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.