LOTE Design Notes

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"Friction and Grit: Building a World Engine" Design notes for Lords of the Earth

by Thomas Harlan from Flagship magazine, 2001

Lords of the Earth is a play-by-email historical campaign game, set on our own world. Players represent kingdoms, monastic orders, merchant houses, secret societies and religious authorities. Individual campaigns of Lords are set in a variety of time periods – from the dawn of civilization to the eighteenth century. Save in tournament style campaigns, there are no victory conditions and no pre-set end-points. The Lords community is currently thriving, with 30-odd campaigns in a wide variety of historical situations and hundreds of players on three continents.



Over twenty years ago, James Dunnigan developed a historical simulation of medieval Europe called Empires of the Middle Ages. At the time, Empires was quite innovative – it covered a long span of time, from Charlemagne to the fall of Constantinople; you used cards, your king had ratings, your empire rose and fell due to both your own efforts, enemy action and random events. The year Empires hit the shelves, our local game group spent a lot of time playing the Grand Campaign game. Though we loved the game dearly, I was dissatisfied with its geographic and stylistic limits. I hoped for supplements to appear, adding the rest of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and a battle system with some color… Sadly, none of those things happened. When youthful patience failed, I added my own maps, letting Moslem and Indian players enter the game. The result was better, but still not what I really wanted.

At the same time, I had developed a futuristic PBM called Core which suffered from too much detail and a complete lack of computer support. Dissatisfied with the resulting “feel” of the game, I began work on a simpler historical game system inspired by Empires and aimed at capturing the historical ebb and flow shown in Colin McEvedy’s Penguin Historical Atlases. The resulting game, with six letter-sized maps (covering only Eurasia) and a six page rulebook, was the first iteration of Lords of the Earth PBM game system. There were all of ten players for the first turn of what would become “Campaign One.” The first year of the game was 1000 AD.

Eighteen years have now passed and the game has expanded dramatically. The map comprises the entire world from Iceland to Antarctica. The player’s rulebook is 135 pages long, the GM’s Handbook even longer. There are supplements covering the Renaissance and the Early Industrial eras. Other moderators have adapted the base system for High Fantasy and Science-Fiction campaigns.

Game Mechanics

Springing from a desire for a simple game system which would be easy to moderate and fun to play, LOTE provides three mechanisms for the player’s nation to affect the game world: the efforts of Leaders, spending resources on Builds and Projects and the use of Operations Points.

A Leader is a specific, named, individual under the control of the player. Leaders may be kings, heirs, lieutenants, mercenary captains, religious leaders and so on. Only a Leader may move armies or fleets to conduct Actions. There is a long list of Actions and sometimes it seems more are added with each new turn. Leaders age and die, are killed in battle or by assassination and are replaced by sons or daughters, or generated wholly new from the national population. Each Leader’s ‘public’ abilities are quantified into Combat, Diplomacy and Charisma. In addition, a ruler has a hidden Administration ability and non-Rulers have a hidden Loyalty rating.

The acquisition and expenditure of resources is also simplified into “gold” and “National Force Points”, which is manpower. Both are derived from controlled provinces and cities and from a variety of special terrain features (the Silk Route, various kinds of Trade Centers and so on). The relationship of each province or city to the owning nation is expressed in a tiered set of Control Statuses, which range from a “Claim”, which is no more than a nominal expression of diplomatic interest, up to a “Homeland”, which is directly and completely controlled by the nation. Each higher level of control also implies a greater administrative burden for the nation.

Revenue is also derived from trade, which flows through port cities and across peaceful land borders. The trade subsystem of the game can be implemented by the moderator in either a simple way, where the volume of trade on a given route is controlled by the program, or by a more complex model where the players are allowed to adjust merchant shipping levels on each route to optimize the tax revenues produced. As sea trade must be carried in merchant shipping, each nation must decide if they will invest in a strong merchant marine, or if they will leave the opportunity and risk for other nations.

Aside from building different kinds of units – Infantry, Cavalry, Engineers, Warships, and so on – to man armies, the player may use his or her resources to build new Cities, establish Colonies, invest in Public Works and engage in a wide variety of special purpose Projects such as building Roads, Pyramids, Millennium Domes and so on. All of these things carry with them different levels of support costs as well.

Religious and Espionage activities are handled through the use of Operations points, which represent the capacity for action and Bonuses, which represent skill in execution. Both sets of ratings are constrained by technological level and religious strength, respectively, and may be improved by money, effort and time.

One critical section of the game system which is specifically placed outside of player control is the advancement of national technology levels. A “whole nation” formula is employed by the supporting programs to calculate the rate of advance through a series of broad tech bands: Dawn of Civilization, Classical era, Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Renaissance, and so on, which are subdivided into Tech Levels. Though the player can improve his nation in a variety of ways (better training for his troops, better doctrine, more wealth, more population, higher education, etc.), there is no direct mechanism for the acquisition of Tech Points. Indeed, the improvement of some sectors of the national profile will retard technological advancement in favor of – for example – social stability.

This approach, where certain parts of the game mechanism are invisible, causes both great apprehension on the part of the players and – we believe – greater realism in play at very minimal cost of effort. The ‘exposure’ of the underlying system would only promote rules-lawyering and physics-tinkering by the players, at the expense of a strong role-playing component. We fell paying too much attention to the ‘man behind the screen’ kills the vitality of the game.


The success of the LOTE system over the long term (at the time of writing, seven hundred and forty-eight game years have elapsed in Campaign One) derives from what I term “friction.” By this I mean the intrinsic system itself does not give the player results without cost. For example, to conquer a neighboring province requires raising an army (costing gold and manpower), engaging in a campaign (which may fail with casualties), then garrisoning the region (resulting in the loss of mobile troops and incurring a constant drain of gold due to troop support requirements). In addition, holding ground (provinces and cities) increases the ‘Imperial Size’ of the nation, which in turn requires more government resources (what we term Infrastructure and Bureaucratic Level) to control.

This kind of recursive, self-limiting mechanism is used throughout the LOTE system. The design-team goal is to allow the player a wide range of options and flexibility for his nation. We are not trying to make the game self-defeating, but instead we reward the careful, canny player who works within the limitation of his nation. Personally, I feel the game plays better when a player’s nation is not quite as strong as he or she would like. Playing the over-powering behemoth isn’t as interesting (to me anyway…)

Two more sources of friction in the game are the use of Random Events (a long and varied list of good, bad and colorful events) which can be entirely customized by the moderator, including rates of occurrence and locality; and Dynastic Failure / Rebellious General /Civil War mechanisms.

Nothing causes more fear in a LOTE player than realizing his king has grown old and there is no heir of suitable age to succeed him. The accumulation of power (armies, lands, wealth) into the hands of over-mighty lieutenants runs a close second – both circumstances may well lead to civil war and chaos within a nation. These kinds of friction also limit (but do not prevent) the growth of enormous empires and serve as a mechanism to ensure the continued health of a campaign.

Many PBM campaigns have a tendency to drift into a kind of stasis, where the dynamism of small, scrappy nations has been lost in the establishment of powerful empires and regional alliances. When this point of equalization occurs, the tension in the game tends to evaporate, leading to a kind of stasis. Periods of balance are necessary, however, to advance the base wealth- and technology-level of the game. Prolonged stasis, however, tends to lead to boredom on the part of the players and the Game Master.

Though some LOTE campaigns have fallen prey to this same situation, most of the games have avoided this fate due to the constant creation of new player positions from the ashes of old. The rise and fall of dynasties, empires and even religions gives the game a tremendously important narrative flow.

The Story

This element of ‘story’ is the most important part of a successful LOTE campaign and the most difficult to quantify in a set of rules or programming mechanisms. We handle this issue by having a human moderator in the mix and the most successful campaigns are ones in which the moderator makes a conscious effort to make each newsfax (the turn newsletter) read both as an immediate story of war, treachery and conflict as well as part of a larger history.

Tracking genealogies and the lives of specific ‘characters’ (national or mercenary leaders, or members of their immediate families) across the decades helps provide a narrative framework which enriches the game. The dispossessed sons or daughters of overthrown kings may return to seek vengeance upon those who have stolen their patrimony. Exiled princes may become mercenary captains, or even seize an empty throne in a foreign land.

Cults, secret societies and religious orders thrive across national lines, each pursuing their own goals – which rarely equate to the simple search for power, wealth and glory in empire. These hidden progenitors of events also keep the kingdoms and empires on their toes with plots and counter-plots, which makes for a lively game.

Even as the situation in each game changes from turn to turn, the supporting framework – rulebooks, maps, computer support programs – is also in constant evolution. We’ve found there is always some new rules question to be answered, some new process to be automated. Luckily, the fervor and dedication of both the player community and the Game Masters is up to the task.


Starting a Lords campaign requires some work on the part of the Game Master. While the game system itself is fairly period-agnostic, the campaign needs a starting point and situation. This means the Game Master must either use a pre-built campaign pack – startups for the Dark Ages (400 AD), Millennium (1000 AD), the Crusades (1100 AD) and the Renaissance (1400AD) are available – or devise their own. Rolling your own campaign offers a huge range of opportunities, including building a fantasy setting or the dawn of civilization. You also get the joy of doing a lot of data entry and revising the maps to suit…

A campaign can also be started without a historical framework. This is called a “free” start, where each player begins with a region and a city, as well as an initial allotment of gold and manpower. From there on out… it’s up to the players! Interestingly, after 15-20 turns, a “free” start campaign is usually indistinguishable from a historical startup. The pressures of geography, ecology and human desires tend to produce similar results from disparate beginnings.

Of course, it’s just like Athena, sprung from the forehead of Zeus!

The development and improvement of the Lords system over the last twenty years has been driven by two goals – to produce a game which feels historical while avoiding becoming a historical simulation – and to keep abreast of the undying ingenuity of the players. Both pressures have brought us a long way from that six-page rulebook and hand-drawn maps.

Actually implementing the game has always been a labor-intensive process. New computerized tools are constantly being developed either by the designer, by the game masters or by the players. Despite this, processing a turn usually requires an investment of about an hour per player. Somehow, even as the processing system becomes more streamlined, the game masters spend just as much time per turn. In many cases, the extra time is devoted to the newsletter, resulting in something approaching a living novel, which makes the players very, very happy. (“More about me? Joy!”)

Currently, the support application is a DOS text-mode program (remember DOS?). Three years ago, it seemed terribly archaic to not have a Windows interface. Since then, we’ve found the reliable old programs run equally well on Windows, Linux and Macintosh without recoding. An unexpected benefit! They’re also pretty fast.

Bulk output is generally written in plaintext to a file, allowing the Game Master to email or print or reformat the results as they please. Work is underway on a next-generation of tools, including a Java-based client which will generate a set of orders in XML for even more automated processing. A dynamic map system, based on the Scalable Vector Graphics format, is in process.

The future is pretty bright for the Lords of the Earth community. We see decades more gaming ahead!


By trade, Thomas Harlan is a professional author who writes alternate histories, science-fiction and fantasy novels. He also develops play-by-mail wargames in his spare time.

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