The Sentinel Gate is an essential part of the Empire game design - it allows us to combine a political game centred on Anvil with battles against the Empire's enemies on her borders. as well as using the entire Empire for quests. Because the Gate has such a significant out-of-character role in enabling the game, inevitably the mechanics that drive it are primarily driven by those requirements.
Core Design Criteria
- You can only ever use the portal if something interesting will happen when you get there
- The number of the people who can go through is determined by the specific plot being accessed
- We do not want players to feel they have to spend their time guarding the gate
- We want to avoid trapping players on the other side if humanly possible
At the Appointed Hour
The Gate can only be used at "predestined" times. These opportunities reflect the plot we have prepared for the weekend and the plot actuation schedule that has been created to run that plot. Because the destination and time of departure have been set for OOC reasons - they can be moved for OOC reasons - but there is no IC mechanism the players can employ to change the OOC game schedule.
The purpose of the Gate in the game is to allow for an enormous range of plot that would otherwise be impossible. If players cannot travel to the battlefront - they cannot actively participate in the war between the Empire and it's enemies. The Gate justifies swift travel around the Empire allowing us to run battles involving players as well as having the broadest possible scope of plot that we can run.
In theory we could allow players to travel to a location we have not prepared any plot for and then throw a random fight at them or simply say "nothing happens", but there are many potential flaws with this approach. It is likely to be an underwhelming and disappointing experience by anyone expecting something to happen. This is especially true if characters have committed time or expendable resources to an expedition that cannot succeed because it does not exist. It can also create continuity errors, with mistakes on plot actuation resulting in players being told nothing is happening in an area when other plot indicates there is. For all these reasons we have chosen to implement a very simply rule - if the plot isn't prepared and timetabled for that moment - then the Gate cannot be used to go there.
This is the reason why conjunctions only happen at predestined times. Players cannot use the Gate to travel to areas where we do not have something interesting happening for them. They cannot go to Sarvos simply by asking to go there, unless we have planned or prepared a quest, skirmish or battle to support that expedition, and have that ready to go. We want to respond to player requests like this - but we want to do those requests justice. The best way to do this is to spend time between events writing and preparing the plot and encounters the players find when they do go there. The emphasis is to make expeditions as engaging as possible - rather than as immediate as possible.
Because of the logistical demands of plot actuation, we have to schedule when the quests and battles take place. This predetermines the opportunities that exist to use the Gate. If the quest team have prepared a quest to defeat a plaguewulf that has been scheduled to run at 7pm Saturday evening in Karsk - then the opportunity exists to go to that specific location in Karsk exists for 7pm on the Saturday.
If players need to request that a piece of plot is moved then they can only do so for OOC reasons. Wanting to do two bits of plot at the same time is not a valid OOC reason - our group has to leave early on Sunday because we have a long drive back to Scotland is a valid OOC reason to ask for a Gate slot to be moved. In that situation, the correct approach is to make an OOC request to Profound Decisions crew, explain the OOC circumstances and we will see if we can accommodate this.
We have deliberately specified that there is no IC agency in the game world that can over-ride the rules of the gate, no rituals that move a slot, nor any Eternal that can do so, so that players know what their IC options are - and can make sensible choices accordingly. Rituals and eternals may provide IC means to facilitate an existing piece of plot that has been written and scheduled - that is they can help characters access a predestined conjunction - but we don't want players wasting their IC efforts trying to change an OOC plot actuation schedule.
In the Appointed Number
To minimize the situations where there are more players than a plot can involve, the number of people who can go on a quest is set in advance. This forms part of the immutable rules of the Gate, like the destination and the time of departure. For skirmishes and battles, the number who can go through is not fixed, but the number of nations that can go is specified. There are no in-character mechanisms that exist in the game world to vary these details.
When we create a battle, skirmish or quest, we want the expedition to be challenging to those who go. While a purely simulationist approach might imply that many expeditions should be a walk-over while others would be utterly impossible due to the overwhelming odds - in practice this would be equally unsatisfying for players and writers. The laws of narrative apply - we only have a weekend of play - so we need to try and ensure that the hours of the weekend are as engaging as we can make them. This can be very difficult however if the players have no indication of how many people a quest, skirmish or battle might require - and we have no indication of how many may go.
For this reason, when our plot writers are creating a quest, they decide how many players they want to go on the quest. This influences how they stat the encounters, but it is about more than just play-balancing fights. We need to plan for the effective involvement of players - if a quest involves a single encounter to negotiate with an NPC - that is not something that fifty players can enjoyably participate in. Providing an engaging experience is inherently challenging - but specifying how many characters can go gives the players a strong indication of how many should go - and lets our plot writers create an experience with an idea of how many will go. That doesn't ensure an enjoyable quest - but it does make it much easier to achieve.
Anvil is Safe
Only Imperial citizens can use the gate. It is possible to use ritual magic, magical items and the powers of Eternals to get around this restriction - but it is sufficiently expensive that it is not reproducible on a large scale. This means that it is simply not possible for the Empire to be invaded through the portal by any means - and therefore that there is no need for any guards for the Gate.
We do not want players to feel obligated to spend valuable game time guarding the Gate to prevent an incursion. Allowing this to happen produces a cycle in which plot writers feel obligated to throw monsters at the guards to keep them busy - and players increasingly obligated to stay on guard to keep the monsters at bay. We want Anvil to be busy with plot, trade, politics and interactions - we don't want players to feel they need to stand watching all that happen while they guard a Gate.
The Barbarian High-command is Safe
The Gate can only be used to travel to places the Empire has a connection with - places in the Empire, or on the borders, or locations where Imperial troops are stationed. You cannot use the Gate to teleport into the heartlands of foreign or barbarian nations.
If characters were able to launch a deep-strike attack on the Thule high command to assassinate their leaders, it would be overwhelmingly the best strategy to adopt in almost every circumstance. It would always be easier than fighting their way through hordes of Thule troops in the field, so it would always be preferable to any alternative strategy for purely IC reasons. An interesting military campaign develops from stories of iconic battles in the field. We want those players involved in the military campaign to make long term strategic plans, to push forwards on fronts and try to seize key regions. To ensure they have a complex game with a wide variety of choices we need to rule out the one choice that would always be IC preferable to any other.
The Outward Gate Closes
The Gate is only open for a short time - just sufficient to let the players gathered to pass through. After that time the outward gate closes and no IC agency can reopen it. The players who have travelled away from Anvil may still return - the return gate does not close until the appointed duration has expired - but nobody else may now travel to that quest, skirmish or battle.
We want the potential for failure to be real and tangible in Empire - otherwise the pleasure of triumph is fatally undermined. The only way we know to make that experience real is to allow players to fail sometimes. We will never plan for that to happen - but the vagaries of fate ensure that if it is possible - then sometimes it will occur.
In these situations players will inevitably be highly motivated to immediately reattempt the same quest, skirmish or battle - nothing tastes as bitter as defeat. But if we allow players opportunities to reattempt a quest, skirmish or battle that fails - then the narrative impact of defeat is lost. Ultimately the entire experience of going through the Gate would be diminished if the players learned that they could just reset and go again in response to any failure. Triumph and defeat would both be undermined.
This is a classic case where giving the players what their characters want - another opportunity to use the gate to attempt the same action - would actually make the game less enjoyable for everyone in the long run. This is why it is laid out clearly that there is no IC mechanism to re-open a gate to make a new attempt. We want players to plan for each expedition they make - and to be nervous if their preparation has been sufficient. We want the Gate to naturally develop a history of great triumphs and bitter defeats.
The only exception to this situation is where our battle management has gone awry for purely out-of-characters reasons. This should happen less and less over time as the team's skills improve, but it would be naive to rule out the idea that it could ever happen. We don't want to penalize players for our mistake, so in that circumstance - and only in that circumstance - the battle refs are allowed to rule that a second conjunction develops that is sufficient to allow players to react to the situation.
The Return Gate Closes
The opportunity to return through the gate expires after a predetermined time. Once the appointed duration allocated by the plot actuation team expires then returning via the Gate becomes increasingly dangerous - simulated through distribution of magical traumatic wounds.
We have limited resources to simulate the world outside Anvil, we have limited time, limited crew and limited space. This means that a quest, skirmish or battle can only run for a certain length of time, before the resources it is consuming would be better spent elsewhere. To create the IC urgency needed to satisfy this basic out-of-character requirement, we have set limits on how long the players can remain away from Anvil.
We want players to know how long they have to complete their quest, skirmish or battle - but because their characters are motivated by IC reasons, we want them to have an IC reason why must return once their allotted time expires, even if they have not succeeded. The in-character risks inherent in remaining too long are not intended to be a credible threat to a character's survival, but rather to present a player with an IC justification they can use to justify accommodating the limits of the quest.
As far as possible, we want to avoid players becoming trapped away from Anvil. Therefore we want anyone who passes through a gate to be aware of approximately how long remains before the gate closes by asking a referee. Players who remain behind after a battle or skirmish ends but who are not captured by orcs are assumed to have made their way back to the portal and snuck through. They should see a ref and receive an appropriate magical traumatic wound to represent the dangers of their dangerous return.
If players are on a quest and are simply refusing to return to Anvil within the duration allotted to them, then the referee are instructed to give them a few minutes at most to complete what they are doing. If it is clear that they are not returning, they will then time-out the area. Ideally our plot will avoid situations where this outcome is likely - for instance NPCs can be briefed to leave an area after half-an-hour. Quests should, where possible, succeed or fail within the allotted duration in a way that is obvious to everyone who is taking part. But if this can't happen and the players absolutely refuse to accept that the time available to complete a quest has expired, then the referee needs a basis to intervene.
Anyone may go
There are no limits on who can go on a quest. The number who can go is limited, for reasons outlined above - but any Imperial citizen can go - and they can go on as many quests as they can access. Battles are currently limited to one per event - but this is purely because of the need for players to volunteer to fill out our monster ranks for the big encounters where 100 dedicated skirmish crew is not enough. The allocation of who can go on specific battle and skirmish opportunities should remain in player hands (in this case it is decided by the Military Council).
We have been deliberately vague about how "major conjunctions" occur. At present the game is limited by the number of players, crew and the size of the event. However if the event grew, or we had a larger site, we would want to scale the amount of battles and skirmishes available accordingly.
The Gate is for players
It is not possible for players to use rituals or call on aid from eternals send additional fighting power on quests, skirmishes or battles. There are rituals and Eternal powers in Empire that allow players to create additional troops for use in the downtime campaign, but these creates cannot pass through the Gate.
If this was allowed to happen we would need to phys-rep the NPC monsters who were going to fight alongside the players. This would diminish the resources we had available to fight against the players. More importantly, it would also create an enjoyable iconic role... that was being played by an NPC. To stop this happening, summoned creatures such as husks or minotaurs, cannot go through the Gate. This ensures that the pivotal individuals who pass through the Gate are players.
Players have many good reasons to attempt to capture members of our crew or player volunteers and bring them back to Anvil as prisoners. For critical instances - where the roleplay or the plot demands it - we can facilitate this in small numbers. Beyond this it is logistically challenging to support. Player volunteers need to return to playing after a battle is completed, while NPCs will be needed for other plots. For this reason there are costs to bringing prisoners or other characters through the Gate - to encourage the players to do it only when the need is pressing and real.
Avoid NPC only abilities
The IC rationale of the Gate is, in effect, that it is predetermined by the stars, not by any mortal or sentient agency. Players have the widest possible remit to take advantage of the opportunities - but since the Gate operates according to an OOC logisticial timetable - - they do not have the IC ability change the nature of the opportunities.
However we don't want players to feel that the gate is controlled by another "higher power", because that power would overshadow the players and make them feel less important by comparison. There is no practical difference between claiming that the stars determine the conjunctions and saying that the conjunctions are set by a god or similar character. But the stylistic differences are significant - players are less likely to feel overshadowed by the sun and the moon.
So as far as humanly possible we want to avoid special NPC only abilities - although we have to have control over when the Gate can be used for logistical reasons, (what time it can be opened, how many can go through and to where) - we don't need to have control over how the Gate is opened, or who opens it. The design for the Gate avoids deliberately eschews NPC control by having the limitations on its use set by fate - the stars control under what circumstances the Gate can be used - but actual implementation and use can be done by any player with the appropriate skills. Likewise any player magician can find out if a conjunction exists.
Our civil servants may be able to do this for the players - and we want to incentivize the players to involve the egregore as it is part of these NPCs' remit to try to add to the drama of the event - but they can easily do it themselves. This avoids the need for special NPC only abilities and also allows the potential for players to go on missions without the approval of the civil service if that fits the plot and their characterisation. There is an implicit resource tax involved in this, the cost to detect a conjunction and to operate the portal - but it is not dear.