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How the Afghanistan Principle Affects Game Design

Tuesday, January 11, 2017

I'm big on game design rules. For example, you can see me talk about ten (or so) of them in my PAX Dev video lecture Ten Rules About Writing Rules. In this blog, I want to talk about one rule of mine that gets quoted a lot, and its effect on game design in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.

A couple years ago in a Paizo forum post, I described a rule we use at Lone Shark called "the Afghanistan Principle." Its technical definition is:

No interconnectivity without availability: For an expandable game, a component from an expansion cannot be required for use in any product other than the one it is in.

The genesis of this principle came at Wizards of the Coast as I was helping prepare a shipment of games to members of the military stationed in the Persian Gulf. Instead of just throwing everything into the box, we sorted and bundled up several items at a time, labeling each set as a single playable unit. For example, one Magic: The Gathering deck is not very useful. Two Magic decks can be months of entertainment.

Now, I don't know what happened after that. Some bureaucrat may have popped the labels and made that work for naught. But I like to think that many of our soldiers wiled away the desert nights with a D&D 3rd Edition Player's Handbook, a Dungeon Master's Guide, and a Monster Manual.

After that, I started thinking about how to enforce that principle on the games I worked on. I imagined a soldier with a copy of an RPG adventure that said, "For details on this important thing, see this other adventure," except that other adventure was three countries away. That was no good. In my head, everything needed for that adventure should be either in that adventure or in the basic game materials required for play. It's not that I succeeded in getting this principle enforced everywhere, or even that it worked everywhere, but I did make people aware of its desirability.

A couple years later, the United States invaded Afghanistan, and the principle got a name. A couple years after that, I co-founded Lone Shark, and now I bring this principle into every project I help create.

You can see it in action in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. Each Adventure Path has a Base Set, and the components of that box (including its Adventure Deck 1) are the only components that can be required to play any of the other adventures in that path. Here are some of the decisions that the principle mandates:

  • Any card needed in multiple adventures must be in the Base Set box. For example, the Mummy's Mask support card Defensive Stance is used in adventures 4 and 6, so even though it isn't used in adventures B or 1, it's a B card.
  • The corollary to the above is that a card introduced in Adventure Deck 2 or beyond can only be used in the deck it came in. So the Adventure Deck 1 cohorts Irabeth Tirabade and Horgus Gwerm can appear again and again, but the Adventure Deck 2 cohort Queen Galfrey won't turn up in later adventures. (A practical implication of this is that when you add Adventure Deck 3 to your box, you can safely remove the Adventure Deck 2 adventure, scenarios, locations, villains, henchmen, and cohorts from the box if you like. You may find this speeds setup a bit since you only need to look through the ones from B, 1, and the current deck.)
  • The role card for a character needs to be in the same product as the character card. So even though roles aren't used until the end of Adventure 3, when a character appears in the Base Set, his role card is in the Base Set as well.
  • The mythic paths and mythic tokens you need in Wrath of the Righteous Adventure 2 and beyond are in the Wrath Base Set. (Though the new mythic paths introduced in Adventure 5 can be used in Adventure 6, that adventure works just fine without them, so they don't need to be in the Base Set.)
  • The rules for cohorts weren't introduced until Wrath, meaning they're not in the Rise of the Runelords or Skull & Shackles rulebooks. Since the Witch and Summoner class decks use cohorts, and can be used with RotR and S&S, the rules card in those decks tells you to download a free PDF of the latest rulebook. The basic cohort rules will therefore now be included in every new rulebook, even when there are no cohorts in that rulebook's Adventure Path (as is the case in Mummy's Mask).
  • Troops appear in adventures 2 and 6 of Wrath. Since troops are meant to be a surprise in Adventure 2, the new rules for troops that appear on the back of the troop card in Adventure 2 had to be repeated on the back of the troop card in Adventure 6.
  • Since we don't provide a d20 with any set other than Wrath, only cards from that set can use a d20.

I'm sure you can imagine more. The rule can be restrictive sometimes. We've often talked about making a Swashbuckler Class Deck, but we can't put new ships in that deck without enforcing the ship rules from Skull & Shackles, and those rules don't work in Mummy's Mask. We would probably not write a power like "You gain the Craft skill equal to your Intelligence skill when on a ship," because that power would be useless in Wrath. (For flavor reasons, we gave the Skull & Shackles promo character Ranzak one power that works only in that set, and only on one of his roles.) Without those things, the hypothetical Swashbuckler deck loses some of its flavor. Until we figure out how to replace that flavor, you probably won't see Jirelle outside of Skull & Shackles.

All this said, there is one place where we violate the principle. In Pathfinder Society Adventure Card Guild play, we break this rule because fairness demands that every one of the thousands of PFSACG games is played with the same box of cards (with the mechanically negligible exception that the associated Character Add-On Deck is optional for parties smaller than 5). For example, Season of the Runelords Adventure 4 requires the Rise of the Runelords Base Set and Adventure Decks 1 through 4 to play, so it can use locations from Adventure Deck 3. (Plus, this mix creates a better experience for veteran players, since they're seeing combos of cards that they won't see in the box sets.)

The Afghanistan Principle doesn't work for every game, but it works for ours. It's got a good reason to exist, and a committed team behind it. Thanks for reading about it, and for supporting our troops.

If you have any stories about how the Afghanistan Principle has affected you—even if it has nothing to do with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game—let us know about it in the discussion thread for this blog!

Mike Selinker
Adventure Card Game Lead Designer

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Tags: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

Pathfinder Card Game, Class Deck Subscriber

Today's PACG blog has last Tuesday's date.

Thanks for the design insights!

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I try to stick to this principle when designing PFRPG content by trying to restrict my references to the core rulebook, and NEVER make references to material from softcover books. Even though we're blessed to have the PRD and several wiki sites and PDFs with hyperlinks, it can still get really annoying to have to look up something in an obscure book.


That's so simple...but it's also fiendishly clever. I'd like to see this principle worked into other logistics fields. Mike for prez!


My father spent many years in the military. But at the risk of being wildly unpopular, I'll say I've never fully understood this.

For a card like Defensive Stance, sure - you'd have no idea what to do otherwise. But for locations, villains and henchmen - if you don't have the right card, you can substitute another. It won't be the intended experience, but it's doable.

As it is, the principle creates a less rich experience for the vast majority of players, in order to solve a problem that might happen for a small minority.

Sovereign Court RPG Superstar 2011 Top 32

While I understand the idea behind this principle, I've also seen it backfire. You have to be very certain your supplementary material is strong enough to stand on its own, because this principle means you don't get a chance to go back and enhance things with expansions later. We saw a lot of this with WotC 3.5 materials, where each sourcebook could contain new and exciting things for core PHB classes, but any new classes introduced had to sink or swim in their own books. That led to there being so many terrible 3.5 classes that could never see any future support to lift them up.

Lone Shark Games

The Afghanistan Principle is not without its detractors or its problems. And obviously, there's a very popular roleplaying game that doesn't (and basically can't) follow it completely.

Lone Shark Games

9 people marked this as a favorite.
GreatKhanArtist wrote:
Mike for prez!

For the first time in my life, I can honestly say I think I'd do a better job than the incoming president.

Sczarni RPG Superstar 2014 Top 16

Mike Selinker wrote:
The Afghanistan Principle is not without its detractors or its problems. And obviously, there's a very popular roleplaying game that doesn't (and basically can't) follow it completely.

Even so, it's a design choice I absolutely appreciate in both board games and RPGs. And I'll have to remember it when I'm sorting out my PACG box for later adventures. Great post!


I'm definitely seeing the advantage for a lot of games though I must say the pathfinder card game doesn't seem like one of them.

Playing Descent Delve recently made me aware of the usefulness of this concept (or at least a similar-ish one).

For those unfamiliar, normally Descent requires the core box and then to play an expansion campaign it also requires that expansion box. Carrying two game boxes...pretty mellow.

Well the delve's a different story, there's an app which much like PACG it's about mixing up what we've already got, to quote the promotional material:

"Collect loot and gain skills as you advance through a collection of randomly selected stages. As you expand your Descent 2nd Edition collection, you unlock new maps, monsters, and boss fights—untold combinations of heroes, classes, monsters, stages, and loot await."

It's awesome, a bunch of people were begging for it....But the moment I started playing it I noticed a downside.

When playing this I'm stuck bringing my collection to every session. It's not a matter of we'll need this one expansion to play this stage tonight. I'm kind of stuck filling my trunk full of boxes.

This experience has converted me, I really do buy into the Afghanistan principle as a general rule but I don't see that it provides any utility to the Pathfinder card game. To me it seems like a base set and it's expansions ARE a single game in seven boxes. So much so that the base set is built to hold the rest of the campaign.

If it wasn't, if I was carrying around seven large boxes to play a single game, I'd be singing a different tune. But it's not like that, everything for the campaign goes into and stays in the one single box.

The game works as a campaign where I DO need the equipment I've acquired in the previous adventures to play the subsequent ones. So I'm really missing the advantage of trying to maintain this isolation on the location side of things when it isn't and blatantly shouldn't be present on the character building and story side of things. And isn't an issue on the transportation and setup side of things.


Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber; Pathfinder Card Game, Class Deck Subscriber
Mike Selinker wrote:
GreatKhanArtist wrote:
Mike for prez!
For the first time in my life, I can honestly say I think I'd do a better job than the incoming president.

That's unfair. At least YOU know where Afghanistan is.

Paizo Employee Chief Technical Officer

Jim Landon wrote:
This experience has converted me, I really do buy into the Afghanistan principle as a general rule but I don't see that it provides any utility to the Pathfinder card game. To me it seems like a base set and it's expansions ARE a single game in seven boxes. So much so that the base set is built to hold the rest of the campaign....And isn't an issue on the transportation and setup side of things.

The Afghanistan Principle isn't about ease of transportation—it's about availability. Your game store hopefully carries all the Mummy's Mask Adventure Decks, but a military PX in a war zone might not be so well stocked. If all you can find is the MM Base Set and Adventure Deck 6, our use of the Afghanistan Principle means you've got yourself 15 very playable scenarios.

Jim Landon wrote:
The game works as a campaign where I DO need the equipment I've acquired in the previous adventures to play the subsequent ones.

There's need and there's NEED. If I have that Base Set and AD6 combo, I can play through the Base Set as designed, then give some AD6 boons to my characters, check off a handful of feats, and move on to those higher level scenarios. It may not be exactly as intended, but it'll be close enough for fun. Which is to say, you don't NEED AD2–5 boons to play the game.

If we *didn't* use the Afghanistan Principle, though, and put Defensive Stance into MM4 (the first place it's actually used), then when you hit that AD6 scenario that NEEDS Defensive Stance—as in "you won't know what to do without it"—you won't be having much fun.

Lone Shark Games

There's a side benefit on Defensive Stance especially: It allowed the designers of our organized play campaign Season of Plundered Tombs to debut its use in their second adventure. So our most invested players got a special experience that purchasers of the base set won't see in use till next month. The Principle may seem restrictive, but often it gives us options we wouldn't otherwise have.

Paizo Employee Chief Technical Officer

Mike Selinker wrote:
The Afghanistan Principle is not without its detractors or its problems. And obviously, there's a very popular roleplaying game that doesn't (and basically can't) follow it completely.

Pathfinder RPG rulebooks do build on one another—for example, Ultimate Intrigue offers new archetypes for Bards, Druids, Rangers, and Rogues from the Core Rulebook; Alchemists, Cavaliers, and Inquisitors from the Advanced Player's Guide; Investigators, Skalds, and Swashbucklers from the Advanced Class Guide; Mesmerists and Spiritualists from Occult Adventures, and for its own Vigilante class, which in turn will be built on in future books. As ryric points out, a "fire and forget" approach on that sort of thing doesn't work very well.

But when it comes to RPG adventures, the Afghanistan Principle is a bit more workable. When we feature an NPC from an advanced class in the story, or a monster from a later bestiary, we'll give you a short stat block that has the basics so you can run the adventure without needing those rulebooks. (You won't have the details to use all of their capabilities, but again, there's need and there's NEED—even if you end up playing that vigilante NPC like he's a rogue, you'll still be having fun.)

All this is further mitigated by the fact that the mechanics from all of the books in the RPG line are online (and completely FREE!) in the PRD.

Paizo Employee Chief Technical Officer

1 person marked this as a favorite.
Malcolm_Reynolds wrote:
Today's PACG blog has last Tuesday's date.

We'll date next week's for the week after to make up for it.

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