One of my favorite things about the Hydra Cooperative is that we have started slowing evolving away from just being a publishing vehicle for individual DIY rpg projects and into a space that can synergize and cross-fertilize on projects. A couple months back Hydra partner Trey Causey posted about the Grim Frontier, an idea he had for a hardcore survival rpg/setting.
“Potentially easy death, resource management, and some horror elements beloved by many old school gamers; an evocation for modern audience of the strangeness or alienness of new environments through use of Roadside Picnic-esque zones element...Ancient mounds,giant skeletons or mummified dwarfs borrowed from the real folklore of the West; vaguely late 18th to first few decades of the 19th level of technology, probably with low magic.”
The concept hit me as I was deep into my own thoughts about a survival small-scale “domain game." We started the game design equivalent of a jam session with Robert Parker, Humza K, David Lewis Johnson (who gussed up that piece above), Trey and I riffing and expanding on elements. It's a backburner project—we have so much to finish like Misty Isles, Strange Stars OSR, Operation Unfathomable, Broken Fire Regime—but a fun one.
Here are some of the design goals:
Grim Frontier Design Goals
Three Main Themes. Exploration, treasure-hunting and surviving/settling. Provides a potential beginning, middle and end arc where the characters may go from just basic survival to reasonable comfort to growing/leading a whole small pocket of civilization in the wilds.
High Lethality. Characters are fragile and powered down and the threat level is constant and high.
Hostile Wilderness. The wilderness should be as much or move of a challenge as monsters. Travel mishaps and disasters become huge and relatively frequent challenges. Exposure, dehydration, hunger are just around the corner.
Almost No Civilization/Safe Zones. Outside trade post, some tiny fragile and suspicious neutral holdings and that's it.
Troupe Play. Each player has several characters that he/she can cycle through. This both helps with the high lethality and gives the player skill variety and characters to accomplish downtime activities between sessions. Instead of NPC hirelings you are for the most part using your own PCs.
NPC Dynamics are Important. Loyalty and morale are even more important than most games. To either entice an NPC—and backup PCs--to leave civilization to come to this godforsaken place or ally with you, close attention needs to be made to their needs and desires. Charisma and success matter a lot. Low morale and loyalty NPCs are more likely to desert, steal, or mess up during downtime. Higher levels provide bonuses. Good CHA, success during adventure sessions and providing a comfortable existence
Downtime. Characters not in use during a session are assumed to be able to do a small range of activities over the week “turn” between sessions. Many of these are base, scouting or scavenging oriented.
Organic Link Between Domain Turn and Adventure Session. The game revolves around two play arenas:
1. the traditional face-to-face adventure session where the players choose one of their PCs to play and the players go after some big ticket adventure goal (like exploring a large ruin, raiding a large resource cache, etc).
2. a mini-game/subsystem that takes care of all the domain/downtime activity of the PCs and Base around weekly turns. Grim Frontier will make the link between this activity and the session more organic and frequent. So say a downtime PC goes on a chart-resolved scouting run and learns some valuable, but sketchy details about Zone X that might guide the player goals for the next session. Or a downtime PC has a mishap is trapped under a fallen log and has to be rescued in the session.
Base Building. Base building is a key player activity in surviving the deeply hostile environment.
Housing (start with tents and can build larger structures that provide more durable structure)
Fortifications (palisades, stone wall, trenches, towers and traps)
Workshops (blacksmiths, carpentry, etc)
Base Resources. Base resources are somewhat abstracted and you need basic thresholds of each to both survive, maintain (keep up morale/hit points), and thrive (build expansions or new settlements). Resources can be scavenged in downtime and pursuit of large hoards/caches may become goals in adventure sessions.
Hardware (nails, tools, plows, etc)
Ammo (or Powder and Ball)
Raw Materials (wood, stone, iron, etc)
Luxury Items (provide bonuses to morale and loyalty, have a chance of converting mook NPCs
Hit Points. A la Robert Parker's excellent downtime house rules for Krul, hit points are re-rolled per session according to the level of accommodation and luxury at the home base. More comfortable and more sustainable bases provide bonuses to rolls for hit points, the obverse is true for hard scrabble bases.
Equipment Deterioration. Shit breaks and downgrades. A good steel axe becomes worth its weight in gold.
Tech Level. Late 18th/early 19th century (black powder firearms).
Treasure and Artifacts. Treasure/artifact hunting is an important goal/activity beyond survival. Supernatural or high technology artifacts are rare, powerful and highly sought out in some of the sites/zones. Tradeable goods are important also for relations with other enclaves and getting badly needed supplies shipped in from distant civilization. Luxury items can be consumed as a base resource and provide significant advantages.