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13 August 2013 @ 08:11 pm
Dungeons & Design 12: Survival and Scavenging  
So, if you hadn't previously gotten the impression from my posts, I love resource management in video games. My favorite roguelike is Unreal World, which is best described as, "You're an Iron Age Finnish person. Good luck with that." I've put 630+ hours into Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, with mods that reduce the ammount of ammo in the world, make repairing weapons harder, reduce carrying capacity, make it easier to get hurt and harder to heal, require you to eat food, make you check for food spoilage, make you eat a variety of food through tracking different nutritional indicators so that eating a diet of nothing but Sugar Bombs will make you die of kwashiorkor...that kind of thing. I'm really big into the survivalist experience in my interactive media, even if in real life I'm an inveterate city slicker. So how do I translate that kind of experience into a tabletop game where there isn't a visual representation of the world that you can poke around in and where tracking your calories, hydration, protein intake, nutrient intake, sleep, and alcohol consumption all separately is way too time-consuming and fiddly?

Back In Ye Olde Dayes
Or, how OD&D did a lot of things really well and utterly failed to communicate why it did them or even what kind of game it was.

When I got into D&D, it was second edition[1], when the art was all heroes in heroic poses doing heroic things, but the rules were still focused on murderhobos descending into dank holes in the ground and stabbing everything right in the face and stealing whatever wasn't nailed down. When I read the rules about henchmen or getting XP for treasure or wandering monsters or how carrying too much reduced movement rates, I didn't see what the point of them was and ignored them in the games I ran.

The thing is, there was a reason for them; it was just terribly explained. The original game was focused on murderhobos and the rules reflect an experience that's tightly focused on going into holes in the ground and hauling treasure out of them. XP is only gained when treasure is hauled out of the dungeon successfully. That's why wandering monsters are so dangerous--because they expend player resources but don't carry any treasure--and why strict time tracking was an important part, because staying down in the dungeon longer carried the risk of more wandering monsters. Monsters not providing XP meant that no particular way of dealing with them was incentivized, unlike a lot of modern games that provide XP for killing the bad guys.

As an example, this was my biggest problem with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I would ghost through the base, accomplishing my objectives and get the ghost bonus if I could, then go back and knock every single guard out and stuff them in the ventilation shafts, because I got XP for every knockout and letting them stay conscious would have been extremely suboptimal. Objective-based XP avoids all these problems. It's not about how JC Denton gets through the base to hack the computer--it only matters that he does. Similarly, it doesn't matter how the PCs haul out the treasure, it only matters that they do.

XP for treasure is also the reason for the detailed encumbrance rules. The movement rate changes for carrying too much stuff matter for time tracking to determine wandering monster rates and how fast the PCs can run away if they find something they can't handle. Also, it limits how much stuff the PCs can bring in to the dungeon, so they can't carry every single magical item and load themselves down like a Christmas tree. It incentivizes them to find or steal a stronghold to store their equipment, leading into the original end-game of founding petty kingdoms, ruling them, and adventurering to support their rule.

It's all actually rather well-designed and tightly-integrated, as long as you don't try to run Tolkienian quest fantasy with it. Oops.

Welcome to Post-Apocalyptia
Part of the reason I think rules like this are important is that the standard generic fantasy RP world tends to be post-apocalyptic in flavor, whether from Tolkien's influence, from lingering psychic damage to Western civilization caused by the fall of the Roman Empire, or just because that's what everyone does. Someone on RPG.net succinctly summarized it as, "when everything was AWESOME and BIG and IN YOUR FACE until somebody FUCKED UP and BROKE EVERYTHING and now EVERYTHING SUCKS." That fits all my favorite games and settings--Dark Sun, Sun and Storm, Exalted, Fading Suns--which I think are my favorite mostly because it provides the best reason to have adventures. The fall of the Glorious Empire is why there are abandoned ruins littering the landscape, why the law has a very short reach, why there are so many A-Wizard-Did-It monsters infesting the wilderness, and why heavily-armed vagabonds are allowed to roam around and plunder at will without being taxed and regulated into oblivion. In a game where the characters have a comfortable level of resources, like most modern or future era games, there's not much point in tracking every last bullet or meal the characters eat, but in a game of limited resources and penny-pinching, it matters a lot more. When I run Shadowrun, I track all the bullets and nuyen spent for basically the same reason--to enforce the feel of living on the edge where one bad push could send the characters over and of having to constantly scrabble to maintain what they have.

Plot-based vs. Sandbox
There's another consideration about tracking resources, though, and that's the impetus for the game's story. If it's plotted out beforehand, then tracking ammo and food is probably unnecessary unless they're specifically supposed to be in some kind of low-resource dangerous scenario. Whether the characters can fight their way through the Tombs of Structural Unsoundness to get to the city and overthrow the duke is more important than how many arrows they have. If it's a sandbox, then the most important thing is whether or not the characters survive, and how many arrows they have and when they run out of water is much more important.

This obviously isn't a strict divison, since it's perfectly possible that whether the characters have enough arrows to fight through the Improbably Large and Detailed Caves and reach the princess in time is of vital importance, but it's a tendency. Mass Effect doesn't care where you eat or sleep, Cataclysm does.

How to Implement All This
So, most of this entry is me justifying why I want to include rules for this at all, but I have to mention here that I don't actually know the best way to include rules without doing a bunch of side work. See, unlike combat and social interaction, where it's perfectly possible to just roll some dice and make stuff up and have it be a reasonably satisfying part of the game, I don't think survival mechanics fall into that. If survival is just "Roll your survival skill every day or die," then...well, for one, it's too granular, like single-resolution rolls under the social-skills-as-mind-control model, but two, it's boring. What does rolling to find water add to the game if it's never taken any farther than just making the roll? If the roll is failed, but there's no way to engage with that other than rolling again or randomly wandering around, then it's just a roll to find out if you have to waste time.

What I mean by side work is making up maps or tables. For my Fallout game, I found a pdf called Wasteland Garbage that has tables of random stuff on it for the players to find when they're rummaging around ruined buildings, and I think it's done a lot to make scavenging more interesting and saved me a lot of trouble of trying to figure out what exactly the PCs find, especially since most of it would be that kind of random junk. But making it up myself would have taken a bunch of work, and I think to make scavenging meaningful, you really need something like that table. To make survival meaningful, you need to know the travel times between the places the PCs are going, what kind of terrain it is, and what creatures live there. It's certainly possible for running out of food to lead to adventure--after all, that's basically what Unreal World is about--but not if it's just elided with another survival roll and then moving on. Without an actual structure for the mechanics to hang on, it's just random dice rolls that might kill you.

This is one of those things computers handle much better than TTRPGs, just because they can make all the maps and distribute resources easier. But with a good set of random tables and a map, it's certainly possible in a TTRPG. That's how it used to be done, after all. Without that map and with no tables, it's probably more trouble than it's worth. That does fit in with the sandbox idea, though, since a sandbox is typically built out of a map and random tables.

Actual Mechanics
4e Dark Sun had a concept called "Survival Days." It tied into the healing surge mechanics, which I'm not that fond of, but the basic idea is sound. Keep some abstraction, so that food isn't measured in loaves of bread and pounds of meat, but in the amount of food and water necessary to keep someone alive for a day. Or in Dark Sun, probably separate food and water. Anyway, make the basic unit the day, and track everything that way. A basic Survival roll finds enough food for one person for one day and takes X hours, slowing travel time and requiring more rolls overall. And maybe an extra encounter check for each time spent hunting, so if the party runs out of food, they'll greatly increase their chances of things turning interesting. That wouldn't need tables of what kind of food they find, just a map and a list of the kind of creatures in that terrain. Tracking arrows is just something for the PCs to do. Maybe a simple rule that if the arrow does more than X damage, it breaks.

I don't think there's any way to implement this without the map and so on, though. If your fantasy game doesn't need a map and random encounter tables, you probably don't need to track food or ammo either, unless you're specifically playing survival horror. Or WFRP.

[1]: The first game I played was first edition, back when illusionist was a separate class from magic-user, but the first books I really read were all second edition.
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