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Ultraviolet Grasslands - Exploration Test

UVG South-Facing Passage © 2019 Luka Rejec

Ultraviolet Grasslands (UVG) is one of my very favorite RPG settings ever.

The Ultraviolet Grasslands (UVG) is a rules-light RPG pointcrawl module inspired by psychedelic heavy metal, the Dying Earth genre, and Oregon Trail games. It takes a group of heroes’ into the depths of a vast and mythic steppe filled with the detritus of space, time, and fuzzy riffs.

I’ve played with it before in a group setting, but I thought I’d give it a shot for solo play focused on exploration. While I’m using the First Edition, most of the core rules for the game are available as Synthetic Dream Machine. The differences will end up getting ironed out as house rules anyway. My goal for this particular session isn’t to set up a solo campaign, but to spend some time with the rules and other materials to get a feeling for how well this would work for solo play.

So I’ll put on a psychedelic metal mix and dig in.

Character Creation

This main character will be a sort of naturalist focused on plants and animals (or analogous things in UVG because this setting gets weird). I chose options from the table Who is this hero?” to fit my concept:

  • Who are they? Redland bourgeoisie botanist
  • Why are you on the road? Visions of glory and rebirth
  • Starting with… Citrine soul stone with a third of a hero’s soul

I’ll assign abilities (7 points to allocate, max of 3 to start) as follows:

  • charisma (cha): 2
  • strength (str): 0
  • aura (aur): 2
  • endurance (end): 0
  • thought (tho): 3
  • agility (agi): 0

At level 1, they’ll have 8 Life and a Bonus of +2 (what gets added to a roll for something they’re skilled at). I already see the differences here from the newer SDM rules, but I’m sticking with 1e for now.

They start with 3 skills, which I chose as follows:

  1. Foraging (Know and find your berries and nuts and mushrooms)
  2. Mule Whispering (Get pack animals to get along, have animal friends, keep them happy)
  3. Phytomancy (Talking to plants. Making them move for you.)

They have defense 10 (due to no agility bonus) and no bonuses for close, ranged, or magical combat. That’s just not what this game will be about, and in any case caravan guards will hopefully take care of this, if we ever get some.

Hero dice are a little tricky for this sort of solo play, because the hero gets one every session and every hour or so of play. That doesn’t translate super well here so I’m going to eyeball it as I go.

In terms of starting equipment, they’ll get €100 of their own, plus €1000 from a patron. So they’ll have:

  • Adventure Kitchen (€100) (sack)
  • Naturalist’s Portable Laboratory (€200) (sack)
  • UVG Pro Hiker Kit (€50) (sack)
  • Mule x4 (€280) (8 sacks of capacity)
  • Supplies, Voyager x4 (€40) (4 sacks)
  • Scavenger Bolter (€100) (2 stone)
  • Ammo box x5 (€50) (1 stone)

That should carry us and also leave a little bit of capacity, which will free up anyway as supplies come and go. I don’t plan to track the caravan closely at first.

Time for a name. I’m just going to grab a couple of names from the examples on the Humans (Rainbowlanders) faction list and mix them up: Soren Xorizo (he/him). He’s thin, with sandy-brown hair that matches his skin tone and eye color. His hair’s always a bit messy because he just doesn’t really think about it, even when he’s in town.

Patron

Who’s financing this? I’m going to roll on the Other Voyagers” table:

  • Role: Shaman
  • Name: Jion Mentat
  • Story: Passionate and loud. They are bringing a better world.

If and when it comes up, I’ll deal with that in more detail.

The Expedition Begins

Because this is mostly experimental, and also because I already played a game of UVG that mostly focused on the easternmost areas of the book, Soren will start in the Porcelain Citadel. This is a settlement controlled by the Porcelain Princes, who have spread their vital cognitive essence among several bodies linked by real-time glandular psyche-to-psyche links.” Jion is based here and wants Soren to explore to the west for botanical samples, perhaps of species believed to be extinct back in the civilized lands to the east.

Week 1: The Trail of Vomish Dreams

Soren gathers up his pack animals and supplies and decides to head northwest, which is the more dangerous but less expensive route through the Trail of Vomish Dreams.

The grass grows high, sparking and lush. Rumors say is is watered by sacrifice and an ancient Source Fac. Nomad Clans come here when grazing fails elsewhere, but cluster in thornstone enclosures close to the trail, driven to cooperation by the deadly machine-infested giant beasts that regularly traverse the steppe.

I’ll walk through the weekly travel procedure:

  1. Remove one sack of supplies per human-sized person (down to 3).
  2. Test Charisma for Misfortune.
    • 16: Carefully, quietly, mice among monsters, you cross the steppe.”
  3. Check encounters and resolve them.
    • 6: A troop of painted nomads; they are corrupt sheep worshippers.”
    • Intensity: Near. Moderate test to avoid.
    • Efficacy: Interesting, but not useful.
    • Hostility: Aggressive (attacks).

Nomads are the uncommon humanity of the vast steppes, inheritors of the Long Ago, warriors against the vast madness left by fall after fall”. There are conflicting rumors about their origins; Soren has been told that their ancestors actually came from the grasslands further east during the Latter Imperial Collapse. This troop are painted Pine Green (indicating their tribal affiliation).

Soren will try to avoid them, and I’ll let his Mule Whispering skill apply here along with his Charisma stat (which is basically Luck in SEACAT). He rolls a 9, which gives him a total of 13, exceeding the 11 needed to avoid them. As aggressive as the nomads may be, a solo traveller with four well-behaved mules is difficult to notice and find in the incredibly huge steppes, particularly in a place with high grass and hive-minded violent mechanisms” (vomes).

Week 2: The Grass Colossus

Rather than explore in this highly dangerous area, our botanist continues down the trail towards the Grass Colossus to the west, which he knows to be the Nomads’ holy site

Crossing a last purple ridge, the wide vale promises relative respite from the harsh grassland. Trees dot the courses of two rivers and, at their juncture, rise prehistoric ramparts of pitted ceramic with traces of pre-wizard spell-arms on their ancient shellac surface.

Inside, on one of two hillocks, looms a great wicker-man of woven grasses, vines, and thorn bushes. Shamans of many clans make their meets here, teach their memory chants, and welcome the Clan Mothers once a year for the festival of the Circle of Grass.

That’s a useful mention at the end, about shamans; I decide that Jion, being a shaman, has given Soren some sort of information or other way to be accepted here. But first, the travel procedure:

  1. Remove one sack of supplies per human-sized person (down to 2).
  2. Test Charisma for Misfortune.
    • 20: A small, friendly ooze catches your attention. It wants you to follow it (~1 day) to a shallow grave beneath a spreading chestnut tree. There, buried, is the wonderful (and now slightly smelly) kit and armor (€1,000) of the corrupted hero who became this silly ooze.”
  3. Check encounters and resolve them.
    • 4: Nomad children urging one another to pick visitors’ pockets to increase their skill. If confronted, they will happily return the stolen goods. Their parents are watching nearby.”

That misfortune” (which turns out to be, well, fortune) is interesting. Soren has some sort of windfall that I need to sort out. What kind of kit is this? Randomly, I determine that it’s an old but perfectly serviceable excavator’s kit, the gear you want for easily removing heavy objects”. The armor is a chitin cuirass, also called lobster armor”. Together these two items are only worth €700, but this is mostly about the story we’re telling here because Soren isn’t going to keep either of these.

But he wants to do something about the ooze itself: specifically, to keep this thing as a pet. The rest of the kit he’ll sell off to the nomads that are here at the Colossus at the moment. That brings up the question: who are the clansfolk here right now?

Rattle Limonc, a good (but conspiratorial) shaman who believes the ultras (roughly, ghosts) have infiltrated the Porcelain Princes and are a serious danger to the nomad clans.

This seems like a fortuitous narrative connection to Soren’s shaman patron back in the Porcelain Citadel. While Soren rests and recovers here in the safety of the cryptic ceramic walls, what could go wrong? I’ll roll on the Celebrations and Events at the Colossus” table:

Shaming of the Chiefs: chiefs are paraded before Clans and visitors, then tied to a prehistoric yellow rock with silken bonds and mocked for their pretensions. A reminder that all mortals are created equal: worms beneath the treads of the Sky Spirits.

This seems like as good a time as any for him to sell off his windfall. He hasn’t thought of a name for the ooze yet, but he’s already attached to it. His portable lab definitely has a conveniently-sized jar for this.

As for Rattle and Jion, that’s a good connection for Soren to lean on. He can resupply here and give Rattle lots of background on the state of the Porcelain Citadel, including his own observations that could shed light on whether in fact the Porcelain Princes have been possessed by after-humans that rewrite the spiritual vital essence of their hosts to suit their needs.” (Frankly, it might even be an improvement; those Princes are creepy!)

In any case, he’s back up to 4 sacks of supplies. I decide that he can also pay off his patron’s debt directly to Rattle as part of the arrangement between the two shamans. From here, Soren will head southwest to the South-Facing passage, which will require two weeks through rough country.

Week 3: The South-Facing Passage (1/2)

Rough, high steppe country, torn by the tracks of prehistoric Behemoths, but relatively safe. The journey from the Grass Colossus to the Behemoth Shell will interest every gentle-person naturalist.

Due west the rounded humps of great cedar-shaded hills rise, but the caravan trails bypass them.

  1. Remove one sack of supplies per human-sized person (down to 3).
  2. Test Charisma for Misfortune. (“Tragedy seems unlikely in this bucolic region.)
    • 8: The stars seem very near here, so close to the roof of the world.”
  3. Check encounters and resolve them.
    • 2: After-human pack of skinchangers running wild, a nameless ultra behind their eyes.”
    • Intensity: Near. Moderate test to avoid.
    • Efficacy: Interesting, but not useful.
    • Hostility: Polite or friendly.

He wasn’t able to avoid these, so it surprises me that some possessed skinchangers out for the hunt are uninterested in attacking Soren. Perhaps this is due to the spiritual after-scent of his recent parley with shamans and nomad chiefs.

In any case, he needs to travel for another week before the game considers him to have arrived” deep enough in the passage to explore and look for discoveries.

Week 4: The South-Facing Passage (2/2)

The far western sun only pulls away from the nictating membrane of the night around 10:30. The thin air of the high steppe whistles and flecks of grit-like snow are not unknown even on summer nights.

He’s pretty deep into this place now, and it occurs to him that he may not have brought sufficient supplies.

  1. Remove one sack of supplies per human-sized person (down to 2).
  2. Test Charisma for Misfortune.
    • This is effectively the same result as before: clear nights, bright stars, etc.
  3. Check encounters and resolve them.
    • 6: Herd of wild horses, strong and epic, difficult to tame.”

For this encounter, he’s going to try to see if he can’t round up a couple of these mercurial beasts. After all, he’s skilled at this sort of thing and it might be useful to have some more capacity for carrying things. He’ll roll agility plus Mule Whispering skill as his relevant test, needing a 15 or higher total (meaning 13+ on the die), but fails. They simply are uninterested in being tamed or even caught.

After the encounters, since he’s arrived at a destination, he can make a discovery check. The relevant test is usually Thought, and that makes the most sense in this situation as well. The result? 20+: The locals no longer read the old manuals or the old stelae in the crypts of their founders, but here is a dark clue. Three discoveries.”

The book lists four potential discoveries in this location, so I’ll roll for whichever he doesn’t find and list the others:

  • The Bone Mines of Moy Sollo: A series of ridges exposed by eons of sun and wind as the ribs of some mythic serpent.” There’s not a lot of material there that would be interesting to a naturalist, especially one more interested in plants than animals.
  • Puce House: Surrounded by the remains of an epic bone circle and shaded by sturdy dryland coral-bonded dwarf pines, Puce House is the site of an odd alliance between” a Porcelain Prince and a distiller. Possibly interesting, particularly if Soren really were out here looking to gather more info on the Porcelain Princes, but that’s not his focus.
  • Wandering Behemoth: In the distance, a living wandering behemoth! Since the days of the Great Ride few come this far north, but this one has a full canopy. Phytomancers would give their front plant extensions to hang out on one of these!” That’s exactly what Soren is, a phytomancer, so this is where he’s going to direct his attention.

It’s an extra +1d6 = 2 days to this massive creature, with an ancient settlement preserved on its aerolith-reinforced back. (The game also provides an XP reward, but this particular playthrough is too experimental for me to worry about that much.)

He spends a few more days gathering information, taking samples & notes, and generally trying to get as much as he reasonably can from this discovery before moving on.

In fact, I think that’s where I’m going to conclude this particular story.

Conclusions

I didn’t really use too much of the survival rules other than tracking supplies. Frankly those are a bigger pain than I’d remembered, not least because one of my players back then had taken on the role of quartermaster and really loved doing it. But also, I didn’t track time of year or pay much attention to the vagaries of weather. In a longer game, all of that would probably become more interesting. The trick, even then, would be to prevent the bookkeeping from overwhelming the rest of the game and simply letting it create a few sentences and maybe a roll or two to determine how things are going, or just applying advantage or disadvantage to relevant rolls that week.

Several times, I thought to myself that Soren should have a few sidekicks along, partly to peek in and envision their interactions but also just to have some additional skillsets for things like potential combat.

The abstractions built into the procedures help a lot, especially in actual group play, but even in a solo game it’s worth remembering that high is good, low is bad” and letting that guide the narration and decision-making.

This also really reminded me how much fun this setting is with a group of people who’ve all bought into the idea and want to focus on exploration and seeing the world” more than defeating monsters, solving mysteries, or following a plot.

The system also worked better than I thought. In fact, part of this experiment involved me spending a lot of time reading the newer version of the ruleset and deciding that it was too difficult for me to parse out what I wanted. Luka’s writing style mixes a lot of fiction in among the rules and mechanics, and that fiction can at times be a bit impenetrable or confusing. It’s evocative as hell, but sometimes I just need to figure out how something works without spending a lot of energy on the atmosphere.

Finally, I suspect that UVG 2E includes a lot of refinements and improvements that would make this experience even better. If you’re thinking about grabbing it, be sure to get the new one. The previous edition I have is iconic within the OSR, but my understanding is that it’s gotten even better now.

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