Gaming low-power, low-tech PCs, Part I

In the center of the world is a land hammered by the weather, tortured by insane gods, plagued by grotesque monsters and haunted by magic. Only the bravest survive in the Mad Lands.
Yet they do survive…

Indeed, they do. But how?

Yesterday I took another stroll through GURPS Fantasy II (subtitle: Adventures in the Mad Lands), from noted gaming author Robin D. Laws. It’s an old book, from the days when the GURPS line used the “Fantasy” moniker for its specific fantasy game worlds. The first Fantasy gave us the world now named (and book-titled) Banestorm; Fantasy II introduced the bizarre, dark-fantasy world that, if published now, would be given the book title The Mad Lands.

Fantasy II remains one of my favorite reads (and re-reads) from the GURPS line. It’s also a world I’ve never played in. I don’t really expect to play in it. I don’t personally know anyone who has played in it.

I love its offbeat, original take on fantasy. Low-tech, vaguely Inuit-like people in near-Arctic conditions. A focus on a small, insular world where the PCs’ local community is everything, and where adventures will stick close to the home village. Think wooden longhouses, not castles; elders, not kings; hunters, not Paladins; farmers and fishers, not Elves and Dwarves. No sign of dragons, nor dungeons as players know them. Forget epic journeys or treasure hauls. You’ll pack trail rations and wooden spears, not potions and flaming axes. Light leather and a basic sword create about the closest thing there is to an armed knight. (You want a horse, too? Dream on.) Storytelling means cautionary tales around the clan’s cook fire, not supercharged bardic powers. And the PCs will come across no wizards, divine clerics, magic items, or superhuman gifts – at least none that they won’t want to destroy immediately.

Here is a land of danger and death, monsters and magic. Adventures here aren’t loot-and-pillage – they’re battles for mankind’s very survival in a world of chaos.

Danger, death, monsters and (evil) magic. Some of the most dangerous and deadly monsters and (evil) magic you’ll find in a setting. Fantasy II isn’t the least bit shy about showering its cast of human-sized monsters with superhuman durability and the muscle to kill a PC with a single blow. Worse, they come in packs. Yet facing a pack of these nightmares remains nothing compared to fate-worse-than-death encounters with the hideous gods of the Mad Lands. Now take all that, wrap it up in a harsh environment that’s a killer even without the creepy stuff… and how in the world do barely-armored, lightly-armed, normal humans survive at all?

In a typical game setting, PCs might barely survive such an impossible environment – but they’d soon rise to meet it on its own terms. In addition to boosting their innate skills and fighting prowess, they’d amass game-changing extras: awesome spells, mystical abilities, enchanted weapons, magical tools, incredible potions, supernatural allies, possibly land and servants and armies, and throughout it all, tons of gold to purchase the best armor and weapons imaginable.

Mad Lands characters get none of those extras. None. They can adventure (i.e., protect the village) for years in the game, and they’ll still be tramping through the woods with simple low-medieval weapons, leather armor (if that), and zilch in the way of abilities that aren’t 100% normal, non-magical human stuff. So again, how do they survive?

That’s where the fun looks to come in, and it’s the question that makes me want to play in the Mad Lands. But while I speak from a perspective of not yet having entered the setting, every time I eyeball hero stats vs monster stats and juggle likely outcomes in my head, I see nothing but PC blood spilled across the pristine snow.

There’s another campaign issue that feels like trouble in the making. I believe that Fantasy II‘s author very purposely rethinks in-game “rewards” to offer something more realistic than the typical adventuring carrots. Rewards for victory in the Mad Lands don’t take the form of treasure and magic and saleable parts carved from ever more exotic beasts. Nor are they new spell levels, awesome feats, and other power-ups. Rather, the rewards include helping your fellow human, gaining the respect of clan members, and just surviving another day. The approach is a nifty step toward a higher, more mature level of roleplaying, and I like it.

But the baser rewards of typical gaming aren’t a bad thing. Treasure, magic, or at least better gear are big expectations for most fantasy gamers – and collecting that stuff is fun. Gaining and trying out new powers and abilities is a blast, too! Is Fantasy II destined to disappoint gamers who appreciate the fun of slowly developing a character’s personal story, but who’d really like to grow in character power, too?

With those concerns, I’d fear to play in, or GM, the Mad Lands exactly as written. Or to be more specific, I’d hesitate to play or GM the characters as written. I’ve got simple ideas for how I’d approach this uniquely challenging game world – or how I would approach (and have approached) any game setting with low-power, low-tech PCs facing big threats. Be back soon –

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