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Subject: Designer Diary - Exploring the Realm rss

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Cole Wehrle
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At various points in these posts I’ve alluded to the ways that board game design sometimes seems stuck behind video game design. I mean this in a very specific way. Namely, video games have provided us with ways of thinking through certain genres (say the adventure game or the civilization builder) and board games sometimes try to adapt those efforts to an analogue form. At best, this translation produces some clever feats of engineering. At worst, video games stifle the imaginative scope of what’s possible in other forms.

I wanted to start by saying these things because adventure/rpg games are particularly poorly served by current design efforts. Somehow it seems like only the worst video game ideas are able to be adapted into board game form. Consider, for instance, the astounding complexity of most dungeon crawling board games and how, despite the considerable demands they place on their players, the gameplay itself is pretty flat. Kill the baddies. Build better combos. Kill other baddies. Rinse, repeat.

One of the best things about tabletop gaming is how those games create a space for the players to interact with one another in new ways. Games are an exceptional space and one able to produce new kinds of intimacy from one player to another. Video games can do this to, but the priorities and demands are different. I like working on board games because I feel like they do meaningful interaction between participants better than just about any other form of art.

With the above in mind, today I want to talk about the Vagabond role. When I started adapting Root for Leder Games, Patrick made it clear that he wanted an adventurer to be one of the player positions. This was a bit of a design headache. As a system, I had imagined Root as principally geopolitical. This meant I was going to slam into problems of scale. If I built a combat system that was universal, making it work the same of a single adventurer as for a warband was just one of many problems. Then, of course, there were also problems making the idea of the lone adventurer fit thematically into the political argument the game was making about the connection between force and governance.

All of this is just to say, I was less than enthusiastic about the idea.

However, as the rest of the game started to gel, I realized that the Vagabond provided me with a way to explore the bigger arguments I was making at a more personal scale. The game was already moving in a more abstract direction with its use of cards, and one of the big advantages of that shift is that it allowed me to play a little fast-and-loose with the subject of scale itself.

Because many players of Root won’t have a wargaming background, here’s what I mean when I talk about scale. In most wargames and simulation games, scale is quite rigid. A turn might represent the action of a day or an hour or a minute. A single warrior piece might represent a band of 10 or 100 fighters. These numbers stay stable because all of the systems of the game demand that they do. If they lose their specificity, then the game loses its grip on its topic. However, even the most rigid wargame has to take liberties. Most of these liberties come in how command and control is modeled (esp. the fog of war). Consider how in most squad level world war two games, players don’t have to worry relaying information from one group of soldiers to another. A man pinned in a foxhole can make an informed decision about where to move based on action happening a mile away. Breaks in the simulation like this can be wonderful for a game’s narrative because they provide a counterpoint to the “big” action where the majority of gameplay is happening. Think about how, while playing a big 4x space game, a player might act out the death of one of their fleets at the table. That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about shifts in scale.

As soon as I started thinking about the Vagabond in these terms, my initial hesitation about the role disappeared. Both the core political factions and the Vagabonds had something to give each other. The Vagabonds would make their actions in the world of Root personal, and the core factions would make the world of Root an organic place where the actions of the other players powered the landscape through which the Vagabonds would move.



I started my design for the Vagabond by thinking about Magic Realm. Designed by Richard Hamblen, Magic Realm was first published by Avalon Hill nearly forty years ago (1979). While there are many admirable things about the design, it is very much a game of its timeperiod and there’s a reason why you may not have heard of it, and why it is only rarely played with any regularity these days. It’s a big, crufty design with a lot of funny little rules and chits and tables and all the rest. But, the game has something else as well that makes it a singular title and one that anyone interested in game design should study seriously. Magic Realm is a fantasy adventure game that was built before anyone really knew what fantasy adventure games should look like. I’m not saying it’s the first (it wasn’t), but it was clearly built by someone who wanted to think through what an adventure game meant from first principles. (For a 4x scifi examples, see Lensman or Outreach: The Conquest of the Galaxy, 3000AD.)

For this reason, Magic Realm is a deeply weird game that just get’s weirder the more you think about it as an earnest attempt to understand what a fantasy adventure game could be. There are, for instance, no levels, no experience points, and no hit points. There’s no gentle power curve to ease players into positions of god-like strength. You will spend most of the game hiding. It’s awesome.

Of all of the board games I’ve played that take on the subject of the grand fantasy adventure, Magic Realm is the only one that gets the feeling right. The world seems so alive in comparison to anything else. How did it do this? For one, the world was dangerous. Choices felt consequential because they were. The wrong move and your character would die, quickly. The world also felt populated. There were lots of interesting people who lived in the Realm, and they had their own roles to play in the game.

This was the feeling I wanted to create in Root. Of course, the requirements of playtime, audience, and whatnot meant that I couldn’t make a massive adventure game. That is a project for another day. But, Magic Realm gave me a set of guiding principles.


The first principle was interaction. For the Vagabond, rather than tie victory points to an internal engine (like the other factions), I decided to have his victory points powered by his actions towards the other players. This lead to the creation of the alignment chart which you can see pictured below.

Basically each non-Vagabond faction has an alignment token on the Vagabond player’s chart. As the Vagabond interacts with that faction, his or her alignment towards that faction shifts. These shifts are the critical way the Vagabond gets victory points. In addition, shifts on this track can lead to special statuses which change how the Vagabond plays the game. So, if they beat up the Cats they will become hostile, making it very difficult for the Vagabond to move through places where there are.

This scoring structure gives the Vagabond a huge dynamic range in terms of its interaction with the other factions. Basically, they get to be a balancer. In practice, they need a longer game to secure victory, so they need to help the underdog in order to buy time for themselves.



The second principle I needed in their design was danger. The Vagabonds start the game weak and, even at their peak, will rarely have the force of an army behind them. Too offset their weakness, the Vagabond is extremely mobile. Unlike the other players, the vagabond can move through the forest spaces on the board. These forest spaces are my own little tribute to Magic Realm since they allow the Vagabond’s to hide from danger.

There’s a lot more to be said about the design of the Vagabond and the differences between Vagabond variants (as well as how the game works with two Vagabonds), but it’s time to wrap this post up for the day. Next time I’ll be touching on these subjects in part as I write about how the game deals with the subject of victory.
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Ivor Bolakov
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And the Vagabond had to be an individual? Explicitly not a faction or even a small band of adventurers?
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Cole Wehrle
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OhBollox wrote:
And the Vagabond had to be an individual? Explicitly not a faction or even a small band of adventurers?


There are some places where we play with this notion a little, but mostly yes.

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Steven Becker
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I don't know Magic Realm and currently don't quite understand how that alignment chart works and what all the symbols on it are supposed to be, but still a great read as those before!
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
That is a project for another day.

Can I sign up for that particular newsletter? I really wish Magic Realm would get a reprint. Or 2nd Ed or something.
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Cole Wehrle
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Replect wrote:
I don't know Magic Realm and currently don't quite understand how that alignment chart works and what all the symbols on it are supposed to be, but still a great read as those before!


Sadly I didn't quite have time to explain everything in the post. I'll say a quick word about how the chart works though. Basically each faction has an alignment token on the chart. When the Vagabond does an action listed on the arrow, they shift to a new space on the alignment chart. Each shift gives the vagabond 3 victory points.

All of those black lines in the middle are "arrows" that show that if the Vagabond kills a warrior belonging to a faction, the alignment token gets moved to that space.

Finally, at the top of both the positive and negative alignment (the bottom of the chart), the vagabond has ways to continually score points.

Don't worry, the chart will get clearer when we turn things over to a proper graphic designer .
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Eric
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Does this imply that a "hostile" faction can never be returned to indifferent or friendly status?
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Cole Wehrle
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Daravon wrote:
Does this imply that a "hostile" faction can never be returned to indifferent or friendly status?


There are ways that this can happen. As factions get close to winning they will "forget," allowing the Vagabond to optionally move the alignment token back towards the indifferent box. This is a place where we are considering a few different options. The current forgetting system works fine but I wouldn't be surprised if we found something better as we finish balancing the game.
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David Waller
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Cole - a fascinating read just like before, many thanks for sharing!

One question; the rectangular diagram on the earlier (?) vagabond player board seen in the How to Play video seemed to also have an arrow between "suspicious" and "confident". Has that since been removed? Simplification?
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Mark Turner
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On the strength of your musings and interaction re Pax Pamir I backed this game... and already rather looking forward to where it's heading.

Am hoping it's meaty enough for me, whilst being whimsical enough to attract the rest of my family. I have high hopes!
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adam wilson

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From a thematic viewpoint, I think the Vagabond is pretty solid. He is a sort of anti-hero that might help you or not based on what he gets out of it. Regarding scale differences, your theme is nondescript enough that I don't think it will clash with the anthropomorphic adventure tale vibe. If the theme was an established IP it would probably be off-putting.

This is an out-of-nowhere question but will there be magic or spells in the game? The game seems fairly "non-magical" so far, which is nice in my opinion, but I was curious.
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Cole Wehrle
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adam wilson wrote:
This is an out-of-nowhere question but will there be magic or spells in the game? The game seems fairly "non-magical" so far, which is nice in my opinion, but I was curious.


No magic .
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Peter S.
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Huh! I'm surprised - from the earlier discussion of 19th century Afghanistan, I'd figured the mapping of an imperial colonizing power, a dynastic ruling clan, and a grassroots resistance effort, meant that the Vagabond would map to the presence (and interference) of war profiteers (a travelling salesman, in a way).

Always interesting to read these.
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Cole Wehrle
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ErsatzDragon wrote:
...meant that the Vagabond would map to the presence (and interference) of war profiteers (a travelling salesman, in a way).


He can certainly be played that way!
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T. Nomad
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I very much enjoy reading your writing, Cole.
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Patrick Leder
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Sitting next to him in the office is pretty cool too.
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Robert McVie
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Loving reading these insights into design..

I have outreach sitting on a shelf somewhere - it's been a while since I've dusted it off and will be interesting to dig it out now and view with fresh eyes..
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Ray Greenley
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Thanks for the article! I REALLY like what I've seen of this game, and I think the Vagabond role is fascinating.

One thing that pops into my head when I see that a certain role is intended to be a "balancer" is that it might lead to some fragility in the game experience depending on the skill level of that player. What happens if the Vagabond player isn't good enough to accurately determine who is actually in the best/worst position? Is there any concern of the Vagabond's potential to be a kingmaker (unwittingly or not)?
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Cole Wehrle
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RMGreen wrote:
What happens if the Vagabond player isn't good enough to accurately determine who is actually in the best/worst position? Is there any concern of the Vagabond's potential to be a kingmaker (unwittingly or not)?


Tomorrow I'll be writing about the importance of the VP track in Root. Though there's a lot of subtly in execution, new Vagabond's can adopt Robin Hood's simple approach: steal from the rich to feed to poor.

Any game as interactive of Root is going to have a degree of kingmaking. The trick is to make sure it is you who is made king.
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Reading thix (excellent) designer diary two things come to mind - the Vagabond seems really cool, in a sort of Yojimbo way, and "epic fantasy adventure game designed by Cole Wehrle" jumped to the top of my wishlist. Looking forward to the next diary!

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Patrick Leder
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That is how I play the Vagabond at any rate.
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Andrés Santiago Pérez-Bergquist
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Cogdiz wrote:
Reading thix (excellent) designer diary two things come to mind - the Vagabond seems really cool, in a sort of Yojimbo way, and "epic fantasy adventure game designed by Cole Wehrle" jumped to the top of my wishlist. Looking forward to the next diary!



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is the vagabond?

Or am I Yojimbo?

Now I'm confused…
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Thierry Michel
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If that player's actions dictates their relation with a faction, is there still a significant room for diplomacy?
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Cole Wehrle
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ThierryM wrote:
If that player's actions dictates their relation with a faction, is there still a significant room for diplomacy?


The game is expressive enough to support both explicit and implicit negotiation. The rules do not make a ruling on this point and it is left to the taste of individual groups.
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Cole Wehrle
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Cogdiz wrote:
Reading thix (excellent) designer diary two things come to mind - the Vagabond seems really cool, in a sort of Yojimbo way, and "epic fantasy adventure game designed by Cole Wehrle" jumped to the top of my wishlist. Looking forward to the next diary!



I fully endorse this comparison. My wife and I watched Yojimbo for what must have been the tenth time a few weeks ago.
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