Q is for Quantum - a long selection straight from the system chapter
Upwind uses an original game system called Q. Like most game mechanics it provides a framework of objectivity and chance that helps guide and drive the gameʼs story. Unlike most systems however, Q does not shape the story by resolving individual character actions one at a time – instead it drives the story by determining singular outcomes for entire encounters. Q resolves whole encounters through a sort of quantum mechanic, determining which of a pair of potential outcomes for a given situation will be used to continue the adventure narrative. These potential outcomes are determined by cooperative negotiation between the game moderator and the players and proposed as stakes for which the participants bid using hands of playing cards. The participants then weave the winning outcomes into the ongoing narrative and the story progresses accordingly – in a quantum, rather than incremental way.
Character attributes are explained later in the rules, but it is relevant to note here for the sake of subsequent examples that they consist of Abilities, Skills and elemental powers called Potential. They are represented by unique, descriptive phrases created by the players and serve the dual purposes of describing their characters as well as detailing what those characters can do.
The EGS Vigilant has been hit by cannon fire from a Child frigate and its induction hull has been badly damaged. The ship is losing altitude fast and is about to crash into a downwind highland. Rowan, a young Knight, grabs the helm and shouts through the speaking tube for the engineer to give him full power.
The moderator calls for a play and asks the player to suggest the stakes for which he would like to bid. The player says he wants Rowan to save the ship and crew and in doing so win the lasting admiration of his Liegemen and earn a new Blaze of Rank from his superiors. The moderator agrees to those stakes and says that should he lose, the ship will crash and a full third of the crewmen will die. He also says that his superiors will still award him the new Blaze for his heroic actions, but that Rowan will feel so guilty about the loss of life that he is unable to take any risks with his crew in the future.
The player uses Rowan’s skill “Flies Like the Wind” and when the cards are played, wins the stakes. The moderator describes how the ship veers at the last moment, pulling up and sliding into a hard but safe landing. He explains that, should they survive the encounter with the Child warriors disembarking down the shore, the crew of the Vigilant will stand as honor guard at Rowan’s next Ranking ceremony and happily buy him drinks whenever they see him in port.
Decks and Hands
Unlike most RPGs, which use dice as their randomizers, Q uses playing cards. Most games that use cards use them as a source of random numbers that are then played against opposed draws or target values. Q however, uses the value of the cards as a source of points that are then spent in secret bids for the proposed outcomes.
Each participant needs his own full deck of standard playing cards, but should keep only a single joker in that deck, setting the second aside unused.
Each player separates out the suit that represents his character’s elemental Potential and sets all the cards of that suit aside as a separate Potential deck (see Potential Deck). Each player then shuffles the remaining three suits of cards together and draws 6 cards. These cards represent his play hand, and the remaining pile his play deck. Each player shuffles the cards of his Potential suit and draws 4 cards as his Potential hand.
The game moderator does not separate suits, shuffles all his cards together and draws a play hand of 8 cards. Though the moderator has a slightly larger play hand note that the odds are ultimately still in the players’ favor as they have additional cards in their Potential hands and can get teamwork cards (see Teamwork) from other characters.
It is tacitly understood that in most RPG the players ultimately achieve their primary goals. Every good adventure has setbacks and challenges but in the end the characters usually succeed. Accordingly, like the mechanics of most games, Q is biased towards player success. Players have larger total hands (10 cards) than the moderator and more bonus cards (see Caches) and they can help each other make plays (see Teamwork). Unlike most roleplaying games however, where failure of a single attack roll or skill check does not usually have major consequences, losing a bid can have profound effects on an Upwind adventure. This is impact intentional and part of making stories with consequence, but it does take a little getting used to.
If a group’s style of play favors fewer setbacks or easier challenges, then the moderator can opt to reduce the overall difficulty by reducing his own hand size to 7 cards, thereby reducing the frequency of high cards in his hand. Conversely, if the group feels play is too easy or wants to face more challenging encounters, the moderator can bump his hand size to 9 cards. Larger reductions or increases are not recommended as they leave the moderator problematically under or overpowered.
Cards are spent from the participants hands into their respective discard piles. Play hand cards are replenished from play decks after every play. Potential hands replenish from Potential decks but at the rate of one card per bell of in game time - or a whole hand every clock. When a participant takes the last card from either his play or potential draw deck, the discard pile for that deck and whatever cards remain in that hand are immediately combined, reshuffled and a new hand drawn.
As a general rule, players should not share the content of their decks with other players, and to maintain some of the tactical elements of the core mechanic they should also keep their cards secret from the moderator.
• Moderators play with a single deck containing all four suits
• Moderators keep only one joker in their decks, discarding the second joker from play
• Players separate their Potential suits from the rest of their cards and play with two separate decks - their Play Decks, containing three suits, and their Potential Decks, containing the one suit assigned to their Potential attributes
• Players keep one joker in their Play Decks and discard the second joker from play
Knight’s Sacrifice - Redraws
Sometimes luck is against a player and he just draws a bad hand and ends up feeling underpowered. Though there are circumstances (see Jokers) that flush player hands, there are times when a player’s cards are so bad he just needs a new hand. To do this, a player may sacrifice his Knight’s cache - mark it off without any other benefit - to flush either his entire play or potential hand and draw new cards. If he chooses to do this he must keep the new hand, even if it turns out poorer than the original.
When negotiating stakes, both the players and the moderator should keep in mind that the goal is to create a cool, fun and interesting narrative. While outcomes may be opposed, and thus appear competitive, the process should be collaborative and agreed upon by both parties. Once the participants get used to the mechanic of proposing outcomes the process becomes a creative and fun part of the game. Ultimately, it’s not really about winning or losing the stakes. Accordingly, all participants should work together to create outcomes exciting and challenging but above all provide satisfying stories for everyone.
Typically the player states his desired outcome first, then the moderator builds off this to offer counter stakes and gauge the challenge level for the play - one, two or three cards. The player and narrator negotiate back and forth, working to create parity, make the stakes more interesting, give them lasting consequences or raise or lower the moderator’s challenge level. Once the moderator and player are satisfied with their proposed outcomes, they make the play.
Itʼs easy to propose unfair, unlikely or even ridiculous outcomes, and participants should cooperate to make sure the stakes are in keeping with the style of play of the group and the scope and spirit of the given adventure. Participants are encouraged to propose initial outcomes, suggest modifications and otherwise cooperatively negotiate to make the final stakes creative, interesting and fitting.
When negotiating stakes the participants should ask themselves some of the following questions, and use the answers to enhance their proposed outcomes.
• What do the characters want or need?
• How can the narrative be complicated in a meaningful way?
• What would be most fun or interesting if it happened at this point in the story?
• What would add emotion to the circumstances?
• How might this be made into a moral dilemma for the characters?
• What kind of lasting or permanent consequences could occur?
• How can future plot or story complications be set up?
• What could be added to the outcomes to make them more interesting?
Rowan finds himself cornered by a band of pirates in a lonely alley somewhere in the lower warrens of Hole. The pirates are clearly out for blood. Everyone draws weapons and prepares to fight. The moderator calls for a play.
Player’s - Rowan uses “Unstoppable Force” to trounce the pirates with such ease and authority they beg for their lives offering any service in exchange. They become standing underworld contacts on whom the knight may call in the future.
Moderator’s - The pirates beat Rowan badly, doing a major wound and stealing his Knight’s Blade. The knight is so traumatized by the experience that during his next three encounters with pirates he will be so intimidated he may not crown any associated plays.
Player’s - Rowan uses his “One of the Boys” ability to pass himself off as a member of a bigger gang looking to recruit new members. He convinces the thugs with a compelling story and some equally compelling bribes and finds himself the boss of his own small gang.
Moderator’s - Rowan successfully recruits his own gang, but word gets back to his Captain before he can explain and he is accused of malfeasance upon his return to the fleet.
Player’s - Rowan kills the leader of the thugs, arrests his compatriots and breaks the back of the notorious pirate band known at Black Jak’s Blades.
Moderator’s - Rowan kills the leader who turns out to be the younger brother of Black Jak himself. Subsequently, Jak vows to kill 100 Guild members in revenge. Black Jak becomes a dangerous but elusive threat costing the Guild many lives before he is eventually captured.
The variety of possible outcomes is limited only by the creativity of the participants. They can be simple or complex, narrow or broad, literal or meta, immediate or pending, temporary or lasting. They can be anything about which the participants can agree - awarding of caches, future in-game benefits or disadvantages, restrictions on PC or NPC actions, temporary rules changes - like hand size or replenish rate - changes in challenge level or even setting altering events. Characters can best old enemies or gain new ones, they can earn the favor of a king or incur the wrath of a whole kingdom. They can gain make or lose a fortune, become convinced of a truth or get lost in a web of lies. They can obtain unique artifacts and resources, they can have epiphanies and solve mysteries. Characters can lose limbs or gain new phobias, desires, allies, motivations or goals. They can gain new capabilities or benefits applicable to making plays. Outcomes can provide bonus or penalty caches linked to standing actions or to future circumstances, encounters or events.
The possibilities are limitless, depending only on the imagination of the participants, and the stakes on which they are willing to bid.
Isa is an experienced Knight serving as the Guild’s ambassador to the Cloud Principality and has been in on-going negotiations with the ruling oligarchy to improve diplomatic relations between the mysterious nation and its closest political neighbors. The summit has gone on for several intrigue-ridden clocks and the final treaty has come down to a climactic play. The player says Isa will use her “Steely Negotiator” skill and the participants begin their own negotiations.
The player wants Cloud to accept diplomatic missions from boardering countries and would like the Principality to permit its citizens to join the Guild, despite the fact that Cloud is not a member of the Convocation. She wants the Cloud diplomat with whom Isa has been working to actually trust her, and she wants her fellow Knights to have caught the Red Circle assassin they learned has targeted the diplomat before she has the chance to strike. Finally, Isa would like to have so impressed her superiors that the members of her the boat crew get their next blazes of rank and she is permanently assigned to the Guild’s diplomatic corp.
The moderator likes the stakes but, pointing out the detailed expectations, proposes equally complex counter stakes. He suggests that the negotiations sour and that the Cloud diplomat expresses concern over the ulterior motives of the Guild to his superiors, claiming he does not trust the Knights. He will also share concerns over his own safety so that when the Red Circle assassin successfully strikes the Knights will be blamed for his death and be forced to fleet Principality authorities. Assuming they escape, the Guild will assign the whole boat crew to an Outlands outpost for the next half cycle in consequence for their problematic failure.
Wanting to avoid the outpost assignment at all costs, the player suggests dropping Isa’s diplomatic corp assignment if the moderator drops the outpost punishment. He agrees and they make the play.
The scope of encounters and their outcomes can vary widely depending upon the nature of a given adventure and the preferences of the participants. As participants negotiate their outcomes, they should scale them up or down to fit the game situation, the characters involved, the type of story and their groupʼs interests and style of play. If the participants like tactical situations and resolving lots of fine details, the outcomes can be small, short-term, and tightly scaled. If the participants like playing with grander events, with far-reaching and broadly significant consequences, the stakes can be large-scaled, with lasting character and setting-altering effects.
• Pick a pocket and make it around the corner without being detected
• Repair a malfunctioning hull conduit before the ship loses too much altitude
• Disarm the attacking Child of the Dark warrior and knock him unconscious
• Locate the misshelved book in the old library and decipher the code it contains
• Convince the cute boy one is not a Knight so as not to scare him off
• Execute a complex plan that successfully steals the enemy defense schematics, misdirects the guards, gets the operative through the defensive lines onto the fast courier and away before the theft is even noticed.
• Decipher the old map discovering the lost clue that allows calculation of the navigational corrections for the regional anomaly, leading the expedition to finally discover the legendary Master’s cache.
• Run a deceptive con that leads a nefarious Baron to incriminate himself with his own stolen contraband while manipulating the Baron’s cronies into being the actual agents of his downfall.
Like the imaginary cat in the famous thought experiment - which is both alive and dead until an observer opens the box - the actual narrative outcome is only known after the play is won. The outcomes do exist in the story until the play is made and they collapse into a singular chronicle. This critical change of state from proposed stakes to narrative event is what puts the Q in quantum.
One of the things that sets Upwind apart from other RPGs is how the stakes mechanic can be used to establish meta outcomes for encounters - outcomes that break the 4th wall of the narrative and refer back to the adventure, game, or characters themselves.
Outcomes can set up eventualities that trigger at some inconvenient but narratively fun time in the future. They can provide foreshadowing by offering additional complications or challenges beyond the current scene.
The characters have discovered they are being shadowed by an unidentified ship flying no flags. They do not want their destination known and so decide to try and lose their pursuers in the oncoming cloud bank. The moderator calls for a play and both sides name their stakes.
Player’s - The characters manage to evade the tailing ship and in the process get a close enough look to identify its nationality.
Moderator’s - The characters manage to evade the ship - but only for the moment. At some dramatically appropriate point in the subsequent narrative, the mystery ship will unerringly re-intercept the party.
Player’s - The characters make a strafing pass with their ship’s guns to demast their pursuer’s vessel, evading the mystery ship as it is forced to a stop and must make repairs.
Moderator’s - The characters successfully strafe and stop their pursuers but unbenounced to the characters, during the fray their ship took damage that is overlooked. At the moderator’s discretion a critical malfunction may occur at a dramatically dangerous point in the future.
Player’s - The characters deliberately allow the pursuing vessel to keep them in sight, accepting whatever risks that might entail. In exchange, the characters receive a 2 card story cache (see cache rules) that can be used in any plays made against those same pursuers in subsequent encounters.
Moderator’s - The pursuers see through the characters’ ruse and remain wary and unpredictable. The pursuers will automatically surprise the PCs should they choose to confront them at any time in the future and have a 1 card challenge cache to use if they do so.
It can be interesting for the story, and involve more characters by inserting more plays into encounters, to propose nested outcomes that affect the circumstances of future plays - the actions of one character influencing the options, stakes or challenge level of another character's subsequent play.
The incoming shells from the automated artillery are ripping up the battlefield and the Liegemen platoon is pinned down. The soldiers will soon be slaughtered if Geeta and Arin do not do something soon. The moderator judges the circumstances and says it will likely be a 3 card play to get the platoon to safety.
Geeta’s player wants her to be a hero and sacrifice to save the soldiers. Geeta charges off across the battlefield shooting off arc Potential in all directions to draw fire. The player asks for a play to reduce the challenge level from a 3 to a 2 for any play Arin’s character subsequently makes to lead the shell-shocked troops to safety.
Arin jams his hands into the ground, calling on his Ore Potential to form a redoubt of stone to protect the soldiers. His player says he wants to make a play in which, should he win, the moderator must agree not to kill off any of the soldiers as part of his stakes in Geeta’s subsequent play.
Outcomes can also be proposed that alter the circumstances or even the setting. They can change elements of the situation, characters, physical environment or even aspects of the unspecified past.
The bandits have found Angean and Erol’s launch, stolen it and are attempting to use it as a ruse to board and attack the unwary Guild ship. The stranded Knight’s arrive just moments too late and watch as the launch lifts off and disappears into the haze of the cloudbank in which the Liegemen crew is hiding their vessel.
Angean wants to stop the thieves using her “Clever Girl” attribute and suggests she secretly put a clockwork switch on the launch’s circuit box that, if not reset, times out immediately after activating the hull. Part of the stakes she proposes is that the launch quickly loses power forcing the bandits into a crash landing.
Erol is a little paranoid and wants to use his “Always has an Exit” attribute to bid on stakes that include an act of foresight. In preparation for just such an event Erol previously stationed a squad of Liegemen musketeers in the brush around the launch with orders to ambush the bandits he knew would circle back and try to steal the launch. If he wins the stakes, part of the outcome is that the bandits never get off the ground.
Angean is a Wind user and wants to have used her Potential to bring the launch so far upcountry that the highland’s wind shadow prevents the bandits from getting it airborne without their own Wind magic. She proposes an outcome that, should she win the play, adds in this previously unspecified detail, making it a pre-existing part of the story.
It is important to note that retroactive outcomes should not casually rewrite previously established narrative, instead filling in only non-contradictory actions and events.
Some stakes have more profound or far-reaching consequences. These are often more personal to the characters and can fundamentally change them or add to their goals and motivations. They can also affect boat crew interactions and dynamics. Examples of such outcomes could include:
• Getting married
• Retiring a character from the campaign and introducing a new one
• Establishing a major goal like revenge, fame or an appointment as an Academy instructor
• Gaining a strong emotional connection - love or hate - to another player character
• Losing a limb to injury
• Taking a mortal wound or suffering outright character death
Outcomes to Avoid
Plays should not be made, and stakes should not be proposed, that simply negate previous outcomes. If previous stakes have been woven into the narrative, players should not maneuver to simply cancel them out by proposing outcomes that are really just thinly veiled Mulligans. If outcomes are proposed that will reverse or eliminate any setbacks or lasting consequences the players have suffered they should be in keeping with the events and spirits of the story and not simply be metagaming to negate a complication. Similarly, stakes that end the narrative prematurely by cutting all ties to the plot, destroying key clues or MacGuffins, killing off the central adversaries or even the PCs themselves are counterproductive and should not be part of negotiating outcomes.
Stakes that should typically be avoided include:
• The outright deaths of player characters. Characters may be killed, but only by taking wounds (see Wound Draws) as part of stakes.
• PC ships failing to function instantaneously without the chance of repair or of making it to shore for crash landing. When an induction hull fails the ship falls through the endless sky and the death of its crew is usually inevitable.
• Elimination of past consequences simply to be rid of hindrances, complications or restrictions rather than resolving such narrative challenges through play.
• Elimination of essential plot elements or story threads or the introduction of changes that could break the narrative or otherwise ruin the game.
• Premature elimination of the goals the PCs are chasing or that are driving the story along.
Plays are usually called by the game moderator, but players are encouraged to request plays too. Though moderators may defer, they should try to support such requests when appropriate and are not simply cases of players being sly and trying to clear low cards from their hands. Since plays are used to resolve whole encounters, it makes sense that they are made less frequently than the die rolls of incremental game systems. Though plays can be made anytime, controlling the timing and set-up significantly enhances the drama of plays and the quality of the storytelling.
Plays should usually only be called when the possible outcomes are significant, the results of success or failure could be dramatic, or would have meaningful impact on the story. Using a play to determine if a character can gain access to some random warehouse is probably not worth interrupting the flow of the narrative. Using a play to determine if a character is able to sneak into a Child of the Dark fortress would definitely be worthwhile. A good rule of thumb is if the potential outcomes are interesting, dramatic or significant, a play is worthwhile.
Setting Up a Play
Plays can be made anytime, but are most dramatic at just the right places in the narrative. Using the Child fortress example, the moderator could call for a play as soon as the character first sneaks up to the walls. The end results would ultimately be the same for the plot, but the potential for excitement, tension and narrative would be limited. Alternatively, the moderator could describe the environmental circumstances and the player could describe his characterʼs actions until the player has scaled the wall, avoided the guards on the ramparts, descended a tower stair and come to a heavy door barred by an arcanoelectrical lock. At this point the moderator could call for the play, and the consequences of any potential outcome would by necessity be more significant, dramatic and exciting.
Moderators should refrain from asking players to use a specific attribute during the resolution of encounter - the equivalent of asking for a stealth roll, a bluff check or an attack test. Encounters should be presented in ways that the players can decide how they want their characters to handle them based on the cards in their hands and how well they can justify particular interpretations of the attributes they want to use.
Players must choose only one character attribute with which to resolve an encounter. It does not have to apply to all the elements of the situation or the proposed outcomes of the play, but it should fit in a meaningful way. Even when more than one attribute can be used in the given circumstances the mechanics only allow for one at a time so players should choose what fits best narratively or for which they have the best cards. The moderator has final determination about the suitability of any attribute for a given play.
Qʼs core mechanic is based on the moderator and players using hands of playing cards to make secret bids for proposed outcomes. Whenever a play is called (see Calling Plays), the participants negotiate the stakes and then make bids. The number of cards each of the participants has can bid in a play ranges from one to three, limited by the level (1, 2 or 3) of the character attribute he is using (see Creating Characters) to resolve the encounter. Players must choose, and base their plays on, a single character attribute even if more than one may be applicable to the encounter. The system does not allow for combinations attributes.
Bid size can also be limited by the number of cards of a given suit that a player has available. Because each skill and attribute is assigned a specific suit, the cards used during the play must match the suit linked to the attribute being used. If the player does not have as many cards of a given suit as he does ranks in the linked attribute, he can only play as many cards as he has.
Miram is trying to subdue a guard without alerting the rest of the enemy crew. She has “Like a Blade in the Dark” at 3 and it is linked to spades. Unfortunately, her play hand has only 2 spades - a 6 and a queen. Unless she can play a cache or convince the moderator how wisdom, compassion or nurturing reason could help her silence a guard so she can use a crowning card, her best score will be a 16 if she uses that attribute.
The number of cards the game moderator bids is based on the challenge level he assigns to the encounter – easy (1), medium (2), hard (3) (see Task Challenge). As with player bids, all cards bid by the moderator in a given play must be of a single suit. This is an essential balancing mechanic that compliments the players’ suit limits.
When making a bid, the player and the moderator both consider the contents of their hands. If a participant really wants to win, he uses his highest cards. If he is fine with losing, but hopes to force his opponent to spend some of his high cards, he can try to bluff while bidding his lowest cards. If he would like to win, but wants to keep his highest cards in reserve for a subsequent, perhaps more important play, then he bids mid-range cards. Maybe a participant just wants to flush some low cards from his hand. The choice all depends on how many cards he can play, how badly he wants a given outcome, and whether he thinks he can beat his opponent or simply wants to drain his opponentʼs hand.
Fudging or Nudging
Unlike games where dice make success or failure a matter of random chance, the Q system intentionally provides a degree of control over the odds. By purposefully playing particularly high cards participants can improve their chances of taking the given stakes. By cleverly negotiating stakes they are willing to lose and then playing particularly low cards, players can shed a bad hand, and moderators can give the characters an advantage or shape the direction of the plot.
This ability to nudge the outcomes is a feature of the system and should be exploited. Moderators can help or hinder the players as fits the game, without having to fudge the rules. Every moderator knows that there are times when the story, pacing or table dynamic is such that it would be best if the characters succeeded. Conversely, there are times - usually for reasons of drama or plot - when it would be more interesting if the characters failed. The Q system provides a mechanic to nudge the narrative in such directions without having to use GM fiat. Accordingly, both players and moderators should confidently bid whatever cards they have to win - or intentionally lose - a given play. It’s part of the game.
Once the player and the moderator have selected their cards they play them simultaneously, face up. The hand with the highest point total wins, determining which of the two proposed outcomes is incorporated into the story.
The point values of each number card equal the number on that card. Face cards – jacks, queens and kings – and aces all have values of 10 points in any play. These remain exceptionally powerful cards however, in that face cards and aces can be used to crown plays (see Crowning Plays). Jokers have no point value but automatically win plays in which they are bid (see Jokers).
Domnall is trying to force open a locked hatch on a burning ship to free those trapped inside. He has the attribute “Strong as an Ox” at level 2 and it’s linked to diamonds. The player has the 4, 7 and 10 of diamonds in his play hand and the moderator states that the challenge level is “easy” so he will only play one card.
Knowing the moderator can only play the one card the player knows he can not be beaten unless the moderator includes a crowning or cache card or plays a joker. The player takes a chance that the moderator will not spend higher cards on this minor encounter and saves the 10, and his own cache cards, for later. He bids the 4 and the 7 for a total of 11.
The moderator’s highest single card is a jack, but since he can not justify crowing the jack in this encounter he decides to save it for a subsequent play. Instead he plays an 8 of clubs and opts to use one of his plot cache cards which turns out to be a 2 for a total of 10. The player wins.
Once the outcome of a play has been determined, the moderator - with the help of the players - must integrate the events of the winning stakes into the ongoing narrative. This is usually as simple as describing how the stakes play out, using as much detail and flair as fits a given gaming group’s style of play. The intention is to tie the outcome seamlessly onto the thread of what has happened before while simultaneously setting up whatever might happen next - the next event, encounter, or character interaction. This description-focused resolution allows for fluid pacing and dynamic storytelling that is difficult to achieve with incremental game systems.
Continuing the example above, Domnall is successful, so the moderator weaves the winning outcome into the narrative by describing how the situation plays out. “Domnall gabs the frame of the hot metal hatch - singeing his hands - and wrenches with all his supernatural strength. Wood splinters as he rips the door free and the choking crew stumbles onto the deck. Now to put out the fire…”