Saturday, June 9, 2018

Starvation & Half-Rations

Recently, the online party in the Juvenis campaign miscalculated the depth of the dungeon they were entering and found themselves unexpectedly short of food ... and to deal with the problem as a DM, I found myself turning to a very old methodology that I'd developed more than two decades ago.  All this time, I had never actually built a set of rules to manage starvation.  As I write this, the trial has passed for the party, but I find myself wanting to settle on a hunger-starvation system nonetheless.

The principle problem is that it can take humans an extremely long time to die by starvation, particularly if they are able to get at least a little food.  For example, 19 men survived a journey of 1,500 miles on an ice floe for six months at the close of the disastrous Polaris expedition, from 1871 to 1873.  These are men who had been on bare rations for a year prior to the loss of their ship Polaris, who survived by straining just enough shrimp from the sea to give them each as little as an ounce a day, supported by the killing of a very rare seal, which might be gotten once in three to four weeks.  And a seal does not go far between 19 men.

Some people do just give out ... but many will survive, though they may not find the energy to act.  The goal, then, is to not to build a system of saving throws, in which the character simply dies, but a slow, grinding means of eventually killing a character off, while giving the potential for that character to survive a long, long time.

My idea is that the character would suffer acutely right at the start.  That going without food initially has a severe effect, dropping the character's ability stats badly on the first day of feeling the pinch, and an equal amount on the second day.  However, while this penalty doesn't go away, the severity of the increase diminishes as time passes.

Suppose the character is reduced to acting on half rations, and we want to know precisely what sort of effect that will have.  I propose the table on the right as an initial proposal ~ there's more to come on the subject, but I want to be sure this part is understood first.

"Half-rations" is defined as an insufficient amount of food, below the amount that is required, but more than half that amount.  If we suppose the character needs 2 kg of food in a given day in order to do heavy work, spread between two or three meals, then half rations would be anywhere between 1 kg and less than 2 kg.  How much less is really up to us; but for game purposes, we don't want to reward the clever player who figures out that we will handwave two grams below the amount needed.  We should then consider the numbers to be absolute.

Still, if we want to quibble, there's room for it on this table.  If a day of half rations lowers your ability stats by 10%, we can argue that 1.9 kg should reduce the stats only 1/10th of 10%, or a mere 1%.  It depends on how fine we want to split that hair.  We can argue that even 1% less than a 17 is 16.83, which we can state is a defacto 16 for game purposes.  That would discourage players from splitting hairs ... but we can go full game, too, and say that any deficiency in the amount of food is enough to cut stats the full 10%.  I personally lean to this approach, as I just don't want to reward cheap players.

Okay, let me explain the table.  As I say, that 1st day hurts, as does the 2nd day.  Both see a severe drop in the character's stats.  But then the idea of living with hunger begins to take hold, so that the 3rd and 4th days cause an additional penalty of only 5% each.  The 5th, 6th and 7th days add a penalty of only 3.3% each.  And finally the 8th through 12th days cause further penalties of only 2% per day.

I am extrapolating this on the Fibonacci series (endlessly useful), so that further 10% segments are successively divided by 8, 13, 21, 34 and 55.  Altogether, that would create a starvation that would kill everyone in 143 days, or just under five months, somewhat crueler than the measure of the Polaris expedition survivors, but in line with other, similar experiences, such as Shackleton's adventure or John Franklin's first expedition ~ the one he wasn't lost in ~ overland through the Northwest Territories.  However, this doesn't take into account the effects of eating less than half rations.  How would that work?

My choice would be to count quarter rations up to half rations as two days of starvation; and then to count one-eighth rations up to a quarter rations as three days.  Anything less than one-eighth would count as four days.  That would bring starvation around a little faster than the Polaris expedition, but then we're not dealing with the healthier 19th century human.  In any case, one could live a long, long time on one-eighth rations.

My food rules say that a sedentary character, one who needs to do little more than rest, make food for themselves and manage the small duties of living in a camp, must eat two pounds of food a day (my 17th century system uses imperial units).  One-eighth of this is a mere 4 oz. per day.  If the character tried to do hard work, that would require twice as much; and if the character were to take a part in battle, three times as much.  But let's say we're sedentary characters, with little food, waiting to be rescued before we all die of starvation.  Or by some other means.

How would this work, exactly.  Well, that's a very long table ... but let's go as far as 33 days.  From day 13 to day 20, the character is losing 1.25% of their stats each day, and from day 21 through day 33, the character is losing only 0.77% of their stats each day:

Here we can see the days of reduction to stats applied to a real character, that of Rob Munro the Scot from my Juvenis campaign, a druid.  The numbers drop precipitously at the start, quickly flattening out at the high scores drop into the sixes and sevens after two weeks.  The reader can see that I've highlighted the ability stats as they drop, in lighter orange for the most part, and under the dexterity at one point, in a darker tone.

The first shading indicates the point at which the druid no longer has the necessary stats to act as a druid.  Being old school regarding D&D stats, the druid needs a 12 wisdom and a 15 charisma; and every other stat has to be 6 or higher, as the old Player's Handbook indicates.  Here, the character's wisdom, dexterity and charisma all fall off the minimum on the third day.  That is sobering.

On the 19th day, the character's dexterity falls below 3, typically viewed as the minimum roll for any character.  I see that as significant, as the point in which the character must make an ability check to perform any dexterous activity, even walking or feeding themselves.  And since that check is going to fail 90% of the time, this particular character is going to suffer very badly from any long-term starvation.  That 7 dexterity is a harsh disability.  Still, there's nothing that says a check to see if the character could walk can't be done as often as necessary, noting the time this would spend as the character eventually got the strength to rise, only to collapse again a few rounds later.

That brings me to the subject of ability checks in general.  When the party was starving in the game of late, I had the active members all make an ability check against a random stat, once per day.  For example, I had the druid here make a check against constitution, which the character succeeded.  On some level, because the characters were following a route through a familiar, cleared dungeon,  I could have asked for more than one check (as it is a dangerous place) ~ but normally, I wouldn't ask for any checks unless the players did something purposefully dangerous.  My logic was that they did not "feel like themselves," and that this justified at least one check.

I think I'd increase the number of checks being made per day over time: perhaps 2 checks per day on the start of the fifth day, then three checks starting on the 9th day, and so on.  After a while, though the characters could manage to stay alive, they'd yet become virtually helpess ... particularly as every stat dropped below a 3.

That 3 could be treated as another threshold, where constitution was concerned.  Breathing is a constitutional action.  Just as the heart beating is a strength issue; or being able to think is an intelligence requirement.  At some point, having to be constantly making a roll for these things ought to end in the body just giving up the ghost.

The question is when, or how.  I haven't quite worked that out yet.  I like this scheme so far ... but it still has holes that I need to fill.


Baron Opal said...

I'm surprised you didn't tie it to hit points or max hp. I do appreciate that this scheme shows a consequence of decreasing mental focus, perhaps causing a spell caster to lose access to their abilities. It makes an intuitive sense that everyone becomes fighters in the end, however ineffective.

Do you have rules for a forced march? That's another situation where I can see exertion with insufficient recovery, although that's rest more than nutrition.

Ozymandias said...

I see a challenge in this, much as you've posed the question: when is it appropriate to require an ability check? Should we consider the character's score as a factor in calling for a check?

I caught myself on this in my last game, when I needed to know the results of wandering randomly through the wilderness. I initially asked for a check against half the character's Wisdom score; I later changed this because the character had an 18 Wisdom and I had allowed my knowledge of that to affect my ruling. In other words, I wasn't keen on letting him succeed so easily.

The opposite applies, I should think, when we're dealing with low stats.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I mean to apply this same concept of starvation to the forced march, which is counted in hours instead of days. A forced march and starvation together would compound the result, so that a character already on half rations for one day (down 10%) would be down the same amount again if forced to travel one hour past a normal ten hour day (down 20% total, rather than 0.9 x 0.9).

I think I'm looking for a threshold that is passed where a small roll for actual demise is possible. In dire situations, some sufferers just die, whereas others linger. Perhaps when the average drops below a given point? Perhaps when you miss three, four or five ability checks in one day? Or five in a row? Haven't decided yet.

François Laroche said...

(Note: I'm more familiar with 5th edition rules than the original AD&D chassis that supports your game, so ignore the following comments if they don't apply)

I think such a system should at least include some sort of saving throw to trigger the penalty / ability reduction, probably a CON saving throw. This is to reflect the fact that someone with better constitution is better able to support starvation than someone with lower constitution (plus any random factors such as the fact that one character's metabolism may be better than another at obtaining nutrients even from a partial meal).

Also, if you are going to have the penalty apply to each stats evenly (10 % on all stats at day 1, for example), maybe the system would be simpler with a single "modifier penalty" added at regular interval? For example, rather than worrying about hundreth of an ability point, you could just say that on day 1 of starvation, the player gets -1 on all ability checks. Then it becomes -2 on day two, -3 at day 4, etc. Visually, it would present itself in a more elegant fashion, while providing essentially the same result (unless the ability score himself has some significance). Note that the numbers I listed (-1, -2, etc.) have not been tweaked; if you think using a modifier penalty rather than a % decrease of the ability score, then you can figure what penalties work better when / how.

Finally, and maybe you already checked that, but it would be interesting to see the impact on a character with all 18s vs a character with all 3s or all 6s or 8s (to see how much difference, in terms of days of starvation, it makes before both characters become essentially useless as adventurers, which is really what we care about). If the difference is minimal, maybe it would offer an angle of reflection on how much "details" becomes too much / superflous in such a system (and avoid needing a spreadsheet by your side at the game table when starvation scenarios happen).

(Again, I have nothing against complex system, but system don't need to be complex for complexity's sake)

The 5th edition system uses the exhaustion penalties (6 cumulative levels of penalty leading to death), along with an increasing difficulty saving throw that "resets" when you manage to have a meal (but you need full meals for a number of days in order to "clear" the accumulated starvation penalties).

All in all, interesting system you present. Always nice to see people's take on these kind of things, considering a lot of people just prefer to ignore the whole notion of needing to eat on a daily basis in RPGs.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yep, François. That's a pretty typical ruleset. And you'll get some pretty typical results from that.

I continue to be astounded at those in the RPG orbit who think using excel to calculate 3rd grader math is "complex," while reflecting upon the state of video game coding and development at present.

Are we deliberately trying to be ignorantly non-progressive, or is this a Luddite thing?

François Laroche said...

Is it a feature of your system that it would apply at the same rate to all characters, independently of each character's Constitution? That was my first and main point, really, yet you didn't respond to it. Maybe there is something in the AD&D ruleset that already covers it, or I'm missing how the system already factors that in, but I do not see it in what I read of your proposed system.

As for your comparison with videogame coding, I'd like to point out that, as complex as coding and programming is for the people doing it, their goal at the end is to provide a UI that is usually as simple to use as possible for the "player".

My suggestions were in that respect. If you think it preferable for your players to start calculating individual percentage variations, or refer to a table that needs an Excel spreadsheet containing 150 entries (or more), in order to know what happens when their characters do not eat, that's fine. Maybe these concerns are irrelevant for the kind of online / play by post game you run. I think it would be pretty cumbersome for an old fashioned pen-and-paper game, however.

Sterling Blake said...

I like the direction you've started with this. I've been contemplating a similar system in my own game and had been moving in the direction of building off my nutrition rules (inspired by your own food rules) to widen the table of results between the conditions "infirm," in which the character's STR is 4 below normal and his CON and DEX is 2 below normal (since I'm using 5e rules in my current campaign, these numbers have a more uniform effect across the characters than ability penalties in 1e) and "diseased."

There's a spectrum of malnutrition in between "cold camp rations" and the acute caloric intake deficiency of starvation in which a variety of maladies might present themselves in the character. Scurvy, mal de caribou, or anemia for example, could shorten the characters life or otherwise worsen his lot before pure caloric deprivation wastes him--perhaps even in the absence of caloric deprivation. It's an interesting, if morbid, system to explore.

Recovery is the other side of this that I've been thinking about. How quickly can those ability penalties be recovered under the various remedies that might vary from merely finding enough balanced nutrition to no longer be on the starvation tables, to having been rescued by some party with sufficient resources and interest to provide whatever non-magical assistance is possibly helpful.

I hope to see more on this in the new Wiki!

Alexis Smolensk said...

I didn't address that point because it is idiotic, François. The EFFECT is unilateral, of course, because it is the SAME effect on everyone, regardless of their stats. The RESULT is unequal, because not everyone has the same constitution. That is obvious. But as I have consistently found with "non-complex" game designers, you want to balance everything as though the player with the high whatever is Special, rather than noting that strong things and weak things both buck the same wind at sea.

Please stop commenting. You're not adding anything this this discussion.

James said...

I never asked, but I assume stats are rounded down for ability checks (if Mikael's Intelligence is 13.9, a 14 is a failure, right?). I ask because when I added the penalties to my sheet, I used the "truncate" function to make it quicker to read.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yes James. An ability check is the stat or lower. A 14 in your example would be more than 13.9, therefore a fail.