Autumn 1901 Provisional Orders

or Why Are They Doing This To Me?

by Dave Newnham

F( MAO) - Por, but if English F(ENG) and A(Par) - Bur fails; then F(MAO) - Bre.

A(Spa) Stands, but if F(MAO) - Bre; then A(Spa) - Por, however, if Italian A(Pie); then

A(Spa) - Pie.

A(Bur) - Bel, or A(Par) - Bur.

The other day I submitted the above provisional orders for Autumn 1901. I knew as I was doing it that I hadn't covered nearly enough possibilities and that these orders were worthless! I suddenly wondered why I was submitting orders when I knew that they could have no meaning? That's easy - the GM requires them! But why?

This is 'Mission Impossible' stuff and no player would ever bother to submit provisional A.01 with S.01 orders unless forced to. And just in case anyone reading this thinks he can submit orders that cover every potential situation, consider! You will have to provide an appropriate response to cover every move by every other player. Each move of every other player will have to be categorised as one having a direct tactical effect (on one or more of your units) or a strategic movement effecting your overall planning but of no immediate threat - and your response determined appropriately. You will have to provide alternate responses to cover for each other player being an ally, neutral or an opponent. Further, you will have to consider modifications to your moves in the light of your perception of the alliance structure likely to be achieved between other players. A quick glance at the board suggests that with one or two exceptions, every unit of another player has five choices (four moves to adjacent provinces or Stand). I'm no mathematician but that looks like altogether too many alternates to write down, to me!

Ah you say, but several of the potential moves are so unlikely to be made that they can, for practical purposes, be ignored. OK, I'll concede that there are a few moves that are almost unheard of, e.g: Turkey's A(Con) to other than Bul. But the Openings Survey shows that virtually every possible move has been tried; so we've added another variable to be considered! Before deciding that you can ignore certain possibilities you'll have to define the "type of player" each of the other players is, and use this as a basis for deciding how much you can limit the possibilities you have to consider. Do you know the other players well enough?

I also reject the argument that the relationships forged between yourself and the other players will, for practical purposes, limit the number of options you have to consider. My quick answer to that is "what relationships"? I fully agree that this point would be true later in the game when one has interacted enough with ones fellow players to be able to determine the degree of trust that one is prepared to place in them. But pre Spring 1901; when you haven't even seen whether he'll keep to the moves that he has said he'll make in this initial season! In most cases the S.01 moves are the first concrete evidence one has, as to the degree of rapport that one has achieved with each of ones neighbours and it is the actual S.01 moves that commence the "forging of relationships".

I think most players would agree that the possibilities are so limitless that one knows when one is writing provisional orders that one hasn't a hope of covering every situation. What happens upon the S.01 adjudication? You've started the first (timid) steps in deciding who your friends (and your opponents?) are. And you've seen where ALL the players have actually moved to! The chances are very good that you didn't write provisional orders for every one of your units that covered the situation as it has actually unfolded; so the first thing you (should) do it to modify your provisional orders to cater for the actual events! So, from the players point of view; the task of writing full provisional A.01 orders is far too large, has no base which you can effectively use to limit the scope of the task and the orders are almost certain to be superseded by the actual events in the Spring 1901 adjudication. So what the hell is the point in writing them?

Well, perhaps they serve some purpose for the GM? The only answer I've ever been able to get out of most of these GMs is that:- "it prevents a 1901 NMR". An editor that uses this system has announced to me, with great pride, that he has never had a 1901 NMR in any of his games! You're wrong son! You have; it's just that you haven't admitted it until the S.02 NMR and A.02 Anarchy.

However, before discussing that subject further, does preventing a 1901 NMR have any value? Almost all of the "provisional order GMs" that I know, say that an NMR in S.01 will result in a re-start with another player - good! It follows that the situation they are trying to avoid is that of a player loosing interest in the game during the period from gamestart notice till the A.01 deadline. Given that a player will have enough bottle to tell the GM if he doesn't like the other players in a game; the reason for this loss of interest must be a change of personal circumstances resulting in a player not wanting to play at all, or that as of the gamestart he perceives an "unholy alliance" against him. Whatever the reason, has the submission of provisional orders changed anything? If he is not intending to continue playing will the requirement to have (already) submitted provisional orders encourage him to stay the course? If he's going to bomb out in A.01 then the only effect of the application of provisional orders is to delay exit of the player from the game until A.02! Indeed might it not be that players that have not submitted provisional orders are more likely to let the GM know that they are not continuing, than those that have?

I suspect that most of the GMs employing this system are aware that the requirement for A.01 provisional orders changes nothing, so why do they require them? Here we have to look into the editorial psychology aspects. Every editor (who is also the GM of all/most of the games in his zine) wants a smooth running, efficient looking zine. Fumbled gamestarts and game re-starts are an embarrassment and do nothing for this (macho) image - and are to be avoided? "Such abominations don't happen in my zine, subbers!" Ah, now how do I avoid that? Ah yes; require A.01 provisional orders and then I can't be accused of a false gamestart. Well; dropouts can occur at any time and if one of my players NMRs in S.02 and disappears in A.02 that's hardly my fault - after all drop-outs can occur at any time.

What they are really saying (and one wonders if some of them even realise they are doing it) is that to avoid the embarrassment of players dropping out before the game has got properly underway, they will employ a system that allows the game to continue, and appear to be a normal gamestart, even when they know that they are actually accepting a 6-player gamestart! I would question whether a game that has an A.01 NMR after which the offending player is never seen again, should not be considered as a variant for rating purposes? Ah, but then our GMs have just avoided this problem, haven't they?

Having written the above, I've had occasion to discus the issue with Stephen before submitting this article. He makes the following points:

1. A drop-out in any other game-year unbalances the game less than one in 1901.

2. A drop-out in Spring 02 unbalances the game less than one in the Autumn 01 since the s.c's will be filled by builds ordered in the A.01 orders [and thus other players will need to employ supported attacks to gain the centres.].

I agree with both of these contentions, but using these as justification for provisional A.01 orders is side-stepping the main issue. If a GM requires provisional orders then he is accepting gamestarts in the full knowledge that by the time a drop-out is discovered (S/A.02) it will be too late for any corrective action; and thus is effectively condoning 6-player gamestarts.

What they should be saying is that an NMR in either season of the 1901 game-year unbalances the game and will not be accepted, and that they will re-start the game if one occurs. Certainly most players that I know would agree that a 1901 NMR ruins the game, and don't consider that provisional orders do anything to improve matters. I would agree that re-starting a game where the S.01 season has been played is more difficult, and this probably influences those GMs that use the provisional order system. However, taking the easy way out and boosting your ego at the expense of your players is not the way to go! Face the 1901 re-start problem squarely, spend a lot of time re-organising the game and smoothing the remaining players ruffled feathers - and you will be far more inclined to deal properly with the sh*tbag who started it all, next time he asks for a gamestart.

Reply by Stephen Agar

I think I was the first GM in modern times to ask for on conditional A01 orders, so Dave’s article could well have me well and truly in its sights. Personally, I find Dave’s arguments unconvincing, but let’s take the points he makes in turns:

A01 orders can’t take into account all other possibilities and therefore they are useless.

In this, Dave over-eggs the pudding. If you are France, then the only other units on the board of any direct import are what F(Lon) A(Mun), A(Ber) and A(Ven) did. Whether Turkey ordered A(Smy)-Con or A(Smy)-Ank is, I would submit, irrelevant to France in planning her A01 orders. I would have more sympathy with Dave’s point of view if it were not the case that the hobby uses conditional builds and retreats where it is arguably even harder to cover all the bases (as what you are doing is making decisions based on everyone else’s orders and retreats). I must have GM’d 40ish games of Diplomacy and I reckon that true conditional builds (in that they have conditions attached) are only used in about 15% of cases. Most players can see the obvious possibilities and make shorthand decisions. Therefore I reject the proposition that in practice writing conditional orders is a Mission Impossible.

Using provisional A01 orders means that you are accepting a six player gamestart

This is simply not true. Seven sets of orders were received for Spring 1901 (written by the players) and seven sets of orders will be received for Autumn 1901 (written by the players). It is certainly not a six player gamestart, and I have GM’d games where players have NMR’d in A01 (because no provisional orders for A01 were received) and yet continued to play in 1902 and thereafter. Indeed, I reckon over half of A01 NMRers continue to play despite the NMR.

My rationale for using conditional orders in A01 is explained in Dave’s article, so I won’t repeat myself. It is a straightforward attempt to mitigate the effect of a very early dropout on a game of Diplomacy. There are three obvious alternatives:

1. NMR the offender in A01 and then place the Power in anarchy in S02 if necessary. This I dislike because it hands all the centres over on a plate to neighbours – the odds are that the units will have moved out of the home centres meaning they can be captured without any effort. As noted above, A01 conditional orders have the effect of populating the supply centres and thus mitigate to some extent the effect if the dropout.

2. Restart the game. The problem with this is that not all players may want to go through all the hassle of a 5-7 month delay from the first gamestart to A01. For example, Jan: gamestart; Feb: double deadline; Mar: S01; April: game abandoned due to A01 NMR; May: new gamestart (players having reconfirmed); June: double deadline; July: S01; Aug: A01 at last! This is a long game already. What’s more, having already played two seasons, some players may feel that they have already formed relationships, broken promises, etc. which means that they don’t want a restart with the same players. If you were an Italy who had lied through his teeth to Austria and then stabbed then successfully in S01, would you really want the game re-started with you as Austria and them as Italy? or Russia?

3. Use standbyes instead of anarchy. And therein lies a completely different article.

Dave should remember that until recently it was quite common to see games started with NMRs in S01! Indeed, the first ever postal Diplomacy in the UK started with a S01 NMR (though the player did continue playing for a few years), as did the first ever game in Dolchstoß. As recently as 1992 I layed in a game where Toby Harris allowed a game to continue despite a S01 NMR (which turned into a A01 dropout).

Finally, I have thought for sometime that if a player drops out, a rule whereby all that players units are removed from the board and replaced by an army in every vacant SC that power owns would unbalance the game far less than the usual "all units stand unordered" solution. As yet no GM has dared to be so radical.


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