After a couple of false starts, the campaign and progression system for Gaslands is finally released in an “alpha” version, and in playtesting. It took me a fair amount of research and development to get to this point as I really want it to be the beating heart of the game. I want the campaign system to be the reason that you play Gaslands and not one of the many other car combat games available today to the tenacious googler. It’s definitely not right yet, but I want to let it stretch its legs in order for it faceplant as fast as possible.
The objective of the campaign system is to inspire people to play multiple games over time. The hypothesis (as I have experienced myself with many games with a progression system) is that players will be more likely to want to play subsequent games with the same models if they can watch those models change and improve over time. I want to give players a reason to create their own personal team or gang of road warriors, and to want to play those cars or drivers across multiple games.
There is an interesting distinction that Justin Gibbs from Wyrd Games makes in Malifools EP171 when discussing working on the Shifting Loyalties expansion book for Malifaux. He separates a “campaign system” from a “progression system”. A campaign system, says he, provides you with a mechanism for thematically linking games, whereas a progression system permits you to evolve and change your force over the course of multiple games. I believe that Gaslands would benefit from both, but I feel that the “progression system” meets the objectives best, and so that is what I am focussing on first..
Throughout autumn last year, I wrote three or four versions in my notebook, but nothing emerged clearly. I wrote a couple of other games in an attempt to design around the problem. I also went hunting for inspiration from existing games.
To refresh my memory of what has excited me previously, we played some games of Necromunda. I looked over my old Bloodbowl, Gorkmorka and Necromunda roster sheets and tried to think back though the experiences we have had playing those games and what moments were memorable.
Playing Necromunda again was great. There is a “variable reward” concept woven through the progression mechanics. Nothing is guaranteed: you roll for advancements, you roll for skills, you roll for available equipment. In a way, it actually takes a lot of the decision-making away from the players, things just “happen” to your gang to a greater extent. On the other hand, it makes for a very rapid post-game sequence, as you are a predominantly passive operator of the system: rolling on charts and making very few actual decisions.
The Necromunda skill system, as a mechanism for providing faction differentiation, is very interesting to me. For a game in which everyone basically drives a car with a machine gun strapped to it, differentiating factions is always going to be tricky. However, I have been convinced that factions are necessary for the game (I’ll write a full blog post about this at some point), and granting drivers unique ways in work to break the core game rules in certain areas certainly seems to be a route that needs exploration.
Led into new avenues by the excellent “Design Games” podcast, I have read a number of RPGs recently. In particular Apocalypse World was both appropriate and extremely interesting for someone who exited the world of RPGs around the time White Wolf published Changeling Second Edition (circa 1998). Times have changed!
I re-read the experience systems of Cars Wars, Call Of Cthulhu and some other older games. Nothing particularly illuminating in them, mostly just “reward through play”, which is interesting not what Necromunda does at all. Your model can spend three games sniping from a tower at the back of the board, and be rewarded with +1 to their weapon skill on the random charts. In CoC, you are only going to improve the skills that you use during play.
Although I have yet to play it, I read through the new Malifaux campaign system, in the Shifting Loyalties sourcebook. The Malifaux campaign system very neatly reuses the “upgrade” mechanic the second edition of that game introduced. It shows how flexible a mechanic it can be. It works around the core conflict that Malifaux has with the introduction of a progression system: it is character based, and the characters are very carefully balanced in a deeply complex system.
My local wargaming club has apparently just run an X-Wing campaign with a similar outline. At the start of the campaign, you are limited to just the basic models. Each week, new update cards are released to the players, and the campaign escalated. In both systems, rewards are delivered as upgrade cards, meaning the core stat cards for each model can remain untouched. This differs from the A4 sheet of paper covered in pencil eraser smudges that define the GW progression systems.
Another campaign system that relies entirely on cards is the Imperial Assault boardgame. Instead of a scrap of paper, you have a little pile of cards. It grows as the campaign grows, and you get awarded new options during gameplay for success or failure in previous games.
I am currently of the opinion that Gaslands would benefit from a system in which vehicle’s stats can be modified in a granular way (like a roleplaying game), but play will determine whether that ends up being too fiddly or not.
Kingdom Death: Monster also has a neat mixture of the old school paper-based and the modern card-based progression tracking systems. As you play the game, you collect resources, which are cards, and which you can spend to unlock more cards, that unlock further options and so on.
Kingdom Death also has a lovely update to the old-school RPG experience system. Each character has multiple little experience tracks, and as you tick off enough boxes on the track, you encounter “event triggers” which trigger a choose-your-own adventure style mini-game that results in some form of progression for your character (and interestingly not always or exclusively a positive progression).
I might be stretching here, but I feel like the sheet of paper system has it’s roots in more old school pen and paper roleplaying, whereas these newer card-based progression systems are tidier and more modern. Is one better? Is one more appropriated to Gaslands? Interestingly, the FORMAT of Gaslands sort of makes this decision for me. As Gaslands will be published as a short paperback book, and will not be supported with cards or other components, the decision is easier. Pencil and a sheet of paper is the only available choice.
Actually, that’s not strictly true. The internet exists. I have been a web developer of sorts in the past. I could provide a digital progression tracking tool, that was neither pencil and paper nor a deck of cards. I am still considering this, but I think it could only ever be an enhancement, and not the primary way of tracking the game.
…Also, what if the apocalypse DOES come, you wouldn’t be able to play Gaslands in the rubble of the burnt earth if it had electronic campaign tracking!
For now, I am trailing a pencil-and-paper system for Gaslands, allowing users freedom to jot down stats, cross them out and add skills and notes to their roster sheet. I will freely admit that the alpha campaign system is pretty much a Necromunda rip-off, but, you know what they say: talent borrows, genius steals.
If you want to help us test the campaign system, go ahead and sign up to be a playtester.