Today I had a “session zero” with a group as we’re getting ready to start playing Ultraviolet Grasslands. After reviewing the setting pitch, talking about how we wanted to handle some content, reviewing safety tools (valuable even among friends who know each other), and such, we talked about the system we wanted to use.
For those unfamiliar, UVG is a setting, not a game. However, the last quarter or so of the book has the basics of a system called SEACAT that Luka Rejec, the setting’s writer, is designing. (The name refers to the six attributes in the system: Strength, Endurance, Agility, Charisma, Aura, and Thought, not to some adorable little creature.)
As an oversimplification, SEACAT takes the core ability check mechanic from D&D: d20 + relevant ability score + skill proficiency if applicable, roll to meet or beat a target number. This unified “test” mechanic covers what 5e would separate into ability checks, saving throws, and attack rolls. Hit Points are renamed Life because that’s more or less what they really are.
However, it removes most of the rest of D&D: no classes, an open-ended skill list (the one in the book is titled “Possible UVG Skills (D40)”), and no real races. Players can make heroes from other factions that are wildly different from humans, but all typical fantasy “races” (dwarves, half-elves, half-orcs, etc.) are treated as variants of humans, along with post-humans, in a big group called “Rainbowlanders” and that seems like the default assumption. Elves per se are not in the game, or at least they’re not present in the world (it’s complicated).
Magic as such doesn’t come automatically. Or more accurately, heroes don’t begin with any particular ability with “magitech and fantascience”. Anyone can try to cast a spell, but it costs them Life. Also, crucially, spells take inventory (which matters a great deal in the Ultraviolet Grasslands), either because of components or the magic item or maybe the knowledge weighs them down and the hero can carry less. That’s why becoming a wizard matters: they can memorize spells without taking inventory, and they don’t directly spend Life to cast a spell. The system suggests a quest template for heroes wishing to become wizards: you have to work for your eldritch ability!
Other abilities come from biomagical corruption: mutations, basically. They can be bad, weird, or heroic, but they are rarely boring (except the few that just give ability score increases). The system presents them as examples, so replacing them won’t break anything – not that the game cares much about balance. You’re going out into a psychedelic wilderness at the edge of time itself; why should it carefully calibrate itself to the weirdos who think it’s a good place to hang out?
World of Dungeons overview
Nobody in the group has played SEACAT before (obviously). And most of them have at least some familiarity with Dungeon World and other Powered by the Apocalypse games. So one of the options I put on the table was a World of Dungeons (WoDu) hack by John Harper.
Unlike DW or most other PbtA games, WoDu doesn’t have playbooks. In fact, it only has one move, which I have reproduced here in its entirety.
When you attempt something risky, sum 2d6 and add one of your attribute scores, based on the action you’re taking. (The GM will tell you some of the possible consequences before you roll, so you can decide if it’s worth the risk or if you want to revise your action.)
A total of 6 or less is a miss; things don’t go well and the risk turns out badly. A total of 7-9 is a partial success; you do it, but there’s some cost, compromise, retribution, harm, etc. A total of 10 or more is a full success; you do it without complications. And a total of 12 or more is a critical success; you do it perfectly to some extra benefit or advantage.
SKILLS:if you have an applicable skill, you can’t miss. a roll of 6 or less counts as a partial success, but with a bigger compromise or complication than a 7-9 result
That basically is the entire game engine. By default, it has the standard six attributes from D&D, five classes (Fighters, Thieves, Clerics, Wizards, and Rangers), each with a skill and some special abilities like Backstab for Thieves or Cure for Clerics. A few more rules cover resting and an unusually non-Vancian magic system, in which Wizards basically summon some sort of spirit and command it to do something related to the spirit’s domain of power.
Merging the two
So here is my initial plan to hack World of Dungeons to fit into the Ultraviolet Grasslands.
Replace the original six attributes, either with SEACAT or the three that the follow-up World of Dungeons: Turbo version uses: Insight, Prowess, and Resolve. Potentially, I could turn these into tags rather than numbers: for example, a Strong hero makes any rolls depending on their strength at advantage. In 2d6 terms, this means roll 3d6 and keep the highest two dice.
Retain the lack of classes. Everyone chooses some skills from an open list. If they use that skill, on a 6- they still do what they intended but I get to make a hard move anyway. I will probably use the reframing by Jim Ryan:
Spells will have literal physical weight, because the choice of what to take with you matters a lot when planning an expedition out into the wild unknown. In fact, I expect magic spells to take the form of actual magitech items that they need to discover before use. That is, unless and until somebody becomes a wizard.
Because the level ranges between the two games more or less match, I could drop in the experience point system directly from UVG and not miss a beat. The luck die as presented in WoDu is a little sparse (roll a d6, low is bad and high is good), but Electric Bastionland has almost the same system with a bit more definition and it feels totally natural for me at this point.
WoDu Turbo playset
After writing all that above, I re-read World of Dungeons: Turbo, which I think is John Harper’s final, polished version of the game. I wouldn’t use the Breakers playset, obviously, but the game has only three attributes, a selection of talents, and a special resource called Strain (which has a lot in common with the “hero dice” mechanic in SEACAT). Writing an Ultraviolet Grasslands playset might involve less work and create a smoother outcome, since I would have the advantage of all the lessons Harper and the WoDu community learned.
I’ve got a long weekend and not much happening for the rest of it, so tomorrow I’ll get back to this.