Q is for Quantum - a long selection straight from the system chapter
Upwind uses an original game system called Q. Like most game systems, it provides a framework of objectivity and chance that helps guide the game’s story. Unlike most systems, Q does not shape that story by resolving incremental character actions one at a time; instead it resolves whole encounters through a sort of quantum mechanic, determining which of a pair of potential outcomes will be used to continue the adventure narrative.
As in most roleplaying games, the participants cooperatively create the story as the moderator presents events in the game setting and the players describe their characters’ reactions to those events.When these encounters become particularly interesting or complex, or when failure might have consequences for the characters, game rules are used to determine the outcomes. In Q, 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 outcome 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 descriptive phrases created by the players and serve the dual purposes of describing their characters and specifying 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 skyland. The enemy ship is pacing the Vigilant and readying another broadside. Knowing they will not survive a second raking and desperate to save his crew, Rowan, a young Explorer Knight, grabs the helm and shouts through the speaking tube for the engineer to give full power to the hull.
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 by ramming the enemy vessel and causing it to crash into the floating island instead, allowing the Vigilant to limp away and escape into the surrounding clouds. In doing so he also wants to win the lasting admiration of his crew and earn a new Blaze of Rank from his superiors.
The moderator proposes that should the player lose, the Vigilant will crash into the island and half the crewmen will die in the wreck and the subsequent fighting when the enemy vessel lands. He also says that Rowan’s superiors will still award him the new Blaze for his heroic actions in saving the remainder of his crew, but that Rowan will be so wracked with guilt about the loss of life that he will incur a 1-card challenge cache (See Caches, page 183) for all future encounters in which he puts his crew at risk.
The player and moderator negotiate back and forth about the details and the challenge level but ultimately agree to these stakes. The player uses Rowan’s skill “Fly like the Wind,” and when all the bids and bonus cards are played, he luckily wins the stakes.
The moderator describes how the Vigilant bucks with the power surge, lurching upward, then drops onto the other vessel, driving it downward where it crashes into the island below. He then describes how the badly damaged Vigilant, trailing blue sparks and black smoke, vanishes into the clouds. He explains that, should the crew survive the rest of the trip home, they will stand as an honor guard when Rowan receives his new Blaze, name at least one firstborn after him, and buy the drinks whenever they meet in port.
Decks and Hands
Unlike most RPGs, which use dice as their randomizers, Q uses playing cards. Hands of cards provide points that the participants spend in secret bids to win their proposed outcomes.
All participants need full decks of standard playing cards, and before the game begins they must prepare these decks for play. Players each remove one Joker and set it aside, as it is not used in the game. They then separate out the suits that represents their characters’ elemental Potentials (see Attribute Suits, page 209), shuffle those cards, and set them aside as their Potential decks. They shuffle the other three suits and the remaining Joker into stacks called Play decks. They draw six cards from their Play decks to form their Play hands, and four cards from their Potential decks to form their Potential hands.
Players should not share the content of their hands with each other and, to maintain the bluff- ing potential of the core mechanic, they should also keep their cards secret from the moderator.
The game moderator also preps his deck, but he does not separate the suits. He simply shuffles all his cards together and draws a Play hand of eight cards.Though the moderator has a slightly larger Play hand, note that the odds are ultimately still in the players’ favor, as they have ten cards with their Play and Potential hands combined, as well as access to bonus cache cards (see Caches, page 183) and teamwork cards (see Teamwork, page 184) from other characters.
It is tacitly understood in most RPGs that the players usually ultimately achieve their primary goals. Every good adventure has setbacks and challenges, but in the end the characters typically succeed. Accordingly, like the mechanics of most games, Q is bi- ased toward player success. Unlike most roleplaying games, however, where failure of a single attack roll or skill check rarely has major consequences, losing a bid can have profound effects on an Upwind adventure. This impact is intentional and part of making stories with meaningful consequence, but it does take a little getting used to.
If a group’s style of play favors fewer setbacks or easier challenges, the moderator can opt to reduce the overall difficulty by reducing his own hand size to seven 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 nine cards. Larger reductions or increases are not recommended as they leave the moderator problematically underpowered or overpowered.
When negotiating stakes, the player usually 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 moderator negotiate back and forth, working to create balance, make the stakes more interesting, give the characters lasting consequences or change the challenge level. Once everyone is satisfied with the proposed outcomes, they make their bids.
The participants should remember that role- playing is not really about winning or losing, and that the ultimate goal is to create a fun and interesting narrative.While stakes may be op- posed, and therefore appear competitive, negotiation should always be collaborative and any final stakes should be agreeable to all participants. Once everyone gets used to the mechanic of proposing outcomes, the process becomes an easy, creative, and fun part of the game.
It’s easy to propose unfair, ridiculous, or even broken stakes, so participants should cooper- ate to propose outcomes in keeping with the tone of the given adventure and their group’s style of play. Participants should offer initial outcomes, then suggest modifications and otherwise build consensus to make the final stakes fun and fitting for everyone.
While negotiating stakes, participants should answer some of the following questions to en- hance their proposed outcomes.
What do the characters want or need?
How can the narrative be complicated in a
What would be most fun or interesting if it happened at this point in the story?
What would add emotion or drama to the circumstances?
How might the circumstances be turned into a moral dilemma for the characters?
What kind of lasting or permanent conse- quences could occur?
How can future plot or story complications be seeded into the narrative?
What could be added to the outcomes to make the overall story more creative or interesting?Example
Niko 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 modera- tor calls for a play.
Player’s Stakes — Niko uses Unstoppable Force to trounce the pirates with such ease and authority they beg for their lives offering any ser- vice in exchange.They become standing underworld contacts on whom the Knight may call in the future.
Moderator’s Stakes — The pirates beat Niko badly, doing a major wound and stealing his Knights’ blade.The Knight is so traumatized by the expe- rience that during his next three encounters with pirates, he will be so intimidated he may not crown any associated plays (see Crowning, page 182).
Player’s Stakes — Niko 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 he finds himself
the boss of his own small gang.
Moderator’s Stakes — Niko 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 Stakes — Niko kills the leader of the thugs, arrests his compatriots and breaks the back of the local branch of Black Jax’s Boatmen.
Moderator’s Stakes — Niko kills the leader who turns out to be the younger brother of Black Jax himself. Subsequently, Jax vows to kill 100 Guild members in revenge. Black Jax becomes a danger- ous but elusive threat, costing the Guild many lives before he is eventually captured.
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.
Like the imaginary cat in the famous thought experiment — which is both alive and dead until an observer opens the box — the actual narrative out- comes in Q only “occur” after the play is won. The outcomes do not exist in the story until the play is made, at which point the options collapse into a singular tale. This critical change of state from proposed stakes to narrative event is what puts the “Q” in quantum.
Fudging or Nudging
Unlike games where dice make success or failure a matter of random chance, Q inten- tionally 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 Q and should be exploited. Moder- ators 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 — usu- ally for reasons of drama or plot — when it would be more fun if the characters failed. Q 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 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 splice 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.
Moderators should consider the following guidelines as they thread outcomes into the narrative.
• Use the descriptive tricks of good storytelling to increase player immersion — describe what their characters see, hear, smell and feel, but hint at their possible reactions, thoughts and emotions as well.
• Encourage the players to contribute to the storytelling. Ask them to describe exactly what their characters do, say, think and feel as scenes resolve.
• Encourage the players to experience their characters’ emotions — pride, excitement, relief, anger, fear — by including the relevant feelings in the descriptions and their roleplaying.
• Set up the roleplaying segue that connects the current encounter to the next.
The winning bid is the winning bid regardless of the difference between the scores, and the stakes associated with that bid determine the ongoing narrative. Moderators may use the magnitude of that gap, however, to help define the relative qualities of that success as they integrate those stakes into their narratives. The larger the gap, the more effective, decisive, subtle, lasting, stylish or flamboyant the outcomes.The smaller the gap, the narrower the margins and the more marginal, risky, close or lucky the results.
Tonio wants to fight the Child of the Dark commander, take him prisoner and escape before enemy reinforcements arrive.The participants make bids and the player wins.
With a score difference of 1–3 points, Tonio could manage this just in time, taking some superficial wounds, exhausting himself and having to carry the now-unconscious Child slung over his shoulder as he staggers away just before the angry warriors arrive and start searching for their missing leader.
With a difference of 4–9 points, perhaps Tonio is able to club the officer into submission, taking only a few scratches and force marching him away at sword point in time to leave the reinforcements confused about where to go next.
With a difference of 10+ points, Tonio might be able to surprise the officer, subduing him with practiced skill, binding and gagging him with enough time to both get away and to create a false trail to mislead any pursuers.
Note that points gaps should not alter the winning stakes but only serve as a guide to coloring the narrative describing those elements.