Thursday, August 22, 2013

Absolute Direction and the Megadungeon

In GURPS, the Absolute Direction advantage really gives you a lot of bang for the buck. It's limited in ability, but within its niche it's basically foolproof. As the text says:

"You always know which way is north, and you can always retrace a path you have followed within the past month, no matter how faint or confusing." - GURPS Basic Set: Characters, p. 34

I have mixed feelings about this advantage.

For a game based on multiple dungeons, such as a dungeon-of-the-week game or a traveling game, this is mainly positive for both the players and the GM. The players don't have to worry so much about mapping, or getting lost - either above or below ground - as long as they keep their Absolute Direction-having PC conscious. The GM doesn't have to worry about folks getting lost on the way to the dungeon, or frittering away a good portion of a session working on their maps, or having suspension-of-disbelief issues with describing rooms ("There is a door in the West wall near the south corner" "How do we know it's the west wall? The stars? We're underground.") In my previous campaign, which ranged around a largish play area and where locations were fodder for one or two visits, and the overarching conflict is what the players were on about, this was fantastic.

For a megadungeon game, it's not quite as fun for the GM. Always know which way is north? Gets rid of lots of trick rooms and disrupts the fun of non-Euclidean geometry. It even makes mapping less of an issue, and turns "get out of the dungeon safely" from a test of player memory, player mapping, and player attention into "the scout has Absolute Direction and retraces our steps."

Not fun, in my opinion.

So I modified the advantage for this game.

Above ground, it works as advertised.

Underground, well, it's not so simple.

You keep the skill bonuses for things like Orienteering and Body Sense (great when you're teleported).

But you don't get the path retracing, nor the knowledge of north.

Instead, you get two things:

- exact distances. This is something I don't do by default. When I describe rooms and corridors to a guy with Absolute Direction, it's exact. Not "roughly 20-25 yards away is a big door." It's "20 yards away is a door that's 6' wide." Not "A rectangular room about twice as wide and three times as long as the corridor you entered by" but rather "a 25' wide and 35' long room." "He's kind of far away." No - it's "He's 17 yards away."

- recognition of places you've been before. Even if you come at the place from a different angle, or strange entryway, it doesn't matter. So long as it's other than a warping/teleporting method, I'll tell you if you've been there before. And roughly how recently ("You were here before today" or "you were here a few weeks ago.")

This isn't the letter of the advantage, but it preserves some of the spirit - you're less likely to get lost because your maps are potentially better. You can rely on the GM to tell you you're back in recently-explored territory. But it's still up to you not to get lost, to figure out if that room spun you around, or which way points closer to the stairs down. It's changing it from a more output-centered, automatic-success advantage vs. a narrow set of issues (getting lost) into a input-centered, automatic improvement in information quality advantage. It makes it something that's still 5 points of value in a game where knowing North underground and retracing steps automatically is clearly more useful than anything else similar to it that you can get for 5 points.

For a game where "explore the strange environment" is a good part of the fun and the challenge, I am finding it works very well indeed. All it takes is some re-jiggering by the GM and reasonable players who accept the change without griping. I've got players like that, generally, because I'm not nerfing their power but making it fit the spirit of the game better. They hate it when the scout isn't there and their map gets a little "off."


  1. I am sure you will disagree but this an example of an advantage that is useful at lower power games but is a huge advantage at high powered games. It is an absolute negation of any chance of getting lost even in a megadungen. This is the same as Unfazable which allows you PC to not suffer from Fright Checks. It seems reasonably priced in a low power realistic campaign but is it really fair when Cthulhu manifests? It seems in that case it is a much more powerful advantage if it can allow a PC to fight a Elder Thingscand not go insane. I prefer that Unfazable gives you a leveled bonus to resistance than to an absolute resistance to Fright Checks. The same could be true for Absolute Direction IMO.

    1. It's not a power issue, it's a style issue. At 100 points or 500 points, if "getting lost is the player's problem, not the characters" is part of the game, Absolute Direction is "too powerful." Making it a leveled bonus (which it gives already) doesn't help because the goal is to make the players navigate the tunnels, not roll to see if they navigated correctly.

      Unfazeable vs. Cthulhu? That's what Cosmic is for. Don't use vanilla Terror vs. its vanilla total resistance to Terror. Use Cosmic; it's what's done in Cthulupunk, more or less, and it's really what Cosmic is for. Only Cosmic Unfazeable can counter Cosmic Terror, and that's where you shift the power level of the challenge to suit the characters.

  2. If you use Unfazeable (Cosmic) I still feel that it creates the same problem. No matter how terrifying the Elder Thing is the PC with it is immune. I personally prefer it to be leveled so that if there is an Elder God that devours multiverses manifested in the DF realm then the PC with Unfazeable (Cosmic) would need to have extremely high levels of his advantage to be abk e to overcome the Fright Check to this Elder God.

    1. Cosmic is leveled, and it's not like the GM has to let people take Cosmic Unfazeable. Allowing that and then complaining that it works against Terror (Cosmic) is kind of silly - you made that problem happen yourself, IMO.

    2. Ok but I prefer Terror Resistance to Unfazeable. It would work just like Magic Resistance but cost less per level. I just don't like advantages that make PCs absolutely immune to some power or ones like absolute direction.

    3. Fearlessness does that, as written. 2/level.

  3. As far as I'm concerned, taking Absolute Direction or Unfazeable or other such advantages is effectively saying "I don't want to be bothered by this particular class of problem, and I'm willing to give up some ability to hit things in order to get that". It's a deal between player and GM. Personally I'm happy with Absolute Direction as it stands: even in a dungeon bash, sometimes that PC's going to be unconscious or dead. This reminds me a little of Kromm's mention last year (I think) of a PC with Filthy Rich buying stuff for fellow PCs who are Poor: well, fair enough, the one who's Attractive does the talking rather than the ones who are Hideous...

    1. You see, I don't think it's the same. The Filthy Rich guy has to do the buying, and the Attractive guy has to do the talking. It's still player-centric. But the Absolute Direction guy is saying that the GM, not the player, is responsible for navigating for his character. He can't do it incorrectly, so it's the GM's job to do it, and only getting knocked out and moved changes that in any way.

      My change is all about shifting it from "GM, please tell me which way my Absolute Direction says to go to get back to the surface" to "I have more tools to find my own way back to the surface." Most of my changes, really, have to do with making the players work harder and the GM have less to do. Shifting things between players is totally fine with me. Shifting it to the GM, much less so.

    2. I feel like the GM already has enough to do without worrying about the implications of Absolute Direction, too. I like the idea changed up version too, because it still gives some really nice with the "I've been here before" line.

  4. It doesn't make mapping superfluous though, imo. Absolute Direction allows you to retrace your steps, just that. It doesn't let you take the shortest route, it doesn't let you take shortcuts you've not personally travelled (even if you've inferred their existence). It just lets you track back to where you've been before back the way you came.

    This is important, because although the player can say "I want to go to position x", they either need to be able to point to x on a map, describe location x clearly, or step backwards through each room until they reach x. If x is the exit of the dungeon (easily defined), they still need to choose which *path* to take, which again requires a map, or some easy way to define which path they want to take.

    This means that you can disrupt a players "I Absolute Direction my way to the exit" a number of ways. They cannot not (easily) choose a path without a map, other than "the one I took to get here today", which means they have to *literally* retrace their steps - possibly back into now hostile mobs due to their actions (they basically can't do this if they've fled monsters at all). It also means any of the following things can easily 'break' their path or at the very least make following a map more useful:
    * One-way passages: Such as one-way doors/teleporters, or cliffs/chutes/drops that require different skills/tools to traverse in the opposite direction (that may not be desirable or doable in their current situation).
    * Blocked passages: Such as sliding walls, doors that have become locked or barred, corridors that have been barricaded or collapsed.
    * Multiple possible paths of hard to estimate length: Remember, the ability does not confer the ability to know the length of any given path, meaning the player may take longer routes than needed - especially if there are folks that eventually meet up again, both of which have been travelled, but neither mapped to determine their length.
    * Shifting architecture/conditions: It may be true that non-Euclidean maps don't work too way when the path is ignorant of them, but when you allow corridors or doors to change with Time (I'd generally advice cyclicly) the 'path' is useless. The path doesn't know if that bridge you crossed over will still be there when you get back to it. Nor will it know that some corridors flood at night, or entire sections of dungeon rotate over time (yes they can detect the subtle shift in North whilst in the rotating section, but they'll be lost if they pass through it whilst its in one direction, and come back when its in another). Remember that its the path they've memorised, meaning sufficiently indistinguishable scenery may mean it takes them a while before they even realise they're 'lost' due to entering 'new' areas (directions such as "go to the end of the corridor and turn left" would only trigger alarm when they realise the corridor is too long, or that it turns right instead of left, they've no way of knowing at what point down that corridor the path became 'new' for them).

    Mostly though, a wandering monster that requires them to take an impromptu diversion, or the foreknowledge that "back the way we came means dealing with that trap/puzzle/hazard/difficult terrain/monster we passed on the way here" means that going back may not always be viable, especially when they've taken a long time to get to where they are, and a shortcut or alternative exit could be found if they explore a little more rather than backtracking - which will be made a *lot* easier to find if they had also made accurate maps (shortcuts should stand out, overland maps should overlay onto the dungeon maps to identify a potential exit near by etc).

    So ultimately, although it's very useful, it doesn't remove the need to map, nor is it infallible or take the fun out of 'trick dungeon geography' - you just need to use different tricks and challenges to accommodate for it.

    1. Well, it doesn't make a map useless, I agree with that. But it does offload the task of navigation back to the GM - which is my main issue. It's actually trivial in play to describe where you can to go back to - "I retrace our steps to room (x) and then from there back to the stairs up." That would work, as far as i5 seems thinking back to sessions I've played. The path can change, that's true, and sometimes it has, but that's not going to happen too often. Hostiles behind them can happen, too, but really haven't so far. They've been very smart about not running further into danger - but you're right that could happen.

      And yes, diversions and tricks can work. And you've got a whole post's worth of good tricks in there. I think they work just as well with my modified version of Absolute Direction, though, as the RAW version. I just think the regular version puts a lot of work on the GM, and a lot of what I prefer to be player responsibilities and decisions back on the GM, and that this kind of thing isn't terribly appropriate for a game set in a single location week after week.


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