Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Game-Mastering Dilemma: Sinking the Player's Ship

Sea ice off the coast of Svalbard
Holiday break is over, and it's back to work.  Hope everyone had a nice break and is charged up for another year as we countdown to 2012.  Let's kick things off with a game mastering dilemma.  I'd love to hear how different DM's would approach the issue outlined below.  I don't know whether folks still think in terms of GNS* and games theory (see notes below), but my first thought is this can also be analyzed as a GNS problem - your priorities would inform your own solution.

The Problem
I've been working on a campaign setting on the blog on and off for a while, called The Black City.  It's a ruined alien city on the shore of a frozen northern island; I'm calling the island Thule, but the real world inspiration is Spitsbergen island (part of the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic circle north of Norway).  Viking adventurers have discovered the ruined city and the lucrative treasures found in the icy ruins.

Ocean travel during the Dark Ages was dangerous, and ships were frequently lost.  For example, the records of the Viking expedition from Iceland to Greenland report that nearly 50% of the initial colonization fleet didn't make it (either turned back or were lost at sea).  The trip from Lappland to Svalbard is equally as long - about two weeks across open ocean, with the only possible stop at Bear Island in the Barents Sea.

During summer, June-August, the ocean north of Lappland should be passable and navigable with little or no sea ice.  The Atlantic current keeps the southwestern Barents Sea warmer than comparable latitudes in the Arctic.  The confluence of Atlantic currents and cold Arctic waters does create strong currents and frequent mists and fogs, complicating sailing conditions even when the sea ice is gone.  There's only a few months of favorable weather for exploration of the ruins each summer. 

We can calculate chances that ships will sink while making the 2-3 week journey, and I'd hazard to guess it's not a trivial percentage.  Sinking is a death sentence in those cold northern waters for everyone on board.  We could quickly identify factors that might cause a ship to sink  - foundering in high waves, getting caught in a squall or storm, crashing into rocks or sea ice while sailing blind in heavy mist and fog.  One could identify factors that would reduce the chances of the same; the experience of the captain and crew, the load and cargo, the presence of beneficial magic, and how early in the season the ship sails (there would be more ice in May, like the picture).

Here's the dilemma for old school dungeon masters:  When the adventure requires a hazardous journey just to arrive at the adventuring site, should the characters have a chance at failing to make it?  Killing the entire party, by sinking their ship on the way to the dungeon, would be identified as a "negative play experience" by modern designers.  Aren't the player characters special unique snowflakes that should be granted sufficient 'plot immunity' to at least make it to the dungeon?

Let me hear how you'd handle this type of ocean travel in your game.  My thought is most DM's would give player ships a chance for sinking or blowing tragically off course based on whatever weather charts they're using, but would then let the players get shipwrecked, washed ashore, or clinging to wreckage, rather than instantly killing everyone.  But washed ashore or shipwrecked is not an option in the arctic waters.  So what would you do?

I had my own solution written as part of the post, but its better to hold that back a few days and first hear how other folks would handle the situation without establishing any precedents.  I've also got a new poll up on the right to get the discussion started.  Let's hear some reasons why we should or shouldn't sink the player's ship in the comments.

*GNS Theory
GNS theory was used on The Forge to analyze approaches in games based on whether the rules were trying to advance a particular agenda - gamist, narrativist, or simulationist.  A simulationist approach might declare that ships will always have a chance to sink and the game rules will try to model a world with internal consistency; the gamist approach might consider it a mere resource problem, and by applying the right choices to the percentages, the players can "win"; a narrativist approach might let the players handle the description of their own journey (along with precautions) and just resume the story at the island.

**Sea Ice pictures
Atmospheric and glacier research is done at Svalbard, along with limited mining, and lots of folks seem to post interesting blogs while they're up there, full of excellent pictures; these sea ice pictures came from this blog (link) and show sea ice conditions in May.