Space cowboys in debt
Salvaging birds and making bank rolls in the Dead Belt TTRPG
Dead Belt is a tabletop RPG made for one or two players that uses dice, cards, and procedural generation to create a world of abandoned spaceships waiting to be plundered:
Not everyone’s got the temperament to be a Belter. Plenty of folks crack when the grav cuts out and the lights go off. Plenty more jump at shadows when their flash starts to flicker. Others are too busy watching their O2 to see opportunities.
But that isn’t you. If you can only rely on your gear, your smarts, and your grit, you’re going to make a stack of cred out here among these hulks. Or you’re going to die trying. Either way, you’re going to do it alone.
As a solo TTRPG, Dead Belt does some really interesting things:
Double Oracles: While many games might use a deck of cards to randomize events, Dead Belt comes with two complete books (called Oracles) that can be used to look up card draws. This provides for extended replayability for one player and/or the ability to do a 2-player mode.
Ship Plans: Each derelict ship (“bird”) has a plan based on one of the 12 Ship Deck Plans, each consisting of 10 - 23 card positions. Face down cards are put in each position for your Belter to explore.
The Bank Roll: Paying of your debt and maxing out your investments is how you win Dead Belt. There’s a check after each salvage operation to see if the bank decided to increase your debt or not.
Let’s take a closer look at the Bank Roll!
The Bank Roll
Each time your Belter returns from a salvage operation you make a Bank Roll:
Based upon this roll, your Debt may be increased by 1 point if the Bank decides to compound your interest. Or they may instead Extend Credit, offering you 9 Cred in exchange for 1 point of Debt — acceptance is optional.
The interesting part is that the results of the roll are based on your current debt level.
The bank is more likely to extend credit if your debt is 3 or less, and more likely to compound interest if your debt is 7 and higher. If your debt is between 4 and 6, the most likely outcome is no change (i.e. no interest and no credit).
A simple and thematic mechanism! I thought it might be fun to run a simulation similar to Honor & Dishonor. Perhaps look at how debt changes over time, given some assumptions.
To make the simulation easy enough, many assumptions need to be made:
Always start with zero credits
Always start with 3 debt (3-7 debt is a typical ship cost)
Ignore ship upkeep costs (1-3 is typical)
Ignore salvage operations and income
Always accept credit when extended
Never pay down debt
As you can see, this really isn’t representative of actual gameplay. It’s the bank roll mechanism in isolation, but it can still be fun to look at!
Here’s a partial sample of the loop running a few times:
1: Return from salvage...
Debt = 3, Credit = 0
Rolled 1d6 = 3
2: Return from salvage...
Debt = 3, Credit = 0
Rolled 1d6 = 6
3: Return from salvage...
Debt = 4, Credit = 9
Rolled 1d6 = 4
You can see in the second bank roll, the bank extended credit due to rolling a six. The simulation is set up to always take the credit which gives +9 Cred and +1 Debt.
This continues until the debt is 10 or higher. In the game if you hit a Debt of 10, you still get one more salvage operation to try to pay down your debt before “the Bank seizes your assets and you’re bundled off to a Wealth Reclamation Facility.”
Above is a line plot of debt after running the simulation 100 times. The dark line is the average debt at any given iteration, and the 95% confidence interval is the shaded area. The band is pretty tight up until about 15+ bank rolls.
Looking at it another way (KDE plot above), it takes about 15 bank rolls to max out your debt. After that you might get lucky, but your chances of surviving go way down. In this simulation of 10,000 runs, some (but very few) even made it out past 30 bank rolls!
Progressive risk, but with player agency
Again, this simulation doesn’t actually “play Dead Belt.” It just looks at one tiny mechanism within the 58+ page game.
But if the bank roll serves as a clock within the game, ticking ever upward toward the Wealth Reclamation Facility, then it’s a good one! It’s thematic, a bit random, and works as a progressive risk mechanism. This is something we looked at in Muffins and the Risk of Being Eaten, and I’m always interested to find new ways of doing this!
It’s particularly clever, because unlike some solo TTRPG in-game timers and clocks, the player has direct control of the value. They can choose to pay down the debt rather than spending their credits on something else, or they can run up some debt to make purchases.
Some things to think about:
Solo games usually need a timer: Without the pressure of an opponent, some sense of urgency is needed. This can be clocks in Rune, RV in You are a Muffin, stress in Unhallowed, or dishonor in The Green Knight. There are countless ways to do this, but it’s worth thinking about how much control the player has over it, and how it fits into the theme of the game.
Simulations can help test timers: A quick Python script can test some timers, as we’ve seen with the number of visitors to The Last Tea Shop. Simulations get exceedingly complex and less useful when players have more control and choice. Credits and debt are so tied together in a game like Dead Belt, that a true simulation would be non-trivial to write.
A deck of cards can go a long way: Although there wasn’t space in this post, the ship generation and exploration in Dead Belt is really interesting. It’s worth noting that all you need to play is a deck of cards, two d6, and a few tokens. It’s amazing what can be done with just a few components, especially for print and play games.
What are your favorite timers, clocks, or progressive risk systems in games that you’ve played? Do you prefer players have direct control, indirect/limited control, or no control over the clock system?
Dead Belt is available at the A Couple of Drakes itch.io store.
See you next week!
— E.P. 💀
P.S. Check out the Exeunt Press MÖRKTOBER SALE happening now! 🎃
🎲 Micro-game: Roll 3d6. If the sum is less than 20, you should subscribe to Skeleton Code Machine (free!) to receive new posts about tabletop games every week! 🐍