Special Actions

The updates making their way to the 1.10 release candidates of Command are excellent. There’s one that I’m particularly excited about, but nonetheless have trouble thinking of ways to use effectively. That is the special action setup.

A rough description of how special actions work can be explained as follows. The scenario creator goes to “Editor/Event Editor/Special Actions”, inputs a Lua script, and saves it. Then, in-game, the player can go to “game/special actions”, and by clicking on it, can run the script.

That’s the simple part of it.

Now the hard part-how do I do it effectively?

Some of the reasons I’m wary of using special actions are mechanical (having to write long Lua scripts). Others are thematic (most of my scenarios are small and thus have little scope for such grandiose actions). But the biggest is-I don’t want the player to get something for nothing.

One idea I’ve considered is just using a simple random element to give the operation a chance of working, and if it doesn’t, either nothing happens or they lose points. (SOF insertion is where this would fit perfectly). This can work, but a part of me feels it’s back to the “luck-based random”, where you have a chance of getting a huge SSGN or a tiny diesel.

Another, and the simplest, is to just subtract points from the player if they use the special action (political capital expended, or some other justification), making them have to earn it back with what they get from it.
Finally, it can change the stakes of the scenario. If you escalate, so do they. This is the hardest mechanically, but can be interesting. While I might be wary about special actions, I’m certainly eager to try them out, for they offer so much potential.

Writing in Dashes

I find my approach to creative work, from story writing to Command scenario making, is like a sprinter. I will, whether as part of a whole or making a portion of it, sit down and throw myself into the project and nothing else for a time, and only stop when that portion is done.

Such an approach has worked, but not everything is suited to it. In writing a story like One Two Three Dead, I need to be measured, for everything is too big to do in one shot. For Command, this increases my bias towards small scenarios because they can easily be made in that fairly short time.

I want to be more measured. But it’s a hard habit to change.

One Two Three Dead Has Been Started

I’ve chosen One Two Three Dead as the work I’m going to use for my web-serial. I want something more grounded, with more feeling I can get to as I write for it, so I chose that over the less serious alternatives. A new wordpress has been set up for it (right now it is extremely bare-bones, I’m working on the theme.)

Chapter 1 can be read here. I intend to update no slower than once a week.

Alternate Gulf Wars

I’ve been thinking of trying a few Command scenarios as part of the 25th anniversary of the Gulf War, some dealing with what-if equipment, and others dealing with what-if politics. So far none have gotten any farther than a few experiments in the scen editor to see how balanced they are.

The F-16XL one I mentioned earlier was equipment-wise. The rest is going to be political. One possibility, actually mentioned in the official US Navy history, Shield and Sword, was that the nations who openly supported the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen, would interfere with Coalition operations-most importantly, their vital supply routes.

The book also mentioned that a show of force quickly deterred them from doing so-understandably. Iraq’s would-be allies are considerably weaker than their patron-and my experiments showed it.

 

Targets

So, I have a potentially unusual bottleneck in making Command scenarios: What targets to go for?

Any air-to-ground scenario needs targets. In some cases, the wealth of imports makes targeting easy-just use a multi-unit airfield and you have a ton of targets right there. Mobile vehicle targeting is also fairly easy-plop down a few trucks/tanks/APCs and there you have it.

Now for the bigger issues, which in many ways are opposites: Priority targets and massive target sets.

This is a gigantic issue for real military planners, so it’s not a game design issue. Figuring out the “weak links” in the supply bottleneck is important-and difficult. I frequently use “supply facilities” as a catch-all, but that’s an oversimplification. Even in terms of attacks on line units, some things are higher-priority than others.

In one recent “what-if” scenario editor sample, I was having the never-were F-16XL conduct attacks with AGM-65s against Iraqi forces in the Gulf War. I had multiple rocket launchers (not ballistic missiles like the Scud, MRLs like the BM-21) as the chosen targets due to their lethality.

F-16xl

(an F-16XL, the hunter).

MRLtarget

ASTROS/Sejil-60 MRLs, the hunted.

(By the way, the outcome was fairly similar to the real Gulf War air campaign-massive damage to the Iraqi targets, and a few low-probability SAM launches in return. One did connect and downed an F-16XL)

Putting in gigantic target sets is time-consuming for a scenario designer, and becomes a bigger problem when munitions get more capable. (WWII-vintage planes in Command can bomb a target repeatedly and still miss-a modern fighter, even with unguided weapons, can easily knock the same thing out in one go). Putting over a hundred targets in has deterred me before.

Then there’s the issue of how many points should be given to what targets. I’ll admit in one scenario, I disabled scoring altogether to not have to deal with that issue. Since scoring has to be matched with expected player losses, it’s even harder to do right.

 

Examining the Loops, Part 2

So, what would I do to improve the loop-threads?

This is legitimately tough. A part of me just wants to go “Ok, I’d criticize them, but let them be as long as they don’t have inappropriate content.” Another part of me just wants to impose better rules.

Rules like the Familiar of Zero ones, designed to turn a previously spammy fandom substantive. The problem is that FoZ is a specific setting, and the Loops aren’t.

So, if I was in charge of policing the Loops on Spacebattles, here’s what I’d do.

-Inactive loop threads are unceremoniously closed. For active ones, I’d give the authors a short time to write a finish, and then close them as well.

-Canon is flushed-the entire Yggdrasil excuse setup is gone. 

-Snippets have to be very long.

-No one-liners, no dare/suggestions.

-The writer should ideally set out an endstate.

This is an disproportionately large burden, but the loops are disproportionately vulnerable to the worst excesses of goofy fandom. I’d feel reluctant in some ways, but consider it necessary in others.

Examining the the Loops, Part 1

I’m going back to loopfics.

 

-There’s one big problem with them. They have no ending.

Then again, the same can be said about nearly all fanfics. What makes loops stand out?

-Ok, they have no plans for an ending.

The same can be said about even more fanfics (even of the ones that were completed, many were improvised), and many professional works as well (Hi, Mass Effect writers). What makes loops stand out from those?

-They do have plans for an ending-in that they explicitly and completely remove the possibility of an ending.

What does that actually mean?

-Here it is (Warning, spoilers for Undertale and several other games follow)

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _  _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _  _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _  _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _  _ _ _ _ _ _

Well, from the author’s guide, here’s the backstory:

Yggdrasil, the world-tree computer that is/runs/controls the entirety of all universes in existence, has broken down for some reason. The Admins who run Yggdrasil have decided to keep all the universes looping in time in time while they fix the problem (whatever said problem is). Some people within these universes remember events from time loop to time loop: these people are called loopers. The Infinite Loops are the various stories of these loopers, who are based off fictional characters from any and all media, as they try to live with time continually repeating. They aren’t completely bored out of their minds though. Occasionally, loops will have variants where people swap places, gender gets bent, history is vastly different, or the loopers are placed in a moment earlier (or later) in their lives. Loopers themselves are the only ones that remember anything about any of the loops: anyone who isn’t looping will just reset. Death means nothing to loopers: they will just reset into existence next loop (having still remembered their death though.) Sometimes different universes will cross over, either merging for a single loop, swapping loopers or non looping characters, or just creating any number of fanfiction-world variants. Virtually anything is possible.

Virtually every looper is very very stir crazy. And very very powerful.

Seeing as the time-till-completion of the Yggdrasil repairs is infinity, they better buckle down for a long ride.

So, it’s a justification.

What is it?

Before the loops began, something (and no we do not need you to explain what caused it.  This is the frame for our Excuse Plot.  Just don’t think too hard on it okay?) happened that destroyed a large chunk of Yggdrasil and threatened to destroy all of reality. Instead of simply rebooting the whole multiverse (which might not have worked in the first place) the Admins that run Yggdrasil decided to go for an alternative solution: lock the universes in repeating time loops until they could solve the problem. How long until they solve it? Well the given number is Infinity. Though there was a number in the Warhammer 40k loops semi-recently: a section of the multiverse was 0.000….002% restored. Yeah. We’re nowhere close.

So yeah, that’s what it is. Out-of-universe, it’s a novice writer’s dream. In-universe, it’s a character’s nightmare. This is, as they say themselves, an obvious excuse to just write “crackfic” snippets-except by linking everything together, it becomes a twisted monster.

If there was no linking, no canon, and it just was a crackfic free-for-all, then I wouldn’t care for them-but also not gaze at the concrete foundation supporting the mess. Maybe it’s SB’s love of the quantifiable, but the gap between the rigid base and the ‘random’ mess it supports is huge.

The loopfic authors themselves don’t think that much of the stated backstory-but, for whatever weird reason, I do.

_ _ _

One of the things that got me inspired (or, to make a reference, determined), was seeing an increasing amount of Undertale loops. Undertale has time-loops in its own universe (they’re the in-universe explanation of saving and restarting the game).

So, this is not only a little bit of an issue, but it illustrates the other parts. Sans the skeleton is arguably, in the looper’s terms, Awake, and it has turned him into a cynical, lazy creature. Flowey, the antagonist, was driven to evil thanks to the SAVE ability and getting bored by everything. Characterization the actual loopfics noticeably lack.

Realistically, anyone who looped would go insane. But with dramatic license removing that, there’s still no theme, no point. Compare this to existing works of fiction featuring time loops.

-Imagine if Groundhog Day ended with the loops continuing. The final scene would be Phil Connors waking up after dying fighting a grizzly bear, and in the scene before that he built a jetpack and flew into one of those oversized mascots.

-Imagine if Majora’s Mask ended with Link doing something even weirder, with the main conflict not even resolved.

-Imagine if Undertale ended with the main character trying to bounce out on a trampoline.

That’s the level the Loops are at. Goofiness propped up by a setting. Shackled by the fact that the theoretical end-point is totally out of the protagonist’s control. Yes, only 2×10 to the negative 1903568th power percent of the multiverse is restored, and the few universes that are are probably some throwaway games or generic action novels.

_ _ _

If I had to write a loop, what would I do?

-Show everything.

-Have a planned ending with the multiverse being returned to normal, with plenty of drama to come from that.

-Build the story around the loops ending.

That way, the loops would be used as a plot device, rather than as an excuse.

Next installment, I’ll talk about possible suggestions for reforming the loop threads.

My problems with game reviewing

While I was playing yesterday, it struck me-I can’t do conventional game reviews. Not because of any “weighted slider” issues, but just that I see a numbered scale as meaningless. Going beyond that, I’ve found the technical quality of a game is often separate from how much I enjoyed it.

Some games are still easy to say I love (Command Modern Air Naval Operations), and hate (Zombie Zoeds, the game with the clunkiest controls I’ve seen ). But for most others, it’s more complex.

-Hotline Miami is a good game-but is too hard for me. Invisible Inc, like I’ve said before, is a well-made game-which is let down by design decisions. A lot of good games nonetheless have no replay value. Payday is a clunky, unbalanced, over-DLCed game perched precariously on an engine that can barely support a game like it-but it’s also fun. Black Closet has great mechanics, but I need to be in a state of mind I don’t get often to really enjoy it. And so on…

Sometimes I just need a time-filler, and even if I complain about the game later, it accomplishes its purpose if it fills the time. Sometimes the game requires me to have time and a mood I don’t have much of. If it’s too hard, I won’t like it.

So none of these complexities can be expressed in a simple numbered review.

Export Possibilities-Fighters

In Command, the scenario editor doesn’t just limit the player to historical arsenals. Units that appear under one country’s list can easily serve in another’s-not just for substitutes, but for ahistorical additions to their armed forces.

Now, I’m going to focus on fighter aircraft here.

One of the most common and easiest-implemented export potential is late Soviet surplus. Much of this was exported already to get some value out of them in the post-1991 downturn. Here, it can become even more prevalent. Whether you use the “Soviet Union-1991” or “Russia-1992” listing generally doesn’t make much difference. I generally prefer the former to signify its nature, but that’s just a personal opinion.

Besides the usual MiG-29s and Su-27s, one of my scenario concepts even had the oddball export of MiG-23MLDs (in one of those “Hey, look at the low sticker price, we got a ton of planes for-hey wait a minute”) moments.

Of course, you can use new-built planes as well, with advanced Su-30s and the like, for a more difficult opponent/different style.

China has the J-10 for present scenarios, the J-31 for futuristic/what if ones, and even the J-8, which historically was offered for export but got no takers.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

With Western planes, you have American F-16s, and for really high-end cases, F-15s. The Viper is interesting in that one can use the Egyptian and Iraqi models to simulate a downgraded export version with AIM-7s only. Mirages, Eurofighters, and (thanks to recent export orders) even Rafales can be plopped into similarly capable countries.

Those were the obvious choices. Now for the fun part. Pure hypotheticals. I talked about the F-20 on Baloogan Campaign, and there’s also the MiG 1.42-the original Soviet/Russian fifth-gen fighter that sputtered out. Although no match for an F-22 in terms of avionics or RCS, it is still a fearsome opponent. Even the Super Tomcat series I’ve imagined in the hands of Australia, to replace the F-111s with another long-ranged powerhouse.

Basically, unless it’s really implausible, export fighters can beef up any arsenal.

Now for actually using them.

-If the opponent is the USAF (in most cases, the player is the US and their opponent is said arsenal), the experience of 1991 shows in detail what happens when an airforce made of a solidly built system meets one made of scrounged-up shiny hardware. Even acknowledging the mismanagement, a more competent IQAF would still not make the outcome in doubt.

-This kind of ties in with another point-post Gulf War, the chance of deliberately picking a fight with the victorious USAF/USN is increasingly dubious. This isn’t to say it can’t happen, but that it’s vulnerable to the “ideal smackdown foe” problem.

-More interesting is to explore how the weapons would affect the balance of power in a region without external intervention. I like regional conflicts in Command, and many historical arms deals have been controversial for this very reason.

The War That Never Was

More than a few Command scenarios have been based on a book entitled The War That Never Was by Michael Palmer. When I read the book myself, I developed the following opinions about it:

-The War That Never Was is very good as a “foundation” for Command scenarios, thanks to its extreme detail.

-However, the same details make it very bad as an actual novel.

Want long, encyclopedic details of various military units attacking each other? Then it has that. Want specific details of every ship? The book has that. But want that story told with any degree of personal immediacy, any amount of emotional, as opposed to mechanical detail? The book doesn’t have that. Want characterization-as in any characterization? Nope.

The book has a similar setup as Operation Sealion by Richard Cox, another  novelization of a wargame depicting the titular never-was “plan” by Germany to invade the British Isles in World War II.  (Spoilers: Germans lose big). Third-person omniscient, figures are given in extreme detail, but personalities aren’t.

It is just the published version of a dull, overly literal Let’s Play/After Action Report. Using it as a scenario reference can work, and many players have made good scenarios out of it. But as a book-it’s not very good at all.