A Brief History of Athesia - Megagame Design Mini

This week I’m going to write about something that (maybe/probably) isn’t a megagame, but shares a lot of similarities with megagames.


From 2007 to 2019 I ran a roleplaying game for the University of Essex RPG Society called “Athesia”. 20-40 players would take part twice a year in a game that lasted from Friday evening till Sunday afternoon.


In this post I’ll walk through the game, and how it evolved through three phases (simplifying for clarity).


Original Athesia

Before Athesia I had co-run a couple of previous big weekend games for the RPG society, using 3rd edition D&D and 36th(!) level characters. They were a mess, but good fun, so I teamed up with a new partner to run something a little more sensible in the spring of 2006.


Athesia was originally a one shot game using more manageable 16th level characters. We’d noticed D&D had a lot of character options for very specific circumstances that rarely saw use, so we warned players in advance they would be facing a lot of undead.


The game centered around a conference in the capitals of the desert kingdom of Thanya discussing the abolition of slavery in the five nations that made up the Athesian peninsula. Then the undead attacked.


It proved so popular we quickly agreed to do a followup, and the original run lasted for 4 games - 2 more fending off an Orcish invasion in northern viking inspired Tor Gart and the last game was a civil war in the roman/elven Lexum.


Most of the plot was written by one or two head GMs (Games Masters), and then run by a team. The game cycled between time spent in council sessions and time spent split into adventuring parties.


We got some good rivalries between the various nations (players would pick from a fixed list, but were not briefed on how they felt about their homeland), and there were simple systems for mass combat and trade that took place in the background (the battlefront system probably deserves its own post).


Unfortunately D&D was slow… as soon as you got into a fight that was a few hours gone. We also struggled to come up with enough interesting plot and so filler combat missions were something to dread.


Overall though the game was good fun and, while this iteration ran out of steam after 4 games, it would be resurrected after skipping just one session…


Athesia Reborn


Pointing at a map! maybe it is a megagame?

After the first game stopped I took it upon myself to start it up again, but decided on a clean break. There would be a 1000 year time skip, with the land falling into darkness and the players would be trying to bring light back to the world under the banner of “King Kiya”.


I decided to upgrade to 4th edition D&D because it was more balanced, faster to run and was the current edition at the time so players should be able to pick it up easily. All of those things were true, although in hindsight, not true enough.


After the first new game we transitioned to a new structure for the GMs. I would head up the game (game control if you will) while each region had a “senior GM” in charge of the story there. A pool of other GMs would then be briefed by the relevant senior GM when running a mission in a region.


This also means GMs could also play a PC (player character), as long as they avoided entering the region they were in charge of.This let the GMing pool be about 50% of the player base, spreading the load even further.


This was brilliant, it spread the load, made the game much more creative and imaginative. It’s a level of delegating creative freedom I’d like to see more of in megagames.


We kept the council time, but since everyone was in the same nation it lacked some of the previous vibrancy (for better or worse). We did try introducing player organisations, but they never engendered the kind of rivalry we were after - without a clear brief players are just too cooperative.


We also had a “kingdom building” system, replacing the old trading and mass combat, that split characters into Lords, Generals, Scholars and Champions, each with different abilities in the map and resource game… something that would be very familiar to a megagamer.


The campaign structure settled into a rhythm, a region would introduce a large threat in one game and then it would feature as the main plot in the next. Main plot would take up about a third of the mission slots and end with a finale where everyone took part in one big D&D battle (which took some managing).


Still, D&D was still slow and unbalanced, so…


Late Stage Athesia

We ended up writing our own system. After a false start (that included an optional skirmish wargame component) we settled on a simple system inspired by indie RPGs that could play out an entire adventure in about 90 minutes and didn’t include any special combat rules to slow things down.


The kingdom building system also changed and simplified. Once most of the map had been coloured it became about maintenance rather than expansion. Each of the five regions in the kingdom had five trackers that would be affected by NPC activity and mission outcomes. Players could allocate points to be able to gain extra votes in certain council sessions, gain the ability to adjust the tracks in each region or gain a small edge in the missions.


We also expanded the senior GMs to be teams of GMs, so now we had a network of plot creation that was even more efficient, since nearly all GMs would now have authorial control over the region they ran a mission in.


All in all this very streamlined version of the game was the best yet and it took us over the finish line of 23 weekend games!

While a more complete write up would be possible, going into more detail, hopefully this broad overview has proved interesting. There will probably be another post relating this more to megagames in the future. While most of the information available online has been lost to hosting services going down, the most recent wiki for the ‘late stage’ game does survive here.


If you know of any other “big game” projects that aren’t widely known I’d be interested in hearing about it, or if you have any questions about the Athesia game do leave a comment.


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