The following is not my own, original idea – it describes the excellent Panic mechanics as featured in the amazing Mothership RPG, and more specifically, Gradient Descent.
The Purpose Of These Mechanics
From time to time, the plot of one of my D&D campaigns leads me to enormous, abstract locations that are so large in scope, they are almost a region of the overworld. These locations are too big for traditional battle maps, and will usually feature random encounters to keep things exciting.
Some examples include infinite magical libraries, city-sized castles, endless underground labyrinths, and the like.
The following system is a way to make the oppressive threat of enemy presence in this location a constant factor in exploration.
It needs 2 things to work:
- The aforementioned enormous location, too big to ever fully conquer. You are here on a raid, a quick in-and-out. You are not welcome.
- An infinite threat. The reason you are here on a quick raid, is because you stand no chance against the forces working against you. The library is infinite and has infinite Librarians, the castle has more guards than you could ever handle etc.
I will use the example of the Infinite Library to illustrate the system.
Alert Levels & Alert Checks
Whenever the party acts in a way that is detectable to the threat, the Alert Level goes up. In our example, making noise will alert the Librarians.
The players need to have a grasp on the impact of their actions so that they can make informed decisions in managing the risk.
If they notice a chest behind a gate with iron bars and they make the effort to inspect the gate, inform them that opening the gate might make noise. Searching a room for valuable books might require an Investigation check, and failure might still yield books, but also generate noise.
Depending on the actions of the players, you can either add a flat value or let them roll a dice (1d6 noise added). The Alert Level should always be visible to the players.
The Alert Level symbolizes the ‘suspicion’ that the guardians of a location have of player presence. Leaving traces of your passage (a broken lock, a knocked out guard) can also raise the Alert Level.
Alert Checks are triggered by loud, overt actions. In our example of the Library, this might take the form of
- Tripping a magical alarm
- Causing loud noises, such as an enormous bookcase falling over
- A Librarian spotting you and letting out an alarming screech
- Using loud magic in combat
and so forth.
To make an Alert Check, the players roll 2d6.
Depending on the size of your table, it can also be 2d10 and 2d8 – that’s up to you. We use two dice to get a nice spread of probability. You add the current Alert Level to the dice roll.
This is where the DM checks the Alert Table. This might look something like this:
|2-4||No response. Lucky!|
|5-9||You hear a Librarian approach.|
|10-12||3 Librarians approach.|
|13-15||5 Librarians rush in.|
|16-18||5 Librarians rush in, led by the fearsome Head Librarian.|
This means that if the players are quiet, there’s a chance that no Librarians show up. However, if the Alert Level is at least 3, there will always be some response.
This is where the fun begins
The fun part of this system is that the response caused by the Alert Check is likely to increase the Alert Level. If one Librarian shows up, it is in the party’s best interest to hide – because a fight is likely to make noise. If it manages to screech, it could trigger another Alert Check instantly, with perhaps 1d6 Alert Level added (in this case, be sure to telegraph the screech, so the players can stop it, if they’re quick).
Modifying This System
The tables and rolls allow for a lot of customization – perhaps there’s only a single monster roaming a labyrinth, which shows up on an Alert Check of 25, and you roll 2d10 to make the check. See what works for you!
The system can also be used in different ways.
- Perhaps the party is climbing an enormous unstable tower, and small movements and climbs add to the Alert Level as ‘instability’, and major jumps across the broken floor trigger Alert Checks and falling debris.
- Magic might be unstable in the current area, and every spell adds to the Alert Level in the form of ‘Arcane Charge’, with the Alert Check causing an ‘Arcane Discharge’.
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