trades of qud

Caves of Qud banner art

I’ve been playing a bunch of Caves of Qud, a science fantasy roguelike, and at one point in the trading menu I had to pause because I was so surprised by a simple mechanic. I really wanted to emulate the feeling in my upcoming RPG, so this blog post will try to encapsulate some of the ideas I have in my head for now.

exchange and encumbrance

So how does trading work in Qud?

Central currency of Qud is fresh water that is measured in drams. And water has weight! Characters can only carry up to their weight limit in the game. Because of this, arises an interesting problem.

It is not efficient to carry lots of universal currency.

Rather, you want to carry either actually useful objects (weapons, artefacts, tools), or items of high value and small weight (gems).

Mausritter has that implemented already to an extent. You can carry a purse which takes up an item slot, but can only contain up to 250 currency. So if you want to optimise, you are much better off carrying an item that’s worth 250+. The problem is that it will be hard (or impossible) to use for small purchases, but it’s efficient if you are transporting lot’s of valuables from place to place. For example a merchant might want to spend as many pips as possible on high value/one slot items that are easier to transport, and can still be exchanged for pips at the destination.

When I was playing Caves of Qud, I came back to the settlement to sell the treasure I had… but then realised that I would be carrying so much currency in water that I would be overencumbered. So I had to make a decision on the spot. What items do I actually need? Where else can I trade these items? And this motivated me to embark on trips that I probably would not have taken otherwise.

So how can we implement a more involved approach to commerce in RPGs?

ideas for games

Trading items for items (barter system). Pretty self explanatory, but removing currency changes how the game functions in several ways:

  • No classic advancement/goals. When you have universal currency, it is a good measure of how well your character is doing. Accumulating gold is the goal of the game and is proportional to levels in most of OSR games. Without some coin, you will have to look for alternatives for the players to pursue (maybe it’s making discoveries or making faction relationships for example).
  • Simplified, yet more thoughtful trade. Without currency, you don’t have to calculate your expenditures. Now your choice lies in deciding what item is worth giving away for another. Is your trusty sword really worth the new bow? What about the ancient relic that the merchant wants to get rid of?
  • More pressure on the referee. Important to keep in mind that the GM will have to decide what is an equal trade and what isn’t. This can easily get messy if the players disagree. So if you are planning to add a system like this in your game/adventure, be sure to provide tools that help with settling deals. One example could be a random reaction table for the merchant, or an easy tiered system for items.

Doing quests and favours. You can get the item, but only if you complete a certain task. This is not new and has been done many times before. This is the classic NPC who need something done more than any currency (kings, wizards etc.). This will probably get exhausting for every little item the players wants to trade, but effective for high value stuff that the party really needs.

Making use of stats. A social stat can now not only be used to get better deals, but also to find merchants, figure out what they value most.

Resource trading web. If we consider that each resource has a different value in different location, we can create interesting connections between settlements. This also gives the players a motivation to travel more to find the right place for trade.

For the game I’m writing I will be giving resources 3 tiers:

  1. Common: something that the region is rich in and ubiquitous enough for trade. However each item doesn’t have much value.
  2. Rare/Need: a practical resource the region needs. Can be wood, stone, metal etc.
  3. Luxury: an object of desire that is hard to come across. Silk, wine, seashells, jewels.

And every settlement has either different resources, or different distribution of them in each category. So in a river town for example, water does not have a lot of trade value (common), but in the desert village, they will gladly accept it (need).

This also made me realise an interesting detail in Caves of Qud. All the merchants are stationed in the desert (presumably because the area gets lots of pilgrimage traffic), but what if they are also there to increase the value of the water currency they carry? (of course this is not how the game works, but would be kinda cool.)


More rpgs that have cool trading systems:

Heart: The City Beneath has a system that allows you to trade items for other items of the same rarity. Objects are ranked in how common they are to come across. The rarer it is, the more common items it takes to exchange for.

Stonetop gives settlements a prosperity value that decides what items are available to the PCs. The more prosperous a settlement is, the more valuable items it has. There is a more detailed tier system for objects that goes from 1 to 10 (less valuable to most valuable), and it depends on the settlement region.

Apocalypse World has an abstract barter move, which you can use to find the items you need. If you roll well, the deal is done. If you roll worse, you might have to pay more, exchange for another item, do a favour etc.

Vaults of Vaarn issue #2 introduces the city of Gnomon, which uses water-debt tokens as a form of evaluating goods. More often however, items are traded based on their slot size (1:1). If the GM is uncertain whether the deal can be made, there’s a reaction table for merchants that is modified by player’s EGO. Results are anything from inciting a violent fight to receiving an extra gift.


And that’s it for this post! Not very ground breaking I know, but I think it’s a neat topic to ponder. Let me know if you have any ideas about cool trading options in rpgs on twitter or discord. Happy holidays!

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further reading

Caves of Qud Wiki - Trading - if you want to dive in how Qud’s trading system works in detail.

DIY and Dragons - Roguelike advice for tabletop games - not trading related, but I love how this post explores implementation of roguelike concepts in tabletop.

December 25, 2021 trade game design caves of qud

SECRET STATS

Some tech I wrote a while ago that I’m migrating to my blog.

The core of this tech is simple: You have stats that you do not know. Riffing on this simple idea, I want to explore ways in which you can have secret stats in your game (and make it fun).

INTRODUCTION

Before we begin: what exactly are stats? Below is the definition I will be using for this document: Stats - skills, abilities, tools, or other methods that allow you to interact with the world in a special way. A character has one or several stats that they either start with or acquire as the game goes on.

Nice, but why is this tech cool? When the player has no knowledge of their stats, they will have to focus on other inputs create fiction. For example: character goals or hazardous environments can be great methods to rely on to drive the fiction instead of stats. Also I think it can be interesting to reveal stats at key moments, or to specific players. What happens if everyone knows your stats except you and they can’t tell?

Some notes before we dive in:

  • Think Clue (Cluedo) and how it hides / reveals information about the clues. Is is a good example of secret stat tech.

  • To keep the tech focused, stat values and modifiers are only briefly mentioned (tho I think they could totally work).

  • Each section has a couple of variants on how you might use/remix it in your own game. Experiment!

STAT CREATION

First things first, let’s create our secret stats. For simplicity, in this document I imagine each stat written down on an index card. ( Digital tools tend to lack in hiding and revealing features, so contact me if you figure out an easy way to do it online.) I also assume that the created stats are hidden.

  • Pass to neighbour: everyone writes stats for one other player at the table. This makes it so that your neighbouring” player knows either all or some of your stats. The quickest and simplest setup process of the three. However, it does create an interesting relation between the player who wrote the stats and the one who received them.
  • Fishbowl: players pick stats from a randomised pool of options generated beforehand. The options in the pool can be created by the players or included in the game text as a list. Broken telephone: players pass the same stats around the table, but no one knows where they end up. This will likely result in a more wacky experience due to the ever evolving stats. Also works much better if you have lots of players participating. You will also have to limit the time or the amount of passes each player can make during setup.

STAT KNOWLEDGE

With the stats being secret by default, knowing them becomes an important part of gameplay. Here are some options from the perspective of a player holding secret stats.

  • You know everyone’s stats except your own.
  • You only know your stats, other player’s are secret.
  • You know only the stats of one or two other players.

You can mix and match these areas of knowledge in your game. Even have them shift and evolve during play!

STAT REVEAL

The whens and hows of stat reveal can greatly affect the story you are telling at the table. Let’s explore what happens if you reveal stats when…

  • … you are using a stat. This way you can narrate with the knowledge of the exact stat you are applying to the task. A great method if you don’t want to use any randomisers in your game. You may also limit the reveals by using spendable tokens that are gained with other means.

  • … you roll a die. The result of the roll might modify your stats in different ways, or decide how many are revealed at a time. This takes away some control from the players, which may result in a more unexpected and twisty narrative.

  • … you draw a card. Same as rolling a die, but suits and face cards may further modify the stats you reveal. Cards are great because they are also unique objects, unlike dice rolls. For this reason you can assign each stat to a card if you like, or even write your stats on cards!

SECRET STAT GAMES

Now the big question: what kinds of games can we make with secret stats? Here are some of my ideas:

  • Teenage years: coming of age story where you realise your identity/potential. The setting doesn’t have to be teenage years, it might as well be a superhero origin story. I absolutely love coming of age stories! Hidden stats feel like a cool mechanic to explore these narratives through.
  • Mystery party: classic who done it?” situation with party guests as the cast. There’s been a murder early into the evening, so the characters have to mingle to find out who has the stats most relevant to the crime. It can be fun to reverse engineer the murder through the stats that are being revealed. However, there will have to be solid social deduction mechanics involved, so that players don’t get piled on for no reason (cough werewolf cough).
  • Stars adrift: spaceship crew waking up from cryosleep with no memory of why they are stranded. Your stats can be useful for fixing the ship or figuring out a way home, but you have to understand your character’s aptitudes first. If everyone can only see other players’ stats it can be cool to have them set the scene specifically so that the one player can try and guess their own stats.

Those are only a couple of possible settings. I hope that they will inspire you to make hidden stat games of your own!

CREDITS

This tech is CC BY 4.0, which means that it can be used commercially as long as you credit me (mv) somewhere in your text. Feel free to create games and hacks based on this.

If you do use it, please let me know @mayvisit on twitter! I’d be very happy to check out your game <3

December 7, 2021 game design

don’t roll to hit for mothership

polish cover for the Expanse by Dark Crayon

After a couple of very slow combat scenes in Mothership, I’ve decided to try out the quite popular OSR solution: auto hit. Unlike the proposed alternative combat rules by quadra, my aim with this is to completely get rid of the to hit roll in my sessions.

Sidenote: in my game I have also reduced the number of actions characters could take per turn to one. It sped things up considerably, but you might keep the 2 actions per turn if you want the players making a bit more complex manoeuvres on their turn.

why?

  1. Combats were taking too long in Mothership. Even without opposing rolls, it’s 3 rolls per attack (combat roll, and if you hit: damage, defender armour roll), that’s 6 in one turn (for two actions), and another 6 every NPC turn. I ain’t got all day!
  2. I have also played Mausritter recently (which uses Into the Odds auto hit system) and I really enjoyed how that went. Attacking and being attacked was always a big deal, since someone would always lose HP no matter what.
  3. Auto hit is extremely helpful when running funnels. When you have 3-4 characters, one less roll to worry about saves a lot of time. Also, in my game this resulted in a lot of one hit character deaths, because the enemies became completely overpowered (but hell, it was really fun).

how it works

When attacking, roll only the damage dealt.

And how does it affect combat?

Game becomes much deadlier. Compared to standard rules: PCs will do about 3 times more damage, and NPCs about 2-3 times the damage. Needless to say that this leads to fights evolving much quicker.

Everyone is an equal fighter (not counting weapons). When previously a marine would hit much more consistently than any other class, now everyone hits consistently. The only advantage you may have is a better gun but that’s it. This also breaks the NPCs, since they also hit no matter what.

No more critical hits (kinda). Since you don’t roll, you can’t crit fail or crit succeed. I love rolling crits, so here is a solution:

alternative critical hits

If this seems too convoluted, check out my other idea of introducing crits back into the game in the #using the armour save section.

If you roll any matching damage dice, that counts as a crit. If the matching dice are lower than your Combat stat -> crit success, higher than Combat stat -> crit fail.

Example: player attacks with their revolver and rolls [3] [3] [7] on 3d10. They deal 13 damage, and check 33 (the matching dice) against their Combat stat (<35, that’s a crit success).

Rolling high good for damage, but you might get high matching numbers as well (which lead to a crit fail). This becomes a consideration for the players especially with many damage dice weapons (like SMG or Pulse Rifle).

using the combat stat

Now what do you do with the Combat stat when you’ve eliminated a major situation it’s useful in? My variant is to roll it when you are performing combat manoeuvres, trying to change the tide of a confrontation. For example you could roll Combat to take actions from yet another post about combat from quadra (grapple, aim, gambit).

Another way to use the Combat stat is to combine the to hit roll and the damage roll into one (borrowed from Unknown Armies 3e). Roll under your stat, add the two digits together for non-guns, or read the d100 for guns. I’d use this as a resolution for improvised weapons. They give the players an opportunity to deal lots of damage on a success, so I imagine on a failure the consequences will be grave. The weapon exploding in the characters hands, misfire into a glass window, whatever just completely changes the battlefield.

I also like the idea of using the Combat stat as a tactical tool. If you roll well you could…

  • Find an escape route, location to hide / attack from.
  • Get a better idea about the enemy. On a success the Warden may reveal info about the NPCs weapons, health status or movement.
  • Look for weak spots, which would give extra damage dice if targeted.
  • Decide initiative (instead of using the Speed stat).

All of the above would also make sense with the Intellect stat, but I wanted the marines to have some sort of edge when fighting.

using the armour save

And some alternative ideas for using the Armour save (can be used in any combination):

  • Rolling Armour, but more dramatic. Succeeding means you take less damage yes, but the other bullets ricochet / hit something important behind you. If an enemy succeeds a save, maybe your vibechete is lodged into their shield. Crit fails double the damage, and so on. All this essentially takes over the narrative power that the Combat roll had before.

  • Armour is the new HP. PCs now stake damage directly to the Armour save, if it is as zero, they take damage to Strength and roll for critical injury. This kinda singles out this specific save out of the bunch, but I think it works thematically.

  • You are allowed to roll Armour only once. And it may negate either half or all damage. Makes that single use extremely valuable for the players. Between uses, you would have to repair your armour with a repair kit or with the help of a professional.


And that’s all I’ve got for now! Thanks for sticking around and if you want to chat about this, let me know on twitter @mayvisit or on the mothership discord @mvmv.


updates:

01/10/21 - added link to Bastionland blog post on auto hit, minor formatting edits

September 29, 2021 game design mothership

space is an ocean, spaceships are submarines

  1. I’ve been working on a game about a lonely space traveller.
  2. For the game I am using my homebrew space setting.
  3. People wanted to hear more about my approach to sci-fi, so now you can enjoy this post.

Here’s the main idea:

Spaceships are basically submarines with rocket engines attached.

Here’s why:

With current technology understanding, weapon tech always outpaces armour tech. Flash forward into the future and you get photon torpedoes vs spaceships that are still limited by the weight of their hull plating (no energy shields pls, I want every single shot to carry consequences).

So what you get is space travel that is more like submarines swimming in the ocean. Always trying to detect and go undetected (since being seen would mean almost certain annihilation by the enemy).

This is a long one, so buckle in.

assumptions

For space submarines to work I am going to make a couple of assumptions about the sci-fi setting we are working with. I will call this the Lo-5” setting:

  • Low tech computers. Why bother with squishy humans with horrible reaction times when AI can do it better? This is why the Lo-5 universe has a limit on computer tech, otherwise non-crewed light speed drones become too good of an option. In my games, the 1960s-esque behemoths of tubes and cables are the most complex tech that can still withstand lightspeeds and radiation. You really don’t want you navigation computer to crash mid jump.
  • Low detection ranges. Since light travels extremely far in space, it becomes very easy to detect objects that emit any sort of heat or thrust across the system. So to give more opportunity for stealth you have to lower the detection ranges by adding objects to hide behind. Those could be: asteroids and debris fields, nebulae, gas giants.
  • Low space control. In this setting, mass system surveillance must either not exist or be really rare. If there are tons of detection beacons across every Lagrange point, your ship won’t get very far without trouble. For Lo-5 I prefer an outer rim type system. One or two authority vessels go on patrol runs, but don’t have the resources to fully survey the system.
  • Low speeds. I’m not dealing with FTL or near-lightspeed travel when travelling withi. I don’t want ships to be able to outrun torpedoes most of the time.
  • Low-orbit defences. Planetary defences don’t have to resort to ancient computers like those in space. Planet-side, railguns and guided missiles (augmented by AI chips and protected by bunkers) have the luxury of constant active scanning and predicting ship trajectories. Only advantage spaceships have is being prone to cyberattacks due to the lack of networking. This just ensures that there is no incentive to target or bombard a planet from orbit. Only ship to ship combat is viable.

Now let’s dive into (pun intended) some things we can glean from submarines, and what works differently in space.


structure

Screenshot from Objects in Space (2018), one of the inspirations for the setting

There are two things where I think submarines are similar to spaceships:

  1. Absolutely massive engines compared to the habitable area.

Both submarines and spaceships have to have huge engines per small crew to be able to move fast enough. Your ship is for the most part a weak point and susceptible to being immobilized. Alien (1979) did this kind of thing with the ship design of Nostromo.

  1. Self sustainable, to a point.

Check out the growing veggies in space article by NASA if you want to know more.

Modern submarines don’t ever have to resurface, unless they are refilling food supplies. Same thing is largely true for the ISS, everything is recycled, but growing food is impractical (except for herbs sometimes) due to the amount of space it takes. I imagine in a sci-fi setting having a small greenhouse on your ship would be essential to long duration flights.

However, a key difference is that submarines can afford to have layers and layers of hull plating, while spaceships cannot. When travelling to space, you have to be very considerate of how much weight you are carrying. Every extra gram will reduce your speed and thus, reduce your maximum altitude. Spaceships are fragile.

Visually, this would be a basic spaceship layout:

Two main modules: the engine and the crew compartment, connected by solid beams. Both modules have radiators sticking out.

                                             ┌────┐
                       ┌─┐                   │┼┼┼┼│
                       │┼│                   │┼┼┼┼│
                   ┌───┴─┴┐              ┌───┴────┤
       <--     o───┤ crew ├──────────────┤ engine │
                   └───┬─┬┘              └───┬────┤
                       │┼│                   │┼┼┼┼│
                       └─┘                   │┼┼┼┼│
                                             └────┘

Making good reactors a rarity is also a good incentive to not destroy other ships

I also assume there is a reactor on the ship to generate the needed thrust. Solar panels just don’t have the needed energy output in deep space. However, a reactor with decent efficiency will cost you. Better reactors -> less heat generated -> more rare/expensive. Fusion reactors would probably be legendary in this setting.

The engine/reactor module is separated from the crew for safety reasons. If there is a malfunction or the engine is damaged/leaking, the crew will be separated from it by the vacuum of space if something goes terribly wrong. A weapons module would be located with the engines for the same reasons.

But why are those radiators so huge you ask?

Well, sci-fi media very often misses a crucial aspect of space travel: radiating heat. Without any oxygen around you to take away the heat, it is be absorbed by the ship itself (probably melting it in a couple of spots and definitely not pleasant for the crew). That’s why you need radiators that vent” the heat away in the form of infrared light. I will cover heat and heat management in the next section.


detection

An infrared image of the Hubble space telescope being processed

If you can be seen, you can be targeted. If you can targeted, you can be shot. If you can be shot, you can be destroyed. The easiest way to break the chain of events is at the beginning.

Before we talk about being detected, we need to understand how spaceships would detect other objects.

Submarines use SONAR (which just stands for sound navigation and ranging) to locate various objects in water. They use one of two modes:

Active SONAR: the one most covered by media. It’s the one where the submarine emits a pulse of sound waves and listens for its return. Based on the time it took the sound wave to return and it’s shape” the crew can understand what’s around them. It is used to navigate close to shore where you need precision to not crash into anything.

Passive SONAR: used for the vast majority of a submarines journey. Unlike the active SONAR, you do not emit anything, just listen to what’s around. Ship motors and submarines have a very distinct sound underwater that you can easily detect with this method. It is also great because you do not give away your position when using it.

I imagine spaceships would use a very similar system, except even more reliant on passive scans. Since in space you can actually see what’s around, you do not need the help of active scans for navigation.

active scans are also quite useful in combat, which I cover in later section

BUT, I still think active scans are fun and could be used in specific situations. For example if you are searching for an object that has very low emissions (or none at all) you might use a laser navigation and ranging system (LADAR). Instead of sound waves, it sends light waves that ping back to the ship if they hit an object. However it has the same problem as active SONAR: it basically shouts HEY I’M HERE COME GET ME!” across the whole system.

Which brings me to my next point: EMISSIONS. As i’ve said before: in space light travels far, so if you can emit/reflect no light at all, you are unseen (duh!). And by light I mean the whole spectrum, especially infrared (heat).

heat

Heat is a huge problem in space. Since there is no atmosphere to spread it around, you have to vent it with radiators (those black panels that you can see on the ISS) to not get absolutely cooked by your own life support systems. For stealth it sucks because your 300K radiators stick out like a sore thumb against the 3K of the vacuum of space.

Now this is where I look at submarines to see what they do.

Submarines have to manage sound (instead of heat), so if they want to pass an enemy undetected, they would most likely turn every sound making system on board and go dark”/“go cold”/“drift” until they’ve passed the threat.

In Lo-5 spaceships would do the same thing. Fold those radiators and cool as much of the hull as possible (using cold fuel as one example), turn off the engines and the reactor, then wait until it’s safe. These moments can be great tension builders in your story. I would also make this drifting” time quite short (probably limited by the air supply without life support), something like 100 minutes, a very cinematic number to count down from. Having this short window will hopefully not let the drifting” be too overused by the players, making it both more rare and exciting.

Another one of the most obvious emissions that can be easily detected are rocket engine plumes. When you make any burn to change your vector, you create a massive cloud of heat (and a plenty pf visible light) from the aft of your ship. A long enough burn can also be used by other ships to calculate your mass and future trajectory!

So let’s see how this affects the movement of our space submarine.


movement

The plume of Apollo 8 in Earth orbit performing its burn towards the Moon, as seen from Earth.

Imagine planets at the bottom of gravity wells. Entering and escaping orbit becomes akin to a submarine resurfacing and diving (but upside down).

How would you change trajectory and not be instantly detected? You hide behind something, preferably an asteroid, or even better - a planet. There are specific windows where you can perform manoeuvres without the risk of being detected. Redirecting the ship outside these windows only makes sense in an emergency.

Orbital mechanics is a real headache to track at the table, which is why I try to avoid it (usually space travel is a point-crawl). However, an interesting choice arises because of ships orbits that we have to consider. Do you want to engage your contact in retrograde (opposite rotation) or prograde (same rotation) orbit?

Prograde orbit is the more classic one I would say. You can follow your contact for as long as you need, let your opponent make the first move. But if combat happens, it will be packed with action until one of the ships disengages.

Retrograde orbit would be used if you want to end the combat quickly. Long periods of rest are punctuated by short encounters when all hell breaks loose. It’s like jousting on orbital scales.

A quick diagram (not to scale):

y=you, c=contact, —=plumes

burning behind a planet                    tailing behind a plume

         *  *                                      /
      *        *                                 /           /
 c   *          *                            c <         y <
  \  *          *    /                           \           \
      *        *    y                              \
         *  *         prograde                  | "shadow      |
                        orbit                           zone"

A rocket engine plume also gives an interesting advantage to pursuing ships. The plume creates what’s essentially a shadow zone” behind itself. Since the plume generates a ton of heat, a scanner wouldn’t be able to pick up anything beyond it. If a ship can manage to position itself close enough to the plume without being overheated, it can proceed to tail their target for as long as their engine is burning. This creates some opportunities for tense moments, high risk high reward situations.

After tailing a ship for a while, you may reach a position where you can destroy it…


combat

A still from Battlestar Galactica (1978)

… here are two ways you can do it:

I am not going to touch on ballistic weapons, since they are well explored in other media (The Expanse for one)

  1. Torpedoes

The cool thing about torpedoes is that they can be deployed without your ship leaving stealth. You just have to release it close to your target and then remotely activate it. Just be careful and don’t have it lock on to your own heat signature.

If you are looking to just disable the ship instead of outright destroying it, torpedoes can be equipped with EMP charges, or they can attach themselves to a ship and mess with the engines. These options are great because you can salvage your torpedo and recycle it for future use. This is superb if you are a crew who is running low on budget.

A defence measure against torpedoes would be deploying a decoy. A decoy would emit heat to confuse the torpedo and draw it away from the ship. However, decoys come in limited amounts and are imperfect. If you run out or the decoy is ignored by the torpedo, the situation will go bad really quick.

  1. Lasers

See the problems of laser cutting to get an idea of the process

Lasers are awful because you need to radiate enormous amounts of energy and heat to generate a beam, making you a perfect target for the aforementioned torpedoes.

But what about a GDL? Well, those take a lot of liquid CO2 to function, not the most practical option in space

Lasers are great because they instantly hit your target. The problem is that several thin sheets of reflective material separated by vacuum will be enough to sufficiently slow down the laser getting through the hull.

The only place not defended against light? The sensors of course. This makes lasers the perfect weapons to disable enemy scanning completely. And this can happen to you as well! However, sensors will be tucked away in non-obvious points on the ship. To accurately target a sensor you will have to know your targets ship structure, rotation, trajectory and speed.

noise

The heat generated during the battle can introduce noise to your scans. This makes your information less detailed and targeting less accurate.

To simulate the errors introduced in the heat of battle (the second intended pun, I’m going to hell for this), I am introducing the Noise modifier to your to hit” rolls. In addition to the dice you normally roll to hit, roll dice (d4, d6, d8 depending on your game) equal to the amount of Noise your sensors have. Reduce (or otherwise modify for disadvantage) your to hit roll by the highest Noise die rolled.

Add Noise when:

  • performing a burn
  • firing lasers
  • there is an explosion nearby
  • target has unknown trajectory

Add 2 Noise when:

  • you are attacked by lasers
  • the target is unidentified

You can remove all noise when you perform an active LADAR scan.

combat procedure

adapted from quadra’s combat flowchart for Mothership

COMBAT BEGINS (someone attacks, there is a time limit etc.)
    └→ retrograde or prograde orbit?
        └→ retrog: short and brutal encounter windows 
        └→ prog: time for recon, then combat every turn
    └→ New turn: calc results, situation is described       ←─┐
        └→ Players declare energy units spent                 │
            └→ Update Noise and Heat modifiers                │
                └→ Perform calculations, burns and attacks    │
                    └→ Is the situation still tense?          │
                         └→ Yes───────────────────────────────┘
                         └→ No: Return to normal time

Notice how both attack options are high risk high reward. I like to keep it this way to have combat be the last resort in this setting. There are lot’s of things that can go wrong and it’s much better (and safer) if you come up with a non-aggressive solution to a problem.

Speaking of solutions…


computers

Analog computer video game (1964)

Remember I mentioned those tubes and cables? Well, they can be used to help you not die in space.

Magic!

In the world of Lo-5 computers are slow, but they perform incredibly complex tasks that decide between life and death for the crew (which is similar to how Battlestar Galactica does it). Their computing power is limited, so you have decide which calculations you want to prioritize every turn. Information becomes extremely precious when you don’t have the capacity to know everything.

I talk about energy units in a later section about emissions management.

When you want to make a calculation, decide on its complexity. Based on what you choose and how many energy units you are willing to spend, place a counter ticking down every turn until the calculation is done.

A computer’s task can be…

  • Simple: 1 turn per/energy units
  • Moderate: 2 turns per/energy units
  • Complex: 3 turns/energy units

Example: you trying to calculate your own ship trajectory. You are moving close to several big asteroids and a moon at high speeds, so let’s say its a moderate complexity calculation. If you invest 1 token it will take 2/1=2 turns to calculate. 2 tokens - 2/2=1 turn, and so on.

Less than 1 turn is an instant calculation, but remember about the heat generated! Every energy unit you spend on calculation will be converted into heat and raise your chances of being detected (details in the next section).

Here are some possible calculations you might need on a spaceship:

Drift time is how long you can go without venting heat

calculations:
drift time
own ship trajectory
target identification
target trajectory
target rotation
own ship manoeuvre
active scan
weapons fire
light speed jump

game ideas

Some ways to gamify the setting I’ve outlined above.

1. ship stations

Let’s start with what’s going on inside the ship. The most important thing imho is to give each player a role that is not too overwhelming, and not only useful in a single situation.

  • Navigation: piloting! they are also in charge of the map and relaying information about the flight of the ship.
  • Comms: in charge of sending and receiving communications from other ships, but also detecting and identifying new contacts. Would be cool if they have a log sheet where they can write down the names and stats of ships they meet.
  • Weapons: targeting enemy ships, loading and firing lasers or torpedoes. They are in charge of the to hit rolls when firing.
  • Engineering: they deal with repairs and manging the energy supply of the ship (when to use full power, when to lay low). Ageing systems can be represented with something like usage dice (from The Black Hack) - the smaller the die size, the closer the component is to breaking.
  • Computing: like engineering, but specifically for dealing with computers. They are the messenger between the crew and the computer, relaying calculations needed to be made and keeping track of the results.

I’ve already noted that emissions management is extremely important in space stealth, so let’s explore it some more.

2. emissions management

A good rule of thumb is: the more electricity something consumes, the more heat it will have to radiate away. So the task of energy management is figuring out what systems are crucial at this moment, and what has to be turned off in order to save enegy/heat.

In a game setting I would use several tokens to represent the available energy units from the reactor (let’s say 5 for this example). The role of the engineer would be distributing these tokens between turns and notifying the crew what can and cannot be used. If they decide to cut off navigation, it would better be for a good reason.

Adding several tokens to a system will boost it’s performance. Here is what a spaceship in the process of searching an area would look like:

LADAR has two energy tokens, allowing for higher chances of detecting an enemy ship. Lights are turned off to gain that extra token.

reactor: on | engine: idle
passive LADAR ++ 
navigation +  
computers +
life support + 
lights  -

if you are just cruising in friendly space, I imagine you would be broadcasting a signal to avoid crashing into other vessels.

If the players aren’t actively trying to hide their ship, resolve detection based on common sense. How far away are they from traffic hubs? Does the session call for an exciting moment?

And if the players are actively in stealth mode, here is my detection procedure:

  • Roll for detection every space travel turn in plain sight. Roll every other turn in a nebula. Don’t roll if you are hiding behind an asteroid or a planet.

  • If performing a burn, roll for detection immediately +10 Heat.

  • If active LADAR is used, roll for encounter immediately.

2.1. detection roll

Roll a 2d6 with the following modifiers:

+1 Heat for every energy unit spent on keeping a system active (life support, computers, lights etc.). Could be cool to have different systems cost you different amounts of Heat emitted.

+3 to +9 Heat for a running reactor (depending on its efficiency). If it’s off, systems deactivate automatically if they are not connected to an auxiliary power supply. The engine cannot burn without a reactor on.

Now compare your result with the relevant detection threshold. If your result is over the given value, your ship is detected and hailed, roll for spaceship contacts.

High traffic area (near space ports): detection on a 10+

Medium traffic area (flight routes): detection on a 15+

Low traffic area (system outskirts): detection on a 20+

2d6 spaceship contacts
1 Pirate base
2-4 Pirate hunter
5-6 Interceptor
7 Freighter ship
8-9 Corvette
10-11 Battle cruiser
12 Mothership

Okay, but how do we know what’s going on outside the ship?

3. ranges

This is a way to abstractly visualise space combat without the use of grids. These ranages are based on actual ranges used in submarine navigation.

Draw three concentric circles around your ship. As an option you can also mark sectors within these circles (like forward and aft for instance). Use miniatures or tokens to represent contacts travelling through space. The zones inside those circles will represent the three ranges of your sensors:

  1. Detection range: when something is in this zone, you know it’s there. You won’t know the details, but you can approximate it’s size and trajectory.
  2. Identification range: objects that reach this zone can be identified and scanned.
  3. Targeting range: this is when your sensors can lock onto an enemy and torpedoes will be able to quickly reach their target.
  4. Your ship: if something like a torpedo or an asteroid reaches this area, it hits your ship!

Every turn contacts can move through these ranges, depending on hidden knowledge. The basic movements are:

  • Parallel: the object stays the same distance from your ship.
  • Across: the object passes close to your ship, but not on a collision course.
  • Constant bearing: that’s when the object gets closer to you every turn. If this happens, it’s likely that you were detected. There might be a collision if you don’t get your ship out of the way (shooting the thing won’t do much in space, it will still be moving at you but in a million pieces).

And that’s all I have for now. Thank you for reading this far! Hope you enjoyed this post, and always feel free to text me on discord or twitter if you want to chat about it.

Stay tuned for my next post in the series: space is an ocean, space stations are islands. In it I will explore Lo-5 star systems in detail: what they look like, how to generate one, how are ladder tables involved in this?


further reading

Throne of Salt - A Layman’s Guide to Hard Sci-Fi - has some great tips on how to further use real world knowledge to deepen your setting.

Atomic Rockets - Detection - a really deep article on stealth in space. It has nice examples from fiction, as well as a great collection of reference images (some of which I used in this post).

Wikipedia - Interplanetary Spaceflight - a good intro to modern propulsion systems that you could use in your game. Also it explains the basic mechanics of moving from planet to planet in an approachable way which is always a plus.

September 6, 2021 space game design setting

crafting adventures with screenwriting

There’s some stuff that I’ve picked up over the years from screenwriting that I thought could be useful if applied to adventure writing for RPGs! I’ve used this method in a couple of my works and now I feel like I have a good enough grasp on it to share it with you through this blog post…

And as a disclaimer: I am coming at this topic from the perspective of a screenwriter and someone who is more familiar with narrative focused play! I am 110% sure that the following info won’t be helpful for every type of adventure, but I hope you take away something useful <3

Power of Theme

In adventure writing theme is everything for me. Most of the time you are not writing a complete story, or a static description of a place. No, you are building a vibrant world, a scene for the players to explore and take part in. In doing so, you will transfer some sort of theme to your audience (the players), who will take it in their hands and discover all it’s intricacies, quirks and surprises by creating their story around your theme.

So what is a theme exactly?

Theme can be one or a couple of words describing a concept you want to explore with your project. Really it can be anything and you can go as deep / as casual, as concrete / as abstract as you want.

Example: Winterhome, a scenario about visiting your home during the winter. Theme is coziness.

Applying theme during the writing process is quite straightforward. Write your text as usual, and when you are at a decision point, you choose the variant that’s the closest to the theme you are going for.

Example: should the village have houses made of metal or wood? I chose wood because it felt more cozy to me.

IMPORTANT: theme can change during the writing process! Don’t be afraid to go ahead and change it to something that suits your draft better. Though I personally try my best to at least stay true to the feeling I had in mind for the project at the beginning.

You can also specify the theme when you are further into the writing process. Specifying your theme can help narrow down the scope of your project, and also guide you through more tricky decisions.

Example: coziness —transforms into—> finding coziness in travel

Now we can move one to setting up the foundations of your adventure. In this post I will focus on 3 major elements props / locations / characters. All of them will be in some way informed by the theme you’ve chosen in the beginning.

Using prop / Location / Character

Prop / Location / Character are the three elements I think about when building a scenario (sorry that I don’t have a cool acronym for them). You can focus your writing on one, two or all three elements depending on the scope of your project.

While the division of the three elements helps with concentrating on certain aspects, I try to keep in mind that the Prop-Location-Character always exist in relation to one another. Ask: whom did this item belong to? Who inhabits this location? How do the actions of the dwellers affect their environment?

Next, you want to introduce some potential of change, or as I like to call it - momentum. My favourite adventures are never static. If the players don’t do anything the situation will usually worsen or even have an affect on player characters themselves.

In classic fantasy RPGs it would be something like:

A place of safety -> moment of risky travel -> a very dangerous fight.

Instead of this framework of basic rising tension, I propose introducing change into one of the Prop / Location / Character elements. For instance:

Prop: a changing object. A ticking time bomb is the best example. Something that requires the players’ attention, and it will create more problems unless dealt with.

Location: a change of scenery. Either the location itself changes or the characters travel to a new place (an adventure set on a boat for example).

A neat framework could be: place one -> place two that tells us more about place one -> place three that ties everything together.

Arrival at Winterhome (view of the coastline / obscured) -> walking in the town (some understanding of the streets) -> climbing the mountain top (gives a view of the whole town / complete knowledge).

In this example, the process of discovery is what drives the momentum / players’ interest, not necessarily rising action. There’s always a group that will enjoy a calmer / more methodical experience.

Character: a character desires/enacts change. A leader on the brink of a revolution. An scientist on the verge of discovery. I always try to introduce the players to the story at the latest possible moment before the change happens. This gives them a chance to participate, but also puts them at a tense time limit.

Now that we have our foundational blocks moving and turning (probably not the best thing for an irl foundation lol), you may start expanding your ideas into an entire adventure.

In the next section I talk a bit about contrast, a useful tool if you want the elements of your adventure shine.

Applying Contrast

The elements above can be strengthened by contrast! Though not obligatory, your foundational blocks (prop / location / character) may benefit from having an opposing counter part.

A king will seem greedier next to a peasant. A sailor will seem more adventurous next to a clerk etc.

Disney films are the most obvious example on my mind. For example how Mufasa and Scar are juxtaposed in their approach to leadership in The Lion King.

I’ve been giving contrasting characters as examples, but exactly the same logic also applies to locations and props!

Closing Thoughts

This is in no way the true / the only way to write adventures, but I think it’s a good start if you are not sure how to begin! Most importantly, don’t feel like you have to conform to the framework above, it’s totally okay (and expected!) to go off rails and explore your own route.

If you have any questions feel free to reach out @mayvisit on twitter! i’ll try my best to help out.

Further Reading

Some links if you want to read more on the topic. The following posts are primarily focused on polishing your adventure and getting it out there.

A Doodle Is Worth A Thousand Hallway Descriptions on Papers and Pencils - a very cool post about dungeon maps that I think highlights well the importance of making sure your adventure can be easily referenced at the table.

How I Plan and Write RPG Books on Coins and Scrolls - a step by step walkthrough of creating an RPG book. And by RPG book I mean RPG BOOK. Lot’s of the steps can be skipped if you are working on a smaller scoped project, but the advice is still solid.

July 22, 2021 game design guide

visiting san sibilia

I play a solo game written by Jimmy Shelter. The values in brackets are the cards I drew that turn. The journal text has been minimally edited for typos and sentences making sense.

Get updated version of the game here

I played a lonely poet going by the name of Nemo.

day 1 of Fall

A train horn woke me up from my sleep. To my surprise there were no other passengers on the train, and I could not find the attendant. Something drew me out of the car and onto the foggy platform. A station I did not recall. Through the mist I read the name of this place… San Sibilia.

I remember hearing reading about this place. In a bookstore I worked at we had a pamphlet stand. It contained lots of travelling brochures and Visit San Sibilia” was one of them. I did not bother to give it any attention at the time, but the design of the brochure changed from day to day.

As I turned around as I’ve noticed my first problem. The train was gone. With all my luggage still there. I was so glad I carried my pen and notebook in the inside pocket of my coat, or I would not be writing this. Anyway, I did have a few marks that I could exchange for accommodation. It was getting late and I didn’t want to be stranded on the streets.

I found this cozy little motel situated right alongside the beach. To my relief I had just enough coins for a week long stay, with a breakfast included! The host was a tall man in a colourful suit (that reminded me of my stay in Budapest). He approached me in the most polite manner that made me self-conscious of my grumpy mood and look.

The room I got had a partial view of the sea. The moon reflecting in the ways was a beautiful sight, but I just wanted to sleep.

day 2 of Fall (2-7)

The host’s name was Lado. He prepared me a wonderful breakfast, and we chatted about the town. When I asked if there were any other guests at the motel, he answered that there have not been any visitors to the town in a long long time”. He finished the conversation by inviting me to the Theatre d’Amroise, reasoning that he had a spare ticket. I promptly agreed since I had no plans for the evening (and I had not gone to a theatre with another person for quite a while).

I spent the rest of my day looking for a shop with suits. I could not pass the occasion to be fancy for once. A local tailor Ruslan helped me pick a suit, which he gave as a gift. A welcome gift for my favourite customer” he exclaimed.

As the day drew closer to afternoon, I was becoming increasingly nervous. What was I doing? Going out in an unknown city. I was supposed to find a way out of here. Contact the train company and get my suitcases back. I was supposed to do things that I wasn’t doing right now.

Instead of going to the theatre I laid down on the sandy beach. Watching the sun set for what felt like hours.

that night (Q-2)

I did not hear Lado’s footsteps approaching, but he was here now. Sitting besides me. I think he saw the smile on my face because he chuckled with his unique softness. It was the first time I heard him laugh.

day 1 of Winter (6-5 clubs)

I haven’t skied since my childhood vacations in the Alps, but Lado really wanted to show me the mountains. We planned to stay at his sister’s ski resort that would provide all the equipment.

The resort looked a lot like the place Lado had at the beach. Instead of overlooking the sea, the sight was of a snowy hillside.

Agata, Lado and I spent the whole afternoon skiing down the magnificent slopes. It took me to fall about ten times before I could ski at their pace.

As the evening came over the hills like a warm blanket, I took the chance to read my book (from Lado’s collection). It detailed the history and geography of San Sibilia, but as soon I turned over the page I passed out on the couch near the fireplace.

day 7 of Winter (7-7)

I did not expect to see my name on the theatre poster. Apparently I was reading my poems for one night only! Lado assured me it was going to go great. Well, at least I got to wear that suit I had gotten more than a season ago.

There were not many seats, there were even fewer audience members. I saw the familiar faces of Agata, Lado (of course) and Ruslan. A couple of new people that I did not have the pleasure of meeting yet. In all honesty this is probably more folks than those who read my writing.

After the reading I met with the town mayor in the theatre hall. They said that they liked my poems so much that they would reopen the old library in my name! I was incredibly humbled by that idea. Riley announced the renovated Nemo Library” will be open next season for everyone to enjoy.

I felt too emotional to sleep. Lado and I sat on the cold sang of the icy beach.

day 10 of Winter (8-4)

Today I had a brunch with the mayor. Riley pointed out to me that because of my poems all kinds of folk became inspired to create.

So many have started to paint that they organised a little gallery in the town hall. Riley had the thought of opening a permanent art space soon. Really changing up the art scene in the town.

day 1 of Spring (K-8 clubs)

I picked up the newspaper this morning, anticipating the library opening. And there it was! VISIT NEMO LIBRARY on the front page. I could not express the joy I felt at the moment. And I sat there with this careless smile on my face, until Lado called me downstairs.

day 2 of Spring (4-6)

Was having a long overdue coffee with Lado in the motel’s seaside porch. Just a very cozy day.

day 5 of Summer (10-V clubs)

I was woken up by distant music. I felt the need to trod the foggy streets of morning San Sibilia, looking for the source of the eerie melodies.

I found myself on the train station platform. The train attendant playing their tiny music box. I got into the car cabin on impulse. As soon both of my feet were inside the train started moving.

I did not jump out.

I found my suitcases where they were last time. All my things neatly folded as always.

I reached into the back pocket of my coat. A ticket for a night at the Theatre d’Amroise.

April 4, 2021 play report