Capitalizing on Alignment

Quick fix to give alignment a little more nuance – use upper and lower case letters to denote personal significance. Broadly speaking, lower case represents an inclination while upper case denotes an ethos.

If an alignment is all lower case then it’s descriptive, but doesn’t particularly introduce conflict into the person’s life. Lots of people who might flinch away from describing their character as LAWFUL GOOD might be of with “lg” rather than “LG”, since LG is the classic paladin, but lg is more “I like that laws protect us and I like to treat people well.”

When an alignment is mixed case, that reveals that one serves the other. An lG character wants the greatest good, and feels that law is a tool to that end, whereas an Lg character might feel that maintaining order is the most important thing, and good things will come of it.

A simple breakout might look like:

LG – Law and good are both VERY important to me!

Lg – I am a champion of law, because I think it is good

lG – Law is the means by which I pursue my good ends

lg – I am basically nice and follow the rules but it’s no big deal

One issue that I think this addresses nicely is neutrality, which can be reasonably interpreted as “indifferent” and “actively seeking balance”. In this case, those are “n” and “N” respectively (and even allow a neat trick with true neutral including things like “Nn” – for ‘I’m indifferent to good and evil but highly invested in balancing chaos and order’).

It also leaves space for little-e-evil, so there’s a bit of a moral difference between street thugs and cultists of Orcus, which I think may be a bit more playable in a number of ways, since I think one of the common problems with “dark” campaigns is that it’s not always clear if the players want to be big e or little e evil. (And, as Glen Cook and others have shown us so well, there is a lot of really great conflict to be had between little e evil and big e Evil).

Anyway, this trick doesn’t require any mechanical changes. If a GM wants to I suppose you could have capitalized alignments carry a bit of metaphysical weight (so they interact with detect and protection effects, and might be required for certain classes or items) but that’s a lightweight tweak.1

Also, it functionally means there are now 36 possible alignment combinations, so there’s a lot more room for nuance without changing the underlying structure.

Edit: Fixed the rogue “N” in the chart. 


  1. If you are feeling really invested, add one more level where it’s capitalized and underlined or bold – Lg to reflect an axiomatic connection to the principle, as might be appropriate for extraplanar beings. This becomes the indicator for whether magic interacts with the target as Lawful or Evil or whatever. It can be up to the individual table whether players can adopt these “true” alignments (probably based on class, possibly level). ↩︎

Welcome to Sunny San Lazarus

Map of the (fictional) city of San LazarusI am unreasonably excited about the Sentinel Comics RPG. I love the card game. I love Greater Than Games. I love the specific designers behind this game. This is pretty much a conflux of so many things that I love so much that it was inevitable that I threw a very silly amount of money at the Kickstarter.

I look forward to talking about it more as time goes on, and this is the game that might drag me back into doing a mega-review. But for the moment, I want to talk about my plan.

To date, I have read as little of the RPG material as possible. Fred is running the Starter Kit adventures, so I’ve read the player stuff in that, but that’s it. I could probably know more if I wanted, but I’m genuinely excited to encounter the book in as fresh a state as possible.

But for all that, I am not that good at waiting. I have been guzzling down the Sentinels settings podcast, The Letters Page, and gorging myself on both lore and Christopher and Adam’s delightful sensibilities. I would have listened to them all by now, but my son also loves the podcast, so I have to slow down so we can listen to it together.

And, of course, I have been thinking about the game I’m going to run. Because I am going to run.

In the absence of a gamebook, but with a decent body of setting lore, I started thinking about what I wanted. First and foremost, I needed a city. The Sentinels setting has two prominent American cities (Megalopolis and Rook City) and they’re absolutely great, but if I’m doing my own stuff then I was probably going to make my own city. Which got me thinking about the things I wanted in a city.

First, I was inclined towards the west coast. No real thematic reason for this, but the other two cities are easterly, and it seemed like some physical distance would open up opportunities. That probably meant California or Washington.

With that in mind, I thought about influences. I’ve always liked how the cities in DC comics resonate with real-life cities – Metropolis and Gotham as the two faces of New York, Opal City echoing Baltimore, Star City echoing Chicago and so on. To my mind, the iconic west coast cities would be L.A., San Francisco, and Seattle, with honorable mention to Portland and San Diego. This didn’t suggest anything specific, but it gave me some notes to hit.1

Lastly, I needed a reason for it to be interesting. Rook City and Megalopolis have very rich histories which are full of hooks that story can attach itself to. They are the kind of places where almost anything can show up, and you can probably find a decent reason for it. I needed that kind of flexibility, which meant I needed to start spinning deep tales.

Or I could cheat.

So, there is one other named city of note in the Sentinels setting: San Alonso. Home of Champion Movie Studies, it is an L.A. sort of place. However, in the OblivAeon event (which is the precursor event to the RPG) the city was very literally destroyed. Huge energy blast from the sky. Millions dead. Very, very bad.

I was struck by the image of a perfectly circular bay where the city had once stood, and that got my brain whirling. Obviously, even if a new city were to be built, that effort would take more time than was available before the RPG began. I could maybe have some early construction and go for a reclamation sort of theme?

Or I could really lean into the supers stuff. Super science. Nanotech. Extradimensional visitors. All that jazz. What if all that had really been thrown at building a new city on the shores of that bay? That could work. Definitely got some hooks and potential – full of things that villains may want and so on. Cool, cool.

But…not quite grabbing me.

So I dug further into the why, and found something great. See, one other upshot of the OblivAeon event is that a whole lot of people from other dimensions got stranded on our world2 and were now sort of stuck. In addition to the sheer number of deaths and the scope of destruction of the event, this introduced a huge logistical problem because these folks had no homes, no jobs, no citizenship and were often more than a little bit weird. What does one do with those folks?

In many games, I’d got the dystopian route, but this is a somewhat more positive world, and the U.S. Military has just gotten past the discovery that it had been secretly doing pretty bad things with superpowered individuals, so in the case they do the thing that America is supposed to do, and provide a place for these people, throwing the government’s weight and resources behind this new city.

That worked for me. It gave me a deep bench of weirdness to draw from and gave a reason for the city to be robust, dynamic and cosmopolitan despite the paint being fresh. Add in the crazy-deep bay (quite possibly full of ghosts) and possible lingering OblivAeon effects and I am going to have no shortage of hooks. I had the potential of some science vs dark magic tension (new growth vs. the city kind fo being a graveyard), Business vs. government, and even media vs. technology.

I lacked a name that I really liked until Will Hindmarch suggested “San Lazarus” and that was utterly perfect.

So with that in mind, I sat down and started drawing the map.

That may seem backward, but for me, it’s very inspirational. I don’t draw maps to document what I know, I draw them to see where the blanks and connections are, and then do things with those. The Nemosphere (now one of my favorite parts of the city) was not part of my original idea but was simply a result of my pondering how the rail system was going to handle the bay.

Anyway – It’s totally possible that some of what I’m writing up will contradict material in the game when it comes out. I’ll deal with that when it happens. Normally, I would not care at all, but the SCRPG team do a good enough job with setting that I’m open to repurposing the work if their version grabs me. But until then, I’ll keep writing it up, and I’ll probably share more here as I go.

    1. Honestly, I don’t think there was any way for there not to be at least a little Silicon Valley in whatever I made.
    2. Short form: OblivAeon was collapsing all realities, and so was being fought by heroes across the multiverse. When he was defeated, the multiverse snapped back to a healthy state, and if you were in the wrong world when it happened, that’s where you are now. This mostly affected heroes (it’s an excuse for MANY origins), and I’m taking liberties in suggesting that many civilians were affected too, but that seems in spirit.

Stress is Best

Ok, let’s talk about Stress in Blades in the Dark.

This is an amazing mechanic – metamechanic even – that is easy to overlook. For all that it seems faily simple, it’s one of those things that really jumps out at you when you start looking at making hacks for Blades, and you find yourself wondering “Can I use stress to model THING?” and discover that the answer is “Yes. Yes you can.”

For the unfamiliar, BitD characters have a certain amount of stress, represented by a (mostly) fixed length track reminiscent of a Fate stress track, or the wound tracks from any number of games.1 Players can mark off stress for some effects like flashbacks or die bonuses (2 to push oneself for effect, 1 to assist an ally – very simple and nicely teamwork encouraging) but the real meat of the system comes up when it’s used for resistance rolls and how it’s recovered.

This is not going to come as a surprise to anyone who has played much Blades in the Dark, but it is not necessarily obvious when you read the rules or even if you just play it ones. Resistance rolls are one of the most powerful levers in the system – maybe the most powerful. They work as follows:

  1. Something bad happens to your character as a consequence of your actions.
  2. You do not want that thing to happen as presented, so you choose to resist.
  3. The thing does not happen. It may be cancelled, changed or mitigated.2
  4. Dice are rolled and a cost of 0-5 stress is extracted. There are dire consequences if you don’t have enough stress.

Which is to say, guaranteed success, but unknown cost, though the cost is roughly predictable. It starts at 6, then you subtract the highest of 1-4+ dice from that. The player doesn’t know for sure what they’ll be rolling until the GM calls for it, but in a lot of circumstances you can guess, since the categories are largely Physical, Deception or Social, with weirdness only when it’s not in that space.

This is a wonderful mechanic on a few levels, so lets pull it apart.

First, this is possibly the purest expression of “Hit Points as Pacing Mechanism” that you could practically implement. The stress track defers consequences, so it extends the amount of time a character can stay on their feet and in play. But since it does not couch it as “damage” you don’t get the (now familiar) complaints that pop up if it were to actually frame social conflicts as “combat”.3

Second, it has a degree of uncertainty, but also has the possibility of a “good” outcome. There is always the possibility of rolling a 6 on your resistance roll and paying no cost at all. If that was not there, then there would be a ratcheting inevitability that would suck away that potential thrill of victory.

Third, the level of risk is very knowable. When you look at your stress track and you know how many boxes you have left, you can make an educated guess at your odds. If you have 4 boxes left and are going to roll 3 dice? You’re probably going to be fine. But if you’re not? That feels fair. You are not getting blindsided by something being secretly harder than you expected.

Fourth, it introduces a mechanical point for the player to say “no”. This is kind of tangential enough to maybe merit it’s own post someday, but that invitation is a WONDERFUL addition to GM/Player interaction.

Fifth, it let’s the GM push HARD, because the players have the ability to pull it back. How well this works in practice has a lot to do with how much the GM respects resistance rolls, but it’s potentially very powerful4.

Sixth and most relevant to this discussion, the use of stress for this purpose is a wonderful bit of sleight of hand because it frames stress in an agnostic manner. The terminology and presentation5 of stress is like it’s a real-in-the-gameworld thing even though it’s absolutely a meta-currency. The game would function just as well if the currency was “Darkness Points” or “Drama” or whatever, but not calling it that allows people to handle it like they do things like hit points – by just accepting it and moving on. Never underestimate the power of not picking a fight you don’t need to.

Seventh, it’s like saving throws that don’t suck.

So, resistance rolls alone would be a very robust use of currency, but there’s actually a whole engine here, which also includes how you regain the currency. Rather than resetting based on time or triggers, it is restored with explicit action6 (pursuing your vice) and even that has a little bit of risk (it is possible to overindulge). That risk is not huge, but it loads the choice to recover with some necessary thought when you have 5 stress to clear, and you’re worried about rolling a 6. (In case it’s not obvious, this is a wonderful solution to the 5 minute dungeon problem, which is a shame because Blades doesn’t have that problem.)

So, this is all great for Blades, but why am i so excited about this in a general sense?

Because this engine is covered in knobs.

Consider that this cycle of stress use and recovery includes the following things:

  • Spending stress to do ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS.
  • Spending stress to Resist an ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS with SOME RISKS
  • Recovering stress by doing an ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS with SOME RISKS

Almost every game with some sort of currency does the first bullet, but tend to be a bit light on the others. And that’s fine, because the real trick is that every place where I wrote ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS or SOME RISKS?

Those are the things your game is about.

Like, not in some deep metaphorical way, but in the very straightforward “these are the actions you will pursue and the consequences you will face”. And those things, in turn, determine what the currency is.

That may seem circular, but let me illustrate. Stress works well for Blades because it’s a kind of unpleasant setting. Things are under high stress, and the consequences of things going bad are bad for mind and body, but are largely internal to the characters. After all, the main consequence of stressing out is taking on some amount of trauma, a change to the internal landscape.

Consider the very small change where we called stress “luck” and changed almost nothing else. The game would still play about the same way – you could press your luck, and your luck might run out. In that game, I suspect the consequences of your luck running out would be external – loss of resources, harm to the setting and so on. What appears to just be a change in terminology and tone becomes as change in rules because there is an explicit place to do it.

This is why it is so easy to think of other things stress might be (Reputation! Resources! Divine Favor! Popularity! Mana!) and then very naturally fill in what that means by changing the variables (the “ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS”) rather than the formula.

Combine that with the track-style presentation (which makes the whole thing friendlier to a category of players AND makes the use of currency feel more explicit and constrained) and you have a really powerful tool that is not hard to point in new directions. And, hell, while the specific details are tied to the BITD dice system? The model could be extracted further into any system you like. Hell, I could do it with D&D. I couldn’t sell it, but I could totally do it.


  1. Though really, it’s a clock. I mean, clocks and tracks? Same thing. Just different psychology of presentation. ↩︎
  2. This is probably the single most powerful knob in the game (and the game knows this) and it has very little guidance around it. Exactly how much resistance helps in a given situation is a decision that the GM has very broad leeway over, and whether resistance means “This, but not as bad” or “No, that’s not an interesting outcome” is entirely the GM’s decision. ↩︎
  3. Some folks are fine with that abstraction, but the people who hate it HATE IT A LOT. ↩︎
  4. Ironically, if the GM pushes hard before and after the resistance roll (that is, only minimally reduces consequences) then that discourages hard pushes. Player will be more careful and risk averse. If, on the other hand, the GM pushes hard, but then takes a resistance roll as a player statement to step back from the line, then you can get some pretty high octane, high trust play going. And just for completeness, if the GM doesn’t push too hard, but is also conservative with resistance rolls, there’s no harm save wasted opportunity. Weak push/strong resistances is a weird combination but could work well for a game where moment to moment success is a given, but the real attention is on the big issues that underly things (that is, the consequences of blowing out stress). ↩︎
  5. Also, by making it a track rather than some other counter (like tokens) it feels like “loss” rather than “spend”. This may seem like a trivial difference, but the psychology is pretty big. For an easy illustration, try playing Blades with tokens for stress sometime. The entire feel changes, and specifically tilts towards the non-resistance uses because those are more “spendy”. ↩︎
  6. Hat tip to The Shadow of Yesterday which laid the groundwork for this (and many other amazing mechanics). ↩︎

Generous Play is Everyone’s Job

These four modes are far from all-encompassing, but I wanted to talk about generous play because it is what I, personally, strive for and seek. This is not the only way to play, an I am absolutely not pushing it onto anyone who wants other types of fun (including undepicted ones, like competitive play or tangential play or the like).

(Though I think selfish play sucks)

This is probably the tip of a future iceberg because in naming generous play, it becomes something I can speak to in terms of best practices, tips and tricks. These are not all-purpose suggestions, but rather they are things which might be useful if you also seek generous play.

This is on my mind due to some strange conversations afoot about the role of GM. I don’t want to delve into them too deeply because I think the specific conversations have gone pretty far off the rails, but the underlying topics regarding the GM’s role at the table and their relationship with fun are important. There are absolutely cases out there where the nature of the role in a game has a warping effect on the social rules surrounding play, and you can end up with tyrant GMs who use their position as a blunt instrument to maintain authority.

This is a bad thing. And games are not going to solve it. When this happens, there is a much deeper social breakdown going on, and games are just the arena of choice. That is not going to instantly become a healthy group if they switch over to cross country skiing.

But games might help keep us from getting to that space. Often is it born from a model of received play – the players are there to be entertained, and the GM is there to provide the entertainment. This seems benign enough, but it sets up a scarcity-based model where the players rely on the GM for their fun, and thus the GM may give or withdraw that fun as a tool of power. This is obviously messed up, but if it’s your only exposure to a play dynamic, it may not be obvious how brittle a threat that is.

Most GMs I know are personally inclined towards generous play, even if they’re the only person at their table who is. I would go further to say that this tendency is essential to GMing being a healthy, engaging pastime rather than something more like a job or authority role. If the GM is not finding her fun in her player’s fun, then she needs to find it somewhere else, and those somewhere else’s are kind of sketchy.

Critically, most of my favorite players also subscribe to this model. They’re there to have fun, and they engage the rest of the table to help drive that fun. If you get a table full of people playing this way it can be a joy to watch as the fun-ball gets passed around with vigorous enthusiasm, and the desire to elevate each other elevates the whole table.

BUT.

(Because of course there’s a but)

This is MUCH MUCH easier to say or intend than it is to *do*. If you turn to someone and say “Hey, play more generously!” they will be rightly puzzled as to what exactly you’re asking and how that could even be done. Generous play requires trust, confidence and bravery as foundations, and even if you have those things, it then requires practice to do well. it’s a skill. a hard skill. But as a skill it can be learned.

So when I talk about the tip of an iceberg? The rest of that iceberg is going to be about learning that skill. Partly for my own sake – talking through this stuff is good for me – but hopefully it will be of use to others.

Flip Fate

There’s a rules variant I use for Fate Points when running It’s Not My Fault which a friend asked me for the writeup on today and I said “Sure, i wrote that up somewhere, one sec.”

Yeah, well, it turns out, I had written it, but had lefts it in my ‘to be posted” file for a very long time. Oops. So, having found it, I how share this very belated post. Credit where it’s due – the original idea for this came from the really cool way that FFG’s Star Wars game handled force tokens.

Flip Fate

A variant rule for using Fate Points

  1. Grab some double sided tokens. Exactly what doesn’t matter much, but the sided need to be EASILY distinguishable at a glance. Othello/reversi tokens work very well for this. Coins can work in a pinch, but the lack of color difference is sub-optimal. For purposes of conversation, I’m going to assume tokens with a black and white sides.
  2. At the start of play, take a number of tokens equal to the number of players +3. If that’s an even number, add one more. Then, drop them on the table (to randomize) which side is up, then set them up in a line, grouped with like colors.
  3. From this point forward, whenever someone (GM or Player) would spend a fate point, they flip one of the tokens. Players flip from white to black, the GM flips from black to white.
  4. If a player earns a fate point in some way, such as through a compel, the GM makes a flip from back to white.

Optional Rule: Dramatic Reset

One thing that can happen in this system is that the chips can go all black or all white, meaning that one “side” can no longer use Fate points. This is an intentional outcome, since it gives each side incentive to keep the Fate Points moving, but also makes it clear when it’s safe to do so. Getting a “lock” is an invitation for one side or the other to push very hard to leverage their advantage.
However, that may be a bit too dry for some tables. A dramatic reset happens when the chips are all one color, though it should wait until whatever action triggered it is resolved. Once that happen, there is a dramatic change in the situation, narrated by the “winning” side – the players if the chips are all white, the GM if they’re all black.
This is a moment of strong authority, and can resolve or drastically change the game. For players, it’s an opportunity to take full GM authority for a moment. For the GM, it’s kind of a chance to make an unkind move without feeling bad about it. Usual suggestions about “don’t break the game” remain in play, but I trust you.
Once the reset is resolved, the tokens are randomized (AKA “dropped on the table”) again and play continues. If they come up all one color? Honestly, go ahead and do another dramatic reset. The odds are so far against that you might also want to go buy a lottery ticket or something.

Variant: Fate Dice

Rather than tokens, you can do the same thing with a number of Fate Dice equal to the number of players. A “flip” increases or decreases the face value of one of the dice, with the GM moving towards – and the players moving towards +. Dramatic reset happens when the dice show all plusses or all minuses.

Interesting?

I just tweeted about this, but I like this enough that i want to capture it here. I have finally gotten around to reading the new Over the Edge. It’s not released yet, but I backed the kickstarter, and the pretty-much-final preview version got sent around recently, and I finally sat down to read it. I had not read any of the previews before that for two reasons. First, OtE is an INCREDIBLY important game to me, so I was willing to be patient. Second, I hate reading multiple versions of a game because all the rules stick in my head, and I end up in a muddle when all is done. This is why I don’t read any of the preview editions of even games that I love and am super excited about, like all of the Blades in the Dark family of stuff.

Anyway, there is a specific trick in the new OtE that I love and which I think is wonderfully portable. In the game, every character has a question. Now, to get the question, you pick some descriptor of their nature (Honorable, Honest, Merciless, Cruel and so on) but then append it with a question mark, so the character is “Honorable?” or “Merciless?”.

What this signifies is that this thing is both very true to the character and that it’s mostly true, but there are exceptions (which may or may not be communicated) and those exceptions are damn well going to come up in play.

I love this, for a host of reasons.

Dramatically, it’s just great, because it acknowledges that a lot of these essential ideas are more interesting in their exceptions and contradictions (but only if they still have weight to them). “Honest?” is more interesting than “Honest” or “Dishonest” because it implicitly brings in uncertainty and motivation rather than simply leaving it as essential.

Practically, it also addresses a classic communication problem in RPGs – when a player makes a statement about their character, it is not always obvious whether they’re establishing a baseline (and want it to be taken for granted) or if it’s a flag on something that they want to be pushed and tested.

For an easy illustration of this, let’s use a paladin. They’re good for this.

If my paladin is “Faithful” then his faith is a constant. If he is presented with temptations, he will reject them. If challenged, he will be resolute.

If my paladin is “Faithful?” then all of the above is true most of the time, but the outcome is less certain. When my faith is tested, there is a chance it will falter, and that’s something I want to play.

Sidebar: bear in mind that these can both be awesome characters. There’s a storytelling assumption that the latter is somehow better because it’s narratively more interesting, but that is looking at these elements in a vacuum. It’s good to have a mix of essentials and questions to make for a robust character.

Now, if you’ve read that far, it’s pretty obvious that this is an idea that’s easy to port to almost any other game. It needs not mechanics – it’s just a communication and description element, so it can really be applied to any game. But when the game has a space for such things, it’s all the easier to hook in.

The most obvious applicability is, of course, to aspects in Fate and related games. No new mechanics are required, but the simple act of turning an aspect into a question gives all the benefits we’ve been talking about and provides much greater clarity around expectations for compels and invocations. If I, as a GM, see a question mark at the end of an aspect, I take that as a clear indicator that you – as a player – want me to offer lots of possible compels there. And, implicitly, it also tells me to maybe not lean so hard on the ones that you don’t have a question mark next to.

Sidebar: In fact, I might even supplement this approach with exclamation points, to represent “implied comma, dammit” to the end of an aspect to make it CRYSTAL CLEAR that I take this as a bedrock assumption and am not interested in playing against it. This doesn’t mean no compels, but it does suggest the type of compels that the “Honorable!” Paladin is looking for are different than the type of compels the “Honorable?” Paladin wants.

So, as I said, I love this. I 100% intend to use this in my next Fate game, and encourage it in other games I run and play. There’s pretty much no downside to it, and if it sounds cool to you, definitely consider taking it for a spin.

Clockery

I love clocks in Blades in the Dark, and have written about that before. What’s curious is that Apocalypse World has clocks, as do other PBTA games, so I’d encountered the idea previously, but it had never really grabbed me. I hadn’t thought about this much, figuring it was just part of the general Blades awesomeness, but it jumped out at me as I started prepping for an Urban Shadows game I’m running.

So, Urban Shadows has a pretty neat campaign planning trick called Threats and Storms. There are some guidelines for types of threats and what they do, but structurally, the threats have a 6 step plan that starts with a promise of trouble and culminates in trouble, and the threat attempts to advance the plan, moving through the steps. Tie a couple of these threats together and you’ve got a Storm, and you’re ready to go.

This is a pretty good model. Good enough that I want to fiddle with it, but that’s another post. But there is one element of it I did not like at all, and that is the physical presentation of it, and it illuminated something about clocks to me.

See, Urban Shadows uses Clocks to illustrate this idea, and specifically it uses the Apocalypse World style clocks of 3 quarters followed by 3 twelfths1.

It then maps each step of the plan to a wedge of the clock, which is simply more information than the clock can hold, so it required secondary notation, in a style like this from the Threats sheet.

Urban Shadows countdown clock sheet excerpt

Now, this is not broken. It can work. But to me, it’s like watching someone drive a nail with a wrench. It’s a mismatch of tools – I would expect the construct that I’m using to track these things to be able to contain them.

As an example, Monster of the Week has a similar model of threats called “Arcs” – six step plans leading to badness – but it lays it out in a tabular format, with falling darkness as its framing metaphor. This does not look as cool as the clock, but it is rather mor functional. And, in fact, when I ended up writing my threats (by hand), I used a worksheet rather more like MOTW, because it gave me enough room to think as I wrote, rather than focus on squeezing things in.

An arc example from Monster of the Week

Doing that, gave me an insight into what I like about BitD clocks, which I can illustrate with these two images

I am not holding this up to say the Urban Shadows clock is bad, rather to highlight how they’re used. The US clock is information-dense, with triggers and information at every step along the way. The Blades clock is single purpose – it has one consequence, and shows progress towards it (there are tools to make them more complex, but this is the default).

For what I use clocks for (which is a BIG qualifier), I really enjoy the clarity and focus that a unitasker provides. It makes it useful for communicating to the rest of the tables (something that’s trickier with a keyed clock) and it allows me to go immediately from need to implementation without needing to stop and fill in the interstitial spaces.

There is also a practical element of ease and flexibility – blades clocks are easier for me to draw, especially with different values2. This is far from insurmountable – we’re talking the difference in drawing a few extra lines – but when I whip out a sharpie at the table, it matters to me.

So that’s why I like BitD clocks so much: they’re flexible unitaskers, and that aligns with my needs.

But, importantly, this is not the fault of the tool. The 3-and-3 clock is a great model if you want to have an explicit upshift or escalation. When I use a clock like that, I would not want to add a note or progression for every wedge – rather I would just want to explicitly note what happens when the escalation happens, since that’s the explosion, the limit break, the point when things go from bad to worse. That’s a great moment, and while that’s a little more work on my part, coming up with a second data point is a lot easier than coming up with 6 of them.

Curiously, this also calls out why I like using tracks3  and trigger tables rather than clocks in certain situations. When I do want to have more context for the clock’s wedges or I want to do something weird with the progression through the clock, a track has the explicit advantage of giving more room to write. Small thing, but kind of important to me.

  1. Some people don’t like that style of clock, but I actually dig it for its purposes. It’s ultimately just a 6 wedge clock, but it’s got an implicit flip over from yellow zone to red zone when you get to the last quarter. That transition is a neat piece of information implicit in the layout. ↩︎
  2. Though, aesthetically, the AW/US clocks tend to look cooler in printed form, and so they work better on worksheets and prepared material. That’s a non-trivial benefit, especially for handout-heavy games, like many PBTA games. The value of cool should not be underestimated. ↩︎
  3. That is, a series of boxes rather than a circle. ↩︎

Worldbuilding Rewards Bias

Bowl of Jellied Eels

I wrote some stuff about food in Blades in the Dark the other day, and I’ll probably turn it into a blogpost, but there’s one point that came up in the discussion that I feel needs some highlighting.

One thing I did in my discussion was say “Ok, we have no sunlight, but we need some agriculture that thrives in the dark” and I went with root vegetables (potatoes, onions, garlic, turmeric, ginger, stuff like that) as being growable-but-weird. The reasoning for this was simple: things that grow underground seem like the things we’d expect to grow well in the dark.

Now, the thing is, this was reasonably called out as somewhat nonsensical. In reality, those plants need sunlight as much as anything else, so if I’m going to introduce dark tubers, why not just introduce dark everything?

I 100% understand where this question comes from, and I do not fault the person asking it, but I want to highlight it as something important. Specifically, I want to highlight it as a question which will destroy your world building1.

Bold claim, I know, but bear with me.

When you are building a world, there is a necessity for some consistency, but complete consistency is impossible to achieve for two reasons.

First, it is an infinitely complicated and boring process when taken to that level.

Second, actual life is staggeringly inconsistent, and things which are consistent feel super fake.

Now, everyone has their own approach to world building, and I’m just talking about what works for me here, but let me unpack how I walk this line: with bias. See, it is easy to imagine world building as a sort of pure intellectual exercise where you start from some fixed set of counterfactual elements, and then “build logically” from there. Now, this can be a SUPER fun exercise, and I totally encourage doing it for fun, but it has a dangerous edge to it when it creates a sense that there is a right answer to what the counterfactual world would look like. This illusion of certainty can result in us pretending that this is not an act of creation, but rather simply analysis, which becomes a real problem if we want to work and play with other human beings.

So, when I world build, I try to be cognizant of the things I want to see. Things like genre touchpoint or random cool stuff, as well as any elements of theme that I consider appropriate. These explicitly are not born from the setting being “logical”, but instead force me to bend and think to try to find ways to make them fit. This has a trio of benefits.

First, it’s fun. It’s my storytelling equivalent of the Apollo-13 tabletop dump.

Second, it keeps the world from entirely making sense. Adding these irritants to the mix is what adds eddies of color and shape to what otherwise may be uniform and uninteresting material.

Third, since these things are fun and thematic elements of the game, they improve play, because they help the world stay in line with expectations.

In the case of blades, I had a few needs (theme of darkness and a desire for fish and chips, plus the dark industrial tone of Duskvol) and potatoes lined up very well with all of those things, so I rolled with that. Now, I can ABSOLUTELY justify it2, but I can always justify whatever I come up with. The point is that the justification feeds the end rather than the reverse.

Not everyone’s going to be comfortable with that, but I encourage trying it. Worldbuilding that only makes sense tends to be very flat – throw in a little of your bias and taste, and I think you’ll find the results much more satisfying and fun (and, honestly, you’re already doing it, but acknowledging it makes you the owner of the process rather than its servant).

  1. Tangential nod to the Fate Toolkit’s magic section here which I’ll reiterate: Once you introduce magic, the most important thing you need to define is what magic CAN’T do. These constraints will be arbitrary, but their alternative is really, really boring, ↩︎
  2. Because someone will ask: A food chain is just an energy transference system. For us, that energy originates from the sun and trickles forward, but once you accept a magical world, you can posit that the energy comes from somewhere else, like the soil. As such, plants which get the bulk of their nutrition from the soil makes sense if the soil has energy. And let’s assume it does. Maybe it just has it. Maybe it depletes, but is refreshed by blood (because spiritual energy has nowhere to go). I kind of like the idea that it depletes and can be replenished because that then makes good soil something valuable and suitably creepy. ↩︎

Three Fights vs. Three Acts

A few folks brought up the three act structure in response to the three fight model, and while I get where they were coming from, there’s a distinction I want to call out that I think is REALLY important.

First, it is SUPER useful to understand the three act model for plotting your games. I would also say it’s very much worth learning other versions, most notably the 5 act model which is very common on television. Understanding these structures and tools can make you a better GM. Not because they provide strict rules to follow, but because if you get why they work on the screen and stage, then you can apply them in your play.

This is deep, valuable stuff. But I fear I consider the three fight model to be much simpler for one reason: it is much, much dumber.

That probably feels like a criticism, but it’s not. There are tools we want to be smart, and tools we want to be dumb, and the three fight model is in the latter camp. Its virtue lies in its simplicity, and I can illustrate this very simply:

  1. Imagine the cast of, say, Voltron. Any version. Pick one you know. If you don’t know Voltron, pick an action-y cartoon you like.
  2. Now, imagine that’s the game you’re running and those are the character’s played by your usual stablemates, with all their tastes and interests.
  3. Next, try to think of three cool fight scenes. Don’t go too deep, just sketch out the idea.
  4. Now set those aside, and instead think of a three act arc for them.

Was there a difference in ease between #3 and #4? If not, I envy you more than a little. See, for me #3 is super easy – I just mash up a few elements (Location, status, enemy type, maybe a gimmick) and I’m good to go. But when we get to #4, I have questions. I need to know more about the characters, the players, their interests and how to hook them in. I don’t want to tell a three act story, I want to deliver the experience the players want, which means I need a lot from them.

Heck, even if I didn’t need more information, I’ll end up struggling with the blank page problem. Building a three act structure is so profoundly open ended that I will be paralyzed just starting. In contrast, a fight scene is a constrained enough idea that I can churn it out.

That is why the three fight system is amazing to me where a lot of other structured models are merely interesting, informative or helpful. It strikes a solid balance between constrained enough for focus, but open ended enough that there are still bazillions of things to be done with it.

Now, having separated these two ideas, I should add that they do eventually grow together. Once you have the idea of three fights in your heart, it becomes possible to do more with the model (such as have the fights correspond with three act pacing, or finding other scene types that you can build as easily and well as you can fights). But I really want to call out that there’s nothing magical about structure or the number, three, the power is in how usable it is.

Three Fight Scenes Redux

Back of heads in an elevator.  Precursor moment to an amazing fight scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The original Feng Shui RPG (by the ever-brilliant Robin Laws) had the absolute best adventure design guidelines of any RPG I’ve encountered. They boiled down to this:

  1. Think of 3 really awesome fight scenes.
  2. Apply some loose connective tissue to move the characters between them

That’s it. There is no 3.

Boiled down to two bullets, it’s is a little bare bones, but Feng Shui gave a LOT of guidance on what makes a good fight scene, and enough (totally wacky) background to easily justify the connective tissue. Taken as a whole, it made it staggeringly easy to write up solid, engaging adventures without undue strain on the GM. If you want to dive into it more, I’ve got some more word for you.

A lot of people who have used this model have translated it across to other games (I know I have) but it’s always interesting to me the ways in which it can be easy or hard to do so. It reveals some interesting things about assumptions of play that feel like they could unpack indefinitely.

First off, let’s consider the fight scene. This is a staple of fiction and play, but it’s worth considering what this means in play. That’s opaque, so let me approach it another way: is every scene with a fight in a a fight scene?

Technically? Yes. But in the way that Feng Shui meant it, not really. Those fights are Set Pieces1, which is entirely apt because Feng Shui is a game about Hong Kong cinematic style fight scenes. They are big, have lots of moving parts, many points of engagement on a mechanical and character level, and they’re what players are here to do2.

It’s also going to take a lot of time. Which is good. Time the budget we have to spend on things, and this approach explicitly “spends” more on the things that are most important to the game.

This is part of why it’s relatively easy to map the three fights model to other games which also have set piece fight scenes. It worked spectacularly well for Fourth Edition D&D, and there are a number of other fights games that it can do equally well with.

But beyond that, there are two difficulties with taking the model further afield.

The first is logistical. Feng Shui has the benefit that it’s 100% cool for all of its set pieces to be fight scenes, but if you take it to another game that may not be true. Other games may want social, investigation or exploration set pieces. In that case the underlying idea (three set pieces and some connective tissue) still absolutely works, but that is definitely a less simple model. It will take more energy to think of the variety of set pieces, they’re less modular and interchangeable, and they’re harder to write up3. In short, it’s more work.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done – it can, and quite well – but it’s hard to learn to the point where it’s comfortable. If you learn it with fight scenes and then expand your repertoire, that’s more practical than doing it all at once.

The second barrier is philosophical. “Loose connective tissue” isn’t going to fly in every game. The reason I say this works very well for 4e D&D, but don’t call out other editions is because dungeon crawling is all about very explicit connective tissue. Playing through and engaging the transitions and choices along the way is what brings some people to the table. Tables like that want to spend their time budget differently, and you need to plan for that.

On the other end of the spectrum, there will always be players who will treat any level of GM direction as railroading. They expect to be making the decisions about what’s important and taking the game in those directions. Again, this calls for a different set of “budget” priorities, so the GM is better armed for flexible response.

Now, for all that, there is a lot of space available between these objections. As noted, the model can work beyond fight scenes, and while it isn’t necessarily suited to full player authorship, it can work with even very empowered players.

The key is that the set pieces are what the players are these for. That is what justifies their budget in time an energy. If they are what everyone wants, then it will all click. If they aren’t, the model will fail, and in doing so will probably reveal a deeper disconnect.

Anyway, if you are a GM and feeling skeptical about this, I encourage you to just try it. Whatever your game is – even if it’s not normally very fighty. Just think of three awesome fight scenes that would be super fun to run4, then loosely sketch out how they might be connected. It will take you less time than you think (especially if you just sketch out the fights – don’t go full stat block until you’re happy with the structure) and I am willing to bet you will be surprised at how well it hangs together.

  1. In film, a Set Piece is a scene requiring a lot of work to plan and shoot, usually at great cost. Since money matters, you only really want to do this when there’s a real payoff. While this is a necessity of budget, it is also a fruitful constraint, since it works naturally with an upswing in focus with an upswing in importance. ↩︎
  2. Critically, that does not mean it’s the only thing they can do. There is still space for other awesome things, but if none of those materialize organically, then the game is still going to deliver these fight scenes. ↩︎
  3. Howso? As a hobby, we have honed the technology for writing up a fight scene to a fine art. Stat blocks. Maps and Zones. Tactics and roles. We know how to put information on paper that someone else can read and know how to run that fight effectively. We do not have anything like that kind of polish or sophistication for communication and running other scene types. ↩︎
  4. Tip: The more wildly diverse they are, the better. It serves as a kind f inspirational fuel when you think about connecting things. ↩︎