Last week we looked at surface turns, and what the heroes left behind in town on the surface could do. This week, we’ll follow the ones who venture downward.
Divvying up Time: in the Underworld
For heroes on an expedition to the underworld, time is divided into nested layers of watches, vignettes, and rounds.
A watch is a span of several hours: about the length of time you can sustain a mild to moderate activity before stopping to rest, eat, and otherwise take a break and refresh – or if you prefer, the length of time you need to get a decent chunk of rest before your body really wants to stretch, move around a little, and relieve itself. In effect each day comprises six watches that correspond very loosely to “morning,” “afternoon,” and “night,” and expeditions will spend each watch on a set of broad activities, such as foraging for supplies or resting in a camp.
A vignette is what you use to zoom in on an activity that’s more discrete and intensive than what you could do in a watch, such as fighting, performing a ritual supplication to the gods, or searching a single smallish room-sized area. A vignette takes a few minutes and while I’m not going to put hard numbers on how many can fit into a watch, I’d also say that more than a couple vignette’s worth of excitement will probably leave your attempts at a watch-length action fragmented and non-viable.
Finally, a round is just a few seconds long; it’s what you use to parcel out the time for moment-to-moment actions when you need to add internal time structure to the flow of a vignette.
A Note about Space
At this point in the design process I’m not sure how I want to arrange the underworld. In concrete terms, it should be vast and labyrinthine. Characters should be carefully maintaining mental maps as they climb and crawl through claustrophobic tunnels and echoing caverns. I definitely want to convey more mystery, dread, and scale than even the most imposing of finite megadungeon maps could give, so each expedition will spend its watches schlepping, skulking, and squirming its way through an indefinitely large underground terrain where occasionally space and time contract and focus in on a limited (mappable) area for a vignette-level action to play out, but otherwise remains as broad and abstract as a landscape does in surface adventures.
Mechanically, perhaps something like a point-crawl or even a hex-crawl would be most appropriate. At this point I’m leaning toward the idea of procedural generation that would allow each campaign to take on a unique character as the characters, and their players, uncover various locations, then figure out what to do with or about each one and how to get to or around it efficiently.
What can you do in a watch? Well, this is where you paint the broad strokes of your adventure, including travel, rest, and the various tasks that fill your active hours. For example:
- Travel: The party can progress forward in a general way. You can spend a watch on the move, attempting to get further down and closer to wherever the Fire Down Below hides.
- Scout: If you know about two neighboring points or locations of interest, or if you suspect that one exists in the vicinity, you can actively spend a watch turn looking for it. There will probably be some sort of skill check involved, but this would also be where the DM rolls on a random table to determine whether there actually is a way through, and what (if any) challenges the heroes will need to overcome in order to use it.
- Work: Not every skill will require a full watch to use, but some definitely will. For example,
- Use Create to jury-rig a known object. While objects made or repaired through Create on the surface are relatively reliable, anything you whip together out in the field is more prone to breakage and will never survive the end of the expedition.
- Use Create to do field repair on a known object that has broken. Again, if you want this done really well, you need to invest a lot of time and attention back in the safety of town; objects repaired on the fly will generally last for one use and then break again.
- Use Emote to commune with a given god or similar being, particularly one whose secret shrine you’ve discovered. Doing so successfully allows you to learn a god’s ways, perform devotions in return for boons, and then use rituals to spend those boons in return for favors.
- Use Inspect to investigate something so big or complex that you can’t look it over in a mere vignette.
- Use Scavenge to forage for food, usable materials for repairs, or find a good sheltered spot to rest in.
- Rest: It feels like the simplest way to simulate a normal activity/rest cycle is through Afflictions: a watch spent working, or a vignette spent on especially intense action, will afflict the heroes with e.g. tired, then fatigued, then exhausted. (Then I guess further levels of exhaustion?) It’s possible to work a character to death by afflicting them until they drop, but this affliction is special in that you can reduce it by a level simply by spending a watch in rest and recuperation. This doesn’t have to be a full-night’s-sleep deal; I envision something closer to food, water, sitting or lying around quietly, interspersed with naps as needed. The underworld is not a place to pull a sheet up under your chin and zonk for hours on end, but you can still hole up to let your body’s biomechanical systems rebalance and repair.