Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Deep Dives: Eternal Ocean, Wreck, and Midnight Zone

 A little over a week ago, my son brought a nasty case of influenza into the house. No sooner had they recovered from it than some kind of norovirus followed suit. I have spent the last eleven days caring for two little kids who were perpetually in purge mode. It has left me little time for creative projects.

What time I have had has been pretty thematically inspired.

Octonauts C 2012 Silvergate Media, based on the Children's books by Meomi

Over those weeks I have been dosed heavily with cartoons. My oldest will voraciously consume anything related to deep-sea exploration, and so I have probably re-watched the entirety of Octonauts twice over. I've also consumed nearly two seasons of a cartoon I had not heard of before but thoroughly enjoyed entitled The Deep about a family of deep-sea explorers looking for the sunken ruins of Lemuria. It would make a hell of a campaign.

The Deep is C 2015 Technicolor SA based on the Graphic Novels by Tom Taylor

I also downloaded and played through the video game Subnautica, which I'd received as a Birthday present last Spring... and was immediately hooked by it. In fact, I played through the entire game for my oldest son in fits and starts, then purchased the sequel, Subnautica: Below Zero... for which I am approaching the endgame.

Subnautica C 2014 Unknown Worlds Entertainment

Subnautica immerses you as the lone survivor of a crashed starship on an ocean-world. While you have advanced technology at your disposal, it is very limited, able only to construct finished products from raw materials your character can collect from your environment and parts of your shipwreck. At the beginning you only have schematics for a bare minimum of survival gear. As you explore, you can use a hand-held sensor to reverse engineer better tools. Even at your most advanced, your character has little to no chance of defeating the large predators in the Ocean: it is a game of exploration, survival and caution.

Subnautica: Below Zero C 2019 Unknown Worlds Entertainment

Subnautica: Below Zero follows a renegade explorer who has come to the same planet a decade later, after the corporation which owned the crashed ship in Subnautica had colonized, and then abandoned the planet without explanation. Using similar tools and technology you explore the abandoned planet looking for answers about the protagonists' sister, who the company claims died on the planet.

While Below Zero is definitely an inferior game to the original, they both are stunning designs with really enjoyable and immersive play.

It also inspired me to revisit a favorite old move: The Abyss, about a deep-sea science lab discovering an alien colony on the bottom of the Ocean after a disaster causes them to sink into a trench.

The Abyss C 1989 20th Century Fox 

And some of my favourite pieces from Galactic Geographic: a series of science-fiction nature illustrations and short documentary-style stories about exploring a galaxy teeming with alien life. This series by Karl Kofed was published in Heavy Metal in the 70s, then republished in the late 90s It often depicted strange life on water worlds..

"Passing of the Air Whales" by Karl Kofed

After all of this deep-sea adventure around all the time, I started revisiting my game Midnight Zone, where I am mostly stymied by creating rules for computer hacking that are versatile, but not likely to gum up the play the way they do in a typical Cyberpunk game. I am playtesting multiple solutions.

My son, who has stopped playing TTRPGs with me, because he insists he won't play anything where he might "lose." said that he might consider playing if we did something like Subnautica or The Deep. He loved the idea of being a marine biologist (his dream job) exploring alien oceans in high-tech submarines. And this got me thinking...

Subnautica and The Abyss work best because they isolate the heroes: they are stranded in the Ocean with no way out. The tech in Subnautica is particularly clever game design because it keeps crafting from being dull and repetitive, but still forces the player to struggle with survival. Finding new and better sources of food and fresh water is one of the driving forces in game play followed quickly by finding the means to build better vehicles so that you can move further and further afield from your original splash-down point.

The Ping-Pong Tree Sponge is a flesh-eating sponge that
adheres to and shreds the flesh of fish like razor-sharp
velcro. It looks about as alien as you could possibly want;
found at 2,700m (8,800') below the Ocean surface.
Aliens and the Deep Sea go together so well. After all, the deeper you go, the weirder and more alien life already gets. And the dangers of sea exploration forces players to be cautious and smart if they want to survive... and it is a setting where violence  is extraordinarily risky.

I have also found that if you want to build a complex and elegant game, it helps if you start by writing a simpler version so that you can get the grinding parts, like designing gear out of the way.

So I decided to strike while the iron is hot and help him out of his current phase.

With that it mind, I started writing my son a simpler deep-sea science-fiction setting that draws from The Deep, Subnautica, Galactic Geographic, The Abyss, and a few other choice pieces of science fiction, such as Alien and The Chronicles of Riddick for a few extra sci-fi ideas.

I created a planet that PCs would become trapped on while exploring that I named Rusalka, with strange geography and a lot of secrets and mysteries behind the first failed colonial effort 20 years earlier.

To make it go, I started with Yohcai Gal's Cairn, and tweaked it for Science Fiction. Then I added rules for managing air supplies, high-tech fabrication machines, gathering survival resources, advanced vehicles, and the major perils of diving, like the Bends, and the Rapture of the Deep.

I am building the game as three PDFs. I call the setting, including both Rusalka and the interplanetary civilization the PCs come from and the planet in detail Eternal Ocean which I will have both a Player's Guide (what everybody knows), and Referee's Guide (explaining the mysteries) that should weigh in at about 24 pages each. And then the Cairn-based game, which I am calling Wreck.

I should be able to share the roughs of Eternal Ocean & Wreck a little later this week. Both of which will offer me a bunch of content to later put into Midnight Zone.

100 Hours of my life and counting....

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