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In 2016, Osprey Games gave me my "game designer" big break and published Horizon Wars, a hard(ish) science fiction combined arms battle game, pitched for 6mm play (but playable anywhere from 2mm up to 15mm) and miniatures/setting agnostic.
The game hardly set the world on fire, but it has certainly built up a loyal and passionate following over the last three years and when I released Over the Horizon - a self-published supplement, currently available in PDF only from Wargame Vault, but with a full print-on-demand glossy hardback version to be available very shortly - I was enormously cheered by the impressive sales I achieved off the blocks (especially considering that most of the contents had been available individually either as a micro-transaction or basically free previously).
I decided it was time to get serious with Horizon Wars's true sequel - something I had planned from the start: a 28mm skirmish game (but playable anywhere from 15mm to 54mm) along the same design principles but with the granular detail you would expect from a skirmish.
Anyway, Zero Dark is now about 95% done, in terms of writing the thing. I've splashed out on Adobe InDesign and done a course to learn how to use it. But to help me get it over the line, I need some input.
Unfortunately, I've tried to get feedback on this sort of thing before by sharing open betas and soliciting opinions with little success. I've even tried paying people to give me proper feedback. Again - no joy. So I've taken the plunge and started a Patreon page.
The psychology behind this is twofold:
First, people who commit money to someething (even just a little money) are far more likely to give it their considered time and let the creator know if they want something different. Money gives participants both an incentive and a voice.
Second, I get to offset some of my costs in getting this far and even build up a little funding towards getting some good quality art done to illustrate this book.
Anyway, the book is slated for release in early 2020 (I'm aiming for "by the end of April" as an absolute latest but, as I'll be in Japan for most of April, "by the end of March" is the more likely target). If you'd like to follow along do join the Facebook group for details. And if you'd like to contribute or get early access to the beta material (which will be public access in December), you might even consider becoming a patron.
Either way, I'll post updates here as things go along.
Backing on Patreon is modest but growing slowly, which is nice. It means I have time to discuss things with the patrons and get their take on stuff which is really interesting.
I'm having a bit of a wrestle with Wargame Vault. They have excellent resources and advice for their publishers but if you stray even moderately from the expected rails it can get a bit weird. I'm using a standard but unusual page format (9.25" x 7.5") to make sure that my books sit well on the shelf next to Horizon Wars (Osprey used a very slightly different but even weirder format called Crown Royal). As a result, the WGV AI thinks my bleed margins are off, but as far as I can tell, they're just fine.
Anyway, you're not interested in the technicalities of publishing (unless you are, in which case, yay).
Some design points about Zero Dark that you need to know:
1. d12s. This is non-negotiable.
2. An opposing force controlled by a normal, 54-card control deck. This is on the table in both solo mode (where it's the main enemy) and PvP mode (where it's a serious complication for both sides).
3. Fully customizable heroes. Basically, any mini up to the size of a Space Marine terminator can find a place in your team.
4. Hard sci-fi core setting. I hope to have supplements for more pulpy settings, like the grim dark future, a galaxy far, far away, or superheroes in due course. But right now, it's all about keeping things within the realm of the possible.
Why d12s? This comes down to a fundamental mechanic that has been lifted more-or-less wholesale from Horizon Wars. In HW, the roll to hit involves measuring the range and rolling a number d12s to try to equal or exceed the range. The more groups of dice you have that do this, the more successes (hits) you achieve.
In Zero Dark, I've taken this mechanic and applied it more widely so, for example, if you want to extract data from the objective computer terminal you might be rolling a number of d12s against the difficulty of the terminal. If you want to medic an ally, you'll roll d12s against the severity of the wound. If you want to sneak up to an enemy target, you'll roll d12s against how easily you are going to be spotted.
The foundation of this mechanic is shooting and, as we tend to measure our tables in inches, with tables typically being between 3' and 6' in dimensions, it makes sense to work on a scale of 1 to 12. Having established the foundation, it then follows that it is easier to apply the exact same mechanic across all tests for player familiarity.
I wasn't going to do this post, yet, but the weather outside is dreadful and I'm warm and cosy at home, so I figure if I do this now I can put off having to adult for a bit longer...
The Control Deck The Control Deck runs the artificial intelligence behind the Red Force. It's a normal deck of 54 playing cards. After every character activation, you flip the Control Deck. The result dictates the behaviour of the Red Force.
The value of the card tells you which bogey will act. The suit tells you what they will do. If you flip a Joker, you get a complication - this can be anything from more bogeys to a booby trap.
Bogeys come in three basic flavours: Grunts, Elites and Bosses. Grunts are plentiful and die easily, but they can gain support tokens that make them tougher or deadlier. Elites are harder to put down and more dangerous. But most dangerous of all is the Boss. Complications can introduce special bogeys, like the Sniper or the dreaded Defence Mech.
You can manipulate the Control Deck in a few ways. The most basic is to move cautiously. A cautious move, if successful, negates the primary action on a Control Deck flip. Another way is to take a Spook: a special kind of hero. A Spook gives you a hand of cards from the deck that you can play at any time to replace the actual flip.
However, the Control Deck also performs a second important role: it is the mission timer. Once you run out of cards the mission is over. If you've not finished, you lose. There are lots of things you can do in the game that give you advantages, but which "run down the clock" - that is, they remove cards from the deck, so you have less time to complete your mission.
If you like the sound of this game, don't forget you can get early access to the beta rules by backing meet on Patreon. Link is in the OP!
Putting Together a Team We all love a good heist movie, don't we? My favourite bit is the early chapter - usually done as a montage or series of short, choppy scenes with a unifying musical track - when the Boss puts his team together. Whether it's Ocean's Eleven, Hogan's Heroes or Justice League, you get this sense of a diverse group of characters, each with their own particular strengths and weaknesses, who come together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
When I wrote the rules for building your "X Teams" (whether the X stands for Exploration, Extermination or something else is for you to decide) in Zero Dark, I really wanted to capture some of that flavour as well as borrowing from the popular Horizon Wars mechanics for building custom mechs - but with even more creative freedom!
The baseline is that each hero - the main type of character, the other being allies, who are a bit different - gets 15 stat points to spend on four stats that will look a bit familiar to Horizon Wars players: M, F, A and D. But they mean something a little different in Zero Dark: Mobility, Fight, Acuity and Discipline. The first two are physical stats. The latter two are essentially mental stats.
Then you can add as many upgrades to each hero as you like!
What? That makes no sense!
Mad, right? Well, the thing is, if you're playing solo or co-op, then you add up all the upgrades you've taken on your characters and then you run down the clock by that many cards. So, sure, by all means take a ludicrous bunch of upgrades for a superhuman hero, but you'll have less time to complete your mission.
Now, things are slightly balanced in the heroes' favour, because upgrades are better than the clock. This allows you to balance how hard you want any given mission to be by giving your heroes more upgrades and abilities. It'll run down the clock, but your advantages will mostly off-set that disadvantage. Mostly.
In a PvP missions, you must agree with your opponent how many upgrades you get to take on each hero. So there are no limits, but your opponent has the same advantages you do. The default position is 4/16/4, or 4 heroes with a maximum of 16 upgrades, a maximum of four of which are allocated to each hero.
Makes a bit more sense, now?
Hmmm... OK, so what are the upgrades?
There are loads of upgrades, but they split down into five main types: specialisms (of which you can have a maximum of one of each in your team), traits, gadgets, weapons and allies. One of the traits - "synthetic" - also gives you access to things like artificial intelligences, robots and drones.
They sound really interesting! Tell me more.
I will. Next week, we'll talk about allies. If you want to know more about the others, you'll just have to become a patron.
There's no limit to how many heroes you take in a game of Zero Dark, but I tend to find that 3-5 is the sweet spot. Beyond that, and you'll find that some heroes just don't do much because it turns out you don't need their particular skills, and if you're playing co-op, there's a lot of downtime for those who aren't activating their particular hero. It's a lot like an RPG. To have a good game, you need an interesting party, but if the party is unwieldy the game tends to get out of hand and it spoils everyone's fun.
But even if you only have two or three heroes, you can still get more friendly minis on the table by taking allies.
Allies are a special sort of upgrade that adds another character to the X Team. "Character" is a generic term for the main players in your drama. Heroes are the leads, but they can still have a supporting cast. You could even have a single hero and a range of supporting characters alongside him or her. There are three options for allies in the starting line up of the game:
Remotes are synthetic assistants. At their most basic, they are simply an expendable drone that can rush up to objectives and interact with them when it's too dangerous to send a hero: zipping around that unexpected enemy mech, or clambering over an otherwise-unscalable object. But they can be improved with a number of their own upgrades, including adding weapons to them to create a mobile gun platform.
Close Protection Dogs are trained to take on an enemy that gets too close to their principle. Great for helping keep smart but weak heroes alive, CP Dogs can also work with the more lethal type of hero to allow them to take on more than one enemy at once!
Embedded Journalists are both burden and buff for heroes. On the one hand, no one like operating under the scrutiny of the media. But it certainly does help to focus the mind! Heroes who are acting within the line of sight of an emjay get bonuses to their actions, but if the emjay gets killed, that's very much the definition of "bad news".
Allies provide a few things to Zero Dark. The first and, to be honest, most important is the option to put some new and unusual miniatures on the tabletop that you might always have liked but never known what to do with. At its heart, Precinct Omega is about giving you excuses to use the miniatures you love more than the miniatures someone tells you you have to use. But there's no value in minis that look great but don't contribute to the game. All the allies are designed to enhance the natural abilities of the heroes: not powerful on their own, but a force multiplier that can make the difference between success and failure at the right moment.
Next blog (sorry this one was a bit later than planned) will look at some of the other types of upgrade and what they add to your X Team.
In the Zero Dark setting, it's kind of assumed that your X Team is going to be made up of specialists: serious, military operators who consider the work of entering an area, killing the enemy, securing the objective and extracting to base to be... well, their job. It's a job they are good at and they understand and accept those risks.
It should be said that, for those who want to, you can entirely ignore the setting and create your own. The team could just be a rag-tag group of tourists, lost in a Westworld-like robot theme park, or a gang of Jedi younglings trying to escape from Order 66. But for the purposes of this blog, we'll assume they are the default scifi military operators.
The nature of a special forces team is that each team member will tend to fill a particular role. Everyone can do everything, but everyone is the best in the team at doing one particular thing. Specialisms represent that particular level of special expertise. As a result, any one hero can have only one specialism.
The Leader is, obviously enough, the one in charge. But whilst every team has a leader, not every team has a Leader. In this sense, a leader has a level of personal charisma and dedication that inspires the members of the team to out-perform even their own high standards. A leader gets a pool of re-roll dice that, used wisely, can make the difference between victory and defeat. But if the leader goes out of action, unused dice may be lost.
A Doc isn't necessarily (or even, perhaps, usually) an actual doctor. A doc has a gift for combat medicine that will often make "proper" medical professionals despair when they see the mess of dressings, random environmental objects and analgesics these guys dispense to keep their team mates on their feet when all good sense should have put them on a stretcher. Docs can re-roll any or all of the dice in medic tests performed on a non-synthetic character.
An EWOp is an Electronic Warfare Operator, often called a "combat hacker" by the media, although it's not something you should call them to their faces. EWOps can seriously mess with the enemy game-plan, buffing their friends, de-buffing their opponents and dominating enemy synthetics, turning them into allies. Electronic Warfare opens up a whole new dimension of play.
Sappers have come a long way from digging trenches by the time of Zero Dark. If EWOps deal with software, these guys deal with hardware. They unlock remotes as allies, carry sentry devices, like mines and sentry guns, and can act like docs when doing medic tests on synthetic characters. If you just need to reliably blow something up, you want a sapper.
No team likes having to work with Spooks. It's rarely clear who, exactly, they work for or even if the name they gave was their real one. They have a weird level of insight to enemy plans but only ever seem to be involved when the missions are particularly difficult. Spooks manipulate the Control Deck by removing cards (running down the clock) which they can they put back in to replace any flip result with a preferable one.
What do you think of Zero Dark's selection of specialists? Are there any we haven't included that you think ought to be in there?
In the next blog, we'll look at the remaining categories of upgrades - armour, weapons, gadgets and traits.
This message was edited 1 time. Last update was at 2020/01/12 18:52:45
At the encouragement of my patrons (I think they back me just for the fun of making me dance to their tune) I did a livestream demo of a game of Zero Dark.
Because it was my first YouTube livestream, I started it ten minutes early and rambled to no one whilst trying to make sure everything was working properly, so fast forward to 00:10:12 for the start of the actual demo game.
Upgrades make up a large chunk of the rulebook, but I don't want to spend too long dwelling on them in the design blog. So this will be the last blog talking about them and I'll cover off the remaining categories:
Armour is a simple numerical value from 0 to 8 and it has three effects: first, it makes you harder to hit. This is borrowed directly from Horizon Wars and, although it sounds counter-intuitive, I'm sticking with it and I'll explain why in a moment. Second, it makes you harder to injure. This is more logical, I'm sure you'll agree.
To expand on these two points: basic armour - let's say AV3 - has the equal effect in both directions: it adds +3 to the effective range to the target and you roll 3 dice in the counter-test against the shooting attack. The core rules don't include anything but basic armour, but the door is open for advanced armour types which may add or subtract from these. So you could have, for example, AV3 chameleon armour that adds +1 to the effective range but subtracts -1 from the counter-test. Or AV3 bulky armour that subtracts -1 from the effective range, but adds +1 to the counter-test.
Just to emphasize: this is something that will follow the basic rules in the supplements and expansions to the game, but it serves to explain why these two complementary aspects of armour sit alongside each other.
The third effect of armour is that it makes climbing and jumping harder. This is the reason why all heroes start with AV1, but you can either drop that to AV0 or raise it to AV2 without it counting as an upgrade or otherwise. If you want an agile ninja of a hero, you might want them to be AV0 despite the risks.
Weapons in Zero Dark are abstract in a similar way to Horizon Wars. I don't care whether your hero has an M919x gauss rifle or a Beltway-7 laser pistol. All I care about it what it does to a target. So weapon upgrades might be better described as "weapon effects". Weapons might be lethal, or explosive for example. This leaves players maximum freedom to use miniatures equipped really however they please as long as they can justify the weapons based upon their effects.
An exception to this is grenades, which I thought were essential to a game like Zero Dark and which come in a broad array of types from simply fragmentation grenades to ones which simply put everyone in its area of effect into the "targeted" state.
It's worth noting, though, that Zero Dark doesn't use templates. I've always found the binary predictability of weapon templates to be... unsatisfying. Explosive weapons in Zero Dark are unpredictable and dangerous. With the right (wrong?) dice roll you can potentially blow yourself up with your own weapon, so keep that in mind before you pull the trigger.
Gadgets are other bits of kit that aren't weapons: we've got your nanoweave invisibility cloaks and your see-in-the-dark visors; we've got jump packs and exoskeletons. If there's an advantage to be pressed, we'll try to help you press it.
One of the cool things I've tried to build in to gadgets in particular is synergy. That is, there are gadgets that you'll look at and think "why would I spend an upgrade slot on that?" - and you'd be right. There is at least one gadget - the relay visor - that, on its own, is entirely useless. But in synergy with another character with a relay upgrade, such as a zipper drone, suddenly your EWOp can stay out of trouble's way whilst lighting up enemy targets like no one's business!
That's just one example. There are a few deliberate synergies built into the gadgets and, I hope, even more accidental ones waiting for players to unlock.
Last of all, Traits are those subtle qualities that turn someone from merely being a character to being a hero: little tweaks that let them break some rule or do something better than other characters. Most of the traits are self-explanatory - things like courageous and athlete - but there is at least one that will require a design blog all of its own: synthetic.
So I'll leave off there and next time we'll look at synthetic characters, why you would want to take them and what they can do.
Skip to about 00:10:30 where I remember to turn on my microphone!
Follow my attempt to infiltrate enemy territory and secure classified data with my team of heroes. The opening is slightly more relevant, this time (barring my minute away from the screen to fetch a cup of tea).
This message was edited 2 times. Last update was at 2020/01/26 18:43:52
Synthetic characters are some of my favourite bits of the game.
The first thing I need to point out, because some patrons pointed out that it wasn't immediately obvious, is that heroes - your team's main features - can be synthetic. In fact, it's often a good idea to have at least one synthetic character in a team as you'll see.
Synthetic heroes come in three flavours:
Robots are sci-fi staple androids: human- or roughly-human-shaped, independent and a bit stupid or, at least, not as independent as a true intelligence. They are smart enough to move quickly, fire accurately and to help and support their allies, but they must be given a program that dictates broadly what they do with each action when they are activated.
Drones are best thought of as robots with human minds. Their operator is likely to be some way away, but sees what the drone sees and acts accordingly.
Artificial Intelligences meanwhile are digital superminds that exist on the Battlenet, but which are able to "bodysnatch" other synthetics on the Battlenet to take an active role on the battlefield.
Let's look at some of what makes each of them special.
First of all, all synthetics are "inhuman" - this makes them immune to the feelings of panic that fleshy beings feel when they are shot at and immune to any other effect that causes stress (an effect in the game that causes characters to freeze and have to use actions - and run down the clock - to get back in the game). The other thing all synthetics have is an immunity to the effect of the heatlight visor. I've not mentioned this upgrade before, but it gives some pretty major advantages to the wearer when shooting at warm-bodied targets - but it doesn't help at all against synthetics. In playtesting the PvP game, we found that people do love the heatlight visor, but their faces fell when facing an all-synthetic enemy!
Then each type of synthetic also gets its own advantages.
Drones are all Alert - this gives them a 360 degree arc of awareness: literally eyes in the backs of their heads. Other than that, they really are "one of the team" and are otherwise just like any other hero.
Robots may have the limitation of their program, but each program confers another upgrade. For example, the Assassin program confers the Stealthy upgrade.
Robots also have a special relationship with EWOps (see this blog for details on EWOps) because one of the things EWOps can do to a robot is change its program. So if you've got a robot with a Medical program but you really need it to go kill that Boss, you can use the EWOp to re-program it to the Assault program. Of course, this sword cuts both ways.
EWOps in the PvP game can hack enemy robots to change their program, too!
AIs get an upgrade of your choice for free (although they can't be Leaders, and can't have weapon upgrades for obvious reasons). They also have a special relationship with other synthetics, but whilst the EWOp's is relatively benign, the AI is more of a puppet master. An AI can possess another synthetic, gaining the possessee's upgrades (as well as its own) and replacing the possessee's stats with the AI's. This can be a great manoeuvre for objective grabbing or saving a colleague's life, as a high-F/low-A character can be replaced with a low-F/high-A one with the right skills for the moment.
When you face enemy synthetics, be it in the PvP or solo/team mode, an EWOp can also dominate enemy synthetics, joining them to their own Battlenet and making them available for a friendly AI to possess them.
I hope you'll have seen, just from this short visit to the Battlenet, that synthetics can really mix up your tactical options in a game and provide some tempting choices for a small team. A popular combination for a 4-person team has been a robot with the Medical program, an AI Spook, a drone EWOp and a human Leader. But for all that is has some fancy synergies, it's not an unbeatable combination or a guaranteed win in a solo mission: after all, you have one fewer ally on the table unless the EWOp can dominate an enemy synthetic. And the robot is basically incapable of claiming objectives, which can put you in trouble if the other side has some good shooting results at the wrong moment.
In the next blog, having touched upon it in this one, we'll have a look at Electronic Warfare in more detail and talk about the extra dimension that EWOps bring to the team.
The first thing I'd say about EW is, if you're new to Zero Dark, skip this bit.
It affects only one type of specialist (the EWOp), so you may prefer to just build X Teams without an EWOp while you get used to the core rules. However, I would encourage you to include them as soon as you feel comfortable - especially in the PvP game - as they open up a realm of combat that is entirely new.
In the setting, Electronic Warfare Operations (EWOps) have embraced the language of gaming and talk happily about "casing", "spelldecks", "familiars" and suchlike. To take the analogy further, there are two broad categories of "spell" that the EWOps can use:
Buff spells are used on allies to make them better. You can remove nasty conditions, like targeted or impose useful ones, like support tokens or an enhanced firewall. The other thing you can do with a buff is change a friendly robot's program.
De-buff spells, meanwhile, are used on opponents to inflict bad conditions or remove useful ones, opposite to the above. They can also be used to change enemy robot's programs! But de-buff spells also provide the ability to enter the "interference" state.
Interference represents the EWOp diving into the enemy BattleNet to steal information and mess with their plans. An EWOp in the intererence state can do a range of special actions: attacking enemy EWOps in digital duels, messing with the control deck or hiding one of their allies from being easily perceived by the enemy BattleNet.
Domination is one of the most fun - but also most tricky - sides of electronic warfare: attempting to wrest control of an enemy synthetic from its own BattleNet. It's quite a conditional action - and I got the rules wrong myself in one of the recent livestreams! The target has to be in the targeted state with no support tokens, the attempt must be declared in advance as a dominate action and the domination cannot generate bonus actions.
The idea behind this is that, in PvP games, your opponent is going to notice that you're trying to dominate his synthetic (just as the BattleNet would notice such an action) and have the chance to stop you. If you want to dominate an enemy synthetic, the first thing you would need to do is make sure the enemy EWOp can't stop you by, for example, engaging them in a digital duel...
Dominated characters retain all of their state and upgrades, but now they work for the enemy! Dominated bogeys, meanwhile, get a new statline of their own. It's not as good a statline as a hero's going to have, but that reflects how much easier it is to dominate a bogey than a character in an opposing X Team.
Anyway, I hope you get a sense of the role that EWOps can play in Zero Dark. They really are the spellcasters of the scifi world, using their skills to protect and enhance their allies and to confuse and harrass the enemy.
I hope to expand on the options for EWOps in future supplements but, for now, I think they are more than adequately complicated, whilst still being a fun and characterful addition to the game.