Learning from Hoth
I wanted to write briefly about scenario and story design for Mars Rising. Primarily, I wanted to share why the Battle of Hoth from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is a driving inspiration for the experience.
Before we get started, it may be useful for you to read this military analysis of the Battle of Hoth posted on Wired. The article is a fun read, especially for military nerds, but it really opened my eyes to the general notion that is:
The Rebels couldn't have won the Battle of Hoth, but they could have lost much, much worse.
Generally, scenario based games are reasonably balanced. When you play Memoir '44, the scenarios are derived from historical engagements. Therefore, you'll often see a 45/55, or even 40/60 balance in favor of one side. In my opinion, this is fair and reasonable. It's fun. Furthermore, the rules state for players to swap sides and compare points and execution.
If I think back to the Battle of Hoth, the Battle of Yavin IV, or the Battle of Endor, none of them were balanced. In every case, the Rebel Alliance was up against a far superior force with seemingly insurmountable odds. Every Rebel pilot could be considered a member of the forlorn hope. Due to skill, determination, and a little luck (and/or Midi-chorlians) they came out ahead. This is what made them incredible stories.
Therefore, my general thinking for the scenarios of Mars Rising is to NOT focus so much on balance, but instead, focus on epic, dramatic scenarios. Here's the general gist for every mission:
- Location: Where is it taking place?
- Objective: Why are the players fighting here? This is a mix of narrative and mechanics.
- Conclusion: Who do I expect to win within the "canon" of the story I envision?
- Consequences: How is this mission affected by the previous mission?
- Goals: What can players do within this setup that's extraordinary?
Let's discuss this last point. This is where the epic comes from, or so I hope. Imagine the following prelude scenario I'm tossing around.
There is a small outpost on Ceres, the dwarf planet/asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Mars stations a squadron of fighters here to protect merchant ships and generally keep an eye on things. It is a sleepy, lazy post that some see as ideal posting (easy) or a career death sentence (too easy). Much like the Wermacht crushing through the Ardennes to invade France in 1940's Case Yellow Operation, the United Terran Navy is making their push against Martian interests in the Jovian belts using this sleepy, poorly defended sector. Not expecting such an event, the Martians left their back door fairly open.
Imagine these two perspectives:
- You're a bored, Martian squadron leader, suddenly confronted with an invasion fleet that should not be here. Do you snap out of it? What can you do? This is the worst day of your life.
- You're a calm, well prepared Terran Admiral. Intelligence prepared you with precise details on the presence of the Martian outpost and its squadrons. You order a few Interceptor squadrons launched and dispatch a few anti-fighter destroyers to seal the deal. This is about as routine as a training operation.
To quote Dennis Hopper, "What do you do, hot shot?"
Let's be reasonable. I don't expect the Martian fighter squadron to win. The deck is (intentionally) stacked against them. The Terran surprise attack on Io will proceed, because that's the story and that's what I want you to experience. BUT. What if the Martians bravely disable the Terran flagship, giving a lone fighter time to jump to Io to warn them? What if a Martian freighter moving through has a sudden rush of patriotism and, with the escort of the desperate Martian fighters, reaches the jump point before it's captured?
This will have a light ripple effect on the next mission. Imagine if that ripple builds and by the very end, there are 3 completely different missions that might take place.
I don't know, precisely, how I intend to to mechanize this. Yet. My general thinking is for the missions to have a strictly defined end condition. This would be something like, when N ships are destroyed, the mission ends. However, I am thinking of introducing optional goals that, if accomplished, will have distinct modifiers in following missions. When playing Mission 3, it'll ask if A, B, or C were accomplished. If so, vary the placement, or the number of ships, or even the goal you need to accomplish.
In the end, my hope is that players can play a campaign multiple times and see new things and reach a different and satisfying conclusion to their war. No, this isn't Risk Legacy. It's not that open. But I love the idea that a group of friends have their own story for the Jovian campaign.