Friday 26 May 2023

Modular Ecology

Been playing that Zelda game everyone’s on about, and rereading Dungeon Meshi (trailer just came out for the tv version!) and thinking about the way they do ecology, and started folding those thoughts into a Graverobbers thing I’m working on (not the current thing, the next thing).

What I’ve landed on is a hopefully practical approach to including gameable ecology in adventure games. I think crafting systems that ape video games can very quickly fall into tedium, and abstracted versions don’t really jive with the strict inventory-based playstyle I’m aiming for.

The long and short of it is defining materials by location. Zelda, for instance, has plants that grow in hot/cold places only, but also ones that grow in, say, quiet places, which I think is a very nice bit of magical thinking. Dungeon Meshi defines all its dungeon inhabitants in relation to one another in a more complex system suited to its medium, but I’m drawing inspiration from that overall vibe too.

So, for example, in the full version of A Pocket Guide to Smocklehythe, I introduce “coffin rot”, a black fungus which grows “only on an unloved grave”. Or, we might say that the flower “mourner’s tears” requires the opposite - the grave of someone dearly missed, plus plenty of water and not too much warmth or light.

The big advantage of this as I see it is its modularity - I can define the prerequisites for a plant’s growth within a single section of a book, then not have to bring it up again elsewhere. We know that trolrushes grow only by slow rivers and under bridges, so we can assume that every bridge over a slow river mentioned in this book is a good place to find them. In this way the players and GMs who want to bring this up, focus on it, or use the information practically can do so, without sacrificing the flow or efficiency of the text.

The bigger picture then is that this extends to other modules, past and present. Graverobbers assumes all its adventures take place within one city, so if players encounter a bridge over a slow river in another adventure - one I wrote years ago without thinking, or later on without wanting to reference an otherwise unrelated text - the ecology systems from the other module can be easily incorporated.

That’s the ultimate aim of course, to use this to introduce practical, gameable elements to the play space. The important thing about coffin rot, as your players will find when the full Smocklehythe drops, is that it can be distilled into an ink that makes magical tattoos. Lore only matters when it matters right now.

So, mourner’s tears attract a particular butterfly which lays its eggs among the mauve flowers and abandons them when they hatch. The caterpillars protect themselves by secreting a substance which attracts ants - the line of ants bringing food back to a grave grown with mourner’s tears to feed the hungry caterpillars they farm is often called a worker’s wake, and it’s considered bad luck to step over one.

There will also be an NPC in the module who can use mourner’s tears to brew a particular potion. So now players have a choice of leaving the plant and harvesting the substance to attract ants - for whatever reason - or picking the flowers and using them for something else.

This aligns with the way I tend to prefer to do magic in adventure games, as a series of truths about the world. In much the same way that players already know they can use fire to cast light, burn things, warm things up, melt them etc, they can also learn that, for instance, moonlight reveals all magical illusions.

The player’s arsenal of tools expands in more interesting ways when magical effects are constants within the game’s reality, that can be exploited like any other in-game truth. (This is the kind of thinking that Zelda players and Dungeon Meshi’s characters use to great effect. See this recent prismatic wasteland post for more on Zelda and ttrpgs.)

So, by defining in-game ecology as

- a series of facts, truths about the world

- concerning the locations of in-game items with useful effects

- allowing for use across otherwise disparate adventures within the same fictional space

I’m hoping to create a system that’s easy to reference (or ignore as players see fit), useful and fun to engage with, and allows for easy modularity between different adventures (or indeed, sections of the same adventure)

Idk thought that might be useful to someone! Ok, back to work ✌️


Xaosseed said...

I like this concept of 'set the rules for a thing' and then just wait - when the conditions are met, you can produce the thing!

Reminds me of this 'what are the laws of this land' piece by Was it Likely - that gives you the strange locales to think 'what grows/lives here'...

D. G. Chapman said...

Thanks! Sounds cool I’ll have to look that up :)