Verticality in the City of the Living God: David Johnson’s Gathox Vertical Slum (Pt 2)
This week, I continue my interview with David Johnson, discussing Gathox Vertical Slum. You can find Part 1 of the interview here.
HK: Let’s look at why you went with Gathox Vertical Slum. Integrating a vertical element into dungeon and city design is unfortunately somewhat uncommon. How do you deal with this in Gathox’s design and setting elements?
DJ: Because overhead maps are the standard, we tend to think about interior adventure space designs in terms of single levels. But, as everyone knows, Jennell Jaquays was thinking vertical way back in the day, so I don’t know if it’s that uncommon anymore, although maybe not as considered as it could be. I don’t think I’m perfect at it either.
Gathox lacks horizontal space, like an overpopulated island. Going tall is the answer, of course, and so looking to how people handle this in the real world, you look first at planned developments. Standing on the ground and looking at a 20-story apartment complex, after you get over the fact that it looks like money-leeching pods stacked sky high, you get a sense of the order and function of the place, with clearly marked, sensible access upward and downward. Looking at unplanned developments, like Kowloon or the favelas of Rio, you see the ad-hoc, as-needed approach, and how those vertical access decisions are made to wrap around what came before it. That’s not unlike the classic dungeon idea of newer civilizations built on the ruins of older ones, but with the time frames compressed.
Maybe one floor of a ramshackle slumscraper had a long standing feud with the floor below, so they block the obvious access points and create alternate routes up and down. If the center of a floor collapses, does that become the garbage chute, or do the tenants build something new inside the hole? With no central law enforcement in Gathox, how do people defend their spaces up and down? Rooms are smaller for lack of square footage, and that reflects how people live in and use their space, and why or not they abandon those spaces. How sturdy is the structure as a whole, where are the weak points, and how often does it see repair? Is there a giant structure in the middle, obscured by a thousand tiny bolt-on apartments on the outside?
For me, it’s easier to consider several parts of floors to be zones for factions, and split up floors that way. You can’t do the traditional “Level 1 Random Encounter Table,” because maybe that’s 5-10 rooms and makes no sense. You can adapt it, and I’m certain plenty of GM’s do, but thinking about zones works better for me. And one other thing – as players get used to the notion of vertical dungeons, they learn to pay much more attention to what’s above and below, listening and searching in unorthodox ways, which is a blast at the table.HK: Gathox introduces several new rule changes from “standard” OSR games including a new class structure, removal of clerics, and an extremely streamlined skill system. How have these changes shaped your games?
DJ: My main goal was to keep the game moving – scrap things that slow game down, or change them to be a bit faster.
With the new class structure, that started from a severe case of alliteration: Militants, Mentalists, and Mutants. The first two are subdivided into categories that can fill specific roles with going too far into the endless specialization issues you find in late era fantasy RPGs. Mutants operate in their own sphere, roughly on par in power and advancement with clerics, but with different purpose. Everything fits the flavor of Gathox without shoehorning people into limited roles – that’s not my goal, nor should it be.
I understand why clerics are a thing in games, but I wanted to address the hit point economy a bit differently. To that end, a smattering of cleric spells were added to the Mentalist spell list, and hospitals and drugs can fulfill some of that role. I also reduced the downtime penalties for mortal injury, partly because events move quickly in the city and partly to mitigate the increased deadliness of Gathox. There’s also some limited reincarnation for characters, where if the proper rituals are observed (and plenty of gold spent), then a character’s Anti-Gathoxan self bursts forth naked and covered in mud, wondering how the hell they got to this wretched town. There’s penalties and limitations, of course, but players find it fun at the table.
As for skills, I’ve always despised the skill system of old school games. It eats up time, it encourages min-maxing without delivering on the promise of min-maxing (not true of late era games, I understand), and too often forces a mindset in players that you can only do what’s on your character sheet. So I start the game by telling players to do whatever they want, and that I’ll tell them what dice to roll.
I replace skills with Wheelhouses – these are loose, descriptive terms that can encompass any number of specific or general areas of expertise. A Wheelhouse allows players to knock a die off their xD6 vs. ability check, and players are encouraged to invent their own and then get GM approval. Players are required to notify me when they think it applies, and then take the bonus if I agree. All of this seems to speed up the game and eliminate the aforementioned skill problems.
HK: Instead of the traditional “domain game,” you introduce a system for players to become bosses of territory within the city, based on their reputation. Can you tell me about this system – its genesis, how you’ve used it in play, etc.?
I wanted to run a gang game. I didn’t know how to do that, and I wanted something that fit the world we were playing in, as opposed to shoehorning someone else’s system. There are also setting issues, like the fact that in a lawless city, you need to work for other gangs until you build up the resources to start your own and do your own gang work.
Out of these needs I started to devise a system – not perfect, but smooth at the table without too much bookkeeping. Reputation is earned by doing jobs successfully, and lost by screwing them up. You never lose your running total of Reputation by spending it, but you can run out of your ability to leverage your Reputation to acquire gang members or territories. There are costs involved with every Rep acquisition as well, so it keeps players on the hedonic gold treadmill.
The players in our game, all of which are 3rd to 5th level, have acquired several properties – Needle Point, a two-room junkie flophouse which serves as their current base; The Hand Tree, a tiny urban park featuring a single tree which grows human hands (Horror On The Orient Express, anyone?); and The Blood Bowl, a street vending cart which serves pork blood soup. Each is costly to acquire, yields monthly profit, and must be staffed by gang members (which also cost money every month). Two of the territories were contested in the bidding process, which stripped away more expendable Reputation, and one of which resulted in a hard-won street fight.
The result of the system is that players have to balance the costs of maintaining and expanding their empire with the demands of the world around them as well as their individual pursuits. I think this is a solid way to start a domain game at level 1, and it seems to scale well. The main revision that needed to be made was when Reputation was originally spent, it was lost. This didn’t make a lick of sense. Some of the particular costs, as well as the territory bidding process, needed refinement as well. But the base idea remains – Reputation gets you places.
Gathox Vertical Slum is scheduled for a 2016 release. For more information on Gathox, be sure to check out David’s project blog at Mutants of Gathox.