Saturday, October 19, 2013

Gravity, and Disaster Gameplay

Gravity is, in the words of Zak S, good and shit. It's an amazing disaster movie, that squeezes everything out of its setting. The dangers are so confoundingly simple, (the principles of momentum, and the clockwork orbits of the debris field, for example) and so much more dangerous because of it. Alfonso Cuaron's signature long takes (probably eased by the fact that 90% of the film is insanely photorealistic CGI) draw you directly into the action. The subtext is also hauntingly profound - the characters are utterly powerless, despite commanding what is arguably mankind's most powerful tools, and the images of disintegrating space hardware, and a drifting, derelict Space Shuttle were especially evocative. And it was excellent to see a female lead who really succeeds on her own terms. Also, everything from here on out will be SPOILERS if you haven't seen the film.

So of course we want to figure out how to put this stuff in the game.

Obviously not directly (though I do sometimes run Eclipse Phase) but thematically. Disasters, and the struggle to survive them, crops up a ton in fiction, and can be just as exciting (or more, in Gravity's case) than combat. Arguably, some forms of combat (like battling a titan) have more in common with surviving a disaster than swinging a sword. Of more immediate interest, to me, is the possibility of inflicting monsoons and tsunamis on hapless river travelers in Qelong.

So what do we do?

Surviving a disaster, as opposed to just weathering it, is a complex process dependent on both physical and intellectual skills, as well as the more esoteric quality of grit. Disasters are differentiated from simply difficult conditions by the fact that they represent an existential threat to the character, rather than simply some difficulty or penalty. In this way, they are like combat - if nothing is done, the ork will kill you, just like that oncoming avalanche will.

Luckily, ability scores already suggest a system for handling disaster. Wisdom and Intelligence speak to a character's ability to accurately perceive a situation, and plan or improvise from there, respectively. Strength and Dexterity speak to a character's capacity for manipulating objects. Constitution represents the physical endurance needed to withstand trauma. I have always interpreted Charisma to be much more about self-control and emotional intentionality than physical beauty, and under this interpretation is easily read as a character's mental endurance.

The basic mechanic would be "endurance" style checks, which isn't my idea, but rather something I picked up from somewhere I can't remember along the blogosphere. The idea is, each round that your character faces a hazard, you roll 1d6. You do that the next round, too, if you're still facing the hazard, adding it to the total of all the previous rounds, and so on and so forth. So if I have STR 10, and I'm holding up a portcullis from closing, I can do that for as long as my total is under 10 - and if I roll a 1, a 6, and a 4, I drop it at the end of the third round.

Much hay can also be made of the amount you end up exceeding your ability score by (though, not every roll requires this). The third roll in that example put the total 1 higher than my STR score - so that could mean, either 1 HP of damage as the portcullis slams down on me, or perhaps 1 round of being stunned for the same reason. Reset the counter whenever this happens.

The "endurance" mechanic is really well suited to disaster gameplay because it emphasizes the idea that a disaster is about managing hazards, rather than avoiding them - your characters WILL take damage or lose other things, and it's just a question of how much they lose.

So, using a Gravity example, Dr. Stone has to roll a d6 every round she's clambering outside of a space station, and once the total exceeds her STR score, she has to rest for a number of rounds equal to the difference. Every time she navigates between orbital points, she rolls a d6 - once that total exceeds her INT, she's spent too much time calculating, or she's moved too slowly, and now the debris field hits. Running out of oxygen? Dr. Stone can stave off panic as long as her endurance total is below her CHA. Once she's out of luck there, she starts a new endurance track, this time rolling against CON - and once she exceeds it, she passes out for a number of rounds equal to the difference.

For a more D&D-style example, we can use a party sailing along the Qelong river during a storm. The steersman will navigate into a rock or other minor obstacle each time he fails an endurance roll against WIS - and the difference counts as damage to the ship. The fighter can keep bailing water until she fails an endurance roll vs STR, and then must rest out the difference. The thief can lash down loose cargo until she runs out of DEX - and each failure means something else has been swept into the waters.. And each time a deckhand goes overboard, everyone adds to their CHA counter - failure means you're paralyzed by grief or despair. The system is pretty versatile - maybe you're channeling magic to close an alien demon gate, which requires rolls against WIS - and each time you fail, something breaks free and the rest of the party has to go deal with it.

Basically, the party survives for as long as they can manage the little losses that are bound to happen. Plan poorly, and these small failures add up and eventually the party is left without the tools and strength to face down the next challenge - plan well, and emerge scarred but unbowed.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Resource Management and Aakom Poisoning

The most complicated part of Qelong - as many have pointed out - is the system for handling aakom poisoning. The system handles poisoning in 1-2 point increments, but the symptomatic doses will be in the dozens, and differ for each character. This means that, until characters start reaching symptomatic thresholds, there will be be a lot of slow, detailed record-keeping, without tangible effects.

The point of this design choice is, of course, to evoke a feeling of Qelong's hostility - a slow corruption of the characters' bodies that might take a while to build up, but nevertheless inexorably forces them out of the province. Aakom will affect the player characters in basically the same way that it has affected the setting - nothing apparent at first, but with catastrophic effects and no way to easily recover. It forces the players to really integrate themselves into their environment, and experience the war and devastation as inmates, and not tourists. It turns Qelong into a negadungeon. For these reasons, it's taken me a while to figure out the best way to simplify the aakom poisoning rules, because their complexity is so important to their purpose in the module.

Part of the solution is in slightly realigning the module's structure. Qelong assumes a seasoned party, having had some adventures under its belt, traveling across the world and arriving here. The players will have established their own baseline, and they are strong and tough enough to weather the River's hardships for a week or two and come out unscathed. Of course, aakom should have started making things go awry by that point, and then the module sinks in its teeth. But even then, a way out is consistently within reach - just a plundered stupa, or a cardamom caravan, or a midnight raid on Sajra Amvoel away.

I'm going to run Qelong for a first-level party, and that means a lot of those assumptions won't be true. There's much less gear, magic, and hit points for the players to fall back on, making it commensurately more difficult for them to pull off a big treasure load to pay for a ticket home, or for a well-executed plan to actually allow them to capture the lich-garuda and fly to safety. There isn't technically even a home to return to, or at least a "home" that the players have tangibly experienced. Qelong's primary objective becomes survival, not escape and profit. And in a survival story, the main antagonist is resource management.

In the module, aakom poisoning is inflicted in these five ways: breathing air, eating food, drinking water, and taking damage. The last one is even more granular - there are four different ways of taking damage that lead to varying levels of aakom poisoning. Fighting the Naga faction is the most dangerous - every wound they inflict causes an equal amount of aakom contamination.

Most of these are easily conceived of as effects on resource management. Breathing air makes time spent in Qelong its own resource. Consuming food and water do this as well, though there are some ways to mitigate this. The damage effects are an additional cost to the existing resource trade-offs that occur in combat. Since a 1st-level party can be expected to be spending a lot of time in Qelong already, and mundane damage and disease are inherently more significant costs to the characters, I'd change the poisoning conditions to this:

  • 1 point per water ration consumed (as normal) and 3 in 6 chance per food ration consumed, ignored for mountaintop springs or alpine plants
  • Points equal to damage from Naga faction
  • Snake poison adds 1d4 aakom for three rounds, rather than inflicting 1d4 HP damage
Now, time (measured by meals consumed) is a trade-off. The party can either move freely, at the cost of  aakom from the natural environment, or it can stay put in a mountain hex, avoiding aakom accumulation but not taking any actions. Since I'm running the four factions as active and dynamic groups, "staying put" can incur significant costs on Qelong's power situation. Survival in Qelong is thus about balancing food needs, water needs, and aakom contamination, with encounters and combat positioned as the opportunity cost of engaging in exploration or treasure-hunting.

The rest of the aakom rules stay the same, though with significantly less granularity due to a 1st-level party's lower HP totals.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Ley Magic

Why do wizards lair in isolated valleys or remote mountains? Why do they build homes so far from the industrial towns where bookbinders, tanners, inkmakers and the other skilled artisans upon which they depend can be found? Why don't the royal courts keep hordes of low-level magicians running around at all times, armies of them ready to jump up at their call? And why are the lairs of wizards so impenetrable, filled with arcane traps and strange mazes, yet a military fortress restricted to the age-old use of portcullises and blind corners? Why, moreover, do the orcs not come pouring over the hilltops, forcing timid village-people to undertake the works of industry of which they are incapable? Why are we not ruled by dragons, or subjugated by cloud giants, greater than us in both strength of body and strength of mind?

In a phrase, it is because of ley lines.

Magic, like water and light, is not intrinsic to every part of the world. It flows, in great ethereal rivers, pooling in some places and running dry in others. Like flame, it can burst up suddenly in new places, and like sandstone, great weights of it can compress and push unmovingly into the soil. And, like water and light, it changes the nature of the land that it permeates. Long ago, when life was new, mana had its own subtle pull on the forms that it took. Some men grew to be larger and hungrier. Some dogs learned how to swim through magic the way other dogs learned how to swim through the seas. Most learned nothing, for they lived in areas where mana flowed too fast to take root, or was too scarce. A rarer few gorged themselves on it, and drank some of the wells dry.

Now, these magical creatures require ley energies in the same way they require air and food. A satyr could no more live in town than a hawk could roost beneath the oceans. As mundane humans began to learn the arts of society and technology, they also learned that neither art was much use against a frog that could breathe fire, or a wolf whose teeth pierced the very soul. Like the satyr and the hawk, humanity found its niche.

Of course, every artist has dreams, and seeks constantly to improve upon her works. It was only a matter of time before humanity learned to drink magic for itself, or systematically bind it and then burn it off in massive rituals. The former have come to be called, variously, mystics, wizards, mages, warlocks, witches, and druids. The latter, of course, is 'worship,' and it allowed humanity to clear out new, safe regions where it could build farms and cities, unmolested by arcane beasts.


The mystic may bind one mana die (a d6) to herself per level. Spells are without level, and may be cast by throwing any number of available mana die and scoring higher than a 5. The "level" of the spell is determined by the number if dice thrown, and the spell takes two actions to prepare per die thrown, plus one more action to release. (In other systems, consider each die to take half a round to prepare, so a sixth level spell requires three rounds to cast.)

Each die that comes up equal to or lower than the number of dice thrown is lost. Each duplicated roll causes one point of lethal damage, as the expulsion of mystical energy stresses and damages the mystic's body. (So, a double would cause 2HP damage, triples 3HP, two doubles 4HP, etc.) None of these conditions affect the actual casting of the spell.

Additionally, any casting rolls of 15 or higher lubricate the flow of energy, allowing the mystic to instantly prepare another spell at any power level. Rolls of 30 or more actually attract energy to the spell's location, replenishing one spent mana die. Every multiple of 30 after that replenishes an additional mana die.

Limits to Spellcasting

Replenishing lost mana dice requires sleeping within a strong ley line or ley circle. A full eight hours of sleep replenishes 1d6 lost mana dice (apply WIS modifier). Stronger wells may replenish 1d8 or 1d10, while weaker ones might only return 1d4. These places are uncommon and likely to be guarded by jealous mages, or homes to dangerous magical creatures - the specifics, of course, will greatly determine the availability and power of magic in your campaign. Rarer, weaker, and more dangerous ley circles will restrict the mystic's power, and more common or stronger ones will commensurately increase it. 

A mystic can retain 1 spell per point of intelligence she has. Moreover, the retention of a spell necessitates the presence of some form of mana reserve - the mystic must have one mana dice per retained spell, or lose 1 HP per day, per excess spell. 

Learning a new spell - even one previously known - is an expensive and time-consuming process, requiring access ley energy the expenditure of 2d10x100 GP and 4d6 consecutive weeks of research and practice. If interrupted, the procedure must be started from scratch. Before rolling, a mystic can choose to rush the process, or work with more rudimentary materials - one can halve the total of one roll, at the cost of doubling the other. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Vornlong, The Complete City Kit

Qampong - the player character's embark point in Qelong is one of the smaller entries in the book (and rightly so, considering what the interior of the river valley contains). Swollen by refugees and foreign opportunists, it's now a misshapen port city at the mouth of a dying land. Because Qelong is intended for levels 4-7, and I'm using it as a campaign kickoff, I've decided I'm going to flesh Qampong out a bit, enough to provide fleeting interest for the rookie party. Part of the strength of Qelong as written, though, is that the concision of its entry for Qampong really prevents players from getting bogged down in the city - it forces you out, and into the interior.

So, nothing too detailed. The impression I get of Qampong is that it's dangerous and ungovernable - the book frequently mentions the anonymous 'warlords' endemic to the River Valley, but perhaps none rules here. Perhaps the influx of refugees and war profiteers has rendered the city ungovernable. Somewhat like Vornheim, except due to anarchy, rather than sprawl.

Most of Qampong - which has doubled in size as refugees have flooded in - is now rotting slum. Mapping is fruitless, as the alleys are constantly reshaped by fires, collapses, and new arrivals. The population is poor, famished, angry, and mostly male. There are 12 informal slum gangs, named for the signs of the Zodiac, though this is the only constant among their fluctuating membership and territory.   Any slum-dwelling contact the players make has a 1 in 20 chance of simply disappearing each week.

There are only two districts worth mentioning - the Seaside, which is where the merchants' Factory is and where the boats are kept, and the Hilltop, which once held the wealthiest households, and whose ruined husks now shelter the most bloodthirsty and powerful gang (roll a d12). Behind the hill is an aboveground cemetery. Both districts are actually kept relatively clear of typhus and plague, and are the only stable places where "establishments" of any sort can be found.

Every hour the players spend in the slums has a 1 in 6 chance of an encounter. And it takes at least an hour to get anywhere in the slums (including out of the city.) 1d20.

1. Desolate alley. Person lies apparently injured in street. Actually in league with the 1d6 cannibals waiting in the shadows.
2-3. Desolate alley. 2d4 dholes gnaw on something in a doorway.
4. Desolate alley. Person lies injured in street (d6 - 1-3 member of random gang 4-5 foreigner 6 - adventurer, level d4). Good chance of recovering unassisted, but will remember the players and how they treated her.
5. Crowd, minding its own business. Except for the pickpocket (Thief 1d4). Party will notice any theft, it's just a matter of before or after. Roll 1d20 for possible gang affiliation, results higher than 12 indicate no affiliation.
6. 2d6 members of a random gang (Fighter 1) stumble around drunk and looking for a fight.
7-8. Seasonal weather - intense heat doubles the effective weight of worn armor, or driving rain halves visibility and modifies balance and missile fire by -4.
9. Monsoon. If rolled on the first or last day of any month, it also carries fish or frogs. Chance of doing 1HP damage on hit, and slums will go crazy trying to gather the fallen food.
10-11. Street fight or drunken brawl between (roll 1d6 twice) - 1-2 members of random gang 3 foreign guardsmen 4 cannibals 5 strange beast 6 unarmed, helpless refugees. 
12-13. Abandoned shack (roll on table)
14. Lunatic standing on rooftop harangues small crowd about the evilness of dwarves and one other random rumor.
15. Aakom-cursed woman holding aakom-cursed baby. Tries to press baby into the arms of most charismatic adventurer.
16. Foreign guardsmen conducting deals with members of a random gang. Roll reaction with 2d4. 
17. Members of two random gangs conducting deals with each other. Roll each reaction with 2d4. 
18. Elephant experiencing musth. Morale 12. Everyone else flees. Owned by most powerful gang.
19. Guardsmen searching for waylaid shipment of cardamom or pepper. Will suspect or press-gang anyone well armed.
20. Shifty foreign merchant offers to sell the party "a great treasure" for only 200 sp. Wants 100 sp just to let them see it.
It is (1d6):
  1-A boarded-up shack (roll on table). The merchant slips away at first opportunity.
  2-A cannon with 8 granite cannonballs. No carriage, no powder.
  3-A jar of Hagen's fake anti-aakom tincture
  4-A jar of Hagen's real anti-aakom tincture
  5-A hidden group of 2d6 cannibals. The merchant slips away after they attack.
  6-A dozen jars of cardamom or pepper. False bottoms conceal aakom-laced livers soaked in wine.

What's in that boarded-up shack? (Roll a d8)
1. A pair of aakom zombie hands.
2. A pair of aakom zombie hands, and 2d100 sp buried in the floor.
3. A massive pile of shit. No joke. There are some holes in the ceiling people use to relieve themselves. 50% chance of typhus infection.
4. Nothing but a single word scratched into one wall: "Leave"
5. A pile of bones. An araq demands you bring them to the cemetary. 
6. A child's skull with the top sawn off. Filled with dozens of teeth. Eight gold coins placed in a circle around it. If anything is disturbed, a qmoc praj will emerge from this spot in three days and hunt down the desecrator.
7. A solid gold pendant in the shape of the lotus. Renders the wearer invisible to undead, but any monk will attack on sight.
8. The shack is bedecked in the worship livery of the Naga Qelong. The family of 1d4 cultists have become hungry nagakin in the weeks since they were trapped here.
EDIT: Two things I forgot to add.
For the most part, the "What's in that dead guy's pockets?" table is not going to apply here, since most people have very little in their pockets and even less in their bellies. The exceptions:
  • Gang members have daggers and 1d20 copper pieces each. Every fourth or fifth has a mace or sword.
  • Foreign guardsmen are the mercenaries defending the Factory and escorting most merchants through the city. They have leather armor, a dagger, a sword, and a light crossbow. 20 are stationed at the Factory at all times. They carry no coin, as there is nothing for them to buy.