Bill White's roleplaying game design blog, with emphasis on narrativist or story-heavy games.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The New World: Breakpoints Wanted

I'm working on a game of fantastical alternate history that I'm calling The New World. It is essentially Guns, Germs, and Steel meets The Years of Rice and Salt: The Role-Playing Game, with a dash of Roger Zelazny's Game of Blood and Dust

The meta-game involves the accumulation of four types of civilizational currency (Warfare [i.e., offensive technology--think guns], Life [i.e., population and biodiversity--think germs], Wealth [i.e., luxuries and ostentation--think "cargo," in the WWII cargo cult sense), and Knowledge [in particular, technical and scientific knowledge--think steel]). Those currencies pay for scenes that produce fictional outcomes, which then feed back into the meta-game. So each session is like a chapter in a book of never-was history.

But to prompt the historical imaginations of the players, I want to begin the game with a little alternate history mini-game that will tie alternate history breakpoints or "points of departure" (PODs) to playing cards. Each player (who in the meta-game will represent one or more "zones" or "civilizational centers"--basically continents) will have a small hand of cards (probably 3 to 5) to play a trick-taking game that changes the initial distribution of civilizational currencies in line with the imaginable consequences of the POD associated with that card.

So, for example, I'm playing the mini-game, representing North America, and I've got the Queen of Hearts, which I know means that a comet misses the Earth in 10,900 BC, so there's no Younger Dryas ice age, so mammoths survive in North America, giving North America +1 Warfare (because they have war mammoths) and +1 Life (because domesticated mammoths are a biological resource and a source of pathogens). I lead with that card, and that event happens. If someone throws a card with a lower value, its historically more recent event doesn't happen (probably because of the butterfly effect), but if someone throws a card with a higher value, its historically earlier event does happen. So, for example, if the player to my left goes with the King of Diamonds (Atlantis really existed but sank in pre-historic times, so Atlantean refugees bring their super-science with them, giving +2 Knowledge to the zone of her choice), then she's winning the trick and will lead next, assuming no one plays an ace. But if she plays the Five of Clubs, then she's thrown away the opportunity to have Mohammed killed while fleeing Mecca. After three to five tricks, you've got (a) the starting date for the game, based on the lowest card that anyone led, (b) a world-historical sketch with hopefully evocative fictional elements: Vikings in America! Native American war mammoths! Chinese treasure fleets in the Atlantic Ocean! and (c) a starting distribution for the meta-game "civilizational currencies." I think it's fun and elegant in a Rube Goldbergian way.

So what I need are more points of departure! Give me your favorite alternate historical breakpoints and their imagined consequences! I think I want to stick to stuff that's prior to 1500, though, so no alternate Civil Wars or World War IIs or any of that Turtledove stuff.


Tim Worstall said...

Taking Jared Diamond's points further. The one really big change that you need to alter outcomes is to give the Americas a decent beast of burden. War mammoths are fun, but to really change pupolation densities etc you need a beast of burden/ploughing animal.

In N America the largest they had pre 1492 was the dog, in South the llama, neither of which you can ride or plough with.

Could be the survival of the american horse, perhaps find some way to give them an ox. But without something like that really rather difficult to build the population to make the Americas competitive.

You could also deny the European/Asians the horse collar and stirrup.....

Sheikh Jahbooty said...

My thought are to have a number of suits, like wars, religions, inventions, disasters, and then the trick taking game can work such that the first person throws down a suit, say Religions, and he plays the Muhammad never arrives in Medina, and the next guy has no religion cards or nothing that early, but the next guy has Manicheism thrives, so that becomes the event that will survive this trick taking round.

My other thought is to change it to a climbing game.

With a trick taking game you will have a number of points of departure equal to the number of cards that each player will play in a game. 52 card / 4 players = 13 points of departure, perhaps too many to keep strait or understand the import of. A climbing game will tend to have less "results" You keep going around until someone is stuck in that they can't play an earlier card of the proper suit.

Or if you don't want to favor early events, you could make a game where you just have to throw out cards until someone doesn't have a card of the proper suit, regardless if it is earlier or later. You could even have some special cards, "reverse", "skip", etc. or allow a player to play a card of a different suit if it is within 300 years of the previous point of departure, or something.

Just tossing out some ideas. Not exactly the ones you asked for, but those that came to my mind.

tutunaku said...

I wonder how this is going. I heard about it on the Pelgrane site, and would love to see it fully fledged.
I'm a fan of Ganakagok, and the two scenarios for trail of Cthulhu (all sadly unplayed).

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A communication Ph.D., I teach public speaking and media-related courses in the middle of PA. I do research on scholarly/scientific communication, and I write & play roleplaying games.