Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Downtime Activities: Non-magical Research

I came up with a system I like for non-magical research in OSR-type games and I want to share it with you.

One of the player characters in my dreamlands game has a longstanding interest in the Treaty of the Farthest Shore, an ancient contract between the spirits (demons) of the Endless Azur Sea (i.e. the sky) and the Sky Singers, the ancient mariners who founded the monarchy of Zyan. Her interest was peaked by two things: having read the passages about the making of the treaty in the classic history of Zyan by "the utmost chronicler" Medes, and having perused a considerably less reputable diatribe titled, Secrets of the Treaty of the Farthest Shore Revealed, That All May Learn of The Treachery of The Demons of The Air, and Power May Be Gained to Overcome Our Present Troubles! by the wide-eyed Zamore Zuft. These texts suggested to the player that this treaty could, theoretically, in some way, be weaponized in the party's long struggle against the Hidden King of Zyan.

Disputations of the Squamous Jurists. Or is it the Talmud? You be the judge

In a remarkable turn of events, the party recently slew the Prince of the South Wind, a potentate of the spirits of the air, and looted his library, where they were finally able to attain a complete 20 volume set of The Disputations of the Squamous Jurists. This text contains the treaty of the farthest shore as well as copious surrounding commentary from the titular Squamous Jurists, the greatest antique legal scholars of the spirits of the air.

I was now confronted with what appeared to be a nightmarish problem of explaining what was in this impossibly dense and alien legal treatise. Since the player, Nick, was clearly intending to go all the way down this rabbit hole, I needed a way to handle this.

Studying this vast, alien legal text was going to be difficult. So I didn't want to hand out information so easily. But nor could I even if I had wanted to, since the 20 volume commentary of the Squamous Jurists so far outstripped anything I could possibly know. This situation militated against my simply answering at length whatever questions the players posed about the contents of the book: it would be too easy for them and too hard for me. It also would be the mother of all information dumps, which would turn the fun of discovery into a kind of setting homework for both me (to produce) and them (to read). Uggghhh.

But, luckily for me, I had been recently reading Meguey and Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World, and it's roguish stepchild, John Harper's Blades in the Dark, both justly famous story games. Among many other innovations, Apocalypse World introduced us to "Clocks". The idea of a clock is that you have something that will happen: an objective, or a condition, or a looming event. And there's a certain amount of "progress" that has to occur before the objective is reached or the event occurs. This progress is abstracted into "ticks" of the clock. So if something requires quite a lot of progress before occurring, we might set the clock with eight ticks; if less, four ticks, and so on. In Apocalypse World, clocks are used for approaching hazards.

Some of John B.'s clocks 

Blades in the Dark turned clocks into a versatile mechanic for all situations. Suppose the PCs are involved in a heist, looting a well-guarded mansion. The DM might say, "I'm setting a clock for you alerting the guards. It has four ticks." Then if the PCs make a loud noise, or in some other way draw attention to themselves, the DM will advance the clock one (or more) ticks. When the clock is filled, the guards show up. Blades in the Dark uses this mechanic almost everywhere, for combat with an especially tough foe, with the relation between gangs, etc.

So I decided to use clocks to solve my problem, but I took it an OSR-ish direction. Here's a slightly more systematic and developed version of the clocks-based solution of I've been using in play.


To research a topic in downtime, the player character must have access to a trove of information. In the most straightforward case, this will be a library, or a difficult grimoire, or an archive of some sort. But the trove could actually be any source of information (e.g. contacts in the criminal world, a method of divination, etc.). The trove always has a subject matter (it can have more than one). The player formulates a question they would like to investigate that falls within the subject matter of the trove. This is called opening a question.

The DM then writes up a clock for that question in advance. This clock is kept secret, since it represents the revelation of information through the progress of the investigation. The clock works like this: each tick is an entry that reveals progressively deeper information in answer to the question. The final tick for the question is the deepest layer of information that investigation will reveal. Once all the segments of the clock have been ticked, the question is closed.

For any open question, a PC can spend a downtime action investigating the topic to see if they can make progress on it. Ideally this will be a cost that would involve forgoing other downtime actions. (For full use this would require a system of downtime actions--a kind of resource mini-game happening in the deadtime between sessions.) To see whether they make progress, I am using the "reaction roll" mechanic that Apocalypse World lifts from early D&D. You roll 2d6 and add your intelligence modifier. The results are the following:

2-6 No progress
7-9 Shaky progress: the DM reserves the option to introduce a falsehood along with the truths uncovered, or to slightly distort the truths, or make things a little ambiguous. Note that the DM doesn't have to do this, but they can if they want to. Don't do this so much, or in a way that nerfs and discourages research.
10+ Progress

For the purposes of this system the DM keeps the size of the clock secret. The players don't know if this is a shallow topic, quickly exhausted, or whether it leads to hidden vistas. But the DM does NOT conceal whether the question is closed or open. If the question is closed after completing a tick, the DM tells the player "You have exhausted this question." If the question is still open after a tick has been completed, the DM tells them "You feel that there are further depths to plumb here."

For this mini-game to work, the ticks need to be interesting, enticing, and promise at least perhaps some actionable intelligence. If the answer to the question is quotidian or irrelevant to their interests, then the DM should make it a 1-tick clock and give them the full answer to the question they are investigating with a single 7+. Save the multi-tick, real deal clocks, for things it's fun to reveal in bite-sized bits.

When done right, my limited playtesting suggests that this turns a homework assignment into a tantalizing, tension building, slow burning reveal. Along the way, the players will form theories and speculations that race ahead of what they have revealed. The urgency of investigation will increase. And maybe, just maybe, something big will come of it in the end.

There are some nice twists you can put on this.

For example, you can have branching clocks, where a tick of one question opens another question for the party with its own clock. (Players will also do this organically as further information suggests other lines of inquiry that they might initiate by spending a downtime action to open a new question.)

You can also set up walls that require the players to acquire new sources of information in order to make further progress. For example, the text being consulted might refer to another text, and the DM might declare that to make further progress (check the next tick) on the question, the party will have to consult this other text. Or the wall might be one that can be circumnavigated by locating and consulting with a known expert. Or, perhaps, the only way to surmount the wall is having undergone a certain experience, as one might have the meaning of a certain religious mystery revealed to one only if one has been initiated, or has taken the right drugs, or communed with the strange writings on the black obelisks in hex 04125, or whatever. For this to work, the DM should simply tell the players what their research reveals they have to do if they want to make further progress on a question.

Another possibility, is to modify the roll based on a set of conditions. For example, you could apply a penalty for anyone who hasn't consulted a certain other text, or give a bonus for those who had. No doubt further variations exist.

An example will help to illustrate the method. Unfortunately I can't use the real example from my game, since all the questions they are investigating are still open.

Example: The Puzzle Scrolls

Suppose the party has liberated an artifact known as "the Fourth Puzzle Scroll" from the manse of Vermagin Eleazar, leader of the Withered Nightingales. It is written in an inimical eldritch code, and it seems both dangerous and powerful. The party suspects that to unlock the full power of the Fourth Puzzle Scroll, they will have to acquire a full set. Luckily, the PCs have access to a trove of information on magical subjects, since the party has access to the library of a certain obsessive collector of arcane wonders having added to certain delicious and irreplaceable items to his inventory in the past. The party's magician decides to use this trove to inaugurate a line of investigation by opening the question: "Where can the other puzzle scrolls be found?" Since this is a major artifact with a long history, I decide that the it will be a five tick clock.

"Where can the other puzzle scrolls be found?" five ticks

Tick 1: Most references to the puzzles scrolls are offhanded and obscure. But in certain very old texts you find some useful information. There were seven puzzle scrolls in total. As to their location, a chain of textual references lead you eventually to the section of the Testimony of the Senses that discusses the wonders seen by Balzabo the Theoricus in the legendary Library of Worms at the Monastery of Larsa. He describes in detail a complete set of the Puzzle Scrolls, unfortunately dwelling more on aesthetics than substance. So it seems that a complete set existed at the Monastery of Larsa two centuries ago.

The Ignotaur
Tick 2: Your researches inform you that a century ago, the Monastery of Larsa was looted by the People of Ash, fire worshipping minotaur berserkers. It is said that in those flames were consumed the knowledge of a thousand thousand generations, and that the oily smoke of the slaughtered tomes was a pleasing sacrifice to their burnt gods. However, Captivity Amongst the Savage Bulls, an account of Umut, a librarian who served for 10 years under their harsh dominion, testifies that certain treasures were rescued from the fires by the Ash Scholars, including all the puzzle scrolls but one.

Tick 3: Later, some say under a curse, others from paranoia, the Ignotaur turned the power of his nomadic empire to building the Labyrinthine Ziggurat, a maze of dizzying volcanic glass hidden in the Desert of Shifting Sands, near the ancient city of Qaz. The Ziggurat is said by Nabi, the court poet of the Ignatur, in his Songs of the Zigguratto be guarded by the ghosts of fallen minotaur warriors, and the crimson demons of his flaming deity. According to the poem, the Ignatur hid all his greatest treasures here, safe from his enemies. As it happens, the Withered Nightingales were rumored to have recently returned from an expedition to the region where the ruins of Qaz are said to lie. Perhaps if you consult your underworld contacts, you could open a question on what happened on the Withered Nightingales' Recent Expedition to Qaz. (Branching clock.)

Tick 4: You strike gold: a lead on the puzzle scroll that did not make it into the Ignotaur's collection. The missing scroll was not burned! Twenty years before the burning of the Library of Worms, the wizard Alangstrum, Piercer of Veils, quietly removed the fifth puzzle scroll from the library. Some say that he did it in the conviction that the world was not ready for the terrible hidden wisdom of the fifth scroll, others that he wished to seize its powers for himself. But here the trail runs cold. Several of the texts you have been consulting refer you to Alangstrum's introduction to Priaducts and Other Ways Hither and Yon, a book sadly not found in the collector's libraryPerhaps you could make further progress if you could locate a copy of this exceedingly rare text. (Wall)

Tick 5: In the introduction to Priaducts and Other Ways Hither and Yon, Alangstrum obliquely suggests that he opened a priaduct to Wishery, the dreamlands. There he placed the fifth puzzle scroll in a shaded grotto on the Hooded Isle in the Sea of Palimpsests, where the veil of reality wears thin, and four worlds flicker through like flames behind a thin parchment.

As you can see from this clock, a mix of history, possible adventure locales, the names of tomes, and so on are all introduced slowly over an extended period of time, perhaps mixed with the occasional rabbit hole or canard on a shaky roll. I think this is a player driven way to make a fun, sandbox oriented downtown minigame out of lore in your setting.