Sunday, March 16, 2014

Promoting Desperation in Games - What I learned last year from DCC

<<I think I thought this up a couple of weeks ago, and it's been waiting for me to finish and publish it, so here goes, sort of a WHAT WORKS FOR ME PT. DIEUX although I haven't got the balls to implement these kinds of things all the way since it would be like TPK after TPK after TPK>>

One of the things that appeals to me about the OSR, particularly Barrowmaze and Stonehell and the ASE (I guess megadungeons in general), is the sense of desperation that comes with being a schmuck underground with a dull sword and a torch, and maybe a slightly bonkers religious friend and a guy/gal who tends to take things when nobody's looking.  I often feel desperate in real life, or at least I have in the past.  There were a couple of lean years where I was hungry all the time, penniless, and spending a good deal of time in the FSU Strozier Library at night looking for something.  I knew some Greek then, and Latin, and a meager smattering of Hebrew, and my dreams were infected with hunger and longing and the endless quiet of a half-empty dorm room.  I'd spend hours a day hunting for foot-notes in musty disused books, trying to synthesize my understanding of the Gnostic Heresies and POVRAY and Angband.  I may have been a little mad.  I would save up my dimes and nickels for a black bean sub at Subway back when they did that, and I sometimes prayed an atheist prayer that the Krishnas would come and try to convert the kids with free food... Looking back they was some weird times, yes.  But I was sharp as a tack, then.  It were the desperation that made me sharp, I think.  Maybe it was a burgeoning Krishna Consciousness or something.

There's no way my younger mind could have anticipated those real lean years from 1995 to (2014?) 1998... By that time I had given up on RPGs - our group had just tipped into 2nd edition and things started to seem dull to me.  We had tried Ravenloft, and Dark Sun, Spelljammer (very briefly).  I started a job and picked up the 1st Vampire WoD book to try and keep up with the group and then when they started to play it almost exclusively I bowed out into (get this) Necromunda.  I'm not about preying upon the weak and leaping tall buildings and blending seamlessly into the shadows.  I'm about the grotty, filth covered, desperate picking through goblin-stained rags looking for a couple of silver pieces to make all this poking around in the sewers worthwhile.  When I started to hang with the wrong kind of skinheads over the gaming table, I gave up tabletop gaming and RPGs entirely until about 2008 or so.

I don't need empowerment in my fantasy, really, I think maybe I need a similar situation in which I get some imaginary return on the dreariness of humdrum existence.  I guess maybe it is empowerment, of a kind.  Don't get me wrong - in my waking world I'm fairly fulfilled in that I'm happily married and have a great kid, and my day job allows that I make other peoples' lives marginally less dreary...  So, how do you (well, how do I) promote desperation in my games?  Somewhat more importantly, if others don't look for this in their games but look for something else, how ought I to mesh my deep psychological drives with theirs, so that we can have a fun time and get the thing we need?

1) Maybe the setting.  Barrowmaze appealed to me since resource-management and desperation is implicit.  Looking back, I think DCC isn't such a great match (for what I'm talking about here) since 1st level DCC characters are a little heftier and tricksy-er than other OSR types.  It's perfect for the funnel, though.  After a bunch of funnels, I find I'm worn out on it a little, but it's a hoot for the most part.
2) No permanent spell effects.  Continual light on a rock is a game breaker for resource-worrier types.
3) Spell limits that are a little heftier than what DCC has, so a modification to the system or else a significant ramping up of spell-resistance in encountered creatures, and a boost to the use of spells in humanoid/human NPCs.  I think making loss of the spell connected to any failed roll, or else 
5) Frequent random encounter rolls, but I think maybe tandem use of the reaction table to keep things interesting.  Murderhoboing all the other NPCs was hilarious but stymied my attempts to introduce sinister plots, kind of.
6) Bleed the characters of resources if they aren't used up quick enough.  Waves of zombies to get the PCs worried about lamp-oil.  Gusts of wind and dripping water for torches, crossbow-using undead for lanterns and lamps, monsters attracted to spell use and loud noises (It occurs to me that I am stealing all this from the intro to Barrowmaze I).  Gygax said you have to track time and make them sweat resources.  I came up on 1st ed. and YMMV of course.
7) Hideous awful curses, and not the regular vanilla kinds, on magic items.  A good peppering of weak magic weapons and tantalizing miscellaneous stuff right out of the Friday the 13th TV show.  So bad that PCs will hesitate every time they spend a charge.  I know this is not the kind of game everybody wants, but refer to the title of the article, if you will.
8) Grottiness.  This ain't Krynn, it's Newhon or Discworld.  You can die from disease and poison or malnourishment or fatigue.  Kinda sucks, but adventurers adventure so they don't starve, and they need money to fuel the benders they go on, and maybe save up a little at a time for that banded mail for an extra edge.  I was reading ACKS this morning, and it explains that a GP equals one month's worth of destitute subsistence for a peasant, so adventurers are naturally going down into crypts to find a couple of years' worth of wine, wo/men, and song.  I like that policy.  DCC states up front that most 0-level characters have never seen a GP up close.  I think it's in there, somewhere.
9) I don't think I feel great about purchased potions of healing/scrolls of cure light wounds.  Or neutralize poison/cure disease (maybe cure disease is okay, if it comes with a price...)  I want my magic to be a little weirder and more dangerous than that.  Is it okay I say that?
10) I dig the KEEP FIGHTING mechanics of WHFRP 1st ed. in which you can stay up fighting if you save vs. death, but you're incurring wounds and damage so bad that you may never adventure again without some kind of magical/divine assistance.  Or a wooden leg.  High level characters (i.e. 4th level) are riddled with scars and have excellent and thrilling stories to tell.  Necromunda and Mordheim were fun this way, if you went out of action you had a chance to just have been conked out and scrambled back to camp with a concussion and a good story.
11)  Come to think of it, maybe divine assistance isn't so meaningful until PCs reach a certain amount of importance in the world (i.e. never - Lovecraft's mechanistic materialism).  The gods are petty and jealous and underpowered, and arcane patrons are the same.  They want power in the material world and every follower is tested constantly and held to strict standards...  I like ASE's flavor in this way
12) Coins are rare and the high powered stuff like platinum is generally out of circulation - any treasure-y stuff a party finds is going to be chewed up by fences and pawnbrokers and banks and taxation.  That 1000 GP vase you found?  Likely to get broken on the way back and also if you don't have a trusted appraiser then you can expect about half of what it states in the guidebook.  Reaction rolls might make this better, but haggling may be role-played for better results.  Maybe people don't like roleplaying haggling anymore, I dunno.  You could lose the jewels to a pick pocket on the way to the fence!  Adventure!  I mean, what is the pickpocket skill for if not for NPCs to cut your purse?  Also, better be nice to your henchmen or they may just pull up the ropes and leave you down there...
13) TRAPS TRAPS TRAPS  a party full of anxious thieves is better and more fun than a party full of dead clerics and skewered dwarves (in DCC I bet this would be pretty slick).
14) Rust monsters ought to be as terrifying for a party as wights are, IMHO
15) +Zak Smith proposed a rule, I think, in which you voluntarily raised your fumble range in order to expand your crit range.  I think, amongst the number of other clever things the man has written and thunk up, this is one of the clearest uses of simple mechanics to add zest to the game that I ever heard of, since it promotes FUN.  He's really a very smart guy, and make no mistake.
16)  Speaking of crit ranges, maybe the monsters could use the same rule, and cause crits on 19 and 20, and (for DCC) bump up the crit die a couple of notches.  A simple skeleton could turn into a skeleton brimming with serious necromantic energies - feeling worried, with the smell of mould and hate floating around everywhere?
17) for undead, in DCC, you could do worse than unique-ify 'em with my own awesome d100 table (for some zest and laffs)
18) don't let the party just send henchies and hirelings headlong into disaster without reduction of morale, increase in difficulty hiring down the road at the very least, and it cost a share of the treasure for certain
19) if the party burns enough NPCs, then word travels fast and they get dogpiled by a couple of adventuring parties, also (but at least make it dramatic).  A party of murderhobos with a bad reputation is sure to get a comeuppance sooner or later

Right now I can't think of anything else but I'm sure a glancing over of the AD&D DMG later will spring some things into my brain.  I think after some reads of my blog nobody will want to play in a game I run from here out...

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