An Opinion on Lumes

Friday, February 7, 2014 , 0 Comments

The darkness pressed in on the guardsmen's torches like a sentient, animate thing. 
[1933] - The Scarlet Citadel
Patrick over at the False Machine has phenomenal ideas about caves and light and crushing, suffocating darkness. Since I've been naming all my clerics "Lumen" for the past ~5 years, I feel qualified to offer up my opinion on his current quandary over Lumes.

But first... I want to talk about The Banner Saga.
First of all, it's stunningly beautiful, both in art and music. Secondly, the tactics style game play is damn good. Third, it has an particularly exceptional currency system based around "Renown" (which is why I bring it up).

In the game, bad dudes are coming from the North, and the player ends up leading both armies and refugees to fight and/or flee from said bad dudes. These caravans of people can number in the thousands and you're tasked with getting them from one place to another as intact as possible. The locations are often far apart, and the roads are dangerous. To confront the danger you engage in grid based, tactics style combat. To combat the enemy of time and distance however you have to react to problems that come up along the way (by choosing from a variety of options, and choices are a big deal that can lead to perma-death of various caravan members), and you have to make sure everyone stays fed. As you walk along from place to place, a timer at the top of the screen counts up as each day passes, and you get to stare at a bleak little number labeled "Days of Supplies". If you run out of supplies you can't feed your people and they begin to die. It's quite terrifying. Days tick up  relentlessly, supplies dwindle, and what looks like the next village is still on the far side of the screen.

So what's a leader to do to combat slow death in the snow? Sometimes you get lucky and gain supplies because of the choices you make when you interact with encounters on the road. For instance, you may come across merchants, and they may offer to sell you rations (the sub-unit of supplies), and you may take them up on this offer and celebrate that you can feed the children as your people flee south before the storm. Then of course you discover that many of the rations were rancid and people start to get sick and you have to decide if you want to throw out additional rations that may have been contaminated. You wonder if you can go back and kill the merchants, but they're already a week behind you on the road. So you press on to the next village, and there you find a merchant selling rations, and even though you now hate merchants, your people will starve if you don't buy more rations, so you go to buy them.

Turns out, the only currency in the game is "Renown". Now, renown is mostly gained in combat each time you kill an enemy. It can also be gained if you make good decisions as you travel along, but that's much more infrequent than death. But this is where you hit Catch #1: Renown is also the currency used to level up your fighters. So do you spend 10 renown to level up your Warhawk so he can hit harder? Or do you spend the 10 renown on rations? If you decide to spend it on rations, you hit Catch #2 every merchant has a different exchange rate. Sometimes 1 point of renown is worth 4 rations, sometimes it's only worth 3. So you suck it up and curse merchants and their ilk, and you plop down a big bag of renown 'cause everyone in the caravan is going to make it god damn it. And then you hit Catch #3, one ration is NOT a day of supplies. A ration is a subunit. And the number of refugees and warriors in the group is mathed with the number of rations you have to determine how many days you can go without starving. You learn this after you decide to spend all your renown and pass on leveling up two of your warriors. You also start wondering if you really did need to rescue that village of 300 people. The Banner Saga has hooked me completely.

In the Banner Saga, death gets you renown, renown gets you rations OR strength, and rations and strength defend your people against different forms of death. It's not as tidy as Patrick's loop of Money gets you Oil, Oil provides you with Light, Light buys you Time, Time is Money, but the "decisions, decisions, decisions" element seems very much in the same vein.

So for me, in The Banner Saga, the inexorable timer of doom is highly motivating. To do that with Lumes, and make bookkeeping not suck, I'd personally use a system based on poker chips (or some other stackable thing that comes in a couple different colors), and I'd put a graphic somewhat like this on the character sheet:

Bullet Point Time!
  • Light sources are binary. They're either off or they're on. If they're on, they're using fuel and dying. 
  • If you use a tactile thing like poker chips, you can stack them, trade them, track them and  watch as they slowly dwindle using minimal effort. I also believe the whole "touching" the pieces to throw the spent source away would really lend itself to emotional investment on the part of the player.
  • I think "range" on the current table needs to be abstracted further, hence the Type 1, Type 2, Type 3.
    • Type 1 means the light source is sufficient for 1 person
    • Type 2 would be good for 2-4?
    • Type 3 would be good for say 6
    • I also really like Zak's idea about poor lighting conditions making it easier to miss treasure. So while a small group of characters wouldn't necessarily all need to be holding a light source, it'd be easy to tie "players worth of light" together with the ability to see all the loot.
  • This would then make "Lumes" effectively a measure of duration and I'd abstract that so that all light sources basically have a fixed number. Let's say a candle would be 2 chips, and a bioluminescent squid would be 5 or maybe even 10.
  • I'd either put a cap on the number of chips a player could carry, or tie it directly to encumbrance. I think the cap would work just fine because it would sort of assume the care required for the light source. Sure the jar of fireflies has more lumes than a candle, but you've got to take care that the jar doesn't break so you can't be carrying too many other things or you could get distracted and the jar could break.
  • Having a clearly defined spot for active light sources means that it's easier to be a DM from hell and say "Your active light source has been destroyed. FIAT BITCHES!"
  • Personally I think the type column can merge with the complications column

Example of how it would play out:

Kit and Jack are traveling in the dark.  They each have two candles. Each candle is worth 2, Type 1 (black) chips. So they each put two black chips on the active light source spot and two black chips on the type 1 spot.

Walking down the hallway, Kit sets off a fire jet trap. He takes some damage and the heat from the fire melted his candle, destroying his active light source. Kit moves the two black chips from his active light source spot to the Lume repository of sadness in the middle of the table.

Not to worry, Jack breaks his candle in half and gives half of it to Kit. Jack's player passes Kit a black chip from his active light source spot, and yells at him for not having a 10' pole with a chicken on it. They explore for a while and whatnot, and after a set period of ingame time passes, their candles gutter and go out, having used up all their fuel. Each player puts the black chip from their active light spot into the Lume repository. They light their other candles and move two black chips from their backpack (Type 1 spot) to the active light spot.

Let's say Kit finds a new light source, he can choose to make it active immediately and move his current chip pile from active back to the pack, or he can put the new source in his pack. If a person has multiple sources in their pack to choose from, they would just declare what they're using when they make it active and note that on the sheet.

Veins of the Earth is going to be awesome.