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real lost continents are the best lost continents: Carcosa wacky races and asylum notes for the Sea of O’sr

April 2, 2012 5 comments

FIRST, the reason I’ve been silent for a while is I’ve been noodling about writing a little Carcosa/Toxic Tartary Wacky Races game for (among other things) Flailsnails on Google+. The bare outline:

– you can bring whatever lunacy you’ve invented because flailsnails, but at minimum the home setting will have Carcosan dinosaur riders, Mad Max desert buggies, Tharks on Thoats and carnival floats. Racers have to balance the competing demands of zooming across an electroradiant hellscape (thanks Jeff!) with sabotaging each other and roping the local mongrelmen into their diabolical dirty tricks – and the more they divide their attention, the more likely it is all to go horribly wrong;

– the race will be over in 6-8 turns and the prize will be Grand Yet Mystifying;

– your character may die, mutate, get incorporated in the landscape and or reified/deified along the way. Think you can survive a John Boorman bad trip?

I hope to get it up and running in 2 weeks. We’ll see.

Toxic Tartary is Carcosa through a post-Soviet Central Asian radioactive Arabian Nights filter. For a fantasy filter placed over that, see HF Calder’s handy guide to Sky Piracy Around The Dune Sea – of course all of this is happening somewhere in Toxic Tartary, but with the time-spine ripped out of the historical narrative so that everything is always happening at once – pyramids rising, pirates despised/resurgent, gods rising/falling, nobody really knowing what’s going on. Just like real life.

SECOND: “Siberia shmiberia,” you say, “show me the really cold and unfriendly places!” Blood of Prokopius’ Alaskan nightmare looks to me like equal parts militantly anticolonial Cthulhiana (paging jason kielbasa!) and His Dark Materials arctic horror-mining, and that sounds pretty neat, but I want to go south for my Sea of O’sr adventure path…

On the allure of remote islands in the shadow of Antarctica.

Lost taught me everything I need to know about the value to be found in a single 5 mile hex and the special kind of claustrophobia you can get from knowing the world is out there but it’s beyond reach. So you’ve found a chart that shows a lost continent of wonders down in the deep south ocean and you’ve braved the Appalling Sea Gyres and hundred foot waves to get there – what do you find?

First of all, that most of your lost continent is under water:

Zealandia, larger than Greenland or India, and almost half the size of Australia… is unusually slender.*
Kerguelen Plateau is an underwater volcanic large igneous province (LIP)** in the southern Indian Ocean. It lies about 3,000 km to the southwest of Australia and is nearly three times the size of Japan. I note, not quite in passing: It is thought that Thule and Cook**** may have been a larger single island in the past, and there is evidence for a submerged crater between the two… Volcanic heat keeps the crater on Thule Island free from ice. Just like Arthur Gordon Pym told us...

I am never resorting to Mu or Lemuria again, these are much cooler – and could be seaweed jungle exotica if they somehow breached into view. Look at this handy Antarctic azymuthal: if we add Rlyeh we get 3 points of…  well, actually not a pentagram but a square. Which in some sense is much creepier and more suggestive: Wells gave his Martians tripods because nothing in Earth biology (that he knew of) has 3 legs, and it’s since become a cliche that odd numbers mean alien. But the square, or quincunx (drawing Antarctica’s Mountains of Madness*** into the loop) implicates human involvement about as clearly as it’s possible to do. Giving us a fourth (or fifth) point over the South Sandwich islands near South Georgia.

And suddenly the Falklands War snaps into focus – Argentina, favourite hidey-hole of Hitler-breeding programs, vs. Britain, Evil Emperor of the previous century, fighting over those desolate bits of rock where the colour out of space touches down or, more likely, where it threatens to erupt into the sky. Because check out Gough Island, where you wash up while escaping the Cyclopean basalt towers shooting up on Montagu island, and trying to get back to St. Helena. Sure, when you first crawl ashore it looks a disappointing shade of grey-brown. Until The Colour descends.***** Full set. Stars. This is a campaign frame of seabed-churning horror. The navels of the world – the anchor points of reality – the IKEA allen-key holes into the hollow earth – are found on four islands around the south pole. Tampering with any one of them threatens to break the globe right open and spill the worms out. Alas, I’m not up on my Antarctic Space Nazis, and perhaps all of this is old news to [info]princeofcairo, but given the mindshare New Zealand has claimed since the LoTR movies, I’m starting to think Lawsian thoughts about the effervescent power of collective representations. In my Cthulhu-reversed game, where the PCs were a bunch of monsters ditched in the Bermuda Triangle with a faulty saucer and an Antarctic projection map, all the real action happened underwater. But in this game the point might be not to raise the lost continent but to submerge the ones still left stranded above the protecting waves (fighting against the ancient Atlantean defenses, such as spring-loaded urban floodproofing! Your players will hate it when the Sorcerers of Continent Evil pop their megacity up out of the sea like a turkey thermometer) – to deactivate the transmitter that calls the Mi-go miners back or to keep the crazy nationalist powers of the world from accidentally raising R’lyeh in their ever-more desperate searches for rare earths and fossil fuels.

Suddenly I have an end-game for my still yet to develop Sea of O’sr campaign. Wakwak and Zabag.

Perhaps you’re worried that sinking four lost continents won’t be enough of a climax? Here, have 10 vile vortices (because who’s supposed to make do with just one Bermuda triangle?). Does looking at that map make you think that if you kept adding regularly-spaced triangles you could turn the earth into something like a D20? Well actually it’d be a D17… the number of Pokemon types.

* wtf? Unusually slender?
** srsly, wtf? I love the use of the word “province” here. Far from the even larger igneous metropole (ELIM), perhaps. Metamorphic provinces are of course the diasporogenic engines of the World System.
*** not the Cliffs of Insanity, with which my son is currently obsessed. Oh you knew it would happen.
**** is that why they ate him and took his thighbones up on the mountain? Because he’d namesaked them to this toxic-god-unforsaken necklace of rocks? What did they see, from faraway Big Island?
+ OK, a rough square. Which makes me wonder (although not enough to waste time on it), if one can’t draw a lovely Fibonacci spiral linking together all those place – Ponape, Easter Island, Hy-Brazil, Oak Island etc etc, that stubbornly refuse to conform to great circle ley lines, so that they show up on neatly spaced lines like eclipse paths. And take advantage of the fact that the alignments are never quite right.
*****Via bldgblog, again. Also the wonderfully-named Friends of the Pleistocene (nothing to do with Julian May, I think).

What G+ game should I run (apart from Monkey Magic)?

February 7, 2012 5 comments

So this is currently the idlest of idle questions. I won’t be running a game at least until I’ve got back into playing more regularly, and given my schedule I shouldn’t be running a game at all, and I’m in France so for all you US people my game would probably be at an annoying time, like 4am EST (1am in LA) on Thursdays. But IF I were to run a G+ flailsnails game…

a) might you be interested?

b) what would you most want to play?

What’s the difference?
Carcosa-Barsoom is a high-colour, high-sci-fantasy rayguns and battleaxes interdimensional romp through Emperor Ming’s closet and salt mines, with a kinda-serious plot: you start as members of slave races. What are you going to do about it?
Encounters on the Sea of OS’r is the Odyssey/Sindbad with minimal packaging, adapted to the contextlessness of flailsnails – you wake up on a raft with stuff you can carry on your person and you encounter stuff – hopefully highly creative, weird, opportunity-laden stuff – and you take your treasure away at the end of the session to spend it elsewhere. If you wanna stick around for multiple sessions and grow independent goals and set down a home base that’s awesome but the game is made to work without any of that.
Vikings and Pirates of the Spice Islands is my southeast Asian pirate game I’ve been doodling on for years. You could be European explorers or native slave-raiders or Chinese pirates right at the birth of the East India companies. Worlds are colliding, history is being made, it’s dangerous and piratical in the classical sense, but with silk, spices and transvestite spirit-mediums.

c) Wait what Monkey Magic? Ah yes.

First Zak said You have a time machine. It can only be used for the following purpose: you may go back in time and change one rule or one other detail of any game. The rest of RPG history will be as if it had always been that way forever. What do you pick?
And Matthew Miller replied: In 1974, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax created the world’s first roleplaying game. Inspired by their fanatical interest in ancient China, coupled with a love of Chinese mythology, the classic novels The Water Margin and Journey to the West, wuxia cinema, and the weird tales of P’u Sung-ling. It took the gaming world by storm.
And then Roger the GS posted about wisdom and that made me think:

how could you fit the essence of Monkey into a DnD game?

The key is Wisdom. In this version WIS models your enlightenment and possibly harmony with the Tao. You work to increase your WIS, just as you would increase your level. But increasing WIS usually means pursuing goals directly at odds with those suited to increasing level – you have to practice non-attachment, restraint, judgment and moderation. You should still take decisive action, even fight when it’s absolutely necessary, but you should always seek the non-violent path, which provides the best outcome for all. Like humanity in Vampire, it can go down as well as up. Unlike humanity, it’s not just a wet blanket rating – it conveys some benefits (TBD, but at least a “turn” like ability on low-WIS creatures; yogic flying; speak with various things) and sage-like insights. Most of all it’s needed for interplanar Ascent to Nirvana and other related realms. No clerics (or, maybe, everyone’s a cleric), but yes to INT, CHA and CON-based spellcasters.

Monkey’s character sheet (first draft). But I’m not running this for flailsnails because the WIS mechanic is too unbalancing. And I’d have to mess with standard DnD clerics. And other spellcasters might be borked on the WIS-collecting front. There’s still a lot to figure out.

Dejah Thoris turns 100

February 1, 2012 3 comments

…well, she’s probably supposed to be at least 200, I think – reds live a long time and she was no teenager when John Carter first met her in 1865.

But it’s a hundred years since the first publication of Under the Moons of Mars (serialized from February to June, 1912 in All-Story). And what a hundred years it’s been.

I could wax poetic here but I won’t. I’m looking forward to the Barsoomian retro-clone that’s supposed to come out this year more than the movie, and in celebration I think I may run a game – maybe even a G+ game – later in the year that bridges Barsoom, Carcosa, Mongo, Jorune, Sulawesi and more than likely the Pliocene, along with whatever Flailsnailers bring. So here‘s the first of the campaign maps (click to enlarge a lot):

Barsoom Lowellian map, from ERBZine

…and here’s a monster/city, for your quatrefoil-print men to explore using their Yuggotech Gossamer Gliders (indispensable, fully disposable, completely non-refundable!):

…and here’s a reminder of the alien landscapes all around us:

Because with all this embarrassment of riches of flying islands and helium engines and sinking cities and dessicated Martian salt-pans, I might just spend half the campaign exploring the amphibious possibilities of tidal sand bars and estuaries (great for your Southeast Asian pirate nemeses, natch – or maybe for all those awesome new Slaad that Scrap Princess has just invented!).

Update: thanks to Matt Kish I can add William Timlin’s The Ship That Sailed To Mars to this list. There’s something distinctively wonderful about Edwardian scifi, that I would dearly love to capture, without it turning twee. I have no idea how.

Coelomia: island of secrets. For the Sea of O’Sr

January 17, 2012 7 comments

From a ship, Coelomia looks like a low, rocky sandbar or reef, or possibly the mouth of a crater, with a shallow warm water lagoon in the middle.

  

It could easily be mistaken for the South Pacific island of Tabuearan. Outside the ring of visible land there’s a steeply-shelving, fairly smooth undersea reef that prevents large ships from approaching closely. Small boats or Viking longships with shallow draft, however, can row right into the lagoon, where the water is warm and the bottom is soft and sandy.

The only building on the island is a bamboo-and-palm-thatch hut, belonging to a crazy, muttering, Ben Gunn type castaway wizard. Apart from sunning himself on his balcony and unsuccessfully trying to brew potions out of kelp, the wizard tends a set of wide, shallow rock-pool-botanical garden of coastal and aquatic plants behind his house.

The wizard is harmless, and once he’s got over his fear of the adventurers he’s a mine of information about the island. The first thing he’ll tell the PCs is that he wants to rescue his friends but he can’t. Then he’ll show them some giant snail shells with membranes over the openings – these can store a couple of minutes worth of air, and allow for deep-sea diving. Then he’ll want them to try his potions (hoping to find one of water breathing). Finally he’ll get around to telling them the island’s secret, the reason why he and his friends came to it.

The island is actually a giant mollusc, or maybe two molluscs joined together.


The “lagoon” is a mouth with a ridge of stony, barnacled, tree-lined shell around it. The lagoon’s sandy bottom is the body of a giant snail-like thing loosely covered with sand and seaweed. This snail thing is connected to another that combs the sea floor for curiosities. The creature passes any indigestible curio it finds on the sea floor (bits of shipwrecks, Atlantean kingdoms) up to the mouth to get washed out by the waves, or to be rifled through by opportunistic murderhobos. Like the wizard and his friends.

So you could pan for treasure! But there’s a couple of complications. First, there are the crab-men – strong, violent and beautiful, with pearl-encrusted shells. They look like Kabutops, but covered in mother-of-pearl. Mechanically they’re like these guys. Those crab-men have taken to swiping all the treasure that gets washed up in the lagoon. The wizard has an uneasy truce with them – they let him live on his end of the lagoon, but they won’t let him in their end, where the floor of the lagoon shelves down into an opening deep into the mollusc shell – where they’re keeping the treasure.

And there’s another complication. The wizard came here as a member of a party of adventurers: where the others came for the gold, he had heard legends that an ancient and wise creature lived on the island, a creature that knew the way to paradise. The wizard brought a bunch of tools with him for exploring the island, including potions of water breathing, a diving bell, and a working magical submarine. He had to stay topside to power a ritual, to pump air into the sub. The rest of the gang went deep into the shell. And never came back. The wizard’s confident they aren’t dead – he tried casting Speak With Dead and although he got plenty of responses, none were from his friends. So he wants to know what happened to them, what they found, and what they did with his sub.

What the wizard doesn’t know is that deep inside the shell there’s a series of chambers, some filled with water, others with air. His friends did indeed make contact with the mythical creature – the mollusc, natch – in a small chamber right in the centre between the two great bulbous shells, where they found strange tubes that allowed them to mind-meld with it, and they are slowly being coccooned in pearl themselves. Mind-melding with the mollusc has some advantages – it allows you to control the crab-men telepathically, it feels really good, and it lets you into the mysterious and very slow-hatching plans of the mollusc, and of the party, who are now part of the same mental entity. It’s also very dangerous: breaking someone out of the mind-meld can hurt them, and anyway they won’t want to come away because they’re happy.

Indeed, the wizard’s friends are happy, and peaceful as long as nobody offers them violence, and willing to talk to strangers. They don’t care much about mere gold and jewels and rayguns and what have you. They’re looking for some special magical treasure, which the mollusc has been slowly amassing for years. They might be persuaded to help get the submarine for the PCs (using the crab-men), or drive the island to some useful location, or whatever you want. Maybe someone could try to mind-meld long enough to steer a crab-man to the sub, and then try to leave the meld to take control of the sub. But they emphatically do not want to be rescued, and they don’t want the wizard to join them in the meld – maybe they suspect he has some ulterior motive, maybe they realise their condition is a curse as much as a blessing, maybe they just don’t like him.

Past the mind-melding chamber there’s a narrow squeeze – too narrow for the previous party’s abandoned diving bell, but not too narrow for an unarmoured adventurer and a bag of potions of water breathing (emergency supply in the diving bell, which is probably still in the next chamber just past the squeeze). Beyond and below that, the chambers open out again into a crab-man settlement, with a whole city of crab-men hanging in ropy pearlescent strands off the bottom of the lower shell.

And tangled in the strands, the sub. Getting to the sub has one more complication – pressure.  The bottom of the shell is deep enough to cause serious pressure problems for human divers (I don’t know how deep that is – look it up. I’m going to say about 100 feet).  You could polymorph into a squid, perhaps. If you were confident crab-men didn’t love them some tasty squid. Or you could try to get to the sub quickly, since high pressure diving is all about time.

There’s plenty of treasure for a violent and uninquisitive party to take out of the island, but most of what can be reached easily is not very convenient: you could kill and loot the crab-men for as much mother of pearl as you can handle, provided you don’t mind it coming in foot thick slabs – that sort of thing. The crab-men also have a few valuables squirreled away in the top couple of interior chambers, hidden in a mighty tangle of everything the sea bottom could possibly provide. But to get to the sub, or the major treasures of the crab-men’s city, you’d have to get inventive. And to unlock the real potential of the island you’d have to get friendly with the mollusc.

Different campaigns will want the sub to have different possibilities and limitations. I picture it like a small version of the Nautilus from the classic Kirk Douglas 20,000 Leagues – big enough for 5 adventurers and their equipment, and capable of operating just as long as the wizard can sustain his continuous-air-making ritual (supplies enough fresh air for the crew and to power a small turbine for propulsion. The ritual must be conducted under an open sky – which is why the wizard can’t go aboard – and has a maximum range of 1 league).

Regarding the challenges of underwater adventuring, Harry Potter provided several magical solutions (gillyweed, which provokes a partial Deep One polymorph, outright polymorphing into some seaborne species, bubble-head charms, buddy-breathing with mermaids*). If needed the wizard could have developed anything from potions to a really long rubber hose. He does have a collection of diving-bell-like apparatuses around his hut, which he has grown out of nacre. These all have the disadvantage that they’re nearly impossible to move on land, being extremely heavy and having rough outer surfaces. Once in the water they become more tractable.

* OK, that last one is not canonical HP. But I bet there’s a fanfic.

Trade again, hopefully clearer this time

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Reading over yesterday’s post about creating a system for intercity trade again a day later I see that I failed to state clearly what the point of the post was.

The point is, if you are bent on creating an economy for your gameworld, and if you want your PCs to be able to engage in traveling trade, the good news is you don’t have to make any more of a working economy than that bit the players are going to see and interact with. And making that bit of economy will help make your world more concrete, and can generate a nice little trading subgame and a ton of adventure hooks.

The approach taken by a hundred RPG trading tables and another hundred nice little trading computer games since Elite (and probably long before then, actually) has been to randomly generate a ton of trade ports and randomly generate the prices for various goods within them, with or without some fudge factors to allow players to improve their odds of making money on each voyage (eg. diamonds are uniformly more expensive than corn, but also vary in price far more, so they support “higher level” play. Slaves are illegal in the “core” and therefore expensive, but legal and cheap in the “periphery,” etc.). Telecanter suggests a fudge factor of distance: taking a commodity farther from its home increases the risk of mishap and therefore decreases the supply of that commodity at the destination.

This is fine as far as it goes, but it stops short of an essential principle of fictional world design: any feature you add should mirror and augment the players’ experience of the world. If it does, then it will make sense to them, and can help fill in details about the world the players didn’t know to ask about. They know dragons are rare, so dragons’ teeth should be expensive. But also they might consult the market price index and discover that pearls are wildly more expensive than diamonds. Why? That’s an adventure seed.

Yes, I know. We all love random tables. But they’re liable to abuse if you make their results persistent and exploitable. Why are socks three times more expensive in New York than in New Jersey? Because the table wasn’t carefully designed to avoid that kind of exploitable randomness, and now you’re playing Tristate Sock Trader, until somebody rebalances the tables. And before you scoff, designing around this sort of nonsense has been a major task for computer game developers.

So that’s why I say risk should be the sole determinant of trade profitability – because the players have to deal directly with it and because it makes every trade, in some sense, a zero-sum game: the players pay for every success by facing and overcoming hazards. Also, it encourages you, the DM, to assign a risk factor to every port – and allows you to place some assessment of that risk in the players’ hands, enabling them to make informed decisions about what kind of game they want – they can read the market price listings, or consult grizzled sea-captains in the dockside bars, to gauge how risky it is to get to those cities. Is the town under siege? What’s the risk of goods being stopped by the besieging force? That’s how much prices are inflated. Fancy a little blockade-running?

The point of fixing profit for normal, low-risk business at 5% is, it renders such normal businesses viable but unattractive to PCs. It invites the PCs to cheat somehow, by grabbing a monopoly in some resource or otherwise distorting the market. It encourages them to take extraordinary risks – to go on adventures and make trade itself an adventure, without giving them a crock to exploit or a crutch to lean on. And it gets you away from that end of Elite where you were interminably shuttling Bulk Machine Parts between Planet A and Planet B.

If you hanker for the old randomized price index, just use the equipment list as a dice-drop table: wherever the dice land, that commodity is unusually cheap or expensive – whichever seems more fun. You neither know nor care how much rope costs in Lankhmar, right? But if you’ve heard that there’s a massive rope shortage on Pan Tang because of all the heretics they’ve been hanging, then suddenly there just might be money in old rope. Predicated on the risk of getting strung up.

A little gameconomics

November 7, 2011 1 comment

Telecanter wants a simple system for abstracting sea trade.* Alas, I can’t do simple today. Much as I would love to answer this with a trading mishaps table, I think the way to get to a workable system is to start with the desired outcome and work back from there. I also can’t provide a system accurate to the silver piece straight off because I don’t know the particular rules of his game world. But if I were to build one, I would base it on these principles:

For trade to be worthwhile, you have to be able to hit a sweet spot where profit outweighs risk. High risk requires high profit. As risk goes down, so can profit, making more trades and types of goods feasible (and forecasting becomes more reliable, too, so you can choose to take smarter risks).

So your rate of risk pretty much tells you what the rate of profit should be – and it’s all expressed purely in terms of money potentially gained and lost. Why can we say that, and discount risks to persons, morals, societies and immortal souls? Because we assume going in that there is a class of traders willing to put those things on the line, and if we try to add those non-economic considerations to the economic model, we run the risk of someone (the PCs, obviously), privately discounting them and taking over the world (cf. the history of capitalist colonialism).

The really dangerous end of trade for your gameworld is the simplest one: intra-town or village-to-village peddling with no significant risks. You don’t want to put a crock in your game, where players can generate infinite money through grinding out some simple, low-risk trick. Here rate of profit must be fixed and low, and it’s all about scale: the amount one man can carry of basic goods (clothing, prepared foods, simple tools) should be enough to support him as a vagrant peddler/unskilled laborer, but not much more. A shopowner works at a bigger scale but the same rate of investment return, say 2-5% profit over total costs (goods + labor + building rent or whatever) per year.

Adding risk of any kind increases the allowable return proportionally. If there’s a 20% chance of being robbed by bandits then the profit rate has to jump up by 20% too – but it needn’t increase by more than that, because in general people are bad at calculating and respecting repetitive risk: they’ll be super happy about all the money they made by avoiding bandits twice (25% over base each trade!) and won’t think about the chances of avoiding them a third time.**

Sea trade has a massive extra risk safety valve built in: the capital cost of a ship. This adds a risk to every voyage that (historically) is often many times the cost of the goods carried. Just like that, allowable return jumps up (which is useful, because so does the scale of operation: a man might carry 100 lbs of goods on a handcart. A camel could carry half a ton. A big merchant ship might carry a thousand tons). If there’s a 10% chance of losing your ship and we maintain 5% overall “guaranteed” profit (ie if you kept playing this game with infinite ships over infinite time you’d make 5% a year) then that 10% of capital can be added to the profit potential of a single one-year voyage without breaking the economy. So if a new ship costs 10,000gp and the total cost of doing business (ie goods + crew wages + port fees + bribes) is 1000gp then the sale price of the goods should be 2100gp – over 100% “apparent” profit! That makes Sinbad type adventures highly attractive for individual, risk-seeking entrepreneurs while explaining why farmers don’t collectively abandon their crops for the high seas: if you bet the farm, you have to be ready for the possibility that you’ll lose it.

Also, the cost of ships adds a handy bar to participation in the profitable trades; what lords and kings can get away with matters less to your gameworld than what everyone could get away with: return from a warfleet can be basically uncontrolled, because the only people it really affects is a small class that’s eager to spend the profits on war.

The trick, then, is not to exempt the PCs from facing this bar: they have to be responsible for the economic risks they take and they have to inhabit the social rank their risk level demands (are your murderhobos sailing around in a king’s ransom? Then they can expect to face princely threats). There’s a hundred ways to do this, as long as you don’t forget them, from Jabba’s loan-sharking to law enforcement (in the case of those who steal their ships), to corrupt port officials to wars and unpredictably-changing trade agreements, before you even get to the more familiar fantasy seafaring threats of storms, gyres and krakens. Even if you’ve given your PCs a ship free and clear at the outset (because you weren’t thinking about the implications), if those PCs want to make more out of it than they would by just selling it, they’ll have to figure on replacing it one day. And they should consider the potentially devastating consequences of surviving the ship’s loss: was it rented/on loan? Then debt-slavery beckons. Did it have NPC crewmen? Those guys had families. What kind of reputation does a captain-for-hire get, from having his last gig literally sink? Don’t neglect non-capitalist arrangements – they almost always cost more overall, socially and communicably, than a simple cash-on-delivery deal. How do you face the chief who gifted you your knarr? Especially when you agreed to take his son on as water-carrier? Where were you when it all went wrong? The Cannibal Islands? The Cursed Latitudes? How will people react to you if you somehow make it back, in plump good health?

There are also possible outcomes other than success or catastrophe. Goods can spoil en route, be stolen or confiscated or jettisoned in a storm, eliminating profit but maintaining viability (or incurring debts). Historically, warehousing has been one of the decisive factors in the success of large-scale enterprises – if you can wait for the right market rate before you release your silks, nutmeg or wheat, you can dramatically change your profitability. The speed of trade is also critical – time is money: if you can make 5% a week, that’s wildly different from 5% a year. Sea trade adds unpredictability here too: Arab traders out of Cairo might see a roundtrip to Naples take 6 weeks or, rarely, up to a year, depending on weather and other conditions.

So what’s a good rate of risk for your game? Fundamentally that depends on how many trades you want the PCs to think about doing: are you playing Traveller, where it’s a way of life for millions of characters, or Jason and the Argonauts, where the potential profits are political or even metaphysical?***

The 50% or 66% or 84% chances of not coming back that Telecanter mentions are pretty rare historically – it’s the stuff of legendary quests like Magellan’s or Da Gama’s voyages, where a whole society makes a huge bet, hoping to make so much profit they can take over next door’s kingdom – or of massive desperation, like Somali piracy. Starting at that end of the curve sounds like complicated fun: there’s a good chance the PCs will retire after one job, so the job should be epic. And profits like that bring multiple risks, even after the voyage is over; everyone from cutpurses to bandits to state police want a slice: it takes strength to hang onto treasure (and might make for an interesting inverse campaign; you start with the goods and have to act smart to keep them).

On the other hand, if your PCs are tramp-trading around, waiting for a better job, a la Traveller, then something like a 10-20% chance of an adventure hook per voyage (you’re not going to sink them off-screen, right? When they could be forced into an unknown port or driven onto a mysterious island or made to make hard moral choices by pirates?) might make sense – then the trading is continuity, the returns are a sub-game, and you can keep ’em hungry by making ’em replace their ship bit by bit (broken masts or star-drives, drunk or fanatical mates), so they stay dreaming of retirement and that island in the sun, rather than playing Deckchairs & Cocktails.

I don’t have the time right now, alas, to write a nicely-balanced table that marries profit rates to all the hazards listed above, but I’d use that 5%-after-all-costs baseline to set market rates and assume that if a given commodity is available locally it will generally be cheaper to get it locally (with the proviso that 1 mile on roads might be equivalent to 100 miles by sea for some goods). Exceptions to the 5% rule apply where monopolies, rarity and other exotica come into play: i.e. when the PCs get involved. 😉 But then, trading in exotica should be a risky, tense, thoughtful, strategic enough game that the PCs won’t miss the dungeon. And if they can see past the economics of capital costs and risk analysis and refuse to stick their necks out for a piffling 5%, why there are plenty of ways they can voluntarily increase their risks in order to jack up their potential reward…

*I have to offer my profound apologies to the ACKS guys: I’ve just been too busy to keep up with their discussion, in order to make a meaningful contribution to what seems to me an extremely worthy product. Right now I can invest a couple of hours a week in this blog; anything more threatens my job hunting, work, sanity and marriage.
**Gold rushes and piracy invert the normal rationality of trade: there people bet on a eucatastrophe. The rate of profit is generally horribly negative (the average career of a “golden age” pirate captain was less than 4 years, from first running up the black flag to swinging at Tyburn), but there’s that tiny individual chance of never having to work again.
*** Historically accurate overall trade risks for, say, the medieval Mediterranean, are hard to calculate (and always were, even for merchants at the time) and of questionable value for your campaign, whatever it is. One day, I promise, I’ll crunch those numbers, and when I do it will be by looking at the rates of profit folks hoped to make from single voyages. Because they operated in competitive environments and we know that, with only a very few exceptions, any merchant family could be ruined by the loss of its ships and agents two years running.

Montreal, your random table is ready. Also, strange ships for your saltbox.

October 28, 2011 Leave a comment

The Canadian Center for Architecture asks: How would you build an underwater chicken farm? Or a flying beauty salon?

And then invites you to answer by building miniatures.

Zak, I think this just might be the parent-and-child workshop activity for you. I sense they have some kind of simple sentence constructor at work there for generating projects.

Meanwhile, eaglespeak suggests a wargamey saltbox campaign: you play would-be pirates, outfitted with some cheap and unreliable skiffs and jetskis, hoping to make your first big score. Arrayed against you are flying drones, occasional naval patrols, blockades, shoreline surveillance and speedy coastguard cutters. Can you run literally under their radar and heist your way up to name level?

…sorry for the lazy post: been busy here the past few months. More substance when I can. In the meantime, what capers could you pull with the world’s biggest ship-carrying ship? It doesn’t even look like a ship – especially when semi-submerged – more like a loose collection of small tower blocks, at sea. Apparently it will be able to do 14 knots – fast enough to waterski off the back – but the PCs should probably handle it cautiously: its 4 predecessors in the “world’s biggest semi-submersible” category all turned over and sank.

Are semi-submersibles too modern for your campaign? Are you sure? The Dutch had them in 1690, and no doubt the Chinese had them one to two thousand years before that (since that always seems to be the case with anything you thought was “modern”).