As is often the case, inspiration for my articles comes from things that happen in real life. The latest event in my life was a cross country move from Oxford, Mississippi to Columbus, Ohio. It was stressful, compacted into a few days, and throughout the whole thing I kept imagining myself in different situations to keep up motivation. You know what I mean – imagining that you are piloting a Drayman from Wing Commander while you are mowing the lawn to stave off the boredom or digging for treasure like Indiana Jones instead of just digging up the perennials from the garden. My mind wandered a lot during the move, and there are a lot of gaming related ideas I had because of it. So, here are five things I’m working into my games because I moved.
1. Long Journeys Are Long
Our drive was about 10 hours with modern technology. It took us about 13 with breaks, gas fill-ups, traffic, and time zone shifts. With modern technology. One of the great things about old school fantasy (and futuristic sci-fi) games is their vast, epic, scale. It feels incredible to journey to the ends of the known world to achieve your quest goals, but journeys are boring. Getting ambushed by random encounters is a convention of many older, more crunchy games, but it serves its purpose. Even without the level grinding effect, it helps players realize the time taken with each journey. I don’t intend to ambush my players with completely random encounters in most of my games, but I do want to show them a legitimate journey.
To do this, I’m going to pull out the Indiana Jones mapping technique. But, I’m going to make frequent stops along the way. Assuming that a cart and wagon can travel about 30 to 40 miles in a day and that is an inch on my world map, I’ll mark off the approximate distance for a days worth of travel and show the players where they stop. I’ll let them set up camp according to S.O.P. It’s a fairly old school approach right out of early editions of D&D, but instead of throwing random encounters at them, I’ll ask one player to quickly narrate something that happens at each stop. “We set up camp and I go hunt a deer, but instead of bringing it all back to camp I get attacked by a pack of wolves and they grab the deer. I get one of the wolves and bring that back to eat. Others are less than enthusiastic about it.” or “We’re staying at the roadside inn tonight? My turn to narrate. Cool, I become drinking buddies with a Dwarf named Ruffles.” I can do the same for space travel, asking about crew changes or interesting events during downtime, but I’ll get the players on board with the amount of time it is taking. The trip will still be finished in about 10 or 12 real time minutes, but the players will feel the the trip when they reach port. They stopped 8 or 9 times along the way, we made each stop mean something, maybe had a big side encounter, but focusing on the stops and amount of time it takes in a more structured way than “You travel for 10 days and arrive” will drop just enough realism in to make the players feel the trip but not drag down the game.
2. Places Are So Incredibly Different, Even Though They Look The Same
My recent move took me from a rurally distant small college town that is a fairly concentrated area of Southern wealth and also a football mecca (see The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock) to a very urban, fairly liberally minded city with its own fanaticism about football and a lot more people and infrastructure. These two places are very similar and very different. While they both boast Walmarts and strip malls and lots of good restaurants alongside their signs denoting football pride, the ways of life in these towns are very different. Things are much more spread out in Oxford and a car is nearly required, while in Columbus I don’t know that I’ve taken the car out more than 3 times since we moved. We’ve walked everywhere or ridden the bus. The stores are the same, but the stock they carry is different because of the people. The coffee shops operate on different structures and the sheer population differences change so many social norms.
While your players may move between two different metropolitan areas with similar structures in your game, they are likely two very different places. Find a few elements of your cities and “civilized” areas and make them unique. Perhaps one starbase (built off the same base model as another) has exterior walkways between modules instead of interior ones. This is because the nebulae visible are too beautiful to pass up, even though people get a kind of vertigo walking through the clear tubes. Maybe access to fresh food at one base is completely different because of where they are located and what supply runs go through that sector. Perhaps one is full of alien life because it is a hub of transport routes while the other is only locals who aren’t sure of the mercenaries in their midst. In all other ways, perhaps event the map used for the starbase, they are the same but a few key differences make them feel worlds apart, which they literally are. But that’s the feeling you want to give your players. Not that they are at starbase 1025 instead of 1026 or that Waterdeep is the same as Freeport, a big city. Instead you want to foster the feeling of difference so players understand their travels have taken them far away.
3. Realistically, Loot And carrying Stuff Is A Pain In The Butt
We had to leave behind and sell so many things to fit it all in the truck. The big furniture was the biggest pain, but we had boxes and boxes of stuff that we tetris-ed in and rearranged to get most of our possessions to our new home. If you want to drop in a little challenge that isn’t a fight, make a list of all the things on the cart or the transport that the party is carrying and lightly enforce space restrictions and weight limits. When they bring back the really expensive artifact statue that is going to be someone’s retirement fund, figure out if it is too much to fit. Suddenly, the players have a choice between one big statue or food for the trip back. Maybe they will come up with some really clever ideas on how to fit it all and maybe their failed roll means the axle breaks. There was a reason why spare axles were an option to purchase in Oregon trail. Having to deal with encumbrance and weight is a pain to me as a GM, but a casual nod to it every so often will keep your players on their toes and sinking their money into bags of holding or extra cargo space.
4. I now understand partially filled ruins
Following up on #3, I totally get why you find things in ruins now. Looking at our old house when it was mostly empty and everything was being moved out, I could really grok why a ruin would look the way it does. Say the cult who used to use this old temple failed to call up their dread god and disbanded. They packed stuff up and left a lot of it behind. Ok. That’s why there are some empty rooms and some with a few things in it. Some has succumbed to decay, some has been deemed unusable on the road. It’s a common trope in gaming, but I never really got it as a reality until I mulled it over during the move.
An abandoned building makes for interesting terrain full of things half broken or left behind of unknown reasons. Imagine a game of Shadowrun where you are tasked with routing out a small corporation that is messing with your employers stock price with interesting tactics. You’re hired to clean them out, but they get wind of you and pack up before you arrive at their offices. They left in a hurry but hired some security to take out anyone that followed. You’ve now got an office building full of copiers to duck behind, half torn down cubicles, computers that might contain useful information or clues. A smorgasbord of things that won’t provide the key to the mystery, but might have enough pieces to move your game through the mid-phase and point the players in the right direction. It’s not a smorgasbord of useful things (in-game or out of game) but it is interesting terrain with lots of possibility to link to other plot and game elements. It is a modern day version of a ruin in a fantasy game. If you want some inspiration for modern ruins, check out this site: opacity.us.
5. I Love The Devices That Let Us Handwave Realism
Ultimately, I love the devices in our games that let us handwave away realism. What would I have given for a few bags of holding to save my back during the move or make it easier to get things into the truck. NPCs to help lift things so I could focus on more “hero-y” elements of the move. Rocking. Games aren’t about the realism and the dull moments, they are about escaping to another world. Incorporating some of the mundane elements (like long journeys, pains in the back from lifting loot, etc.) into a game can increase immersion and make those handwave elements (like transporters and extra-dimensional storage) feel all the more awesome and useful to your characters.
How do you handle mundane elements like travelling long distances or transporting lots of material? Do you handwave it away or work the realism in deep? What is your perfect balance for these sorts of things and what real life events inspire you to incorporate some realism into games?
* Image of the abandoned office from an interesting game about exploring abandoned places called Infra. http://www.moddb.com/games/infra
* Space gnome is a garden gnome wearing the LA Galaxy soccer team space suit.