Gadgeteering Entertainment for GURPS Discworld
by Royce Easton Day
On the edge of one of the more unfashionable neighborhoods of Ankh-Morpork stands an arena.1 Most people would call it an unsightly pile of junk, and they'd be exactly right. But in this case, it's an unsightly pile of junk with a purpose.
Katherine of Quirm had a problem. Her great-uncle four times removed, the famous Leonard of Quirm, had apparently dropped off the edge of the Disc somewhere in Ankh-Morpork. After arriving in the city to look for him, she found the local Guard was being remarkably unhelpful in helping her discover his whereabouts. Worse, she was running low on cash, and her own skills at invention weren't helping her get into the more-or-less male-dominated engineering trade. So she decided the best way to support herself and search for clues to Uncle Leonard's whereabouts was to start a game show.2
After a bit of fast-talking, Katherine convinced the owner of a local scrapyard to allow her to set up stands and a couple of workshops. Then she challenged some of the local tinkerers to come in for the day and try and put together an invention that would accomplish a specific purpose.3 The citizenry of Ankh-Morpork, starved for some new entertainment and intrigued by the idea of someone accidentally blowing themselves up in public, started coming in droves to watch the competition. The so-called "Scrapyard Battles" was born!
Meanwhile, Katherine is supporting herself, and getting contacts with the local mad inventors that might help her discover the whereabouts of her uncle. If she's lucky, she might succeed. If she's very lucky, the Patrician won't arrange for her to join her uncle in his comfy prison.
What in the Great A'Tuin is Being Parodied, Anyway?
"Scrapyard Battles" is a Discworld twist on the popular "reality" television program called Scrapheap Challenge in the United Kingdom, and Junkyard Wars in the United States (available for viewing on Channel 4 and TLC respectively). Hosted by Cathy Rogers and a rotating series of British and American presenters, it sneaks in lessons on the function of basic mechanics while challenging competing teams to "bodge" together hydraulic wrecking machines, bridge layers, fire boats, aerial bombers, drag racers, ect. out of parts scavenged from a working junkyard. The competing teams have 10 hours to create their machines, and then must put them to whatever task the show has presented to them the next day. The winners get to appear in a follow-up episode, with the two surviving teams appearing at the end show of the season to competing for a trophy (constructed of scrap, of course).
For more information on the show (and some challenges you might want to
inflict onpresent to your players), visit http://www.junkyard-wars.com/
The Scrapyard Battle arena is a rectangular, rickety wooden structure set in one corner of the Steponyourtoe & Son's Scrapyard, located on the outer edge of the ugliest neighborhood of Anhk-Morpork. Tickets cost $1.00, and cover both Building Day and Competition Day. Two grandstands overlook the team's workshops, each of which is crammed with practically every TL 3+1 tool ever devised. The grandstands are topped off with large platforms, which shade the stands and let spectators look out over the scrapyard proper so they can observe the teams as they scavenge for equipment. Most of the construction materials for the arena were salvaged from the yard by Katherine, but conservative construction techniques have assured that the entire assembly is perfectly safe.4
Refreshments for the both the contestants and spectators are provided through a subsidiary of C.M.O.T. Dibbler. Spectators are allowed to bring their own food however.5
The workshops are large open areas set side-by-side, with a 10-foot high wall separating the two team's work areas. Aside from the workshop's tools, teams are also provided with basic assembly materials (nails, wire, rope, string, glue and whatever else the GM is willing to let slide), and a mule and cart to haul salvaged materials from the Scrapyard to the workshop. Salvaging the cart itself is explicitly against the rules.6
Seated between the workshops and the audience is Katherine's observation area. From here she a good view of what both teams are up to. To keep the audience interested during the long day, the observation area is provided with a large imp equipped chalkboard, which she uses to diagram the action while keeping a running commentary going.
Scrapyard Battle is divided into three sections: Audition, Building Day, and Test Day.
On the first Monday of every month, Katherine holds an open audition at the Arena for teams wishing to participate in a Battle. Teams are limited to three persons with a designated leader, and must have at least one person who can demonstrate that they know something about basic engineering. Usually Katherine will settle for the team bringing in some invention they put together themselves previously. Occasionally she'll demand that the team demonstrate their skills on the spot. Teams that prove themselves sufficiently interesting7 and competent will be given a spot on the Battle schedule. PC team members must make an Engineering (any specialty) roll, modified by Charisma, Appearance, and whatever else the GM might allow in their attempts to impress Katherine.
Teams who have previously participated in a Battle generally don't have to audition again to get a spot, unless they failed spectacularly in their previous appearance.8
Once chosen, Katherine has the team members sign a contract agreeing to show up and participate on a specific date, and in follow-up rounds if they win. Payment for any single appearance is $25, though she might be persuaded to pay more to popular returning teams.
Building Day Minus One
The main event on this day is Katherine introducing the teams to their Expert, a fellow chosen for skills actually related to the still unrevealed task they're expected to complete. Scrapyard etiquette dictates that it's bad form for the team to grill their Expert concerning his job so they can get clues about what they're going to face. Generally the Expert is paid well enough by Katherine to keep his mouth shut. PC teams can try everything from big bribes to various social skills to get the Expert to open up and give them a clue, but it should be tough for them. Normally the Expert should be an NPC in control of the GM, to allow him to nudge the players when necessary. If the GM makes the Expert a PC, it should be a player with sufficient self-control and roleplaying skills not to spoil the fun.
As sunlight begins to pour over Ankh-Morpork, pooling in the low lying areas, the teams arrive at the Arena. In the locker rooms underneath the arena stands, they're kitted out in color-coordinated leather aprons while the audience arriving above them jostle for good seats and try to avoid catching Dibbler's eye. About the same time that the grandstand's creaking reaches worrisome noise levels, Katherine arrives in the locker rooms and leads the two teams out into the arena to be introduced to the audience.
Step One: The Challenge
At about nine o' clock, after Katherine completes the introductions, the challenge is announced, to be greeted by much cheering from the audience. Naturally the more life threatening the challenge, the louder the crowd's cheers are. After giving the teams a few moments to absorb the nature of their task and do some enthusiastic shouting, Katherine starts the timer on a large mechanical clock, and the teams race to their workshops to begin planning their strategy.
Step Two: The Plan
Now it's up to the teams to create a coherent plan for their machine. The inventors must argue with each other to figure out what they need to build. After they've decided, the GM should make Engineering rolls for all the PCs and the Expert to figure out whether their plan is even practical. Extensive arguments as to who is right should follow shortly thereafter, and continue for the rest of the Battle. Optionally, the GM may require the players to draw a simple diagram of what they want to build, with bonuses to their Engineering rolls for exceptionally clear and coherent drawings.
An important point at this stage of the scenario is to keep the clock ticking. Make sure the players understand that Real Time and Game Time are the same while planning is going on. If the planning session is bogging down, have the Expert or Katherine make suggestions for workable ideas.
If for some reason during the Scrounging or Building process it becomes apparent that their Plan is untenable, then the team can come up with something else. Just keep the Real Time clock running while they figure out what to do.
Step Three: Scrounging
Once there's a coherent plan, it's time for the teams to move into the scrapyard proper and hunt up their building materials. Under Scrapyard Battle rules, the Leader and the Expert are required to stay in the team's workshop, while the other two team member scrounge. The two halves of the team keep in contact with each other by either runners, or more often by shouting as loud as they can.
The scrapyard is quite well-stocked, and the GM should give anywhere from a +1 to +4 bonus to finding items needed for the plan, unless it calls for something terrifically exotic like left-handed Dwarf-manufactured semaphore cogs. Each scrounging attempt takes 15 minutes of game time. If the Scrounging roll is made by +2 or more, then the required item is found with no trouble. A roll made exactly, or with a +1, means that the PC has found an item that might do the job, but needs a little work to fit exactly. A failed roll means the item hasn't been located yet. On a critical success, the PC has found an item that is in nearly mint condition, or will do the job better than expected, allowing a +1 to Engineering rolls during construction. On a critical failure, the PC is convinced he's found the perfect piece of equipment, but it turns out that it is fatally flawed in some manner that won't be apparent until Test Day.
Once the item is found, getting it back to the workshop can be an adventure in of itself. Mechanic, Climbing, and Strength might prove necessary to reach and dislodge some valuable piece of equipment. Never mind Animal Handling when the team's mule refuses to pull the now-overloaded cart . . .
Attempting to interfere with the opposing team's scrounging is a strict no-no, and awfully hard to get away with when a live audience of several hundred people is watching. However, there's nothing in the rules against stockpiling useful items before another team can get to them, though Katherine considers it poor sportsmanship. If a team is hard up for items, it's also legal for them to barter with the opposing team for building materials if they like.
Step Four: Construction
Once all the materials are back at the team's workshop, it's time to put everything together. This will take several rolls against whatever Engineering, Mechanic, or Gadgeteering specializations are relevant. Generally speaking, the GM should require at least one roll each when constructing the item's frame, attaching a propulsion system, and for any other mechanical device that is going to be attached. Each attempted roll takes at least one hour of time. In the tenth hour of construction, each roll takes only 10 minutes, but any failure is treated as a critical failure. Any critical success during construction means that particular component will not have to roll for failure during Test Day.
Example: The challenge for this battle is to build a transport capable of swimming up the River Ankh, and hauling a catapult into place to attack a small wooden tower on an island in the middle of the river. Given the excessively turgid nature of the River Ankh, the Battling Bodgers team elects to build a clockwork-powered walking machine which carries a small trebuchet. The GM requires the team to roll against Engineering (Clockwork) to build the clockwork machinery, Mechanic (Shipbuilding) to repair the salvaged boat hull sufficiently to work9, Gadgeteering to build the walker drivetrain, and Engineering (Combat) to build the trebuchet.
Note that teams always complete their machines on time by the end of Build Day, even if they end up scrambling at the very last minute. Or at least Katherine lets them get away with faking it for the sake of a good show, expecting them to finish properly during the Tinkering Hour the next day.
Test Day dawns bright and early for the contestants. Far too bright and early, since Katherine generally wants both teams at the test site before the audience starts showing up. Those gadgeteers reluctant to wake up at six o'clock after a hard day of building will find themselves gently torn out of bed by a couple of rent-a-golems that Katherine keeps on retainer.
The test site is usually outside of Ankh-Morpork for safety's sake, though within a half-mile of city limits to allow the audience easy walking access to observe the festivities. Depending on the nature of the challenge, the test area may be on the shores of the River Ankh, on a steep hillside, or near a building that's been recently condemned. Portable bleachers are set up around the testing area for the audience, which usually creak even more loudly than the permanent viewing stand back in the scrapyard.
Step Five: Tinkering Hour
Once the audience is in place, teams are given one hour to tinker10 with their machines, trying to improve potential performance, correct perceived problems, or just gussy them up with a fancy paint job. If any character missed a critical (in the GM's opinion) roll while scrounging for parts or building the machine the day before, PCs may roll against either their Mechanic or Engineering skills to find the fault and correct the problem. Each attempt to find a failure point and fix it takes ten minutes game time.
Example: When building their walking boat the day before, the Battling Bodgers missed two rolls when building the clockwork engine and repairing the hull. During the Tinkering Hour, they make three rolls on each item to finish them, just barely making the last rolls (whew!)
Step Six: The Test
After the Tinkering Hour is done, Katherine spends a few minutes warming up the audience and explaining the nature of the challenge to them. Sneaky tinkerers might take this moment to try and fix just one more problem if they're clever.
Then the test begins. Due to the improvised nature of the machines that have been built, each team must roll against the Engineering or Mechanic skills used to construct the components during the test. The only exceptions are components that were finished with a critical success during Build Day. Failure means the component breaks down during the test, and must be fixed on the fly. Each roll to repair the component takes ten minutes. Characters may take a -1 to their skill for every minute they wish to shave off the repair time.
Example: The Battling Bodgers start up their walking machine to make their way upriver to the tower. The shaky clockwork mechanism survives its test roll without a problem. The Gadgeteering roll the day before to complete the walker drivetrain was a critical success, so it avoids the need to be tested. However, the boat hull misses its Shipbuilding roll, and the keel cracks as the Bodgers make it halfway up the river. The opposing team is catching up from behind, so the Bodgers take a -3 to their repair roll to complete their repairs in seven minutes. The player with the highest Shipbuilding skill rolls. Success! After bracing the hull with some scrap wood and nails, they're on their way again.
Besides all the rolls just to keep the machines running, teams must also roll against the relevant Vehicle, Gunner, or other skills to get their machines where they need to go, and perform their needed task. For damaged or malfunctioning components, the GM may assign skill penalties for the task, if he thinks it can still be accomplished at all.
Attacking the other team's machine, unless it's the purpose of the Battle, is strictly forbidden. Violators lose the Battle and are banned from further competition by Katherine. Usually teams are honest at this stage of the game, since they get paid for appearing win or lose.
Example: The Battling Bodger's walking boat makes it into position without further difficulty, especially considering the driver was using his default for his Driver (Walker) skill rolls. Fortunately their Expert does have Gunnery (Siege Weapons) and they destroy their target handily! The Bodgers win the Battle, get sprayed liberally with champagne, and move on to the next round of competition.
Scrapyard Battles is set up to favor, unsurprisingly, characters with points invested in Scrounging and various Mechanic and Engineering skills. The sort of challenges presented in Scrapyard Battles generally shouldn't require Cinematic Gadgeteering, but normal Gadgeteering might be helpful. That said, all the characters participating in a Battle don't have to have these skills. There's plenty of room for a character whose main area of expertise is lifting (or smashing) heavy objects, or who can do a good turn rowing and bailing a bodged-together boat.
While it can be played with one team made up of PCs and the other made up of NPCs, a more fun option is for both teams to be made up of PCs so that they can compete face to face.
Getting the Players Involved
The easiest way to get players involved is for their characters to spot the notices Katherine periodically posts in the Ankh-Morpork Times, and show up for an audition. Alternatively, the characters may be ringers, sent by either the Patrician, who wishes to throw Katherine off the scent concerning her great-uncle's fate, or by the Theater Guild, who are alarmed by the siphoning off of patrons from their performances.
Katherine of Quirm
Katherine is a cheerful, petite, blond human in her mid-20s, usually dressed in men's clothes, and wearing a leather apron with pockets stuffed with tools. During the competition she's normally talking non-stop as she explains to the audience what's going on down in the workshops or during the Test. In between Battle events, she can usually be found badgering team members for information about Leonard and his last known whereabouts. Though not quite in Leonard's class as an inventor, she has a high IQ and many, many points in all manner of Engineering, Mechanic, and Science skills.
She loves her uncle, and is more than a little obsessive about Leonard's fate, spending most of her free hours trying to find out what happened to him. So far she hasn't had much luck, but her naturally cheerful personality has helped her maintain her enthusiasm for the project. Currently, her leads have not taken her in the direction of the Patrician, though he is aware of her search. If they ever do, she may end being a person that has to be Dealt With.11
The Opposing Teams
The player's competition on Scrapyard Battles are a varied bunch, ranging from the mechanically inclined Dwarfs to Trolls trying to prove they aren't as dumb as they look. To grab the audience's interest, Katherine usually tries to create team themes, generally related to the team members' occupations or appearance. An all Dwarf team might be called "The Mining Mechanics," while a team composed of inventive City Guardsmen might be named "The Boys in Blue."12
The current reigning champions are the "Battling Bodgers," led by Wowser Munchen, a heavyset Ecks-Ecks-Ecks-Ecks native and Cart Wars enthusiast.
Oh, Leonard, Where Art Thou?
Katherine has finally found a real lead in her search for her Uncle Leonard. A member of one the Scrapyard Battles teams who works in the Palace has mentioned to her that Leonard was last seen being admitted to an audience with the Patrician. Assuming that her uncle must be kept somewhere within the building, Katherine recruits the PCs to help her sneak into the Palace and find her uncle's prison. Assuming that the Patrician doesn't see them coming and immediately have them arrested, penetrating the multitude of traps guarding Leonard's prison will be the ultimate dungeon crawl.
After a long day of building, the team has finally finished their invention for tomorrow's Test. Sorta. Actually they aren't even close to finished, and need several hours more time than the next day's Tinkering Hour will allow to get things ready. Either they can forfeit the Test (and never get invited back), or they can sneak into the Scrapyard and finish their project under the cover of darkness. Unfortunately the Scrapyard's owner, Mr. Steponyourtoe, is a more humorless-than-usual-Dwarf who keeps several large and ill-fed dogs wandering at night to keep away thieves. Dodging the dogs while trying to scrounge parts and complete their project under the cover of darkness should prove to be an interesting exercise.
The team's invention of an Automatic-Post-Hole-Digger-And-Tree-Remover, which involved laying explosives to dig the holes and using a giant flame-thrower to burn down the trees, has gone slightly . . . er . . . amiss. The team has to join forces with their opponents and Katherine to shut down the amuck machine before they either get arrested by the guard or their invention destroys half the city.
1 Well to be honest, it doesn't exactly stand. Lean precariously most of the time would be more accurate.
2 Nobody said it was a logical plan.
3 That requirement nearly doomed the competition from the start. Very few backyard tinkerers have a specific plan in mind when they disassemble the lawnmower to "Come up with something better."
4 Or at least the occasional ominous creaking noises haven't led to anything serious yet.
5 To the bitter resentment of the teams usually.
6 Thus far, no team has attempted to salvage their mule.
7 Translation: Colorful enough to hold a jaded audience's attention.
8 A sufficiently spectacular failure might actually guarantee a chance to compete again.
9 Even if it's walking, it still has to technically be a boat.
10 Or in some cases, finish.
11 Generally speaking, it's never a good thing for a person's fate to capitalized in the Patrician's mind.
12 The fact that Ankh-Morpork's City Guard don't actually wear blue uniforms isn't necessarily relevant. This being the Disc, people expect them to be called something cute like that.
Article publication date: December 13, 2002
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