Friday, September 5, 2014

The Survival Dilemma, Pt. I

Yet another World Gone Mad (WGM) post. I'm not sure why I'm so into my own brand right now. But anything that keeps me writing, right?

So I've been mulling over the whole "Survival Dilemma" with WGM. The dilemma is this: how do I make the struggle to survive both mechanically satisfying and conducive to fun, narrative-based play? At first glance, both of these elements seem mutually exclusive. I could easily fill my game with stats and sub-systems and procedures to cover every basic aspect of survival, but I know me; I'd ignore them as soon as they hit the table, in favor of "staying in the moment" and telling a story, because personally I find that shit boring. On the other hand, simply hand-waving my way through mundane things that could become real problems in a post-apocalypse setting...things like light, waste disposal, a solid roof...that's taking the "survival" out of "survival horror." The glory and tragedy of a post-apocalypse world, filled with zombies or otherwise, is that these day-to-day things we take for granted can become the basis for captivating...even epic...roleplaying.

How I've handled it thus far is with what I informally call "the Supply system." Riffing off of the barter system in Apocalypse World, all items in WGM have an arbitrary "Supply" value. Survivors (PCs), collect Supply in the abstract, then "barter" with the Zombie Master for what a particular item would cost. So, for example, a survivor has "12 Supply" on their character sheet. They would like to have a rope to climb a steep wall. The player would ask me "how much supply do I need to spend for a rope?" Based on what kind of character the player is (a rugged survivalist is far more likely to carry a rope than a schoolgirl) and how that character acquired that Supply (12 Supply that came from a raided house is less likely to have a rope than 12 Supply from a hardware store), I'd assign a cost. Let's say I tell the player "A rope is going to cost you 4 Supply." So the player subtracts 4 from the survivor's Supply, then writes "rope" in the survivor's inventory. The player now has 8 Supply left to barter with the ZM for other survival items later on, and the rope is a regular inventory item "purchased" with Supply.

Up until now, this is how I've handled everything that isn't a gun in World Gone Mad. You need bandages for your wounds? 2 Supply. You need to eat? 1 Supply per meal. Gas for that car? 6 Supply. The reason I like this system is that it allows the survival elements of play to stay in the background until I (or the players) want to make an issue of them. Rather than having to think carefully about every individual item in an apartment, I can simply throw out a number and move on. Later, when the Provider has a gunshot wound, the Innocent has a flu, and the Outcast needs to climb to the roof of a building, we can start talking about the exact pieces of gear the group is going to need, Supply can be pooled and spent and obsessed over, and play continues.

One technique I'd like to tinker with to try and address the Survival Dilemma is to have a more rigid idea of what Supply in the abstract means. Right now, all I have established is that 1 Supply roughly equals one meal for a single person. That has been "the gold standard" upon which I make my snap judgements on the Supply value of things. I'm thinking, if I more fully flesh-out what various items cost, Supply-wise, the effect could be two-fold: one, I could use less abstractions in play (instead of saying "you find 4 Supply" in an apartment, I could look over my charts and say " find two meals, a pair of pants, and a flashlight," specific stuff equaling 4 Supply); and two, this could fit the "fun and functional" criteria for the Survival Dilemma by having survivors keep meticulous inventories of the exact survival items they have.

Now, Dear Reader, here is one of those posts where I'd love to hear thoughts. What do you think of the Supply system? Does it sound like it achieves my goal of being mechanically sound yet playably fun? Do you think I should do more with it? Do you have ideas on what certain survival gear should cost? Obviously what I'd love to hear most is opinions shaped by actual play, followed by game designers who have actually tackled this dilemma. For this particular idea, though, rampant speculation from people who have never played (or never intend to play) my game would at least be worth a read. So let me know what you think. Please comment right here in the blog entry, if you would, so I can track the discussion across the various shares (and, Lord willing, re-shares) of this entry. If you don't want to do this for whatever reason, commenting on the G+ share, or messaging me on G+ would be just fine.

I'll end this entry with a rough draft of Supply costs, just basic ideas of what items cost what number of Supply. Remember as you go over this and offer your thoughts that a Supply value is an abstraction of usefulness, rarity, and quality:

1 Supply:
-A single can of food (enough for one meal for one person)
-Enough bandages to wrap up a small wound, like a knife stab
-One article of clothing (shirt, pants, scarf, etc.)
-One tool of fair quality (hammer, screwdriver, etc.)
-A crude weapon (doing 1D6 Weakened damage)
-One personal-scaled piece of camping gear (flashlight, canteen, etc.)

2 Supply: 
-A fair quality melee weapon (baseball bat, combat knife) dealing 1D6 or 1D6 Improved damage
-A multi-tool/Swiss army knife
-A small first aid kit, including bandages and anti-septic gel
-Over the counter drugs, such as aspirin, flu medication, etc.
-A small caliber handgun or hunting rifle (no ammo)
-A bow or crossbow with up to 2 Ammo
-Sleeping bag
-Approximately 40 feet of rope, cable, or wire

3 Supply:
-A small caliber handgun or hunting rifle with up to 2 Ammo
-Prescription drugs, such as penicilin/antibiotics, anti-depressants, heart/blood pressure medication
-A full-on medical kit, including a tourniquet and adrenaline shot
-A high-quality/exotic melee weapon (katana, polearm, chainsaw)
-Heavy-duty clothing, all-weather sleeping bag, or protective gear equaling up to 2 Armor
-High caliber or assault rifle (no ammo)
-A stocked, standard issue toolbox
-Military-grade meal, ready-to-eat (MRE)
-A personal, manually-powered vehicle (bicycle, skateboard, canoe, etc.)

4 Supply:
-High caliber or assault rifle with up to 2 Ammo
-Small caliber handgun or hunting rifle with up to 5 Ammo
-A single explosive, like a grenade or dynamite
-Enough hard crafting material (wood, brick, stone, etc.) to build a small shed/shack
-Enough soft crafting material (silk, cotton, linen, etc.) to tailor an entire outfit
-Rare/expensive drugs, such as AIDS or cancer medication, or illegal drugs
-Full body armor/riot gear, up to 4 Armor
-A tent that can fit up to 4 people


  1. I like the idea of keeping it fluid, rather than having set costs. Guidelines are nice but leaving it to the MC to decide for his or her game seems best to me.

  2. I like it! It's simple and generic, which leaves it up to the players and the GM to decide the specifics. I think I'll have to give this system a try soon, I'll bet my players would enjoy it.

    I played in a Deadlands: Hell on Earth game which used a similar system; the results of a successful scroungin' roll netted the scavengers 1d6 bullets of random types (or 2d6 on a more successful roll) or generic technological "components" which could be used to build gadgets or trade. The definition of "component" was loose, so we'd occasionally just find something inherently useful, like a battery or bandages. It worked, but it always felt odd and very much at the GM's whim. I prefer your system, where the players make requests and GM fulfills them.

    Some of my players like to find specific objects, though. These are the types that have an extra sheet of graph paper attached to their character sheet, just for gear (I am such a player). When I run DL:HoE for those folks I lean on the Gamma World (Alternity Edition) random salvage table; it's a big enough table where each result feels random, and there's some truly strange objects on it to make it feel like an interesting gamble each time you scavenge. You could easily end up with a rifle, a plastic toy, headphones, or a large spring.

    I'd love to see an even bigger version of that table, tailored specifically to a setting. Having a system for easily creating random salvage table for your specific game would be worthwhile, I think. Maybe a few printable random salvage tables you can pick and choose for your setting? You could mix "industrial" and "cyberpunk" for a Necromunda/Hive World type feel, or "surburban" and "modern rural" for a Night of the Living Dead feel.