We’ve Got A System for That

Hi, I’m Robert Parker, co-founder of the Hydra Cooperative and editor of Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, here to talk about my contributions to Marlinko, specifically the carousing and hireling reputation subsystems. Let’s dive right into it.

I’ve been a player in the Hill Cantons Google+ campaign for three years now as Manzafrain the Mirthful, mountebank, defacer of dungeons, half-baked schemer, and soon-to-be-deposed colonial magistrate of the Feral Shore. The early phases of the G+ campaign took place primarily in the city of Marlinko and surrounding territories and involved a freewheeling, picaresque style of play. We left in our wake a trail of abandoned brides, condemned squats, and callously murdered hirelings. Let us just say that the ‘Nefarious Nine’ is not well-loved in the southernmost city of the Cantonment.

In other words, Jeff Rients’ carousing system was in heavy rotation, with plenty of unintended consequences (such as meeting (and subsequently kidnapping) Manzafrain’s first wife, Elizshka, daughter of Hurloj Kladivo). When Chris set out to present Marlinko for a wider audience, I knew that carousing (in one form or another) would need to be represented to truly capture the ‘feel’ of the campaign. I also realized that we would need to really work to help DMs make the city ‘come alive’, finding ways to incorporate the various personalities in play, and to convey to the players the feel of the different contradas.

I set out to tweak and adapt Jeff’s subsystem into something both distinctly Marlinkian and different enough not to be a straight rip-off.

Looking over Jeff’s rules, one bit that I always wanted to see further developed was the idea that players could choose to set their level of ‘risk/reward’ based on where they partied: towns and cities potentially offer more XP than smaller settlements, as they provide greater opportunity for debauchery, but greenhorn PCs were more likely to end up suffering from the consequences of their indulgences. I decided that this system could be easily adapted from the village/town/city model to contradas based on their socio-economic status, which would nicely dovetail with my goal of differentiating the contradas in player’s minds.

Devising the “losing your shit” consequences by contrada from that point was simplicity itself. Combing through the information on the different contradas, I noted both means of intoxication and ways in which rascally players could embarrass themselves (with help from Michael Moscrip, who provided some excellent suggestions). The real trick was emulating Chris’s authorial voice which, while not exactly “High Gygaxian,” has a unique character that I wanted to emulate. I’ll leave it to you, gentle reader, to determine how well I accomplished that goal.

Likewise, the hiring hall consequence/reward system is a modification of a similar system that I use in my home games that was inspired by actual play within the Hill Cantons. After a particularly brutal grind early in the Hill Cantons campaign where we mercilessly used hireling as proverbial canaries in the coal mine, fewer became available for us to hire—and there was one particularly rough month where they went on strike!

Now, while Chris runs a somewhat looser game than me, preferring to keep systems as simple and abstract as possible. I, on the other hand, absolutely love fiddly subsystems that provide procedures for what would otherwise be determined by fiat. So, while Chris likely thought “okay, that’s a lot of dead hirelings, there should be some reprisals,” I wanted something more concrete.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, I turned to Chris’s Chaos Index (you can read more here and here), which comes from a long pedigree of “track” systems (such as Outbreaks on the Pandemic board) where consequences are tripped based on an accumulation of in-game player actions. In this specific example, how hirelings are treated is codified into a point system which is tracked, where beneficial actions (gaining levels, bonuses, etc) add points, where detrimental actions (dead or abandoned hirelings, etc) subtract them from the total. Once certain positive or negative totals are reached, in-game events occur.

Most of the specific events are obvious (strikes, pickets, etc.), but two odder ones emerged from Chris’s preexisting writing: the Wobbly Giant and animated statues of pantless barbarians. Wobbly Giants are a much beloved one-off monster from the early days of the Hill Cantons blog that I’ve wanted to see make a comeback, while pantless barbarian statues are mentioned in early drafts of the Marlinko manuscript as available for ‘friends of labor’. Always being in favor of integrating ‘fluff’ text with mechanical subsystems (and animate wooden barbarian dongs), I slotted both into the ‘track’ system as potential rewards for players who curried favor with the guild.

Ultimately, that’s what I’m most proud of in these subsystems (and in Fever-Dreaming Marlinko as a whole): the mechanics in the book reinforce and integrate the substance of the text into your game. While Marlinko certainly can be read for pleasure, it is designed to be eminently gameable—nothing is extraneous, and everything is designed to be used at the table.

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