One fine day in England 793, at the monastery of Lindisfarne a ship with a prow like the head of a dragon pulled up on the shore. Shields adorned the sides of the ship, and its square sails bulged with the wind. As the monks watched on, a group of men leaped from the sides of the boat, and stormed the monastery, changing the face of Europe forever. While not all of the Norse were vikings, those hardy raiders defined the popular image of Scandinavia for centuries after the raids ceased. They are the basis for this game, and as such, we need to talk about the viking raid, and how it will inform our design in the weeks to come.
The Structure of a Game
A game is a goal with a set of limitations. I first heard this definition for a game in reference to soccer at the Games for Change Festival in New York. I unfortunately do not remember the name of the speaker, but I want to thank him from the void of the internet. He has forever changed the way I think about designing games. In soccer, the goal is to get the balls in the net. The limitation is that the players cannot touch the ball with their hands. Wait, you might say, isn’t the limitation that they have to kick the ball? No. Players can hit the ball with their heads, or their chests, and even some of the shoulder region so long as the arm and hands do not get involved. So why do they kick the ball so much? This is because the limitations that are set in a game end up defining the style of play. The best limitations will create strategies that are not only fun, but match the goal of the game. In soccer, players kick the ball to the net because it is the easiest way to get the ball there without using hands.
Tabletop games follow the same ideas. Goals can be a bit more nebulous in a tabletop, but a good GM will create compelling goals for the party for each adventure. The limitations are the rules. These limitations can create strategies such as the aforementioned kicking in soccer, but they can also create structures within a game. To look at another sports example, take basketball. In basketball, one team will score, and then run across the half court line as the other team takes possession of the ball and moves across their side of the court. Now, there is no rule in basketball about having to cede all that ground. A team can try to keep the opposing team from ever leaving its side of the court. This is called a full court press. You don’t see the full court press all that much, mainly because it is too exhausting. Those pauses while the teams return to their side to defend give them much needed time to rest and reposition. The full court press denies the teams that rest. So, the other rules of basketball and the limits of the human body have set the pace of an entire sport without having to make a rule to specify that pace. Structure in tabletops is very similar. Tabletop games do not have a set rule about how they are structured, but they do make other rules that inform that pace.
In Dungeons and Dragons, the adventuring day is king. Players are expected to spend a day adventuring and take a night to rest when their characters are spent. Why is this the case? Well, there are some rules for exhaustion in the book, and not sleeping can technically kill a character, but the actual reason for that structure is the Long Rest. A Long Rest in DnD 5th Edition is defined as an uninterrupted 8 hour rest, and it is crucial for restoring lost resources. Adventurers in DnD have a lot of resources, and are constantly spending them throughout the day. Every character has Hit Points. These get spent when the character takes damage, and are recovered throughout the day using spells, abilities, and items. Spells and abilities are usually only recovered during a Long Rest. Efficiency becomes a major strategy in DnD because of these rules. An efficient party can adventure longer, and defeat more evil in less time. Notice that at no point in that description did I say that the rules demand the party take a Long Rest. Instead, the mechanics encourage that style of play. We want a system of pacing like the adventuring day in VnV. We want to identify a basic structure that we want to encourage in play, and make sure that our mechanics line up.
Notice though, that I am not saying we should not explain the structure to the GM and the players. A lot of parties have less fun than they could with DnD because they miss the explanations about the adventuring day and try to play with a structure that the game does not support well. This is where complaints about parties running back to town and resting after every fight come from. If that is the case, the adventure at hand has not been built to encourage the adventuring day structure. We want to avoid that problem by creating a structure that is clear, entertaining, and thematic. We also want to create a structure that can still allow for a variety of adventures.
Learning from History part Deux
The vikings spent the better part of 200 years raiding Europe. They sacked monasteries, towns, castles, and even took kingdoms and land. The Norse at the time prized valor in battle, material wealth, and the wisdom that could be gained by distant travels. These will be themes of our game, and we can use them to create our adventure structure. Going viking was no easy task. The raiders would need to supply themselves with armor, food, and supplies. Then, they would brave the harsh seas of the northern Atlantic ocean, navigating tricky waters and new lands to find good targets. Finally, the vikings would reach their goal, and engage in battle or pillage. If they survived, they could load up on loot and make the long trip back home. Doesn’t sound too different than a standard adventure structure, does it? Well, it isn’t, but it is going to provide a useful lens through which we can view the rest of our mechanics.
We are going to need to create mechanics that encourage the party to travel to distant lands in order to complete some kind of task before returning home. The journey itself will be dangerous, and the party will need to manage its supplies in order to survive. Upon arriving at the destination, the party will be met with their final challenge, and if they succeed, they can return triumphant to the relative safety of their homes. Sounds kind of neat, right? It is kind of like the adventuring day of DnD blown out to a full adventure. The party will be able to take the equivalent of Short Rests as they resupply and rest on the journey, but will need to make it all the way back to a safe haven before they can consider themselves victorious.
The first step in any VnV adventure is Preparing. The party will need to stock up on supplies and potentially allies before setting off to complete their goal. Now, DnD has a lot of character resources and items that the party manages each day. What will our characters have? I know I have not talked too much about the magic system, but I have mentioned it would be powered by the Valkyrie, who will be with the party most if not all of the time, so spells are not a resource that will be lost on the Raid. Hit Points, however, will be fairly limited, so the party will need to manage those. Getting injured in battle will not only effect that battle, but the ones to follow, as I plan for healing to be a slow process. So Hit Points and Wounds are the first resource characters need to be worried about. Allies will also prove important on any journey. The players can recruit vikings, sages, healers, lords, kings, farmers, whoever works for the adventure at hand. These recruits will need some rules governing who controls them and how they operate, but we can get to that later. For now know that recruiting allies will be an important part of preparing for the Raid.
This leaves one major mechanic on the table, and possibly my favorite: items and gear. And do you know what having items and gear means? Encumbrance rules! No? Anyone? I might be the only one excited about that, but it’s my game, so I get to include them. Supplies and gear will be our final resource that the party must manage throughout an adventure, and I want to take a moment to look over how we might track these things, because as you are probably expecting by now, I am going to steal some good ideas from other games.
A Long Aside about Encumbrance
Before I get to what I want the gear and encumbrance system to look like in this game, I need to express why I like the idea of encumbrance, and what I want the system to do. For most DnD players, encumbrance is an obnoxious rule that is mostly ignored. Every item has a set weight, and a character can carry a certain amount of weight based on his Strength score. This system has a lot of issues. For one, the numbers are bloated and way too granular. To find out how much weight a character can carry, the player has to consult a chart which shows Light, Medium, and Heavy loads for each Strength value. Then, the player has to count up all of the weight of his gear and compare that to the chart to see what kind of load he is carrying. If he is carrying a heavier load than his armor’s weight class, it encumbers him. On the surface, this isn’t the worst system, but the problem is that it ends up being super boring in play. Why? Well, it is too complicated to play with at the table. Having to add and subtract really granular numbers like the weight values in DnD means the players can’t reasonably keep track of their encumbrance as they gain and lose supplies. This ruins the moment to moment engagement with the system, making it an oddity that might come up during character creation but probably won’t because most groups ignore it.
So why am I bothering with encumbrance? Because it has the power to be an integral part of the balance and play of a game in a way that is actually interesting. A few years ago, when Edge of the Empire first came out, and yes I am going to be borrowing inspiration from that game again, I played in a game as a Twi’ilek Bounty Hunter. I wanted to make her a sniper, so I started allocating points, focusing on her shooting and intellectual abilities over raw strength. Then, when I went to buy her starting gear, I noticed that she could not actually use the gun I had planned to give her without an added sling attachment to compensate for the weight. So, that ran me an extra 50 Credits. After buying that and some light armor, I went to buy extra gear and noticed something else, I could not carry any gear beyond my gun and armor without becoming encumbered. See, calculating encumbrance is super easy in EotE. You add 5 your character’s Brawn score and you are done. No charts. The gear itself also uses low numbers to track encumbrance. A rifle is Encumbrance 4, a pistol Encumbrance 1. This makes doing quick math on how much your character is carrying so much easier. So, looking at my numbers, I decided to buy a backpack with grants an extra 4 Encumbrance to my character. This allowed me to take a few extra items, but also limited my starting funds which forced me to stock only the essentials.
That is how it played out during character creation, but did any of that matter in play? Actually, yes. I had my character totally loaded down. This meant that I would need to drop stuff to pick anything weighty up if I did not want to be encumbered. I had to make sure that my gun’s Sling attachment did not get damaged, because then I would not be able to use it effectively. The backpack let me bring items like extra reloads and stim packs to keep myself in the fight, but I could not do much to take things back out of the fight. More importantly, this became a concern about money and gear. Money is the main driving factor of a lot of EotE games. The protagonists are mainly out to enrich themselves as much as they can without dying. To assist in this style of play, the game designers included a lot of ways for gear to get lost, damaged, or broken so that characters would need to spend some of their hard earned credits on repairs, preventing them from ever quite reaching the kind of financial stability that would end the campaign. The Encumbrance system is a huge part of that because it can cost players extra credits up front, down the line, and costs mod slots on gear. Encumbrance even extends to the players’ base of operations: their ship. The ship can only carry so much, forcing players to make hard decisions when smuggling cargo.
Games are complicated beasts. Every part of a game feeds off of at least one other part. Designed well, this can make systems like encumbrance critical, interesting parts of a game. Designed poorly, these systems get ignored. DnD’s encumbrance system gets ignored because it is too complicated to be of use at the table. Combine that with most groups’ propensity to ignore rules about needing to eat and drink, light dark dungeons, and other situations where supplies would help, encumbrance becomes an unnecessary hanger on. We want to design our encumbrance system to integrate to the rest of the game, and to assist in creating the kind of game we want to see. We also want our system to be simple and easy to understand so that the players can engage with it at the table.
Let’s set up some guidelines for the encumbrance system, and what we want it to do. First, we want encumbrance to limit the amount of stuff a character can carry. Items and supplies should be both useful and necessary in this system. I want characters to make tough choices about what they take with them. Second, encumbrance should allow gear to exist in physical space where it can be acted upon by characters in the game. EotE accomplishes this task with Despairs and Triumphs on rolls that can cause gear to get damaged, destroyed, or lost. We want Binary Success and Failure on most rolls in this system, so we will need to think of another way to influence player gear. We already have the idea of Sundering as an action in combat, and that can take care of intentional shots at gear during a fight, but what about accidental damage and loss? We will need to think about that as well. Finally, encumbrance should provide difficult choices about what loot to take. Look, we are making a game steeped in Norse mythology and history, and that means vikings and raids. The Raid is the basis for this whole game structure that I promise we will get back to. So, looting will be a major endeavor. Whether the players are sacking monasteries, plundering caves guarded by giants, or rustling cattle to feed their families back home, they will need to keep track of what they can carry both on themselves and in their ships.
To accomplish this, I am going to ignore the concept of encumbrance as weight capacity. In DnD, the encumbrance value of an item is expressed in pounds, and the amount of items that a character can carry is determined solely by that character’s Strength. There is a bit of hand waving about needing a backpack to carry lots of stuff, but you could theoretically carry 30 spears in a backpack and unless the GM decides she does not like that, you are good to go by the rules. It’s weird. Instead, I want to think of encumbrance as an abstract representation of weight and size. EotE kind of does that by allowing both Brawn and gear like backpacks and utility belts to add to the character’s carrying capacity, but it does not actually determine where an object is held on the player. Wait. You mean to say that you are going to make players keep track of every item and where it is? Won’t that be insanely complicated? I do intend that, and nope. Behold! Someone else’s brilliant work.
If you don’t have a minute to read that much more concise article in the middle of this mess, I will summarize: each character gets 6 bags with 3 slots in each. The bags themselves can be whatever the player wants, and any piece of gear that the player brings will take up a certain number of slots. Weapons like swords and spears take up 3 slots, while something like a dagger or compass takes up 1. Equipping armor reduces the number of gear slots a character has based on the weight and bulk of the armor. This system, as the author states, allows the GM and players to have an easy and quick understanding of what each character is carrying and where that item is. It is also very harsh, only allowing players to carry a few important items. It fits all of our goals, and so for now, we are going to use it. I don’t yet know if characters will have attributes or what those attributes will be, so I am going to just slap this system in and see how it works at the table.
Regardless of what system we end up using in the final game though, we know how we want encumbrance to work in this game, so we have a sense of how to proceed on designing the first step of an adventure: Preparing. Players will need to assess the journey they have ahead of them, whether they are sailing to the west to go viking, journeying into the mountains to face off against unruly giants, or delving into the woods to uncover the mystery of a local monster, the characters will need supplies and weapons in order to succeed. So for each character, they will need to note down all of the stuff they have with them, but what about something like a ship? Ships can carry a lot of stuff. Will the players be expected to note down the exact quantity and makeup of the food and supplies inside? No, that would be too complicated, and so far our encumbrance rules have been simpler. So what if we say that things like ships and horses can carry a certain number of “slots” of gear, just like the slots in the encumbrance rules. A ship might have the capacity for 20 passengers, and 30 units of gear, for example. The players can fill that up with as much theoretical gear as they want, and when they want to grab supplies from the ship, they subtract the size of the stuff they pull out from the gear pile. For instance, if my character loses her sword in a fight when her raiding party first lands on the beach, she can go back to the ship to get another. Instead of having a complicated ship manifest detailing the specifics of every item on board, we can simply say that the ship has 15 slots of gear. My characters wants a short sword, which takes up 2 slots, so she grabs it from the ship, and now the ship has 13 slots of gear.
This system will simplify the Preparing step because it will allow players to simply note that they want 15 units of weapons, 20 of supplies, and 10 of gear, and be done with it. In fact, let’s even use those categories. Weapons include any mundane weapons and armor. Supplies constitutes food and water. Gear is a grab bag of other items like torches, tents, bags, and chests. These three categories could all be smashed into one generic supplies category, but I like the idea of the players having to keep in mind how much of each they want. It keeps it simple, but allows for a bit more strategy. Each of these types of goods will have a set cost per unit, and only becomes real objects when drawn from the pile. Once an item is removed from the pile though, that itemt is now out in the open and must be tracked separately.
So the first narrative arc of an adventure will be the characters prepping gear, intel, and gathering allies before they head off into the dangerous wilds of the world. The final note to make on this section is that, unless it involves some interesting politicking or combat, the Preparing stage should be short. The players are setting up their adventure and getting ready to go. This is the tail end of Act 1 in a 3 Act Structure. We do not want to force players through the whole of Act 1. Act 1 is before the action starts, and this is a tabletop game. We want our players getting to the interesting bits.
Not every adventure is going to involve sailing, but almost all of them will involve travel. The travel portion of the game will involve navigation, dangerous environments, and potentially combat. The most important thing to focus on in the Sailing portion of an adventure is that it should be a drain on the party resources. This section will probably take the most in game time, so food will be eaten, supplies lost or damaged, and resources strained. This is where DnD style resource burn encounters will be most present. The party will need to brave things like dangerous storms, monster ambushes, thick, confusing mists, and the like. Getting lost should feel dangerous and frightening. Spending two extra days traveling could burn out the food that the party brought, and an accident could cause the party to lose some critical gear. The Sailing portion of the Raid should be the point at which the party most needs to maintain efficiency in order to keep their supplies in good order.
The Viking is where the meat of the adventure takes place. Whether the party is hunting a monster, leading an army to battle, or doing some good old fashion raiding, this is the portion of the mission where it comes to a head in the most intense encounters. This should be the part of the adventure in which your characters are now facing off against the threat they left home to deal with. Whether they are going to raid a wealthy town in order to bring riches home to prop up their local lord, or facing down a monster that has been attacking villagers, this is the part of the adventure where they will face that final fight. This is not the only time when the players will face conflict and combat, however. Fights can happen during any other phase, but this is where the game will include the most conflict. The heroes have made it to their destination, and now they have to accomplish their task.
The heroes have won! And now they are going to reap the rewards. This section will be kind of like an abridged Preparing section. The heroes will want to grab whatever loot they can and stash it on their boats, horses, backpacks, whatever. In a standard viking raid loot might be gold and silver, while on a monster hunt loot might involve gathering monster parts for a potion, or a mysterious map that leads to greater adventures. Whatever the characters are taking from their conquest, they need to have some kind of reward, but also possible further complications. During a viking raid, the raiders would need to grab their loot and go as fast as possible. While the targets they hit were usually lightly defended, especially in the early days of the viking raids, soldiers could still reach them if given enough time. This kind of complication can add tension to this stage. While the Preparing stage might have required politicking under the pressure of the seasons back home, Looting might be done under threat of a counterattack that could leave the heroes’ forces ruined.
Finally, with the conflicts won and the loot gathered, the heroes get to return home. This stage is an abridged version of the Sailing phase. The heroes know their route, they have defeated whatever they needed to defeat, and they have loaded their ships down with gold and silver. If they make it to the Returning phase with enough supplies to get home, it will usually make sense to let them get home. If they are missing supplies or pursued or otherwise hindered, that can lead to a new adventure. Otherwise, this is a good denouement to an adventure. Let the heroes sail home without bothering to make rolls about it unless it is dramatically appropriate to do so. Don’t throw a random storm or monster attack at them to throw them off. Just let them go home.
The Day to Day
Now, this adventure structure is all well and good. We have seen how it can be used for a couple of different types of adventures, and we have seen how it might fit into a satisfying narrative structure, and guide the game to that structure. But, we talked about DnD’s adventuring day up top, and the most important idea in that topic is the word day. DnD does not really guide the structure of a whole adventure. Instead, it breaks down a smaller unit of time to make sure that each day can provide satisfying adventure. Sure, giving our GMs an adventure structure to draw from is helpful, but what are they supposed to do each day? How will sessions play out and smaller units of time be dramatically satisfying? Well, all we have to do is take this adventure structure, and shrink it down.
Every day of adventure can be broken down into the steps listed above. Characters will have a goal to accomplish, so they will need to prep for that goal, travel to it, face it, gather whatever boons they can from the aftermath, and then return to the path of the adventure. If characters are leaving their ships to search a nearby island for some extra food, they will need to take supplies and weapons with them, explore the island, face the threats present there, and then gather the food supplies that they hope to find. The kind of long-game resource management that this broader structure supplies works at a smaller scale too, with the heroes seeking to hold onto their supplies and hit points as best they can each day and each encounter. The other thing to remember is that this adventure structure is not a set of hard and fast rules. I am not building a game with hard locked storytelling rules. This structure fits the myth of the vikings as hardy traveling raiders, and it fits the myths of the Norse of the time, who believed travel and knowledge of foreign lands provided power and wisdom. It makes for a satisfying story as it follows a nice standard story structure. This does not mean it can never be mixed up. The Preparing stage of a grander adventure could involve a large battle to claim the loyalty of a local clan, the Viking stage could include a daring climb into a monster’s lair followed by a conflict resolved with secret knowledge discovered during the Sailing phase. This is just a general framework from which to think about the adventure, and the days within that adventure. Mix it up.
This article has been a bit of a ramble, and that is okay. It is important to dog into structures like this and see how they can inform the design process. Just like any other rule I write down in these articles, everything here is subject to change, but by building the structure of the Raid as adventure, I have established ideas about what I want the game to do. Now, I need to see if it does. Join us next time, when we talk about the basics of lore for the system setting, and I might talk a bit about creating characters for the playtest.