Symbolic City


For all the novelty of its elaborate setting, maybe the aspect of Ultraviolet Grasslands that has done the most to keep our interest are its skills — particularly those that seem more tongue in cheek than practical.

For example: In our most recent session, our caravan returned to a storehouse where they had previously discovered some contraband, only to find some strangers rooting around in the goods. To size up their rivals, one of the players attempted to sneak within eavesdropping range. To hedge his bet, he applied his Contortionist skill, which allowed him to weave deftly through the shadows. Or would have, anyway, had he not failed his dice roll. Instead, he knocked over a large ewer outside the door. Out rushed the strangers, weapons drawn, demanding to know who was skulking about.

Here, quite obviously, was an opportunity for combat. Yet combat was probably the least interesting possibility. Besides, the odds were a bit uncertain: While three party-members could still strike from hiding, the other was essentially cornered, and their enemies were comparatively high level. So instead of rushing out, guns blazing, the players hatched another plan: Step 1: Lead the polybodies on a wild goose chase. Step 2: Pack up the contraband in their absence. Step 3: Disappear into the night.

To pull this off, they again relied on their least adventurous skills. In addition to Contortionist, the trapped player had chosen Comedy as a skill, and he used that now to defuse the situation. I could see how that might backfire, so we put it to a roll: Success! We decided that his prior attempt at acrobatic stealth had ended in a headstand, and that he was still holding that position when he answered his interrogators: “Just looking for my dog!” At first, their laughter was sardonic, but it quickly turned into genuine astonishment when another player character quietly nudged their steppe puppy out into the alleyway. The puppy scampered away, the PC and his challengers chased after, and the rest of the party went to work loading the contraband into their wagon.

This was all unscripted, so it could have ended there, but I decided there was still some risk that the polybodies might return before they finished. There was probably a more exciting way to play out that possibility, but I was thinking on my feet, so I put it to another roll. To consolidate the action, I had the players designate one character as foreman while the other concentrated on brute labor. They'd roll against strength to get the contraband loaded up before the polybodies returned, but the foreman had a relevant skill that could help tilt the balance: Packing! (Even so, he rolled one measly point short of the target number. That could have been disastrous were it not for UVG's “heroic dice” mechanic, which let him roll a spare d6, nudging the total up to a save.)

Most role-playing games are built around exploration and combat — solid adventure tropes. The skills prescribed by their rules reflect that focus. By contrast, contortionism, comedy and packing are unusual skills, and UVG offers them up without much in the way of explanation or justification. It's left up to the players and GM to make them useful. From a design perspective, the point here is just that, if a game provides options like these, astute players will look for ways to use them. That requires creativity, and flexing creative muscle is half the fun

#uvg #design

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.”


Back in May of last year, when I convinced some friends to try role-playing over Slack, the game we started with was Luka Rejec's Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City. I ran our first campaign like a loosely-plotted story, prepping characters and potential plot-twists ahead of each session, tacking toward new possibilities with each curve ball thrown by my players. It worked reasonably well. We had a few sessions bog down for lack of clear direction, and there were times when I only just kept a few over-ambitious set-pieces from derailing the whole thing. It ran overlong, which is, perhaps, a habitual flaw in my approach to GMing. On the whole, though, we were happy with the results.

My sole, lingering regret, perhaps, was that I hadn't given the game freer reign. UVG is an exceptionally distinct setting — a surreal sci-fi, psych-metal Oregon Trail that melds a panoply of influences into a bizarre and diverse world. When my group decided to circle back to it, I decided to take a less active roll in prep and lean more heavily on the book's procedures for throwing weirdness at the players.

Easier said than done. UVG is, by Rejec's own admission, as much an art book as it is a game system. Most (but not all) of the procedures for play are concentrated in the back third. The setting is presented primarily as a kind of guide book covering thirty-two locations, ranging from the Violet City in the west to the Black City on the eastern edge of the world. The descriptions tend to be terse and suggestive, the better to elaborate your own interpretation of the world. Some questions are answered not directly, but with tables of rumors that make your players' perception of the world subject to the roll of a die. What solid information there is in the game is often spread across multiple sections, with no clear references to connect them. The book offers a glossary and an index, but neither is exhaustive.

Take lings, by way of illustration. To help character creation along, I showed each of my players a copy of the “Factions” section so they'd have a sense of the deviations from standard human that were available to them. One player took the bait and cast his character as a quarter-ling. Okay, so what's a quarter-ling? They're descendants of lings, who were, according to the glossary, a “mysterious, missing sentient sub-type” from the long span of fictional history before the players' time. Maybe. Or maybe some quarter-lings only prefer to believe in that lineage. Okay, but what are they if that's not the case? To complicate matters even more, three sessions into the campaign, I've run across a section on quarter-lings under the chapter for a locale we haven't visited and likely won't reach this time around.

So I may have been mistaken in supposing that the book offers a system, a la Perilous Wilds, for generating adventures. That would require a more systematic exposition of the rules, the major elements of the setting, and their interrelation. The travelogue is full of surprises and uncertainty, and the exposition is so dense and noncommittal that it's practically impossible to absorb it all and deploy it at need. Best to treat it, maybe, as an especially fecund set of prompts for elaborating your own scenarios and narrative stems. Which means I'm back to prepping a few ideas and potential narrative directions for our next session.