Saturday, 31 August 2019

This ecological biome matches 7 of the 9 preconditions for stimulating terror in humans

I've been thinking about Subnautica again, because I think the game has a couple more lessons to teach me. For one thing, it handles tension very well. It scared the willies out of me more than once, and not just because someone tapped me on the shoulder while I was exploring the deepest trench. The creators managed the environments, the creatures and the transitions very cleverly.

A lot of that effort was through visuals that wouldn't easily transfer over to a mostly-descriptive tabletop game, but I think I've distilled down a list of things Subnautica does that I could use in my GMing.

I'm going to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but there's a chance I'll reveal something I shouldn't.  Maybe you should play the game before reading this?

Put the pressure on

You always have to keep an eye on your oxygen gauge. If it ticks down to zero before you reach the surface or your vehicle, you're in trouble. In the early game, you also have to frequently go inside wrecks to salvage technology. Wrecks are mazes of similar-looking rooms sometimes connected by ducts that destroy your sense of up and down. There's technology that can help with that, but you have to unlock it. And you're often tempted to push your luck to grab that one extra piece of gear that can give you access to a new blueprint now instead of in a few hours time.

Put the shiny at the edge of the players' resources, to tempt them to take a risk.

Foreshadow danger

You often know about oncoming trouble before you reach it. And then you head into it anyway, because there are no other options. Subnautica's iconic monster is the reaper, a giant facehugger-eel that loves to chew on mini-subs.  You usually hear it before you see it and then it's undulating through the water in the distance, just visible in the murk. If  you're lucky, it's headed away from you.  It's the same with the sea dragon. You hear it roar before you ever see it and the noise shakes the walls.  Visual indicators are used the same way. Ampeels first make their presence known with their bioluminescent spots in the darkness, then with arcing electricity and then you get to see it.  You also manage to tap into alien communications as the game progresses. The messages you overhear are never encouraging.

The Angry GM has an article about this.  To sum up: if you want to trap your players in a maze with a monster, start by letting them watch from a safe distance while it slaughters a much tougher adventuring party than they are.

Your safety isn't safe

You can retreat to a safe place at almost any time.  You're generally protected inside a base, if only because metal walls will hide you from the creatures outside. But the creatures aren't the only threat, there's also the invisible but constant presence of kharaa. Which gets more serious the longer you're on the unnamed planet.  You could stay inside where nothing's going to poison, explode, crush, drain, shock, eat or drown you but the thought is always present that if you do that... in the end you die anyway.

Give the players a place of comfort and safety, then make it clear that in the fullness of time it won't help them.

You have the power until you don't

On your first visit to the Aurora crash site, you're threatened by crawlers. They're too fast and move too erratically to easily avoid them. Eventually you retreat or they kill you. On your second visit you have the repulsion cannon and you can simply kick them into the surf. You feel like a conqueror! — then you dive into a pool filled with bleeders where you have to put the cannon away and fill your hands with a repair tool. You can see them swimming out of the corner of your eye and just hope you spot them approaching in time to get your knife out.

Power the players up, then challenge them to put the power down.

Pile it on

There's a point in the game where you're trying to bypass a threat much larger than you could possibly handle.  Stealth is the only realistic option.  But while you're trying to sneak, there's a swarm of smaller threats ganging up on you.  You have to occasionally pause to take care of them before they can bring you down, but without alerting the larger threat.

Small close threats seem much more significant when they can trigger a large distant threat.

Don't look back

You can arm your mini-sub in the midgame, but until then if you're attacked while using it your only option is to run.  The creature may or may not chase you.  Checking behind means slowing down.  You have to run without looking back until you feel like you're probably safe, and even then you may be wrong.

Spring a danger, then withhold accurate information until someone's willing to take a risk for it.

No escape

Dying is the thing you spend all your effort to avoid in a game.  But when it happens, the threat is immediately past and you have a moment to settle yourself, check how much progress you've lost and what needs re-doing, then dive back in.

Most of the threats in Subnautica don't kill you outright.  Instead they take a chunk off your health, circle around and maybe come in for another bite.  You have a chance to escape if you make an immediate effort, and you're lucky.  Instead of one instant of "Sucks.  Oh well." you're suspended in the moment of "Aaaaargh no no no run away run away—".

Half-killing the characters and making a credible threat to finish the job can be more frightening than simply ending them.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

One page setting: The Shrouded City

Created with watabou's fantasy city generator
Another one-page city setting for Earth-at-the-end. The previous two are the Haunted City and the Mad City.

This time we have the city of Gaulot, where people have been living an idyllic life, protected from seeing the horrors their city is built on by the sea of coloured fog that surrounds the rooftops they live on.  Now they're facing invasion and centuries of peaceful living have crippled their ability to fight back.  Worse yet, the invasion has stirred up the awfulness of the city below and it's boiling to the surface.  Safety was always an illusion, now it's been stripped away.

Click the image to view the PDF

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Fascinating OSR material

Image by Pete Linforth
In this post I'd like to focus some attention on other people's creativity.  This is a list I started keeping so I could find my way back to blog posts and adventures I really enjoyed.  Some of these resources are well-known in the OSR-space, others less so.  They all deserve to be played and talked about, and I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I have.


The adventures I like are strongly themed dungeons or challenging environments that are only technically dungeons.

The Boswitch Bath-house - infiltrate a bath-house, interact with the patrons, sneak around to accomplish your goal.  The adventure has three different hooks for getting the characters involved.

Prison of the Hated Pretender and The Dread Machine -some people call Prison the best module for introducing new OSR players to this gaming style.  An undead king is imprisoned in a building shaped like his own screaming head.

The Stygian Garden of Abelia Prem - explore a house and its grounds, interact with a variety of mystical plants and then head into the underworld in search of Hell's roses.  A LotFP adventure with a broad stroke of beautiful gothic decadence.

Mad Am I - a well-populated hexcrawl on an island hosting an asylum where terrible occult experiments in psychiatry have leaked out.  Also LotFP and similar in style.

Hell on the Moon - explore a crashed spaceship taken over by demons (not necessarily hostile ones) while working nights in a 50s-style diner run by the last Elf family on the moon.


Cool mini-fied rulesets

The basics for playing D&D 5E is three books.  The quickstart PDF is around 200 pages.  (Is it because they pay their freelancers by the word?)  The question of how much you can reduce a ruleset and have a game with effective character differentiation and challenge is one I keep coming back to.

Here Is Some Fucking D&D - based on an expanded Searchers of the Unknown. Characters have no stats, they're built from race, class and level.  4 pages.  Includes a bestiary and random adventure generator.

Dungeon Nights lite edition - trimmed down character creation ruleset in which characters can have both a race and a culture that modify their stats.  A blog post which would probably come out to a couple of pages.

Tenebrae - probably the longest ruleset on this list.  It simplifies D&D rules down to a sleek core and adds some innovative ideas.  Characters can swap classes between each other at will.  This game ought to be much better known than it actually is.

Tunnel Goons - three stats and an item list.  The rules fit on the character sheet.  A monster's only stat is a threat die.  The rules have been adapted to several different game genres.

The Golden Sea - also three stats and an item list.  This one simplifies combat and HP.  The character sheet fits the rules, a bestiary and a map on it.

Mimics & Miscreants - my favourite GLOG-derived game.  The resolution mechanic is to roll 1d20 + stat (not stat bonus) and reach 20 or higher.

Tales of Mordhearse - the simplest ruleset in this list.  A character's class is determined by their starting HP.  They have that and one to three randomly-rolled qualities/powers.

Settings developing through blog posts

The Thawing Kingdom - ages ago the kingdom was frozen into magical ice by the machinations of a mad ruler.  Now it's thawing, releasing the citizens who have been trapped for so long.  But it's not thawing evenly and the magical ice has some odd properties, which carry over to people who only thaw halfway.

The City of Infinite Ruin - everything in the city is slowly being drawn into the centre.  As it moves, the space it moves into grows paradoxically larger.  The buildings themselves expand from hovels to houses to mansions to palaces and their history becomes more complicated.

HSM Apollyon - a ship as large as a city, becalmed on an endless ocean for generations.  Inside, brave adventurers from the engineering section make forays into the passenger quarters hoping to bring back treasure and avoid monsters and demons.

Magical industrial revolution - a world where magic is codified, refined, mass-produced and made the basis for a developing industry.

Centerra - a broad-ranging set of creative world-building posts, especially the ruined cities.

The Gustatory - restaurant district the size of a mountain.  Orc chefs, soup baths, mummies in the cool room.  I'd love to run this, I'm just not sure what sort of campaign justifies a fantasy food court...

Nukaria - especially the Handsome Men posts, Nukaria's take on elves.

Sunless Horizon - the human race has survived into the final age of the universe, living in a single titanic world-ship: Ein Soph.  They're ruled by an AI given the task of finding a way to punch through into a younger universe.  The machines that run the ship are slowly going mad.

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Base building mini-game

I've been playing a lot of Subnautica lately.  It's an open-world exploration game, set 90% underwater.  It has beautifully rendered environments and creatures that really sell it as a completely alien planet.

A big part of the fun is the base building mini-game.  You start basic and level it up as you uncover new blueprints.  My preferred method of gathering resources has become moving to a new area and building a small base with a scanner room that can pinpoint all the useful spawns for me.  When you disassemble a base you get 100% of the materials back, so the only investment is time.

(Meeple Girl has been playing a very different game.  It involves waiting until I'm under threat by a Warper or a Sea Dragon, then walking quietly up behind and tapping me on the shoulder... it ought to be a crime.)

The last couple of weeks I've been thinking about a method for adding a base-building mini-game to OSR games.  Admittedly, some of them already have it, in the form of castles and strongholds from 9th level onwards.  But that's intended to be a significant investment of time and resources for the characters, and a reward for the players who levelled their characters that far, as well as a completely new mode of play.  I'm going for something a lot simpler and self-contained, that the players can get into almost immediately.  This is what I've come up with.  I think it would work best in a system where XP is earned by spending treasure.

It's assumed that the characters will be taking over the available space across several buildings instead of renting a house or workyard.  They'll modify it to suit their needs, as much as practical given the restrictions.  The spaces they have access to are represented by the seven unique Tetris blocks:

Each square in a piece is 10' by 10'.  The first costs 100 GP, or whatever amount is suitable for your system.  Each additional segment doubles the cost.  The characters can keep building until they have everything they need or run out of money.  Each time the players ask for a segment, roll 1d10 and give them the piece indicated.  If the result is higher than 7, repeat the last block.

After the first piece is placed, roll 1d4 for each additional piece to see which cardinal direction from the original piece the next is added to.  The players can rotate the pieces as they like.

The edges at the outside of the pieces (not the individual squares) are assumed to be walls.  The spaces the players put together have no access to each other until they start knocking out walls.  The edges for each piece must be more than half wall to support its weight.  That's five edges for the O piece, six for the others.  Take out any additional walls and the roof falls in.


My budget for rooms is 1,000gp.

First room = 4, the O piece.  100gp.

Second room = 1, the I piece.  The d4 shows a 1, indicating that it's placed at the top of the O piece.  200 gp.

Third room = 4, the O piece again.  The d4 shows a 2, indicating that it's placed at the right of the first O piece.  400gp.

Fourth room = 2, the J piece.  The d4 shows a 3, indicating that it's placed below the original O piece.  800gp, so no more rooms.

If I remove the walls between the two O-pieces, I get a nice big, open space.  Each O-piece can have one additional wall removed, which gives access to the smaller rooms, like this:

Within the limits above, pieces are placed and rotated at the players' discretion.  So if I preferred I could have had a base like this:

And that second layout looks more useful because of the next rule: courtyards.  You can extend the outermost walls in a straight line.  Where they intersect, they enclose a courtyard.  That long, semi-wide layout gives us a couple of decent courtyards for extra space.

For upper levels, start the pricing again from base.  Use the same layout but with each new floor remove 1d2 of the outermost rooms.  There must be at least one staircase on each floor.

What's the point of all this?  The base is mostly intended to be a fun way for characters to spend more gold, and something for the players to feel invested in.  If you're using the XP-for-spending-gold rule, you're probably also using a carousing table.  The rooms you add to your base will give some minor bonuses for mitigating bad rolls on that.  A forge can knock out the dings in armour, an apothecary can shorten the duration of a hangover, etc and you can hire retainers with the skills to use them on a temporary basis.

So next we slot in rooms.

Apothecary - 1 square.  Gives access to a herbalist.  +1 to saves vs disease, allergies, hangovers, etc.

Armoury - 1 square.  Sharpens blades, repairs weapon handles and straps.

Barracks - requires 1 square for each character that sleeps there.  Restricted to one open edge.  Reduces gold lost during a bad carouse by half because you were sensible and left your big purse at home.

Common room - at least 2 squares.  +1 to retainer morale rolls while in town.

Forge - at least 3 squares.  Must be in a courtyard.  At least 1 empty square between it and the nearest building.  Gives access to a smith, who can repair armour.

Kennel - 1 square per 4 dogs.  Must be in a courtyard.  Gives access to a master of hounds, who can provide training and treat sick dogs.

Kitchen - 2 squares.  Rations prepared here will never be tainted or inedible except by deliberate enemy action.  Requires a well.

Library - at least 1 square.  Gives a bonus to research actions and somewhere for magic-users to work.

Shrine - at least 1 square.  A place for rituals.  Gives clerics and paladins a bonus to communing with their gods.

Stable - 1 square per horse.  Each square must have one open edge facing a courtyard or the outside of the building.  Gives access to an ostler, who can replace shoes and treat sick horses.

Staircase - 1 square.  Gives access to other levels of the building.

Training room - at least 3 squares by 2.  Gives access to a trainer if required for levelling or learning new techniques, subject to GM approval.

Trophy room - 1 square per 4 trophies.  The perfect space for displaying souvenirs of past adventures and impressing young wenches or farmboys.

Wash house - 1 square.  removes fleas, tar and feathers, various other forms of soiling.  Requires a well.

Well - 1 square.  Must be in a courtyard.  At least 1 empty square from a forge.

In this case I'm going to have a training room, an apothecary, an armoury, a wash house, a kitchen, a trophy room, a forge, a well, a kennel for 8 dogs and a stable for 4 horses.  My characters can sleep off site.  Opening up all the stable squares to the courtyard means blocking the stables off from the building interior, but that's not a problem.  If you're riding a horse, you're going outside anyway.

A - stables
B - forge
C - trophy
D - apothecary
E - armoury
F - training
G - kitchen
H - wash house
I - well
J - kennels

And now the part I'm sure my players will spend the most time over: traps.  200 GP each.

Arrow trap

Collapsing ceiling

Fire trap

Gas trap

Glue trap

Magic item trap

Pit trap (if on an upper floor, requires 1 square of unused space on the floor below it)

Poisoned dart trap

Potion trap

Swinging blade trap

There's no reason to restrict player creativity here.  If they want a false wall that releases angry bees, they can have it.  Any 5' square (4 per map square) can be trapped.  The players can set or deactivate a trap as an automatic action, unless you're a particularly hard-nosed GM.  If characters let a retainer get caught in a trap, make a morale roll at a penalty.

Hey, isn't this starting to look kind of like a dungeon?

Yes!  And for your players, this might be an opportunity for introspection that leads to a revelation about their behaviour and real change on a personal level.  Mine are more likely to say "Hey, why not a trap that douses intruders with shrinking potion then drops them into a trebuchet?"

Saturday, 3 August 2019

World turtle immobilised

Picture a world-carrying turtle. Four elephants on its shell, and a flat planet on their backs.  We want the turtle to be visible from the edge of the world, so have the turtle's length overlap the planet's by about an eighth at front and back.  That should give us a bit of flipper and a head to look at if we're peering down from the very edge, where the ocean turns into a waterfall that tumbles endlessly into space.  For the planet to have the same surface area as the Earth, that would make it about 19,000 Km or very roughly 12,000 miles across.  Big.

We want it to be smaller, because we're about to crash it into an inhabited world.  Let's make it a baby, only about the size of Japan.  That gives us 1,200 Km (750 Mi) of turtle, and makes the world on its back 900 Km (560 Mi) across.  Still big.  If we take a Loggerhead turtle as our template, it's a turtle the size of Ceres, the largest asteroid ever discovered.  It's not a dinosaur killer, it's more like the school bully that beats up dinosaur killers and steals their lunch money.  So instead it makes a semi-controlled landing and immediately dies because something much larger than it is has taken a bite out of its side.

(Sages of the day recorded that something whale-shaped blotted out constellations over several nights, other mystics point out that it had a triangular fin on its back.  Educated men know the world is round and can use parallax measurements to estimate the creature's size, but they quickly run out of beads on their abacus in the attempt.)

Even a controlled landing by a 1,200 Km turtle is going to mess up your planet.  First there's the noise, the loudest ever heard.  Birds are knocked out of the air by the pressure of the sound wave.  Then there's the hurricane of displaced air, tearing up forests and stripping fields.  The impact (no more than a kiss, really) sends millions of tons of soil and rocks billowing into the atmosphere, blotting out the sun.  All across your continent, dormant volcanoes erupt back into life, spewing magma and toxic gas.  Earthquakes shiver your cities apart.  The first of the great forests far enough from the crash site to have survived begins to burn.  Rocks the size of houses crash down, entire countries distant.

A third of your population dies in the first few hours.  Half that number again starve as crops fail and the landscape plunges into a winter that will last three years.  More are killed by bandits and wandering companies of looting deserters during the civil war that follows, or forced to flee into the wastes as refugees.  It takes a while for civilisation to re-emerge, establish a government and rule of law, and solve enough of its ongoing problems to think about sending an expedition to the site of the impact to see what the hell happened.  Two generations doesn't seem like an unreasonable length of time.

In the meantime, strange rumours have been filtering out of the East (which is arbitrarily where our turtle landed in relation to the new centres of government).  Never-ending salty rain.  An inland sea where none existed before.  Oddly symmetrical mountains on the horizons.  A shining globe above those mountains, half-hidden by a haze of distance.  Enormous, glowing spheres crashing across the landscape.  Strange, savage animals and plants.

It would be a whole new world, within reach of the recovering old world.  I think I could make a campaign out of that.