I’ve always envisioned Acts of Liberty as a stand-alone game set in an alternate history. From the beginning, it was intended as a proof-of-concept for the Prototype System, a rules-light tabletop storytelling framework that was developed concurrently to power and showcase the first in a series of games. This companion to Acts of Liberty serves as a chronicle to the many features, design choices, and insights that were made along the way.
Near Zero Production Cost
The two year development of Acts of Liberty was in part due to the design of the Prototype System. From the outset, a hallmark of development was to achieve a very low production cost and yield the best playability, which I felt was accomplished. Besides my time spent on the project, which was a cost that would be recompensed in aggregate through sales of the games that used the system, I stayed within my budgetary limits to strike an artistic balance that would both complement the product, and fit within the scope of the medium. I knew that the sales of the game itself would never recoup an investment in art assets; this was a hard reality that I had to accept early on. Therefore, my philosophy behind the Prototype System has been to offer great games that cost next to nothing to make.
During development of Prototype, I arrived at the question, “when does one make the decision to roll additional game features into the next iteration of the system?”
At first, a generic answer seemed to be unknowable, as it relied on specific variables that would be different with each situation. The analogue in software design was feature creep, but what additional features could I include, and more importantly, what would it affect?
Let me back up a bit. Once I decided on the general sequence of gameplay, I plotted the layout of the game. I knew that page one would be the cover and page two would be the credits, table of contents, and game and system introductions. I also knew that starting on page three, the rules would spread out for five pages to address every aspect of gameplay from the beginning to the end. Then, an additional four more pages would be needed for the necessary game charts. That brought the page count to 11. About four months before the game was published, the first playtest uncovered a major sub-system rewrite along with numerous clarifications. Overall, however, the product was sound.
And — most importantly — Acts of Liberty was fun.
Now. I was also aware of the minimum page count for a hardcopy in order to bring the game into the physical world. Depending on where you shop, that threshold is 18 pages. The crown jewel of that being an ISBN. Marching headlong toward that lofty achievement was completely outside the development plan, as it hadn’t been budgeted for and would surely push back the publication date even further. But it was very attractive. To achieve that goal, the game would need seven more pages that were filled with necessary game content that justified their inclusion. Also, if you’ve ever looked closely at the last page of an rpg book, not counting the appendix, index or charts, it’s mostly full. No one in their right mind uses less than half of the last page.
Oh, sure. There were a number of tricks that I could employ to inflate the page count. I could widen the gutter and increase the font size for the titles and body which would disrupt a finely-tuned balance. I could upgrade the block quote graphics. All of these solutions, which might work for someone else felt disingenuous to me, and didn’t offer more than a slight page gain; a half column at best. A more substantial fix would be to add art elements to break up the text. That particular option was one that I had given a lot of serious thought to. However, the pages were already full of text, so where would the art go? Further, whatever art I did include would have to fit within a minimalist aesthetic. Yet, even art assets would only get me so far. The only responsible way to increase the page count was to simply add more game.
Which was interesting because, shortly after the first playtest, I had come back to my lingering question about the inclusion of additional game system features, above and beyond what was required to play the game. That’s the point when I was ready to learn the next lesson of game design:
“The mechanic must reflect the narrative.”
Inspired by the simplicity of this mantra, I would go back through the entire game to ensure that each part was in fact necessary and complimented both the setting and the narrative. I worked hard to polish every section to increase its clarity and effectiveness, a side-effect was a reduction of the space it required. In the end, it turned out that 11 pages was exactly what was needed; every page was full top to bottom with game.
During my time of exploration into the expansion of the book with more game features, I designed mechanisms and resources that would add content and increase replayability:
- 4 new world blueprint charts with characters, terrains, incursions, and judgments.
- 4 new world blueprint charts with names, locations, organizations, and conclusions.
- Additional rules to integrate the new world blueprint charts.
- Character sheets to track narratives, story elements, and tokens.
For a few reasons, my gut told me the expanded content should be left out. Acts of Liberty worked just fine without the bonus materials. The expanded content would eventually be made available as an add-on product sold separately, included in an anthology of other games I had yet to write, or become part of the next version of Prototype.
Either way, I had found the answer I’d been searching for.
An early plan was to commission a cover illustration or use photographic elements to capture the imagination. As I’ve said, Prototype was never conceived as an art-heavy line. It’s minimalistic by design to keep costs down, and an overly produced piece of art for the cover and simple graphics in the interior seemed at odds with each other.
I still needed a cover. Then, right around that time, The Purge: Election Year hit theatres, and the movie poster gave me an idea.
Acts of Liberty was written with Apache Open Office. The title text, page and chart headers used the Cloister Black font by Dieter Steffmann; the cover text was rendered using a simple shadow. The red stripes represented the four different acts, and the stars and background were flipped to give it an off-kilter feel; something familiar was askew. A variation of this theme appears at the top of each page. The Prototype System logo used the Leander font by Tension Type in red. The body text used the Libre Baskerville font by Pablo Impallari, and lastly, the chart body used the Franklin Gothic font by Morris Fuller Benton.
The game opens with the credits, table of contents, a thematic introduction, and a general introduction to gameplay and the Prototype System. Due to the aforementioned space limits, many of the sources and inspirations didn’t make it into the book. After several rewrites and an expanded table of contents, I had to trim the credits down to the minimum. I’ve reviewed my notes and have listed those references below:
- The film The Patriot by Roland Emmerich
- The film The Star Chamber by Peter Hyams
- Shay’s Rebellion
- The Great Compromise of 1787
- The US Constitution: An Ideal Squandered by Terry Garlock
- The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 And It’s Effects by Dan Bryan
- Is America A ‘Nation on The Take?’ by Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman
- How Trump Has Proved The Founders Right by HW Brands
- America’s Critical Period
- The Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783
- The Annapolis Convention of 1786
- The Philadelphia Convention of 1787
- Myths of The American Revolution by John Furling
- Revisiting The Fabric of American Empire by Alex Cacloppo
- The Anti-Federalist Papers
- Constitution Day
- The Ninth Pillar, Massachusetts Centinel, 25 June 1788
- Loyalists of the American Revolutionary War
- The Culper Ring
- The Sons of Liberty
- The US Constitution: Tool of Centralization and Debt, 1788-Today by Gary North
- The Federalist Papers
- The Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
I spent a great deal of time on the thematic introduction, which appears as two paragraphs of flavor text, each separated by a dramatic question. This was the first step into the game world, and it was also a hint at how the game content would be introduced.
I searched diligently for a plausible historical jump-off, and found one in a fictional organization called the Council that was opposed to the ratification of the Constitution. Inspired by the Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it also gave me the perfect hook for a sequel.
Did I say sequel? Yes I did. Even though Acts of Liberty had been designed as a one-off, every good writer leaves loopholes for a possible sequel to avoid painting themselves into a corner. The blueprints were laid out if I ever needed to go back down that road.
I never wanted to get a letter that read, “Apes exist, sequel required.”
In the game and system introduction, the players learn that Prototype is inspired by the classic kishōtenketsu narrative structure, and that conflict resolution isn’t the focus. The players are empowered to create stories using exposition and contrast to build the interest. The introduction also provides an overview of the gameplay and setting without requiring the players to digest the entire document to decide if it’s their kind of game or not.
I’d intended to include the game and system version numbers on page two, just below the credits. But, due to the always-looming space limitations, it had to be cut. As published, the release version of the game is 485, and the Prototype System version is Gen 1.
The section for game setup provides the players with flavor text that applies to their immediate situation, and includes a quote by Rufus King of the Massachusetts Delegate, who voiced concerns about how, in the wrong hands, the journals of the Second Continental Congress could be used to resist or undo the ratification of the Constitution. It’s another great historical link with dramatic implications.
While not specifically stated, it’s a good idea if each player has a copy of the game, which will result in a more smooth and fluid gameplay experience.
The game setup section briefly explores the use of cards, tokens and the optional jokers. Originally, Prototype had a hard lock on the drawing of cards, and didn’t allow discards. Each card was accounted for in a four player game. The downside was the stockpile of cards that each player would accumulate. It was during a late design rewrite that I abandoned that mechanism and adopted a discard feature in order to free up more cards to facilitate the active and passive character roles.
The card suits introduce story element archetypes as descriptors that are specific to the act in which the card is drawn. An idea I had early on was to allow the players to play as historical figures, such as George or Martha Washington. However, it introduced multiple instances of the same character, which in the context of the game was illogical. The fix was a switch to archetypes, which made thematic sense, and created headroom for the players to construct elements that were their own. It was a good choice, as it meshed with the world building gameplay and underscored the game mantra, “more storytelling possibilities.”
For the card values, I opted to go with interrogative pronouns who, what, where, when, why, and how that repeated twice per drawn card. However, there were 13 card values, and I was one pronoun short. To repeat a pronoun again was a cheap fix that I wasn’t fond of. Therefore, I had to go back and look at the less-popular pronouns that quite frankly didn’t offer the flexibility of the five that I was already using. The solution was the pronoun determiner which. While it was a binary either/or question, it was leagues better than a simple yes/no question. As an added bonus, the card value I needed it for was the queen, and I found delight in affixing that particular pronoun to her as a hidden play on words.
When designing a game system on the cheap, it’s ideal to use components that the players already have such as tokens. I used pennies during the design of Prototype, but the players could use anything. The tokens are a resource that can be spent to perform a number of tasks. They can be used by the active players to draw more cards to introduce game details that enhance their story elements. The tokens can also be spent by the active and passive players to unlock evidence and witness tampering, affecting the elements and testimonies that the characters are introducing. I was thoroughly pleased with giving the players another choice to make, even if it wasn’t their turn to push the story forward. Each player would have a chance to stand at the crossroads and decide whether to spend tokens to draw more cards, change the evidence of a testimony, or introduce a witness that offered an outside (and possibly contradictory) testimony.
The inclusion of the jokers presented a unique challenge. Should I make them optional or not include them at all? I spent a bit of time working on that answer. Rather than write them out of the game altogether, which was a last-ditch plan, I worked out how they could be best served in the game. A feature I wanted to implement from day one was a concept called the super element, a powerful story construct that affected all narratives. Like any unique aspect of gameplay, it had a number of conditions that had to be worked out. What card sequence were they drawn? What act did they appear in? Who could define them? In the end, I made them optional, but powerful.
Page 3 ends with the game play section, which provides a brief overview of the sequence of play and serves as the point where the game is launched. It’s also the place where active and passive characters are first mentioned. By this point in the instructions, the players should have a solid idea of what the game was about.
Something that came up during playtesting was that I hadn’t included a method to select who goes first, which I felt was a bit gimmicky. Two things worked against its inclusion: the page was already maxed out, and due to the complexity of the game, I took a chance that the players could probably figure that part out for themselves.
Page Four and Five
The next two pages are gameplay examples that take a close look as a player progresses through acts one through four. It also provides definitions for the categories of descriptors that each card suit introduces. This section gives gameplay examples and details the card suit descriptor categories, which change with each act. Conversely, the card value descriptor categories remain the same. I also provided character testimonies in the form of block quotes that reflect the actual cards that were used in the examples.
This section goes into a lot of detail about the evidence and witness tampering sub-system that active and passive players can utilize to change character testimonies. In the wake of the first playtest, I determined that a mechanism involving primacy would be scrapped, and then got to work on what would replace it. Evidence and witness tampering explores the active and passive character modes, with the active characters providing testimonies, and the passive characters attempting to alter them. I explored activities that took place in a real courtroom and what pre-constitutional trials looked like. I also borrowed from my original concept of primacy that centered on the notion of an unreliable narrator. The active characters would now be free to change the elements of their testimony, and the passive characters would be free to try and discredit them. Two interesting features that came out of this section that changed the way the game was played: the destruction of evidence by an active player required a discard mechanism, and the eyewitness/victim mechanism required the drawing of additional cards that, in effect, created a kind of sidekick.
I wanted the tampering of evidence or witnesses to have an offset or a penalty. If you were going to spend tokens to change testimonies or introduce witnesses, you wouldn’t be able to spend tokens to develop your own testimony during that act. I felt it provided different ways to play the game and opened up emergent strategies that the players could explore.
Page seven goes into detail about how the tokens are used, gameplay specifics involving the optional super elements, ending the game, optional rules, and a gameplay overview.
One scenario that came up during the first playtest was if a player ran out of tokens during the construction of a super element. This was resolved by allowing any active player to develop the super element on their turn during the act in which it was drawn.
Another bit of feedback I got was that I hadn’t included a proper “game” ending. There weren’t any victory conditions, and there wasn’t a way to declare a winner. This was by design and went back to the classic kishōtenketsu narrative structure, which was a major inspiration. I determined that, while the characters could construct their own endings, there would be no conflict resolution. There’s no reward to claim or lose. An exception would be if a character chose to destroy evidence. Thanks to the evidence and witness tampering mechanism that removed it, the action would in all likelihood result in it being replaced by something else. In other words, a bad thing is more than likely still going to happen.
Four optional rules are included that served to enhance the storytelling and increase the replayability. The first negates the rollover of unused tokens to eliminate big spending. The second rule forces the construction of super elements instead of a player’s own story elements. The third rule replaces the jokers with a one token draw that combines with any other card. And the last rule replaces absent players with additional witnesses and victims that are connected to specific incursions.
Lastly, the game overview recaps the steps from starting the game to concluding the story.
Pages 8 Thru 11
These are the game charts that the players will use to construct their story elements and narratives. Each chart features modified graphics that are taken from the page headers. The concept of a 1st card, 2nd card, 3rd card was part of the design since the beginning, and was linked to the tokens. It was always planned to give the players the option to take a free first card and then have the players choose to spend tokens to draw cards and add more details. The 1st card deals in the past, the 2nd card pertains to the present or the immediate future, and the 3rd card involves unknowns from the past or the future.
Each chart is attached to an act, so the first act is always specific to the development of characters, the second act is always the development of the terrains, and so on. As the game progresses through the acts, so do the charts advance. Once an act is concluded, there’s no going back. An aspect of kishōtenketsu that was adapted for gameplay was how, in the source framework, major changes to the introduction and detail don’t occur after the second act. In the context of Acts of Liberty, each act introduces its own content that builds on the story elements and details revealed within that act, which in turn build on the events of prior acts. This happens continuously, and is not limited to the second act.
The charts also feature authentic quotes that reflect the historical tone of the era, and the theme of each act.
The End of The Story
This companion to Acts of Liberty marks the official end of development for the game and Prototype System (Gen 1). The story of the Council and its four suspects has been told, and will yield different conclusions with each telling. As I’ve said, it’s entirely possible that I may again return to this setting at some point to publish advanced world charts or a sequel that uses this version of Prototype. Or, perhaps, in Gen 2.
Until then, I leave the world of 1788 on the precipice of justice, and in your capable hands.
Acts of Liberty is out on Amazon.
Copyright © 2017 James Glover and 1000mg Games. All rights reserved.