This is the third in a series of session reports about my games at Origins 2011.
Saturday 12p-8pm LARP - National Security Decision Making Game
Dynamic scenarios covering the modern world stage. Every game is different! You can make those choices that can reshape the world as we know it. Experience economic, military, and political competition with a simulation based on those used by the US military. We always have room for more players!
I generally like to expose myself to new & unusual games at conventions; things that I can't play at home for whatever reason. This usually means I end up with a widely eclectic variety of games. Everything about NSDM is an enigma to me. The game, the players, the organizers; I just can't rationalize it and bring it in to my gamer worldview. It's different, quite a bit different, than every other game I have ever played, convention or otherwise. And it's wonderful
I'm only 41 and from Indianapolis, so I'm by no means one of the old-timer convention goers. With a dozen or so GenCon's under my belt and another dozen or so Origins under my belt I can say that NSDM is unlike anything else I have ever played. I have seen it advertised consistently over the years. It's in the event catalogs. It's advertised prominently in the program guides. There are large posters put up all over the convention center advertising it. It's hard to miss the thing. The advertisements are usually of some type of military photo: a parade in red square, mushroom clouds, tanks & apaches, etc. They usually have some quippy saying as well: "Game On!", "The toughest game you'll ever love!" etc. I've been intrigued by these posters year after year. Lo, I see the line of NSDM games stretching back to the beginning. Lo, they call to me.
Somehow I never ended up in one of their games. There was always something else to do; a Cthulhu RPG, giant LEGO Circus Maximus, some indi rpg. But never NSDM. Enter the girlfriend. We'll just refer to her as 'The Enabler' from now on. Think of the most bizarre off the wall idea you've ever had. You know, the one you know deep down is a BAD IDEA. The Enabler doesn't think it's a bad idea. She thinks it's great. She's bubbling over with enthusiasm over the idea. It's not a bad idea at all; in fact, it's a GREAT idea! We should TOTALLY do that! She's pretty wonderful. It turns out The Enabler is catching. Now I'M The Enabler whenever she comes up with some idea. "You're right. We should totally do that." Let's take an example shall we? For those of you unfamiliar with it, Federation & Empire is one of the MEGA games. It ranks right up there with The Campaign for North Africa and 'ASL with all the expansions' as one of the largest and most complex games of all time. It's a real game, and real people actually play it, and it's almost certainly one of those games you need to dedicate your lifestyle to. One Origins we're just walking around taking in all the sights and we stumble in to the Amarillo Design Bureau rooms. I was an old Star Fleet Battles player from my college years, so I recognized what was going on. Pretty impressive. But it was NOTHING compared to next door. ADB had a large room with 4 or so LARGE tables set up with HUGE maps on them. Covered with counters. With stacks of papers everywhere. Surrounding the tables were some guys who looked like they had been there awhile. And they had. Four or so days to be exact. You see these were the Federation & Empire mega-games. They start up when the con starts and they finish when the con finishes. The same game. With the same players. For 5 days days straight, and they get through maybe eight or nine turns of the game. Slightly stunned by the sight of a pretty girl in wargame valhalla, the players are a bit quiet. Outside The Enabler says "We TOTALLY need to do that next year!" OH. MY. GOD. She is completely right. That is such an awesome idea! Back at home I do a trade to get Federation & Empire and immerse myself in it. Not only are we going to play the entire five days, we are going to play the game nightly at home and on weekends and we are going to Completely. Kick. Ass. while we are there. Six months later I was still daily pouring over a rulebook that makes the worst of SPI look like a set of Sid Sackson rules. I'm supplementing this with large doses of the ADB Fed & Empire message boards, looking for recommended starting scenarios, tutorials, etc. Finally we're ready, and set up a small practice battle. We get about one turn in to the battle and decide that this sucks and put it away. "Federations & Empires", as The Enabler calls it, is no more in Brycelandia. However ... our "long con game" cherry had been broken, even if it was only conceptually.
Last year The Enabler, perhaps saddened by the lack of a 5 day F&E game, or maybe lured by her ever-present love of Big Tanks, signs up for the 8-hour NSDM game on Saturday. I was scheduled to play some BS game or another that I was not really interested in, so I decided to accompany her and pay in generics. We're a mutual support system in these cases, each one assuring the other that they are totally right to be doing whatever nonsense they are doing. Besides, she's cute and I'm in love. It turns out to be a GREAT game! The bulk of the group, including us, represent factions in a modern day China, with two other small groups representing factions within the US and Japan. It was an absolute blast. We built Battlemechs, sent foreign aid to Japan, and switched our currency off the US $. "Go Team China!" was our rallying cry. Then an NPC North Korea nuked us. We were recovering, then they nuked us again. Assholes. This year we decided to officially sign up for the 8-hour NDSM mega game.
NSDM is a strange beast with strange players and moderators. Strange because it is a hard game to classify, as are the players and moderators. Sometimes it's listed as a Wargame, or as an Other event, or a Special event. This year it was listed as a LARP. If you take all of these categories and mix them together you get a better idea of the type of event. The players are the same. Wargamers? Boardgamers? RPGers? LARPers? Vendors? I have no idea how to pigeonhole the people who show up, probably because they come from all of these areas. The moderators are an unusual bunch as well. They all seem to be expats from the Military Intelligence complex. Ex-military. Ex-war college instructors. Lecturers for 3-letter agencies, Military historians. These guys are hard core and are up to date with what's going on in the world at large.They typically run an 8-hour meg game, along with a couple of 4-hour 'fast-play' events. They seem to fall in to either Contemporary timeframe or the Cold War era (Tagline: Achieve your objectives without blowing up mankind!)
I've mentioned before that LARPs tend to fall in to three categories: team-building, pretentious, and FUN. In my experience the really fun ones have a few things in common. Two stand out. First, they are light on NPC's. The presence of NPC's in a game usually means Something Needs to Happen. IE: A Railroad. This is a sure sign of a pretentious LARP; the refs want to make sure the game goes a certain way so they can enjoy the super clever ending/events they've written. I loathe NPC's in LARPs. Second, fun LARPs tend to have a wide number of characters, each with differing goals that come in to conflict with other players. Thus the majority of action is player initiated against other players, with still more players as allies to each side. Subtle action, generally. The moderators in these sorts of games tend to just step back and watch the chaos unfold. This is similar to a certain type of good RPG; the adventure is just a pretext to get the PC's together so they can interact. Give them enough rope ... NSDM, while somewhat resembling a War College wargame, at least in my own mind, absolutely falls in to the 'fun' category.NPC's generally don't exist by default and there are lots of inter-player conflicts. All the mods have to do is step back and watch.
The game proper may resemble, in a form, other LARPs. The mods describe the setting and hand out the Factions for the cells. Each country group is a cell. For example, in the China game from Gen Con there was a Chinese, US, and Japanese cell. The members of a cell are all loosely aligned. Within each cell each player is assigned a faction. These tend to represent large socio-polotical groups within the cell. FOr example you might be assigned The US Democratic Party, or the US Republican Party, the US Navy, or the FBI. You might also be assigned a smaller group or a single person. For example the joint chiefs of staff, or The President or VP. Generally elected positions and some 'single person' entities are floating titles that get assigned to you in addition to the group you are playing. For example, you might be assigned the Democratic Party to start play, and also be initially assigned the President. You'll be give 8 other cards representing your personal advisors that you can assign to other players.The President position may pass to another player if you loose the next election, and then he'll get to appoint his own cabinet. Generally you can't be killed during a game. You represent a group of people; kill the head of the democratic party, who's been acting like a commie, and a different commie will step up to be the head. Each of the faction will have it's name and some sort of symbol/flag on the front, while the backside will describe your role in the world & cell, what your goals are for this game, and any special powers you have. Homeland Security might have the goal of 'Further consolidating other domestic police agencies under your control', while another Faction might have 'Get the TSA privatized and out form under the thumb of Homeland Security!'. Powers for someone like the AFL/CIO or Heavy Industry might be 'Raise or lower the GDP by +/- 5%.' Thus, the players in the game who run the economy, like the President or Labor Secretary, will treat you nice and give you what you want so they can get your +5% to the economy ... pissing you off means they have less money to spend on their pet projects.
The moderators float around the edge of the game. One of them will be the main controller. He'll receive 'orders' from the players and process them. Another moderator will generally run a slide projector in which they post 'Headlines'. Frequently, every 15-30 minutes, they will type up another headline to be displayed on the projectors. These may be preprogrammed news & events in the world that are related to the scenario being played, such as 'Russia involved in border skirmish with Azerbaijan.' or some headline that is the result of a player order, such as 'Two oil tankers explode and sink the the Straight of Hormuz.' but there's generally no way of knowing which events are player initiated and which are pre-programmed. The mods also attempt to figure out what other NPC countries & agencies might do. For example, in a Cold War game, if the Russian Cell tries to ship nukes to Cuba, and no one is playing the US, the mods might decide that the US would detect that and post a headline like "US warships move to intercept Russian freighters on way to Cuba. Threaten Thermonuclear war if ships run blockade." For the most part you don't know what's pre-programmed, what's a result of player action, and what's a result of the mods trying to figure out how the world will react to the players. The mods also run everyone else in the world. For example, if the Chinese want to send a trade delegation to the US, and no one is playing the US, You would look at a poster on the wall to see which mod is handling the US and approach them, telling them you want them to talk to the US. This works for NGO's, countries, or anyone else you might want to talk to/scheme with. I used to subscribe to The Journal of Foreign Affairs, and follow world politics pretty closely, and let me tell you the mods are u to the challenge. They are very knowledge and do a good job trying to react how the NPC entity would. It's also important to know that none of this is forced on to you. It's totally an optional part of the game.
Finally we come to the last element, Orders. These little slips of paper are how you 'Do' things in the game, officially. You write down which faction you are playing, and what game effect you want, and then get other players to sign it. For example, say I'm playing a US domestic militia organization and I submit an order to blow up Hoover Dam. Nice, eh? Ayn would be proud. But, if I get the guy running the Nevada State Police to sign my slip, and maybe the guy playing the US military, then a picture begins to form. I get my explosives from the US Military and the State Police look the other way while I blow the thing up. A MUCH higher chance of success will ensue. Of course, there's no way I'll get those two guys to sign, but maybe the Jihadi's could help me out ...
Saturday started well but was going to be a long day. With an 8-hour NSDM LARP back to back with a 4-hour Cthulhu LARP, The Enabler and I would both have a long day in front of us. We managed to get to bed by 1am that morning, and I was up at 9 to go to the 10am Math Trade exchange. Things were already well underway when I got there at 10 till, but one guy was 40 minutes late. And he had my Starship Troopers game. Grumble grumble grumble. I got rid of a spare copy of Mansion Murders for Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, as well as my Hackmaster Players Guide and DM's Guide. In return I picked up Starship Troopers, Starship Troopers: Prepare for Battle, Wizards's Quest, and Outdoor Survival. It's starting to looks like I cant buy a game unless Avalon Hill manufactured it. They really were a kick ass company, and mostly before my time. After ditching the 'new' games in the room I hit the dealer hall for a bit then met The Enabler coming back from the North Market and we headed upstairs for the NSDM room. Right across from the Fed & Empire room, as it turns out. :)
We sat down in a row of chairs in the NSDM room. 1/3 had rows of chairs set up, with the projector up in front. This would be used for the briefing prior to the game and debriefing after the game. The chairs would be rearranged in to a circle when the legislature or some other meeting was called. The second third of the very large room had the moderators hang out area/tables, where they hung out, moved little military pieces, and so on. The last third had several circular tables set up where people could hold impromptu meetings and the like for private sessions. While we waited for the game to start the NSDM guys projectors were displaying a seemingly endless number of funny quotes & situations from earlier games. It's hard to relate just how funny, and usually obtuse, these statements are. They come from real players. Something like "I can get their attention, hang on and I'll fire a missile out over Japan - North Korean Foreign Minister trying to get the attention of the US players trade delegation." I believe they have quite a few more on the NSDM page, they are really funny & clever. Anyway, we gather and the moderator starts the session. First he finds out if everyone assembled will be playing the game. He says this two or three times during the briefing, and I get the feeling he's referring the to the very pretty, blond, and completely out of place girl in the front row wearing a Rainbow Bright sweatshirt. IE: The Enabler. It turns out they have just rewritten the Iranian cell and that will be the primary cell in todays game. If they can get enough players then they'll also have A Turkish cell. The Enabler LOVED this. She was immediately DYING to be a Turk. She claims it had nothing at all to do with the fact that her first ex-husband was Turkish. I know she loves Turkey, the country, but Im still suspicious of her actual motives.
In the end it didn't matter, they didn't have enough players for a Turkish cell and everyone got to be an Iranian. We received a quick slide program that was an overview of Iran and the iranians. This covered industry, politics, external relations, military, worldview, geography and other areas. Each slide was pretty quick and was really just meant to give everyone an idea of Iran. Iranians are Persians, not Arabs like most of the rest of the Middle East. They practice Shia Islam while most of the rest of the Middle East is Sunni. While the arabs remember the Caliphate during the middle ages the Iranians have an older heritage. They were the guys that the 300 Spartans stopped and that the Greeks battled again and again. The 10,000 nations of the Persian Empire ,from 300, was a very real thing. They ruled most of the known world, and are not particularly happy about that situation having changed ... 3000 years ago. Persians and Shia's tend to be a minority outside of Iran, and tend to be discriminated against in the Arab Middle East. The Iranians have a diversified economy. While they have huge oil & gas reserves it represents only about 15% of their economy. They will NOT be going away when the oil runs out, unlike almost every one of their neighbors. The Iranians are pissed off at the US because we deposed their democratic government and put the Shah in his place ... DECADES ago. They got rid of him during their revolution, and now have the semblance of a real republic ... Iranian style. They are a proud people with a proud heritage and can't seem to understand how the world reacts to them, or don't care. You might think of them as the France of the Middle East. 'Piss off, we're doing it our way and dont care what you think about it.'
Factions are handed out. The Enabler ends up as the Shah of Shiraz while I end up as the Revolutionary Guard. As the Protectors of the Faith I represent about 50% of the Iranian military. I have ships, planes, tanks, infantry, etc, except they all tend to be a bit lighter then the Iranian Army players forces. My goals are to spread & protect Islam outside of Iran, and get the Army's budget transferred to me. IE: Make my fiefdom larger. I'm from Academia, so I completely understood this. A teenager was made the Iranian Army player, an older guy represented Iranian Special Forces (who are generally seen as the troublemakers on the world stage) and another younger teen was the Police. We represented Irans military might. There were six of so Shah's in the game, some more liberal, for Iran anyway, and some less, six of so people playing political parties, six of so people representing civil society faction such as small merchants, Association of War Veterans, Construction companies, etc. The most experienced player, who had played about 60 times, was assigned the initial role of the President until the first election, and given several cabinet positions to hand out, and he got to work finding his todey's, saving the Minister of Petroleum and VP position for last. The MP was in charge of the oil and could skim A LOT of money, I believe, while the VP was his second in command and ran the bureaucracy of Iran. I managed to weasel my way in to that position, his last to hand out, by noting that I had 50% of the military, with the implication that I could keep him in power. He handed me the VP card and then muttered under his breath "Now I gotta get us some nukes ..." Nukes? I Love Nukes! As the VP it seems like I should take some of the burden off of his shoulders. Besides ... I could write the Order so the Guards got control of the Nukes. Score one against the regular Army! I told the Pres I'd take care of it, grabbed the Minister of Energy (IE: NUCLEAR energy, since there's already a petroleum minister) got our Foreign Minister and headed off to China, meaning I found out which moderator was playing China and went to talk to him, all within 5 minutes of the game starting. No fiddle-farting around for Iran! I, personally, knew that China needs oil. I made the case that the Chinese economy was being constrained by the lack of oil; their economy just wasn't growing as fast as it could be. I'd swap them a discount on oil in return for either Nukes or Nuke know-how. The Foreign Minister flipped out and stormed off. I managed to work out a deal for two nukes and one ICBM in return for a 50% discount on 1.5 million barrels a day. I also approached the Russians about building us a reactor in return for hard currency (again, I thank my subscription to the Journal of Foreign Affairs) to which they pointed out they were ALREADY building us reactors. Oops ... guess I should have those journals a little more closely.
I reported back to the President that I had us a deal worked out for nukes, and he was pleased. It turned out that he needed to get he legislature to ok the deal, since it would impact the economy by about 5%. It was really a terrible deal, but it got us nukes and I figured that nukes were going to be WAY more fun that oil. All Hail Discordia! He started trying to work it through the legislature while I went off to ... talk to Hezbollah. This was another one of the mods and is really my favorite one of them. He's a bit younger than the others and has a bit of a jolly and very friendly personality. The other guys are not unfriendly, but I just find this guy very personable, in a 'Gleeful' kind of way. Hezbollah are Shia and affiliated with Iran. I had already written an order with hi to train and arm hezbollah at my bases. 'Hey buddy, want a Nuke?' His eyes LIT up. 'Yeah, yeah I want a nuke. Do you have one?' I will in a bit, I got them coming in from China via plane, presidents getting it through the legislature right now. Man of man, was I ever close. I got us Nukes, under MY groups control, and was about to do some mighty fine protecting of Shia Islam through Hezbollah I figured we'd put the other nuke on an ICBM and get some serious concessions out of the foreign devils in America. I had that wild look in my eyes that I only get when I'm up to some wonderfully petty and gleefully evil action. I could taste it.
So of course, it all went to hell.The Shahs were supposed to elect a Ramaj, their leader, and did not. Instead they decided that the Guardian Council, which they made up, would collectively act as the Ramaj. The foreign minister was issuing press releases making nice to America, and I was pretty sure he was being serious. It looks like the Guardian Council was very pissed off at me. The head of the military was buddying up the council, and I believe I had pissed him off. I believe he had asked me to do something while I was in China. My lack of immediate action & submission upset him greatly. In addition, the Foreign Minister seemed to be poisoning the Guardian Council against me because I had the audacity to try and get nukes. I believe also that The Enabler had her hand in things. She was a Shah and all the Shahs were members of the Guardian Council. Further, she had started the trip to Origins by swearing to work against me in all of our mutual LARPs, while I swore that THIS time I promised to NOT sell her character in to slavery, or even attempt to sell her in to slavery. Man, you sell your girlfriend in to slavery ONCE in a post-apoloptic LARP and you never hear the end of it.
I had prompted the President with a good argument: Countries without nukes got invaded by the US. See Also: Iraq & Afghanistan. Countries with Nukes got left alone: See Also: Pakistan & North Korea. Iran had been declared part of the axis of evil and we NEEDED those nukes to keep us free. In the meantime Russia was causing trouble in it's former Soviet Republics. The Islamic ones. Time to Defend the Faith boys! Only ... the Guardian Council had seemingly turned liberal. These were supposed to be HARD LINERS and they were not. Making nice to the Great Satan. Violating Ramaj tradition. Ignoring the slaughter of our Islamic brothers by the Russians in the countries next door. So what do they do? They vote down the measure and they send the Police player to arrest me.
WTF? I'm now holed up in the my Revolutionary Guard palace, with some of my troops, while I'm surrounded by the Police. I'm effectively isolated from all other players, no one can speak or communicate with me and I can't communicate outside to control my forces. The president was working on my behalf, but that didn't seem to be going anywhere. I was effectively out of the game. I spent hours 4 & 5 of the 8 hour game cut off form everyone else. There was nice lunch break in between and The Enabler and I grabbed a Gyro. Turns out Joe Biden was speaking that night at the convention center, and we got to walk past security.Wearing our Iranian nametags while I talked loudly to The Enabler about my nuke deal with China & Hezbollah. It sounds more exciting then it actually was, but I did pass a couple of geeks on their phones who were bragging to their friends how they flaunted their cosplay gun outfits to security while getting dirty looks form them. Yeah. Right. 'Im a special little flower, totally bad ass, and allergic to Gluten.'
Back to the game. The Army and I wrote up an order to jointly coup. We were told we could not. Police got special forces to commando raid me and kill 'me.' Army got his order in first and killed the special forces team that was going in, since he had previously surrounded the Police forces who had surrounded RG headquarters. Finally, Army came to me and asked that I let him arrest me, and then he'd let me go. At the same time I was in negotiations with eh Council to leave the country. I wanted a megabuck (the unit of country currency in the game) and free passage to Swizterland. I figured that if the RG was getting screwed then at least the VP could get out of this alive. The alternative, I promised them, was that I would use my 50% of the military to burn Iran to the ground. They declined, but I was tired of being marginalized in the palace and agreed to the Army players request to arrest me. He was true to his word and let me go after about 3 minutes. In the meantime the President was getting very frustrated with the hippies in the Guardian Council. He lost it, pinned his President badge on me (thats one of the functions of the vP, remember) and stormed out of the game. I was President! Score! I was a Shah! Score! I was Minister of Religion! Score! I was frustrated as well, but I eat shit better than most and hung in there. I made the civil guy playing the small business vendors the new VP and petroleum minister and started to work on the Guardian Council as the President. They ignored me. Which meant I couldn't run in the next election. And then they had me arrested again and stripped me of the RG. Uncool. I was assigned a hardline political party, as a replacement but by that time I, the player, had been completely marginalized for over 3 hours. They continued to ignore me, kick me out of meeting I had a right to be in, etc. I was pretty despondent. I was also handed Heavy Industry, which was a cover for the Iranian rebels inside Iran. Combined with the hardliners I was playing, they were unhappy about the liberal state of Iranian politics and the way our Muslim brothers were being treated outside our borders, and were outraged the government would do nothing about it. I could disrupt the economy, so I did in order to show that the people did not approve of their liberal policies, which was my special power. The hippies didn't care. No one was even a little hard line, and so I sat at a table by myself completely marginalized. The mods saw I was unhappy, and offered a few suggestions to get back in to things, but nothing worked. Further, I felt hat many/most of my orders were ignored, no matter who I got to sign on.
By this time Army was pissed off also with the way the game was going. We conspired and I got him to send me, the rebels, explosives. I blew up oil rigs inside of Iran to show the peoples displeasure with the hippies in charge, and also started funneling them to Hezbollah so they could protect the faith outside of Iran. I got them to launch missiles at Israel from Lebanon and they got busted by Homeland Security trying to fly in to Chicago. The game then ended. The mods decided that the chief liberal on the Guardian Council was the winner, and tool voted president after me was in second place. Some nobody who got himself voted Ramaj, finally, was third. I may have the order mixed up, because by this time I was pretty down. The Ramaj guy was cool, he deserved it for going form nothing to Ramaj. I'm generally unhappy with the troublemaker liberal being rewarded though, when he was supposed to be a hardliner, like almost everyone else in Iran. You see, in Iran moderate means not killing the Sunnis & other religious minorities in the streets. NO ONE is liberal.
In the end, I'm not sure what to think about the Iranian session. I was grumpy about what happened, about being marginalized as a player, and about sitting out of play so long (which the mods apologized for; they had gotten distracted by other events and lost track of me in jail) I was pretty invested in my nuke deal, the RG, and the VP though, and it could be my grumpiness came from seeing my plans thwarted rather than my perceived slights by others. In the end it was probably the first category of events with a little truth to them contributing to the bitterness I felt in the second category. Enabler was pretty happy since SHE was not treated like a girl (IE: marginalized) by the boys, although she did get her fair share of extra help. We both went in to the next LARPa Cthulhu game, a little down.
Do not let my endgame dissuade you though. NSDM is a WONDERFUL game and has now entered by collection of 'Convention Games I Will Always Sign Up for at Least Once at Every Convention.' It shares this happy place with Call of Cthulhu RPG and Cthulhu LARPs run by PST Productions, both of which will be the subject of future Origins Session Reports. NSDM is a great game. There is NOTHING else like and is expertly researched and run by the moderators. Not only is it a unique experience but it is a BLAST to play as well. Make sure and sign up for a 4-hour fast-play game or an 8-hour mega game at the next GenCon or Origins. There's always room for one more, so drop by with generics if you didn't pre-reg. Check out their site and the player quotes; they are addictive.
Go Team China!
NSDM Player Quotes: