goals should be, like, more important. They should be, like, derived from your ideals."

To which I responded: "Well yeah, they should... oh wait, I didn't actually write that down, did I?"

No wonder my players were not playing like shark movie victims!

So in Agora, when you roll a 1, something happens. When you roll a 1 in ideals, that die goes immediately to your fallout pool. Since 1s never reside in your ideals pool, you can't auto-counter 1s that your opponents place. You can use your single roll in your counter in the hopes of getting a 1; if you do, you counter... and any die that rolled 1 goes into fallout. You want to have the largest ideals pool, because then you can identify new opportunities, but going after the largest pool too lustily can lose you all your dice to fallout. So the ideals 1s work. I like 'em.

Contrast with rolling a 1 in resources. That die goes into your burnout pool, which is a little more heinous than your fallout pool. You will probably lose that die off of your character sheet. In order to balance that consequence, 1s in resources are wild, and they place a wild token on an opportunity as they go to burnout. As noted above, these wild 1s are also harder to counter. This is all fine and dandy so far.

Except in the opening of a scene, when there are not yet any opportunities on the table. What happens when you roll a 1 in resources and there is no opportunity to place that wild token on?

The Old Way was that rolling a 1 in resources allowed you to, on your next turn, create a new opportunity if there wasn't already one on which you could place your wild. This was an exception to the "owner of the largest ideals pool can identify new opportunities" rule. It was... clunky. I thought the clunkiness would be okay since this wouldn't happen often, but no -- it's usually about 50% of the scenes have their initial opportunity identified by a 1 in resources rather than ideals pools. This makes it hard to learn the game, since you very well may be faced with a weird exception case right off the bat. Also, this annoys me.

So I'm hip-deep in Agora, these days, doing a long-term playtest that we are rebooting on Monday. We'll be playing version two, draft eight, or as I like to call it, Agora 2.8. There's so much about this game that I don't really know where to begin.

So it is a very crunchy, very fiddly, very competitive dice game. You literally rip stats off of other characters and add them to your own sheet. The trick, of course, is balancing the different roles of this extended grudge match so that everything is fair, gameplay is enjoyable, and so on. That's harder than it sounds. For instance, my most recent bugaboo was making sure that surprising turnabouts are surprising but not crippling. In a player-versus-player scenario, it's all too easy to make blindsiding (surprise, you lose!) a valid strategy. Blindsiding is really fun, but being blindsided is not. It's a good thing to do to NPCs, who don't care. So the trick has been to pace things out so while you can get surprised, you can still react -- and if you're savvy enough, overcome.

Up until recently, I had split significance and consequence into two steps in an attempt to foster this pacing. In other words, in turn 1 you said what you were doing (the significance) and in turn 1+x you said what that meant mechanically (the consequence). So you'd first say, "I'm planting bombs in your fusion reactor," and then later say, "This will destroy your Fusion Power Plant 4d8 stat." Which worked fine, as long as all the players kept a really tight control over making sure their eventual dice spoils matched up with their initial goals. However, multiple goals would pile up on one opportunity, and when spoils were later applied, they often matched some of the goals but not the others. That, and this is a highly competitive game, so relying on the players to keep a focus on story... well, let's just say that didn't always happen.

Hi, remember me? I used to post a lot. Now I don't; I have a job that actually requires my brain and a computer at home that's less than reliable. But do not mistake my lack of posting for lack of work. Here's a quick overview of what's on my plate:

Story Games Names Project - Jason Morningstar asked me to do up the layout of this project. Like so many projects of its kind, this started as a simple idea and has mushroomed to stupid proportions. At last count, the book is going to weigh in at a little under 300 pages and have like 800 lists.

Sons of Liberty - The rules chassis turned out to be surprisingly functional the first time out; I'm tweaking the situation creation ruleset, and then the system will be done. Then I just have lots and lots of writing to flesh out the figures and world that the game takes place in. Sure would be nice to have a functional computer for that (come on, tax return!). It will be released in early 2008, just in time for election year madness.

Agora: how shall we live? - This game is on the back burner, due out in 2009. It is not being quiet over there on the back burner, however. I have a little flurry of notes scribbled on Post-Its regarding improvements for the game. When it rolls around into active development and then to publication, I expect this to be a very strong design. Very much looking forward to it.

This idea for refining Agora came to me in the carwash yesterday.

In order to get the game to better address how shall we live? I've come to the conclusion that the PCs need to be working in/for/on a common population. Everybody doing their own thing and only interacting when they get around to feeling like it means the "we" part of the central question doesn't really ever come up. It's more exposition than interaction, and that's what novels are for.

So my current model, which I know is too heavy-handed and will need to be retooled, is that the PCs are the members of the governing Council of a colony. They all still have wildly disparate agendas and beliefs; they're just ostensibly working together. They are "on the same side" exactly as much as the Democrats and the Republicans are. I figure at some point I'll figure out how to get armed hostilities and civil war jammed in there for good measure. In any case, the colony has a set of common Ideals and Resources itself that everybody can use. To be crude, the "goal of the game" is to reform the colony's Ideals to be more to your character's liking.

How it Works

Okay? So now the rules fiddling. Scrap the 'on my turn, I do something and somebody sets up opposition for it.' Little interaction, lots of mental stretching to figure out opposition, cludgy rules for when players are involved and on which side. All that? Trashcan.

Turn Structure

1. What I'm Doing
2. Secretly Propose Obstacles
3. Draw Obstacle Cards
4. Split Up PCs
5. Address Obstacles (back-n-forth)
6. Clean Up
Repeat!

Play takes place in a series of turns. A turn can be a month, it can be a year, whatever.

The official playtest window for Agora: how shall we live? was due to close June 30th, and so with my usual punctuality I will be closing it over the next week. This means a few things:

First and foremost, if you playtested Agora and you'd like to be credited as such, contact me (through email or a comment here) with your name and how you'd like it listed.

If you've got some burning observations about Agora, post it up at the Forge or Story-Games or the Kallisti Press forums or email me. I probably won't be sinking my teeth into the Agora edits for a bit (I'm eyeball deep in FLFS edits and layout), but I'm keeping them handy for when I do.

If you're in an ongoing playtest past the playtest's close, I will be happy to hear about it and any further insights you discover; however, all bets are off now as to whether or not said insights will get to me in time to actually affect the first edition of the book.

Lastly, the playtest document is going to be taken off the website in a week or so, so if you've been meaning to take a look at it, now's the time before it's gone.

Thank you to everybody who participated in the playtest! I've already received a lot of very good and solid accounts and advice and I am positive that the finished product will be a better game for the experience.

So Mo is advocating in Getting Around to (One of) the Point(s) (and I thought I liked parentheses) that players can, if they don't like how the published system does something, do it another way and get the same result.

Judson is talking in the Story Games thread The Akido of Game Design about how games can be designed with the naive assumption that all rules will be followed, with the even more naive intent to make the rules unbreakable, or turn the whole thing around and design the game rules so that "exploiting" them is how the designer intends it to be played.

It's not a new idea that players will ignore rules they don't like. However, I've read a big pile of posts and threads and articles where indie players and designers avow that they play their games "exactly according to the rules" or "exactly as the designer intended" which is, when you get right down to it, more or less impossible. (Short version: authorial intent has an influence on reader reception, but it does not and cannot dictate reception exactly due to the very nature of language.) Players will interpret rules, even if they don't introduce formal house rules.

A great example of this is Lacuna Part 1, where Jared refuses to allow players the illusion that they're following the rules exactly and producing a play experience as he intended. How you play Lacuna will be determined by your personal idiosyncracies, and in fact how you play says something about you as a person and as a gamer.

Process and Product

Following Shreyas' comments and some poking and prodding of my own, I realized that I'd left out explicit Surrender rules, and attached a few little bits and pieces there that should make things a little more interesting.

The following new section, and a couple smaller fixes, are included in the Playtest document.

Surrender

Scenes end when one side decides not to continue and surrenders. Players may only surrender between exchanges of Challenges and Stands; players may not surrender instead of taking a Stand. When a player surrenders, they lose their stakes but do get to narrate a cliffhanger to the end of the scene.

If a player decides to surrender when it is their turn to make a Challenge, they may attempt to gain a Surrender Epiphany. This is an advantage to be used later that the character is able to extract from the conflict despite losing the stakes. The surrendering player rolls their Burnout pool. If any of the dice roll ones, the player may keep one of them to use as an epiphany in a later scene.

If the player is the last to surrender out of a conflict, they earn the right to narrate a cliffhanger, a turnabout at the end of the scene that introduces a surprise or new element to the scene. A good cliffhanger suggests later scenes and conflicts. Cliffhangers cannot negate the stakes that the other side wins, but they can complicate them.

Example: Surrender
Jason can see that he's going to run out of dice if he tries to push through another round. He does not think that he'll be able to get Nathan to roll in his fourth ideal, so he decides to surrender. He waits until the round is over before he surrenders so he can try for an epiphany.

Earlier today I played a little Agora with Brand Robins and a chap you may know as Ice Cream Emperor. The two of them put a crazy Dune spin on the game that sent me reeling. Brand had some Diamond Ardents who were just screaming for blood of all the unbelievers, and ICE had this eerie brother-and-sister duo of Augustan Circles who tapped their family tradition of accepting the Mysteries of the universe to guide their hands in ruling the people.

We only played their Descent scenes (and did character generation), but I am really looking forward to seeing where they might go with it. It's awesome to see how many directions one little rule set can run off into.

I'll post the log when I get a chance. Trust me, though, it was superfuckingcool.

Alright, it took me forever to post this up, but it was a messy file that needed a lot of cleaning up to make it readable. Now it's pretty!

Read the Agora IRC Playtest from April 15, 2006, in all its htmlified glory.

Shreyas, DevP, and Vaxalon gave Agora a whirl a couple weekends ago. We uncovered a lot of textual concerns and clarified some rules questions, so it was good stuff.

More in-depth discussion at The Forge and Story Games.

It feels like I just finished a playtest. Oh, that's because I just did.

Now that FLFS is going into edits-n-art, Agora is jumping up and down like an unruly younger brother demanding attention. I've put things together into a legible and quite possibly playable format, and posted it up for interested parties to download. Details can be found on the Agora Playtest page.

The official playtest window is now through June 30th, and I am quite merrily putting participants on a playtester's byline in the finished product. The materials are freely downloadable, and if you want to take a look-see, you are of course under no obligation to do anything other than, you know, tell everyone you know how awesome the game is.


Click to download pdf.

You're supposed to play with the sheet angled at about thirty degrees, yeah. Why? Cause it amuses me. And it maximizes the left-right distance between the dice pools.

Dice go in the big circles, and there's little bits of reminder-instructions sprinkled around the sheet.

I'm never sure what to put at the top of the character sheet. I used to be all about a slot for "Concept" but increasingly game designs are expressing character concepts directly, instead of as emergent properties.

Anyway, time to sleep.

So here's an "Example of Play" that I made up and tried to gloss over the holes that are still gaping in the design.

Alice is playing Jain, an architect who leads a group of people living in a crashed city-ship that she designed and brought into the battle above Agora. She's from the Hierarchy faction, so is a domineering ubermensch, and from the Oppidan culture, so she's very much an urbanite who cherishes cosmopolitan cooperation.

Ben and Christina are playing other leaders of other groups of people that have alliances and rivalries with Alice's group in the city-ship, but that's not important for this bit. Right here and right now, they're going to play some of the Followers on Alice's sheet; Ben will play Lor the City Controller, and Christina will play Gnoscis, the slave gladiator.

Dan also plays another leader, but for this scene he's going to play Alice's Opposition.

Alice sets out what she wants her movement to do, and in doing so frames about half the scene: "Since we've just crash-landed, we're going to need to repair the damages that the city-ship suffered in landfall. So Jain is going to organize the citizens into work groups, send them out into the surrounding territory to fell trees, and use them to rebuild."

Dan now decides who or what is going to try and prevent Jain's people from getting the repairs done. He could decide to put some guerrilla fighters in the woods, or have an old enemy from the war resurface and attack the city-ship, or whatever, but he decides that Jain's opposition is going to be the woods themselves. So he quickly writes up "The Black Woods," giving it a Position, some proto-Complications, and some Spoils in a process yet to be determined, all of which are counted in dice. "The Black Woods is a proud wilderness, and will swallow up what workers you send into it!" he declares, which are his stakes.

I just did a test run of Agora character creation.

Holy Fucking Shit!

So yesterday at, like, I don't even remember when, I had one of those lovely experiences where an entire game design tried to shove itself into my brain all at once. I spent the next few hours hastily scribbling down notes and refining them and relating them, and cursing at them when they didn't immediately work right or when the game design shoving itself through my ear was, like, 95% of the design and wanted me to just come up with the missing 5% spontaneously.

Anyway, it's the game where I get to play Alpha Centauri, and maybe a little Battlestar Galactica, and maybe a little World of Warcraft the way it should have been implemented. You play a faction and its apotheosized leader; your stats are Ideals, Loyalties, Followers, and Resources. It kicks you in the face and demands that you defend what you believe in. Assuming, of course, it works.

Here's the introductory flavor text that isn't so much about the game itself as the setup for the game:

There was a War. A War of ideals and the lack of them, of loyalty and treachery, of ethics and economics and political necessity. The War raged until civilization was in tatters, its infrastructure ravaged, its heart broken.

The last battle of the War was fought over Agora, a planet that had been hidden and preserved as a protected wilderness, unaffected by technology's touch or civilization's tread. Its strategic value attracted limping cruisers of the various fleets, and they battled in the skies of Agora. As many ships fell from poor maintenance as from enemy fire, their last shuddering act to bring their crews to the surface of the planet.