Hornblower: Red-Green Vote

We have this little thing we do. One of us says “y’know, I’d really like a game for genre/movie/concept X” and then someone else says “hmm, well, I’ve never even considered making a game for this idea, but how about this brand new idea I just thought of entirely off the top of my head in the time it took you to ask that question? And is there any more coffee?”

Today’s off-the-cuff project: a role-playing game for the Ship-of-the-Line era. Horatio Hornblower, Master & Commander — that kind of thing.

The first thing that jumped out at us was the perennial problem of when military organization meets role-playing: if one of the players is the commanding officer, theoretically he just tells the other players what to do and they do it. It’s a role-playing buzz kill.

Let’s say someone is playing the captain and the other players are playing the other major officers of the ship. First off, let’s emphasize rather than ignore: there _is_ a power imbalance between the character who is the captain and all the other officer characters. The captain is the absolute law on the ship. How that gets played out is an interesting part of the genre, so instead of sweeping it under the rug we are going to include mechanics that highlight that difference.

When the captain issues a controversial order, like to flog the popular cabin boy who was caught stealing or to cut grog rations to keep the crew alert for a coming battle, the other officers don’t get to openly disagree or countermand the captain’s orders (unless they are jumping straight to mutiny). But privately they are either pleased or displeased with what the captain decides. They may think he’s a tyrant, an incompetent leader, whatever, and that displeasure no matter how well concealed is going to influence the moral of the ship. If the officers are passing on orders they disagree with, that’s going to taint how those orders are received by the sailors beneath them and so on.

Here’s the rules fragment: after the captain issues a major order, each officer places a face down tile that’s green (for approve) or red (for disapprove). That secret vote is tallied up and becomes the new morale of the ship. In effect the officers are sitting in for the ship’s crew at large, and their votes represent the whole crew.

Players aren’t allowed to openly discuss what they are going to vote, except in the context of roleplaying their opinions. The captain is absolutely forbidden from asking the officers what they are going to vote. Because of rigid command structure no officer would normally give his opinion to the captain unless he requested suggestions.

The tricky bit would be for the captain to give the orders he wants, but not lord over his officers so tyrannically that their unspoken opposition undermines the morale of the ship. Then again if he just caters to his crew’s wishes he isn’t really in charge any more.

Questions remain: What’s to discourage everyone from just voting green because that’s what’s best for the whole ship? Different officers could have conflicting agendas, making it impossible for the captain to please everyone all the time.

    Ben Robbins | March 4th, 2008 | game design | show 7 comments