Friday, November 14, 2014

Man vs Nature in Roleplaying Games

I've been on something of a survival / woodcraft / bushcraft streak lately, and it got me thinking about gaming. Doesn't everything?

Common literary theory boasts that there are essentially a Big Four of conflict in story: Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, Man vs Society, and Man vs Self.

Man vs Man is of course, the easiest to import into a role-playing game. Man vs Society can be slightly more obscure, but depending on how you want to handle it, it can be imported either through deliberate conflict, or by a motivation-based system, like Spiritual Attributes (The Riddle of Steel) or Beliefs (Burning Wheel). Similarly, Man vs Self can be explored as a theme through those motivation-based reward systems.

But how does one make use of Man vs Nature? Sure, you can be as direct as dropping a grizzly bear in front of the party and making them fight it, but that doesn't come close to capturing the feeling involved, or making that struggle a meaningful one.

For a long while, I've wanted to set up a campaign in such a way that exploration was an important part of the story: Charting uncharted lands, coming across the ruins of lost civilizations, the whole thing. While ruins and dungeons and whatever else are a way to make things interesting, is it possible to make man vs nature itself an interesting and vital aspect of the journey? It seems to largely be either hand-waved away, or worse: devolve into a series of rolls for fatigue or travel speed.

I seem to recall Mouse Guard had a mechanic that actually allowed you to make opposed rolls vs abstract concepts (I remember an episode of The Strand Gamers in which someone was rolling Weatherwise vs Spring? Or something), but I can't recall the specifics. Does this make things more evocative? I'm not sure. How do you make it impact the character - the player - beyond some rolls to resist fatigue, or cold, or whatever else.

Feel free to leave comments on this one. I'd love to know if there are any systems that do this well, or is it simply something that doesn't translate? I suppose it is hard to be cold, starving, soaked and annoyed at the rain when the player in reality is warm, dry, comfortable, and eating potato chips.

Until next time,


  1. It's a conundrum, that's for sure. The best I have seen have all been variations of Outdoor Survival's fatigue mechanic: there is a resource that diminishes in the face of some hardship that reduces the character's ability to withstand more hardship. That's how the Keith brothers' Environment books for Traveller worked (and why I wish that The Arctic Environment had gotten a wider release than it did). Characters gained "Endurance Loss Points" (or ELPs) for exposure to hardship or from exertion, which they could recover from in various ways (though significant loss requires weeks of recovery time).

    I'm not sure that Outdoor Survival's basic mechanism can really be improved upon in a game. One could make it more detailed or more abstracted (perhaps), but that would depend on the specific effect the game was going for.

    1. I'll have to look it up. How do Endurance Loss Points actually affect the game?

      That's always kind of the rub for me, I think. For me, the game mechanics work when they match the fiction. In most cases, the choices that make the most sense to the character in-game should also make the most sense to the player mechanically. The rub for survival conflicts is incentivizing players to respond to the elements the way their characters do. To worry about fatigue, exposure to the elements, hardship, etc... but without simply burning it down to "you're tired, -1 to your skill checks."

    2. The Keith brothers version reduced the Endurance characteristic. For every (Current End) in ELPs, Endurance was reduced by 1. Traveller uses a 2d6 scale for characteristics, so a person with an average Endurance of 7 would get 7 ELPs and go to 6 which can't be recovered without weeks of rest and recuperation. When Endurance drops to 0, the character is unconscious and dying. Otherwise, it just matters what other factors Endurance affects, which is up to the Referee for the most part (characteristics have little effect in classic Traveller other than Referee decisions, though they are more important in other editions). The thing is that, if the players make poor decisions, they can accrue enough ELPs in mere hours to severely affect their characters (though, by making reasonable and cautious decisions, they can manage to last days in the face of hostile environments).

      Examples of actions that give ELPs include movement (different terrain gives different rates, so that Flat, open ground gives 2 ELPs per hour, while Loose sand gives 4 per hour), high or low temperatures give various rates if the character is unprotected, lack of food gives ELPs for each day after the first with half rations or less. Moving quickly increases movement rate but increases movement ELPs dramatically (slow run doubles movement, but increases ELPs by 3x and accrues them every 10 minutes instead of each hour and so on). "Violent or heavy exercise - such as hand to hand combat" gives 5 ELPs for each 10 minutes (Traveller used a 15 second combat round), which some Referees might read as 1 ELP per 2 minutes (I would), while others might read as 5 full ELPs per 10 minutes or fraction. There are others, and these are just some of the ones from The Desert Environment, since I am not looking up The Mountain Environment and still don't have The Undersea Environment (or The Arctic Environment, which saw a very limited print run years later, when I didn't know about it).

      Another thing to keep in mind is that, in Traveller, the physical characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, Endurance) function as the character's hit points, so any loss of Endurance affects the character's combat abilities directly. Traveller already has a pretty nasty "one hit and down" combat system, but even a 1 point reduction can be a significant one since higher characteristics alter the likelihood of managing to get through that first hit by quite a lot. In later editions of Traveller, characteristics often have even more impact, since they more frequently affect other aspects of the game as well.

      (two parts due to length)

    3. As an overview, Traveller combat works like this: roll to hit, modified by target's armor and range. On a hit, roll damage dice (a pistol might do 3D, always in d6 since that's all Traveller uses). If it's the first hit on that character, roll 1D to determine which characteristic is affected (1-2: Strength, 3-4: Dexterity, 5-6: Endurance). Apply damage to that characteristic. If any damage is left over (likely), roll for the next characteristic affected, and so on. Now, if the first characteristic is not reduced to zero, the character is still standing (if one characteristic or more is reduced to zero, the character is unconscious, severely injured, or dead). Later hits can be applied to any characteristic of the player's choice, but each rolled die must be applied fully to one characteristic (so, if a 3D result of 10 is from a 1, 3, and 6, then the 6 must be applied to one characteristic, the 3 to one characteristic, and the 1 to one characteristic). Keep in mind that these characteristics are on a 2d6 scale (though, with modifiers during character creation, they can potentially range up to 15).

      I just noticed, referencing things, that Endurance also affects how many blows a character can make at full strength in hand to hand combat (it's been a while since I've played classic Traveller, since most people play Mongoose these days and I tend to like MegaTraveller; as an aside, I'm definitely regaining my appreciation for the original game, though I still have problems with parts of it*).

      In Outdoor Survival, on the other hand, levels of fatigue reduce the piece's movement rate, which can be devastating.

      That got long, mostly because the question leads into some wider rules for Traveller in order to answer it properly.

      *Those specific problems were largely fixed with the boardgame Azhanti High Lightning, I have been informed in recent years, which I have never owned. I will have to get a copy of the rules, at least.

  2. In The One Ring RPG (TOR), the player group assigns duties to each character for the journey (Guide, Scout, Huntsman, Lookout) and then asks for a number of fatigue tests depending on the terrain and length of the trip, modified by the "hostileness" of the region.

    When a fatigue test fails and a certain symbol (the Eye of Sauron) appears on a special die, a "Hazard" has to be faced. These depend on the duty, the character which failed the test had to execute (for example the Guide lost the trail, the Scout misses the signs that mark the edges of a dangerous area, the Huntsman fails to gather enough provisions,...).

    I have never had the opportunity to try and test those rules, but from reading they seem to be pretty simple. Only the amount of fatigue tests to be made seems to be quite high (an example journey from Dale to the House of Beorn along the northern edges if Mirkwood takes 11 tests during winter or 5 tests during summer)...

  3. In the Marvel Heroic RPG Weiss Productions put out, the GM got a pool of "doom points" over time during a session, and that pool's size and amount of points had specific outcomes.

    I think you could do something similar for survival or nature. Given that part of survival is time management- that is, what the players face and do about it, you could have a Doom Pool or Nature Pool or whathaveyou that grows based on what isn't being taken care of. If a storm comes in or animals interfere or things complicate, Doom points get added and might influence how things play out.

    At least that's my first thought on the subject.