The Mission Editor

I was able to knock a few things off my to-do list, and I had the day off from work, so I had zero excuses to not work on some Mars Rising scenarios. Mars Rising doesn't have a single killer mechanic I can point to, but it is full of what I'd like to call "neat ways of doing things." For example:

  • The circular board is a fresh way of handling a tactics map.
  • There's a simple dice mechanic to demonstrate two weapons types.
  • Squadron Formations give you a lot of ships, but only one control point.
  • Formations will add a tactical layer for advanced players.

Another neat thing, and the topic of this post, is how I'm creating scenarios for the game. I thought it would be interesting to walk through my process and toolkit behind these scenarios to hopefully inspire some of your own ideas.

Mars Rising was created for small groups of friends to enjoy over the course of a handful of play sessions. For example, me and my friend Cole, or my friend Rob, get together on lazy Sundays to game for hours. Just the two of us. I wanted a tactical game tied together with a little narrative and some persistence.

When I set out to create a campaign-based game, I had a few examples:

Risk Legacy: This game remembers your campaign and choices on the board. It is a one-time only, dire consequences kind of experience with stickers, ripped cards, and new mechanics. I love this, but didn't think the finality of it was appropriate for Mars.

Memoir '44 Campaign Books Vol. 1 and 2: Another favorite of mine. Memoir does a great job of toeing the line between historically accurate, yet fun and accessible. Memoir ties scenarios together by rewarding early success with reinforcements and better field position. It's appropriate for the setting, but it's a bit too even keeled for what interests me.

RPGs, in general, are campaigns. If you take Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons, you essentially have a game of N length that has a story written, experienced, and woven by its DM and players. That is an extreme I'm not trying to tackle in a tactics game. I want this to be easy involvement for folks. Right tools for the job, as they say.

Mice and Mystics: This is a game I love and a great example of what I wanted. It is a pre-written narrative that is persistent and has some choices throughout. Though, the choices are often simply delayed. Before it's all over, you must accomplish X, Y, and Z, so it's really a matter of how and when you do it.

Here were the elements I wanted to include for the Mars campaign:

  • Replayable scenarios. Obviously they won't be quite as fun the second time around, but they should be fun on subsequent plays.
  • A narrative that players can affect. It isn't a sandbox -- I made the decision to create a canonical path to the story. But, players can affect things slowly over time, like a pebble creating ripples in a lake.
  • Enough flexibility to make every scenario unique. In Starcraft, every mission is 1.) Build Base, 2.) Find enemy, 3.) Build army, 4.) Kill enemy. In Starcraft II, every mission was a unique puzzle/experience. I wanted to model Mars after the latter.
  • Sufficient tools to foster a community of creators. This is super idealistic, but it's important to me. I was very inspired by the number of generic tokens used in Robinson Crusoe. Not only does the designer use them brilliantly to vary scenarios, but the community uses them to craft their own. I want to encourage and support this.

Now that you have some background, let's walk through the elements that help me satisfy these goals in a typical Mars Rising scenario.

  1. Story: I begin every scenario (and sometimes interject during) with a cast of characters, dialog, and story progression.
  2. Recommended Ships: To speed things up (and direct the balance level I desire), I specify ships to be used. But, players could vary this!
  3. Starting Positions: I can (and do) put players both in ideal and terrible starting positions. It changes things quite a bit. I can start you in an isolated position, off the board (you warp in with flexibility), or in the thick of things. It has a big impact.
  4. Environmental Elements: The game includes space stations, asteroids, turrets, mines, and I have generic "story tokens" that can be anything. Plus, you can use ships to be derelict craft. Flexibility is the name of the game.
  5. Objectives: Every scenario has unique objectives. Take out a space station, protect civilian transports, hijack merchant convoy ships, and more. How well you do here will affect...
  6. Subsequent Scenario Modifiers: I didn't want you to have to remember something from Mission 3 that changes Mission 8. But, there are things in every mission that will affect the mission immediately following. Which can change everything listed above and more.
  7. Events: I have 10 Event tokens that are comprised of 4 different generic icons. Events trigger based on a random, but fairly probable dice rolls. The 4 unique events for the scenario, and the order in which they occur, really change things.
  8. System Failures: When your ships lose their shields, you draw a token to see which system takes a hit. Your ship might lose a missile or laser battery, an engine, or even a hit on the hull. These can really affect your squadrons!
  9. Player choice. How players maneuver their units, use their ship abilities, and succeed or fail with the dice will vary every game.

As you can see, there are a lot of little pieces that build every mission and hopefully lead to a very dynamic, varied experience. I've played the first mission about 6 times now and it's been a little different every time, so I feel it's working. The few folks who have tried the PNP have enjoyed it as well.

Now, some tips for how you can incorporate these things in your own designs:

  • Establish your core mechanics before working on scenario design. I spent at least 6 months refining what a ship is, what its weapons are, how the ships move, how ships attack, and how ships form formations before I made a single scenario. Your core must be solid. If you find yourself refining core mechanics and scenarios, you'll want to die.
  • Establish your goals clearly. As you can see in my list of games above, there are MANY ways you can go about it. If you don't know what you want, you'll be in an endless loop.
  • Understand how every piece factors into the experience. Don't just add stuff. Have a meaningful purpose for everything. Scenario design is much like typical game design. Know why a mechanic exists, and know why a scenario modifier exists.
  • Experiment with tokens and icons. Cards get expensive really quickly, but tokens are affordable AND flexible.

If you'd like to check out some of the scenario work for Mars Rising, you can do so here. If you haven't read the game rules, you might want to do that first so that you have context. Check out the rules here. Comments are allowed in both documents.

What do you think? Anything of interest to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


This was actually the first thing I tried! It was the obvious choice. The problem I ran into was that Choose Your Own Adventure doesn't work well with 2 players. If I had to factor in both players' actions the matrix of options quickly gets unwieldy. I also found that the sheer amount of content was watering things down. Right now, it was more important that I create 12, unique missions that tell the story of the Jovian Campaign.

The way it works currently is that I know Mission 4 will follow Mission 3. I can setup pieces and optional paths in Mission 3 to augment Mission 4. Both players can augment it, sometimes more one side than the other.

I'll provide a tracking sheet in the booklet so that players can simply check things off. So, in Mission 4 setup it'll say "Did you do Y?" and the player can go "Yep!"

Risk Legacy is cool and the continuity of the game makes it easy to track when big moments happen. But, I didn't want to force players to permanently change their components (stickers, ripping, etc.) and I didn't want them to have to track things that happened on Mission 1 when they are on Mission 8 (especially as they may be playing the campaign over the course of months).

The "too long, didn't read" is that I wanted to minimize accounting and deliver a more focused, unique story than something with infinite variety.

NOW, one thing that would be cool is a sandbox mode. I have ideas for this, but it would need to be an expansion or follow up. It would come with a solar system board that would track your fleet positions and such. So, it would be less story driven, more of a 4x game with a focus on tactical battles. Make sense?

Interesting ideas. If the scenarios are short enough, a "choose your own adventure" campaign book could be fun instead of a linear story. A combination of player choices and scenario outcomes?

You could provide bookmarks that track key results and choices that may trigger different outcomes later in the game? In a Risk Legacy style manner?