We’ve just rolled out a rules update for Empire that gives our Senate the ability to instruct the civil service to vary the tariffs charged on foreign trade entering and leaving the Empire. Because that’s how we roll. My boss Matthew Pennington wrote a long design essay about the principles behind the new rules. After a lot of chat we decided it was probably too niche to fit well on the wiki, so I suggested posting it here. What follows are all his own words, although I reserve the right to take the piss with the pictures.
The Phantom Tariffs
Tariffs were never originally intended to be an active part of the game that was meant to be directly manipulated by players for a number of reasons. Their intrinsic nature does not lend itself well to the core design of Empire. This is because the effects of tariffs are largely confined to off-stage economics and in particular to the ensuing diplomatic relations with the foreign powers in question. While it’s not impossible to give players levers to control those things – they ideally want to be as simple as humanly possible.
The player economy is entirely controlled by players; that means that the relative importance of something that costs 7 crowns versus something that costs 6 crowns and 15 rings is something that players can determine as they see fit. Those kind of fine degrees of control are ideal when dealing with things whose effects are felt directly by other player-characters.
But the economy of the empire, the world the players inhabit, and the npcs who act as the backdrop, are ultimately a simplified partly-mathematical model. We layer all manner of interesting story elements over that to form the skin for that model – but anyone who has spent time looking how the military game works will know how simple the system is. That simplicity is by design and by necessity extends to every part of Empire. We can make a meaningful assessment of how the Jarmish will react to a declaration of war by the Empire that cuts off all trade between the two powers. But there is no convincing basis to assess how the Jarmish will react to an increase of 2 rings in the kilo on sacks of Jarmish rice unloaded at Imperial ports. It is completely impossible to build a system of tariffs that the Empire can model how the world would respond – economically or diplomatically – to that level of fine control.
So by design, any levers that the players can control these aspects of the world need to be very simple. But tariffs by their nature are bewilderingly complex in real life – the essential character of them in the real world is byzantine, multi-layered, and infinitely complex. When you think of tariffs you don’t expect to think of a simple crude system with three or four settings – you expect to deal with a system with a million different controls. That complexity problem meant that tariffs were a very poor match for a game function – because there was no way to build a mechanism to support them that would provide the kind of character that actually setting real tariffs might have. For this reason we never intended to add them to the game, because they’re just a poor subject for inclusion in an interesting live roleplaying game of politics.
The Abstraction Layer Strikes Back
We mentioned them once or twice in the setting description – the back story for the Steel Fist talks about a deal made by a previous Empress regarding tariffs. Our thinking was always that the issue of tariffs was entirely below the abstraction layer – it wasn’t something that would make good game for players to control – but we might run a piece of plot at some point with it.
To do that we would simply create an opportunity, the standard Empire way to temporarily lift an element above the abstraction layer to make an interesting piece of plot from it. Players don’t have control over the precise herbs they plant on their herb gardens in Miaren – that’s below the abstraction layer – but it doesn’t mean that we can’t create an interesting plot by offering players a one-off opportunity to switch True Vervain for Bladeroot and so on. Provided the decision involved is challenging – provided it’s meaningful – provided it has costs and benefits and must be weighed and politcked over then and only then is it useful to raise it above the abstraction layer long enough to do a plot with it. Once the politics are done – and attention moves on – then it can be put back where it belongs.
Return of the Optimisation
And there lies the second problem with tariffs. The inevitable “point of least resistance” for any system of tariffs would be to move the levers to the point that maximised the benefits to the Empire. There might be political reasons not to do that for one or more nation, but once those temporary drives faded, the move to push all the levers to the most advantageous possible position would be overwhelming.
There are ”lots” of reasons that doesn’t happen in the real world (unless you live in Singapore) none of which would work in Empire because the effects would be on NPCs – not PCs. Empire is not a game that is about the things you do that affect NPCs and how they react. It’s about the things you do that affect other PCs. The NPCs are just there to make the world real – and to give players reasons to care when the things you do affect NPCs they care about. Occasionally we will have an NPC act like a PC – we might have an angry Urizeni mage turn up to barrack the military council about the situation in Spiral… but the impact of that is invariably less than if a PC does it, and it’s always short in duration. PCs are on the field for the whole event – our NPCs are there for a few hours. The game is – by design – about PCs – about the actions they take – and about the reactions they and other PCs have. The NPCs are part of the scenery of the world, like the mountains of Urizen and the rivers of the League. You can’t put sustained long-term pressure on PCs to take economic actions that are not in the best interests of the Empire by having an angry pie-seller turn up to complain that cheap Jarmish pies are damaging his business. Not everything that works in the real world will work in Empire.
So tariffs never seemed like a good fit to have as a mechanic in Empire. They’re not evocative and exciting – the way magic or war is – so they don’t have stylistic points in their favour. They’re fiendishly complex in real life but they need to be simple to work as a game mechanic to they don’t have structural points in their favour. And they lend themselves to auto-tuned optimisation in a way that would render them redundant as a mechanic to create conflict and drama. While we understand that most characters want the Empire to have more taxation – that’s an IC problem to be solved IC. Creating new rules that simply add more money to the setting actually makes the game less fun for everyone. In fact any rules option in which one single solution is overwhelmingly favoured in all cases is flawed by design.
If we’d thought about tariffs through to the level of detail that I’ve just outlined here six years ago, we might well have ruled that the world of Empire didn’t have any trading tariffs and had no mechanisms to impose any. It would have been utterly unrealistic, but Empire is built on making premises work for the setting that are needed by the game. No horses, and no prisons are just two of the most obvious examples. But we didn’t do that – tariffs were included as part of the setting without thinking whether that would be an issue down the line.
But we also used them actively in generating plot as foreign nations imposed tariffs and deliberately interfered with foreign trade as a way to influence the game. Inevitably that created a demand by players to retaliate in kind. That was completely understandable – and entirely predictable – and we failed to spot it in advance. In effect we helped to create the demand for something we couldn’t work out how to support.
Like a few things in Empire, we said no for as long as we couldn’t think of any good way to create rules to support it. There are always things that people email to ask us to add to the game – a college to make new potions is probably the most obvious example. Every time we get something like that we discuss it as a game team – but in most cases we turn it down because we can’t think of good rules to support it. Adding things to Empire just because people ”want” them is a rocky road to despair that will ultimately be to the detriment of the game. We try to only add things that we are positive will make the game better.
But the impending summit between the Empire and three of the great powers of the world made that situation untenable. Just like when the Empire built a deep-water port and we were forced to create some rules for navies in the game – so the upcoming meeting meant we had to have some rules to determine the impact of the economic relationships between the nations of the world. Generally Empire works pretty darn well – in terms of having a rule set that supports 99.999% of the things that players want to do. But it’s still a live roleplaying game – there’s always the chance that players will do something nobody on the game team has even dreamed of – and that is completely legitimate in-character. At that point – we have to sit down and create some rules for it. The players legitimately needed some rules in place to support control of tariffs – so it was on us to stop prevaricating and work out some half-decent rules to give them that in a way that stayed consistent with Empire’s core ethos.
A New Rule
So we spent a bit of time on and off over winter thrashing out some rules. The first problem to solve was the complexity one. It is the nature of real people that they want to haggle, they want to salamai slice any problem to get a fine-grained compromise that suits both parties. If you ask for 10 rings for your fine cake – I offer you 2 rings – we haggle and settle on 6 rings. That’s salami slicing in action – taking a problem and cutting it thinner and thinner until there is enough to go round everyone. But salami slicing on tariffs leads back to exactly the kind of bewildering complexity that is impossible to model and frankly it’s not clear many human beings would enjoy roleplaying with. It’s one thing to try and cut a deal on your trade terms with the representatives of the Common Wealth – that could be a great encounter for some players. But arguing whether the tariffs on Jarmish oranges should 6 rings a kilo or 7 rings a kilo is not the kind of NPC interaction we were keen to offer our players… or our crew.
We needed a solution that made clear that no salami slicing would be possible. The system needed to give players all the credible levels of control over the system that we could sensibly model and respond to – and no more. Crucially it needed to make that abstraction feel reasonable and comfortable – if the rules left players wanting to change the tariffs on Jarmish oranges – or convinced that they should be able to do that – or that it would benefit them – then we would have failed.
Revenge of the Civil Sevants
To achieve that we took the step of ramping up the complexity level as far as possible – to justify why it was so complex it was impossible for anybody to control – and then introducing everyone’s favourite over-arching bureaucracy to do that for the players. So in Empire everyone understands that changing the tariffs on Jarmish oranges won’t achieve anything – the system is so complex that changing any one tariff is meaningless. So instead they simply instruct the civil service to change the paradigm of ”all” the Jarmish tariffs. That allows us to have a level of crudity to the system that is easily explained, understood and roleplayed about in the field. And crucially a level of simplicity that is easy for us to model and to model the reactions and implications of it.
Satisfied that that felt workable, we moved onto the next problem – one of optimisation. What was to stop the players simply moving all the levels to “maximum possible taxation” as soon as we brought the new rules in? The solution here was to adopt an old tried and tested Empire principle – yes you absolutely can do that – and in fact it’s such a good idea that ”it’s already been done”. There are no adjustments that can be made to the system that will increase tax revenue – because every single possible adjustment that would achieve that has already been done.
Setting that as the starting point means that the new rules aren’t ways that you can create more money for the Empire. Instead they are new ways that the Empire can ”spend” money. (Reducing your taxation is ultimately another way to spend money). It’s empowers players to the extent that it gives them direct control of something they didn’t have previously. And crucially it creates the capacity for meaningful, challenging decisions. You can anger your foreign enemies by imposing trade sanctions on them – or please them by exempting them from tariffs – but doing either of those two things has a cost. So the players have to think – collectively – very hard over whether that is something they want to do or not.
Once we worked out how to design some rules to support control of tariffs it was just a question of writing them and bringing them in. Normally we would provide players with clear figures that were involved in any decisions they made – costs for buildings, times, soldiers killed, etc. One of our design criteria is “no hidden numbers” – we don’t want to hide how the game works. So since we knew these new rules were coming – we gave the players an option to instruct the civil service to go away and calculate exactly what the effects of any meaningful changes to tariffs would be. It seemed a neat way to segue the new rules in – players instruct us to provide this information – we provide the information – job done.
That was a fatal mistake on our part – because ”of course” players elected to use that one-off ability to find out how to evacuate Morrow! One of the wonderful things about Empire – one of the things that really makes the game a joy to run – is when players do things that take you completely by surprise. Partly it’s the joy of seeing that kind of emergent story coming out of the game framework – but it’s also just the pleasure of novelty. The game team spend thousands of hours talking about Empire – it’s quite literally our job – so it’s always fun when something happens that we didn’t think about, didn’t talk about.
But in this case it definitely left us in a difficult position! Normally any addition to the rules would lay out clearly what the consequences of taking any of the listed options was. But in this case the players had taken a decision not to request those figures – and we were duty bound to recognise and reflect that powerful in-game choice. Giving the players the option to request the actual figures – meant we were obliged not to give them the figures when they chose to do something different.
So the published rules represent a rare departure from the normal course for Empire. The four options that the Empire can take with respect to any foreign power are laid out clearly in the rules. There is some guidance there that will allow the players to have some sense of the relative importance of different nations – but the crucial information on the precise outcome of any given decision isn’t there. That information is something the players will have to do more work to obtain – either before or after they play with the system in-character!