Prep Vs. Procedural
Three sessions of Ultraviolet Grasslands, and things are settling into a much happier groove. After a fight with some vomes west of the Last Serai, one of our characters has developed an addiction to hop fizz; another tricked a Porcelain Patrol with a severed head; our quarterling has developed mutations that make him resemble a flying monkey from The Wizard of Oz; and the group has taken time off from their trade mission to start smuggling contraband bodies. Technically, some of these are negative turns of event, but the group responded positively. There's a narrative quality to the turns. They have throughline. They develop the characters. The clear, mercantile goal they started with no longer seems like the obvious end of their trajectory. Events are beginning to shape them in ways that surprise us. This is The Good Stuff.™
Some of this emerged from playing the system, which as you may recall, was the source of my frustration last time around. The quarterling's mutations arose as the result of a routine Misfortune roll. That put the party in a sandstorm. Three of them rolled high enough to weather it without trouble. The quarterling's player rolled a failing number and had to roll for consequences. I think. I'm not totally sure I handled that one strictly according to the book, but the player was actually pleased with his character's mutations, so who's to gainsay my method?
Other turns were the result of prep. Once the characters decided to start smuggling bodies, an inspection by the Porcelain Patrol was too good a narrative opportunity to pass up. The random procedures could have led to the same scene, but the odds were against it. And my meddling paid off. The resulting scene was tense, threatening to break out in combat at any moment, with the odds very much against my players' low-level caravan. As often happens in the groove, table banter gave rise to a plan so absurd that it had to be tried. Its success is already one of the highlights of the campaign.
I'm having to reconcile myself to the fact that this is what works. It feels like a weak spot in my skill set. I've seen GMs write that they've run the game straight from the book, and that it just “works.” Which is appealing, but not my experience.
Could that be the issue? Experience? UVG is an opinionated system. Opinions inform all game design, of course, and those opinions are functional to the extent that they translate into procedures for play, but they're not really meaningful to the player who has no basis for comparison. “I like rolling d20s,” Rejec writes. That's why the game relies so heavily on the outcome of d20 rolls. Well… okay. Not having played other tabletop RPGs — even, you know, that one — my opinions on the pros and cons of the d20 were as yet unformed. Much of the book felt (and still feels) organized for someone who's run enough games to have their own opinions and procedures for making a game work. That's not to single out UVG. The more OSR games I read, the more the whole scene feels that way.
Adventure supplements are sometimes labeled, e.g., “for level 0-3 characters.” Maybe systems should have similar guidelines — “for level 2-5 referees.”