Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Answering the Sinking Ship Challenge

Spectacular view of northern Svalbard*
First off, thanks all for the many responses yesterday.  The themes that emerged in the comments reflected similar approaches to what I decided to use.  Folks astutely pointed out, if the idea of the campaign is to explore a megadungeon on a frozen northern island, just start the group there already.   Eliminate any initial chance at a shipwreck, and assume they're some of the adventurers that made it to the island successfully.

Here was my problem:  I do prefer that PC's and NPC's follow the same set of rules.  If there's a chance that NPC ships sink on the way to the island, there needs to be a chance for the PC ships to sink as well - otherwise I'm treating players like the special unique snowflakes in a world built just for them to exploit.  It minimizes player achievement; "winning on the easy setting" is unsatisfying.  So I needed a way to put some risk back into the journey.

My own way of reconciling these two competing positions is like this:  new groups will *always* begin adventuring right on the island of Thule, at the Viking base camp (Trade Town).  However, during campaign play, once they return home at the end of the adventuring season, all bets are off.  When/if they plan a return trip the following year, they'll need to account for the same risks as everyone else voyaging to the island.

When the group plans a return trip the following year, there will be choices to make to mitigate the dangers of the journey.  They could sign on with an experienced captain (and offer back shares of their loot), or buy their own ship and hire their own captain and navigator.  They can make riskier choices, leaving early in the season to get a jump on the competition, risking more dangerous sea ice, or play it safe and wait for warmer weather.  The amount of cargo will be a factor as well.  I'm sure resourceful players would come up with ways to use the spell lists to reduce risks of weather or ship damage.  If you're going to have an element of "courageous seagoing exploration" in the game, you owe it to the genre to give the players a chance to make both bold and safe choices.

A number of comments involved switching the discussion from "make it safe to the island/ or die" to "make it safe to the island/ or deal with complications/ or die" - in other words, stop thinking about sinking as an either/or proposition, and add some degrees of failure to the mix - maybe supplies are lost, the ship arrives but is damaged, resources and hit points are gone, that kind of stuff.  Great ideas, and it's given me a lot to develop.

Campaign play for the Black City is something I'm putting in the appendix.  After these discussions, I'll be adding a section on navigational hazards and complications to cover rules for making it back and forth to the island safely when it's used in an ongoing campaign - thanks for the help!

*The picture is another spectacular view of Svalbard, this one in the northern part of the archipelago in high summer - the photographer's full set is here, creative commons: Kenyai's Svalbard photos.


  1. Sounds like a good compromise. I'm looking forward to seeing the finished product :)

  2. "I do prefer that PC's and NPC's follow the same set of rules."

    This can easily be taken way too far. The average peasant taking his goods to market isn't rolling on the encounter table each day with a 1 in 10 chance of meeting orcs or an ankheg. Yet we do that sort of thing with PCs because it's assumed they're the guys who attract trouble. Likewise, you don't roll dice to simulate the daily life of every NPC in your world; there are appropriate levels of abstraction.

    The sea certainly needs to be dangerous for both PC and NPC, but how you model that danger will vary appropriately.

  3. S'mon: "The average peasant taking his goods to market isn't rolling on the encounter table each day with a 1 in 10 chance of meeting orcs or an ankheg."

    On the other hand, that peasant isn't wandering down the same wilderness roads as the adventurers. When adventurers head down the roads that the peasant takes, they aren't any more likely to see an ankheg, or even orcs. At least, that's how it is in my games.

  4. I think that's a pretty good solution. But I still wouldn't have calamities result in PC death. If I'm a player in a game and going to Dungeon A means we roll a die and see if I get there alive, and roll a die to see if get home alive, I'm going to go to another dungeon instead. It doesn't really matter how low the roll is, if the roll is "or die" and I have a choice to avoid it.

    If I know that we roll a die, and see if horrible crap happens to me that might hurt my guy, or I might lose some money, or I might end up washed up on the shores of the Isle of Angry Snowmonsters, then hell yeah, let's go! When my PC wins, I win, and when my PC loses, I win!

  5. I appreciate your position, Peter, but I also maintain death should always be something that could result from really bad decisions... if a low-level group makes the decision to visit the Hill Giant cave, and half the group gets flattened, do they have the right to complain?

    Likewise, let's say that conventional wisdom is that sailing in May is low risk, and sailing in June is completely safe. The group knowingly leaves in April when there will be huge ice bergs and chunks of sea ice along the way - sailing blind at night in a sea studded with hazardous ice chunks isn't a good plan - no better than low level guys taking on a Giant. Sinking and dying should be an option. (Although I'm clearly discounting options like magical countermeasures, an enchanted vessel, night vision, all sorts of things resourceful players would imagine).

    But I'm on board with making most failures along the way as 'interesting complications' and leaving extremely bad results the consequence of appropriately bad plans.

    I'm also sensitive that making it a "party saving throw to avoid TPK" isn't fun - much better to require multiple rolls, or ship damage, or some other solution that gives a chance that even a bad result is survivable.

    This will be a fun subsystem to put together when I get there - Navigational Hazards across the Icy Sea!

  6. Even if a ship sinks you can have PCs in lifeboats, stranded on melting ice floes, all kinds of fun stuff. Lots of sea monsters to prey on them, the chance to be spotted by another ship or even a friendly monster/spirit.

    But maybe a sunk ship does mean certain death for low level PCs. The trick then would be to make trying to keep the ship afloat in the storm a developing challenge for the PCs, something like a combat encounter - perhaps climaxing in a battle with a storm-spirit.

    And finally, if you are doing roll-or-die, tell the players that, and tell them the odds. IME they'll then be conservative in their choices.

  7. Good luck - should be a fun game! :)

  8. I agree that what's good (or bad) for NPCs is good (or bad) for the PCs, and vice-versa, but then, most of us don't make our players roleplay digging new latrines, or reshingling roofs, or farrowing the new litter of pigs, either. It gives us a little leeway as GMs. ;)

    Looking forward to your further developments!